26 February 2016 § Leave a comment
Despite the process of photography being somewhat scientific, Gathered Leaves – Photographs by Alex Soth, is on first appearances a slightly surprisingly choice as the latest exhibition at the Science Museum. Alex Soth is a contemporary photographer who takes an innovative aim at documentary photography whilst perhaps another (excellent) current exhibition of early images from photographic pioneer Julia Margaret Cameron also on now at the same venue is more in line with the sort of thing we are expecting at the museum.
What many may not know however is that the Science Museum Group (SMG) has just announced an historic agreement with the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A). Over 400,000 objects from SMG’s three-million-strong photography collection will be transferred to join the V&A’s existing collection of 500,000 to create the single largest collection on the art of photography in the world in their International Photography Resource Centre.
The collection will comprise encompasses exquisite vintage prints, the world’s first negative, unique daguerreotypes and early colour photographs, as well as important albums, books, cameras and the archives of major photographers. There are also of course major holdings of the worlds top photographers from the dawn of photography right up to to the present day.
Alex Soth is one of those artists featured in the collection and this beautifully presented exhibition, surprisingly his first ever in the UK, is a fitting backdrop to the announcement. Surveying a decade of his work it features Sleeping by the Mississippi (2004), Niagara (2006) and Broken Manual (2010) as well as the UK premiere of Songbook.
His work is characterised by a lyrical approach to documentary photography and a restless experimentation across the many forms that photography can take: from exhibitions and books, to zines and digital media. Soth, who lives and works in Minnesota, also shares the great American fascination with the open road, bringing a fresh perspective to ideas explored in the twentieth century by artists and writers such as Robert Frank, Stephen Shore and Jack Kerouac.
Throughout the exhibition we are in no doubt that we are looking at the work of an American photographer. We recognise the physical landscapes and wilderness of the USA, from iconic sights like the Niagara Falls through to wild forest. We also see the small rural towns whilst rural and run down suburbs also act as backdrops for his poetic surveys of American life.
For Sleeping by the Mississippi Soth set off with his large format camera to travel its 2000 mile course. He drifts lazily down its course taking in dreamers, visionaries and time worn motels. His camera transports us physically and metaphorically via the moving waters and the wandering imaginations and dreams of the regions residents.
Niagara has of course long been associated with both honeymoons and suicides. Soth refers to its ‘intensified sexuality and unsustainable desire’ and grabs snippets of poetry and evidence of passion, people in bars an wedding venues and juxtaposes them with the grandeur of the flowing falls.
Broken Manual explores the desire to run away from civilisation. Researching the web he discovered a world of communications and manifestos distributed by those who have chosen to withdraw from society: survivalists, monks and hermits.
We see some of the documents and Soths own zines displayed in glazed cabinets in the exhibition space. Soth also created his own survival instructions, the Broken Manual and then went on the road himself in seeking out here people.
He found his recluses in the vast unpopulated expanses of America – from deserts to forests – and photographed them in their solitude, drafted in their settings.
Finally, in Songbook, Soth elucidates modern American life in a timeless black and white. The project emerged from a series of road trips with the writer Brad Zellar. Posing as local newspaper reporters, over the course of two years they attended hundreds of meetings, dances, festivals, and communal gatherings, the resulting stories published as an ad hoc series of ‘dispatches’ from the different states visited.
Soth isolates his photographs from their original news context, and in doing so, evokes a human desire for interaction in an era increasingly defined by virtual social networks. Funny, fragmentary and sad, Songbook is a lyrical meditation on the tension between American individualism and the urge to be united.
Gathered Leaves – Photographs by Alex Soth is on until 28 March 2016
For more information visit www.sciencemuseum.org.uk
19 February 2016 § Leave a comment
Champagne Life is the title of a work by Julia Wachtel in this Saatchi Gallery exhibition of the same name. Kim Kardashian and Kanye West – better known as Kimye of course – feature repeated, inverted and brightly shaded, alongside pale blue Minnie Mouses (Mice?). Its a striking Warhol style work, from a Pictures Generation artist that critiques celebrity culture and one of several good Wachtel works that fill the first gallery.
This exhibition has selected fourteen disparate female artists to hang together. Unfortunately, other than the Wachtel piece giving the name to the exhibition, I’m not sure why it is entitled Champagne Life. Surely they cannot be suggesting that maybe girls tend to like bubbly drinks? The gallery tells us it is ironic but could it be rather more to do with the exhibition being sponsored by Pommery? In any case to hold a ‘girls only’ exhibition in the 21st century is surely unnecessary. The easy accusation is that Saatchi is guilty of tokenism when it should rather be concentrating on curating quality exhibitions.
The gallery is marking its 30th birthday with this show and still seems to have an unfortunate habit of shallow exhibitions based on rather on loose criteria. Recent major exhibitions have included for example Panagea I & II, which brought together a too-broad selection of both African and South America artists and Post Pop: East meets West, an incoherent overview of worldwide art linked only by a vague pop art aesthetic.
The works in the show are again decidedly mixed in quality. Sigrid Holmwood’s neon colours clash with the historical re-enactments depicted. They are striking and eye-catching but ultimately the sentiments are rather hollow.
Gallery three successfully brings together three middle-eastern artists making political tinged works. Saudi artist Maha Malluh presents a giant wall of battered and stained cooking pots, presented like a decorative arrangement of giant buttons. These discarded items speak of refugees broken lives and echo their sadness.
A stuffed mule atop a saggy green balloon by Iranian artist Soheila Sokhanvari was a work I saw part-finished at the RCA student show a few years back. I didn’t realise it had ended up in Saatchi’s hands, but it is a striking work that represents the deflation of hopes for Iran’s green movement.
In the same room Mia Feuer’s papier-mache Jerusalem Donkey, symbolises the plight of the Palestinians, restricted by the Israeli requirement to ride only mules over the border crossings.
Amongst more nondescript work a series of technically superb, giant sized works by Jelena Bulajić truly stand out. Minutely detailed but painted with a real delicacy and lightness of touch, her close-up portraits of elderly sitters convey real feeling.
Mequitta Abuja’s big, bright and fantastical scenes provide a welcome respite too. She weaves myth and legend in to canvases that are both autobiographical and trans-cultural and reminiscent of Chris Ofili’s work.
Filling gallery 10 are a giant bobbin and ball mummified in wound copper thread. Created by Alice Anderson, who we are told (unsurprisingly) entered a ‘meditative state’ during their creation, these demand attention but eventually leaves you to simply ask ‘why bother’?
The truly dreadful exhibition on the top floor where ‘Revelations’ by someone called simply Aidan (presumably to avoid the embarrassment of anyone finding out their real name) is presented by the ‘Tsukanov Family Foundation’. Does this reveal Saatchi’s formerly excellent artistic instinct being subverted by more mundane financial considerations?
I left feeling the same way I do at most Saatchi exhibitions, slightly unfulfilled. This exhibition is fine, but the wonderful space deserves just a little bit more. With an exhibition of Rolling Stones’ artefacts and ‘Graffiti Artist’ prints as the next two scheduled shows, I am not holding my breath quite yet.
For more information visit www.saatchigallery.com
13 January 2016 § Leave a comment
Art Visionaries is the latest publication from Laurence King Publishing, specialists in publications on the creative arts. This handsome and substantial softcover carefully lists seventy five of the ‘most influential figures in the history of art’ with an admirable clarity. Each artist is introduced on a double spread with a full page illustration of a key work and then a few hundred words that attempts to explain both their significance and artistic lives.
The copy is well written and one can only admire the self control and skill required to abstract the life of say, Picasso, in to such a brief and highly readable summary. The writers manage to include snippets of interest and plenty of snappy quotes, useful even for those who may feel that they already know these artists well. “Nobody can own this project, nobody can buy the project, nobody can possess the project or charge for tickets” stated Christo & Jean-Claude, whilst Kasimir Malevich observed “I have dragged myself out of the rubbish pool of academic art“.
A further double page spread illustrates more key works with a useful graphic artistic timeline. The extra illustrated pages allocated to each artist are nice but perhaps a double-edged sword. Whilst allowing images of more than one key work it still cuts short a deeper analysis. As an example Gerhard Richter, not unusual as an artist who went through a number of styles in his lifetime, does not get any of his abstract works featured.
Although it is not immediately clear from either the cover, this is a list of 20th century artists. There is also an almost total absence of artists from China, Africa, Asia and Oceania, along with Native and Folk artists and, although not stated anywhere, this volume therefore represents ’western art’ only. Fine, but really this should be clear in the cover notes or introduction.
To me there was a bias towards American artists and with the exception of Frida Kahlo, Nam Jun Paik, Yayoi Kusama, Mona Hatoum and Gabriel Orozco the remaining entries being Western European and Russian. The Brits do not do so well either – Henry Moore, Francis Bacon and Andy Goldsworthy are the only ones other than Hirst and Whiteread in who make it in.
There were some tough choices at either end of the century. Gaugin & Cezanne for example probably died too early in the 20th century to deserve entry but it is harder with those like Munch, who was a key influence for the Fauvists, exhibited with them and worked until his death in 1944 but perhaps harshly does not find himself included. At the end of the century had the artists working in the 1990’s yet done enough?
It is of course a thankless task to condense a roll call of thousands down to any sort of ‘popularity contest’ and everyone will find some of their favourites excluded and will disagree with some of those included. There are difficult choices, Italian Futurist Filippo Marinetti is featured but Vorticist Wyndham Lewis misses out. Unforgivably Max Ernst doesn’t feature and neither do Man Ray, Kurt Schwitters or John Baldessari – all true visionaries, whilst a number of mediocre but worthy artists are included. Personally I could have done without Rachel Whiteread, Mona Hatoum, Anish Kapoor, Jeff Wall and Sophie Calle. Richard Long is surely better than Andy Goldsworthy and aren’t other Arte Povera artists more deserving than Alighiero Boetti.
Interestingly, other than on the cover there is no mention of ’Visionaries’. This is quite a powerful word and implies rather more than a list of big name artists from a specific era. A typical relevant definition is ‘a person with the ability to imagine how a country, society, industry etc will develop in the future’. If that was the case with any of the included artists it was neither evident or elucidated by the text. Despite discovering the fact that the book is actually part of the publishers ‘Visionaries‘ series (Architects, Design, Photography etc that are strangely not mentioned anywhere in the book) the impression is left that the title does not represent any sort of driving force behind the selection process.
Even if Art Visionaries could have been something more – perhaps a more detailed analysis of those artists like Picasso, Duchamp and Beuys who could have been perhaps considered as most ‘visionary’ – this is nevertheless an excellent, highly enjoyable and nicely designed volume well worth a place on your bookshelf.
For more information visit Laurence King Publishing
7 January 2016 § Leave a comment
This post is also featured on the online cultural magazine CELLOPHANELAND* – www.cellophaneland.com
Photography has since its invention been primarily seen as a medium which reproduces reality, albeit more or less honestly. There are of course many photographers who are still documenting reality, and in the digital age these resulting images have an ever increasing shape-shifting flexibility transferring with ever-greater ease from the camera to the screen, internet, print, photo-book, advertising hoardings and even T shirts or mugs.
There is however an increasing movement of younger photographers who seek to deconstruct, alter and redefine the medium by foregrounding such formal aspects its physical form and the chemical or technical processes involved. Grouped loosely under the term ‘constructed photography’, the work of artists such as Matt Lipps, Walead Beshty, Daniel Gordon and Antonio Marguet makes the scaffolding of the photograph explicit whilst re-building photography as both a physical and technical art.
Noemie Goudal is one of the latest wave of these photographers having only graduated from the RCA as recently as 2012. Our attention was originally drawn to her work in an excellent High House Gallery group exhibition Re:Vision at 44AD in Bath and it is a significant comment on her talent that after such a short time The Photographers Gallery has given her a solo exhibition.
Southern Light Stations continues Goudal’s interest in man made interventions within the natural world. Her practice is to use props, large photographs or constructed photographic sets and rephotograph them within natural settings or other existing backdrops. For one set of images she looks at historic celestial and solar perceptions – the sky once being considered for example as a solid plane. Roughly built circular forms are hung within landscapes, their theatricality clear to see, and photographed.
Reflecting a fascination with our relationship to the sky, the exhibition draws upon a rich history of myths, legends, religious symbolism and early scientific theories. Through photographs, stereoscopes and architectural installations, the exhibition aims to explore the intangible nature of celestial space – long considered a mirror of terrestrial turmoil as well as an expression of the sacred.
For another series of architectural objects Goudal has digitally manipulated images of concrete buildings before affixing the collaged prints on to wooden constructions. These are then placed within barren landscapes or seascapes and again rephotographed.
Both series draw upon the work of Bernd and Hilla Becher, highly influential German deadpan photographers – who documented German Industrial architecture with multiple images of similar objects such as water towers. Goudal’s work nevertheless adds to their work, is thought-provoking and fascinating.
For more information visit www.thephotographersgallery.org.uk
11 October 2015 § Leave a comment
People fleeing from hunger, war and political oppression have always been a staple of the daily news and with the current European crisis refugees are again in the headlines. With Ai Weiwei also now in the media with his latest show at the RA (reviewed here) it seems a particularly apt time to be dipping in to the politically-charged world of William Kentridge.
At the heart of Kentridge’s first solo presentation in London for fifteen years is a new multi-screen film installation entitled More Sweetly Play the Dance. This substantial exhibition also includes another film, monumental ink-on-paper paintings, sculptures and drawings.
This new work is a 45-metre-long frieze that depicts a seemingly endless parade of figures. A combination of dance, shadow puppetry, ballet, theatre, film, and music it features a procession of people, largely in silhouette, moving around us from screen to screen against a bare and evocative landscape, drawn by Kentridge in charcoal.
Made using a unique technique which he has called “poor-man’s animation” it involves working on a single piece of paper in charcoal making an expressive drawing before erasing, adding new elements and erasing again. He then animates the images into a mesmeric whole.
It is a sublime work from an artist at his peak. One moment it appears as a political rally or a stream of refugees, at another a funereal cortege. Figures variously carry flags, play instruments, parade with shadow heads. One figure drags a body whilst another wheels a hospital drip.
Some wear military caps, some are in rags. An animated pair of scissors jerks its way around the screen and skeletons dance. It is bizarre, witty, sad, macabre and yet somehow uplifting. The whole is accompanied by a magical accordion and brass band accompaniment reminiscent of New Orleans Jazz funerals.
This is Mao’s China, communist Russia, black Africa, the Balkans, post-war Europe and todays Middle East all rolled in to one. The casualties of hunger and war, streams of displaced people, human misery in one tragic everlasting parade.
Born in South Africa to parents who were both anti-apartheid lawyers, his father defending Nelson Mandela among others, Kentridge’s studies inevitably took in politics before including art, film and theatre. Although primarily an artist all these influences are deeply imbedded in his work.
Another film installation, based on Mao’s model operas, features an African ballet dancer, file in hand, in front of changing notebooks, maps and images of famine and poverty – cleverly highlighting political posturing as populations suffer.
The main gallery downstairs has a new series of works in which political dictums are interwoven throughout giant ink images of flowers drawn on pages of found political text.
Smaller works on paper span two walls including a sequence of doves flying across a sky of Chinese calligraphy. An adjacent room contains two groups of painted bronze heads that developed through research for Kentridge’s production of Alban Berg’s opera ‘Lulu’.
To coincide with this show the play ‘Ubu and the Truth Commission’ is on at the Coronet London. Both surely are amongst the do-not-miss highlights of the year.
Images by CELLOPHANELAND* and Marian Goodman Gallery.
31 July 2014 § Leave a comment
29 July 2014 § Leave a comment
Despite Kasimir Malevich being widely feted during his lifetime as a leader in non-figurative art exhibitions of work since his death in 1935 have been few and far between. With the location of many works not only behind the iron curtain but considered subversive – the seminal ‘Black Square’ was actually hidden from view until the 1980’s – the opportunity for bringing together a significant body of Malevich’s work has been limited.
This show is quite simply breathtaking. A 2003 Guggenheim-sponsored tour was impressive but this Tate show dwarfs anything previously attempted. An unprecedented international collaboration has brought over 150 major works plus another 150 works on paper, publications and film. It was with great anticipation therefore that we previewed the Tate show, entitled simply Malevich and were not disappointed.
Malevich is of course most famous for one of the defining works of the 20th century – Black Square. This slightly uneven shape painted with a white frame, was created in 1915 roughly contemporaneously with Marcel Duchamp’s groundbreaking readymades. Equally revolutionary it boldly and clearly signalled the end of painting as it was then known.
Bringing an end to centuries of representation this was a giant artistic full stop. He had momentously declared that art was now free of history and was ready for “the beginning of a new culture”. Malevich’s new beginning was Suprematism – a bold visual language of abstract geometric shapes and stark colours and its first exhibition was The Last Exhibition of Futurist Painting 0.10 (Zero-ten).
The Tate has recreated this momentous event with by reuniting nine of the remaining twelve known works and rehanging them according to the only black and white photograph of the original exhibition. This small photograph shows, in black and white, two walls densely hung with Black Square positioned in the top corner – taking the traditional place of a typical homes religious icon.
Despite the many missing works the impact upon arriving in this room is huge. Suddenly one is aware of what a massive impact must have been felt one hundred years ago upon arriving at the same viewpoint; an earth-shattering assault on the senses that can never have been previously experienced. The effect is almost as strong today – the black and white works are bold and striking, the others surprisingly colourful.
The remainder of the show necessarily takes a back seat but is still impressive. Starting from his early paintings of Russian landscapes, agricultural workers and religious scenes, the exhibition follows the influence of the French Impressionists, particularly Matisse, and his journey towards abstract painting and his suprematist masterpieces.
In 1913, together with musician Mikhail Matyushin and poet Aleksei Kruchenykh, Malevich produced a manifesto calling for the dissolution of language and the end to rational thought before producing with them the futurist opera Victory Over the Sun. The collaboration helped bring forward ideas to wrest painting away from its duty to render a world of myths, stories and representations.
The exhibition moves in to the Suprematist era with a stunning series of rooms that chronicle the Malevich’s most inventive period. Despite shortages and poor living conditions we see exciting geometric abstracts on the white backgrounds of ‘infinite space’ and a variety of monochromes or bold shapes. Call up to the war however soon slowed down output before the gradually increasing disapproval of the new Soviet leaders of avant-garde art forced him in to abandon painting for teaching and drawing.
Possibly chastened by the Stalinist state in to conforming he later returns to painting combining his early style with the strange introduction of aspects of realism and Renaissance portraiture. It is notable however that many of his last works are not signed but instead feature a tiny black square – the same Black Square that hung over his death bed and led his funeral cortege. Malevich certainly realised that this was his key achievement – an iconic work that symbolised both the end and a new beginning.
Malevich is at Tate Modern, SE1 (020 7887 8888, tate.org.uk) until 26 October 2014