2 November 2017 § Leave a comment
Do not come to the latest Barbican Gallery exhibition Basquiat: Boom for Real expecting a straightforward show of Jean-Michel Basquiat’s work. This is rather more than that and all the better for it. This is an exhibition where, in the words of Jane Alison, the Barbican’s Head of Visual Arts, we can “see those works in the context of the New York scene of the 1980s.” We therefore get videos, photographs, music, film, books and paintings, where Basquiat is presented as a multidimensional artist weaving between media.
New York at that time was certainly a rich melting pot. A dangerous and violent city on the edge of bankruptcy, it housed a thriving cultural scene. Basquiat, young and black has often been pigeon-holed as a a poor outsider, who developed from homeless graffiti artist to gallery favourite. The truth is rather different.
From a relatively wealthy family, Basquiat went to a private school, was well educated and a talented artist and was admiring Renaissance masters in New York galleries in his teens. Having dropped out of college, he briefly ran away from home, stayed with friends and scrawled graffiti as ‘Samo’ (a play on ‘same old shit’), although its style was not ‘from the streets’ but always from an artist insider critiquing the contemporary art scene.
The Barbican Gallery divides the show in to some fourteen sections. From Samo graffiti we then see the beginning of his stratospheric rise in a recreation of the New York/New Wave exhibition. A landmark show where despite including the likes of Andy Warhol, Nan Goldin and Robert Mapplethorpe, the young Basquiat was singled out for admiration.
Between examples of his work we get to learn plenty about the post-punk underground art scene: The Canal Zone, a graffiti covered downtown loft/art space brought him together with collaborators for collage and postcards; the Mudd Club was where he hung out and performed with his band; at Area he hung out with Keith Haring or Madonna whilst dj-ing sets on a Brian Eno created sound system.
A key element of the exhibition is a remarkable film, Downtown 81, a chronicle of a day in the in the life of a down and out artist, for which Basquiat was chosen to play the leading role. It is essentially a prescient version of his real life as we see him spraying Samo-tagged graffiti and hawking his art (some of it in the show) around galleries as he visits clubs, watches bands and interacts with the larger than life local characters.
If so far we haven’t mentioned his art much, it is with good reason – there is not a lot here. We do see his graffiti, collages, postcards, sketches, polaroids and even his graffiti covered fridge. We also see books, records and photographs as the Barbican outlines his jazz, art and classical influences.
Where we do see his larger works – vibrant, raw imagery, abounding with fragments of bold capitalised text – they offer insights into both his encyclopaedic interests and his experience as a young black artist with no formal training. New scholarship sheds light on some of his most acclaimed works – sampling from an extraordinary breadth of source material – anatomical drawings to bebop jazz to silent film.
“Untitled” (1981), for example, includes variations of the name Aaron. While Basquiat’s father understood it to be a reference to baseball player Hank Aaron, the Barbican Gallery posits other allusions: a character in Shakespeare’s play “Titus Andronicus,” and the brother of Moses in the Old Testament. Two letters also feature individually, “A” and “O,” and relate to a passage from Revelation that fascinated Basquiat: “I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end.”
The label for his 1982 painting Jawbone of an Ass, he lists historical figures including Hannibal, Machiavelli, Savonarola, Sappho and Rameses II, is a vision of world history as a ceaseless round of wars. Cartoon monsters with savage teeth express the violence of the painting’s Biblical title. In the bottom right, a black boxer hits a white opponent.
He worked surrounded by imagery: open books, pages from magazines and photographs laying around him as the TV flickered and jazz music played. He worked rapidly absorbing influences from anything and everything. Sometimes the resulting art is hard to like, at others remarkably fresh, powerful and multi-layered.
Strangely there is nothing here about his heroin addiction and untimely death at just 27, and we do not know if there were lost chances to save him from self-destruction. We are ultimately left to ponder what sort of art this talented and elemental force would have continued to produce if it were not for his tragic end.
All images © The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat, Licensed by Artestar, New York
The Polaroid Project: At the Intersection of Art and Technology ed. William Ewing and Barbara Hitchcock
4 July 2017 § Leave a comment
This post is also featured at www.cellophaneland.com
Remember that time, not so very long ago, when we all rushed down to the local Boots to drop in our films for printing? From this frustration of impatiently waiting anything from an hour (for those willing to stump up extra) to a week, to see the results of all the careful holiday snapping, lays the foundation of the Polaroid.
Back in 1943 Edwin Land, having been asked by his young daughter why she couldn’t see her photo right away, immediately set to work. Within an hour he had conceived the technology and the story of instant photography had begun.
When the long and painstaking development process (no pun intended), documented in the book by prototypes, models and test images, had been completed, the result was not only scientifically groundbreaking but also heralded a new chapter of artistic expression. The New York Times proclaimed “There is nothing like this in the history of photography…”
Nowadays Instagram is the leading representative of the world of instant imagery. It should therefore not be surprising to know that prominent in the lobby of their California HQ sits a collection of Polaroid cameras, the most noteworthy being the 1977 OneStep featuring the rainbow logo appropriated by Instagram in its own design.
Land had in the seventies already predicted escalating use of cameras saying that they would soon be used ‘All day long…. like a telephone’, whilst probably not anticipating they would often be one and the same apparatus.
In this lay the recognition that the world, and people, had irrevocably changed; the barrier of subject and photographer had started to disappear in line with Barthes ‘Death of the Author’ and there was a continuous recording of lifes events and expansion of the ‘sharing’ experience. The almost instant sharing of Instagram, Facebook and Snapchat seem to be a natural development of what began with the Polaroid.
For the more artistic the new product was impressive but came with many built in limitations. Images were usually of limited size (save by using larger studio-bound cameras), fixed formats, limited camera adjustments. Laboratory colour and exposure manipulation were impossible.
Despite, or perhaps because of, these very particular restrictions it invited users to become ever more inventive. Artists like Lucas Samaras and Bruce Charlesworth manipulated or separated the emulsion or used repeated exposures. David Hockey used multiple images overlaid or arranged in grids to increase dimensions. Other painted, drew or scratched on and around the developed image.
Andy Warhol took all his portraits with a Polaroid and incessantly snapped his way around New York, Others like Robert Mapplethorpe, Patti Smith, Robert Rauschenberg and Chuck Close often used it, whilst film makers, commercial, advertising and fashion photographers found the instant images essential for planning their shots.
It’s colour initially put off many art photographers, black and white being up to then the choice for ‘serious’ practitioners. This however was the era of ever more portable 35mm cameras and also of photographers like William Eggleston and Stephen Shore and Polaroid were in a perfect position to tap in to the wider acceptance of their casual colour snap-shot aesthetics.
The Polaroid Project leads us through this story via a series of essays that look for example at Polaroid’s foundation and history, the development of the technology, artistic developments and its relation to social networks and the selfie. They are interspersed with an impressive array of widely varied imagery with plenty of ‘how on earth did they do that?’ moments.
The book is subtitled ‘At the intersection of Art and Technology’ and it is published to accompany a major touring exhibition, so it is not surprising to see that text and illustrations are geared towards the artistic. Perhaps a future show and accompanying volume can show what the public, as well as industry and business, created with the technology – but that’s yet another story.
There is a frequent lament here to the death of Polaroid, tied to the winding up of the company and closure of the factories, but, as with vinyl, this seems hugely premature. Instant film lives on in Fuji and Impossible, as does the use of Land’s cameras. The Polaroid Project itself shows us that interest in this technology and its uniquely ‘authentic’ aesthetic is increasing, whilst here at CELLOPHANELAND* we even have a couple of cameras of our own and Polaroids pinned on the wall. The king is dead – long live the king!
The Polaroid Project: At the Intersection of Art and Technology ed. William Ewing and Barbara Hitchcock, published by Thames & Hudson. To purchase (currently at a 20% discount) visit www.thamesandhudson.com
A touring exhibition organised by the Foundation for the Exhibition of Photography opens at the Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, Texas June 3 to 3 September 2017 then travels to Europe. fep-photo.org/exhibition/polaroid/
9 January 2016 § Leave a comment
One of the most unfortunate aspects of the decline of the album, and to some extents the CD, has been the loss of the potential space for sleeve artwork. With the rise of vinyl sales during the last century, the artistic potential of the sleeves was not lost on the very best artists and photographers of the period, and many became involved contributing to a very memorable, if narrow, artistic genre.
Remember the great original Warhol covers for the Stones’ zippered Sticky Fingers and the banana for The Velvet Underground & Nico? The Beatles were of course involved too, with the Peter Blake photograph (not a collage by the way) for Sgt Peppers.
The Beatles drew in other Pop artists – Richard Hamilton made his minimalist statement for the ‘White Album’ whilst for David Bowie, Derek Boshier created the striking Lodger designs.
Top photographers were there too. Robert Mapplethorpe’s image of Patti Smith provided the iconic cover for Horses, Richard Avedon took Simon & Garfunkel’s picture for Bookends and – here’s a little known nugget – Man Ray created a photo collage for Exile on Main Street (below), sadly unused.
This is to barely touch the surface of the phenomenon of album art, something that we thought had gone forever with the apparent demise of vinyl in the 1990’s. Fortunately the death of the album had been greatly exaggerated and sales are now booming again.
With this resurgence comes a new generation of album artists, designers, prize and inevitably, an awards ceremony. Art Vinyl have a competition that is actually now in its 10th year, with this year’s fifty nominations selected by a panel of music design experts and previous Best Art Vinyl Award winners. In co-operation with Belgraves Hotel they have just revealed the 2015 winners.
David Gilmour’s ‘Rattle That Lock’ album took the top prize with Drenge’s ‘Undertow’ second, and Tame Impala’s ‘Currents’ third. The winners and all of the shortlisted entries are now on display in the window at Belgraves until the end of April.
The artwork covered a wide range of creative disciplines, including fine art, photography, sculpture and computer graphics. Given the august history of album artwork we perhaps should not be surprised that the short list also included two Turner Prize nominees, Mark Wallinger and Jim Lambie (for Linden).
David Gilmour’s wining cover was created by The Creative Corporation, in collaboration with Aubrey Powell from the legendary Hipgnosis – a design studio that produced covers for the likes of Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin and T Rex.
Best Art Vinyl founder Andrew Heeps explains, “This is the first year such an established artist’s record has won Best Art Vinyl, but notably the design team have historically been responsible for so many iconic sleeve designs… It’s interesting that two of the top three are conceptual compositions, using photography as the core of the design.”
In January 2016, the winners of the Best Art Vinyl 2015 award will feature in exhibitions in London, Scotland, Italy, Germany and Hungary as well as on www.artvinyl.com.
You can check out the entries on www.artvinyl.com or visit the window installation at the Belgraves Hotel, London Belgravia from 7th Jan 2016
For more information and the 50 nominated Best Art Vinyl 2015 records with designer credits see Artvinyl.com
13 August 2010 § Leave a comment
My recent blogs on outsider art led me to recall the wonderful Howard Finster whose work was used for the Talking Heads Little Creatures cover (he also had works used by TH and REM for Reckoning). Other covers then sprung to mind and I suddenly came over all nostalgic. I wonder if we all realised how much our latent artistic sensibities were inspired by the cover art that was surreptitiously brought into lives via this 12″x12″ piece of card? The result is this brief, totally random and very incomplete post on some of my favourite ‘real’ cover art!
To briefly elaborate I should say that I do not regard any colourful design put on an abum cover as ‘art’. I plan to here look at work created specifically by established artists or their appropriated artworks used for covers. I know that many would argue that a lot of album covers have become ‘works of art’ and achieved some sort of iconic position, but how much is the art, how much the band and their popularity? London Calling by the Clash would spring to mind a perfect example of an iconic cover, but not ‘art’. The designer Ray Lowry, despite being an excellent cartoonist was actually a poor artist!
Let me pick the obvious ones first! Andy Warhol’s covers for the Velvet Underground and Rolling Stones are unforgettable. The Velvet’s banana cover says everything so effortlessly – the provocative little tag says ‘peel slowly and see’. Behind is a pink banana. With usual Warhol genuis the pared-down design makes a grand statement. Provocative, rude and erect, it is a big FU to the world.
The Stones’ Andy Warhol cover is of course Sticky Fingers – with its real zip. Aparantly at a NY party in 1969 Warhol casually mentioned to Mick Jagger that it would be amusing to have a real zipper on an album cover. The cover shrewdly moved the Stones away from their devil/evil thing and into a provocative sexual mode. Banned in some countries and stores, the album also debuted the famous logo: a caricature of Jagger’s lips and tongue.
Peter Blake’s cover for the Beatles’ Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is a great piece of pop art (fortuitously allied with one of the greatest albums and the best band). What it is not is collage. It is actually a staged photograph including life-size cardboard cut-outs, props – and the Beatles of course. It does not therefore exist as a ‘work of art’ other than possibly as the original photograph. Should it be in my list under my ‘rules’? Marginal, but in it is! Blake by the way also did Paul Weller’s Stanley Road cover amongst others, but none fitted with Blake’s significance as a ‘pop’ artist.
Robert Rauschenberg is not someone who springs to mind as a someone who would be involved with albums, but David Byrne of Talking Heads (again) persuaded him to create an artists edition of the Talking Heads’ 1983 album Speaking in Tongues. Actually the art is the LP rather than cover and was issued in a limited 50,000 copies complete with spinning plexidiscs and layered images. Showing Rauschenberg’s interest in collaged objects the coloured discs included photographs of bedrooms, number plates and car bumpers. It resembles his 1967 work Revolver, with similar motorised discs set in a concrete base with a motor to spin the prints. It’s interaction with the public matches Rauschenberg’s aim to work in the area between life and art.
Mike Kelley included music, performance and poetry within his art practice, being a member of the avaant-garde band Destroy All Monsters. In addition, as a long-time collaborator with with the band Sonic Youth, he designed the cover art for Dirty. It feature one of his disturbing stuffed animals – imaginary childhood toys that represent both repressed memories and hidden adult perversions.
Patti Smith’s 1975 album Horses is often cited as one of the top records of all time, an early influence of punk rock. It is certainly helped by the great cover shot by the NY photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. It is an intimate, androgynous portrait of Smith against her (their) Chelsea Hotel apartment wall. Vulnerable yet defiant it is one a many great images that Mapplethorpe took of Smith – another was used on the 1987 Dream of Life.
Another great American photographer, Robert Frank, was commissioned by the Stones for their 1972 album Exile on Main Street. The cover is photograph of various circus freaks, is not a collage but a 1950 photo of a tattoo parlour wall somewhere on Route 66. The comparison to the notorious Stones – jet-setting tax exiles, cocaine-fueled satyrs and perpetual outsiders – is clear. To emphasise the point the back cover has an identical layout with his photos of the Stones themselves, shot on the seedy Main Street, LA.
The wonderful Hiroshi Sugimoto has provided the photograph for U2’s recent, and mediocre, No Line On The Horizon. Sadly U2 ruined the image by adding a strange ‘equals sign’ over its heart, but I have illustrated it without! These are zen-like images for contemplation, representing time and pondering existence. In his own words: ‘Water and air. So very commonplace are these substances, they hardly attract attention―and yet they vouchsafe our very existence. Mystery of mysteries, water and air are right there before us in the sea. Every time I view the sea, I feel a calming sense of security, as if visiting my ancestral home; I embark on a voyage of seeing’. Pity it is U2!
For my final image I have picked The Plastic Ono Band’s Live Peace album cover from 1969. It is actually Yves Klein’s Blue. Lennon and Ono added a single cloud: “John and I were being very artsy at that point in our lives. By us putting a cloud there it suddenly became the real sky – and the real world – as opposed to perfection.” Bless ’em!
Brilliant covers – but with insufficient ‘art’ pedigree – that I have not included, but wished that I could, include Zappa’s Weasels Ripped My Flesh, Little Feat’s Sailin’ Shoes, Led Zep’s Houses of the Holy, It’s a Beautiful Day, Joe Jackson’s Look Sharp, Blind Faith and King Crimson’s In the Court of the Crimson King. More? Please send me your thoughts!
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