Friday, 2 November 2012

Richard Hamilton: the Late Works – National Gallery, London

To enter the world of Richard Hamilton’s late works is to enter a self-contained closed world of reflections and mirrored fragments. Endlessly self-referential, works reappear in other works, which themselves refer back to yet other works. To view them is to participate in a post-modern game through art history. And it is a thoroughly enjoyable game to play.

The first works we see are paintings where the National Gallery’s Sainsbury Wing has been transformed into a vast cathedral, sparsely populated by female nudes and tiny reproductions of earlier Hamilton works. These two paintings (The Saensbury Wing (1999-2000) and Charity), like many in the exhibition, reference a painting in the National’s collection, Pieter Saenredam’s The Interior of the Grote Kerk at Haarlem (1636-37). And with these paintings we are introduced to all of the main themes of the exhibition: interiors, paintings in the National Gallery, the female nude and other works of Richard Hamilton.

In Lobby (1985-87) a hotel lobby is painted with unwavering verisimilitude, the planes within fragmented by carefully rendered mirrored surfaces. It is a meticulously measured photo-realistic painting. The only ‘painterly’ marks are to be found on the flowers in the foreground and the painted paintings reflected in the two large mirrored columns. Lobby reappears in a later work, Hotel du Rhone (2005), where it hangs prominently on a wall in a digitally rendered collage of a hotel room being hoovered by a naked chambermaid. The contents and layout of the room bring to mind Hamilton’s most celebrated image, probably the most famous collage in art history, Just what is it that makes today's homes so different, so appealing? (1956).

Other than Lobby and The Saensbury Wing not many of these works could be described simply as paintings, although Hamilton did refer to them as such. They are mostly digital mash-ups incorporating elements of painting, collage and photography and finally printed onto canvas.

Hamilton’s nudes are always beautiful young women and it is in two more of these nudes that we find the final preoccupation of this exhibition, and a major preoccupation of Hamilton’s career. Descending Nude (2006) shows the same woman four times, three times reflected in a mirror walking down a flight of stairs, and the fourth facing the mirror. In The Passage of the Bride (1998-99) the female nude is reflected in the glass of a section of Marcel Duchamp’s The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (1915-23), otherwise known as The Large Glass, which is seen hanging on the wall of another domestic interior. In the nineteen sixties Hamilton played an important role in the rehabilitation of Duchamp’s reputation in the art world, not least by remaking many of Duchamp’s works and bringing them to a new and wider audience. Duchamp blessed this project, even going so far, in typically Duchampian manner, as to sign Hamilton’s versions of his work. Another Duchampian aspect to Hamilton’s work is the delight he takes in replicating his own work on a smaller scale, as in Duchamp’s Box in a Valise (1935-41).

The clumsiest aspect of Hamilton’s work on show here are the titles, bad puns and unsubtle allusions, as if he hasn’t got the confidence in his audiences ability to ‘get’ the references. And one or two of the works are considerably weaker than others. I wasn’t entirely convinced by The passage of the angel to the virgin (2007), Hamilton’s updating of a Renaissance favourite, the Annunciation, for example. But these are minor quibbles. The exhibition is worth a visit alone for the opportunity to view Hamilton’s last work, Le Chef – d’oeuvre inconnu – a painting in three parts (2011 – printed 2012), which will probably pass into Hamilton legend as his last, great, unfinished, masterpiece.

Hamilton was working on Le Chef… for the final eighteen months of his life and he described it, according to this exhibitions catalogue, as his Etant Donnes. This is a slight exaggeration. Duchamp worked on his final piece in secret for twenty years when everyone thought he had given up art, releasing it only after his death as a way of upsetting Duchampian scholars from being able to sum up his life’s work into a neat little Duchampian shaped compartment. Hamilton’s final work doesn’t really deviate from the well-trodden Hamilton path. It is a nude, a particularly beautiful one. It references, and indeed collages, a number of old masters. And it is a digital mash-up of photography, painting, and collage. Based on a short story by Balzac, Le Chef… tells of a young painter trying to paint the perfect nude, produce the epitome of beauty and desire, but when he shows his work to a couple of other painter friends all they see is a mess of paint except for one beautifully rendered foot.

Thomas Schutte: Faces and Figures - Serpentine Gallery, London

Thomas Schutte has been producing a wide variety of art, from architectural installations and mixed media sculptures to ceramics and drawings, for more than three decades. This current exhibition at the Serpentine Gallery in London concentrates on one of Schutte’s major preoccupations, the human face and figure, drawing on work from the last fifteen years. It is perhaps surprising then, due to the eclectic nature of his practice, that this show has such a traditional feel, being made up as it is primarily of sculptures in bronze, steel and aluminium, and drawings in ink, pencil and watercolour.

It is to the drawings that I am most drawn. There is a quiet, calm seriousness to them, a misleading simplicity. They do not shout for attention. They quietly, calmly and seriously get on with what they do. Often Schutte will draw the same subject many times over a period of months or years, modifying his materials aloing the way, some in ink, some in pencil, some with crayon added, some with watercolour added, with the result that his drawings frequently appear in series. On show here are Luise (1996), Mirror Drawings (1998-99) and Paloma (2012). It’s as if through repetition Schutte is acknowledging the ultimate futility of drawing, it’s inherent failure to capture the true and complete spirit of a subject, as well as his own limitations as an artist, and by use of repetition he can somehow get closer to that unobtainable absolute truth.

In some of the drawings there is a real delicacy of touch. Henri (2012) for example is a very simple and beautiful line drawing in pencil, which has two occurrences of red crayon. Untitled (2006) is an ink drawing of a male face where the ink is thick and black on the right of the picture but the lines, and consequently the face, on the left disappear into the whiteness of the paper. And in another Untitled (2006), the subtlety of the line and delicacy of the face, this time female, is contrasted by a thick block of bright orange on the neck.

The majority of the sculptures on display, I’m afraid to say, fail to move me. They include a series of expressionistic bronze heads, Wichte (Jerks) (2006); an imposing armless figure with solemn deep cheekbones cast in dark rust coloured steel, Vater Staat (Father State) (2010); a long haired and bearded sunken faced bronze, Memorial for an Unknown Artist (2011); all beautifully executed with expressive features, but failing to move me in the way, say, the sinister figures of Juan Munos do, a comparison most explicit in the two large sculptures outside the gallery, United Enemies (2011), two pairs of figures, again armless, with poles for legs, bound together and uselessly straining against each other desperate to pull themselves apart. (When I was viewing these I was delighted to find them both crawling with ladybirds, an unexpected incongruity and pleasing unintentional addition to the work, the bright red dots against the pale blue of the bronze.)

My two favourite of Schutte’s sculptures, Walser’s Wife (2011) and Frauenkopf mit Blume (Woman with Flower) (2006), are both female heads, both resembling the heads of buddhas with smooth Asiatic features and rough textured hair tied up in a bun. Walser’s Wife is upright whereas Frauenkopf… is lying on its side. Walser’s Wife, the most striking of the two, is aluminium painted with gold and purple lacquer, which plays tricks with your eyes reflecting different colours depending on the angle of view. Frauenkopf… is the more familiar and traditional green and brown of bronze. But it is detail that makes these sculptures compelling. Both contain intentional imperfections around the eyes. Walser’s Wife has two small tears, solidified drips of lacquered aluminium, falling uncannily from her upper eyelids. Frauenkopf… has a lump underneath the left eye and a dent underneath the right. Her whole face sags ever so slightly in the direction of gravity’s pull, giving her features a barely noticeable yet  unnerving asymmetrical skew. Both pairs of eyes, in representations of an otherwise idealized yet realistic style, are just deep grooves, devoid of eyeballs or pupils and therefore of emotion. It is in these minor deviations from verisimilitude that we are apparently purposefully separated from the same truth that Schutte seems so eager to obtain in his drawings.

Wednesday, 22 August 2012

A Cut Through Time

In 1964, two years before a chance encounter turned her into an instant celebrity and altered many people’s perceptions of her art, Yoko Ono performed for the first time what has probably become her most famous work. In Cut Piece Ono sat on a stage in a traditional Japanese female pose with a pair of scissors next to her and invited members of the audience to step forward and using the scissors cut parts of her clothing from her. She repeated the performance in 2003. The films of these two performances are currently on show at the Serpentine’s Ono retrospective facing each other in a small room alone. It is striking when viewing these two films together how time and circumstance can alter a performance as outwardly simple as this.

The 1964 film is black and white and has the look of being filmed by a (talented) amateur. The woman seated on stage is young and beautiful and looks vulnerable and unnerved. She gazes blankly into the mid-distance passive and immobile. To view the film is an uncomfortable experience. As a viewer (voyeur) we are complicit in the sexualised violation of a young woman. The glee with which some of the male participants literally cut strips off her is incredibly disturbing. Cut Piece (1964) is a powerful work of feminist propaganda. Ono once said of it: “this is what all women go through every day.” It discusses sex, gender and power relations brutally and explicitly. It is a stunningly successful work of art.

By contrast, Cut Piece (2003) is a very different performance. Professionally filmed and in colour the subject is a completely different woman. Ono is now old, famous and very powerful. The vulnerability has all but gone. Only through the strange transgressed taboo of seeing an elderly woman being stripped nearly naked does the work retain any emotional power. Ono is at all times strong and in control. The performance is more a celebration of Ono’s celebrity than a radical work of art. It has become the equivalent of an aging rock band playing their greatest hit to a stadium of devotees. You can take nothing away from the artist for having written such a classic song, but you really wish you’d seen it performed in a small club back when it was fresh and exciting and youthful.

Friday, 27 July 2012

Light and Colour, Up Bubbles All His Amorous Breath

Turner Monet Twombly: Later Paintings, Tate Liverpool

This is one of those summer blockbuster shows and, as such, had it been in London, the galleries would have been heaving and the visit would have been an unpleasant experience of jostling and aggravation. But this is Liverpool, I am in a provincial Tate, it is a beautiful day outside and the steady but far from overcrowded stream of visitors are in friendly and conversational spirits. This is also one of those conceptual shows, hung around a usually ill-conceived idea dreamed up by a curator, where the merits of the works on display are sacrificed for the good, or often not-so-good, of the concept. Thankfully, in this instance, the concept works and the curator, Jeremy Lewison, has done a remarkable job.

Three painters, separated in time. Monet was only 11 years old at the time of Turner’s death and Twombly wasn’t born until two years after Monet’s own death. All three in their own times were derided as ‘daubers’, challenging received notions of what a painting could, or indeed should, be. The exhibition concentrates on the mature work of its subjects at a point in their respective careers when their reputations and public profile were assured, and it opens with a grand statement.

To the left as one enters is Turner’s The Parting of Hero and Leandro (1837), to the right facing it and equal in scale and ambition Twombly’s Hero and Leandro (to Christopher Marlowe) (1985), and on the wall at the back, between the two, Twombly’s painting in four parts Hero and Leandro (1981-84). And this is the exhibition in a nutshell: conversations between painters 150 years apart with similar aims and shared concerns and themes. The conversations continue throughout: Turner’s paintings of Waterloo Bridge face Monet’s paintings of Waterloo Bridge; Turner’s sunsets face Monet’s sunsets; Monet’s water lilies face Twombly’s peonies; and on; and on.

The most successful conversation, to my mind, and the one I returned to again and again over the course of my visit, was between a series of Turner’s small oil-on-board seascapes (c.1840-45) and Twombly’s epic Orpheus (1979), which share a minimal palette of off whites and creams and the splicing in two of the picture plane by a muted horizon line. Orpheus has been placed such that it dominates the largest room of the exhibition. Possibly the wittiest conversation was between Monet’s Water Lilies (after 1916) and Twombly’s Petals of Fire (1989) where Twombly’s diptych of smears and drips of black, red and white, seems to be mocking Monet across the decades, goading him for being the acceptable face of modernist painting.

Now, I must admit that I was not a fan of Monet before I came to this exhibition. I was excited at the prospect of Turner and of seeing how Twombly fared in proximity to an undeniable master. And I must also confess that my opinion has not been greatly changed. I find Monet’s use of colour to be gaudy and somewhat vulgar in a polite kind of way. Although he does improve when he allows himself to copy Turner and to soften his palette, as in Morning on the Seine, Giverny (1897) or Waterloo Bridge, London, at Sunset (1904).

The star of this show is undoubtedly Twombly and I don’t think I was alone in coming to that conclusion on the day of my visit. I suspect most people came for either Turner or Monet, having little or no prior knowledge of Twombly, and if nothing else this show, through careful and considerate curation, has done wonders towards furthering the acceptance and understanding of contemporary painting in the view of the average art going member of the public. I heard several visitors comment that when they first saw the Twombly’s they ‘didn’t get it’ but the longer they spent with them and saw the connections with the more acceptable paintings of Turner and Monet the more their appreciation grew. And vice versa, by placing Turner and Monet in proximity to Twombly it becomes clear (especially with Turner) how radical they were in their own time and how common acceptance is something that only comes about with the distance of hindsight.

Monday, 13 February 2012

A Scanner Absurdly

The other day I came across an article in the Metro that appealed to my sense of the absurd (Rookie PC chases himself for 20min in CCTV bungle – Wednesday, 8th February 2012). The article describes how a probationary plain clothes police officer was seen by a CCTV operator to be “acting suspiciously” in an area “that had [recently] suffered a spate of break-ins”. The officer was then contacted by the operator and asked to pursue the suspect, which he did for twenty minutes unaware that he was trying to pursue himself and unable to understand why, despite the fact that, as he was constantly being told by the operative, he was “on the heels of his prey”, he could see no sign of the fugitive.

I am reminded of a novel by Philip K. Dick, 1977’s A Scanner Darkly, made into a film in 2006 by Richard Linklater, in which an undercover drug enforcement officer is asked to follow and apprehend a suspected drug dealer by superiors who fail to realise that the drug dealer is the undercover persona of the police officer.  The novel, and subsequent film, through the metaphor of a fictional powerful psychedelic drug known as ‘Substance D’ or ‘Slow Death’, is a classic paranoid exploration on loss of identity and multiplicity of personality. A person, Dick is saying, is not a single coherent identity. We are each of us capable of being many different and often contradictory people depending on context and circumstance. The mask we wear at work is probably not the mask we wear in our own home, or with our own family, friends or acquaintances, and sometimes that contradiction forced on us by social conventions can have debilitating consequences to an individual’s sense of self.

The imaginary tale of Dick has a much darker and starker conclusion than the real life story in the Metro, which ends with a sergeant entering the CCTV control room and recognising the suspect and police officer to be the same person to much hilarity. But the story does highlight I feel how the world, with the aid of new technologies, has come to resemble a science fiction more absurd than anything invented by a novelist.   

Friday, 10 February 2012

Still the Same

I feel compelled to write in response to the recent furore in some of the less contemplative areas of our print and digital media in reaction to an incomplete new work by artist Sam Firth. The film Stay the Same, as reported in the Daily Telegraph, Daily Mail and Scottish Sun earlier this week, involves Firth filming herself standing still for ten minutes every day at the same time and in the same place, in front of a loch on the Knoydart Peninsula in Scotland. Beginning on 22nd June last year she intends to repeat this process for a full twelve months after which time she will edit the sixty-odd hours of accumulated footage into a short twenty minute film. The film has been funded by a jointly awarded grant of £10,000 from the British Film Institute and Creative Scotland which are both publicly funded bodies.

With headlines such as: “Woman paid £160 an hour from public money to stand still by a loch” (Daily Telegraph 6/2/12), “Taxpayers' money spent on giving artist £160 an hour to stand motionless beside a lake (sic)” (Daily Mail 6/2/12), and “Money for nothing: Filmmaker’s £10k grant to stand beside loch” (The Scottish Sun 6/2/12) it is clear where the focus of the fracas lies. The issue is two-fold: a lack of understanding of art in large portions of the general population, and the question of how do we place a value on art. 

In this case the second point is the easiest to deal with. The £160 an hour mentioned in the headlines is the actual time spent filming. The project itself lasts a year, much more than a year when pre- and post-production are taken into account. £10,000 for over a year’s work does not sound like a particularly high wage to me. In fact, according to the report A Minimum Income Standard for the UK in 2011, published in July last year by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, “a single person needs to earn at least £15,000 a year before tax in 2011, to afford a minimum acceptable standard of living.” (
The issue of understanding is much harder to address. Like any specialism there is a language to art. If you are not conversant with the language you will find it difficult to comprehend. In order to comprehend a language you would be expected to make a certain amount of effort. You can’t, for example, expect to understand the intricacies of quantum mechanics without putting in some work on the subject. It is the same with art. Sam Firth’s film, in an incredibly simple and elegant way, addresses a diverse range of complex concerns, such as identity, place, time, change, and aging. By placing herself so directly into the film she becomes the subject of the work as much as the landscape behind her and her relationship to it. 

It is a work with numerous precedents. The discomfort of staring silently into the intrusive lens of a camera is a subject explored most famously by Andy Warhol in his Screen Tests of 1964-66 and much more recently by Noah Kalina. Kalina took a photograph of himself everyday between January 11th 2000 and July 31st 2006 and uploaded the result onto YouTube (Noah takes a photo of himself everyday for 6 years) where currently it has been viewed over 22 million times and has inspired many other similar films. The comparative artistic merit of the two works is another, though not entirely unconnected, debate, but the fact that a work like Kalina’s can go viral on the internet and yet a work like Firth’s can cause such indignation says much about the hostility towards and misunderstanding of the art world shown by large proportions of the population. And this misunderstanding isn’t helped by the lazy and ignorant journalism shown this week in the reaction to Sam Firth’s film Stay the Same

See Sam Firth’s work at