HOCKNEY AT THE TATE*****


Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy 1970-1 David Hockney born 1937 Presented by the Friends of the Tate Gallery 1971 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/T01269

WHEN YOU STAND -in awe- in front on any of David Hockney’s magnificent paintings, that have morphed from abstract to naturalist over the sixty odd years covered by the Tate’s well curated retrospective, two, interrelated, aspects stand out. Every painting seems to be the end result of the artist’s triumph in problem solving…just how much information does the artist need to offer; how should the perspective be treated, in order to make the viewer complicit with his point of view?

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These seems to me to be two of the elements that make a Hockney, a Hockney. That contrast between the fussy chiaroscuro of one element, say a shag carpet, where you can almost feel the bristles under foot, or the almost photographic landscape that contrasts with the very ‘painterly’ patterned images of the pool, or that droop of flowers that seem to be the only living element in the room, with the almost casually drawn brushstroke indicating a furrow in the English countryside, or the patterned flatness of the swimming pool. His images deliver with precision just the right amount of visual information to communicate. The subtle balance of styles express a quality of very deliberate emotionless-ness. His blank figures are placed in the frame of the paintings like objects (had Hockney moved the man an inch to his right the mood of tranquility and harmony – seems like a cold if well-balanced relationship – would have been shattered). They create that very distinct Hockney world. It is a world of stillness and silence; one that’s not a frozen moment in time, where there’s a past and a future, like say the frozen turn of the girl with the pearl necklace, but one that’s outside of time itself.

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(Hockney is preoccupied with the role of time in art, from these moments of timelessness to some of his earlier art-faxes, when he faxed an entire exhibition from LA to Brazil whose idea revolved around the passage of time…and the problem/solution of how to show it…to the last room in the exhibition in which we see his -pad drawings in the process of being constructed in time)

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It’s as though these paintings are invitations to both ponder the meaning of time and to leave its flux… to lift away from time-bound ‘reality’ to enter into a world where all that matters is the relationship of the elements within the painting. It is the artist’s seductive siren call to draw us out of ourselves into his head…into, as it were, his frame of mind.

There’s no question that he constructs his works so that you’re guided, very deliberately in how to view the work. Every painting is part of a mission in helping viewers learn how to observe…freed from the distractions of ‘life’ and the destructions of time.

Let’s look at some of his work.
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This is one of his latest, and much heralded, massive paintings of the countryside near his home and studio. At first glance, it’s pretty clear that it’s an inviting country path…the light plays upon the leaves in such a way to suggest not only the time of day, but even the season and temperature. The artist has worked out how to communicate this in the most efficient manner (there’s no pretence of photographic realism here…the bold pop art brush strokes and primary colours  do just about enough). It’s very easy and tempting for an artist to be defeated, overwhelmed by the landscape before him so that all the viewer sees is the landscape. Hockney breaks the painting into six quadrants. He could have simply stretched a large canvas. But the solution to the problem facing him, and his choice, was to present the massive scene in smaller frames; and each frame has its own visual integrity.

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The artist’s invitation isn’t to ‘look at a pretty landscape’; it’s to stop and think about how we see things…how we observe the outside world and how our (Hockney) guided observation of this painting creates a kind of symbiosis with the artist’s own observing eye. John Berger in his famous series of essays, “Ways of Seeing” noted, “The relationship between what we see and what we know is never settled”.

To Hockney, to see is to know. But to really “see”, you can’t be overwhelmed…you have to take control. Hockney takes control by breaking up his line of sight into relevant interacting quadrants.

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Take this one. Here the artist is suggesting multiple, almost cubist perspectives, distorting the perspective and dramatizing the colour contrasts, to ‘get the full picture’. It’s as though the visually garrulous artist wants to cram as much into the frame so that you can experience with him the excitement, the sensory overload, the chaotic jubilation he must have felt standing on that gallery.

Hockney, David; Man in a Museum (or You're in the Wrong Movie); British Council Collection; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/man-in-a-museum-or-youre-in-the-wrong-movie-176794

In one of his (not dissimilar) earlier, more abstract works, he arranged multiple elements across a deliberately blank looking canvas. Here’s a barely sketched, almost anecdotal image of a young man walking away from some sort of drawing of an Egyptian icon above which two green stalactites of paint hang down. Just what do they all mean? Are they symbols that we need to understand to ‘get the full picture’? Maybe. What we experience when we engage with this painting is an insight into the artist’s own interior monologue, his own scatter of thoughts and images. This is a painting that, to me, tries to pin down memory.

As indeed, they all are. Perhaps more so than many other artists, a retrospective of Hockney feels like an intrusion into a private diary…from his hot, horney homosexual portraits in LA to the later reimagined, modernized romanticism of his visually lyrical landscapes. Clement

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Greenberg wrote that painting was “ineluctably about painting”. With Hockney, you can’t separate the man from the painting…from the life lived in time, to the observation and introspection of that life outside of it.

And as we learn to observe through Hockney, we learn to observe ourselves

RAUSCHENBERG AT THE TATE MODERN*****


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ROBERT RAUSCHENBERG STARTED his life as an artist as a student at Black Mountain College, where he studied fine art under the tuition of former Bauhaus teacher, Josef Albert. The College, which encouraged its students to experiment, to break through the encrustations of status quo thinking, and – tellingly for Rauschenberg – to work with everyday materials, was an extraordinary place. Its alumni include a number of powerhouses who helped wrench art into new and exciting directions: de Kooning, Gropius, Kline, Motherwell, Buckminster Fuller…the poets Charles Olesen and Robert Duncan.

Not unexpectedly, Rauschenberg, wrestling away from what he saw as the painterliness of the likes of Mark Rothko, pushed (his own) art into a whole new physical realm. The artist (who would have seen himself as painter, photographer, set designer, printmaker, sculptor, scientist) constantly experimented with new techniques and new ways to realize his governing ambition: to bring the outside world into art.

As you walk through the Tate Modern’s sprawling retrospective of his work, the puzzling aim becomes clear.

The big breakthrough was in the 50’s – in a genre he called his Combines – when he merged found materials (umbrellas, ladders, old shoes, a functioning light, an old suitcase, etc.), almost disdainfully smeared with broad aggressive strokes of paint, into his vast canvases. The Combines were by no means confined to the canvas, and one of his defining (or, at least, most recognizable) works was a sculpture (object? thing?) shown above, called Monogram.

This is a stuffed Angora goat that he found, and which he has encircled with an old tyre. It’s standing on a slab of wood covered with muted daubs of paint, random letters and planks, like the detritus of a city.

So this is art?

The big deal with the use of a stuffed animal (or a urinal for that matter) lies in an understanding of where the art of art takes place. Rauschenberg said that his art operated in the gap between art and life. Indeed, art exists really in the space between the object (or performance) and the viewer. It is in this abstract space that the layers of empathy or illumination or antinomial identification (art’s magic journey to take us out of ourselves – our norm – and into the sensibility of the artist) take place. This is what the art critic Clement Greenberg refers to as “the aesthetic experience”. It’s where the object’s meaningful-ness (not what it means, or how we interpret it – a dodgy and unhelpful perspective – but rather how it reshapes our perceptions) becomes apparent and transformative. This is what Arthur C. Danto refers to as “the transformation of the ordinary” in that what separates art from non-art is its “aboutness”. Art, unlike, say a spade or a beautifully hand-crafted chair, is about something.

What matters then is not so much what has been referred to as “skilful making” (the craft of art) – the object per se – but that mid point where daubs of paint, or stuffed animals, assume an enigmatic ontological significance. Because the object that we see, and which we refer to as art is really an expression of a kind of insight, an acuteness of observation in which the barnacles of emotional cliché and triteness are scraped off only to be reimagined as an unique, esoteric idea. When last did you see an Angora goat stuffed into an old tire?

It’s an image as personal and as unique as a fingerprint.

For every work of art is an ‘idea’ that we’re invited to share. And this isn’t a murder mystery you have to solve. Sometimes the idea may well remain elusive. It doesn’t matter. Art confronts us with the thrill of being in the presence of something as intangible as the abstractness of an idea…made tangible.

The semiotics of ‘Monogram’ is interesting: This is not simply a stuffed animal glued to an oval frame. It’s not a cow or a cat. It’s a goat. A horned goat at that. As if the discontinuity of layering the actual (a stuffed animal) with the imaginary (the abstract imagining of New York that forms the base) isn’t thought-provoking enough, the use of the goat is Rauschenberg’s wonderfully irreverent, anarchic statement about art in a museum…or life. For after all what you’re looking at here is the act of penetration. Here is the power of the horny, the unashamedly masculine, thrusting itself through the vaginal (or maybe, since he was bisexual, anal) “O”. Here in the middle of the hushed, genteel Tate Modern is the ever-so-respectful intimacy of copulation. And the whole work is cheekily called ‘Monogram’. This is Rauschenberg’s self-portrait. His fingerprint (or maybe his cock).
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There are two aspects of his work that fascinate me. The first is his incorporation of found materials into the works…his refusal to isolate art from ‘reality’ as if ‘art’ lived in some plane superior to the real. Of course museums (our secular churches) tend to fetishize art. They suggest that these hangings on the wall are sacred objects to be worshipped; patrons must keep their distance, take no photographs, whisper with bowed reverence.

Rauschenberg encouraged people to add to the art; for if art only really exists (like electrons) once there’s a viewer with whom ‘it’ is conversing, the more physical engagement there is, the richer the experience (and, by extension, the art). This isn’t literally possible of course; too many iconoclasts would seek destruction rather than hold conversations.

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And in the example shown here, the object both knows its place – on the wall and, through its embedded mirrors, reflecting its viewer – and also rebels against its place – on the floor with the viewer. At its initial exhibition, Rauschenberg asked people to take from and add items to the box below…a whimsical suggestion that makes tangible the effect of art, the memory and the experience that we all take away (it was closed on my visit…too many people took; none added). And, equally whimsically, or perhaps critically it’s called “Black Market” (for such fraternization with the revered object can only exist in a black market)

But in a sense, the incorporation of the outside (the box, the license plate etc. newly de-familiarized and now rendered useless) into the ontology of the art not only democratizes the ‘hands off’ art object; it shifts the ‘meaning’ and role of art. For art is not there (only) to be admired. It’s there to challenge and engage and offer its viewers a lens through which to view their own realities (that witty placement of mirrors). Is the juxtaposition of an umbrella in a painting an expression of kidnap and capture (viewers browbeaten by the imperiousness of Culture), or an expression of harmony and diversity or a comment on the artist’s need to wrestle reality to fits his/her own perspective…with the sad acceptance that our eyes will always be seduced by the reality, by the known and simple, over the unknown and complicated (which is why name recognition always defeats policy at the polls)?

The second fascinating aspect is that Rauschenberg’s works defy the classical dictates of focus and form. This piece seems to have no central focal point. The artist forces our eyes to rove at will, left to right, up and down, lingering here, darting there, wondering why this arrangement, why not something else. The work will not tolerate a passive viewing…because its ‘idea’, like life itself, is not one-dimensional. The semiotics of the objects tell one story; but what fascinates me is the precision of every object, every seemingly random splash of paint in the energized anarchy of the piece. Greenberg again: “The importance of the sense of the decisions the artist makes is a vital, differentiating factor. Art that is academic is art that has had its decisions made for it”. Everything in the piece ‘fits’ perfectly, and – that miracle of decision-making – despite the segmentation and layers of the piece, it all works as a single holistic whole.

Why?

It’s not unlike the unthinking structure of our daily grammar. We’d describe the art as “Rauschenberg’s large, colourful, multilayered paintings” not “Rauschenberg’s colourful, multilayered, large, paintings”. The latter simply feels wrong. A grammarian would give you very specific reasons for this, but we (at least most of us, most of the time) use grammar correctly intuitively. So too do artists…so too does Rauschenberg. And when you the viewer engage with one of his works, you enter into his own grammatical frame of reference. The brilliance of Rauschenberg is that he has not only wrestled ‘reality’ (the umbrella, say) into an expression of his idea, he has also wrestled you into the grammar of his world.

For what is art if not the artist’s acquisition of new ‘words’, whole new grammars with which to discover and articulate whole new undiscovered, never before observed worlds of feeling and consciousness?

 

Magnificent William Kentridge at the Whitechapel


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The first exhibit in William Kentridge’s extraordinary exhibition now on at Whitechapel Gallery is, in formal terms, a sculpture; in informal terms, it’s a contraption. It’s a movie camera tripod, on which is mounted various sprockets and levers, connected to a bicycle wheel, on which is mounted two large megaphones.

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The object sets the tone and the themes of what are to follow in the six experiences that comprise the exhibition. The contraption appears whimsical…the sort of thing you’d find in the studio of a mad inventor. As it should: for every artist probably harbors the soul of a mad inventor (an image that recurs throughout). But there’s a darker side that threads the pieces: the idea that there can be a fine dividing line between the joyfulness of art and the darkness of propaganda (the megaphones), where the tools of the artist become the mere levers and cogs in the manufacture of sentiment and political perspective.

Kentridge is a South African (and you can feel this in his angst about censorship and propaganda) whose work mixes video, sculpture, animation, drawings, song, performance and audio collages, often mounted on the packing cases they were shipped in (as if the underline the ‘real-ness’ of the art). His pieces immerse the viewer into the action… which is -inescapably, like the State – all around you…on multiple screens, on canvases that seem to dance and make love with each other, through snippets of scratchy recordings reminiscent of Weimar Germany…all tenuously linked together through, often jokey, narratives.

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In the first experience (entitled The Refusal of Time), at the center of a large dark room sits a vast opening/closing wooden bellows, like lungs, attached to, and moved by a series of wooden cranes…wooden oil derricks, slowly, rhythmically pumping life into the room… indifferent to the passage of time shown in the assemblage of videos that make up the content of the piece. In them, black squares form themselves into various animals (from nothing comes something…willed into being by the deus maximus of the artist-creator). It may be his lungs in the middle, but there’s no doubt that we’re in his head now. And in his head, where time present and time past exist in an ontology separate and apart from the linear time of the room, we become privy to the mix of memory, dream, thought and emotion that profile the artist. The vignettes of storylines build toward a series of silhouetted figures that dance, trudge, walk, carrying their lives with them (one figure is scrubbing away in a bath born on by others; others are playing instruments; while some are simply lumbering along burdened by the baggage of their lives). They seem to move all around the room as if there were no corners. It’s an image of the refugees that now encompass our own lives and which oppress the artist. And then in a flash, a stroke of the brush, they’re gone…replaced by a comical image of a dancing man…the safe image the artist must show, perhaps to elude (maybe now, certainly in the past) the opprobrium of the State.

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In one environment (O Sentimental Machine, which is his most overtly critical of the corrupting influence of propaganda), he again plays with multiple ontologies. The central ‘event’ is of a woman walking past a vast mirror. But her image doesn’t quite reflect the ‘reality’. And so the real tries to accommodate the image…leading us to wonder to what extent who we are is a reflection of how we’re seen…and to what extent do we alter who we are to better reflect how we wish to be seen? It’s a kind of personal propaganda played out on the larger scene by the State.

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Kentridge is of course the genius behind it all. But these grand complex pieces are such masterpieces of computer wizardry, clever engineering and superb, old-fashioned musical compositions, that what shines through is the power of collaboration. Like a master conductor, Kentridge has harnessed and integrated a kaleidoscope of talent in service of thought provoking ideas.

And in these days where the gestalt of life seems to lie in political divisiveness and disintegration, it seems only the grand art of people like Kentridge can lead us back away from fragmentation to some sense of wholeness.

 

DAVID HOCKNEY AT THE RA***** Picture Perfect


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TALK ABOUT GETTING the full measure of the man!

David Hockney’s new exhibition at the Royal Academy features eighty two large acrylic portraits of an eclectic group of his friends. They’re all very stark: all sitters are posed on the same chair with (more or less) the same blue and green floor and wall. Within the self-imposed rigidity of the format (like the constraint and formality of a sonnet) eighty two distinct personalities emerge to stare back at you, as they did the painter: bored, amused, haughty, curious, thankful, self conscious, inquisitive. The sitters exude power, charm, fragility, arrogance and for many, wealth, which is in itself for some, a statement of character.

When you think of “the portrait” (so dominated by Rembrandt) the imagination immediately conjures up images of faces; all else – clothes, poses, background – usually become either of symbolic or secondary importance. Not so for Hockney. His portraits…these evocations of personality … arise initially from the very direct responses of the sitters to the artist (they aren’t staring past him into some imagined space; they’re very aware of his presence), the clothes they’ve chosen to wear (sloppy, elegant, sporting, understatedly posh, formal…some clearly dressed for the occasion, others as though they were on the way to the supermarket) and (the most telling), posture.

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Hockney’s use of the same slightly uncomfortable chair for all the sitters is one of his brilliant character signifiers. Some of his sitters – powerful, confident people, clearly accustomed to being listened to – have colonized the chair. Their bodies and abundant clothes seem to swallow it up, so that barely its spindly brown legs are all that is seen, Others – retiring, hesitant, in awe of the great man, unaccustomed to such a prolonged stare – seem shrunken in the chair; they seem shy, wary of even touching its sides, as though fearing it would reveal too many truths. And yet others drape themselves all over it as if in defiance of its talismanic power, willing its stiff-backed discomfort to yield to their demands; some of the sitters slouch into it, seemingly unfussed by the artist’s probing eyes; and yet others sit stiffly upright…uptight, self conscious and awkward.

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And then there are the hands: restless, prim, nervous, gently resting on casually crossed legs or gripping the arms of the chair tensely. These are portraits of gesture. Despite the stiff flatness of acrylic (he uses just enough colour to give a semblance of depth, but his main tonal variations come from varying the density and opacity of the pigment) you can almost feel the hands move, the fingers twitch, the legs jiggle. It’s as though the artist waited patiently for his subjects to do something – twist, lean forward, scratch…some revealing gesture that he would freeze and turn into an yet another unsuspecting expression of mood and character.

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And do they capture the likeness? Who knows (most of the sitters aren’t known celebrities…Hockney says “I don’t do celebrities, photography does celebrities”) and who cares.

What they capture in a 4′ X 3′ rectangle of paint is an entire life. How miraculous

PAINTING THE MODERN GARDEN*****


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NOW ON (AND soon leaving the RA) is a fascinating exhibition on the art of the impressionists (from Monet to Matisse) that features their gardens. It’s called Painting the Modern Garden. Although you probably don’t associate Monet, Renoir et al. with being avid gardeners, they were part of a vast horticultural movement that took place in the late nineteenth century, fuelled by peace and prosperity. Many of the Impressionists seemed to spend as much time in their gardens (finding many deep-rooted sources of inspiration) as in their studios. Who knew that Monet was a talented horticulturalist, experimenting with flower and plant hybrids as much as he was experimenting with new ways of seeing the world. Indeed, at one time he employed over six gardeners to tend to his vast garden in Giverny with its more than seventy species of plants.

These large canvases of small, flower-rich enclosures often feature the ethereal figures of women (the garden ­– almost exclusively painted by men – was strongly associated with femininity and fecundity), gliding as delicately as the flowers that framed them, as well as hints of houses proprietorially peeking over the blooms. They stand in stark and deliberate contrast to the earlier art of the Romantic landscape. For the Romantics, the wild untamed vastness of open fields or, better yet, deep, dark gorges, was a powerful spiritual image of the sublime.

For Ruskin, landscape painting was, at its best, a manifestation of the “strength and depth of the soul”. God was present in every leaf.

And if the landscape wasn’t a display of the hand of God, it was at least the sylvan setting for mythology and a demonstration of classical knowledge.

By the 1890s, as if to deliberately distance themselves from such overwrought sentiment, the Impressionists offered the world the decidedly secular (there were precious few attempts to link gardens with THE garden), seemingly everyday prettiness of their gardens. The exhibition and the stunning art on display is not about prettiness, however. Here, there is no less “strength and depth of the soul”. Monet said what mattered to him was not the subject per se but the space between the subject and the artist. And it is the ‘measurement’ of this space that makes this such a tremendous exhibition.

Let’s for a minute imagine the typical ‘Sunday’ garden painter. Call him Thomas. He paints extremely well; his friends and the collectors who snap up his offerings from the village gallery all admire his craft…the delicacy with which he seems to conjure the brilliance of buds with a few deft strokes, the accuracy of his colours, the fluffiness of his clouds, the texture of light and shade that give his images warmth and depth.

But here’s the difference between Thomas and Monet. Thomas’ art is only ever about its subject. There’s no depth beyond the painterliness of the image. That ‘space’ is missing. For what this exhibition brings to the fore isn’t how accurate Monet’s chrysanthemums were, or how beautiful Pissarro’s garden was (he incidentally preferred to paint his allotment or vegetable patch to flowery enclosures); rather, it celebrates the extent to which the garden was an idea, a signifier of so much more.

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The garden, in reality as in art, was the place that offered a moment of escape, an oasis against the rapidly encroaching concrete aridity of the modern world. It was a place of silence and contemplation. It was a place where colour wasn’t a description but had its own raison d’être, its own abstractness (Van Gogh said he only really understood colour after studying the flowers in his garden). Indeed, this man-made creation (unlike ‘nature’ or the wild Romantic landscape), created to encourage visitors to pause and contemplate, to re-jigger their viewpoints, to express its creator’s whimsy and style, was, in its ambition, no less than the ambition of art itself.

Let’s take this Japanese bridge by Monet.

It’s a scene he painted twelve times, interested as he was not so much in the bridge or the stream running below but, like all Impressionists, in the fluctuations of light. The Impressionists painted light; and each fluctuation revealed a different scene, a different mood and different perspective on life as you can see from the two examples shown here.

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In the one, the light is bright and summery; the reflecting pond is cool and inviting; the greenish hue of the bridge makes it an integral part of the scene.

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In the other, the bluish bridge feels like an outsider; makes the whole scene feel colder, less jolly, more sombre and lonely.

Monet wasn’t the first painter to repaint scenes, hoping to observe and pin down how light alters your viewpoint. For it’s the viewpoint, not the subject that matters. Like poetry, the aim of (the) painting is to wrench the viewer away from him/her self to see the world through the sensibility of the artist, through his internal world. Thomas, our Sunday painter is only really interested in showing you how pretty the scene is.

And is this scene ‘pretty’? It is; and maybe it isn’t. The paintings are bisected by the empty bridge, the only obviously artificial element in this – slightly less artificial – wilderness. It is also the closest the scene has to a horizon point. Monet has filled the canvas with the greenery of the stream, the trees, the bushes, etc. It’s heavingly busy, enveloping the viewer – creating an entire world apart – as it must have done the artist. The bridge (it was Monet’s copy of a Japanese bridge as imagined by the Japanese woodcut printmaker, Hiroshige…an artist’s ‘representation’ of an artist’s representation) emerges from the greenery and disappears into more greenery. Where is it coming from? Going to? In the summer painting, the bridge offers an inviting place to lean on and escape from everything else. But the blue winter bridge seems to be an intrusion in the scene. Far from being an invitation to escape and contemplate, this version feels claustrophobic as if the artist were feeling trapped, overwhelmed; the garden as antidote has become the garden as an expression of angst.

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For these painters of the open air, the garden was also a studio. In this painting by Renoir of Monet, standing commandingly in his ‘studio’, note the multiple planes that make up the picture shorn of distance and perspective: of the urban world of just visible houses coloured by a monochromatic yellowish sky, almost screened out (from sight and from interfering) by the other plane of an abundance of flowers and colour… the world of the garden, of leisure and ease. And yet, the fence that bisects the painting, almost acting as a brake against the wild, seems to suggest two separate ontologies: house and garden v artist and studio. In the foreground is the artist, surveying all before him, just as the painter of the scene is surveying him. He is discretely placed on the right hand side (and the same colour palette as the blue house – his house?). Perhaps the suggestion is the futility (never recognized by Thomas) of attempting to observe all this, to record all this on a tiny canvas – here described by a single off-white line. Perhaps this is the artist’s essential everyday Herculean task: To turn all this – the sky, the houses, the wild explosion of natural abundance – into a pattern that offers meaning and regeneration

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This is a painting called The Lady in the Garden. The image is perfectly balanced: notice the centrality of the tree, how its branches are echoed by an almost mirror image of the flower bed beneath. It is the woman in white (just what is she looking at? Is she in a state of reverie, or is her face deliberately, coyly, turned away from her observer?) that completely upsets the balance. Despite the solid calm and gravity of the greenery, all eyes turn only to her. She almost renders the garden a mere context to her commanding presence…there is an incredible tension between her and the central tree with its verdant bursts of flowering fertility. They echo each other. Her white dress, like a bride, a virgin, a ghost, is in stark contrast to everything else. Compare how she shines out with the muted blues of Monet’s figure in his garden. She was apparently not the painter’s lover… but this is not a study of a picturesque garden with an ornamental lady around, I think it’s a study in longing; an unambiguous study in, perhaps a never satisfied, but absolute adoration.

Cicero said, “If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need”. He would have loved this show.

 

Ai Weiwei at the RA***** Breathtaking


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IN HIS ‘PRELUDE’ to “The Lyrical Ballads”, Wordsworth spoke of poetry as “powerful emotions recollected in tranquility”. I guess that could be a fitting epigraph to Ai Weiwei’s tremendous exhibition now on at the Royal Academy. The Chinese artist has been tortured, incarcerated, beaten up, his passport confiscated, his studio burnt down and his workers harassed… such is the fear of the powerful Chinese government (the same one that treats Obama and Cameron with only mildly hidden contempt) to the power of his art.

And powerful it certainly is, in its often jokey inventiveness. The exhibition largely charts Ai’s stormy relationship with the Chinese government (its crude surveillance, its futile harassment, its failed attempts to muzzle his outspoken anger) in what amounts to one extended self-portrait. It’s a portrait of an artist as a citizen.

This portrait that Ai Weiwei offers, at its most obvious level, is that of the freedom fighter; one where the artistic imagination refuses to be constrained in the way that the man so clearly was. After his studio had been razed by the authorities, Ai WeiWei salvaged remnants of the destroyed place and reconstructed them into a series of sturdy walls (with all the symbolism suggested by the wall). You can destroy things physically, but you can’t destroy the idea behind them. The wrath of a government can never diminish the idea of art.

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In a sense we’re privy to an inseparable duality: between the man (the political prisoner, locked in a cell) and the artist (imagination unbound…those powerful memories and emotions recollected in tranquility). Since it is his self portrait, it’s also the artist’s not too subtle way of presenting himself as he would have the world see him…the work is as clever a piece of self branding as the anti-capitalist semiotic of the Coca-Cola logo on the jade vase. The Ai WeiWei brand is that of the fearless artist who cannot be constrained. The artist as truth guerilla.

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In this, the artist’s relationship with his public is a very modern, post pop-art one: his audiences are not so much museum goers as consumers. In the same way that they can relate to the Apple brand, Ai WeiWei courts his consumer base to relate to and buy into what his own brand of art has to offer: thoughtful and imaginative defiance against the super-state.

And as consumers, he offers his own ironic perspective: several of his pieces deliberately subvert the idea of commerce by turning valuable ‘pieces’ into entirely useless objects…into artIMG_0862

The artist was once imprisoned for about three months in a small padded cell. There with him, not three feet away were two prison officers. They had been ordered to monitor his every move, even as he defecated, but to never speak a word with him. In a feat of extraordinary memory, Weiwei spent the three months committing every minute detail to memory, only to recreate and process the experience in a series of sculptures (they are boxes through which viewers could spy in – voyeurs all – on vignettes of the incarceration). It’s a giant finger up the authority’s attempt to silence him.

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But this is no expression of esoteric angst. I think the power of what Ai Weiwei is doing goes well beyond one individual’s relationship with a threatened state…potentially his art speaks for us all. We too live under the same watchful eye of Weiwei’s porcelain CCTV’s;

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And like him we live in a state pretty much owned by a small cluster of very powerful men (the symbolism of that Coca-Cola logo once again) whose control of the media shape what and how we’re meant to think about the things that matter to them.

Perhaps this exhibition is more than the portrait of the artist… more a portrait of us all: mere consumers…not so much people as trained citizens (trained to consume) under the state’s supposedly benevolent supervision.

(Which begs the question – where are the Ai Weiwei’s of the West? Fortunately we seem to be moving on from the vulgar commercialism of Damien Hirst and the tawdry ugliness of Tracy Emin…but the energy that fuelled the Lowry’s and Guernica’s of the world seem to have been tamed… possibly by the controlling hand of the big galleries who know what their wealthy clients want…and that ain’t anger!)

But despite it all, the work is often mocking, often funny…he’s channeled his anger to rise above the primal scream; and there is about his pieces a wonderful joyousness…it’s the joyous celebration of Chinese craftsmanship. Unlike so many other artists whose atelier’s skills remain under wraps, Ai Weiwei very publicly trumpets the extraordinary craftsmanship of his team. To him, it’s a proud and very overt demonstration of Chinese brilliance. As a result, the art offers us this wonderful dynamism between the big picture themes of state oppression and crass commercialism (is a Jade jar worth more or less if a Coca-Cola logo has been stencilled across it?) and the equally relevant ‘small picture’ emphasis on the minutiae of the workmanship. He’s saying that the controlled anger of the artistic imagination is only really as good as the craftsmanship that allows the anger to communicate with others.

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Here are impeccably carved marble leaves of grass, where the strength and the brittleness of the material imprison a child’s stroller. Or here is a towering chandelier (the first image shown here) constructed around the frames of bicycles…the bicycles Ai Weiwei grew up with…it’s light emanating through memory.

And that’s art!

BARBARA HEPWORTH AT THE TATE***


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IN THE FIRST room of the new (and often misogynist…since the curator seemed more interested as Barbara as Nicholson’s lover and his influence than her art) Barbara Hepworth exhibition at Tate Britain, are her early, smaller, table sized sculptures. They’re mainly of animals and a few torsos – a curled snake, a couple of birds, mother and child etc. They are all smooth, almost tactile objects, from which any extraneous ornamentation has been excised. The result, are objects that resemble talismans; iconic representations of the spirit of the animal or human suggested by their forms. By the late 30’s and 40’s when Hepworth was in her ascendency, abstract sculpture was by no means new. However these almost abstract, shapes, merely suggestive, like Platonic forms, of their inspirations seem to herald a fresh kind of visual perspective.

They have such a caressable, tactile quality – pushing the three dimensional density of sculpture into a dimension of touch – that you wonder where Jonathan Ive’s Apple designs would be had there been no Hepworth.

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Many of her works are simply called, “Form Number One” etc. Imagine being able to give birth…to bring a new form, like a new colour, into the world? Artists are gods.

These early works feel as though Hepworth had reached back a millennia to rob the past of some of its images, stripping away the eschatology and inserting her own spiritual energy. As a result, somehow the early sculpture on show wouldn’t feel out of place had they been exhumed from the dark bowels of some sand blasted pyramid.

And yet, they belong in another world.

As her career progressed, the forms become larger, more abstract. But their inspiration remains the natural world. She has translated the landscape around her – natural rock formations, trees – into her, burnished, re-shaped perspective and infused it with a point of view and meaning.

It’s almost landscape sculpture. She has reframed the external universe into her own perspective

To that point, it’s interesting to compare her work – and how far sculpture had come at this period – with, say the work of Rodin (see below). His large muscular sculptures have a strong narrative drive… clear expressions of an idea, an historical point of view. Of these you can ask the question, “What does it mean?” and engage with the work through this perspective. Hayworth’s work operates at a different level. “What does it mean?” becomes a meaningless question.

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Her wooden pieces glorify the material – the wood glows. The pieces breathe. It’s as if Hayworth had seduced rather than chopped it into its forms. Far from Plato’s dumb-ass criticism that art is mere imitation (of nature), here art IS its own nature.
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Often placed as they are, outdoors (she was fastidious on where they were located) these -man made- objects offer an interesting dynamic: amidst the mutability of nature, their timelessness impose an ontological shock. Here are works inspired by the natural environment that feel both naturally in their right places and still incongruously out of place. They’re as meaningless and impractical and as critically vital as, say, a tree or a stream, or a chance encounter with an idea. They force viewers to engage with them both as objects qua objects and also as a means of refocusing on their surroundings.

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We tend to take art for granted as something that hangs on a museum wall or some place of hallowed power and importance (which of course du Champ turned on its head). But the strategic location of the works of sculptors such as Hepworth, Henry Moore or, of late, Anthony Gormley, so abruptively there, forcing viewers to stumble upon them with all the shock of bumping into a friend or a sudden naked man is a fundamental part of the dynamic of the art.

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Street art – Keith Herring (back in the day) and now Bansky, Stick Man etc is, like Pop Art was in the 60’s, probably some of the most exciting art around. Literally. But I digress
Her later art – the metal pieces – are stark contrasts to the earlier wooden pieces. Whereas the former felt coaxed into life, these later metal pieces seem to have been wrestled into submission. This is the sculptor exercising her mastery over her material, bending the harsh heavy metal to her will, forcing it to assume surprising curves and twists. It’s as though the material, through its shape is breaking out of its limitations, breaking away from its heavy masculinity to delight and surprise its viewers with an energy and rhythm and, at times, flippancy.

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The link with the earlier stone and wood pieces is the organic relationship that seems to exist between sculptor and her material. You feel as though the designs triangulate her strong sense of her environment and the materials themselves. Michaelangelo spoke of sculpting as a means of uncovering of the form within the stone; the sculptor as explorer and discoverer. Her work is so cliché free and honest that some of her work feels like this… as though the tortured curves of her bronzes demanded their creation. And, fortunate for us, she came along.