Saturday, 23 November 2013

ARTISTS MAKE FACES Curated by Monika Kinley OBE - Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery November 21 2013

The role of the curator is a curious one. I never know whether to love, hate or admire someone who can have such an enormous effect on who, what and even how the public view artists, art and bodies of work. Artists are at the mercy of many elements but a sympathetic curator with a genuine knowledge and love of the work they are curating can do much to subtly introduce a brilliant piece with careful placement or elevate a whole swathe of inconsequential nonsense by swamping an exhibition like the water pump from John snow’s infamous Cholera map.

For those of you unfamiliar with the graphic that is often touted as the poster boy for visualisation, Snows map is famous as the tool that identified an outbreak of Cholera in Soho in 1854 as having originated from a single infected water Pump. This is all very convenient for demonstrating that mapping the deaths of humans with dots on a map reveals much more than written statistics in interpreting data. Very convenient but sadly not true. Snow had already surmised that water could be the carrier of the disease and after collecting data to support his hypothesis, used the map as a marketing tool. The sewer commission had already produced a map with the death locations but Snow’s genius lay in the decision to leave a lot of stuff out. He incised old grave sites and sewer locations and without the clutter his theory that cholera had spread out from the water shone out unimpeded.

I digress but for good reason. Monika Kinley has done a great job curating here and it is not simply because a lot of her friends are great artists. It is not even because the original small 1983 show in her home was so diverse and vibrant. It is because she had an idea, a hypothesis, a structure on which to hang the work. It is not an exhaustive list but the show demonstrates that she completely understands that Portraiture is not the destination when an artist sits down or stands up to paint. It is the jumping off point, a reason to explore and express. Just as a great love song can transcend the person it was written about and be just as much about the condition itself, a great painting can speak to many people about the same heady experience and communicate much more than a superficial skin deep quality like appearance.

The exhibition starts with this painting

Giuseppe Arcimboldo
Oil on Canvas, c1527-1593

It is a brilliant way to wrong foot and disinhibit people of the notion that abstraction is a degradation, a modern notion that much like the Emperor’s new clothes is all a load of baloney. It is not. In this case it is actually a load of fruit. Arcimboldo is often lumped in with the mannerists because of the strong relationship between nature and humans in his work but he was also a product of the Renaissance. This was a guy born just eight years after Da Vinci. Summer uses only summer fruit in its depiction of a human figure and while it is not his best work (check out ‘The Librarian’ for proof that 400 years later Picasso did not only look toward Africa for inspiration) it reminds us that artists make faces not only as a way of sticking their tongue out at us but also as a way to communicate riddles. Riddles incidentally both those painting and those viewing may not understand.

Arcimboldo was commissioned by the court in Vienna but even he knew that life was about experience outside of the constraints of a frame and that he could use his work to do more than represent .His comments like many here enlighten us about the human condition, it’s absurdity and beauty, its dark canyons and bright prairies. The works are carefully and cleverly laid out with Plymouth’s own George, of Gilbert and George, represented by Exhausted a child like black daubed scrawl on sixteen panels behind Paul Neagu’s Ceramic Skull an Escher like honeycombed catacomb corridor full skull. The squareness of each anchoring them in place. Clive Barker’s Head of Francis Bacon is like a great nose on which a face lies and this is displayed near John Davies Dogman an acrylic head with eyes so lifelike that you almost forget the ludicrous proboscis below them.


Gilbert and George
Exhausted Mixed Media, 1980

Paul Neagu
Ceramic Skull 
Ceramic and Glaze, 1973

Clive Barker                                                                                            
Head of Francis Bacon
Bronze and Brass, 1978 


John Davies                                                                                         
Polyester Resin fibreglass and Steel, 1972

There are also two great Auerbachs here. Until the Freud exhibition I have to confess that I was not very familiar with his work but the two heads he has captured here are curiously exactly what you would expect after seeing Freuds portrait. The first Head of Bridget is charcoal on paper and the other Head of Laurie Owen oil on board, but in both his agitation is palpable. They both have rough torn edge borders with mounting holes apparent and evidence of being scraped right back. The Head of Bridget has her forehead rubbed away in highlight, the rolled paper stretched like sea foam where it has rolled together. In Head of Laurie Owen the same turbulent ocean is rendered though more geometrically in bold deep strokes, the gashes of dark sea, oil deep black and ominous. Owen himself looks like a strange homogenous hieroglyph of Robert Powell and Willem Dafoe, more manly, butch and Jesus like than either of them.

Frank Auerbach  
Head of Bridget
Charcoal on Paper, 1973-4

Frank Auerbach
Head of Laurie Owen
Oil on Board, 1971

There is a great little Freud Small Head on the opposite wall to Bridget and a Freud like gangster on the same surface in Nigel Henderson’s Head of a man. All violence, solidity and weight, the tension between the oil and photography that made it not quite resolved and hovering like the menacing aura of a dangerous human just above the surface. There is great contrast too. I love the frame of Sava Sekulic’s Napoleon and his Daughters the wooden board itself floating in a beautiful subtle box frame, the image itself resonating with my own early memories of the 1970’s as being predominantly brown but in a million different shades, where even seemingly mundane pursuits like making a macramé plant pot holder in Primary school are magnified by time into a towering achievement made magical by the fact that when disassembled even the vegetation free household could furnish three flare wearing individuals with funky belts. This is offset by Hew Locke’s shimmering psychedelic garden centre silhouette of the monarch, Jungle Queen II all New York graffiti yellow, pink, green and blues and David Whittaker’s The Year List a great crossroads of style at which traditionalists and fans of the less formal and more messy can meet and find common ground.

Lucien Freud 
Small Head 
Oil on Canvas, 1973-4

Nigel Henderson
Head of a Man
Oil and Photographic Processes on card, 1956-61

There is much to be commended in the way in which the work has been selected and displayed to give it cohesion, but the overriding sense is one of relief. Relief that the brevity has been finely balanced so as not to burden one with too much, but also relief that distractions have been left out and that in future maybe more curators will try to be as generous as Monika Kinley in sharing an idea without drowning us in sewer locations.

Sava Sekulic
Napoleon and his Daughters
Oil on Board, 1975

Hew Locke
Jungle Queen II
Mixed Media, 2003

 David Whittaker
The Year List
Oil and Acrylic on Canvas, 2012

Thursday, 7 November 2013

A UNIVERSAL ARCHIVE: William Kentridge as Printmaker - Peninsula Arts Gallery-Roland Levinsky Building -Plymouth University November 7 2013

Scribble Cat, 2012

There are artists who though they may use their work to portray characters and concepts still seek to remove any touch or inference from their own hand, and then there are those whose own hand is visible and evident in all their representations, be they of people, objects or even when they are working with abstractions and landscapes. Kentridge, here as printmaker, is firmly from the second camp, one whose hand is everywhere. He strides thorough this collection theatrically like one of his giant pylon legged characters, scattering his magic like, font laden confetti, a modern day Geppeto imbuing his work with the gift of motion, each silhouette or shadow, crackling with the busy hubris of life. You can tell that he is also an animator, and that as a set designer he understands both magic and show business, and his recurrent themes seem to be projection,processions, spinning circles, (33rpm vinyl records or 1000 mph globes),cats and the mechanical ephemera of yesterday.

Just as the outer edge of 33rpm record moves faster than the inner grooves, the South African Maestro reveals a calm inner spindle around which a seemingly chaotic bundle of characters and ideas are thrown out in all directions. He clearly loves paper and the page, and so deep is his devotion to printmaking that he often uses printed pages of text, ( along with vinyl records and maps) as the background upon which to impose his magnificent menagerie.

 Living Language Trees, 1999

Kentridge has said that his interest in the procession was sparked by Goya’s Procession of the Holy Office one of the black paintings replacing the murals in Quinta Del Sordo (the house of the deaf man) and while his procession avoids the problem of growing shadows from a forward marching group by transposing the travellers to a lateral plane, he does much to enlighten us in this illuminating exhibition. To understand Kentridge it is not essential that you have seen his animations or stage sets but it helps. 

Portage, 2000

For him art is there to arrive at a meaning without logic and reasoning, through signs and signals. Stupidity and crudity are for him necessary qualities to employ in the studio, not because of some wilful ignorance, but because he truly understands light and shadow and how it both distorts and reveals the world. We are participants in the show, for that is what exhibitions, however static they may be, are, and here we meet the artist and his art halfway. We cannot help but draw movement from the images because it is what they are in essence. The glyphs that populate his pages are concentrated reductions not reproductions. 

Twelve Coffee Pots, 2012

This is clearly demonstrated in 12 Coffee Pots where the figure that Kentridge has seen all along in the shape of the coffee pot is gradually revealed and then disappears again. He wants us not just to look at the image of the person he sees in the pot, but to join him in this journey. He is well aware that the artist is also a viewer and that self critical analysis is not a static thing. Constant re-evaluation may be a reason that artists often return to the same themes, forever trying to capture the elusive central nature of an object, it's soul, but he senses too that the real art lays in not just being able to strip away as much of unnecessary detail and leave in just a few marks, the unmistakable essence of it. No what really sets him apart is the ability to recognise that this gap, between an object and it's representation is where the energy lies, and not only that he affords us as viewers the courtesy of space in which to draw our own inferences. We have seen the familiar objects that he sees and we project our own interpretation back onto the image in front of us. Kentridge is aware of this shared space and the universal archive that he presents us with is all about light, projection, shadows and silhouettes. 

 The Nose 29, 2007-2009

He has spoken of the typewriter as "a projector of the written word"  and the tearing motion of removing paper from it is not so dissimilar from the action he uses is fashioning torn black assemblages and pinning them together in his magical animations. You can see these edges in much of the sometimes hilarious sketches and mock ups for his set design on Shostakovich's "The Nose", the figures traipsing across Portage and in the large imposing lino cuts of Walking man and Telephone Lady.

Telephone Lady, 2001
Walking Man, 2000

There is much kinetic energy here and a real sense of the South Africans' enigmatic personality leaps off the pages on which it is printed, and into that space within us all where we conjure up images. He is a great showman, but also a scholar and craftsman, and for all his knowledge and insight he is still not above meeting the viewer halfway. For that you can only applaud him and I for one look forward to what he does next.

 (Scenes from ) Ubu tells the truth, 1996-7

Tuesday, 5 November 2013

HIDDEN IN PLAIN SIGHT - British Abstract Art - The Hurdle Galley- Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery November 5th 2013

The last painting in the modest Hurdle Gallery is Marie Yates' Vertigo, a 2 dimensional stack of monochromatic hexagons out of which the preceding exhibition seems to have escaped. From the moment I struggled to find September, the 2011 sound piece from Plymouth born artist Keith Rowe, to the left of its label and mistakenly believed the black outline of a cupboard door, painted with the same white as the gallery wall, was some cryptic, hidden installation or “wall piece” operating as optical illusion, I too felt that I had been let into some subterranean basement dimension in which the cities alter ego finally stepped out into the blinding light of day.

Marie Yates

Oil on Canvas, 1965

While it is not true that all the art here was created by Plymothians or others living on the south western peninsula, it is true of by far the majority and all have strong links to a city not so long ago dismissed as chav town by the sea.  The emergence of a less self conscious Plymouth could be attributed to its playing host to the British Art show 7 “In the days of the Comet” in 2011, but the change has been coming for a long time and while the exact type of insect to emerge from order Lepidoptera‘s chrysalis is yet to be fully revealed, both this exhibition, and the Artists make faces triumph through which you have to travel to arrive at this one, are much more beautiful butterfly than dowdy moth.

While the Monika Kinley curated exhibition next door may have been presented in partnership with Plymouth Universities' Peninsula Arts, here it is Plymouth College of Art that looms large. Long before the Polytechnic morphed into the gargantuan behemoth that dusted the city with its shed scales, PCA, (which for a while flirted with the acronym, PCAD, before dropping the D for Design), led the way in igniting and keeping burning the artistic ambitions of Janners who had not flown off to London and the North. Along with those that studied and taught there are those from the Plymouth Society of Artists, the St Ives School and those directly influenced by them, alongside familiar giants of British art Patrick Heron and Barbara Hepworth whose work is synonymous with Cornwall, A county that Plymouth seems to have much more in common with than Devon, its geographical home.

Patrick Heron
Rectilinear Reds and Blues
Oil on Canvas, 1963

One obvious candidate for representing the incidental camouflage or mistaken identity shared by the city is the artist Beryl Clark. Unlike the other more familiar and well loved Beryl, Clark is all about, black metal and geometric lines. You can look as hard as you like but there are no cuddly matloes or rotund strippers looking out at you from the reflective shards in her work. Her work was shown in the same 1968 Plymouth Society of Artists Exhibition that featured White –Brown Advancing White by Plymouth born Lar Cann, who studied at PCA under Alexander Mackenzie another artist represented with his equally hard but far more brittle painting Manganese White. Mackenzie’s painting has to been seen on the board to appreciate the skilled controlled use of cracking of the mentioned white as a feature in its delicate and precise application and the contrast with the permanency of the solid black ink. Black as an element is represented throughout with the excellent Block and Brackets by Peter Thursby, standing like a monolithic engine block with its decoked shiny face staring proudly at the ceiling alongside Michael Snow’s Tower III, a blackened bronze stretched skinny structure that reveals the kinship the Manchester born painter felt with the art from St Ives.

Lar Cann
White -Brown Advancing White
Oil on Board, 1967

Alexander Mackenzie
Manganese White
Oil and Ink on Board, 1967

Brian Wynter is given the first space in the exhibition and it is fitting that his painting Pas is very symptomatic of a Westcountry approach. Previously engaged in kinetic works Wynter here, from his remote location in an isolated cottage on Zennor Carn, sheds the formality of his previous works, leaving in the pencil guides that marked the edges of the tiger stripes of his flowing abstraction. Like an ariel view of the tors on Dartmoor and Bodmin moor the fern like concentric contour lines are cut through by a mint green river or coastline and we are reminded for all its urban rigidity Plymouth has always been a product of its geography, a place where like Cornwall the river and the sea are at its heart and the hard lines of British abstraction are easily overgrown, assimilated and pre-empted by the banality of empty wilderness and deep cold black of the ocean.

Bryan Winter
Oil on Canvas, 1970

The exhibition is fantastic and should be seen by anyone with a desire to delve deeper than the predictable postcard portraits of Plymouth. The curator is not credited but should be congratulated on an excellent idea for a show brilliantly executed. I would also like to thank them for the accompanying notes and the most helpful museum staff who photocopied them for me.

Below from top to bottom - John Wells Variations 1961-1963, Julian Lethbridge Untitled 1991-1992, Ian Davenport Untitled 1989, Justin Knowles Three Reds with White 1967.

Sunday, 20 October 2013

EXPLORER -Jeongmoon Choi - KARST -Stonehouse Plymouth Oct 20 2013

From the first tentative scratches in charcoal on a cave wall to the airbrushed stencil edges of Banksy, the line has a long and venerable history in the world of artistic expression. Jengmoon Choi used to be a painter and very likely in the mode of many before her she would have, first of her own freewill, and then under the tutelage of others, undergone the experience of drawing. The desire to leave a mark delineates those who choose to make art and those who do not. Or does It ?

In Choi's latest installation in the back streets of Millbay, amongst black nondescript industrial units in the city of Plymouth, the audience are invited to partake as part of the work, figures in a new three dimensional landscape. Cast as explorer, people weave in and out of ultraviolet looms, their black shadows intersecting the white threads, shining as if electric blue in hue, like laser beams under the UV lights. 

TRON  jokes aside, the mainframe references soon shut down and the environment becomes more intimate.This is craft and one is reminded of string art and the parabola and parabolic sections we all made as children. You must remember the mathematics demonstration that used a right angle with numbers on both the vertical and horizontal lines that when connected with a ruler and some straight lines created a curve? There is an element of that here, but more like the thread based versions executed between pins on a black material covered board. It is an alternate reality like cotton 8-bit, one created with thread and not lasers, simple UV contrast and not holograms.

The intersections created with each net subdivide the gallery space and encourage the viewer to see the world anew. We are used to seeing the floor as one plane, and the walls as another, here the planes in between are highlighted as lines are drawn across them, confining and restricting our access to what is usually not contemplated and just dismissed as empty space. Gaudi is often said to have remarked that there was no such thing as a straight line in nature, inferring that only man in his brash and insensitive gauche thuggery could be responsible for something as garish as railway lines and as vulgar as steel girders, the ugly underwear of skyscrapers. This architectural fallacy is confronted here as it is on the drawing boards of architects in planning offices the world over, where three dimensional space is rendered beautifully and faithfully into wire framed blueprints. 

 The idea of a projective plane was invented by the ancient Greeks who tried earnestly to find a simple and beautiful answer with which to model a chaotic world. In Geometry the idea is that you have two lines and at some point they intersect unless they are parallel in which case they never meet at all. This was not quite simple enough for the Greek Geometers, and so they suggested a Universal theorem in which they introduced a third line, the “line at infinity” so that all lines now met and connected at some point, even if it was far away on the infinite horizon.

Unravel the edge of a circle, lay it out and you will find a straight line. Choi has here revealed that beautifully above the limestone caves that run under the Karst gallery in Plymouth’s Stonehouse. Children run about in and out of each hyper real den as their parents step more warily attuned, as we all are, to the artificial idea of boundary and the gallery space. There are no red ropes or taut wire here, telling you where your place is in the art world, but rather an inextricable desire to navigate the space within the installation is interwoven into the very fabric of the concrete gallery in which it is housed. Turning off the lights has removed all that cold oppressive white and the warm black underbelly of Plymouth’s underground is revealed. It took a Berlin based Korean to mine such a seam, but she has done so magnificently and caught more than the obvious regurgitated driftwood heritage of this emerging coastal city in her entrancing net.