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


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