Friday, 31 December 2010


Detail from Ben Johnson, Preparatory drawing for 'Looking Back to Richmond House'', 2010, superimposed on the geometry of Canaletto's The Stonemason's Yard © Ben Johnson 2010. All Rights Reserved DACS

NATONAL GALLERY Glad you liked it. Would you like to share?



There are just three paintings in Ben Johnson’s exhibition, Modern Perspectives, in Room 1 of the National Gallery. They are cityscapes of London, Zurich and Liverpool. Photographs taken from the rooftop of the gallery helped to shape the London panel, shown here. The geometry of the painting was also influenced by Canaletto’s Stonemason’s Yard  on display in a room nearby. Like Canaletto, Johnson manipulates the topography to create an ideal view. The cityscape is half real, half imagined.

A crowd of us stand quietly behind a barrier in this smallish room to watch Johnson and his assistants working, Each section is painted using an overlay of vinyl stencils which are cut out by a computer from drawings made by hand on the computer. The term for removing the stencils is 'weeding'. Although the preparation is a team effort, all the paint in his vast palette is mixed and applied by Johnson himself. As we watch he works away, drawing us in,  reminding us ‘that every work in the museum is the product of people getting their hands dirty and often the product of collaboration’.

I begin to feel restless. Watching an artist at work is absorbing, but how can I  get past the process and into the picture? ‘Stand in front of the painting’ Ben Johnson is quoted as saying, ’Approach the physical reality of paint on canvas with an open mind and a new subject should arise...a  subject or image should dissolve and be replaced with the reality of now – of being in the present moment using just paint and canvas as an object of concentration. The image is just an illusion. The experience of observing is a reality’. 

I can’t do that with work-in-progress because it’s too busy, so I turn away to the picture of Zurich hanging on a wall close by. The note says that the canvas took the artist and three assistants two years to complete. It’s a city I know and love, shown pure and true under a clear blue sky. It’s hyper–real, a term I first heard in 1993 when Philip Harris won the BP Portrait Award First Prize with his astonishing painting Two Figures in a Shallow Stream. Meticulous detail means that textures, surfaces, lighting. colours, all appear clearer and more distinct than in ‘reality’.
Nothing stirs in this Zurich. People, traffic, the changing shifts of weather are all absent and what is left is space, silence, stillness. I notice a 6-paned window half lit, half in shadow and feel the sheer pleasure of the warmth of the sun. A solid river Limmat, usually frisky, bisects the painting and flows into the lake.  Shimmering water it undoubtedly is but it is present, ‘there’, in a way which is difficult to describe.

            Johnson is quoted as saying his paintings are ‘an attempt to find that still point in the turning world TS Eliot searches for in the Four Quartets'. I think it's something most of us search for in our more reflective moments. 'The paintings are about orientation and grounding, about a certain contentment you feel in an exact place at an exact time under exact light'. 

Tuesday, 28 December 2010



 As I walk to Gimpel Fils the snow, which earlier had been floury and fluffy, has turned into pellets the size of pine nuts which settle on my faux fur coat. I see Irvin’s work every day because one of his prints, Merrion, lights up our living room.  When I met the artist some years ago at a Caroline Wiseman Gallery party, I asked him if Merrion was a Welsh name.
 ‘No, Irish,’ he said, ‘I named it after a Dublin Square I walked across every day when I had an exhibition at the Royal Hibernian Society and was living at Trinity College.’
A young man with a shaved head came up to us. He said he’d just bought one of Irvin’s paintings (not, like me, a mere print).  Irvin asked him ‘What do you do to keep the wolf from the door? ‘
 ‘I write software for banks'.
Irvin turned back to me, ‘As your husband is a man of the cloth, I can tell you a story I don’t often tell. There’s a Welsh clergy couple who are convinced I’m sent by God. I said I wouldn’t go that far, but they say ‘We love the energy and colour and beauty and vitality in your paintings. They remind us of what the world can really be like, what’s there if we have the eyes to see'.
Inextinguishable, acrylic on canvas. 214 x 305 cm  
A catalogue quotes  Henri Bergson's version: What was mobile and frozen in our perception is warmed and set in motion. Everything comes to life around us…we feel ourselves uplifted, carried away, borne along by it. We are more fully alive…’ .

 So I’m standing on a frosty morning in Gimpel Fils in Mayfair. There’s no one there. Even the office/reception is behind a split wall. But the place is a riot of energy. Spectacular paintings are exploding round the room on the pale walls, changing, becoming, moving, growing . Irvin gave up painting big canvases some time ago but here he is back again. It looks like the work of an extraordinary young energetic artist who is truly in love with painting. He has no assistant and has to rely on his own muscle power. It took three months to paint.
Back at the party I went to a few years ago, the gallery owner joined us and announced to Irvin that in New York she could sell anything done by the YBAs (Young British Artists).She smiled and said ‘Shall I turn you into one?’
Irvin is eighty eight years old, but the spirit within him is truly inextinguishable. › News › Obituaries          
Paul Moorhouse in his Albert Irvin: life to painting said that  'walking into a room of Irvin’s paintings is like entering a crowded restaurant where you immediately sense the atmosphere – lively, celebratory- but where do you sit? That’s the moment you’re drawn in…'
Mary Rose Beaumont: Albert Irvin: the complete prints 
Fiona Maddocks; article in the Royal Academy magazine (Winter 2010)


Monday, 13 December 2010


After a celebratory family lunch at the British Museum, two of us slope off to find some contemporary art...this feisty driver and his dashing moustache and his tram are exactly right. The colours are pure and bold, the shapes abstract – it’s a flag-waving sort of picture. 

And why is this plate in the British Museum? His tram is the kind which revolutionised Russia’s transport system in the 1920s and the plate is here to celebrate it. In 2004 the Vice President of Moscow’s Integrated Energy Systems (IES) visited the Museum and was so inspired by its splendid collection of commemorative plates dating back to the 1920s, that he commissioned twelve new ones. A year later they were ready to mark the 85th anniversary of the electrification of Russia, linking current achievements with the past.

So where is the 1920s set of plates? We find them at the other end of the gallery where there’s another surprise. The plate on the right will already be familiar to many because it's Number 96 in The History of the World in 100 Objects. (By chance Number 97 is Hockney’s In the Dull Village, about which I’ve already blogged). It was designed by Mikhail Adamovich in 1921 and shows a purposeful man, clothed in red, in his hand a hammer ready for any nonsense, his feet trampling KAPITAL on the rocks, thus releasing the dynamic forces of industry for the benefit of workers.

The story of the plates begins after the Russian Revolution in 1917 when the Imperial Porcelain factory at St Petersburg was nationalised. Before then its products had gone exclusively to the Imperial Court. If you turn to 

you will discover the intriguing reason why Adamovich's plate is so special and why it was chosen.
The art director appointed after the Revolution had the factory painters retrained and called in new designers. He welcomed different artistic traditions such as Russian folklore, classic history painting, and Futurism from Italy. The new Suprematist style of abstract shapes and pure colours drenched in feeling was introduced by the artist KazimirMalevich. There’s a collection of medals nearby too, paying tribute to advances in power, energy and engineering around the world. People who work in those areas are often invisible until something goes wrong. It’s good to see them in such spectacular limelight.

Monday, 6 December 2010


Victoria  Rance has been involved for some years on works of art for St Andrews, a community and worship space opened in 2006 by Princess Alexandra. It’s on the site of one of several Waterloo churches destroyed by the blitz in World War II. Last week I heard Rance say that in some ways a church is better than a gallery for an artist. Why? Because in church you are expected to respond to what you see. But unlike traditional church art, contemporary art doesn’t force itself on you.

In setting up the commission the vicar, Richard Truss, had stipulated that any art work had to be free standing and movable, as every space would have many uses - worship, community activities, orchestra rehearsals, parties, youth work and theatre rehearsals (the church is in Southbank).  He visited Vance’s studio with Rosa, the oldest member of the congregation, who noticed a sculpture woven from fishing line which she liked. You can see the end result: an upturned boat made of forged steel which has been sprayed with hot copper to add warmth. Blue glass balls are woven into the pattern, hinting at fishing floats and the sea itself (St Andrew was a fisherman). The upturned ‘boat’ also echoes a mandorla, a niche found in church walls which frames figures of Christ, the Virgin Mary and saints in traditional Christian art. The window is Rance's too.
These are the drawings for the other outstanding work: the baptismal font placed in a small walled courtyard outside the worship space. It is mysterious,  neither flower nor fruit nor seed pod, but that curve is tactile, warm and mysterious. The fluted top is at arms’ level – just right for handing a baby over. It’s unusual to have christenings outside. ‘What happens if it’s raining?’ ‘We get wet, which seems not inappropriate for a baptism’. Everyone files out and in that intimate space each person, even the children, get to see both the font and the action. 

Saturday, 4 December 2010


This is Arcadia 1 2007, one of two exquisite wall paintings in the current exhibition Bridget Riley: Paintings and Related Work at the National Gallery. It floats on the wall, boundless. Not bundled  up into a neat rectangle. It’s vital, free, and exuberant. The imagination rides the waves, soars over the landscape colours. Indeed the wall itself looks less than solid.

Yet the paint is flat, matt, uniform, and utterly still. If you go to see accompanying films in the Sunley Room cinema, you get a close up of her assistants painstakingly applying paint centimetre by centimetre and you hold your breath in case a hand should waver ever so slightly.
Riley wanted to demonstrate the relationship between her work and the National Gallery Collection so she asked for a selection of paintings from the Gallery’s collection to be included. They are  Mantegna’s Introduction to the Cult of Cybele to Rome (1505–6), Raphael’s Saint Catherine of Alexandria (about 1507), and three studies by Seurat. It was the Mantegna which gave me the same sense of optical illusion – I had to stand by the gallery wall to look back along the painting to make sure that I was looking at something two-dimensional painting, not a relief with carved or modelled forms. 

Mantegna reminded me of Movement in Squares 1961, the first painting I saw of Bridget Riley’s - black, white, straight lines, repetition, what was there to like? But I knew I would never forget it. Each step you took gave you a new view so there wasn’t ‘a picture’ to see, but myriads of them. In 1996 I used the design (with permission) as a catalogue cover at Church House, Westminster.  
One critic looked back at ‘the queasy fizz of 60s’ painting', but Bridget Riley describes what was really going on:
(In the 60s) We looked back to an imaginary past long before the war, & it was attractive, so we endured the war by colouring in a picture book of dreams & longings about the future .The  60s provided a present where temporal tensions were released. The result was an explosion of confidence & optimism, elation & drive which at the time seemed completely normal  
READY, STEADY, GO, Painting in the 1960s, Arts Council Collection 1991

Three years ago the Hayward show ‘How To Improve the World: 60 years of British Art’, looked back on what was ‘arguably the most fertile era in British art’, when artists made a global impact by registering changing attitudes to politics, economics and culture. Movement in Squares was there. Fifty years later Arcadia demonstrates Riley's gift for  creating a distinctive vocabulary of shapes and colours that is continually evolving. › ... › Hayward Gallery Exhibitions › Past

Wednesday, 1 December 2010


  CHARING CROSS UNDERGROUND STATION 1.12.10... awash with art. Its walls are covered with large images and uplifting words from the National Gallery and the National Portrait Gallery, both close by. Even better, when it was refurbished in the late 1970s, the artist David Gentleman was commissioned to make a 100 metre mural to commemorate the building of the first Charing Cross, dedicated to Queen Eleanor.

 Eleanor married very young and was crowned Queen of England at her husband Edward I’s enthronement at Westminster Abbey in 1274. One chronicler said about Eleanor of Castile, "To our nation she was a loving mother, the column and pillar of our whole nation". The records show they were a devoted couple - she even accompanied him on a crusade in 1270. When she died in 1290 at a village near Lincoln, the King was grief-stricken. He wrote of a wife "whom living we dearly cherished, and whom dead we cannot cease to love." He ordered a cross to be erected wherever her coffin had stopped on its funeral procession to London, the last of which gave Charing Cross its name. 

Gentleman researched  the methods, materials and tools used in the 13th century wood engraving to produce a mural which shows step by step - as if in a strip cartoon -  how  the original cross  was built. He starts with quarrying the stone (which came from Corfe in Dorset and Caen in Normandy) and finishes when the topmost pinnacle is set in place. In lively and graceful groups, workers carry out their daily tasks: quarrymen, rough hewers, masons, mortarers, layers, carpenters, thatchers, scaffolders, labourers, falcon or crane men, apprentices, hod-men, drivers, horsemen and boatmen. Women are there too.  Now each day thousands walk along the Northern line platform also going about their daily business, with job titles just as varied but unlikely to be so graphic.

Gentleman celebrated his 80th birthday this year with a show at the Fine Art Society in Mayfair.  It included some achingly beautiful watercolours. Over the years he has given us lithography and wood engraving as well, logos, postage stamps, coins.His daring  political and environmental protest posters are also well known, though not necessarily the name of the artist who designed them.  Three books of his books are among my most treasured possessions: Paris (Seven Dials), Coastline, and Britain  (both by Weidenfield and Nicholson).

Monday, 29 November 2010



I’m standing under a brick railway arch in Vauxhall. It’s the Arch Gallery, one of three  spaces converted by the Beaconsfield Gallery out of what was once the London Ragged School ( said to be the school the film star Charlie Chaplin once attended – he certainly lived close by). On the wall of the gallery at the far end a video is projected which is exciting enough, but the music fills the space and travels up from the floor through my feet and fills me too. I can hear a tangy sound, like an anvil - metal, heat, energy. The experience is beautiful, inexplicable, visceral.

I’m watching young people dancing in a disco – or are they fleeing? And what about the colours drenching the screen? I am innocent of any technological knowledge so I’m free to imagine. The image comes to mind of the artist using a scalpel to slice the original colours into their constituent parts. You know as a child that when you mix blue and yellow you make green and that’s that – no going back. But Dean has conjured up hues by parsing and mixing and then brushing them on with the fluidity of water colours.

But what is the video about, I ask? I must have slept through 1984 because The Terminator passed me by. Fortunately I have my two daughters beside me. I gather that someone or something marches through a jolly disco and he or it is not full of the good intentions one would hope from a stranger. What I didn’t see – but my daughters point out – is that the way the colours change have technological overtones such as infra red vision and thermal mapping. And are those skeletons you can almost see through the flesh as it is stripped away in fleeting moments? We walk a few hundred yards back to my daughter’s house and within a couple of minutes my son-in-law gets up on his screen a Hungarian clip of the film. From my daughter’s description he pin points the exact tiny fragment (1.75 seconds) Dean uses on a continuous loop.  

Like Christian Marclay  Dean appropriates film clips and re mixes sound, but he also, as they say, ‘takes up a position behind the camera’.  This work is called Christian Disco/Terminator. He was recently ordained in the Church of England, and the breadth of his experience shows in the way he refers in his conversation to two charismatic Christians as diverse as Martin Israel and Gladys Aylward (one an Anglican priest the other a lay woman) signals someone to be heard. He says he focuses ‘on the most fundamental aspects of the human condition...I am interested in the relation of contemporary art and religion, but do not recognise any shared language with which to discuss this – at least, not at the level that either discipline requires. I might be wrong, of course. In any case, my work is driven by this question.’ 

The exhibition offers visitors the opportunity to view the range of Mark Dean’s art works made over the past twenty years. This includes Experimental Religion – an audio recording of Gladys Aylward preaching mixed with Ingrid Bergman playing Aylward in a Hollywood biopic and How Can You Mend a Broken Heart linked with 1 Corinthians chapter 11 verses 23-26. There’s even a tempting still of the head and shoulders of Sid Vicious with his eyes shut entitled Open Your Eyes. What is there to resist?

Mark Dean’s exhibition The Beginning of the End will run until February 13.


OUTSIDE TATE MODERN Holland Street 29.11.10

One day, no doubt, we shall all delight in the new iconic building bringing more space for displays, study and leisure to Tate Modern. In the meantime you have to weave your way around the building works and dodge the traffic. To celebrate the beginning of this enterprise Swedish artist Martin Karlsson was invited to create London – an Imagery 2008-2009, drawings printed on weather-resistant vinyl attached to the 100-metre hoarding that encloses the works. Karlsson took as his starting point the engravings of Gustave DorĂ©, who, with Blanchard Jerrold, produced a comprehensive portrait of the city – London, A Pilgrimage - published in 1872.

A River Side Street 2009 Pencil on paper
24.2 x 19.8 cm
I have passed these delightful and heartfelt pictures many, many times, feeling a glow of appreciation but not slowing my step. Why? Perhaps because everyone walks purposefully to or from the Tate on a narrow pavement. To stop and stare would mean people would have had to walk round me or step into the traffic.

Today I stop. And stare. They are pictures entitled Borough Market, Under the Arches, Bull Dogs and Poplar Dock. The drawings are blunt, to the point, and ineffably generous, even affectionate: the woman walking away with a bargain in her basket, the man whose dogs may have other things on their mind. But I have another inhibition to overcome: Tate visitors have Serious Cameras. I take out my cheap camera which I still don’t know how to use properly.  I take the wobbly photograph below.  

The figures often have their backs to us, which is how it should be, for they are Everywoman and Everyman going about their daily business, unaware of us.  A refreshing non-celebrity culture. They’re a celebration of the fact that each morning us Londoners open our front doors and step out in safety into a city where we mingle with tens of millions of  strangers, drawn from all over the world and speaking hundreds of languages. Occasional skulduggery and thuggery do happen, but here in Karlsson’s drawings is the true London.

After I’ve taken my photo I look around. Other people have stopped too. They are scattered along the pavement enjoying the drawings. A group with several cameras is poised in the road. Do we believe a thing is only worth looking at if someone thinks it’s worth photographing?

P.S. Don't miss the video clip of Karlsson talking about the project at  


Saturday, 27 November 2010



There was strong opposition to this window in the early days of planning. Houshiary, the artist who won the commission, commented 'The brief would challenge and test any work of art'. The design selected by the St Martin's Advisory Panel was rejected by the Parish Church Council and only accepted after not insignificant changes.  It took two years to get all the necessary permissions before the work could start.Opus Operandi, who oversaw the project on behald of the church, reflected that it was one of the most controversial commissions they'd handled. Now it appears that several of the strongest opponents are happy to tell the vicar publicly they were mistaken.

To see it if you are in Trafalgar Square, turn your back on Lord Nelson, the lions and the fountains and go up the steps into St Martins in the Fields church. At the east end behind the altar, holding the space most tenderly is Houshiary's window (made in collaboration with the architect Pip Horne). It replaces a window installed following World War II bomb damage and has been described as 'one of the most significant pieces of religious art  commissioned in modern times'.

The window is made up of small panes. The surprise is that there is no colour. The glass, held within a stainless steel framework, is made of mouth-blown clear panels etched on both sides with a subtle feathery pattern derived from Houshiary's paintings. The panels graduate from a periphery of more transparent glass to a denser, whiter centre. Slightly off centre is an elipse, lightly etched, which stands out as a stronger source of light. It's tilted slightly to one side and the tiny panes spread away to suggest a cross. If you stand below the window to one side and look up, the window appears to bend like a gentle wave - or a Bridget Riley painting or one of Anish Kapoors' mystical sculptures.

 The leaflet at the back of the church says that the Old Testament story of Jacob's Ladder was a possible starting point. The ladder linked heaven and earth by standing firmly on the ground while touching heaven ,and angels were busily engaged in going up and down. So too here in the church light floods through and gives us a shadowy image of the world outside: some trees, a grey building, dissolving the barrier beteen inside and outside. The glass itself seems to be reacting with the light outside, so that it shimnes and glimmers, dulls and glows. It's hard to put into words.
 'For me there's no distinction between consecrated space and other spaces, as I feel the whole world is a sacred space.' (Shirazeh Houshiary)

Thursday, 25 November 2010



I’m standing in the middle of a poppy field. To be fair, it’s more of a rectangular space drenched in floor-to-ceiling videos of poppy fields. And not poppy fields as you and I know them: cheery, scarlet carpets ruffled by the wind. For a start the poppies are as tall as I am, or taller. Each stalk, stiff as a ram rod, is topped by a tightly packed bomb full of seeds. There are a few petals left fluttering, like white flags of surrender. Despite what the picture shows, the colours are mostly faded bronze, khaki and sleepy grey-greens. As you can see, any person in front of you throws a ghostly shadow on the screen. The images float in and out of focus. It is very powerful. There is a folding stool in case you feel the need for a little sit down...

The Wellcome Collection - - has an enviable reputation for mounting world-class exhibitions. High Society examines mind-altering drugs, past and present, reminding us that over the millennia human beings have been vastly imaginative in their use of them: as medicines, sacraments, status symbols, to investigate the brain, to inspire works of art, to encounter the divine, or simply as an escape. And drug users have variously been described as sinners, weak-willed, criminals, deranged or diseased. The show also addresses our current anxiety as to whether, in the light of history, we are in the grip of an unprecedented level of addiction – or not? 

There are at least three ways of enjoying High Society.

The Joshua Light Show will please those who appreciate an approach which is both aesthetic and visceral. Their videos are kinetic sculptures of great beauty and power. 

The pragmatist and historian can pore over documents, instruments and paraphernalia like Coleridge's 'Kubla Khan' manuscript; a description of a ship’s crew's experiments with Bhang - a cannabis drink - in 17th-century Bengal; a bottle of cocaine eye drops; and a hallucinogenic snuff set from the Amazon.

For those who can take their information neat there is a further art work: Painkillers by David McCandless  It’s a wall map which at first sight looks like a calm pastel Mondrian painting but turns out to be a lucid, elegant and pleasurable way of answering more questions about the world-wide economics and distribution of drug use than you knew you had. To see more examples of this kind of work go to

High Society runs until  February 27. Mike Jay the co-curator has written an illustrated book. 

Saturday, 20 November 2010



Where is the picture?

           Alas, this is the first time I have had difficulty in getting permission to reproduce an image with the correct attributions and without charge. The Hockney Foundation requires a fee of $150. This blog is run on a moneyless economy. The good news is that you can see the picture for nothing in every bookshop in the land, because it’s on page 634 of Neil MacGregor’s brilliant book The History of the World in 100 Objects :Or go to the BBC website of the Radio4 series :

Or cross the courtyard of the British Museum, up the steps and into the lift at the back of the building and see the real thing on the fourth floor in Room 90: 

I chose In The Dull Village because it’s a landmark image for this country.  It was a courageous act to publish it in 1967, just as Parliament passed the Sexual Offences Act decriminalising homosexuality. It’s a decorous picture of two young naked men lying side by side in bed, covered by a blanket up to their waist, one of a series of etchings inspired by the Greek poet Constantine Cavafy who found inspiration in an ancient Greek world where love between men was an accepted part of life. 
I’m also intrigued by the wider question of what beds are for when artists put them into pictures. Sleep, rest and talk is what most people in bed do, for most of their time there. But as Tom Lubbock pointed out in The Independent, when artists signal a bed you can usually be sure there’s trouble ahead: seduction, revenge, a passing god surprising lovers when they’d rather hoped no one had noticed, a passing assassin with a dagger, someone wanly dying - or just plain dead. But Toulouse-Lautrec's The Bed, painted in 1893, shows two young people, probably women, looking warm and snug under masses of heavy bedding, somewhere deep and safe, just drifting off... It’s a beautiful picture, as is In The Dull Village, both celebrating everyday life and loves and friendship.



Mysterious as shadows ten carved, larger-than-life wooden figures crowd together behind a young man carrying an older man on his back. They stand on a low wooden platform. 
For centuries the church used art to transmit a tightly controlled message. Not any longer. Pacheco’s title refers to the story of Aeneas rescuing his father from the ruin of Troy and the work is multi-layered and ambiguous. Perhaps it’s a story of asylum seekers? Or maybe it’s speaking to society’s contemporary terror of ageing, depicting how we are all forced to carry around the seeds of our own decay?

Pacheco grew up in Brazilian streets where polychrome statues were paraded at religious festivals: She knows she creates visceral art, not dependent on any one intellectual conceit. She invites an active response from each viewer. Indeed she seems to implicate us. Why not walk around this untidy group, she seems to say. This is more here than theatrical artifice or melodrama.

You could say the central figure is Everyman. Or John Bunyan’s Pilgrim. Eyes down, alert, concentrating on the next step, he suggests fortitude, resilience, courage, Could he be an Amnesty poster? The older man who gets a piggy-back, like a child, is vulnerable, dependent, poignant. The two men are trapped in an unknown predicament. Their vulnerable bodies hint at some tragedy and remind the viewer afresh how strange it is that one human being can hurt another. The sculpture’s earthiness fits the Christian tradition which makes the heavenly manifest in the here and now.

When I move on to walk round the group and gaze up at individual figures, I think  Tolstoy and Dickens. But there’s no single narrative here: each character is locked in their own history. Their stories may be tender, powerful, frightening or compassionate – the absence of gestures means there are few clues.  But you can feel the controlled violence. With parted lips as if to cry aloud, one man stares at father and son. Is he sounding the alarm? Or shouting abuse? A woman turns her head away, but she is rooted to the spot. The onyx eyes of another shine brightly. Could it be tears?
In earlier sculptures Pacheco used nails as hair, referring to a Congo belief that nails are hiding places for people’s souls. Some figures here have porcelain teeth made by dental technicians. The skin tone is achieved by blending an emulsion on the surface, like make up, working fast with cotton wool buds. The art critic James Hall talks of sculpture now being closer to play, bringing in real objects and non-art processes. They connect with the viewer’s real world, closing the gap between art and artifice. 

A decade ago the crowds thronged Trafalgar Square when Pacheco showed her amazing Dark Night of the Soul at the National Gallery. Now the tens of thousands of travellers from all parts of the world who daily pour in and out of Waterloo station opposite St John’s Church, have a chance of encountering a work which is equally powerful and exhilerating. George Szirtes, writing in Modern Painters, says Pacheco ‘offers no contract, no solution to a deeply wary and disbelieving world’. But, he continues, she helps us to live in a world ‘where there are no black and white moral issues heroes’.A church is probably not a bad place to reflect on this.

Post Script:
A few years ago at a Tate seminar I asked why Pacheco’s sculpture was not represented. After a couple of not-very-interesting replies Marina Warner came to my rescue, saying to the panel effectively, ‘Come off it, this is a serious question. Plenty of foreign born artists have made it over here. Carrington’s sculpture is not represented at the Tate, nor Leonora Tanning who was a major surrealist. The trouble is that irony is not present in their works. And nowadays knowingness is endemic. Pacheco does not fit the current fashion’.

Thanks, St John’s, for bringing her back to London. 

Monday, 15 November 2010



I first saw Marclay’s work in 2002 as part of Mike Ricketts’ Art Now course at Tate Modern. Video Quartet is a collage of synchronised film clips transferred to colour video and audio track on four huge screens standing side by side. Marclay uses either the original music/voice/sound effects or inserts other found sound, such as car horns, tapping feet and glasses being filled with water. It begins quietly with tuning up, moves into a crescendo, then cacophony and finally calm. The music is said to suggest 'the poetry & chaos of contemporary life, personal & anonymous, free & suppressed’. When I went back later people were having a great time dancing in the gallery.
This month Marclay has been back in town.  The White Cube Gallery - - which lurks in Mason’s Yard, Piccadilly, is the sort of building which amplifies whatever state-of-mind you bring to it. On good days it’s as fresh, exhilarating and breath-taking as an ocean gale.  You reel around as if on a deck awash with new ideas.  Today it’s just a square of  cold steel, concrete and glass stripped of colour, sharp edges and corners, bare walls and lots of steps to climb and re-climb (lift not working), plus reception staff  who, for reasons known only to themselves,  have hit on the device of pretending no one’s there.

Down, down into the basement and a pitch black cinema. A charming young man with a torch offers to find me a seat.  I can no more call him an ‘usher’ - with its hint of trays loaded with choc ice cream and pop corn  - then I can designate  the large comfy settees scattered randomly over the floor as ‘cinema seats’, for they do not tip up and are neither  scanty nor hard as a rock.

There is no starting time for Marclay’s 24 hour video. 'The Clock' is a collage of thousands of fragments of cinema at moments when time is expressed or a character interacts with a clock, watch or anything telling the time. They are woven together so that they flow in real time: I know I arrived at 10am exactly because it said so on the screen. But swiftly it’s a few seconds past 10 and I’m caught up in a vast current of narratives, settings and moods within the space of a few minutes. Time and place unravel all over the screen: b/w and colour, film noir and Tony Hancock; tenderness and cruelty lie cheek by jowl. Some events are more  clock-dependent than others so heists, job interviews, funerals and kidnapping are more popular than ,say, childbirth, marriage proposals or heart attacks. It’s bracing stuff.

Normally I go to a cinema and consent to be transported by a narrative (or non-narrative) anywhere at any time: past, present or future. When I come out I may be surprised that it’s dark or raining, as if I had expected my real time to be suspended. With The Clock the position is reversed. The viewer’s time is rooted in the here and now and is as predictable as ever, but it is stuffed full of countless fictional events -  punctuated by stabs of personal memories of films and actors and settings already known - which appear to be going on while she is sitting in the cinema. As I said it’s bracing stuff.