Tuesday, 24 May 2011


I've walked to 79 works of art to make 79 blogs in the past 9 months. In fact there have been rather more visits then blogs, because sometimes I judged that the art wasn't worth it or the gallery was closed or the exhibition had just ended or I couldn't get an image.

And now for the next couple of weeks (Icelandic volcanic ash allowing) there'll be no more blogging as I'll be on the remote Greek island of Symi....

Looking back to my first entries I realise how indebted I am to those who run our wonderful free national galleries: in particular the staff at the National Portrait Gallery, the Imperial War Museum and both Tates. If they had been unfriendly I would probably not have continued. They thought it not at  all odd to take time to send me images and to help me with the rules of copyright and attribution. What's more, I found I was allowed to take pictures of their permanent exhibitions. That - plus the lucious outdoor sculptures of  Kapoor - propelled me into buying my first camera.

It hasn't been all plain sailing. Sometimes going to a commercial gallery needs courage.  You may need to search for it in the dark and the rain on a late winter afternoon. It's a rule that they don't signal where they are - just a discreet sign way above eye level or an inconspicuous plaque on the wall. Then you have to fathom out the electronic entry system, or there may be an unexpected doorman who sweeps you inside. The first thing you discover is that the place is empty, except for an attractive young person (usually a woman) who is clearly paid to pretend you are not there.You pick up a press release and perhaps a price list on her desk and she doesn't bat an eyelid. I suppose it's called discretion. If you ask her a question she won't know the answer but is likely to know someone who does and gives you an email address. If you mail, you may get a helpful answer or you may never hear another word or you may be added to their list of guests at the nexr private viewing. Her main job is to press the right switch to let you out as you walk towards the door.

Sometimes I contact the artist direct. It's exciting to be corresponding with someone across the world who's really pleased to be featured. Nothing is predictable. I found some watercolours in an otherwise empty shop window which is part of a medical centre. I didn't think they were exceptional but it was an interesting use of space for art so I contacted the artist whose details were on a card in the window. No response, yet he was clearly wanting to sell. I also saw a seascape at the Mall Gallery which, judging by the price, was by a relatively unknown artist. I loved the picture and really really wanted to include it. I think I emailed three times but  heard nothing. I still mourn the painting.

Sometimes it's like visiting old friends, work by people I have admired for years, maybe read their books, heard them lecture or joined in a seminar.  It's a limitation to have to exclude work you have to pay to see. There's a current exhibition by Tracey Emin I'd love to include. Normally I'd like to include the short list for the Turner prize, which this year the lucky people of Gateshead will see. But I'm encouraged that I must have recognised a good thing when I saw it : Nothing is a Must by Carla Black, (my sixth blog) an artist unknown to me when I  visited the Saatchi gallery. is there in the list with a chance of the prize..

That reminds me - hats off to the Saatchi gallery! It produces for £1.50 a b/w catalogue of each exhibition featuring a small photo of each work, with accompanying text and an alphabetical list of artists at the back, each with a small biog. It's perfect. All other art catalogues I've met are beautiful glossy treasures, large enough to be flaunted on a coffee table or hurled to the ground as a door stop. And very expensive.

Lastly, the current edition of THE WEEK has a section on its Health & Science page about the thrill of art appreciation. MRI scans show that when a sample of people looked at what they considered to be the most beautiful of 30 paintings, the part of the brain associated with pleasure increased by as much as 10%, which is the equivalent of the response evoked by looking at a loved one.. The sample chosen were selected because they had little knowledge of art and so were less liable to be influenced by the latest trends.

Just off to hear the latest forecast of where all that Icelandic ash is heading....

Monday, 16 May 2011


Empire of Lights Rene Magritte
There is something about images of houses with lighted windows  which I cannot resist. (If the red spots marking sales at the Royal Academy Summer Show are anything to go by, nudes and cats are far more popular).  Above my desk I have a print of the enigmatic The Empire of Lights by Magritte. On another wall is a black and silver poster showing one of Gilbert Fastenaekens’ unsettling nocturnal images. You gaze down on an empty courtyard overlooked by windows, one of which is lit. Washing is still on the line, broom propped againt the wall, a watering can abandoned. It’s like a silent empty stage set from which actors have been banished.

Jupiter Rising by Judith Green
oil and graphite on linen laid on panel 38.5 x
25.5 cm

Jupiter Rising is a beautifully proportioned picture, a juxtaposition of ordinary houses in an unusual context, austere yet luminous, with a limited but enchanting palette of colours. There’s no narrative to rattle around in your head. You are silent, waiting, listening to its calm beauty. 

But what does Judith Green’s painting mean?
‘It does not mean anything, because mystery means nothing either, it is unknowable’, says Magritte...’for me the world is a defiance of common sense.’
 John Berger opens his seminal book Ways of Seeing with ’Seeing comes before words. The child looks and recognises before it can speak,...We explain  (our)  world with words ...yet  the knowledge, the explanation never quite fits the sight‘.

Living Under Blue Skies XI - oil and graphite on linen laid on panel, 20.5 x 41.5cm

And here in the Medici Gallery is one of Green's landscapes: Living Under Blue Skies XI. Every 21C artist has a dilemma. What does she do following on from centuries of exquisite quintessentially British landscape painting? Green simplifies, declutters, calms us down. She edits what she sees for the sake of inviting us into a meditation on time and place.

I noticed some puzzling titles around here.  Jupiter Rising can have many resonances. And in several of Green's series of Living Under Blue Skies paintings, there isn't a great deal of blue sky around. On the contrary  the land seems to press the sky almost out of the picture. And I haven’t even mentioned that Green is one of four artist invited to show in an exhibition entitled The Geometry of Painting. Does this mean we should foreswear shock and horror and ambiguity, and be reassured by a sense of things in their rightful place? If that sounds dull, in the Medici Gallery it isn't.

Tuesday, 10 May 2011



Question: What do a shield, a wasp, a buddleia, a  sword, a spear and a mace have in common in Tate Modern?
Answer: Gilbert and George

Gilbert Proesch (born in Italy) and George Passmore (born in England) met at art school in 1967. For over 40 years they have adopted the identity of ‘living sculptures’ in both their art and their daily lives. One of their early works was ‘Underneath the Arches’, when they posed together for long stretches — up to eight hours —barely moving just miming to a record of the music-hall song of that title. Was this a sculpture or performance art or something else altogether? 

What exactly is ‘a living sculpture’? Here are their own words:
‘Being living sculptures is our life blood, our destiny, our romance, our disaster, our light & life. As the day breaks over us, we rise into our vacuum & the cold morning light filters dustily through the window. We step into the responsibility-suits of our art. We put on our shoes for the coming walk. Our limbs begin to stir & form actions of looseness as though without gravity they bounce about for the new day. The head afloat on top levels on the horizon of our thoughts – we like it because we’re so stupid, artistic & shy. Because we have come from nowhere & where we go nobody knows.’ (A Day in the Life of George & Gilbert the Sculptors 1971). 

In time they began to make pictures as a way of extending the idea of living sculpture so that their physical presence wasn’t necessary. ‘We are there like the viewer is there’, they said. Deatho Knocko  was one of their earliest large-scale works. It's a mild example of their perverse sense of beauty and appetite for unsightly things, things most people come to art museums not to see. And Death/Dead recur in their titles: ‘Dead Boards’, ‘Dead Head’, ‘Death Hope Life Fear’, ‘Death March’, ‘Death on Hope with Love’, ‘Death Over Life’, ‘Deatho Knocko’. 
With a tutor and group from City Lit I once visited them at their house/studio. There is an astonishing and unforgettable congruence between their life and their art.
In 2006 I stopped (at the Hayward Gallery, I think) to watch this Gilbert and George  black/white video with its liquid transparent quality, which should be viewed, it says, on high contrast. I don’t know why I found this so compelling. Perhaps it was Fingal’s Cave (always moves me to tears) being played by their next-door installation: ‘Gordon’s Makes Us Very, Very Drunk’.or perhaps it was the fragility of the faces, the slightly lowered lids, the cigarette slowly lifted to the lips, the stillness which allows you to stare – a thing impossible to do in real life.

Monday, 9 May 2011



‘     'You could describe art galleries as the history of the rejection of the domestic’, said  Andrew Brighton in a study day on the AT HOME WITH ART exhibition at Tate Modern in 2000. After all, a work of art is unfathomable and you can interact with it forever. But an object has a beginning, a middle and an end. You select it, use it – and walk away. Closure.

           What then are Richard Wentworth's two chairs doing in Tate Britain? They’re joined by a cable threaded through their seats, from which hang two lead balls, weights at the end of interconnecting cords. South American gauchos (cowboys) use bolas (balls) like these to capture animals by entangling their legs. Here each chair ensnares the other. What we most ask of a chair is stability, and these are useless. All they can do is roll against each other.

  But there’s more. These are mass-produced functional stacking chairs (though now they can’t even do that properly). John Ruskin ‘look at the (furniture & objects in) the room about you & denounce mind-numbing mass-produced perfection which came out of man’s slavery (to a machine)’. Oscar Wilde said you should have nothing which was not a joy to those who made it & a joy to those who use it,’

Is it true that we prefer to have around us things with meaning? Are goods things to think with? Do clothes, for example,  have an instrumental function (keeping us hot/cool/dry) AND an expressive function, (telling the world who we are)? Until the 20C chairs were often passed down through families or crafted by someone you knew. They had an auto biography and you shared their history. Not any more. Walter Benjamin pointed out as early as the 1930s and 40s that ‘new furniture and houses celebrate glass and materials which are hard and flat, nothing settles on it. It makes for rooms in which it is difficult to leave a trace, so eliminates domesticity.
Wentworth is an inveterate collector of discarded objects, keeping them hanging around in his studio in the hope that they’ll help him create something imaginative, fresh, even witty and unsettling.  When I saw Yellow Eight 1985  it was ‘filled’ with a mirror cut to fit the pails exactly so that it looked like water.

Wentworth has played a leading role in New British Sculpture since the end of the 70s. 'I live in a ready-made landscape', Wentworth remarked early in his career, 'and I want to put it to use'.  His work has changed traditional definitions of sculpture. By putting together things which bear no relation to one other and by taking everyday objects and materials out of their original context, he breaks down our traditional classifications  and stretches our understanding.

 Wentworth gave up making sculpture for a while in the 1970s, thinking that it had become 'as dry as broken biscuits'. He said  'humour is trying to find pockets of breathable air in a stifling atmosphere...I hate the way I work, the anxiety in waiting for enthusiasm to meet method, material to meet image, idea to meet language'. 

Amen to that. Sometimes ‘being creative’ works, goes well. More often it’s a diet of dry biscuits. But as long as there are people around like Wentworth to point out things like ‘a plate is the only object where you get your own & the minute you have finished with it it’s someone else’s’ (which he said at the study day in 2000 which I began with), life will never be dull.

Thursday, 5 May 2011


Walk into room 5 of Energy and Process  on Level 5 at Tate Modern and you’ll see this large puzzling metallic structure dangling from the ceiling. It seems to flourish in a room which is just a cube of air. It’s said that Merz’ works ‘appear to grow like plants or grip on like living creatures’.  

Marisa Merz finds meaning in the spiralling coiled organic forms of everyday life. She made this work by winding and clipping together thin strips of shiny aluminium. I’m using this picture because, although the colour is inaccurate, it best represents how Merz has made something solid, palpable and three-dimensional, yet at the same time fragile and tranquil.You walk round, see it from different angles and make your own connections. The sinuous shapes may remind someone of life underwater.  Cylinders may look like giant paint tubes crushed underfoot. Perhaps it  battle-ravaged armour?  And are those ‘arms’ cradling other pieces,  or holding them up high like joyful trophies?  Mert gives us no answers. She maintains that her work has no social or narrative context.  It’s just ‘organic shapes, symbolizing the continuum of growth, transformation, and progress' which is at the core of her thinking.

She and her husband Mario were part of the revolutionary Arte Povera movement centred in Northern Italy (Marisa was the only woman artist in this movement). I'm told that 'Povere' is best translated as 'frugal' rather than 'poor'. It  tackled established categories one after another until they came tumbling down. Artists used lowly everyday materials, including the synthetic – not for them the lapis lazuli or the exquisite marble artists had used for centuries. 

Some tried to integrate art with real life by using living plants, animals, even people. Rules and conventions about what was the ‘right’ size or an appropriate location for a work of art were ignored. It maintained that art need not be permanent and welcomed the temporary, the fleeting, even the ad hoc.  Above all it challenged Western Europe art’s assumption that art could only be practiced by professional specialists such as painters, sculptors, goldsmiths, and engravers.  Instead it honoured works of art which needed little or no technical skill, or skills found in daily life.

For example, in 1968 Marisa Merz began knitting nylon or copper threads into delicate web-like works such as simple geometric shapes to fit her body.  Knitting is associated with female domesticity, where manual skills are widely distributed and raw materials abundant, but her action was part of her commitment to social change and the radical role art can play in society and culture at large.

‘There has never been any separation between my art and my life’, Merz famously said.