Tuesday, 30 August 2011


Victoria & Albert Museum
Signs of a Struggle: Photography in the Wake of Postmodernism
© the artist, courtesy Maureen Paley, London
This photograph, nearly life size, sets up an unusual relationship with the viewer. Three adolescent girls are in a gracious dining room. But this is no ordinary group or family portrait, despite the fact that we are told the girls are close friends and well known to the artist, and the setting is the family home of one of them. They don't look at each other, nor do they gaze out at us. Are they bored, thoughtful, distressed? Is this a moment captured in real time (photography’s great strength)? Or are they posing for the camera?  Is the girl on the left really distressed or is she as she is, in order to give us the warmth and pleasure of seeing her glorious Mary Magdalen hair?  In other words, are we witnessing a performance choreographed by the artist? Or not?

Perhaps the clue is in the title. It refers to the place, not the people, suggesting a tableau rather than portraits. This picture is part of a project begun in 1996 with the help of three teenage girls, Camilla, Rohan and Stephanie. Jones has photographed them in two of their parental homes, large, comfortable houses in a village in middle England. I am reminded of Nicholas Nixon’s The Brown Sisters, a fascinating series of portraits which reveal the gradual changes that come with time in four women in his life: his wife and her three sisters. He photographed them every year for over 30 years.

In the background are symbols of wealth and status: the nineteenth century portrait mounted in a heavy gilt frame and prints of men hunting on horseback might be ancestors.  A clock face in a housing resembling a classical temple; a marble fireplace and an ornate ceramic tureen on a large silver platter – which not everyone has -  are central to the picture.  The tureen and its reflection, which momentarily suggest claws, are powerfully placed. The dark space underneath the table takes up a quarter of the picture, pushing us back. Among it all, the girls light up the room with orange against the blues. They look spick and span, echoing the room’s polished and well-ordered appearance - but they are unimpressed by it.
© the artist, courtesy Maureen Paley, London

This is an earlier photograph The Dining Room (Francis Place) I  1997, which comes from Tate Britain. The notes say that the images are carefully set up, the furniture often rearranged and studio lights used, enhancing the staged atmosphere. The result is something between a staged pose, gesture or gaze, and a person’s individual character.

Why is it in an exhibition with postmodernism in the title? Because it likes fuzzy boundaries between genres, it's laid back and playful, it's ambivalent about history and tradition and because it enjoys uprooting and examining our taken-for-granted assumptions about art.


 hwww.fraenkelgallery.com    (for Nixon's Brown sisters)

Monday, 29 August 2011


BITE: a new show of artists making prints

I chose Central Station first because of its beauty, its strength, its economy and its ability to surprise. And I wanted to know more.

It was first shown in Sarah Hendry’s exhibition - Learn from the Old -at the Russian Cultural Centre  in Glasgow last year. The title comes from one of the works of an early 20C Russian woman painter, Varvara Stepanova - Study the Old but Create the New.

I remember in 1999 going to the Royal Academy's Millennium show of wonderful paintings by Russian women artists of that period, which we in the West had never seen. It was called Amazons of the Avant Garde.  Stepanova was among them and she has been a significant influence in Central Station. 

Hendry's brief for last year's exhibition was to create a body of work that combined her interest in propaganda and Russian avant garde art with what was going on in Glasgow, a town twinned with Rostov-on-don. In Central Station the mixture appears in subtle ways. The blue, red and white print in the background is taken from a Stepanova fabric print intended for use as a uniform in post-revolution Russia. But in a way Stepanova herself  is the 'fabric' that unites Russian and Scottish cultures. Overlaid are images of Glasgow Central Station – hence the title. 
The station was built in 1900 and must have opened up opportunities for the expansion of trade, industry and personal freedom. Its  solid and apparently unmovable structures are combined with Stepanova's dynamic shapes and patterns.  Stepanova was also feeling the momentum of current changes to life in Russia, and was trying to communicate the hope  of a glorious future. Feminism pervades Hendry's work. She reminds us that women were strongly present in all spheres of social change in Russia in the early 1900s. There had been equality in marriage legislation since 1860. And being a wife and mother was not the only option. Some were marching, implementing social change and making amazing art through paint, print, literature and theatre. Unlike most other countries, in 1914 30% of students in universities were women. Artists were generally said to be  ‘West End girls and East End boys’ i.e. girls were of higher social class, so equality 'balanced out'.

Hendry says ‘ I feel these references to revolution in artworks are very relevant today....I feel that we are teetering on the brink of some major social changes right now in the UK’.

Monday, 22 August 2011


                    TATE BRITAIN                                                 

This sculpture consists of six dollies which the artist found in the King’s Cross area. What attracted him 'was partly their absurdity.' A ‘dolly’ is a tray on wheels. It can be anything from a heavy metal trailer  attached to a truck, to a plastic base which slips under heavy container pots when you want to rearrange your patio.

Here the dollies are thwarted from their intended purpose of being helpful. Their power as object subsides, we see them instead as colour, for they are topped by acrylic sheet and brilliant reflective enamel paint. They glow and glisten. If you have to see them as objects, on the floor of Tate Britain they are more like sly skate boards, hoping you’ll hitch a ride. Especially with a title which refers to a station offering opportunities to spin off  to a thousand different destinations.

 David Batchelor's art invites us to reflect on how we  respond to colour in a technological and urban environment. His studio is said to be a treasure trove of everyday plastic objects - clothes pegs, fly-swatters, buckets, spoons,  toys, empty bottles from all over the world. Light-industrial materials such as steel shelves, commercial lightboxes and neon tubes, turn them into installations which invite us to look again - and then celebrate with him the ordinary, the lurid and the ramshackle. 

In the last few years he has produced site-specific work in London at St Bart’s Hospital, Tower Bridge and, thanks to the Arts Council, a 10 metre high light installation, Big Rock Candy Fountain, at Archway tube station. He's currently showing at the Saatchi Gallery.

His hypnotic, beautiful, patterned work distils colour in a unique way. I’m reminded of my excitement when as a child I opened the lid of the paint box from Father Christmas and saw lozenges of pure colour. I knew I could use them in any sequence and see what happened. (Nothing did, but I enjoyed the process). 

I’m also reminded of Jim Lambie, another Scottish artist who takes ordinary objects and transfigures them, liberating the energy of colour. I haven't  been able to trace his work in London at the moment.

P.S. This is my second blog with Kings Cross in the title. The first was Alex Cave’s painting (blog number 67) where the viewer is plunged into clutter and excitement as buildings shatter and merge when Kings Cross, Euston and St Pancras join the party.


Monday, 15 August 2011


Cork Street Open Exhibition

I chose this beautiful painting from among the 200+ artworks on display partly because it poses so many questions.

The perspective is striking.  Where is the viewer standing? Too low to see the whole building, so do I  have to imagine the lower storey – and maybe a basement? And where is the pavement? Am I standing on solid ground? Perhaps the house is tilting  backwards? Who lives next door? What sort of street are we looking at? Do those busy fire escapes mean we’re looking at the back of the building? If it is the back, what’s the front like? 

If the stairs are arrows directing us out of the picture, the solid geometrical street lamp puts a stop to that with a reassuring light. Because the artist doesn’t allow us to linger around the building. The stairways and the lamp post and the triangular attic windows point us onwards and upwards.  Then we are sailing through a beautiful iridescent blue which fills most of the painting, its purity untroubled by clouds or smoke or birds or any other diversion.

The economy of colour and design and structure is perfect, but this is not an abstract pattern. One house has a door ajar and some windows are open. Is someone going to step out onto a balcony? We're glimpsing a mini neighbourhood, a community.

 ‘All my work originates from the idea of community, the towns and structures we build, and the way we shape and destroy the natural and urbanised landscape’. But there is optimism in the air, especially in that stunning blue sky.  The artist describes herself as interested in maps and aerial photography and ‘looking at things from a multi-layered perspective’. This means  showing ‘the shape of the environment as it changes, diminishing in one direction, growing in another’.

copyright Deborah Jane Batt
I tracked down one of the artist’s abstract works on the internet. The title echoes the title of the painting above: Community 2-5.

Bottom of Form

Saturday, 13 August 2011


Acrylic on canvas
94 x 195.6 cm
My experience is this: when I look at abstract paintings, while absorbing their chaos and their drama, my mind races off in search of an explanation, even a narrative.  What does the title say? Does it help me interpret the work? Does 'Estuary' anchor me to the real world of tidal flows, wetlands, and changing patterns of clouds and reflections? And why ‘Phenomena’?

Paul Jenkins’s paintings invite the viewer to do something different, to ‘let go’. His intention is to addresses our unconscious mind, since he believes in our need to ‘repudiate the arrogant claim of the conscious mind to be the whole of the psyche’.

Phenomena Wind Column acrylic on canvas  93.3 x 52.1cm
I chose these two works from an exhibition radiantly full of blazing, flame-like shapes and colours. I chose them while reflecting on a link between the title and the canvas.  The puzzle deepens in that in 1959 he began to preface all his mysterious, shifting spaces with the prefix  'Phenomena', followed by an identifying word or phrase. What does that add?

Paul Jenkins’ work is said to belong to no group or movement. The story of his long life, (he is now 93), illustrates a serious and mindful journeying (or pilgrimage?) across continents. There he met and engaged with celebrated artists, art-dealers and critics, philosophers and poets. His intellectual and spiritual search was matched by his interest and experimentation with painting techniques and materials.

I think he has not been served well by many of those who write about his work. On the one hand some admirers spice up their comments with words like ‘magical, primordial, shamanistic’.  He even seems to have a legendary birth story attributed to him, linking his bold use of colours with the fact that he was born during a lightning storm in Kansas City.

But others cannot take him seriously: his work is ‘too pretty’ or ‘too lyrical’.   Where is the gloomy seriousness of the American Abstract Expressionists?  Where, they ask, is the threat and drama? They want a ‘knife among the flowers’.

I bought a Paul Jenkins lithograph in 1998 and it never ceases to delight. I like the translucent veils of colour and that intense jewel-like purity you usually only get in stained glass windows. He  manipulates paint until it is radiant.

The Tate Gallery has one of Jackson’s paintings - Phenomena Yonder Near 1964, but I don’t know if it’s on display.

Catalogue: Paul Jenkins: paintings 1960s and 1970s, introduction by Michael Peppiatt, available from The Redfern Gallery



Friday, 12 August 2011


Cork Street Open Art Exhibition

This is a painting of something unremarkable, the like of which we have all seen thousands of times. As far as I know the hedge doesn’t belong to some grand estate, it’s not a rare species, it’s not sculptured or manicured, no celebrity is painted beside or under or in it. There is no narrative to speculate upon. It’s not there to be decorative, it’s probably a working hedge, a useful hedge, which keeps some things in and others out. It’s just a hedge.

But what a hedge! The picture is, in the words of one of the judges of the exhibition  ‘sublimely beautiful’.

The hedge gently encloses us and at the same time presents a barrier - there’s no way through. Yet it allows us to look up and out far into the distance, even to the heavens. The fields and hills and sky are drained of the vibrancy and colour they’ll wear in the summer, but the hedge is painted in nuanced colours which entice you into the picture, exploring depth and darkness.  It may be nothing more than bundles of bare sticks, yet it’s almost as soft and crafted as a nest.

It was selected to be among the 200+ works of art chosen by a panel of four judges to show at the Cork Street Open Exhibition. This is an annual event to showcase work of emerging and established artists, and to raise funds for a charity. This year PAPYRUS, a charity dedicated to prevent young suicides, will be the beneficiary.  

The trouble with this kind of painting is that it’s hard to find words which do not get in the way.  Poets do it better. Baudelaire said

Nature is a temple in which living pillars
Sometimes give voice to confused words;
Man passes there through forests of symbols
Which look at him with understanding eyes.

For the rest of us it’s probably the moment to be silent and still and stay with what we see.


Wednesday, 10 August 2011


Cork Street Open Art Exhibition 

This piece is a highly realistic sculpture of a basketball inside a conker shell. I say ‘basketball’ with some confidence, having consulted my son-in-law as to whether it was a football or a rugby ball. What’s more he guessed the letters added up to ‘Spalding’, an American firm whose claim to excellence is a little more outspoken than that of British Derwent's pencils, but the message is similar: ‘from the beginning it was all about being first, being the best… being what others could only aspire to become. Established by Boston Red Stockings pitcher A.G. Spalding in 1876...etc'.

This sculpture has been expertly realised, it’s eye-catching, it’s fun. And it’s a paradox. A ball is designed for tough treatment - for throwing and bouncing, aiming and catching – but this one is so fragile that one ill-judged movement could cause it to crash and crumble to pieces.  A ball is smooth, pleasant to handle and cradle, but this one comes wrapped in prickles. Thirdly a sculpture is still, immobile but this piece suggests movement – the case or shell is halfway through the job of protecting the seed and letting it go out into the big wide world to procreate and multiply. The sculpture doesn’t appear to have any inherent commentary or message, which you may want art to have.  Instead it’s a beautiful, witty piece of design. 

I think one of the reasons why I chose Divide and Conker is because I own a life size ceramic of a conker in its case, created by Lorraine Taylor and Nicky Smart of Penkridge Ceramics. This is a Wallsall firm which creates ‘ceramic still lives’. Their fruit and nuts were chosen to form part of a display at the National Gallery recently, in conjunction with the painting Adam and Eve by the Flemish artist Jan Gossaert. 


 Cork Street Open Art Exhibition for Charity

Do not be put off by the limitations of a small image. This artwork is exceptional. It consists of hundreds of wooden pegs each adorned with an exquisite miniature pen and ink drawing. It’s a sort of cityscape: we glimpse chimney towers, scaffolding, lacy bridges, pylons, street lighting, aerials. And windows come in patterns: Regency,  Victorian,  Brutalist,  arched, square, some  blind-black, others letting the light in.

The magic of Metropolis lies partly in its changing perspectives. The tiny drawings look at us as if we’re standing at street level looking back and up at them. But our eye also travels like a bird over the top, taking in the excitement of a whole metropolis. We notice that some pegs stand in soldier-straight rows as if in a tidy street, while others are higgledy piggledy, nudging and competing for space the way that  real buildings do.

Metropolis won the prestigious Derwent Drawing Prize. (Derwent have been making pencils in Cumbria since 1832 and reckon they’ve perfected the art). One of the judges, Martin Newman, said that it was quite a radical decision to give the drawing prize to Hanna ten Doorkat's work as it includes sculpture and mixed media.

I saw the piece at a very special annual exhibition with two aims: to showcase over 200 works by emerging and established artists, and to raise funds and highlight a particular charity. This year the focus is on PAPYRUS, an organisation dedicated to preventing youth suicide. What this exhibition offers us is a huge range of  styles and subject matter,  all energetically competing for our attention and affection. Not so easy to be dismissive of ‘contemporary art’ after you’ve walked round these galleries.

Tuesday, 9 August 2011


Echo Lake 2305 x 3605 x 50 mm
 Tate Britain

When I first saw Doig’s work in 2008,
I wrote:
I do not love thee, Dr Fell,
The reason why I cannot tell;
But this I know, and know full well,
I do not love thee, Dr Fell.
-except that I substituted 'Peter Doig' for Dr Fell'.
The verse was said to be made up on the spot when the 17C satirist, Tom Brown, was threatened with expulsion from his Oxford college by the Dean, Dr Fell. It's a translation from Latin: 'Non amo te, Sabidi, nec possum dicere - quare; Hoc tantum possum dicere, non amo te'.
Brown was forgiven.
I went on to write what I didn't like:
  •  your saccharine, chemical colours
  •  your eerie  ordinariness
  •  the way your refer to things I've never heard of
  •  the solitude and abandonment
  •  above all your open-mindedness so that, unlike in a history painting, the viewer has to provide the story.
A year later I changed my mind  after seeing Hill Houses, the second picture below. I can't include it as my chosen picture as I don't know where it is at the moment, so have chosen Doig's Echo Lake at Tate Britain.

It’s difficult to do justice to such a  large painting  when here  it's scrunched up into an image measuring a few centimetres. We have a man in a white shirt,  dark tie and trousers, who has stepped into the edge of the lake and his ankles are sending ripples which disturb the gloomy stillness of the water. They are spreading towards us. The low perspective gives us the unsettling feeling we are looking back at him from the surface of the lake, rather than the safety of the distant shore. The man’s arms are raised to his head as if he’s shouting into the night. His pale face is blank, mask-like. Some may be reminded of Munch’s The Scream.
This pastoral scene is disturbed by a sinister  American police car which squats behind the man and to the left. It too appears to look out onto this lake of strange, earthy browns. Those who know about such things say that Echo Lake is  loosely based on scenes from the 1980s horror film Friday the 13th. Doig  sometimes paints from photographs, including his own, and  uses film, posters, post cards and album covers. He also makes reference to art history. Nothing too specific - more a hazy collective memory. 

The bottom half of the painting is a blurred mirror image of the land above: an echo. Images reflected in water are common in Doig’s paintings. He has observed that ‘reflections function as entrances to other worlds’ .

He writes ‘Often I am trying to create a ‘numbness’...something that is questionable, something that is difficult, if not impossible, to put into words ... I think the paintings always refer back to a reality that we all have experience of...'
Hill Houses
My conversion in 2009 began when I saw Hill Houses, part of the British Council Collection: ‘a frosty mirage that whiffs of narrative and memory, beckoning beyond the unframed canvas to something as un-contemporary as Monet's Water Lilies...through the mistiness, the view takes us by surprise, as if swooping into the windscreen of a car as it races over the skyline. The road, a big vertical stripe, ought to guide us into the scene, but instead forefronts the flatness of the picture plane. Telegraph poles are blurry, not so much pacing out the landscape as shimmying across it. Only in the top third is distance suggested - pinprick windows, a tail-flick of road. It is a meeting ground for the sublime and the kitsch, where sentimental markers, those marzipan houses and fairytale pines, effectively strike a match against the terror of the wilderness’. 

I'm grateful to Dorothy Feaver for that quotation. She speaks about the painting  brilliantly on: