Sunday, 30 October 2011


Detail from Homage to Anonymous, 2011. 


This is a heart-warming story. The winner of this year’s prestigious Jerwood Prize for Drawing
  • a little-known artist who spent nearly a year working on his picture (115cm x 175cm), using a pack of ten budget ball point pens. He says they were ‘perfect. I could not use them if they kept running out, they just last for ages’.  American artists of the 1950s inspired him - they painted using cheap tins of emulsion.
  •   ...used the backs of posters as his ‘canvas’. ‘When Woolworths closed a few years ago, I went in and asked if I could have their shiny advertising posters. On one side they have the details about the final sale and on the other there is my artwork. It really was about cutting costs’.
  •   ...could not afford to frame his work for the competition so he rolled it into a tube and posted it.

Lawrence drew Pothea, the main town on the Greek island of Kalymnos.  He had other artists' views of towns in mind, especially El Greco’s View and Plan of Toledo (1608-14), seen here. Topped by magnificent clouds, the city below is gloriously depicted without strict regard for topographical accuracy. For example, El Greco moved the Hospital of Don Juan Tavera to the centre so that the facade could be shown without blocking out other important buildings.

Lawrence, like El Greco, has given himself permission to re-style Porteo. It’s not hard to see why. I’ve never been  there but the Greek island of Symi nearby, which I know well, is mentioned in Lawrence’s painting by a handy compass point. Symi was built in ancient times atop rocky mountains where there was a better chance of fighting off invaders.  In later slightly safer centuries houses and markets clustered round the harbour. The old and new are linked by kali strata, a ‘main road’ of about 400 broad gracious steps lined by houses, shops and cafes.

But if you stand at the harbour and look up expecting a view of the island, all you see is a picturesque and partial jumble of buildings which make perfect sense when you walk among them but look from the ground as if a peevish child has emptied out a toy box.

The lower third of Lawrence's picture is in the largest scale – people sprawl on sun loungers, there’s a row of socks on the washing line, you can peek inside windows. Most of the rest is an exquisite drawing of Porteo’s buildings (seen best in the detail above) re arranged so that you can meander down its tiny streets. An avenue of trees is seen from above, the branches like tiny capillaries among the foliage. To the right the harbour is splayed out like a carpet. It hums with tiny people and their traffic. 

There were 60 shortlisted artists in this year’s competition,  chosen from more than 3,500 entries. Lawrence studied for a  BA Fine Art at Portsmouth Polytechnic (1978-81) and then got further qualifications in Illinois.  He’s suffered rejection in other competitions and ‘didn’t hold out much hope’, but the £6,000 prize money is his.
Homage To Anonymous is dedicated to ‘all the anonymous artists through history who made work but are unrecognised’. 

Wednesday, 19 October 2011


Getty Images Europe
I love Tacita Dean’s films. Usually I’ve seen them in a smallish, darkened gallery, silent except for the purr of an out-of-date projector. I especially enjoyed her work on the lone yachtsman, Donald Crowhurst, whose abandoned boat -  but not his body - was found  600 miles west of the Azores when he was competing in a round-the-world-race in 1968. He left behind confusion, fake logs and a sad tale of improvident ambition. The case was brilliantly analysed in Glin Bennet’s book Beyond Endurance .

Again and again in her work Dean reflects on the frailty of human endeavour,  on entropy, and the poignancy of shifting values and aspirations washed out by time. Dean said she had imagined Crowhurst’s wrecked yacht in the writings of J.G. Ballard, who for her  ...summons up a time when our everyday will become out of context; when our descendents will read votive meaning into our sports stadiums & race courses; when nothing will be understood by the totems of today.’

In FILM, Dean confronts time head on.  FILM is about the death of film: ‘This beautiful medium, which we invented 125 years ago, is about to go,’ she laments. ‘How long have we got? I hope we've got a year left. It's that critical’.  She minds this very much at a personal level because ‘Film is my working material and I need the stuff of film like a painter needs the stuff of paint’. But also because ‘A vast and incalculable amount of our culture will no longer be properly available to us’, as digital formats take over, demand for film declines and technical knowhow and equipment vanishes. There’s no consolation in its transfer to a pixelated screen either, because so much is lost.

But I have a problem.  I walk into Tate Modern and see FILM projected onto the east end of the Turbine Hall, making the most of its giddy height. It looks like a strip of celluloid film flanked by giant sprocket holes lighting up the Hall with a stunningly beautiful spectacle. Now Sunday afternoons in the Turbine Hall are noisy and fidgety. Although FILM only lasts 11 minutes most people sit restlessly on the floor or come and go on the few benches at the back. Children and adults prance and dance close to the screen to see their own reflections washed over by a wave or a leafy bough. Interaction is not new at Tate Modern, of course. We’ve danced in front of Christian Marclay’s videos, trudged through WeiWei’s sunflower seeds (on the opening day) and laid on the floor to appreciate Eliasson’s Weather Project. But this work needs time, reflection, even meditation.

Becasue it is hard to see what is happening here. You see a work with no narrative, subtle,  full of potential, of wit – it’s alive.  It’s celebratory and playful too and I hope it will be very popular. But you only encounter the richness of the work when you’ve read about it in newspaper reviews or in the free leaflet available for the asking at the Information Desk or bought the catalogue. Otherwise you could be forgiven for not realising the artist’s passion – to show what we are losing, how film captures light, colour, movement and depth in a way digital cannot. Will Gompertz, BBC’s Arts Editor, puts it this way: ‘It would be a great loss if digital became the great squirrel of the arts’.

Ps As for obsolescence, it’s good to remember that the Turbine Hall was itself a disused power station before finding a new lease of life as a gallery. 

Friday, 14 October 2011


Royal Festival Hall

 This raw and disturbing painting was not automatically accepted for display. It's one of perhaps a couple of hundred artworks - paintings, sculpture, music, textiles, drawings. craft, written word, calligraphy, drama, photography – all created by prisoners, offenders on community sentences, immigration detainees and secure psychiatric patients across the UK. 

 The selection was made on behalf of the Koestler Trust, founded 49 years ago by Arthur Koestler, himself three times a political prisoner. Every artist gets a participation certificate and about a third receive an award ranging from £20 to £100. This painting won for Terry Nokes, from HM Prison Downview in Surrey, the Angela Findlay and Ruth Taylor Highly Recommended Award for Innovative Female Painter in Oil or Acrylic. The artist keeps half of the proceeds if the work is sold, the remainder going to Victim Support and the Trust itself. 

The doubt about showing it centred on ‘sending the wrong message to the public’. But in a capacious exhibition of this size there is space for everyone. Anthony Joyce’s A Light at the End of the Tunnel’ won the Sir Stephen and Winifred Tumin Bronze Award and is a beautifully painted long view of a prison interior illuminated by a magnificent window. An anonymous prisoner from Wandsworth won the Kenneth Harper Highly Commended Award for Textile Art with Cupid’s Garden, an exquisite circular quilted and embroidered piece full of affection and delight.  What is striking is that the materials used do not come from an expensive kit bought in a store and pre-planned by experts. The artist has used what is available, achieving an individual and authentic symmetry and colour field. It reminds me of equally lovely work I’ve seen at the American Museum at Bath.

But back to the nightmare scene above. What is at once disconcerting is the way the eye moves around looking for some respite from the pain which bleeds from this picture. Scarlet everywhere, not just slapped on the frightening walls but seeping down to spread across the floor. Where will it go next? It splashes all over the place, even lands on the dog’s testicles. The green-eyed dog stares out of the picture, expecting nothing from the human. It looks as if it’s bred to scare but is simply sad.  Such a large, lardy lump with spindly legs threatens no one.  And what on earth can we see in the oven? On the stove something is boiling over –  a hand sticks out and there’s a glimpse of an animal’s head with green eyes. I think of witches’  brews, of terrible  legends where children are cooked and unknowingly eaten by their loved ones.   Even the tiled floor seems to slope downwards, as if to tip the nightmare out onto our laps...

I’ve scanned in another (even poorer) image which shows the rest of the canvas. Through the open door on the left yellow curtains are billowing and below them a couple of puppets,their strings visible but not the hands which manipulate them. A man and a woman, each frozen in an awkward, painful pose. Is this a hint of domestic violence? Most disturbing of all  is the black  shadow behind the figure. What disfigurement caused those two holes?

And beneath all this is the question: is the figure who grips our attention the perpetrator or the victim of this terrible violence? Or, as happens so often in real life, someone whose past has included both those roles? 

Tuesday, 11 October 2011


Two and a Half Dimensions
Pangolin Gallery

But is it Art? What does the title tell us? Malevich was an artist who, almost a 100 years ago, painted Black Square on a White Ground : a pure black square with no picture, no perspective, no illusion. It was intended to cause a storm in the world of fine art – and it did.   Malevich wanted a complete break from old ways of doing art, to turn the clock back to zero and introduce a new movement in Russian painting: Suprematism.

He chose black - why is it so special?  Goethe called colour ‘troubled light’, and black is probably the most troubling colour of all. You could say it's just a surface which gobbles up all the colours of the visible spectrum.  But it seems to have a special aura: black market, black sheep, Black Death, blackmail. The artist Paul Klee wonders if our reaction is so deep because it dates from the time when our ancestors hadn’t tamed fire in order to use it to light up the night. They must have spent a large proportion of their lives in what is now unimaginable total blackness.  It suggests human vulnerability, times when we cannot see or control that which might harm us. If burkas, now banned in several European countries, were pastel coloured or prettily patterned would there be the same reaction?

So what has Adam Walker made of all this? he seems to find that even a totally black painting manifests too much order, too much simplicity, too much discipline for its own good. So the canvas is violently attacked and ruined (although it cannot help itself from forming out of the tatters pleasing silhouettes, shadows and shapes). And the paint is no longer applied by skilful hands. Instead it's released to spatter and scatter, skidding out-of-control down the wall.

But here comes the interesting bit. Paintings are two dimensional, sculptures are three  The exhibition at the Pangolin is called Two and a Half Dimensions, showing work which slips in between that gap. Malevich is not simply a painting. There's a glass 'vitrine' at its feet, reflecting back the painterly. It's a cube, the picture is a square; both are grappling with riotous black paint; both have been desecrated. This is especially shocking because a vitrine is usually found in a museum or laboratory or as a china cabinet containing something too precious for ordinary life.  It is intact, probably locked -  and never on the floor, the place associated with dirt and dog bowls; where broken pieces end up and dropped items need washing.

It reminds me of Armand’s Condition of Woman 1960 which I once saw in Zurich. The contents of his first wife’s bathroom bin are treated majestically, displayed in a glass vitrine on top of an ornate antique cabinet, shaped like a human body.

Is Malevich art? It’s conceptual art which at its best  need not offer beauty or majesty or permanence. On a good day it can re arrange the furniture in our minds.

PS When I was a student, social anthropologists were  fascinated by how some traditional societies viewed the pangolin, or spiny anteater. A nocturnal toothless mammal with scales, it existed outside  their normal categories and was given the respect (even worship) due to something so original.
A wonderful name for an art gallery.
Black Moods, article by Gabriel Ramin Schor in TATE ETC , Summer 2006

Friday, 7 October 2011


British Museum 

The most excoriating and devastating art review I’ve read this year appears in today’s (6.10.11) Evening Standard. A sting in every sentence. The art critic Brian Sewell is writing about The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman, an exhibition at the British Museum curated  by Grayson Perry. A more considered writer is Adrian Searle in today’s The Guardian. Links to both are below.

I can’t blog about anything in the Exhibition because you have to pay to go in (the rest of the British Museum is free), and it’s one of my rules that the art I select has to be free to view.

However you can see Perry’s combined motor bike-and-shrine-with-a-teddy-in-it for nothing. It’s standing on one of the landings on the curly stairs up to the restaurant above the central Court. It’s there to tempt people to part with £10 to see the show.

Last year Perry drove round Germany on his specially commissioned motorbike on a mission of peace. He explains in the catalogue that in his childhood ‘the Germans were the default enemy, and so they became a metaphor for all that was bad in my experience. Alan (Alan Measles, the bear) and I needed to make peace with our old imagined adversary’. Perry claims that he has worshipped Alan Measles since the early 1960s and, as it was too precious to exhibit, three other teddies have the chance to be on display a month each as stand ins.  

Perry, winner of the Turner prize in 2003, is best known for controversy (he received the prize dressed as Claire, his female alter ego), and for his ceramic pots. From afar they look traditional enough, but as you draw near you find they’re covered in delicate drawings, handwritten texts, photographs and glazes alluding to dark, even obscene subjects.  The shock is the greater because a ceramic pot is such an innocent medium, associated with domesticity and elegance, life-giving water and wine.

The exhibition Perry was allowed to curate features an eclectic selection of objects in the museum’s collection drawn from around the world, plus some of his own work. It is said to be full of wonderful things. He claims to want to pay tribute to the anonymous minds and bodies which made them. But Searle points out that it's not as simple as that. He’s also interrogating the museum’s authority: he's asking why ‘his artist’s deeply intuitive way of organising objects (is) any less valid than the museum's scholarly, supposedly objective systems of classification’.

'Part of my role as an artist,' writes Perry in the catalogue 'is similar to that of a shaman or witch doctor. I dress up, tell stories, give things meaning and make them a bit more significant'. Is the exhibition a comment on injustice and hypocrisy? Or is shallow, vulgar and too clever by half? Perry disarms his critics by saying ‘I'm absolutely aware of the bitter irony of it being called The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman when it's in fact a celebrity artist's vanity project’.

The only way forward is to pay up and decide for oneself.

Tuesday, 4 October 2011


ART BY OFFENDERS: secure patients and detainees.


This piece of Postmodernism  stops us short and makes us look as if for the first time at the familiar. These monstrous brushes are about two metres long. The stuff of nightmares and legends. Useful in an ogre's castle perhaps, and Heracles might have found them handy when cleaning the Augean stables. Here they are strung up helpless against the wall. And they are carvings of great beauty and workmanship.

There is a note beside them:
'Bracknell Probation Service, Berkshire.
I left school in 1983 at 16 and worked for seven years as an asbestos stripper. I did the equivalent of A Level Art while serving a four year prison sentence. Released in 2010 I started an Art Degree. These sculptures reflect the first job I had and the time that has passed'.

We now know more than we did 25 years ago of the deadly properties of asbestos. If this sculpture reflects the first job the artist had, is it modelled on brushes whose purpose was to sweep deadly particles into the atmosphere? 
All we know is that here is an arresting  sculpture which is a joy to look at.


The artist painted this portrait in HM Prison Risley, Cheshire. It's one of perhaps a couple of hundred artworks - including paintings, sculpture, music, textiles, drawings. craft, written word, calligraphy, drama, photography - selected for display at the Royal Festival Hall by the Koestler Trust. The Trust was founded 49 years ago by Arthur Koestler, himself three times a political prisoner.  

The competition is open to prisoners, offenders on community sentences, immigration detainees and secure psychiatric patients across the UK. 
This year the judges include Emma Bridgewater (pottery); Jeremy Paxman ( work in any form on the theme ‘Help’); the National Theatre (drama); and Grayson Perry (oil or acrylic painting). Everyone on display receives a participation certificate and about a third receive an award ranging from £20 to £100. The artist keeps half of the proceeds if the work is sold, the remainder going to Victim Support and the Trust itself. 

If you go as I did at 10am when the RFH opens up, you go down to Spirit Level (the basement) into a labyrinth of rooms, empty and silent, with no clear exit. I know from experience that I'll find a few dead ends or the gamelan room on my way out. it seems an appropriate setting for the art around me.

Of the hundreds of exhibits, why choose this one, not one of the award winners? I like the curator's note: ‘it reminds me of Velázquez’s paintings of Spanish princesses...the red and yellow paint hurled at it is exciting and stimulating.’ And I find the title puzzling. 

Does the new (the flare of paint) 'help' the old (a portrait painted  in the style of an  old Spanish master?).  Or could you swop the title round? Does the old 'help' the new? Paint splashed around in Abstract Expressionism, graffiti in galleries etc, is very 20C. But we’ve seen it all before. An explosion of paint is given a new and surprising seriousness when it’s hurled at a child, an Infanta who has stepped straight out of the seventeenth century and continues to stare at us with dead pan face, ignoring the onslaught... 

I’m intrigued that the paint hardly touches her hair, her face and throat. Her frock is certainly spoiled beyond recovery and will never again be her Sunday best. And there are one or two snakes of paint in mid air which might cause some grief when they come to land. But the contrast between serene docility in the top half of the painting and out-of-control emotion at the bottom is indeed ‘exciting and stimulating’, just as the curator said.

Monday, 3 October 2011


You are standing in the middle of the Station concourse, pictured here. M&S Simply Food is on one side, Le Pain Quotidien  on the other. You hand over your mobile phone or your credit card and it's stowed carefully away in a padded zipped box at the back of the kiosk. In return you are lent a  pair of free ear phones big enough be black ear muffs. You walk out into the crowd and wander round, then, in my case, find a seat, sit very still and listen.

What you hear are fragments of speech spoken by actors, tantalising sound bites which could veer off in any direction.
Lillies, for god’s sake....
I’ve got everything on the list and I’m going to start tonight...
He wouldn’t know about that. No one does...
It doesn’t look right. I can see that now...
When I said I couldn’t hear them crying, well it wasn’t true. I knew they were crying.
They’ll find out and they’ll think I knew. But that’s not what I saw. Not really. I only saw a list. You have to be absolutely sure. Or you’ve destroyed everything for nothing. Nothing. A list.

Wonder,  distress, a glimpse of a narrative, some nifty self-justification reach out to us. The words surface for a few seconds, then disappear.   

The big black ear phones muffle the outside sound, so that the people striding past us -  with their stilettos, hiking boots,trainers -  could all be wearing slippers. Some are talking, but not to us. They glide by, silent as wraiths.

But inside our headphones an interior monologue is relentless. It’s a TV game with a conveyor belt of goodies. No sooner are we caught up with the pathos of one incident than a new voice breaks in which resonates and reverberates like a poem. Then off we are again with humour or something sinister or that which doesn't make sense. We start off as eavesdroppers, then settle down as an audience, but before we know where we are, we've turned into participants.

We cannot help but try to make sense of what we hear, to judge the speaker, to imagine what happens next...But there is more. We are cut off from the props we normally use to make sense when people talk to us, We stop, untangle, question what we are doing. This is a moment when we have a chance to reflect on  what we do with what we listen to.  
Audio Obscura is a new sound work by poet and novelist Lavinia Greenlaw, commissioned and produced by Artangel with Manchester International Festival. It’s an aural version of the camera obscura, that is to say, ‘dark listening’.  Try it.        for the Manchester International Festival         for the catalogue