Art Chronicles: Mike Nelson at the Biennale …

mikenelson1018Four days in Venice over half term, lots of water [some falling from the sky], lots of art: all the way from Bellinis’s altar piece in the church of San Zaccaria to the pavilions of the Biennale. In all of this there were two standouts: Christian Boltanski’s installation, Chance, in the French pavilion, and – most exciting of all – Mike Nelson’s I, Imposter, in which, sponsored by the British Council,  he  fills the entire British pavilion with another building – a 17th century inn that has been constructed within one originally built in the late 19th century.

 

 

 

 

 

Nelson has taken as his starting point an installation he made in Istanbul– a split-level darkroom filled with photographic images of the surrounding architecture, which was housed inside an old inn originally used by trading caravans crossing the desert – a caravanserai – and has here created not just the darkroom, but much of the actual inn, reproduced from photographs and from memory.

We are allowed into the house in small numbers, then left free to walk where we will, where the construction allows us. The rooms are small and mostly dark and seem to have fallen into disuse, and you move between them with caution, aware of shapes and shadows in corners, wary of flights of stairs that lead nowhere, doors that fail to open, doors that do. It is like exploring a house in a dream and within a comparatively short time another reality begins to take over. Step through this archway and you are outside in a courtyard, but inside all the same.

What Nelson is working on, I think, working with, are traces of memory: his own and those of centuries: two pieces 0f art that he created for major exhibitions in two different cities, cities that were once at the opposite poles of a trading route between east and west. We take on board some of that as we walk round, some only later. What is undoubtedly effective is the way Nelson has created somewhere to which we can bring our own feelings and fears of abandonment and desolation, our own memories of long-forgotten rooms, deserted buildings, other lives, some of them our own.

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Art Chronicles: Cy Twombly

One of the best things about a fairly recent visit to Munich, to do a reading at the behest of my German publisher, DTV, (and where, to my bemusement and delight, I was billed as “the Pope of British crime fiction”) was a visit to the Museum Brandhorst,where almost the entire top floor – some six rooms – is given over to the paintings and sculpture of Cy Twombly, who has died in Rome at the age of 83.

It wasn’t as though Twombly’s paintings had exactly been hidden from sight in recent years: the wonderful four-part Quattro Stagioni had been shown at Tate Modern in 2008 and then there were the dazzling and sumptuous canvasses depicting Roses at the Gagosian. Right now, his work is on display alongside that of Poussin at the Dulwich Picture Gallery. Even so, being able to wander from room to room and gaze at these large works – the scale on which Twombly worked seemed to get bigger, and more deliberately beautiful – as he got older – was, I felt, a privilege.

Cy-Twombly-life-in-pictur-003Cy-Twombly-life-in-pictur-015The artist Maggi Hambling has summed up many of the reasons why I think I respond to Twombly’s work so positively.

In these days of so much dry, clever, soulless trivia, completely lacking in worthwhile subject matter, Twombly stood a towering hero. His mixture of intimacy and grandeur, force and delicacy, creates a sexy dynamism. He advanced the language of paint – from late Titian, through Rembrandt, Van Gogh, Rothko and Pollock – and so takes his place among the elite. He is dead, but the courage of hsi work lives on.

Art Chronicles: Tracey Emin – Love Is What You Want

I’m sure it’s far from an original thought, but that Tracey Emin’s rise to fame (and fortune) should occur in an age besotted with the cult of celebrity and forever agog for (preferably sexual) gossip and scandal, should be no surprise. Having long adopted her prime art work as herself, her greatest achievement is surely to have raised herself up from the sad and often hostile tawdriness of her early life to the position she now holds – and I’m quoting the publicity from her Hayward Gallery retrospective here – as “one of Britain’s most celebrated contemporary artists”.

It’s a beautifully, carefully curated show, the main room on the ground floor, with it’s Family and Friends section, in particular. Bits and pieces of writing, what are described as ‘relics’, snapshots of Gran & Dad. Lovely. Quite moving. The kind of early ephemera from a artist’s life that is always interesting- interesting for the light they throw on Tracey Emin, the person, the public person she’s chosen to become –  [Chosen, yes – compare her former friend and colleague, Sarah Lucas, sitting out the spotlight somewhere in the midst of Suffolk.] – if that’s what you want to engage with. But as for the work …

How many images of Tracey do you want to see? Tracey’s pregancy kit; Tracey’s old tampons. Tracey’s thoughts on being, then not being, pregnant, having or not having an abortion. Videos of Tracey riding a horse; runing round in a dress with pinned up with bank notes; Tracey demonstrating all too clearly “Why I Never Became a Dancer”; Tracey encountering a dog and [shades of James Ellroy] asking if it would like to have sex with her.

Though, judging from what’s on display here, the main person Tracey likes to have sex with is herself. The images abound, crowned [I think that’s the term] by a large size animation, created from 200 or so drawings, of a woman masturbating. “Even though it is an erotic subject,” she’s quoted as saying, “I felt distant from the sexuality of the pictures. It was almost like I was trying to understand something – what it means to be a woman, a single entity and feminine.”

And, in the broad public space of the gallery, the images are denied erotic impact – all the more so, for a male viewer amongst an audience [on this occasion] made up almost entirely of women.

It’s when she’s able to put some distance between herself as subject and herself as artist, however, that I think Emin produces her best work. The appliquéd blankets in the first room – practically the first things you see  – are simply stunning. Large pieces, recalling both the Trade Union banners of old and the notion of women’s craft, they merge word, colour and material into a series of fascinating artistic statements about everything from the most personal aspects of the maker’s life to what I see as [interestingly, in terms of her recent espousal of the Conservative party] her hatred of Mrs Thatcher and her fury over the Falklands War – but maybe I’m reading that one wrong.

On the upper floor, behind the screen showing the aforementioned animation, and dealing far more subtly with similar subject matter, are two linked series of paintings – one in gouache, watercolour and pencil on canvas, the other acrylic on canvas – in which the subtle use of pale colours – yellow and cream, pale orange and pale, pale green – which are quite beautiful, and connected in terms of their use of paint and visual imagery, to a pair of abstract canvasses – “Love, Love, Love” & “A Rose” – which show a marked influence of abstract expressionism and recall the work, in particular, of Philip Guston and Cy Twombly.

And then there is the stunning and unsually, for Emin, large-scale canvas, “Black Cat’ – based apparently on a story by Edgar Allan Poe and wearing the influence of Goya to great effect – a pink and white figure wearing a trailing black dress or cape,  her face obscured by a rectangle of solid black and with a pool of dark red blood at her feet. So striking, both in its execution and by its very presence that you wish there were more of this – even if she is the model’s whose identity is blacked out – and less that is blatantly herself.

Finally, I do recognise, I think, that much of my negative reaction to parts of the show is based on the fact that the very femininity of a great number of the works shut me out – this is, I think, in part at least, very much a exhibition by a woman for other women – and, as such, that’s my problem, not Emin’s. I also see that those works I’m responding to me most warmly are those which both fall into areas of art, of painting, to which I generally respond, and which call to mind other artists or works I like – Guston, Goya, TUC banners – rather than those which are more exclusively Emin. Again, my problem, not hers.

You should probably go, make up your mind for yourself.

Art Chronicles: Helen Frankenthaler

Despite (or possibly, because of) her close relationships with the critic, Clement Greenberg, the high priest of Abstract Expressionism, and the artist, Robert Motherwell, whom she married, Helen Frankenthaler – in common with other women painters of the previous mid-century, such as Joan Mitchell, Grace Hartigan and Lee Krasner – never quite managed to find a profile as high as that of her male contemporaries. Think Jackson Pollock, think Rothko, think Willem de Kooning. And yet, it was Frankenthaler who, after observing Pollock at work, came up with the process of allowing paint to stain the canvas in a manner that was less aggressive and, in some ways, more subtle, and which showed the way for much of the Colour Field painting that flourished amongst the ‘second generation’ of American Abstract Expressionists. And yet it was her male followers, lesser lights to my eyes, such as Morris Louis, Kenneth Noland and Jules Olitski, that Greenberg championed.

Now 82, Frankenthaler’s hands are so sadly crippled that she can no longer make new work, so the paintings currently on show at the Bernard Jacobson Gallery in Cork Street are amongst the last she will have made. As the show’s title, Paper is Painting, suggests, these pieces are all Acrylic on paper and were made between 1986 and 1997. The final, large, painting, untitled, (on the right, above) shows Frankenthaler’s eye for form, space and, above all, colour undiminished: a blaze of orange and red that holds the eye to the centre of the paper, pulling our attention to the rich flourishes of paint upon the surface, even as it suggests depth, the darker reds  in the foreground, with their circular movements, perhaps flowers, the centre receding through orange-yellow space towards what? A field? A wall? The waning sun? And see how the small blip of green – not visible above, take it on trust! – snags the eye. And the whiplash of red below the mass of colour, like a boundary, like barbed wire – the artist’s last quick flick of the brush – I’m me, I’m here.

The strongest pieces – which include the marvellous Canal Street from 1987 (below), redolent of both vaginal blood and  first growth, and the gorgeous fluid blues in the 1994 untitled painting to the left above (recalling the cover she designed for Barbara Guest’s 1968 poetry collection, The Blue Stairs) – repay repeated viewings with a sense of deep satisfaction and pleasure, and confirm Frankenthaler’s place amongst the foremost abstract artists of the last century.

The exhibition continues at Bernard Jacobson until November, 13th.

Art Chronicles: Joan Mitchell

Took the train up to Edinburgh recently, just for the day, in order to visit the exhibition of Joan Mitchell’s work at Inverleith House in the Royal Botanic Garden. Okay, a longish way, not so far off ten hours in  total on the train, but it was a comfortable enough journey and, aside from window gazing (great views of the sea, quite stormy, from Berwick upon Tweed north), I managed quite a bit of reading – and, at least, unlike Jackson Brodie in When Will There Be Good News?, I was travelling in the right direction. Besides, not so very long ago (2002) I flew over to New York to see the major retrospective of Mitchell’s paintings at the Whitney, so this was nothing …

It says much about the position of woman artists internationally, both now and in the recent past, that this is the first solo museum showing of Joan Mitchell’s painting in Great Britain. Mitchell began painting in her home city of Chicago, lived briefly in Paris with her first husband, before moving to New York in the early 1950s amidst the tumult of early abstract expressionism. Encouraged by Willem de Kooning and the poet and art critic/curator Frank O’Hara, she seems to have succeeded to a significant extent in keeping her head above water in what must have been an intensely masculine, testosterone-fuelled environment. (By all accounts, she swore like a stevedore and could drink many men under the table) In 1957, her work was included, along with that of fellow women artists Helen Frankenthaler, Grace Hartigan and Jane Freilicher in an important group show at New York’s Jewish Museum, Artists of the New York School: Second Generation. But by 1959, she had moved to Paris along with her lover, the Canadian painter, Jean-Paul Riopelle, and France was where she spent most of the remainder of her life, until she died in 1992.

Landscape and nature were always, I think, an important element in her painting, an element which helped to give a structure to the abstraction, and living and working in France, she naturally took on the influence of such artists as Monet, Cezanne and Matisse. This influence is already clear in some of the earlier pieces in the Edinburgh exhibition, which, although small, gains greatly from its situation, the gallery’s high windows looking out towards the trees and shrubbery of the Botanical Garden outside. And there’s a full and persuasive review of the show by Jackie Wullschlager in the Financial Times.

If I had to choose one painter whose work I could live with to the exclusion of any other, Joan Mitchell would be the one.

Art Chronicles: Alice Neel

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Returning this week to Painted Truths, the exhibition of Alice Neel’s work at the Whitechapel Art Gallery, I was conscious of a sense of pleasure and almost relief when I entered the room on the second floor which houses a small number of her paintings of urban landscapes. Why, I wondered? Well, for one thing, they represent a change from the portraits which make up the overwhelming majority of the the rest of the exhibiton. But it’s more than that. Given their subject matter, for the most part the fire escapes and tenaments of New York City, they are quite orthodox in their style and what they depict. Regular, too. Straight lines, windows in tall rows, clear diagonals. With barely an exception, no people. As a viewer, one is allowed to relax. Admire and relax.

Step into the next room, Parents and Children, and things shift. These children are awkward, aware, staring some of them directly out from the canvas, their expressions suggesting somehow they already know what their parents have learned: life is not going to be an easy haul.images-3

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Neel herself lost a first child to diptheria, had a second, Isabetta, taken from her at the age of two by the father to live with his family in Cuba – Neel would not see her again till she was six years old and few times after that. Before most of the paintings in this room had been made, Neel will have been taken into psychiatric care after a suicide attempt, had over 350 of her drawings and paintings slashed and burned by an angry lover, and given birth to two boys by different men, the second of whom she will live with off and on for nearly twenty years in Spanish Harlem.

One of these paintings, Hartley on the Rocking Horse, shows her youngest son, blonde haired, blue eyed, astride a coal black rocking horse. High in the background is a reflection of his mother in the act of making the painting we see. Observing, out of reach, busy working even as she watches. And the boy’s eyes are wide with apprehension and fear.

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It’s a wonderful painting, both for what it shows and what it suggests; what is recognisable and what lies behind. Neel doesn’t just paint faces, she paints psychological states – her own and others’.

When I visited the show first I was with my youngest daughter, almost 12 at the time, and someone who normally derives a good deal of pleasure from looking at art, but she found most of these paintings too disturbing to be given more than a cursory look.

In a very good and revealing film about Neel’s life and work made by her grandson, Andrew (showing at the Whitechapel and available on DVD) both her sons talk with admiration and a sense of partly disguised hurt about their mother’s overriding dedication to her work and the effects that had on their childhoods and upbringing.

It was seeing this film, which I did first at the ICA well in advance of this show, that made me aware of the strength of her brushstrokes and brilliance of her use of colour, the absolutely singular look of her work. The Cityscapes aside, it could have been done by nobody else. She was, I think, an absolutely terrific artist. One on her own.

The Whitechapel show is on for just one more week, after which you’ll have to travel to Malmo.

Andrew Neel’s film, Alice Neel, is available from the gallery and various other sources, including Amazon.Co.UK for £8.99 and worth every penny.

The very comprehensive Alice Neel web site is here

And there’s a nifty (nifty?) slide show with commentary by Peter Schjeldahl of the New Yorker that’s well worth 2.39 minutes of your time. Link here

Art Chronicles: Howard Hodgkin

Having walked round the Hodgkin exhibition at the Gagosian with my youngest daughter a couple of years back, I asked her what she thought. “Okay, but not as good as his early stuff.” She was all of 10. Challenged, she dragged me out to the foyer and a copy of the book we’ve got at home showing work from the early to mid-1990s. She had a point.

I remembered this standing in one of the upper rooms of Modern Art Oxford, which is hosting Time & Place, an exhibition of new Hodgkin paintings, dating from 2001 to 2010. Uncertain of my initial responses, I wondered aloud to my companion about the perils of continuing to work into the latter year’s of ones life and producing work that was less good than what had gone before, thus risking the sullying of one’s reputation.

It seems to me, she said, somewhat wisely, that you’re talking about yourself, not Hodgkin.

And she’s right. There have been times in the past – even before, in my mind at least, the age thing became an issue – when, having written something I thought pretty good – not great, but about as good as I could manage – I was cautious of moving on to something else for fear it wouldn’t be as good. I felt it after writing the first of the Resnick books, Lonely Hearts, aided on that occasion by my then editor telling me, in so many words, it had turned out rather better than he’d dared hope.

I’ve also felt, an analogous feeling,  that I’d written (and worse, had published) something so poor that the next thing had to be bloody good in order to take the taste, as it were, out of my – and my readers’ – mouth(s).

But back to Mr H0dgkin. In the catalogue essay, which I read on the train home, Sam Smiles writes interestingly about the notion of ‘late work’. Vasari, he notes, having visited the elderly Titian in his studio, deprecated the fact that Titian had carried on working, harming his reputation as his creative powers “inevitably waned”. This, Smiles asserts, is not necessarily the case (check out Beethoven’s late quartets, Picasso, de Kooning et cetera, et cetera). What you can find – and what Smiles finds in Hodgkin – instead of ‘late work’ is a ‘late style’. And yes, these paintings are, on the whole, less busy, less baroque, less full, less likely to confound and astonish the eye; what you have instead is something simpler, more direct, more content with a simplicity of image, of stroke, of colour, of line. Marks that have the appearance of being quickly, urgently made. The single, supple swirl of “Leaf”; the fierce bands of light and cloud in “Yellow Sky”; the force and gravity of “Spring Rain”, a brisk and sudden downpour of oil of wood.

Late work, good work. Work that gives the heart a lift. The show is on in Oxford until the 12th of the month and then goes on to Tilburg and San Diego. And there’s an excellent new web site devoted to Hodgin and his work – http://www.howardhodgkin.org.uk/

Art Chronicles: Agnes Martin

Caught the Agnes Martin retrospective at the Timothy Taylor Gallery in the nick of time before it closed – absolutely not the right degree of franticness in which to take in Martin’s paintings, which, in the main, are large, cool and supremely restful.

She herself said of her work and the experience of viewing it:

“When people go to the ocean, they like to see it all day. . . . There’s nobody living who couldn’t stand all afternoon in front of a waterfall. It’s a simple experience, you become lighter and lighter in weight, and you wouldn’t want anything else. Anyone who can sit on a stone in a field awhile can see my painting. Nature is like a curtain; you go into it. I want to draw a certain response like this. . . . Not a specific response but that quality of response from people when they leave themselves behind, often experienced in nature– an experience of simple joy. . . the simple, direct going into a field of vision as you would cross an empty beach to look at the ocean.”

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The canvases are mostly quite large and made up of bands of colour  – pale yellow and blue, a fine creamy beige and the palest of greys – divided by fine pencilled lines. You either give them a glance and walk on past, or find a seat – the Timothy Taylor Gallery thoughtfully provides a bench painted over in a Martin-like wash for the occasion – and take your time in front of them, let them sink in, as you might, say, a Rothko, though the impact here is different, the emotional range pitched on a less intense scale.

Martin, incidentally, though her work was associated with the Minimalists, called herself an Abstract Expressionist – she spent time in New York with Rothko and company, before heading south-west to Taos, whose desert landscape and shimmering heat I daresay one could find in some of her paintings.

There was one canvas in the show that struck me especially, an untitled piece from 2001, three years before she died at the grand age of 92. Measuring only 12 inches by 12, as opposed to her more usual 60 x 60 or 72 x 72, it is also surprising for the strength of its colours, narrow bands of strong, bright blue balanced against broader areas of  pale blue wash, as if, from its position here close to one corner of the room it is raising its voice, giving us a shake – don’t let all that blissful tranquility send you into a trance.

Art Chronicles: Eva Hesse

I was lucky enough to make my first visit to the Eva Hesse exhibition at Camden Arts Centre at the same time as one of the curators, Briony Fer, was taking round her third year History of Art students from UCL. I simply tagged along. And emerged much richer for it. For one thing, Fer is clearly a very good teacher: she allows her enthusiasm for the work to show without letting it overwhelm, she encourages her students to look closely, to take their time, to think about the ‘how’ of  something being made – materials, technique – without rushing them to a ‘what’ or ‘why’, a race to establish meaning. She is close to the work – of course, she is, this is, at least in part, her show, her choice – and yet with her students she is open. Yes, it’s latex, latex and rubber; it’s cheesecloth, cheesecloth and adhesive, it’s papier maché – beyond that, well, could be this, could be that.

Most of the pieces on display (there are exceptions: an orange-yellow hanging of fibreglass, polyester resin, latex and cheesecloth, for instance; another, golden, of latex, cheesecloth and wood – both beautiful) are smaller than the large-scale works for which Hesse is best known (you can see some, currently, at Tate Modern); they are test pieces, try-outs, experiments, templates for what was (or was not) to come. Talking to her students, Fer drew comparison with a collection of Elizabeth Bishop’s unfinished poems – drafts, fragments, some little more than a clearing of the throat. Not quite poems; more than nothing: suspended somewhere in between.

In one gallery, a number of Hesse’s cheesecloth and papier maché pieces have been arranged on a large, low table for us to walk around, pause and peer down at. Together and singly they are lovely to consider: like leaves bleached of colour, just beginning to curl; like parchment scored and creased with age. Ephemeral and yet not, they cry out to be touched.

Once you understand what it is you’re looking at here – and anyone going round without first reading the notes in the leaflet might well be confused – this is a really good show, and unlike most others I’ve seen. You’re not being presented with a collection of finished work and left to appreciate and judge; this is different, this is like being invited into someone’s studio and allowed to walk round, see what she’s up to – hmm, interesting, wonder what she’ll do with that or those – except that we know nothing will happen, nothing more. Eva Hesse died from a brain tumour in 1970 at the age of only 34.

Art Chronicles: Frank Auerbach

They sure know how to sell a show at the Courtauld. Whoever came up with London Building Sites 1952-62 for the current Frank Auerbach exhibition, probably doesn’t have a future career in marketing. But that’s exactly what the show is, as described; what, as they say, it says on the tin: the thirteen canvases the artist made from his observations of major rebuilding work resulting from London bombings during WW2.

I nearly didn’t go, and not just because of the off-putting title. I confess to being less enamoured of Auerbach’s work than his reputation suggests should be the case; too many portraits where the subject is so immured in a thick shroud of paint as to render him or her virtually unrecognisable. And at a first glance here (having just about caught my breath after climbing all those bloody stairs) I thought, oh-oh, here we go again. But, no … Given time and patience (perhaps all those stairs had a useful function after all) I found I was looking again and again at something extraordinary. Stand especially, not just back and away from the canvas, but over to one side – an angle of just past two o’clock, I found worked best – and it’s as if you’re staring right into the site itself, the thick, ripeness of earth and mud, its shades of brown (so many shades of brown) and yellow and red. (Interestingly close to the colours of the shit-covered Belfast cell walls recreated for Steve McQueen’s film, Hunger). Let the eye rest and gradually more and more detail seeps in: the crouched and bent figures of workmen, the lines and angles of cranes. Step back then from the reality of what you’re seeing and you see something else, a compostion of abstract shapes, the canvas divided into planes of differentiated colour, divided and anchored by strong lines – vertical, diagonal, horizontal.  (Perhaps this is what you saw first, approaching, as it were, from the other direction.) And then there’s the richness of the paint, the strength and vigour of the mark.

Seeing these paintings, it’s not clear if Auerbach is working his way out of abstract expressionism towards a very solid version of realism, or if, somehow, the influence and the inspiration move the other way. But look at Shell Building Site: from the Thames, 1959, which is organised around a great triangular gouge deep into the earth and compare it to Willem de Koooning’s 1958 painting, Detour, that I saw in Munich recently, and which has an almost identical triangle reversed, and the link between the two works is, it seems to me, incontravertible. By which I don’t mean Auerbach saw the de Kooning and was so impressed he rushed off and did a version of his own. Nothing so crass. I don’t even know how familiar either artist was with the other’s work, though it’s hard to imagine that, for Auerbach at least, there wasn’t an awareness, a connection.

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The two pieces that finally impressed me most – Maples Demolition, Euston Road, 1960 and Rebuilding the Empire Cinema, Leicester Square, 1962 – repay long and repeated viewings, the former seeming to achieve its effects primarily on the picture plane itself, while the latter is organised so as force the eye along a diagonal trajectory deep inside the painting’s illusory space. Look longer and you realise that the painterly qualities and the rendering of the subject matter in both are superbly in balance.

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