Sunday, 10 September 2017

Meh!


“...if mankind was put on earth to create works of art, then other people were put on earth to comment on those works, to say what they think of them. Not to judge objectively or critically assess these works but to articulate their feelings about them with as much precision as possible, without seeking to disguise the vagaries of their nature, their lapses of taste and the contingency of their own experiences, even if those feelings are of confusion, uncertainty or-in this case-undiminished wonder.” -Geoff Dyer in ‘Zona’

A man sweeps the floor. Slowly and carefully he gathers loose bits of debris and confetti from the bar’s  previous festivities into a neat pile. We are witness to this scene for around three maybe four minutes. Unusual and slightly voyeuristic enough to watch this anyway, perhaps even more so when I reveal that this scene takes place during the minutes of a prime-time television show. The character and action are (depending on how much or not you want to read into it) irrelevant to the story that is being told. This is one scene in the new series of David Lynch’s ‘Twin Peaks: The Return’ and is in part the influence in writing this post.

David Lynch. 'Twin Peaks: The Return' Still. 2017
I have always wanted to write about nothing (some may think I already do), but even as I type the word ‘nothing’ in the header for saving this file on my computer I am already committed in deciding to write about something. Nothing, is something I have been interested in for a long time. Please stay with me on this… One of my earliest experiences of school in which I can remember being frustrated was in a maths lesson, presented with the sum of [0 + 4=]. I was four or five at the time and had never seen a 0 before so didn’t know that it stood for nothing. Once told it was nothing, I found it confusing to comprehend that we would invent a symbol for nothing, when in fact it wasn’t really nothing, it was a round circle. Why have a symbol for something that represented nothing? Such began an existential debate in my brain, that nothing is always in fact something. What that something that defines nothing is exactly remains the subject of philosophical mystery, some degree of absurdity and fascination.

Kurt Schwitters 'Opened by Customs' 1937-38
I think I have always associated nothing with the mundane, the everyday and periods of inactivity, stillness or a sense of emptiness. This seems logical and given my art practice of choosing to draw tools and other fairly everyday objects over the years. It soon becomes apparent that these things, whilst often unnoticed, in a ‘oh that’s nothing’ sense of the word, are in fact heavily laden with meaning, significance and a physical presence that makes them anything but nothing. I suppose what I am obsessed with are the ideas, art, writing and thought that can come from ‘nothing’. Whatever nothing is exactly. Semantics aside this post inspired by recent events of seeing the new Twin Peaks and having started reading ‘M Train’ by Patti Smith, who starts this episode of her diary-like biography in stating, “It’s not so easy writing about nothing” as she muses lost in thought in a cafe in New York. The whole book that follows continues from this point of nothing into a series of reminiscing tales and future visits to the same cafe where she writes about writing, television and books. Doing ‘nothing’ becomes a time, a headspace for daydreaming, deep thought or simply noticing things around you and from the recent trend in ‘mindfulness’ literature it seems that there is a need and fashion for creating space/time for doing so more than ever before.

In Georges Perec’s ‘An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris’ the writer sets out on a quest to write down everything that happens, “when nothing happens”. Sitting in a cafe in Saint Sulpice for three days the book reads as a series of lists, or stage directions and descriptions of the people, the buses, the pigeons that walk past and in his words, “...generally take note of, that which is not noticed, that which has no importance...” The resulting book at times ends up being quite abstract; shapes, colours and numbers; yet visually speaking, the narrative this information conjures still manages to create a story and sense of place that feels very real albeit still very subjective. This same fragmented and subjective sense of time and place is present in the found debris and collected collages in Kurt Schwitters [1887-1948] or in Sophie Calle’s [1953 -] use of photography and narrative of everyday objects to tell stories from her life. To the nature of this post itself as a list of sorts as a reference to a personal favourite of mine, found shopping lists that read like poems (opposite). I could write a whole separate post about the charm and intrigue of the found shopping list and what stories they tell.

Imagine therefore my excitement when on this journey into nothing I discovered, ‘The Mezzanine’ by Nicholson Baker a short novel written in 1986 that chronicles the musings of an office employee as they escape their workplace to ponder why one shoelace always runs out before the other and whose genius lies behind the folding spout on the milk carton? It is as absurdly mundane but genuinely pedantically amusing as it sounds. Like a literary version of observational comedy when I read ‘The Mezzanine’ for the first time it struck me, in the way that comedy also can, how uniting these thoughts are. We all think, we all notice the same odd, irritating, impractical or genius bits of design, everyday interactions with people in our daily lives; yet how often do we think that those thoughts and observations can be quite amusing or even interesting.


“And third, the felt crunch, like the chewing of an ice cube, as the twin lines of the staple emerge from the underside of the paper and are bent by the two troughs of the template in the stapler’s base, curing inward in a crab’s embrace of your memo, and finally disengaging from the machine completely,” -Nicholson Baker

If you read this, firstly you will wonder how it is possible that you have spent the best part of five minutes reading two pages about a stapler; secondly you will either find this incredibly sad or as I did amazingly perceptive. Once again, I reiterate, “it is not easy writing about nothing”.

“That was the problem with reading: you always had to pick up again at the very thing that had made you stop reading the day before.” – Nicholson Baker

From great boredom comes great possibility! Nothing and a sense on nihilism is explored in René Daumal’s ‘A Night of Serious Drinking’ in which a narrative beginning with a bout of copious drinking between a Anthographer (whatever that is), a Fabricator of useless objects (otherwise known as an artist) and others soon descends into a very surreal almost William Burroughs style description into the depths of some imagined hell. It is an amazing book whose mention here comes from its mundane origins as a start point into something altogether wonderful and bizarre. ‘Nothing’ also as a meditation, when running, yoga, gardening or another activity become a means to think about nothing, spiritually without consciously being so. It is ‘The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner’ and Murakami’s ‘What I think about when I think about running’. In Murakami’s words, “What exactly do I think about when I'm running? I don't have a clue.”    


Andrei Tarkovsky, 'Solaris'. Still Gif. 1972
Nothing as a precursor or metaphor for something, it is the transience of these everyday or throw-away things that can remind us of our own mortality. I have written mostly of books and art up to now, but the concept of ‘nothing’ in the form of sustained shots in which nothing appears to happen along with shots of incidental objects or things become symbolic in the same way they do in paintings or books. For me it is shots like the teacup filling with rain in Tarkovsky’s Solaris (pictured), the apples falling out of the cart in a dream sequence in Ivan’s Childhood, it is the use of light, wind and elements in Mirror and numerous other examples in Tarkovsky’s films. Whether these things are intended to be symbolic or not can be up for interpretation, they may have no real purpose other than what we bring to it. The writer Geoff Dyer explains what I mean about sustained shots in his book, ‘Zona’ that acts as an essay of his understanding of the Tarkovsky film ‘Stalker’,

“If the regular length of a shot is increased, one becomes bored, but if you keep on making it longer, a new quality emerges, a special intensity of attention.' At first there can be a friction between our expectations of time and Tarkovsky-time and this friction is increasing in the twenty-first century as we move further and further away from Tarkovsky-time towards moron-time in which nothing can last—and no one can concentrate on anything—for longer than about two seconds.” -Geoff Dyer in ‘Zona’

Chardin 'The Copper Cistern' Oil on Panel. 1735
Time and nothing seem to be two things that sit hand in hand, that to experience, understand and possibly appreciate nothing we need the time to do so. I have often enjoyed the challenge, though not always succeeded at comfortably watching these scenes in films that seem to take forever or have little baring to the immediate progression of the story, though debatably they are the closest thing to life and are the parts in films that allow you to think or not. It is the incidental conversations about hamburgers, a goldfish or Spider-man in Tarantino’s films. It is long first-person shots travelling in a car on a highway at night so often used by David Lynch or described in Michel Faber’s brilliant novel, ‘Under the Skin’. It is all the stuff that happens when nothing is happening. A lot of Japanese animation does this very well for example the depiction of cooking and food in any one of Studio Ghibli’s animations along with the most highly detailed, hand painted shots of an empty train station or school desk in animations such as ‘5mm per Second’ are notable in their change of pace as well as being more often than not completely unnecessary to anything to do with the plot but show us so much about what Japanese life is like in the same way a painting would. It is the intensity and love of looking in a Chardin still-life, the personal desire to possess of a Jim Dine tool print or drawing. The absurdity of a soft toilet made by Claes Oldenburg that makes us consider the real thing, the Duchamp snow shovel, the readymade and consumerist, glossy, pop-culture noticed in a Warhol or James Rosenquist. It is the things that make us stop and notice. The magic illusionary and seductive powers of surface, form and narrative created in art that make audiences want to look closer.

Studio Ghibli 'When Marnie was There' Still.2014 
In ‘Embracing the Ordinary’ by Michael Foley I first discovered a significant chunk of the books I have written about here. “Nothing is less known than what seems familiar. The ordinary is always the exceptional in disguise. Everything happens when nothing is happening.” In it Foley succeeds where I have neglected to philosophise an argument for ‘the everyday’ whereas I have written more a list of the things that I love. In writing about Proust, Foley also puts forward the viewpoint of the function of art in relation to the everyday,

“One approach is to use the arts to develop a new perception, an imaginative relabelling of the everyday world. It is not what you look at that matters but what you see....it is not so much that we see art as that we see by means of art....appreciating art is not passive but active, not reverential but familiar....”

A thousand words later and I am still writing about nothing. I may be interested in it for some time to come. 

Monday, 4 September 2017

The Tale Continues...

September and October are set to be eventful months! I seldom write posts about art and projects that I am involved in so feel that this one is long overdue but falls at a relevant time to share with you some details of exhibitions and events that are happening at an art venue near you this autumn....

Telling Tales – A Creative Pathways Artists Exhibition

Five years ago, I and four other artists received a bursary and professional development support as part of the Creative Pathways programme created by Somerset Art Works. I have to confess that I didn’t realise that our year, 2011 was the first time that the programme had run and was none-the-less grateful for the opportunity it provided; for myself it put me in contact with the Somerset Heritage Centre and staff who worked there so I could access a wealth of historical farming implements and tools as research and source material for making new work. Without making this sound too much like a testimonial, more than it already is, I was two years out of graduating with my degree and having a support network of other artists and some financial support that it provided were both incredibly useful and confidence enhancing. That year I exhibited work I had made based on that research in an exhibition titled ‘Tool Tales’. Now, five years later I am delighted to be exhibiting and assisting in curating ‘Telling Tales’ (the name of which is a fab coincidence) an exhibition featuring 22 artists that have since 2011 all also participated in the Creative Pathways programme. I like that synchronicity and it is very exciting to be exhibiting with and helping put together this exhibition of artists who have shared the same opportunity. Work-wise there will still be everything you’ve come to expect from my tool-based creations but for now I will leave what that is exactly an incentive (hopefully) for you to come and see the exhibition in person! Telling Tales opens for Somerset Art Weeks on the 23rd September and will feature a variety of disciplines from film, printmaking, sculpture, participatory projects, drawing and more. It is open Monday to Friday, 10am-4pm, Saturday 12noon -4pm until October 7th.

The Brewhouse Theatre & Arts Centre Coal Orchard, Taunton, Somerset TA1 1JL
https://www.thebrewhouse.net/event/creative-pathways-telling-tales/
Saturday 23 September 2017 – Saturday 07 October 2017
Opening Hours: Mon-Fri 10am-4pm, Sat 12noon-4pm
 
STARRING: Laura AISH / Bronwen BRADSHAW / Elizabeth CAIRES / Simon Lee DICKER / Jon ENGLAND / Veronia GAYLE / Adam GROSE / Kitty HILLIER / Leah HISLOP / Sarah HITCHENS / Sandra JAMES / Chris JELLEY / Mayumi KANEKO / Lucy LEAN / Joy MERRON / Jennifer NEWBURY / Andrea OKE / Natalie PARSLEY / Lucy PENDRICK / Dale PERRETT / Beckie UPTON / Gillian WIDDEN
 

Prospectus

Earlier this year I was invited with six other artists in the South West to participate in a Somerset Art Works project titled, ‘Prospectus’. The purpose, as I understood it, was to explore ways of creating an ‘alternative art school’ for the dispersed community of Somerset. Through workshops, discussion, sharing learning and working together we embarked upon a five day ‘takeover’ of Huish Episcopi School’s Art Department over the Easter holidays, (without the students!) during this time we created things, made mistakes, shared elements of our own practices and learnt from invited artists and one another. This is one example of how we hope future groups of artists could access these facilities and provide a form of peer-led professional development.

With the aim of opening the project out to the wider community, in the second phase of Prospectus we have each individually programmed a series of talks/workshops to take place this autumn. Details of which can be found, here; http://prospectus.somersetartworks.org.uk/events/ 

It seemed both logical and important to have at least one speaker, in a project about ‘art schools’, to actually talk about the subject we were exploring.... I have also been interested in the conversations that we have had (often whilst making) as a group of artists across different generations, on how artists continue to ‘learn’, our own experiences of art schools (what are they?) and the place that art schools serve in our communities, towns and wider art world context.

‘Art School’, as a term, carries a significance greater than the institution it actually describes: a sense of possibility or world view, what they call ‘commitment to working a practice, to a mode of learning which assumes the status of a lifestyle.” 1

Details of where that quote came from and the talk I have arranged can be seen below:

Professor Matthew Cornford is an artist, researcher and course leader for the BA(Hons) Fine Art Critical Practice course at Brighton University. In association with Professor John Beck, Cornford undertook a research project to find and document the sites of former British Art Schools. Their photographs and findings documented in the 2014 publication ‘The Art School and the Culture Shed’. Cornford will be sharing elements of his practice and research into former Art Schools at the location of Taunton’s original art school, the Victorian, Hunts Court.

Hope you can join us there!

 1 FRITH, S; HORNE, H (1987) Art into Pop. Methuen, London. p28

Artist Talk: Matthew Cornford - The Art School and the Culture Shed
‘The Den’ at The Cosy Club, Hunts Court, Corporation St, Taunton TA1 4AJ
Thursday 12th October
Time: 18.00 – 20.00
Fee: £3 suggested donation on door /Free to SAW Members & students
http://prospectus.somersetartworks.org.uk/


Young ProspectUs

In a slightly indulgent collision of names I have also been assisting in a learning and education project coordinated by Somerset Art Works called Young ProspectUs in which I have been participating as a blogger, documenter and assistant.

During the months this project ran I have learnt so much from both the participating artists and relevantly for me, the students themselves. From April until May six workshops took place [one a week] at Northfield and Taunton Centre Pupil Referral Units in Taunton. Artists, Jacky Oliver, Karina Thompson, Megan Players, Rick Crane and Jane Mowat ran sessions corresponding to their practices of; metalwork, sewing, sculpting, graphics and wood carving/printmaking. It has been immensely rewarding for me to participate in these and I feel that I have not only learnt new techniques but have also experienced how they are taught and how the artists have adapted to working with the students. To read more about this project and see what the students made please click on the link below.

https://youngprospectus.wordpress.com/

HIVE

 
Meanwhile, subversively somewhere in space and time the independent visual arts zine-machine that is HIVE ventures forth with Chris Dart at the helm toward its fifth outing.... Coming soon #March18  

Tuesday, 22 August 2017

The Unbelievable Weightiness of Air

Helen Jones 'Formation' 2016 Black pigment & pastel on tracing paper.
The puns pretty much write themselves, it’s a gas, walking on air, breath of fresh air, lofty ambitions; whatever the opinion on the current exhibition about Air at the Royal West of England Academy in Bristol, one thing you won’t hopefully be calling it is a load of hot air. Celebrating everything aerological from the air we breathe to clouds, the wind and sky that has inspired countless poets, artists, philosophers, writers and musicians. It is the space where hearts have been won, battles have been fought, our relationship to the ground mapped and explored, music and sound reverberates, meteorological events unfold and questions on the very nature of existence asked. Therefore it is not to be taken lightly! It is no coincidence that in the central weeks of this exhibition opening that it should coincide with the Bristol Balloon Fiesta (and for fans of that there are several hot-air balloon works in the show)!

Freya Gabie 'Wind Break' 2014 Shredded plastic and glass.
With such a wide breadth of concepts to cover this exhibition features over seventy works from the 1700s to the present. At its centre is Joseph Wright’s ‘An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump’ painted in 1768 and on-loan from The National Gallery; it presents the otherwise darker but essential relationship the living has with air and scientists first attempts to understand this all too important invisible matter. It is a treat to see this painting in Bristol that demonstrates the Caravaggio-like use of lights and darks (chiaroscuro) so well, my only slight reservation is that the gallery spaces of the RWA are not dark enough to quite do the work justice. The ideas within the work do however set the thematic concept behind the show successfully, of how artists have attempted to depict this invisible element that cannot be seen but whose affects clearly can. 

Joseph Wright of Derby 1768 'An Experiement on a Bird in the Air Pump'*
The galleries displaying older works feature some of what you may expect; the romantic cloud studies by Constable, weathered sunlit sky studies by Turner as well as paintings such as Millais’ ‘Bubbles’ in addition to some of the more unexpected but equally engaging paintings such as ‘Balloons’ [1920] by Ernest Townsend that cinematically composes the scene of an elderly man and woman blowing up balloons intended for children. No two depictions the same, this is perhaps best illustrated in the battle-fought ‘sky’ paintings during WW2 in which the almost abstract power and dynamism of Nevinson’s air view of mostly sky as a representation of the battle grounds of Britain is in good company with two watercolours by (commercial reproductions favourite) Eric Ravilious who takes a more earthy and grounded view to capturing his more gently stylised almost uncanny viewpoints of planes and blimps from the ground looking up. Other highlights, to which this show would not be complete without, include an air glider abstract painting from Peter Lanyon and a Lowry with his factory-lined cityscapes of chimneys pouring out smoke; in the context of this exhibition it is a reminder of the darker relationship and responsibility we have to our atmosphere and the effects of pollution.  
 
Ernest Townsend 1920 'Balloons'
 The contemporary half of the exhibition has even more approaches to offer and visitors are greeted by a work which is amongst the only piece that actually demonstrates the protagonist of this show in action! The breeze that wafts through the central gallery space can delicately be noticed as it passes through colourful plastic fibres intentionally shredded. Deconstructed from a familiar beachside wind break, its wooden poles replaced by glass ones instead of shielding the wind, now allows it to pass through. This piece, titled ‘Wind Break’ also alluding to the pun of its now broken and delicate state, is the work of Freya Gabie and is a living contrast to her otherwise static but incredibly accomplished  series of fine drawings of dust clouds and explosions. The ability to capture air through drawing or capture some of its ‘lightness’ is explored again in pigment drawings on tracing paper by Helen Jones and in photographic collages by Ian McKeever, whose images have an immensely drawn quality to them hovering somewhere between representing the sky or sea; an idea, interestingly for a book fan like me, McKeever states as having precipitated from reading Stanislaw Lem’s Sci-fi classic Solaris. Elsewhere Annie Cattrell, Mat Chivers and Jessica Lloyd-Jones use glass-blowing and 3D printing techniques to capture physical manifestations of breath whilst Neville Gabie bottles-up the breath of 1,111 people and asks them where they would like to have it released. One of the best is Dryden Goodwin’s animation of his son’s breathing created through an exquisite series of tiny pencil drawings.

Eric Ravilious 1940 Barrage Balloon
There are a couple of works that feel have been forced into the exhibition, Janette Kerr has a seascape, arctic-based painting whose subject matter dominated by mostly sea and thick layering of paint feels too heavy in the context of this show as does a series of heavy hand-made paper woodcuts by Peter Ford. In contrast the Peter Randall-Page, marble piece titled ‘Solid Air III’ is literally heavy but has been made with a lightness of touch and the surface of the marble has a sky-like pattern to it that counterbalances its otherwise weightiness. Mariele Neudecker has a body of work in the exhibition from ‘The Air Itself is one Vast Library’ series. A film, ‘The Land of the Dead’ offers a hot-air balloon perspective looking downwards toward the land in Egypt. The work is projected horizontally, its aerial views of roads, farmland and burial sites capture the shapes and surfaces of our relationship with land making it visually one of the more intriguing works exhibited. It puts the viewer into a state of uneasy artificial weightlessness reminiscent (as observed my discerning exhibition accomplice) of Simon Faithfull’s ‘30km’ (2003) film of a camera attached to a weather balloon as it spirals upwards giving a dizzyingly aerial perspective of the land.

Alex Wood 'Discovery'
Bringing a lighter tone to the show is Berndnaut Smilde’s photograph of a cloud which was atmospherically created to briefly occupy the central hallway of the RWA and is a fleeting moment in time that reminds us of the impermanence and ever changing state of air and climate. Alex Wood’s maquette-style part ready-made models or prototypes of exploratory aeronautical vessels are playful and imaginative bringing a sense of uplifting joy to what otherwise at times feels a rather brooding exhibition. I think a bit more humour would not have gone amiss, whilst referring to breathing there was no mention of any other bodily windy attributes (perhaps thankfully!?). Not entirely content with painted representations of balloons and bubbles I would have liked to see some more child-like air inspired wonders such as pinwheels, a whoopee-cushion, a desktop fan or a Martin Creed balloon room or Tom Friedman’s empty plinth, ‘Untitled (a curse)’ which perhaps challenged or poked-fun at the concept of air and nothingness in a much dryer way. Apart from a piece by Gabie there was also a missed opportunity for more environmental pieces or works which explored the theme of the destruction of our atmosphere and/or cotangents within it, there are several artists for example who draw into polluted surfaces or how bacteria in the air creates mould and led to discoveries such as penicillin. There is almost another whole exhibition which could have been created in addition; Air II!

I do feel that sometimes the RWA doesn’t quite search as widely away from the South West, London or the academicians it is loyal to when curating shows but then maybe I shouldn’t expect it to? Nonetheless it is an ambitious exhibition to produce and there is a lot of work to be seen and comprised together in one location that makes it highly worthy of anyone’s time one breezy summer’s afternoon.

Air: Visualising the Invisible in British Art 1768-2017 on at Bristol’s RWA until September 3rd

Images marked with * sourced from: https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/joseph-wright-of-derby-an-experiment-on-a-bird-in-the-air-pump; https://artuk.org/discover/artworks/balloons-61093

Monday, 7 August 2017

We aren’t in Totnes anymore....

Having read a fair amount of reviews over the years I have come to the realisation that sometimes the best ‘review’ [of a film, book, music or exhibition] can be a bad one. Sometimes a review of something can portray it as being so awful, so extreme in the distain it has caused someone, that there are people who, perhaps sensibly and logically, will do everything they can to avoid it. Alternatively there will be those who do the exact opposite, spurred on by stubborn curiosity and their own sense of judgement to see if something really is as terrible as another person’s review. Let’s be clear; there is a definite distinction between writing an informed bad review and being ignorantly offensive, but if done well occasionally a bad review can reveal more passion, honesty and sharp observation than the persuasive language written in good reviews which have the danger of being ‘nice’ but as result can offer  little substance. It is all a matter of subjectivity, one man’s bad review is another’s idea of a good time! Though some experiences warrant no reviews, only warnings and are why we do not speak of that 2008 experience at the chocolate museum  in Prague!

Ahem! To illustrate my point this week’s post highlights reviews read in retrospect of a recent experience...
I read an abundance of glowing reviews on Trip Advisor for the TimeHouse Muzeum in Totnes and I agree with all of them that describe it as a wonderful, alternative, inventive, colourful, unique and surreal experience. However, it was through the bad reviews, with their intending to be negative, but highly honest and wittily disparaging descriptions that highlighted for me exactly the things that I thought made it so special and amazing!

 This has got to be the worse attraction that we have ever seen. I wish I could have gone back in time and never visited this dreadful place.
Precisely, so bad it is in fact, good as this post aims to prove! The Narnina of Totnes. The TimeHouse Muzeum located on the main street just below the historic Eachgate arch is a nostalgic, interactive and immersive art museum compressed across four floors and outside terrace the back of a vintage record store. If ‘small rooms filled with junk, josh stick [read as joss stick] fuelled sickening smog, a trolley with old fag packets on, polyester shredded quilts against the wall to resemble clouds,’ The Beatles and yet more areas, ‘full of junk that your parents or grandparents threw out because it wasn't worth keeping’ is of appeal then this is definitely the museum for you!

Extreme Art installation possibly sells the concept behind TimeHouse better, as from the moment you step in each area is visually bursting with curious objects; old typewriters, railways signs, telephones, tvs, fans, mirrors, keys, kitchen utensils, magazines, vinyl records and so much more!  Atmospheric lighting, creative use of materials, painted walls that serve as gallery space to equally colourful paintings, coloured windows and tiled floors make it feel more like the set of the Crystal Maze than a museum. Each room themed in some way from; a Moroccan cafe, to a spy room, South Asian treasure trove, Parisian lounge, 1940/50s kitchen and cinema room to name a few. In some ways none of it holds together other than sharing an eclectic passion for the naff, kitsch, tat, vintage and nostalgia, but it is the unexpected nature of the whole thing which understandably must make it so unbearably chaotic and nonconforming to what some may expect; but brilliant to those who thrive on stimulating arrangements of objects, unusual juxtapositions and unbridled creativity.  Much thought seems to have been put into creating different atmospheres for each room from varied music, smells and lighting down to the free mint tea in the Moroccan courtyard whose smell beckons as it permeates throughout the entire ‘experience’.
Maybe the mint tea is a powerful hallucinogenic as some of the bad reviews had warned, as the proceeding floors offer equal amounts of delight as they do mystery. The Cloud 9 room, proof, if needed that this is certainly not your average ‘museum’ experience (but will keep the surprise) A kitchen installation presented alongside a row of vintage cinema chairs showing a black and white scifi movie should be utterly bonkers but somehow it works, providing the source of much fun and amusement as one ventures into the unknown of the other rooms containing equal amounts of vintage furniture and technology. More often the whole thing felt lavishly theatrical; like being in a Jean-Pierre Jeunet film, quirky, nostalgic and all heightened by the mixture of saturated oranges, greens and reds from the light coming through stained-glass windows. I loved it!   
Art and reviews of it are always going be subjective. I’d probably be as confident to say that art which doesn’t divide opinion or which doesn’t stir a sense of feeling or spark debate is probably art not worth knowing. I am grateful that places that aren’t eveyone’s cup of ‘mint’ tea, such as this, still exist. I hope that I am not alone in thinking that it has become increasingly boring to walk into so many museums and art galleries that are desperate to ‘please everyone’ and in so doing have lost any sense of individuality or identity; becoming prescriptive, cold, sterile institutions or glorified vaults for the art they contain. If TimeHouse is to be seen as a museum then it is far more humorous and inventive in how it displays objects and warmer in its interactive exhibits than many actual museums I have been to.

I hasten I must end this review here, for it is rapidly in danger of this becoming one of those good reviews I so tried to avoid!  I close in saying that this place is an unexpected and gloriously naff in that opinion dividing way but also a genuine, enthusiastically assembled, transporting wonderland to whose owners I am appreciative that they made it and chose to share it with others. I am unsure whether it is genius or just plain madness, though the two often go together...I’d say you’d have to be mad to visit this place! Consider that a compliment.
Visit: https://narniatotnes.co.uk/ for more info.

Monday, 31 July 2017

Art, Life & the Delightful Diversity of Dan Davidson

Now in his 80s, a retrospective of Dan Davidson’s art at Exeter’s PS45 Gallery (formally known as Spacex) offers audiences a unique opportunity to view a large number of paintings from the artist’s diverse sixty year career, all in one place!

Non-conforming to any one single style of painting, to view Davidson’s retrospective is to go on a visual tour of this prolific artist’s own personal history as well as that of art history itself! Evident in his apparent need to reinvent and references to other artists in his work, it becomes clear that Davidson is a painter who has discovered much about his own practice through his experiences of having taught as an art teacher and lecturer. The challenge of spotting these various visual references from movements such as Cubism and Impressionism to artists such as Cezanne, Van Gogh, Duchamp, Rothko, De Chirico and Caulfield was rewarding both mentally and visually. As Davidson fervently explores the potentials of his chosen medium through portraiture, landscapes and abstraction; his retrospective also reveals something of what appears a lifelong obsession into the possibilities of art and balance between family and life that are a search which continues to this day.
 
Eunice at Sink (1956) Oil 91 x 69cm.
What is refreshing and (and surprisingly rare) about Davidson is that his creativity seems born from a genuine desire and enthusiasm to capture and express what he sees; art is his life and life is his art! Much of what he paints, he admits, stylistically takes reference from the brushstrokes, colours or mark-making from a Van Gogh, a Cezanne or a Patrick Caulfield; however, the subject matter and hand with which he applies it is uniquely and integrally his own. You'd be forgiven for thinking that this exhibition was the work of several artists rather than one very adaptable one,

“My paintings are wilfully inconsistent in style.  The fact that they look like the work of different artists is indicative of what I am trying to achieve.” 

Born in 1931, raised in an orphanage in Lancashire before progressing into a career in Aircraft Engineering and eventually teaching and lecturing art; Davidson’s life as rich and varied as that of his paintings, but also explains the context for some of his motivation. From using his technical training in drawing to pursue a career as an artist (but ill-advised but his peers); he used his painting  as a means of self-discovery.  The artist’s biography, ‘Identity, Art and Guilt’ also chronicles his early experiences working in brewery, as a cleaner and on the water chute ride at Battersea fun fair; all ideal places, he writes, for ‘a people watcher’ and it is that sense of observation that developed his skills in looking and the ideas for many of his early portraits.
 
Dustbin Collection (1956) Oil 122 x 91.5cm.
In searching for his own identity, Davidson created his own through his art, initially drawing/painting other people. The painting of his wife, ‘Eunice at Sink’ made in 1956 is personal, as are almost all of the subjects in Davidson’s paintings though notably never so much that they are inaccessible to other people.  

 
 
A good portrait should reveal the painter as well as the sitter.

The half-impressionistic, half Vermeer-like subject matter in 'Eunice at Sink', with its warm glowing colours and gentle, loving reverence of the everyday familiarity it depicts; make the painting as engaging to us, as viewers, as (I speculate) it was for Davidson to paint.  Another early work, sadly not in this exhibition, ‘Dustbin Collection’ (1956) portrays bin men about their work in London, also captures something of this personal yet shared view on the world, whilst at the same time trying to also make sense of it. When writing about this painting Davidson refers to the shapes of the men as they carried the bins and wanting to be able to record that in his painting. It is that raw enthusiasm to the process of ‘looking’ that is so important throughout all of his work to follow. Shape, tone, texture, composition and all the formal qualities on the nature of colour and form are given full attention whether the subject be a portrait or, as in many of the more recent works, landscape in Teignmouth and Devon (where Davidson taught and currently still works).  A room in the exhibition is dedicated to many of these paintings, in ‘Full Moon over Teignmouth’ (1999) [pictured]-


Full Moon over Teignmouth (1999) Oil 122 x 90cm.
-abstract shapes, stylised architecture and cool colours creates a dreamy almost uninhabitable space reminiscent of De Chirico whilst demonstrating the skills and technical accuracy learnt as an engineer. Also in this room, night time blues against luminous yellows conjure images of what might have happened if Van Gogh painted a fishing or harbour scene. They are observed yet also strange; the ocean appears heavy and fixed, shadowy figures carry about their business in the background, light becomes physical blocks of colour, walls become pavements, pavements become buildings; it is as if at some point between depiction and expression the painterly nature of the medium takes over and the work becomes more intuitive about the capabilities of the material or an imagined impression of place rather than a documentation.  An observation perhaps best described in the artist’s own words,
 
“I am a figurative painter who works to heighten an awareness of what I see.” 
 
My only regret is that I would have liked to have seen some of the drawings and workings that led to producing these paintings (though several appear in his biography) as part of the exhibition.  

Night Fishing at Teignmouth (1999) Oil 76 x 51cm.
Never one to grow stagnant, the variety of work in this exhibition demonstrates Davidson’s need to constantly try new things and it is inspiring, for me, to see the energy and relentlessness in the quest for his searching. One of my personal favourites in the exhibition being ‘Office Blossom’ (1985) for its likeness to a Patrick Caulfield whose zen-like, simplified minimal and stripped-back depictions of interiors met with small painterly details such as wine glasses and still-life were appealing in my own work exploring the mundane/everyday. In Davidson’s painting the sterile orderliness of the office is disrupted by scatterings of paper and supplies mimicking that of the blossom tree that fills the view through the window. I enjoy its contradiction of orderly chaos as well as the imagination that something as mundane as paperwork could be given an irreverent sense of joy compared to that of blossom . Elsewhere in the exhibition hedge cutters cut chunks of painted hedges and the canvas itself to reveal hidden landscape behind, cubist cello players are depicted stylistically on vinyl, estuaries meander in red and green, sea waves crash against an invisible train, dots and dashes become ploughed hillsides, lines dance and oarsmen descend in procession as a series of abstract fleshy tones (I think you’ll get the reference here!)  It is all familiar and traditional in some sense of the word but never falls into the realms of being tired or irrelevant, if anything gaining new poignancy from when the work was originally painted, in that figurative painting isn’t as prevalent as it once was, rekindling the notion of art that is first and foremost visual as well as meaningful.    
 
Office Blossom (1985) Oil and Cryla 91 x 67cm.
“The one constant is that my medium will always be paint. In spite of the huge advances in technology, materials and methods, I still find that guiding a brush or mark-marker, in correspondence with what I observe or imagine, to be the most direct, subtle and expressive means of activating the tuition to take me beyond what I know.”

The more recent work such as ‘Fragmented Waterfall’ (2012) revisits the Japanese feel of 'Office Blossom' but from yet another different perspective, this time entirely changing the shape of the canvas from rectangular to trapezoid, colour substituted for greys and quiet realism. All proof, if ever needed, that Davidson is an artist who is still exploring new ways of working.
  
For artists just discovering Davidson’s work (like myself) this retrospective acts as a reminder to never grow complacent and not be afraid of trying new things or emulating that which inspires you. This does however come with the disclaimer that he makes all of the above look easy! More broadly speaking though,  it offers anyone who views it, an insight into the potential of paint as a medium for capturing a personalised, feeling, thinking impression of the world beyond that of what we can physically see and humbling how a whole life has and can continue to be explored through a commitment to ones art.

Dan Davidson’s Retrospective can be seen until 19 August 2017, Tuesday to Sunday 11.00- 18.30 at PS45 Gallery, Exeter. EX1 1DF

All images in this text copyright of the artist.
Quotes sourced from Davidson, D. (2015) 'Identity, Art and Guilt: An Illustrated Memoir' OSC Books. 

Friday, 7 July 2017

Viva Venezia!

This post is not intended to be read from start to finish [though by all means please do so if you feel inclined] but is a visual snapshot of my own personal highlights from this year’s Venice Biennale 2017. In its 57th year and featuring artists from all over the world, this year’s central exhibition ‘Viva Arte Viva’ goes some way in proving that art is indeed ‘not dead’. The sublime, the ridiculous, the poetic and the political, there really is MUCH to be inspired by. Presented here are 16 of those artworks/pavilions some of which can be seen across the city for free and others within the ticketed Giardini and Arsenale Biennale sites themselves. Enjoy!

The Venice Biennale is on until 26th November 2017, for further info visit: http://www.labiennale.org/en/Home.html    


Britain – Phyllida Barlow ‘Folly’
It is difficult not to smile when first encountering Barlow’s work; colourful, larger than life, every piece installed within each space in a different way. I first saw Barlow’s work on a scale such as this at Hauser and Wirth in Bruton when it first opened in 2014. Her treatment of the British pavilion does not disappoint, columns in the central disrupt how viewers negotiate the room, followed by wracks of stained cloth, more tubes, blobs infiltrate the space outside and stacked boulder-like fabrications make up this ambitious and playful offering from the British artist now in her 70s. That play soon becomes more threatening however, as viewers have to squeeze past and lean around the gallery rooms, forced to alter their route by the sheer scale of some of these pieces and that they often occupy the walls, leaning outwards, other times suspended or simply plonked as a giant mod-rock clad obstruction. There is a lot of recycling and use of cheap readily available materials in her work that makes it feel exciting and accessible in the way she sees potential and use in such everyday things. If shape, form, colour, texture, volume are some of the ways we aesthetically perceive sculpture then Folly is an excellent example of what sculpture can offer.

 
Romania – Geta Brătescu ‘Apparitions’*

In what looks like a retrospective of the Romanian artist’s work since the 1960s, Geta Brătescu’s drawings, collages, engravings, tapestries, objects, photographs and experimental film are displayed in the Romanian Pavillion at the Giardini. Spanning themes of ‘the studio’ and ‘space within-it’ along with reflections on female subjectivity; there is rather a lot to see. She studied both art and literature, evident in references of both in her work, one example being a series of drawings based on Faust. “In Brătescu’s practice the real, physical space meshes with the inner, intimate space and becomes part of the sphere of art....exploring phenomenology –her own hands...tension between the representational and non representational.” It made me think of outsider art in the way that it felt so personal, its quantity the product of obsession –this is a person finding things out about themselves and their context through making and doing on a prolific scale. I thought the hand drawings were exquisite and admired their difference to the loser, more expressive drawings. That duality interests me as it is something I am often at conflict with in my own work.

 
Israel   – Gal Weinstein ‘Sun Stand Still’
“Weinstein critically explores the mythological and Romantic images of Zionism embedded in Israel’s collective memory. The project reflects his fascination with the desire to stop time, with potential forms of construction, destruction, progress and devastation.” Mould and coffee are used to suggest the passing of time, allegory or a post-apocalyptic vision of Israel. ‘Jezreel Valley in the dark’ [pictured] consists of puzzle-shaped agricultural plots filled with coffee dregs that gradually grow mould at different rates. The smell that greats you isn’t very pleasant, nor probably is the realisation that it is mould all over the walls and floor, but for me I love the idea of having a changing installation at different stages of decay and where else can you view it and critique it in the context of being ‘art’. Here the natural process of the mould decaying is used to represent political or urban decay, the sprawl of time and how mould, like urban generation/degeneration can spread.


John Waters – Study Art [For Breeding or Bounty]
You’ve got to love a super kitsch; pop art style sign about studying art if you’re an artist don’t you? I certainly do and Waters’s series of ‘Study Art’ signs take his own intentions and turns language into a double meaning of a consumerist nature. Known for his film directing, (‘Pink Flamingos’) Waters, I learn, was once described by William S Burroughs as, ‘the Pope of bad Taste’. I like him even more! Deconstructing the clichés of the politically correct he is as debatably offensive as he is Duchampian-ly witty. If anything the humour of these pieces reminded me that it is important to not always [if at all] take art too seriously. Especially those who study art, these signs should be made available within every art department!


Republic of Korea – Lee Wan ‘Proper Time’
“Over 600 clocks engraved with the names, birthdates, nationalities and occupations of individuals interviewed from around the world. Each clock moves at a different rate that is determined by the amount of time the individual must work in order to afford a meal.” A lot of the Biennale feels like spectacle; which piece will be the biggest, most outrageous, most ambitious, most photogenic, most political or get its participants to do the strangest things? It is hugely competitive, with every work, every pavilion asking for everyone’s time to engage, therefore it is quite hard to determine whether one is interested in a work for genuine reasons or whether it all becomes a bit throw-away or commercialised.  Lee Wan’s ‘Proper Time’ is one piece in a two-man exhibition in the Republic of Korea pavilion. The way in which you approach this work is by having to duck under and through a very low doorway into a white-walled room filled with the sound of ticking clocks. It is intentionally humbling, having to almost bow in order to enter this space; a sign of respect perhaps to the people whose time is being exhibited. The speed of the care-worker’s clock from Britain significantly slower than that of the hotelier in Abu Dhabi, though quicker than that of the cobbler from Budapest; these kinds of comparisons intentional in what becomes a vast visual representation displaying the scale of global inequality. It is fitting too that it is a part of an exhibition as a whole that explores themes of cultural identity.



Argentina – Claudia Fontes ‘The Horse Problem’
There is no problem in ‘The Horse Problem, well at least not one I can see, unless of course the problem is that this horse sculpture is inexplicably huge! The idea behind the creation of the work was to present “...the relationship between man and his horse which is the basis for the nation’s founding myth....the animal kept captive in a prison [the Arsenale] built by its own motive power.” The artist Claudia Fontes speaks of the use of horses to forge, plough and build. That relationship she explains led to the building of borders and territories that we now challenge and cause many self-inflicted problems in how people and the land live together. It is a timely concept and one that current writer’s such as Ulrich Raluff are exploring in his book, ‘Farewell to the Horse’ though I am unsure if I would get much of that impression from the work itself it has certainly ignited my interest in finding out more.


Andora – Eve Ariza ‘Murmuri’ (Murmur)
Are they bowls? Are they mouths? Are they something other? However you see it, there are an awful lot of them in the Andora pavilion. Each one made in clay corresponding to different human skin tones, formed into the shape of a bowl as a symbol of, ‘the first container of truth’ they are meant as an offering of unity between languages. Each bowl becoming a listening vessel from which to hear the vibrations and subtle murmurings amidst the hustle and bustle of the Biennale. It is beautifully simple, the moulded bowls also form mouths and the ease in which meaning can be gleaned from this work was refreshing.


Republic of Azerbaijan – Elvin Nabizade
As part of the exhibition, ‘Under One Sun’ Azerbaijan hopes to present, the polychromi of culture in their country, “from its origins and traditional forms up to its different present manifestations”. There were several well executed immersive video installations within this exhibition but for me personally I could not resist the visual joy of seeing beautiful instruments suspended in sphere and arching forms from the ceiling.  


Japan – Takahiro Iwasaki ‘Turned Upside Down, It’s a Forest’
Stacks of arranged books on a table become a representation of a mountain and skyscrapers. A citadel from which delicate threads of cotton from towels become steel towers, cranes and oilrigs. These are the fine crafting of Takahiro Iwasaki who uses everyday objects to make small interventions that signify both traditional and new landscapes in Japanese culture; from large mountains to chemical plants that stand along Hiroshima’s coast to a shrine built above the sea. They are playful yet superbly handcrafted, quietly commanding attention not for their scale but for their subtlety.   


Italy – Giorgio Andreotta Calo ‘Untitled (The End of the World)’*
Andreotta Calo goes where Richard Wilson has previously gone with what, for the sake of argument is much larger, but visually very similar version of 20:50 that uses water as its reflective surface rather than oil. Despite the enormous space it occupies in the Italian pavilion it is just one artwork in the overall exhibition ‘The Magical World’ featuring three artists whose work we are told, shares, “...transformative power of the imagination and an interest in magic...” The surprise with this particular piece comes from first experiencing it from underneath; the viewer enters the installation to what appears to be a low dark ceiling suspended in place by a forest of metal scaffolding poles. As you traverse through this space you eventually come to a set of steep metal stairs leading upwards. The view at the top is initially disappointing as it is confusing; the stairs hit a brick wall. Nothing special about it; it isn’t until you turn-around that the trick is revealed. What was a ceiling held up by scaffolding was in fact a floor for a very, very large pool of water. This water reflects the architectural beams of the Arsenale pavilion playing with our sense of balance and creating another illusion. All three artists in this exhibition made intriguing work, the premise that, “...magic is not an escape into the depths of irrationality, but rather a new way of experiencing reality.” Of all the concepts in this year’s Biennale this was one that I thought was a refreshing change from the otherwise largely political agenda and I think it is important to remember in times as politically fraught as these of other forms of experiencing the world, a little magic maybe can go a long way.


New Zealand – Lisa Reihana ‘Emissaries’
In a panoramic, partly filmed, partly animated video projection ‘in Pursuit of Venus’ Māori and Pacific perspectives are shown in a re-imagining of the wallpaper, ‘Les Sauvages de la Mer Pacifique’ that, in 1769 referenced Pacific voyages of James Cook. It depicts real and invented narratives of cartographic and scientific exploration which happen simultaneously and on a scrolling loop from right to left so as to appear as life-size, moving wallpaper. For its use of animation mixed with filming it was distinctly memorable and along with its wit in showing a different perspective in a visually creative way.


Mexico – Carlos Amorales ‘Life in the Folds’*
“From abstract paper cut-outs [Carlos Amorales] created an illegible alphabet, which evolved into a series of ceramic wind instruments –ocarinas- producing a particular sound for each letter.”  Viewing the Mexican pavilion felt like an experience in trying to decipher and understand something. Upon entering the first thing one sees is a dozen flat white, table-like surfaces with hundreds of black ocarinas laid out systematically. Without having read anything it was a real mystery to solve. How we understand language and how it is constructed is exactly the point of Amorales’s work and a visual language is perhaps no different in the way in which we attempt to interpret and ‘make sense’ of things. The ocarinas here represent an abstract language, visually they looked like shapes, symbols or birds to me, but further into the exhibition a film depicting them being played turns the typographical into the phonetic. I thought how the work in this exhibition was displayed was successful to interpreting its meaning, it felt museum-like and I enjoyed the challenge of it.


Tunisia – ‘The Absence of Paths’*
Set across three one-man sized booths in the Arsenale and across Venice visitors are invited to participate in registering for their very own Freesa; a protest travel document whose recipients ‘effectively endorse a philosophy of universal freedom of movement’. Part performance, part protest the work ‘The Absence of Paths’ creatively engages with the debate around migration. The passport sized pamphlet visitors are given articulates the idea behind the work very succinctly, “The world over, human migration –once a symbol for our continued social evolution –is facing headwinds from populist nationalistic movements. Diverse rhetoric centred on the building of walls and policing of borders is worryingly translating into action and is considered normal.” I thought this was a really effective idea and powerful way to engage people’s interest. Everyone who participates in the performance at the Biennale leaves their name and email address, making it a great case for unity and understanding given much of current world events.


Taus Makhacheva ‘Tightrope’ 2015
In what was possibly one of my favourite video works from this year’s Biennale, Russian-Dagestani artist, Taus Makhacheva films a performance by Rasul Abakarov (descendant of a famous tightrope dynasty) “carry sixty-one art works copied from the museum of Dagestan between two mountains, from open air to a black structure reminiscent of museum storage.” At whatever point you encounter this film during its play, there is something very mesmerising about the task of which is unfurling before your eyes. Maybe it is the sense of danger and suspense from traversing the tightrope whilst carrying often large precariously balanced paintings or maybe it is the repetition of watching this activity play-out a dozen or so times that makes it so watchable. Will he drop one of the paintings [I hope not]? The viewer is compelled to watch and see. The film is also a curious way of viewing art works, the paintings suspended or carried move from one side of the mountain to the other giving us a panning view of each one as it travels by set against the stunning backdrop of the mountain range. It is as pleasing as it is unusual and subtly suggests how context is significant in how we view artworks. Once across they are safely and carefully stored, the pieces contained a comment on how museums deal with their storage and never exhibited art works. Politically Makhacheva’s dual heritage of being both Russian and Dagestani prohibits her to explore themes of how the West challenges invisible heritage, using elements in her work from both tradition and the present.


 Michal Cole ‘Neverland’ 2017
I don’t think I have ever seen a projection displayed in a bathroom before...? All the work in the Pavilion of Humanity is presented inside rooms of a house. There are faces and mouths projected inside saucepans in the kitchen, the ‘gentleman’s’ living room is floor to ceiling with every item of furniture clad in 27,000 neckties! In ‘Neverland’ a woman on a gondola in 1950s dress attempts the futile task of mopping-up the water of Venice’s canals. She is the artist’s interpretation of the Greek mythological figure of Sisyphus, her plight a visual representation of ‘the never ending task’. Subsequently the work is also a comment on, “the struggle of women to navigate the minefield of identity in an increasingly impossible and sometimes hostile society.” All the work in this exhibition created by the Israeli born and British-based artist alongside Turkish artist, Ekin Onat is a protest against global patriarchy.

The backdrop of global protest against the oppression of women, which saw millions around the world take to the streets earlier this year, “has made this work feel more powerful, definitely”, said Cole...But as well as commenting on the wider issues faced by women around the world today, the piece also comes from a deeply personal place for Cole. Her grandmother was a child bride, married off at 11 and gave birth at age 12. Cole also grew up in Israel and served her mandatory time in the military, where sexual assault has long been an issue swept under the carpet...”

I thought the context of the house or home was a meaningfully loaded place in which to show these works, the everyday domesticity of it and its familiarity took the understanding of the work outside of the gallery, which often feels very detached and put it into our real life.


Ibrahim Mahama –Ghana 1901-2030, 2016
A wall of worn shoemaker boxes obstructs the largest room of the Palazzo Contarini Polignac as part of the Future Generation Art Prize. It isn’t obvious at first quite what they are and until you get close do you notice polishing brushes and buckles in amongst the boxes that begin to give away what their purpose once was. It is revealed that these are exchanged shoemaker boxes, exchanged for new ones by the artist whose other well known work includes cladding buildings in used jute sacks from Ghana to transport coffee, rice and charcoal. Mahama uses these everyday items of work as raw material with which it is, “…possible to disrupt and subvert the politics of spaces by granting them new forms, imposing new meanings upon them, or divesting them of their intended significance.” These low-grade materials of everyday use displayed here on mass create a visual awareness of the scale and plight of our reliance on the work of the many individuals within these industries. On one level it seems wrong that these objects of use should be displayed so as to be viewed on their visual aesthetic and beauty, but the significance that each one has been collected by exchanging it for something new makes the work far more socially engaged than it does purely on aesthetics.

Whilst most of the pictures here are my own, the ones marked with a * have been sourced online via the following sites: http://moussemagazine.it; http://www.cultweek.com; http://www.e-flux.com; http://www.kurimanzutto.com/index.php/artists/carlos-amorales