Sunday, 28 April 2013

Kurt Schwitters - What a load of rubbish!

A couple of weeks ago I visited the exhibition, ‘Schwitters in Britain’ at the Tate Britain [catch it if you can, it’s on until the 12th of May]. Previously I’ve been lucky enough to view one or two of Schwitters’ collages and mixed-media works in collections in modern art galleries throughout Europe; every time seeing one of his ‘jewel-like’, multi-layered, aged, delicate and weathered creations and thinking, ‘I’d love to see a collection of his work someday.’   Then on Tuesday 9th April, that day finally came!
Here are a few of my thoughts...
 Initially I was surprised by the scale of most of his work, a lot smaller than I had thought, but soon got distracted into the intensity of colours, painterly compositions and shapes, structures and forms. After keeping my ‘drawing a day’ diary for four months now, I am beginning to realise just what sort of things, specifically, that I find aesthetically appealing. Objects with a strong sense of form, shape, design particularly being favoured over those with more ephemeral, less tangible outlines and structure. For example, I think if I was asked to draw ‘light’ I would want to depict it as quite solid shafts and lines as to depicting its softness or affects of light hitting the edges/surfaces of other objects. I digress from Schwitters, but the point here being, that the structure and content of his work is what appeals to me most; the shapes created from his overlapping scrapes of paper as to the actual colour and textures of the paper itself. Schwitters described the use of objects/found-materials in his work as, ‘having equal rights with paint’, which I think echoes a little bit of what I said previously that the structure and content of the work is made from the objects within it acting in a similar way to how paint is normally used to create structure and content.
 ‘Anything with a stone’ - This reminds me of Kandinsky’s painting ‘Red, yellow, blue’.
It would be easy to make comparisons of Schwitters’ work to Picasso’s early collages so I’m simply going to mention it and then move swiftly on because it is the influence that Schwitters had on his predecessors that is actually a lot more interesting. With Schwitters’ deployment of the theory of Merz as, ‘essentially the combination of all conceivable materials for artistic purposes’ in his art; another crucial stepping stone was laid on the path towards ‘the everyday’ in an ‘as’ art. Influences of which can be seen in Pop Art particularly Richard Hamilton, Rauschenberg and Daniel Spoerri. Consequently, the more I think work I see by artists who were part of Dada (Schwitters, Duchamp, Man Ray etc) the more clearly I can see how much of what they did fed into what later became Pop Art. Pop Art being the more commercial, glossy mass produced younger sibling of Dada but still with its same values of the everyday, play and experimentation with ‘what is art?’ at its core.
 There’s a feeling of nostalgia with Schwitters’ work, apart from literally looking worn, stained and aged the colours, textures and patterns in the work feel old-fashioned. They remind me of wooden toys, fairground games or pub signs whose paint is beginning to chip, fade and peel off. The piece titled, ‘Merz Picture 46 A. The Skittle Picture’ does actually comprise itself of wooden playing pieces in a box frame composition and look like the leftovers from some battered old pub game. Play, of course being a factor in the making of Schwitters’ work as, to some extent, must have been an element of chance; after all most of the materials used in his collages were scrapes and throw-away objects. Part of me wonders if this is simply because the content within the collages is itself now old (sweet wrappers, bus tickets, newspapers, metal, feathers etc) and I wonder if they felt as ‘aged’ at the time they were created? A modern-day Schwitters collage would be drastically more intense in its colour palette, textures and surfaces due to the wide selection of materials, glossy papers and printing inks that are commonplace today. Or, perhaps more than likely, he wouldn’t be doing collage from paper scrapes but taking on digital mediums and left overs/waste? Collage from the content not of our bins but our computers recycle bins?! Modern-day Merz.

There were elements to this exhibition that felt a little bit empty, that it was all a little bit ‘nice’ and I wanted to be challenged a bit more, made to think, which the installation of the ‘Merz Barn’ (large scale plaster sculptural works comprising of found objects that filled rooms and created immersive environments for the viewer) did go some way in challenging my expectations as did a surreal performance piece called ‘Ursonate’ but perhaps I was looking for something more, but not really knowing what that was. Neither was I particularly a fond of his free standing sculptures made from stone, wood or bone and plaster. That’s of course completely subjective and it is good to see the other sides to Schwitters’ practice, but they only acted as additions to the painted and collage work which were really the stars of the show and completely captivated my attention. 
'En Morn'
Equally I was so busy looking at work didn’t pay too much heed to context that the work was made in, for example Schwitters’ time during the war exiled from Germany to be interned on the Isle of Man to his involvement in London art scene and influences that the Lake District had on his work up until his death in 1948. It seems that despite the amount of art I subject myself to seeing that I never really take as much attention and enthusiasm to understanding the context surrounding the work. Retrospectively, I did find something interesting in the way in which Schwitters’ collages made during his time living in the Lake District used more organic and natural found materials in his collages than when he was living in London where the work took on a more urban feel, but I think maybe I would have noticed these differences eventually anyway without having known when/where they were made. I feel the same way about music and that really I am only interested greatly in the music itself and very rarely if at all know anything about the band/artist that produce it. Does it change how I feel about the music if I know the lead singer’s favourite colour is blue? Or that they used to be a furniture maker?  Would Schwitters’ have minded if I sort-of ignorantly, if unintentionally, paid no attention to his life and situation he found himself in during his time in Britain? Or maybe that would have been just what he intended, he himself stating, ‘The picture is a self-sufficient work of art. It is not connected to anything outside.’ With that in mind I’ll leave it for you to decide whether I made the right decision upon seeing, ‘Schwitters in Britain’ in noticing less of the ‘Britain’ part and instead  focusing more on the ‘Schwitters’.

Images from:

Wednesday, 3 April 2013

Barcelona! Top 10

Hola from, er, sunny England! Back from my four day Barcelona art, architecture, museum, alternative transport, sangria, cheese and ham, ham and cheese extravaganza! So much to take in at the time so what better way to reflect and muse on my adventures than with a rather self-indulgent post featuring my top, uh 10 (or-so) highlights....and you never know it could also be useful. In no particular order!

1. La Pedrera aka Casa Mila
The first of a few Gaudi buildings to mention in this post. To go to Barcelona and not visit or see any of the Spanish architect, Gaudi's buildings would be a bit like going to Paris and not seeing the Eiffel Tower. In tourism terms they are the same, but when it comes to originality and imagination then in my opinion Gaudi wins hands-down. This building with its cave-like curving form and seaweed-like metal work is amazing on the outside, equally impressive inside and takes a whole new definition of the word incredible once you reach the roof [pictured here]. Never before have I wanted to draw a building so much, 'The shapes, the shapes, the shapes!' A cross between the organic and the mechanical, the forms are hard-edged yet soft, curving and undulating. Ha ha, it sounds kind-of ridiculous in words, but how best to describe the wacky-ness and strangeness of it all? So much of my views on architecture comes from the 'function dictating form' this place is so completely different, whilst it is still 'functional' the function has been designed to fit the form and not the other way round-hence you get chimney stacks that look like seashells or helmeted-soldiers and windows that curve and bend to fit the shape of the wall. Exploring this place with its many steps, ups and downs, doorways and arches felt like being in some sort of stage-set  or play park where you weren't really sure where you were going only that it was going to be fun to get there.

2. Casa Batllo
Yet another Gaudi building situated on the same street as La Pedrera [Passeig de Gracia]. With Casa Batllo, however its beauty is in its attention to detail. On a street built up around art nouveau buildings and features (which can be seen in the street lights, paving stones etc.) Casa Batllo seems as though it has sprouted and taken root like an alien-hybrid that both fits in and stands-out at in the area it finds itself in. Art nouveau and the natural forms that inspire it, again, being the order-of-the-day and windows framed by branch/bone-like pillars, shell-like balconies, reptilian-like mosaic make up the outside and inside, mushrooms, light, fish, gills sunbursts, flowers, spines, ribs, seed pods and more is just a few analogies to natural forms that can be seen in the buildings design. The attention to detail that I referred to earlier manifesting itself in the form of door handles shaped to the form of a human hand and plaster door surrounds that have been sculpted with human hand marks to look like waves/seaweed. I can remember studying ergonomics briefly during my Graphics GCSE, and how boring it was, but in relation to this work it would be fantastic. Regardless of whether you are a painter, a sculptor, an architect or a designer, I think there is so much that buildings have to offer in the way of how we understand shape, light, colour, textures as well as the more philosophical debates on how bodies habituate spaces and social/political dynamics of occupying/using these buildings and how they make us think, feel and behave.    

3. Sagrada Familia
The last Gaudi building on the list and certainly the most popular. The Sagrada Familia is the iconic Barcelona church and was worked on by the 31 year old Gaudi up until his untimely death. As a result of many of Gaudi's plans being lost during the Spanish Civil War the building remains unfinished and still causes controversy as to whether it should be finished in his honour or not. The cranes that permanently surround the building seem to also make up the architecture....the world's most famous unfinished building?! Although it does not take away from the outstanding achievement of the parts, I presume are finished and for me personally, I don't need to say a lot here other than, 'would you take a look at that ceiling!' Really, it is spectacular and the mind boggles as to what Gaudi may have continued to do had he been allowed to finish it. This is a building of two completely different sides; the back of the church looks like the famous Hokusai, 'Great Wave of Kanagawa' painting where Gaudi has made stone look fluid, wave-like and as though its melting down the building in between images of saints and lizards whereas on the other side it actually looks quite 'normal' and what you would expect a very grand church entrance to look like. I enjoyed the contrast.

4. Parc Guell
Is it a cave? Is it a palm tree? Wood or stone? Feeling pretty intrepid on the first day in Barcelona after visiting all the Gaudi buildings it made sense to complete the set and visit the park Gaudi designed, Parc Guell. Again, you might be able to see from the image above that it is equally imaginative in terms of design. The park also features the famous serpent bench, lizard fountain and buildings and gateways that look like gingerbread houses, sandcastles or something out of a dream. 

5. Arts Santa Monica
Right at the end of Las Ramblas [Barcelona's main shopping street] lies Arts Santa Monica. This isn't on the list of the main art galleries listed to visit in Barcelona but in my opinion was actually one of the best [and its free]. Much bigger inside than it looks in this photo, it actually spanned three massive floors and on my visit here featured an exhibition of photography titled, 'From here on'. I'm not a huge fan of photography but found the selection  in the way that they chose work that was challenging the realms of 'what photography could be' and diversity of how it was presented to be really refreshing. The theme of the exhibition was around new media IE the Internet, mobile phones, streaming, blogging etc and reflected on the very satirical and witty and also disturbing consequences of living in a digital, image entrenched age. Pretty much every gallery I visited in Barcelona featured or was currently showing a special exhibition on photography, which was also pretty intriguing and has made me wonder if this was endemic of photography becoming increasingly prominent medium in contemporary art at the moment? Either way, this was a really good exhibition.

The image above was a view taken from up top Castell de Montjuic [a former fortress used for military operations] and was a short cable car ride [coincidentally also my first ever time in a cable car] away from the Joan Miro museum.  The view overlooking Barcelona's harbour and [pictured here] shipping containers was impressive and could almost be a separate number in the top ten on its own, but I wanted to include it here in relation to the exhibition on at Arts Santa Monica.
So....Below is an image from the exhibition, by artist Jenny Odell, titled '195 Cargo Ships, Barges, Motorboats, Yachts, Tankers, Cruise Ships, Riverboats, Sailboats and Hospital Ships'. I think the connection between this and my own tourist photo above should be pretty obvious but I found something interesting visually about the grid formation, organising and collating of 'stuff' [in this case boats or dock containers]. Maybe this comes from my own research into collections of tools and tool catalogues nonetheless it is a visual theme that I kept getting drawn to. Maybe I like the organisation of things but also I think I like the way objects/things are interpreted once they become part of a big collection. For example the boats below in Odell's photo don't necessarily stand out as being recogniseable as boats at first glance, it almost becomes an abstract image of lines and colour or the boats become spear-heads or fragmented archaelogical reminants until you inspect them further. I'm really interested in these kinds of images, Odell's other work explores other arial shots of collections of swimming pools, basketball courts and grain silos. Presenting them in this way they end up looking like maps where they join together and seeing the arial view of quite familiar sites highlights their differences and creates, literally and metaphorically a new perspective on how we see them.


Briefly, before I move on to the next point the photography of Penelope Umbrico also was also pretty interesting. Again, the 'collection' and griding is present (which I don't really think about or notice at the time) but this piece is a trompe l'oeil and what appear to look like a series of mirrors are actaully photos of mirrors. How do you take a photo or a mirror? Surely you can only ever take a photo of what is refelected in a mirror and can only define the mirror itself by its edges/frame? I love the games and thinking that this work plays, similarly I also think using the mirror as a frame to take images of the inside of a room/an interior is also very interesting. What does a mirror 'see' when there's no one there? The illusion of being confronted with a wall of mirrors that aren't really mirrors not being able to see one's reflection is also amusing and raises questions into the realms of who is the viewer/who is the viewed etc. Roy Lichtenstein did a whole series of paintings of mirrors that were more about creating a stylised representation of the shiney/reflective surface of mirrors where as these images are more about the image seen in the mirror...I suppose what I'm getting at here is that there is so much play that can be made creating images of/using mirrors because of the many layers and surfaces of seeing/reflection that they incapsulate. There's a whole project there...waiting to be started. Mirrors.

6. Antoni Tapies 'Foot'/The roof of The Tapies Museum
Of course no trip to Barcelona would be complete without a visit to the Tapies museum aka Fundacio Antoni Tapies. I'm a fan of his painting, but for the purposes of my top ten I want to highlight things that held particular and specific interest for me personally. Tapies' sculpture 'Foot' is disturbingly skewered with tools, I haven't found out exactly why -it wasn't unusual for Tapies to include/embed everyday objects in the surface of his paitings or in his sculptures but I am curious to know if there was any significance to tools being placed into an effigy of a foot. Looks painful! Maybe the tools are the tools that were used to make the sculpture/carving of the foot and refer to its own making? Still, there are tools involved so I'm interested and in relation to the body [or part-of] so I'm doubly interested.
The roof to the Tapies museum has this huge wire sculpture above it where it sits like a cloud or birds nest. Later I find out it was created as an intervention to the building by Tapies and is actually called, 'Cloud and Chair'. Funny, I couldn't see the chair [an emblem frequently used by Tapies] at the time but having looked at some photos of the building online since I think I can now pick it out. Anyway, I took much joy in seeing the lines, textures and different densities of blackness [it reminded me of a drawing/the process of drawing] where they crossed and intersected and thought it was an exciting contrast to have this wild, loose, fluid form sitting on top the weighty, hard-edged, grand mansion that is the museum.

7. Caxia Forum
Another gallery that maybe gets easily missed by tourists as its right next door to the National Gallery which steals the show in terms of grand entrances (its vast!) but the Caxia Forum is definitely worth a visit and makes my top ten! Hosting two exhibitions [free entry] when I visited, 'What to think, What to desire, What to do' [a small exhibition of sculpture, film and painting from national and international artists]and 'Seduced by Art' which was another photography exhibition that was brilliant as it focused on artists making transcriptions from old paintings. Fantastic! Straight away I am reminded of the exhibition, 'Encounters' that Britain's National Gallery curated in 2000 where they had 24 contemporary artists make work in response to paintings in the National Gallery's collection. I never got to see that exhibition, but as a young art student we did a project on transcriptions whose influence no doubt came from the Encounters exhibition. It was one of the best projects we ever did and so I was very excited to see something similar in Barcelona. One of my favourite images being, 'Blow Up: Untitled 5' by Ori Gersht as a transcription of a painting called 'The Rosy wealth of June' by Ignace-Henri-Theodore Fantin-Latour. Gersht's photographic image looks like a painting, perhaps more of a Jackson Pollock, but nonetheless it looks painterly. There's a whole post that needs to be written just on this exhibition, but for me if I had to articulate what is so exciting about these kinds of exhibtions is that the present work creates an imediacy of being able to relate to the image and how its read that as a viewer I can then transfer to how I read/relate to the older work. In other words it makes it makes the past work more accessable and in-turn makes one notice and then in some cases appreciate the work more.


8. Museo de Frederic Mares
My goodness, just when I didn't think there could be anything exciting left to talk about and I have quite honestly saved one of the best til last. The Museo de Frederic Mares is a gem of a museum and is on a par in my estimation with Pitt Rivers in Oxford. For anyone that loves stuff, things, tat, objects and collections then this place is for you. Initially the museum appears to be a collection of the sculptors carvings of saints, christ, the madona etc. but explore further up to the first floor and find rooms dedicated to the artists many colletions. Rooms of keys, cigarette cards, pipes, lead soldiers, dolls, watches, canes, seashells, opera glasses, glasses, bicycles and more and more.....!!! So wonderful, so much to see and seeing it all arranged in cases, framed and rows one cannot help but see it all as art. Which it invariably is.

9. Joan Miro 'Figure with Umbrella' and 'Sobretexium with eight umbrellas'
And now another colourful insight into some of my many obsessions, two works by the Catalan artist and sculptor, Joan Miro featuring umbrellas. All the time I spent in the first year on my degree disecting umbrellas, covering them in paint, drawing them and suspending them when all it may have taken was something so elegantly simple as hanging one open of the side of a wooden, er, figure. And don't get me started on the painting below, who knew that Miro used umbrellas!? This piece looks like a Rauschenberg or a surreal piece of sheet music where the notes are replaced by umbrellas and staves by inky bursts of paint. What would it sound like?...I'm getting carried away, but only in the excitment of the variety of mark-making, shapes, textures and elements within the work that make this piece such a wonderful find.  

10. Exploring the city streets -Random finds
This last point in my top ten is a bit of a cheat, but is in all honesty something that I enjoy doing in any city. Finding the higgle-piggle allyways, labyrinthian paths and courtyards in Barcelona's Barri Gothic [Gothic Quarter] are both beautiful architecturally and in atmosphere [pictured above]. Somewhere near this area [near La Seu] we also found an amazing market [pictured below] which I suppose was like the food version of the Frederic Mares Museum just a whole lot busier. Finally, along the Rambla de Raval discovering this weird fat cat statue by Fernando Botero that reminded me a bit of the cat bus in 'My neighbour Totoro' for those of you who are into you Japanses animation. It was one of those pleasant surprises that you get when you're a tourist in a city for the first time.   

Hopefully There'll be another top ten from another city or location soon! Thanks for reading.