Thursday, 27 March 2014

I like balloons, a lot

Creed-ites or art boffins among you may recognise the deliberate pun in the title of this week’s blog post as a reference to Turner Prize winning, Scottish born artist, Martin Creed’s song ‘I like things’. That’s your first clue, the second being that the artist’s retrospective, ‘What’s the point of it?’ at the Hayward Gallery is most memorable (if the catalogue image/poster and my friends photos online are anything to go by) for a room installation filled with nearly seven thousand white balloons in which the viewer(s) can immerse and loose themselves in childlike joy or claustrophobic terror. This piece, titled ‘Work No. 200 Half the Air in a Given Space’ represents one in an ongoing series of numbered works by Creed, the balloons become a visible manifestation of the air around us, whereby the half the air in the given space is measured and equated into filling the number of balloons to equal it. Why? Sounds like pretty conceptual stuff, but when asked, Creed states ‘I don’t believe in conceptual art. I don’t know what it is. I cannot spate ideas from feelings...Work comes from feelings and goes towards and ends up as feelings.’ Hmmmm....I ain't buying it, the bullshit alarm has been activated and it’s likely to be the first of many in this exhibition of the artist’s work from the last twenty years. This is by no means a criticism as I think the artist is all too aware that his works which include brick walls, curtains opening and closing, blobs of blu-tack and prints of broccoli often descend into the pretentious or ‘bullshit’. It is one view that is perhaps because ‘Creed feels ambiguous and conflicted in himself and wants to share that with a public who feel the same thing.’ Is it a questioning of what exactly it means to have your art ‘taken seriously’ and whether play, observation, wit and, yes, bullshit can be art? What is genuine and what is taking the piss? Maybe Creed's work is about his feelings, but I am not convinced. Does it matter? Much of these ideas have been touched upon in art before but what does Creed’s work present for today and a new generation of artists/art-goers?

I am probably not alone in never being entirely sure how to ‘take’ Creed’s comments about his work. The kind-of honesty and simplicity in his responses can either come across as a dumbing-down, ignorance, ambiguity, pretentiousness or refreshing almost zen-like, minimalist wisdom and clarity on depending how you interpret it. Another example, ‘I find it difficult to make judgements, to decide one thing is more important than the other. So what I try and do is to choose without having to make decisions. At the same time a non-decision is still a decision and to choose everything is still to decide.’ What a contradiction, it’s almost a waste of words but love him of loathe him, he does make a counterpoint in challenging how we perceive conceptual art and whether he ‘likes’ the label of being a conceptual artist or not it’s difficult to talk about Creed without going into the continually shifting realm of ideas, meaning and interpretation where nothing is tangible and constantly changing.
Feeling uncomfortable? I know beginning to write about Creed feels as though swimming out to sea without a life raft, pretty quickly I find myself out of depth. I wonder does the prospect of dealing with paying to see an exhibition in which some of the work is a scrunched-up ball of paper, an automated door opening and closing and film of a person vomiting  give you cause to sit with head in hands and despair at what has become of art?! Good, because if so then this is probably the best thing for you. Those of us who are more familiar with the ‘everything can be art’ concept, jaded by the legacy of urinals, irons, pickled sharks and unmade beds walk around Creed’s exhibition probably just a tad too cynical. Although not cynical enough (yet) to not think it’s worth trying and in fact it turned-out to be a surprisingly healthy thing to experience (as far as seeing a video of a woman crap on the floor and an erect penis, can be described as a 'healthy thing to experience' then, yes. Ha ha). I don’t think Creed intentionally tries to make his audience feel uncomfortable, he doesn’t use a lot of fancy ‘art speak’ or terminology that inflates his work with an authority or sense of importance. In fact, quite the opposite, it’s more a case of ‘it is what it is’, almost a one-liner. If you have a problem with seeing a woman crap on the floor then that's normal, that's human. The awkwardness comes more from our own expectations of what we assume art to be, for example, an artist sees the piece, ‘Work No.79’ and can see it is a lump of blu-tack pressed on the wall, but they bring the ‘baggage’ of placing interpretation and an expectation that it must be more profound, meaningful, ironic and researched than just sticking a lump of blu-tack to the wall. The context of the work being in a gallery also throws the reading of the work into having ‘value’, conviction and or merit that we stereotype with the credibility of the gallery as a brand or institution of art. The result is that we are kind-of tricked into thinking perhaps too much when really we don’t need to. Maybe the approach is more simple, ‘it is a lump of blu-tack on the wall, how funny and should that sort-of thing be allowed in an art gallery?’ It’s impossible to write about Creed’s work without writing about rules and whether there are any when it comes to art, and if not then why aren’t more of us exhibiting our detritus, play and interventions with our surroundings?

I don’t have the answers to these questions but feel that we need an artist like Creed to stir things up, to be the one that speaks plainly, pleads ignorance and does things seemingly for the sheer sake of doing them. To his credit, he is pretty prolific and explores many mediums from music, to film, installation, drawing, printing, painting, kinetic works, sculpture, interaction. Each time seemingly applying a simplistic logic to his work, in ‘Work No. 1092’ a huge neon sign saying ‘mothers’ (its 12.5 metres long by 2.5 metres high) spins around above the heads of gallery viewers at varying speeds, almost threatening to knock your head off, to which the artist claims, ‘when you’re small you’re mother is always really big, So it seemed like a good reason for this to be big...and scary.’ Like the title of the exhibition, I am beginning to wonder ‘what is the point of it all?’ There isn’t one word or place you can pin Creed’s work down to, it’s not necessarily autobiographical, sociological, psychological, metaphysical or even really, despite my initial attempt, that conceptual. The artist doesn’t bring these ideas to the work so much as we read into them,  his ‘Works’ are interventions, I think, they intervene with how we view art, the world, stuff, things, materials, people, space, scale, concepts etc. In an exhibition where you move from one work that is a giant rotating neon sign, to a room filled with balloons, a light going on and off, a video of a woman vomiting, a scrunched up ball of paper and boxes arranged in a stack from largest to smallest how do you begin to equate it all together, make sense of it? It’s all reactionary and will either provoke, alarm, confront, appal, delight, amuse or bemuse its audience. It’s dangerous for me to probably have even attempted to make sense of it, I don’t think I’m supposed to!

Maybe the fine-line between the whimsical and/or intelligence is all an act? It is likely, as all of Creed’s play, exploration and interventions must have been met with some determination, business-sense, networking and authenticity in order to convince the art world that it is worth acknowledging. The refreshing aspect about Creed is that his work reflects the insecurities that people have of the art world of being, overtly serious and inaccessible with meaning (if only accommodating to this audience instead of trying to alter their perceptions). The ‘Work No. 1197’ as part of the Olympics saw all the bells in the country rung as quickly and as loudly as possible for three minutes (I remember partaking myself, running into the garden at nine in the morning with a small hand bell) was a good example of a piece by Creed that was inclusive, meaningful and accessible without being gimmicky or jokey. To some, his inability to tackle the true grips of his challenging of how we make/view art, instead always settling for a flippant answer may be exasperating and seen as a cop-out; others may see his concern with feeling  in the work as an almost romantic gesture that is about one man’s need to make and express himself. I for one am glad to have been part of the laughs and think that this retrospective' s greatest legacy will be by having an artist like Creed recognised in the art world, as a result, we aren’t left with too many artists like Creed.

Martin Creed ‘What’s the point of it all?’ is on at the Hayward until May 5th 2014:

Images sourced from:

Monday, 10 March 2014

May contain spoilers!

So I made the fatal mistake of reading a review of the Richard Hamilton retrospective at Tate Modern prior to seeing it. ‘No big deal’, you say but in the age of twitter and instant access news it’s difficult to read any book,  walk into any film or exhibition without some preconception of what to expect. We’ve lost the element of surprise. You’ve seen most of the film in the trailer, read the book, downloaded the soundtrack often before you’ve even sat down in the theatre. And of course, whilst a certain amount of ‘knowing what you’re in for’ is important in giving you a reason to be there, it’s also kind-of sad that there is less surprise, shock or mystery to so many of these experiences. In terms of art, a little ignorance goes a long way (albeit if it’s met equally with the desire to learn). Anyway, what I’m getting at is the difficulty of forming an individual opinion, thoughts and ideas on an exhibition or to experience it open-mindedly if you’ve already read too much about it elsewhere. And does popularity in the form of reviews lead to a consensus that something is ‘good’? Appropriately for a retrospective centred on a Pop Artist it becomes a debate on quality in relation to popularity. Do our parameters of judgement change if we know the thing we are critiquing is deemed popular?

'Just what is it about today's homes that makes them so  different, so appealing?' -1956 Collage

This of course just my opinion, perhaps I’m too easily influenced by what I read instead of using it as a counterpoint to make my own conclusions but I still cannot help but enjoy seeing an exhibition that I’ve only  been drawn to by the title, knowing nothing of what artists/works to expect. The flip-side to all this, is how the internet, reviews, sharing and ironically, even blogging, opens art up to an even bigger audience that includes people who go to exhibitions all the time and those who may be considering to go perhaps for the first time. Wonderful, and how else are you going to hear about an exhibition other than a review, mailing list or advert/poster that could well be online or on someone’s Facebook page? Still, I’d say every once and a while read a book, see a film, visit an exhibition on as little information you can, find out the bare minimum of something that pries your interest and go for it blindly. It’s really hard to do.

If you’ve read this far already then maybe you’re interested in hearing a bit more about the Hamilton retrospective at the Tate, but I’d suggest that if you’re planning on going to see it anytime soon, then read no further! Those of you who’ve already been or perhaps not interested in going at all (why wouldn’t you be?) then allow me to continue...
'Transition IIII' -1954 Oil on panel.

As I said, I read the review so I already knew that Laura Cumming from the Observer thinks that this retrospective has too much in it and should have been edited down more. Reluctantly, for reasons mentioned above, I am inclined to agree and ponder; does a retrospective have to include absolutely everything to be a retrospective? Should the Tate ever decide to honour my passing with a retrospective of my own work, I’d be horrified to think they’d put everything I’d ever made in, thinking of the hand drawings I did at A-level for example. Not that they were particularly bad or good, but more that they wouldn’t be relevant, I never came back to hands since and it had no influence stylistically on my later work...or so I’d say...The same goes for Hamilton, did I really need to see half a gallery dedicated to his turd drawings against a sunset, when one would have been enough to get the point across? The amount of work shown was incredibly comprehensive, Hamilton was a prolific maker and evidently, from what I just mentioned, with an excellent sense of humour. That humour now comes across as more subtle than I assume the reaction it would have had in the 60’s when some of the more political pieces were more prevalent. From the collage and precursor to Brit Pop, ‘Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different, so appealing’ (pictured) to the reconstructed Duchamp’s Large glass and photorealist styles of ‘The citizen/the subject/the state’, Hamilton’s work spanned several decades of vast changes in technology and the rise of mass-market consumerism which he explored and utilized in his work. In fact, Hamilton’s art career could best be described like a collage, he explored and collected a variety of different components, images, fragments, techniques that all seem slightly different but come together as often reassembled re-edited and reconfigured works commenting with wit and humour on elements of consumerism, politics, fame, design and advertising. Instead of focusing on the breadth of his entire career this post will focus on the particular work that resonated with me and present some usual commentary as to why that is.

'Towards a definitive statement on the coming trends in menswear and accessories (a) "Together let us explore the stars" -1962 Oil and collage on panel.

For me, the stars of the show are the Pop paintings from 1957-1963 where combined images of cars, machines, appliances and people are composed with abstract mark making, signs and symbols. The canvases are left fairly neutral and almost minimal in their whiteness and use of space. Onto these surfaces cars, radios are half-painted/half-sketched so only an outline or trace of the object can be seen. What is revealed is small, stylistically detailed and rendered sections that hint the edge of a car’s bumper, a tap, a shoulder, before disappearing. They’re paintings that explore the way we read representational images in art by offering a ‘dot to dot’ of an object instead of presenting the whole package. This also makes them quite painterly as elements of realism sit alongside gesture, surface and form. Although their flatness remains and ties them into the realms of graphics/advertising, again in-keeping with the era they were created. Interestingly, for me, they all have a limited colour palette, fairly neutral in tone and on a personal level I am curious as to why I am drawn to this in both my own and other’s work (think Jim Dine’s prints for example)? Is it because the beige/off-white background is reminiscent of paper or vellum, which has an association of drawing and primed-ness/workings-out to it that appeals to my love of drawing? It’s interesting and something I need to give further thought to.

'Reaper' - 1949 Drypoint

In one of the opening rooms to Hamilton’s retrospective a series of prints are shown from his days as a student at the Slade, 1949-1951, they’re semi-abstract etchings of reapers and ploughs, titled ‘Variations on the theme of reaper’. Aside from my obvious delight at seeing a tool-related theme, these etchings were an interesting insight into the aforementioned Pop paintings due to their approach of deconstruction and reconstruction. It was apparent in these early prints that Hamilton was interested in figuring-out how things worked and reimagining them particularly within design and form. This same deconstructing can be seen in Hamilton’s obsession with Duchamp, Dada and reconstructing ‘The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even’ but also in the Pop paintings under discussion here where aspects of the form/design of the car as object is played upon against the natural curves and design of people’s bodies or faces. In fact in some cases the two almost appear to fuse together perhaps also alluding to or signifying the growing ‘need’ and relationship that was prevalent at the time between people and the objects they possess that ‘become’ and/or form their identity.

'Hommage a Chrysler Corp' -1957 Oil, metal foil and collage on panel.

As a student I longed to see these paintings in real life, having spent many an evening squinting over often small or low resolution images in books as I made desperate attempts to replicate and understand them. Hamilton was a great maker of images, the flat and 2-Dimensional, the static, the one-liner, they are qualities I have been able to relate to in my own working methods. What a delight it was to finally see these paintings in-the-flesh, reaffirming the things that I enjoyed about them whilst showing me a closer view at their surfaces and colours that I was previously unable to see. The rewarding thing about this retrospective as a whole was making connections through seeing how his early work influenced the latter. Its also in some ways quite reassuring as it means I may never escape from tools or A-level hands for that matter as my concerns with those things will develop and lead to the themes of future work. I may be reluctant or unaware to notice it at the time but retrospectively it’s all connected.