Thursday, 8 December 2016

If you could say it in words...

What is the collective noun for a group of writers?

What is the collective noun for a group of art writers?

Art Writers Group collective met with interested writers, curators and artists at The Hestercombe Assembly in the afternoon of Wednesday 7th December 2016.

Created by Josephine Lanyon and Peter Stiles The Art Writers Group aims to raise the profile of arts writing in the South West and discuss with other writers, artists, curators and the general public ‘what art writing’ means in 2016, what the future of arts writing could be as well as ideas of; authorship, context and publicity surrounding the area of, you guessed it, arts writing. The Hestercombe Assembly featured six speakers made up of authors, editors and/or curators to discuss, “how texts can be produced, programmed and disseminated to create knowledgeable enjoyment of contemporary art”.

As a non-published, bookselling, artist come blogger what on earth was I doing there?

The answer to that question should be self-evident though highly worth mentioning that to me, this meeting presented an opportunity similar to that of the monthly book group meetings I host at Waterstones, to talk with other people interested in art, writing and reading. What a wonderful discovery to not be alone in this interest and passion of mine that I have embarked on over the last seven years. This was Art Writing in the broadest sense of the word, so included talks from editors, online writers, magazine writers, critical art writing (journalistic and subjective approaches) and art writing that posed itself more as performance art, poetry and in a narrative style more akin to that of fiction. I thought this event was going to involve much ‘clicking of tongues and stroking of beards’ as highly academic people pontificated on the merits of writing as a discourse and its significance to the visual arts themselves. Thankfully it had none of that pretention and became the ultimate fusion of the two worlds I have occupied during my career so far; that of the visual arts and the world of reading and writing learnt in my ten years working in a bookshop.

The following is a list of points I have taken away from listening to the speakers at the event and will consider in my future writing:

·         Art Writing, as a means of ‘capturing presence of the work’ –the function of art writing as a means of describing, explaining what it feels like to see/experience works of art as to a literal description of it.

·         Syntax –where the writing sits in time (past, present, future)

·         Art Writing becomes a way of talking about other subjects –science, environment, archaeology etc. etc. Looking for ways to make art more interesting or accessible to different audiences. As artists we are more familiar in working in ways similar to historians, archivists, scientists and other disciplines but as writers about art we should also consider applying the same. Interestingly not all of the speakers came from art backgrounds but creative writing or curatorial ones raising the position I hold within my own writing, as both an ‘artist who writes about art’ rather than ‘a writer who writes about art’ an interesting one. How can I bring my own experiences into my writing more?   

·         Art writing and subjectivity writing in embodied ways- similar to the first point, but writing about art becomes similar to that of poetry or fiction in that it follows a less academic tone and structure and the voice of the author is more distinctive and present in the work. The writing style has as much to say about the work it is describing as the work itself i.e. fluidity of writing matches fluidity of paint/brush-marks in a painting. The description of artworks becomes less and more about the bodily or lived experience of encountering the work. i.e. scale, weight, texture, sound, smell, context, emotion.

·         What can art writing offer to the reader that the viewing of art work cannot? Does it have to offer clarity or explanation or can it raise new ideas or alternative ways in interpreting work.

·         The lie of art writing? Is art writing a lie/deception of language? ‘art is a lie that reveals the truth’

·         What is the function of the writing? i.e. publicity, critique, opinion, experience and where is there flexibility for these to cross-over...

·         Who is doing the writing? Who is doing the reading? –authorship, readership and how context plays a part in both.

Stephen Smith at Hestercombe Gallery 2016.
After a few hours in to this event spent listening to a myriad of wise words whizzing around the room (somewhat rebelliously at all this talk of writing) I was craving something physically visual, ever thankful that just outside the room we were in at Hestercombe House was the gallery that lay home to Stephen Smith’s paintings –a welcome reminder of the importance of the symbiotic relationship between the actual art and art writing. A few speakers chose not to include images in their talks, opting for the language and our imaginations to conjure up our own images of the art works being captured in words. This was an interesting exercise, but for me only reaffirmed where I stand in being between two camps of being an artist who creates physical images in drawings and print and being a writer who attempts to understand those visual experiences in words. Lizzie Lloyd was one speaker who did this and whose writing on Peter Doig’s ‘Figures in Red Boat’ was as equally creative as the art it spoke of and offered new ways into writing about art that are intelligently observant but personable so that they can be imagined more easily by the reader. Edward Hopper’s “..if you could say it in words there’d be no reason to paint” highlights the  difficulty faced when writing about something whose mere existence is incomprehensible in words but of course that challenge is also part of its appeal. Art writing is like being a translator for visual language though the writer and the artist may not always be trying to say the same thing.
Stephen Smith 'Red Forest'
For my love of reading and writing, I still feel as though words alone, read or spoken plainly, are not enough in themselves and offer less of an alternative to experiencing art and more of an addition to enhance the experiencing of art. Reading about art makes me want to experience it and experiencing art makes me want to write about it. What was fascinating and reassuring is that many of the curators and artists I spoke to at the event agreed that there was a place for both within exhibitions and that the relationship between the two was generally a positive and pro-active one at encouraging art appreciation. A possible difficulty to art writing for artists/curators of ‘visual arts’ and one that I feel is evident in the Stephen Smith exhibition at Hestercombe, is that the writing about the art can become more powerful or convey meaning more succinctly than the art itself. This statement warrants more explanation than what I have time to give it here, but essentially I feel Lizzie Lloyd’s writing of the Stephen Smith exhibition attempts to rationalise Smith’s work or compensate for the lack of meaning or substance to the context of Hestercombe that I personally perceived in his paintings. The writing wasn’t so much offering an alternative way into Smith’s work as it was almost justifying it. When it works well the text compliments the art work rather than ‘doing the job’ of the artwork as I felt here which is more a criticism of Smith’s paintings than Lloyd’s writing.

The writers that did chose to show images within their talks such as Mary Patterson created another approach to the context of art writing that became more performative with the rhythm of walking or thinking aloud, the importance of how the piece was spoken evident as well as the potential it had to reach alternative audiences and convey ideas in a framework that was unlike a conventional approach to writing. Here writing becomes an art form in itself.

Much was covered throughout the three hour session that could have had more audience interaction and dialogue than unfortunately what the time would have allowed. Though the biggest missed opportunity, I feel was, whilst Art Writers Group had, what I am sure were many applications from writers of mixed ability and experience, was to do something brave and use it as an opportunity find someone new by picking at least one speaker who, maybe was at the very start of their career and so were less established, unpublished or completely un-paid and independent. The speakers who spoke were all interesting, engaging and relevant in their own ways and I think it important to have people with their experience to bring authority and a certain amount of credibility to such an event HOWEVER, I think representation of an enthusiastic, unpolished, committed to art and arts writing individual with only their own motivation and ambition to support them would have been an inspiring call-to-arms and act as an advocate of the possibility that art writing can and should be accessible to all. It is worth noting here, that I was able to attend this event because I applied for and was awarded a free place to attend so feel grateful but also obligated to stress my thoughts here. There were several other people I met on the day in the same position as me, though I feel instead of piecemeal, Art Writers Group should use its authority to represent or give that experience to someone like myself or those I met in the audience that day. Instead it was disappointing that too frequently those with quantifiable or ‘institutionally recognised experience’ were chosen when there was an opportunity to offer a glimmer of hope amidst the unobtainable and futile nature of progressing into a paid career in writing that only those already practicing or within the industry were represented.

Despite some of my anarchic (but hopefully constructive) views, the day was still, overall very enlightening and I have felt inspired in meeting other people with shared interests in art writing. It has proved that despite its adversities and lack of opportunities, like all aspects of the arts themselves, remains worth doing. I am keen to develop my own writing based on some of the ideas mentioned here, learnt from the speakers on the day, and still have ambition that a legacy from this event, in the form of a peer-led art writing group could form (or gain more awareness, if such a thing exists in the South West please let me know) so that more opportunities to those outside our cities and in our rural areas have access to art appreciation, discussion, writing and reading.

I still do not know the noun for a collective group of arts writers but I sincerely hope it is not a rarity.
If you attended the event and/or would like to contact me regarding any of the above then I would very much like to hear from you. Please contact me at:

Wednesday, 7 December 2016

The Necessity of Art: A Review of 'Art as Therapy'

This weekend I read ‘Art as Therapy’ by Alain de Botton and John Armstrong and it raises some relevant ideas on how we make, buy, study, appreciate and display art, overall seeking to answer the question, ‘what art is for’ rather than the over exhausted and written about ‘what art is’. It does so largely through accessible well written visual analysis of a wide range of artworks making it historically quite interesting. That is where the good points end as it becomes quite infuriating at times in some of the statements and opinions it presents to which I will go into in this review, but conversely it is for those reasons it should and I think will become a must read for anyone studying art or those generally perplexed or curious about the art world as it raises some challenging debates and though this radically conflicts with my own views, if taken lightly covers a breadth of uses of art or how it can help come to terms with ideas to do with nature, politics, censorship, taste, mortality, memory and many more.

The title ‘Art as Therapy’ which implies a more holistic stance associated with the idea of the ‘therapeutic practice of making art’ is a bit misinforming when in fact the tone of the book is far more critical and ideas based so reads more as ‘Art as Philosophy’ in my view than ‘therapy’. Central to its argument is that when engaging with art we should learn to adopt a ‘therapeutic reading’ in addition to technical, political, historical and what the writers describe as ‘shock-value’ readings. I am not against this idea per say but I think there is a danger that if we are viewing art with the gain that it is going to help us or, if we take De Botton’s ‘therapeutic reading’ as a means of art addressing our ‘internal flaws’ then it can become a ‘what’s in it for me’ attitude and art is therefore something that exists to gratify our ego and becomes intrinsically inward looking. I think it would have been more helpful if de Botton had presented an outward looking purpose for art by using examples of collective artist groups such as Assemble or environmental art projects that exist by working outside the gallery, with real people, to improve the therapeutic well-being of place and the people who live there.

‘Therapy’ might be the overriding example the authors use to describe the ‘for’ in their question ‘what is art for?’ but throughout the book it becomes clear that they are describing art as being ‘a tool’ by being both a therapy, political stance, money-maker, educational, social, research and environmental tool in which, “...has the power to extend our capacities beyond those that nature has originally endowed us with.” The faults in De Botton’s writing lie therein as at times he comes across as very condescending as he points out our flaws and need for justifying art by telling what's wrong with us, and how artworks can cure our psychological, mental and spiritual ills when in-fact I feel the expectation should not be so grandiose or met with a pre-conceived self-awareness of its benefits. It would do better for offering ways to engage with art and how to begin to understand it than its implication that art should be created, read or exist to plug some kind of ‘mental or psychological gap’. It raises expectations on art works to deliver something profound or meaningful when more should be done to promote the ‘reading’ of art to be subjective and in the same universal language that people can appreciate or understand music.
The introduction is equally problematic for me, particularly the opening lines, “The modern world thinks of art as very important –something close to the meaning of life. Evidence of this elevated regard can be found in the opening of new museums, the channelling of significant government resources towards the production and display of art...” The latter in particular not something I can think many in the art world in this country would necessarily agree with at the moment, I also think it a huge generalisation to say that ‘the modern world thinks of art as very important’ because surely part of the reason for writing this book is that art isn’t valued enough and by the fact artists and writers are having to constantly convince us otherwise? I feel it is one of the artist’s main concerns (that is a product of our consumerist society whether liked or not) in the modern world to constantly having to justify or quantify the value of their work both in a monetary and moral sense. Even highly ‘successful’ (in a money sense) artists like Koons or Hirst have had to work or have had to rely on the critiques and reviews of writers and art dealers in order to convince others of a perceived sense of ‘value’ to their work. If the idea of 'value' towards art was removed altogether then people could be more open to what the work is rather than what it is worth.   
The book’s final offering that the ‘overall aim of art is to reduce the need for it altogether’ is depressing an end as it is nonsensical because whilst there is humanity, diversity and debate in the world there will always be a need for art. It is a redundant argument, as even if the world was a utopia there would still be a need for art, for the truth-seeking or self-expressive qualities that it offers. Art like science should have no bounds or higher agenda as it is infinitesimal in what can be discovered or explored through them. Many times reading this book I couldn’t help but think that if you want to be inspired by an example of writing about ‘what is art for’ then you should put 'Art as Therapy' to one side and read Ernst Fisher’s ‘The Necessity of Art’ which remains one of the best books ever about the relationship between creative imagination and the individual’s need to engage with society. "Art is necessary in order that man should be able to recognise and change the world. But art is also necessary by virtue of the magic inherent in it."
 One final and redeeming idea from ‘Art as Therapy’ that I think is a good one, is the idea of ‘art as a tool’, a concept I have previously never looked into in any depth. So obsessed with depicting tools as art, tools in art and what tools are that I had never paid much heed to the thought that art itself could be a tool! In my own art this raises a whole paradoxical situation of art about tools being a tool about a tool about a tool....(I feel an epiphany coming!) If you read 'Art as Therapy' in this context of seeing art as a tool and can put aside its faults in some of its statements then it offers some useful ways into understanding art but for best results should be enjoyed as part of a balanced diet in relation to other books that offer a slightly less inward looking perspective.

Saturday, 12 November 2016

Anything but Ordinary

In anticipation of the Robert Rauschenberg [1925-2008] Retrospective exhibition at Tate Modern I thought it would be a good opportunity to familiarise myself with the late American artist’s work.
[NOTE: This post isn’t for preaching to the converted but to those who may be in need of reminding  or those yet to discover the work by this brilliant artist.]
Compiled here are my top five Rauschenberg’s; a list that is completely biased and my own but will hopefully offer an insight into my own practice and more significantly why I think the forthcoming exhibition is going to be an incredibly exciting and worthwhile event. Whilst I am aware he explored broad number of disciplines throughout his career, from performance, silkscreen printmaking to photography (to name a few) this list features his combine paintings as they are the works of which I feel have had the most influence on my practice. Listed in no particular order!
Charlene [1935]
Charlene. 1935. Oil, charcoal, printed reproductions, newspaper, wood, plastic mirror, men’s undershirt, umbrella, lace, ribbons and other fabrics and metal on Homasote, mounted on wood with electric light. 226.1 x 284.5 x 8.9cm.  It would be easier to type if Rauschenberg had simply said, ‘mixed media’! But then there was debatably no such thing as ‘mixed media’ when Rauschenberg was making his combination paintings in the 50s-60s. The term would also not have done the significance of the objects in the work justice and by listing them it is emphasising the point that these paintings included street signs, flyers, leaflets, shirts, ties, wheels, clocks, umbrellas and other everyday objects from the street, yet crucially were still ‘paintings’. This was part of a larger movement happening in America at the time reaching from Abstract Expressionism to the beginnings of Pop Art revolving around artists such as, John Cage, Alan Kaprow, Jasper Johns and Claes Oldenburg that sought for the ‘everyday’ in all its forms to be considered as catalysts for creativity and making art.

It is worth listing individually the components that make up ‘Charlene’ and the many ‘combine paintings’ that took their name from the combining of everyday objects, found fragments and things that are collaged onto (initially) flat 2Dimmensional surface(s) covered in paint and/or other substances ranging from mould to toothpaste. This was a relatively new concept, challenging both what ‘painting could be’ and the perceptions and limitations of aesthetics and formalism; preceded by the likes of Duchamp whose urinal opened the debate of whether mundane objects can be considered as art objects and Picasso in 1912 with ‘Still-life with Chair Caning’ believed one of the first uses of real 3D objects integrated or collaged into the picture-plane. Whereas Picasso’s use of an actual chair was illusionary, in the sense it became a surface within the picture that made part of the illusionary sense of an abstract still-life; Rauschenberg’s use of everyday objects is much more formalistic broken-down into shapes, tones, textures within the composition of the painting “An object such as a clock might be used equally for its circular shape, its ticking sound, and its suggestion of the shared framework of time within which our experience of it would necessarily be located.”
‘Charlene’ historically is an important landmark in Rauschenberg’s career as it is seen as the first work combining painting, collage and found objects in equal emphasis. The objects within it become formal components in the bigger composition of the work; the umbrella becomes a colour wheel, the plastic mirror a shiny rectangle next to another rectangle with stains and stitching that we recognise to be a folded shirt. It is all deconstructed into shape, texture and colour but as a result creates something that I feel is visually unexpected and often less contrived than human or artistic attempts to recreate these objects or their ‘found surfaces’ that appear worn, eroded or weathered. I find this approach to ‘looking’ timelessly refreshing and that the legacy of these paintings is an open-mindedness to the possibilities of ‘stuff’ that can elevate from its mundane perception into something remarkable or of great potential. In writing it sounds a little corny but probably matched some of the inflated sense of heroism and confidence that came out of American Abstract Expressionism. There is possibly also something appealing in from the idea of the ‘under-dog’ or rebelliousness first felt in using man-made everyday detritus. Jim Dine, as an artist making work at the same time best describes it as a kind of alchemy, “...turning shit into gold,” or “giving life to the lifeless”.

I first saw ‘Charlene’ in the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam in 2014, drawn to it as a result of my own dabbles with using umbrellas to make sculptures. I never quite embraced the full formalistic properties of the objects I used in my own practice (with a few exceptions) tending to remain more grounded in the connotations and psychological properties of the objects I was using. My work never became fully abstract, always grounded in some recognisable form or association to their original state. I think I found the boldness of Duchamp’s placing the object unaltered in the gallery too arrogant and lacking in creativity and Rauschenberg’s deconstruction of objects into painted surfaces is sometimes too disguising of that objects natural aesthetic qualities (though in later work this tends to become less).  
Bed [1954]
Bed. 1954 Oil, pencil, toothpaste and red fingernail polish on pillow, quilt and bed-sheet mounted on wood supports. 191.1 x 80 x 20.3cm.  Until I saw this piece in the MOMA, New York I did not think it possible to become quite as excited as I was by a paint and toothpaste smeared bed sheet hung vertically on a gallery wall! I still find it difficult to articulate exactly what it is about ‘Bed’ that causes such a reaction. For a painting it is almost sculptural, a landscape with mountains created in its rhythms and folds from the top to the patterned graphics of the bed sheet below. It is successful for its use of variations; busy areas against quiet ones, murky colours against bright contrasting ones; it is this that makes it all the richer for looking at. Rauschenberg was an incredibly visual artist and knew what it meant to have someone look at your work and how to make them want to look at it for longer. ‘Bed’ is unique as it hovers between being a ready-made and a painting to which Duchamp said of Rauschenberg’s paintings, “Since the tubes of paint used by the artist are manufactured and readymade products we must conclude that all the paintings in the world are ‘Readymades Aided’ –and also works of assemblage.” Yet here Rauschenberg, is still operating in the confines of the art gallery by mounting the work vertically on the wall (as opposed to flat on the floor as you would expect to see a bed) as it is more confrontational, more ‘bodily’ and obviously makes the viewer consider it as artwork by its mere being hung on the walls of the gallery like a painting, not a bed. Rauschenberg does however challenge this in later combine paintings which become free-standing in ‘Gold Standard’ and floor, ‘Monogram’.

Winter Pool [1959]
Winter Pool. 1959 Oil, paper, fabric, wood, metal, sandpaper, tape, printed paper, printed reproductions, fragments of a man’s shirt, handkerchief, handheld bellows and found painting on two canvases conjoined by wood ladder. 229.9 x 151.1 10.2cm. To write about Rauschenberg’s paintings is to have a thesaurus of synonyms close to hand as it becomes all too easy to run out of adjectives to describe the range of ways in which paint is applied or actions and gestures made in the creating of his combine paintings; dribbled, poured, smeared, scrapped, brushed, pushed, scratched, layered, spread, sponged, daubed and mixed –to name but a few! ‘Winter Pool’ is another Rauschenberg I have had the pleasure of seeing at the MET, New York and it has made my top five list because it shows a thought process by which elements of the studio have been used to influence the visual outcome of the work. In pure aesthetic terms whether you are an abstract or figurative painter sometimes in the process of making work there are almost instinctive visual elements to any work where you, as the artist, think you need ‘something red’ or a ‘curved shape’ in the bottom left corner for example in order to balance or 'finish' a piece of work. Almost like a chef adding seasoning to a dish, you're not sometimes quite sure why or what a dish [art work] needs but a good chef [artist] can often tell when it is missing something. What I like about ‘Winter Pool’ is that the ladder in the centre is both part of the painting visually but can also be a means of linking two paintings or a space in the middle together. This is what I referred to earlier in saying about the visual awareness of Rauschenberg as a painter and it is something, whether I am successful at it or not, I am at least conscious of in my own work.
Reservoir [1961]
Reservoir. 1961 Oil, pencil, fabric, wood, and metal on canvas with two electric clocks, rubber tread wheel, and spoked wheel rim. 217.2 x 158.8 x 39.4 cm. The only Rauschenberg on my list that I haven’t actually seen in person (I think its in Washington) but ironically it is the first image of his work I’d ever seen back in 2005 studying on my art Foundation year spotted in a peers sketchbook. There is nothing particularly more sentimental about it than that, but what ‘Reservoir’ does that is so different to the other paintings on this list is that it adds a performative element in the form of two clocks set at the time the painting was started, the lower when it was finished; that reflects some of the more conceptual/performance based work around the same time it was created. In some ways it is almost an absurd idea that there can even be a start or finish time to a painting that is  relatively abstract and so subjective that it can only really ever be ‘finished’ when the artist and only the artist decides it is. The use of empty space in Reservoir also reminds me of early Richard Hamilton paintings such as ‘Hommage a Chrysler Corp’ done in 1957 and I speculate it could have had an influence.
First Landing Jump [1961]
First Landing Jump. 1961 Oil, cloth, metal, leather, electric fixture, and cable on composition board with automobile tire and wood plank. 226.4 x 182.9 x 22.5 cm. The circular form of the tyre in ‘First Landing Jump’ does for this combine painting what the straight vertical and horizontal lines of the ladder did for ‘Winter Pool’ and becomes both a shape and a weight to the overall composition. Interestingly, Rauschenberg wanted others to be able to read into his use of everyday objects so that they could have this duality of being both a formal component in the work and an object with meaning; it was that during the process of creating the work he had to try ignore the connotations of the objects he was using, “So a found object such as a tyre was not simply a material for Raushenberg: it was a social object with possibilities and connotations, even if the connotations he was trying to forget or “unknow”. They [objects in his work] “...retain ghost impressions of context with utilitarian aesthetic...” In other words the tyre is still recognisable as a tyre due to its urban surrounding materials, such as the lights, whilst also being a ‘shape’. The materials in these combine paintings also say something about the appetite for cars in America, the rising emergence of consumerism in the postwar period and how easy they were to find literally discarded in the street. I first saw this piece at MOMA in New York and it is one I have written about in relation to my work more than any other and I think that is largely due to the reasons above in that this piece is more assembled than painted which related to several works I was making at the time.
To be interested in mundane objects is to also be interested in the people/lives those objects inhabit and I think in the Rauschenberg’s of the 60s there was less painting in the ‘combine’ works and more collage, placing of objects/materials so as to retain some of that integrity of the original things but also, I speculate, because of Rauschenberg's exploration into performance art alongside these works, they [the objects] become like actors on a stage, each object responding to another in relationship to where they are placed within the work, "We are all actors, but it's a 'we' that includes the teeming plethora of things with which we share the world's stage."  
That’s it for now. To conclude, I hope to visit the exhibition soon when it opens in London on December 1st and to reiterate what I said at the beginning that this is merely one aspect of what was this artist’s overall very diverse career. I think it very inspiring to revisit his work as it continues to remind artists to be inventive and creative within their practice and not grow complacent with ways of depicting and perceiving. Ultimately, for me however it is his testament to the mundane that I find the most encouraging, ‘Asked in 2004 why he liked mundane imagery he replied, “It is overlooked. Most artists try to break your heart or they accidentally break their own hearts. I find the quietness in the ordinary more satisfying.”
On that quote it is not necessarily a literal ‘quietness’ of objects that Rauschenberg is referring to but a sort the ‘unassuming’ quietness; there is great expectation for a painting of the Grand Canyon to be as awe inspiring and rapturous as the real thing itself but there is little or no expectation that the coffee percolator or umbrella to do the same so when you see those objects transformed or put in view onto the metaphorical pedestal of ‘art’ it is all the more surprising and wonderful. This is certainly a significant factor of what has led my motivation over the years and whilst the art world and public are more accepting of objects/the mundane in art now than they would have been in Rauschenberg’s era, the shock or surprise factor is considerably less; I still think there is a place for the everyday in art that doesn’t have to fall into recycling or nostalgia but a sort of awareness that these things are still around and they can still be fascinating, pertinent and as unexpected as they ever have been.
Robert Rauschenberg is at Tate Modern from December 1st 2016 - April  2nd 2017

*All images sourced from:
*Quotes sourced from 'Rauschenberg' [2016]. Tate Publishing. London.

Monday, 17 October 2016

All Wright!

Reading Arnolfini CEO, Kate Brindley’s introduction to Daphne Wright’s solo exhibition, ‘Emotional Archaeology’ left me slightly surprised at the number of influences Wright’s work uses, “...the suburban and the domestic realm, also drawing upon references from art history, literature and film, to nonsense poetry and country and western music...” Brindley continues her intro in stating that through these references Wright, “offers us ways to think about difficult, often side-lined issues relating to class, aspiration, faith, parenthood, aging and care.” That’s a lot to process and leaves the sceptic in me wondering how many of these ideas Wright actually intended to be present in her work and how much of the aforementioned was Kate Brindley possibly over-outlining the ways of interpreting it? [Though it is important to note that this exhibition is in two halves, at Arnolfini and a National Trust property, Tyntesfield in North Somerset; this post focusing solely on the Arnolfini work]. Either way it points to the occupation for much of contemporary art as being ‘all encompassing’ or dealing with a wide range of ideas such as 'contemporary culture', whatever that is exactly? Whether it does this to make itself more accessible to audiences or give it an authority that ‘the establishment’ feels art needs in order to be credible or taken seriously I am unsure. What I will say however is that in writing about art I often worry about over analysing it as sometimes you miss the overall message; there’s a skill in being able to pick out themes in an artwork and another in being able to succinctly capture what it is about in only a few words. I’m still practising at both! In my stubbornness, I wanted to challenge that introduction a little and make my own conclusions about Daphne Wright’s work; so upon walking into the first room of the exhibition at Arnolfini and being confronted with an upturned, life-size flayed sculpture of a horse, a swan and monkey each in similar states of distress, one way or another, I was about to find out!
Stallion (2009) Marble dust and Resin.
From the beginning, the works in this exhibition clearly present themselves as being made by a highly skilled and competent sculptor interested in the nature of materials; this is an exhibition by an artist that, without wanting to dumb it down too much, ‘likes making’ (in other works upstairs it almost comes across as a kind-of 'thinking through the process of making'). The sculpture ‘Stallion’ in the first room; a life-size horse exquisitely cast from resin and covered in marble dust to give the effect of being entirely sculpted from marble whilst also mimicking a museum copied process. The whiteness of the marble against the theatrical red painted walls of the gallery creates for dramatic effect in what is the first of a series of contrasts throughout the exhibition used to create tension, anxiety or unease. The first piece that strikes you is the horse; it is an unusual perspective to see a horse from, yes it is distressing but in that infamous Andy Warhol, ‘car crash’ voyeuristic kind-of way it is also very interesting; even more so in context to its neighbours the hanging lamb, sickly monkey and flailing swan.
Lamb (2006) Marble dust, resin.
It is emotive, possibly all the more so for the animals various states being suspended in time, almost as if to prolong or scrutinise their situation. They play upon our understanding of myths; the powerful, heroic horse now fallen; the swan referring to the fallen young male in the Greek myth, Leda and the Swan’. Whether I would have picked-up on these specific references or not I did make the association between the portrayals of the animals as though museum sculpture in contrast to those ideals being presented in a much darker reality. The material and craftsmanship ignites a curiosity into the work before being repulsed or affected by the 'tragedy' of their situation.
That first room is where the animal theme begins and ends. Upstairs is a stylistically similar treatment of materials and shares with it a sense of conflict but is completely unexpected in content. A pot-plant made from unfired clay limply droops on the stairs to the upper gallery its sorry state reminiscent of a guilty truth of many whom will relate to the familiarity a neglected houseplant. The plant’s domesticity being more familiar than that of the horse, and in my opinion, more poignant in capturing the fragility between life and death. It is far more subtle. ‘Could this be what Wright’s work is about?’ I ask myself; ‘A reaction or set of emotive responses to these objects and their unusual materials?’ If so then the viewer’s conscious is pricked, pardon the pun, further in works such as ‘Where Do Broken Hearts Go?’ cacti made from tinfoil, into a sparse aluminium sci-fi desert complete with Country and Western songs. It is kind of tragic in its falseness and sense of melodrama. In a separate room Wright casts her two sons in jesmonite, they sit coldly and serenely on a family kitchen table in a part of the exhibition dedicated to children and child rearing. Here is also an unfired piece titled, ‘Clay Heads’ comprised of several free-standing naive faces with slits for eyes, their features unfinished or childlike again in attempt to use the material as a metaphor of both the malleable as well as fragility or vulnerability of childhood identity. If taken as a room unto itself it is quite interesting and you could draw a lot upon conversations of time, childhood and growing-up but for me personally, it is an idea touched upon in art and clay before (think Antony Gormley).
Still Life Plant (2014) Unfired clay.*
One of the most successful pieces in the exhibition for me, is ‘Domestic Shrubbery’ and takes the form of decorative Victorian plaster flowers, fauna and twisting branches that fill a room, floor to ceiling on every wall. Imagine a 3D version of William Morris wallpaper! What was once dismissively decorative now takes on a more constricting and sinister reality becoming an ensnaring cage of artificial nature than twee, idyllic country pattern. In some ways it is still quite beautiful from a craftsmanship point-of-view but I think the way that Wright subverts the domesticity and symbolism of nature used in that Victorian decoration and draws upon the wildness and threatening nature of those patterns into something that is altogether more confrontational. This was something designed to cause unease and if further proof was needed then hidden amongst the crisscrossing fronds is tiny shrivelled hearts accompanied by an eerie soundtrack of a woman’s voice making cuckoo calls. The heart’s make it a bit cliché and aren’t really needed but the presence of the cuckoo call is a reminder of the ‘cuckoo in the nest’ and the bird’s nature of laying its eggs in the nests of other birds. The viewer here is the outsider, the intruder in the nest both seduced by the inherent skill and beauty of the fragile casted decor and trapped by it at the same time.  It is the sort of work and space that changes your behaviour whilst you’re in it; a mixture of carefulness and curiosity. For these reasons it is one of the few pieces that best fits the following description, I read online about her work; “Wright’s art is the result of a relentless curiosity into the way in which a range of materials can create an involvement with often unspoken human preoccupations.”
Domestic Shrubbery (2009) Plaster, sand and spoken word.
After seeing the exhibition it raises an important issue for me with Wright’s work, in that it is hard to pin down to a single set of ideas or theme and instead of having one clear message it has several. People will go away remembering pieces from ‘Emotional Archaeology’, the horse, the lamb, the wallpaper, the monkey, but the link between the, ‘what was this all about?’ was more woolly when viewing the exhibition as a whole. Neither is there a huge amount of information about the artist to provide clues so you are left only with the work on display. Content-wise it is quite fragmented to piece together though an attempt to link the work comes through in the concept of archaeology derived in the exhibition title. If archaeology is taken to mean ‘the study of human activity through the recovery and analysis of material culture’ then the exhibition does take material culture of the home and references to childhood or Westerns in pop-culture and analyses how these themes can be reconstructed in tinfoil, clay or film and during that process new ideas are discovered that subvert our original understanding of that culture. Though more considerable effort and imagination is required to link pieces such a ‘Swan’ and ‘Primate’ to an ideas of the museum, myths and archaeological practices. I do not want to get too hung up on exhibition titles but in this case I was looking to the title for more guidance as to what Daphne Wright’s work was all about, it almost felt like it was trying to say too much and was possibly in danger of saying nothing at all. The exhibition's curator, Josephine Lanyon likens Wright's process of making work to that of emotional archaeology, "uncovers truths in the process of reproducing our contemporary culture." Whether those truths were about life, death, guilt, relationships, I am unsure? And I still do not know why you would necessarily go looking for anything truth seeking or meaningful in wallpaper without a reason I seem to be missing. If all of the above then the exhibition felt like a sweeping statement rather than a close look in depth at any one of those ‘truths’. It felt a little bit clichéd. Essentially there are many great parts in this exhibition but, perhaps like archaeology there are many gaps as there are answers, I’m just not sure about the whole.
Daphne Wright ‘Emotional Archaeology’ is on at The Arnolfini until December 31st.


Sunday, 9 October 2016

Can't You Hear It In The Silence?

Turris Davidica ora pro nobis –Tower of David Pray For Us No.2
I have had the pleasure of knowing Malcolm Plastow for almost nine years during which time I have only begun to learn more of the colourful and eventful life he has had within the arts in London, the States and Somerset (to name a few!). In a career spent dominated by the commitment to working within Arts Education, ‘Rejoicing Song and Falling Rain’ at The Old Brick Workshop in Wellington is Malcolm’s first solo exhibition in over ten years and reflects his sustained interests in music and passion for painting. The paintings on display are part of a three-year and ongoing series influenced by Early English Choir music. For me it poses the opportunity to form my own opinions as well as shedding some light on Malcolm's work to a wider audience.
It is significant to note, before I begin writing about Malcolm's paintings that we are from a considerably different generations; Malcolm, now ‘semi-retired’ from a lifetime spent in art education, myself almost thirty, bursting with popular culture references and experiences of art education more on the receiving end than delivering. This is relevant because for me, the first experience I had of one of Malcolm’s paintings was that some of them reminded me of a puzzle-based videogame app called Monument Valley.

Screenshot from ‘Monument Valley’ app
I likened the graphic-like geometry and flatness of paintings such as ‘Tower of David, Pray for Us’ (pictured) with its Arabic looking architecture to the cell-shaded, equally creative and almost ‘impossible’ architecture of a videogame. A videogame which, coincidently won a substantial amount of awards and is comparable to exploring a world created by M C Escher. I clearly respect that this was never Malcolm’s intention in the work, if anything their flatness is more alike to that of a Fresco to which it shares a narrative and both spiritual associations or Kandinsky for its shape/colour compositions. Irrespectively, the reason why I am writing this post is because I think that Malcolm's paintings, whilst grounded in an almost archetypal symbolism, are still open to interpretation and perhaps more importantly, relevant and contemporary for an audiences or people such as myself, today.
Et vitam venturi sæculi –And The Life Of The World To Come
The works exhibited in the exhibition ‘Rejoicing Song and Falling Rain’ are in reality, derived from works by 15th and 16th Century composers Peter Philips and John Taverner. There is something likeably 'alternative' and almost rebelliously admirable about Taverner, “whose compositions allowed him to work musically outside of the confines of a set text, including references to the geometry and the construction of the floor plans and other symbolic architectural features used in the construction of the great European cathedrals.” It seems that Taverner’s work was creative outside its medium of being purely music into something word and worldly-based making it much more holistic (catering to both mind and soul if you like). I can see some of this principle applied in Malcolm’s paintings, other than the obvious direct references to cathedral architecture the imagery in the work is not confined to the realms of a singular religious belief; there is imagery from the tower of David and crown of thorns associated with Christianity to numerology and chakras, the latter more associated with Buddhism. The work is more encompassing to an idea of the spiritual and the sacred; a non preachy narrative that speaks of nature, femininity, the human body, doorways/passages and the many mixed connotations these have....?!

Regina angelorum, ora pro nobis –Queen of Angels, Pray For Us

These manifest themselves as birds, plants, open doorways, windows, streams, mountains and contrasts of light and dark which bring everything into balance. Some of the paintings are far from even being spiritual they are almost otherworldly (pictured) If I am allowed to drop another cultural reference the piece titled ‘Queen Of Angels, Pray For Us’ reminds me of the surface of a colonised alien Mars or scene from Frank Herbert’s Dune. Whilst grounded in historical architecture, the environments they are situ in still allow for much to be left to the imagination.

The titling of the exhibition, ‘Rejoicing Song and Falling Rain’ reflects that idea of opposites as an essential part of what makes balance and present in many aspects of the paintings in the show. For example, meaning and image coexist in a seemingly effortless synchronicity, everything is there for a reason from the pecked wings of the pelican to the architecture of the temples [derived from the Tree of Life].  Despite this attention to detail, ‘reason’ isn’t everything and Malcolm’s paintings are also a celebration and expression of the medium of paint, colour and form on surface. They are warm, rich and uplifting in their use of colour.
Turris Davidica ora pro nobis –Tower of David Pray For Us
I have since listened to recordings of the pieces "Litania Duodecima" and “Missa Corona Spinia”. It is powerfully, emotive music not limited to its religious origins in being able to be appreciated or promote a reaction.  In fact if one were to take the terminology that makes up any piece of music such as, tempo, rhythm, layering, crescendo, silence and pause these terms and more could equally be interpreted into visual works of art [think composition, texture, tone to name a few]. In Malcolm’s paintings being influenced by music the connection to that terminology manifests itself in the symmetry and balance between shapes, textures and colour using structure, proportion and light. What they lack audibly to their counterpart they make up for in matching contrasts of silence and visual noise in the form of birds in flight or perceived ‘loudness’ felt in tones of colour. These elements come together in the paintings to create something of a reverence that may be read as spiritual and it is worth mentioning resonance, as a word that gets all too lightly overused into art criticism today, but is easily understood in context to this music that is timeless and provoking on a deep, almost visceral level; the paintings also reflect an element of that affect.
There is certainly something spiritual in their devotional-like repetition or ‘truth-seeking’ in their revisiting of certain themes such as the tower, the star and the tree of life.

The connection and success between the understanding of listening to the music and the feeling expressed in the paintings is highly subjective and for me not all the paintings achieve this, and are perhaps as much Malcolm’s interpretation of the music as my drawings/prints of tools are to me. They aren’t trying to match the music as offer an alternative way in to it; what you do take away from Malcolm’s paintings however is a an uplifting sense of orderliness,  and harmoniousness that is as universal as the language of music itself.

Malcolm Plastow –Rejoicing Song and Falling Rain can be seen from Monday 10th  – Sunday 23rd October 2016, Open daily (10am-4pm) at The Old Brick Workshop, Higher Poole, Wellington, Somerset. TA219HW.
For further information visit:

Saturday, 17 September 2016

Dust, Interrupted

It has been a while since I posted anything about tools on this blog [spanner in the workz] and in keeping with tradition I have decided to focus this week’s post on a painting seen recently at the John Moores Painting Prize in Liverpool. That and occasionally it is satisfying to write about one piece of work in more depth instead of attempting to write about it all!
Whilst primarily a British prize for painting the John Moores Painting Prize  for the past four years has included a partner exhibition, John Moores Painting Prize China and exhibited in Shanghai. The five winners from that prize are also exhibited alongside the British John Moores in the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool.
The question, ‘When is a painting not a painting?’ Would be a good place to start for discussing Lang Shuilong’s ‘Fundamental Tool’, created from dust on linen it already breaks convention in being the only ‘painting’ in this year’s John Moores Prize not to actually include any paint! I am unsure if my selecting this work as my favourite in the show reflects well on the state of the Painting Prize as a whole other than raising a trivial point that such categorisation has long been irrelevant and is generally a good thing and proves the Prize isn’t stuck somewhere in the past.
Lang Shuilong 'Fundamental Tool' (2015) Dust on Linen. 128 x168cm.
 In ‘Fundamental Tool’ the trace of  the shovel where Shuilong once laid it flat on the linen creates an almost indecipherable ghostly-void in the centre of this work; you are not sure at first glance that it may even be a tool, it almost looks completely abstract. The shovel’s absence is defined as an outline by the dust that has settled around it from the building-site where it was created. Shilong’s intervention is to then use a paintbrush to wipe the dust back off the linen canvas, “hoping that art will be able to undo nature, and creating a painting that sits between control and chance”. The whole piece is a very subtle and both traces of the artist’s brush and tool are the only structural elements to be seen.

Natalie Parsley 'Pin Hammer Drawing' (2012) Detail.
As someone who has spent a considerable amount of time in my own practice using tools the idea of ‘control vs chance’ is one that does not seem to go away. Tools generally, are often depicted as objects of control or power (think communist hammers and sickles) but often when you speak to people that use them on a regular basis the relationship between ‘man and tool’ is more sympathetic in that they extend our reach of what the human-body can do, but as much as we are in control of them, they in-turn control our actions as much as our body form defines their design and purpose. Just as ‘control’ is associated with tools in art therefore so is the human body that wields them; the scale of Shuilong’s painting is body-sized and was it not horizontal would imply that association of an upright human-figure even more. The fact that it is horizontal is a much more submissive state and so highlights the attention to the absence of a human figure  or a figure at rest which is why maybe at first it appears more abstract or alien.
Natalie Parsley 'Hammer Drawings' (2012) Charcoal on Paper.
My own journey from creating fairly large scale representational drawings of tools eventually evolved to using the tools themselves to create the drawing [this took the form of a hammer used to make marks on a surface either through mono-print or hitting a lump of carbon from the centre of a sheet of paper working outwards as it gradually broke into smaller fragments and eventually dust, to create a drawing]. The element of chance in this work, for whatever psychological reasons, was one I was never particularly yielding towards, but none-the-less it was unpreventable in that the drawing had to adapt to where the charcoal dust and fragments scattered and broke off. In ‘Fundamental Tool’ however this juxtaposition between control and chance signifies the opposing factors of man’s perceived sense of being in control against the unstoppable natural forces of dust and time. To elaborate further it is between man’s control over the tool, here as a means of shovelling cement to build a structure and the unpreventable and uncontrollable consequence of the dust that falls or is blown by the wind after time; time which is also inevitable but out of man’s control. In intervening with this process by using a paintbrush, Shuilong, in a part archaeologist, part artist statement is trying to regain back that control.
Man Ray 'Dust Breeding' (1920) Photo.
It is also an active version of Man Ray’s photo, ‘Dust Breeding’ [1920] that came into existence from Duchamp’s ‘Bride Stripped Bare of Her Bachelors, Even’ laid flat and purposefully left so that it developed a thick layer of dust. The hand of the artist within Shuilong’s painting is the crucial difference between the observed dust of Man Ray’s photo and the disturbed dust in ‘Fundamental Tool’ in which the pushed around dust is important at creating a narrative of an implied action that has taken place, the image being seen here is the consequence of the actions of the shovel having been used for its work is then placed down, the resulting dust created from its digging eventually settles around it leaving a trace. Man Ray’s dust was a result of time, waiting and doing nothing whereas Shuilong’s was as consequence of work or an action. In my own work I had the similar rationale to Shuilong, that whilst not physically present in the drawing, the tool was still present in the resulting marks that told of the action which had taken place. Whilst the end image was subject to chance the actions that led to its creation were most certainly more controlled.

Zhao Liang 'Behemoth' (2016) Film. Still.
For me, this painting was also reminiscent of a film documentary I had seen a few days before during my stay in Liverpool; the film, titled ‘Behemoth’ documented the infernal plight of the Chinese mining industry focusing in particular on the lives of the farmers turned miners who work there. It was mesmerising visually however also uncomfortable viewing, the sheer scale of what was happening and relentless futility of the miner’s situation a depressing reality to comprehend. It is hellish in every sense of the word. One of the lasting images from this film was the amount of coal dust, soot, and smoke, earth and stone that left its coating on everything and everyone; so much that it actually results in the deaths of many of those who are exposed to it for long periods of time. The tragic thing about this particularly is that many of these miners have very little other choice other than to embark in this dangerous line of work in order to exist. Understandably the film has caused some controversy in China and without wanting to make unfounded comparisons I could not help but see Shuilong’s ‘Fundamental Tool’ in relation to this documentary I’d seen the night before, even more relevantly with Shuilong of course being Chinese. We know nothing of the person who laid the shovel down in ‘Fundamental Tool’ but the ghostly impression the trace of it leaves only furthers the feeling of absence of its owner. I suppose I started to wonder if it was the shovel left by one of those coal miners in ‘Behemoth’, its owner also succumb to the dust and soot of its actions. I am amazed at just how bodily work without the human figure present in them can be and ‘Fundamental Tool’ is an excellent example of this. There is the bodily element of the shovel and its association with bodily use, its horizontal positioning on the canvas that echoes a lying-down position or even perhaps a figure being buried; the shovel at once the object of burial and the representing the deceased. There are the physical marks made with the brush of a human-hand and then there is the use of dust which is also synonymous with the earth, stars and the idea that in some ways we are all made of dust. It is pure coincidence that I saw these two things around the same time, it does not however change the fact that these things are happening in China and could still be relevant. Shuilong creates these pieces from construction sites around China noting how the tools from the past are still the tools used today. They both are looking at China's occupation with growth and the consequences that construction has.I prefer the possibilities being kept open and it is perhaps unfair to compare the two together but I was unable to separate the two at the time.

It is however this central importance, signified by the positioning of the tool in the centre of the painting that gives 'Fundamental Tool' its title and in my own art relationship with tools to date, I hope this post has gone some way to proving just how much there is to be thought about and continues to fascinate me from something as seemingly mundane as the tool. Still much digging to be done!
Lang Shuilong’s ‘Fundamental Tool’ can be seen as part of the John Moores Painting Prize at The Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool until November 27th 2016

Thursday, 8 September 2016

We Can Work It Out

With just over a month left to visit the Liverpool Biennial 2016, here’s the ‘Spanner in the Workz’ review of what to expect...
Now in its tenth year, the biannual contemporary arts festival, integrated across communities and venues in the city of Liverpool, has become a regular fixture on many an art calendar; least alone in part thanks to the added draw of some of the city’s more or less salubrious pubs and bars! Its inclusion of both national and international artists have made it, in some way, the cultural 'acid-test' of what to expect from contemporary artists working today; the most recent artistic practices, developments, thinking and reaction to some of the current developments and challenges faced in the art world at present.
Granby Street, Toxteth -Liverpool
It should come as no surprise that Liverpool, like most of the country, continues to struggle from cuts to arts funding over the last few years (despite this it is reassuring that the festival is still running), but is becoming increasingly reflective of the impacts that lack of funding may be causing. This year’s Biennial feels like a befuddled lack of continuity or criteria from direction of a clear theme or funds needed to bring in curators/artists with this sort of experience OR artists hungry for the exposure that participating in the Biennial would give. It has in fact been curated by committee into a series of episodes titled, Monuments from the Future, Flashbacks, Ancient Greece, Children’s Episodes, Software, and Chinatown. In short it feels more confused, less defiant and as though it has slightly lost its way in being clear in what message it wants to give; even the Student Protests from 1985, shown in a film and documentation in Open Eye Gallery do little to stir cause for action today or ignite social change. They’re of the past and only seek to act as a comparison at how un-politically motivated and disinterested my generation are often guilty of portraying. I am perhaps stubbornly of the belief that art can act as a platform for self-expression and still have a social or ethical cause or at the very least have some meaning or significance to the present (cinema, seems to do this better than most).
All of this is reflected in the choice of artists to display in the Tate Liverpool, classical Greek sculptures amongst Ikea-style furniture and random assorted half-hearted piles of rubbish on the floor (Half-hearted piles of rubbish, as they are too small to have significance and slightly too contrived to look natural). They are the, dare I say, ‘work’ of Jason Dodge who calls the intervention ‘what the living do’ but it sounds like trite to me and doesn’t say anything new about man’s relationship with his waste. I suppose the fact that it annoys me by its being in an art gallery is the point he’s trying to make though it still feels weak for being so subtle and failing to care whether it engages with its audience or not. This being the 2016 Biennial at its worst and many critics pointing out that viewers ‘have to sift through the rubbish’ in this year’s Biennial is an accurate assessment. Visually, Koenraad Deedibbeleer’s use of subtly altered Greek sculpture is interesting but only because they are Greek sculptures, the newly created modern plinths they stand on are somewhat superfluous and don’t really add anything new. If ‘pointlessness is the point’ and that it is in some way reflective of the throw-away, media heavy era we are currently occupying then it feels lazy and somehow unhelpful as it is unclear if it is being critical or supportive. Generally speaking I think I am leaning toward a contemporary art that challenges the status quo rather than adopting it. Upstairs and not part of the Biennial programme of events is the excellent Francis Bacon exhibition that only widens the cynical division between the art of the past and that of contemporary. Why couldn’t the contemporary exhibition have been the better of the two? I think art needs to rise to the challenge rather than take such an apathetic approach.
Rita McBride at Toxteth Reservoir (2016)
In almost all other arts, from music, to film and books there is a much greater desire placed in the making of these mediums to engage with their audiences, create excitement and progression of new ideas and intent behind their making than much of the contemporary art offerings on display here. There is a similar felling that filters into this year’s Bloomberg New Contemporaries, apathy breeds apathy, with work that is so ‘self-aware’ or trying to be too clever or self-referential of the art world within which it resides that it often fails to communicate with its audience. I don’t think any of this is reflective of contemporary art or graduate work as a whole; more frustrating that the work selected does not portray enough of the breadth well. Maybe it is a question of, “is this representative of the true direction that the art of today is heading?” or more relevantly “If the work shown in this year’s Biennial is representative of Contemporary Art today then is there still a place within contemporary art for an art that is meaningful?”
There are however a few glimmers of hope and in what the Liverpool Biennial has always prided itself in doing so well, is opening up unusual or abandoned spaces to artists and allowing the public access to some truly remarkable buildings. This year is no exception and the ABC Cinema, Cains Brewery and Toxteth Reservoir are a few of the gems worth investigating as buildings alone.
Next year the Cains Brewery is being transformed into artists studios! This is great news as its a spectacular space. Although the curation of the Biennial art show currently occupying Cains Brewery fails to compete with its surroundings or respond to the context it finds itself in. Visitors will be disappointed to find that there are no references to the buildings interesting history that beneath the brewery is a lake that is 40 feet deep; somewhat surprisingly given the mention of it in the Biennial guide (why mention it if none of the work responds to it?!) There is a video here by Marvin Gaye Chetwynd, ‘Dogsy Ma’ Bone’ that uses locations in the Brewery and throughout Liverpool but isn’t enough on its own to quell the disappointment of the exhibition as a whole. Outside, is an un-open- able door as part of Lu Pingyuan’s ‘Do not Open it Series’; a further confounding metaphor if needed that the future of art is perhaps a locked door to nowhere or nowhere other than our perception of what we believe is behind the door… 
Lu Pingyuan 'Do Not Open Series', Cains Brewery, Liverpool  
The greatest success of this year’s Biennial is the integration of the main festival with its inner city areas. In and around Toxteth there are little signs as to where the City’s European Capital of Culture funding in 2008 was spent and even fewer signs of people or life compared with that of the bustling shopping district of Liverpool One. Despite this however, the artists have moved in and are beginning to make positive changes; on Granby Street, Turner Prize winning Art Group, Assemble have been working since 2012 to save the area from demolition through collaboration with the community. Granby Workshop is a social enterprise based there which sees handmade products made and sold by the local people. Elsewhere on Rhiwlas Street, Lara Favaretto has placed a 'Momentary Monument- The Stone' in the middle of this abandoned terraced street that looks like something more out of a dystopian horror than England, 2016. After the Toxteth Riots in 1981 many people have been forced to move out of such areas to allow for redevelopment. A redevelopment however that appears to be a long time coming and as result has only led to further decay of much needed houses. Painfully depressing, yet stunningly too, the area is a remarkable ghost-town and is an important reality-check from the ‘pointlessness’ of much of the Biennial art in the centre. Favaetto’s stone stands like a sentient monolith in the middle of this street, part blockade, part gravestone, part Brutalist sculpture, its appeal is in its context. In its unmovable, stubbornness it signifies some of the resistance and confrontation matched by the people whose lives were affected by events that happened here. On one side it has a small postal slot for donations or notes when after the Biennial the stone will be removed and cracked open; its contents distributed to local asylum seeking charities. 
Lara Favaretto 'Momentary Monument -The Stone' (2016) Rhiwlas Street
Just three-hundred metres down the road from this is the impressive Toxteth Reservoir, no longer in use, its purpose in a modern-day Liverpool is yet to be defined. The building slopes upwards with a flat turf lined top and inside is a chamber of arches and steel columns befitting of an atmospheric scene from a thriller or crime drama. Stepping inside this space viewers encounter Rita McBride’s laser installation consisting of several straight green beams of light, crossing in places, spanning the length of the reservoir. The affect is one of the most visually striking spectacles in the entirety of the Biennial and transforms as well as illuminating the space into something both dramatic and unreal at the same time. The laser beams shimmer under the dampness of this cavernous-like space and the whole thing feels temperate, fragile and in-keeping with some of the uncertainty of what the future holds within this building and area. McBride describes it as a wormhole and its use of green light does give the whole atmosphere a sci-fi feel, but for me it’s the way it works within the architecture of the reservoir that makes it so exciting; the horizontal lines created by the beams in contrast the the verticals of the supporting columns and curves of the bricked archways compositionally makes a lot of very interesting shapes and shadows. This work was created for this space and it’s that level of understanding or site-specific awareness that is missing in so much of the Biennial elsewhere.  
Ian Cheng 'Something Thinking Of You', Hondo Chinese Supermarket, Liverpool
Back in the City centre you’ll find more video art than you could ever hope to see in one place, even along the shelves inside a Chinese Supermarket (pictured)! I could almost write a whole piece about the video art in this year’s Biennial alone. Mark Leckey ‘Dream English Kid’ shows a snapshot montage of the cultural events that happened in the artist’s year’s growing-up between 1964-1999. The film has some brilliant moments, amateur footage from an early Joy Division gig sourced from YouTube and close-up, panning shots of vinyl record sleeve that resonate of nostalgia that Leckey’s work tends to do usually quite well. This piece covers so many ideas that it almost ends up saying nothing at all, but perhaps in that way it is more representative in portraying the feeling of memory/memories as a series of glimpses and fragmented layers thrown-together? Which would be convenient for Leckey, but acts more like the work in the Tate and Bloomberg tending to alienate its audiences.
Krzysztof Wodiczko 'Guests' (2011) FACT, Liverpool
If you only go see one film however go see Polish artist, Krzysztof Wodiczko’s ‘Guests’ (2011) at FACT gallery on Wood Street. Projected as a series of life-size arched, illuminated doorways the silhouettes of legal and illegal immigrants in Poland and Italy who animate these doorways in scenes of everyday life in a public square; there is a window cleaner, leaf blower, umbrella seller, parents, children and others. Conversations and actions happen simultaneously with characters occupying and disappearing from their framed windows as passers-by. So watching this film is to read (its subtitled) fragments of conversations about immigration, debates about seeking asylum and the situation of immigration policies and the affects it has on real people and their lives. For projections they look like ghostly Marlene Dumas paintings and is one of the few immersive video installations in the Biennial. Each figure is anonymous so the viewer becomes devoid of any judgments they may bring to the piece; these characters are all simply people. Wodiczko’s other pieces in FACT are given smaller space but deal with some equally poignant issues from homelessness to PTSD amongst American war veterans and is certainly an artist to look out for.
Overall the Biennial may feel a bit muddled this year and generally it hasn’t been as good as it was in perhaps its heyday as the Capital of Culture year; though despite this people still keep visiting it and it deserves to thrive if nothing other than for the city and its people who have supported it for so long.
Liverpool Biennial 2016 is on until October 16th. Visit: