Art Chronicles: Rana Begum & Mark Dion

I wouldn’t have known about the art installation by Mark Dion at St. Ives’ Porthmeor Studios, if my partner, Sarah, and I hadn’t fallen into conversation with the invigilator in the small gallery at Tate St.Ives currently housing work by Rana Begum under the title, A Conversation with Light and Form – and which in itself we’d only stumbled on by chance, moving between the rooms showing work from the Tate’s permanent collection and the current exhibition devoted to Patrick Heron.

Lucky day!

Begum is interested in the interplay of colour and light and the effects of repetition; in taking the everyday and presenting it in such as way as to encourage us to look at it afresh. Here, acknowledging that St. Ives was a fishing village long before it became primarily a holiday destination [the story of Cornwall writ small] she has taken two of the staples of the fishing industry – nets and floats – and ‘remade’ them. Nets, painted in a variety of colours – red, green and blue – hang, overlapping, from one wall; plaster moulds in different shapes and sizes, the size and shape of floats, are arrayed together on  a stand. The ordinary made art for us to take pleasure in and enjoy, while pointing up its original form and function. From artefact to art and back again.

DSC_0035

Having talked very interestingly about Begum’s work and how it was made, the invigilator mentioned, almost as an afterthought, an installation by Mark Dion just a short walk away that we might be interested in. Only open to the public one day a week, he thought. Maybe Wednesdays? So it proved. Wednesdays from 10.00am.

Dion is an American artist who is also interested in the everyday; in his case, specifically, the way knowledge – history – is collected and presented; interested in the process as well as the finished presentation or display. In 1999, for instance, to coincide with the opening of Tate Modern, he used volunteers to comb the shores of the Thames outside Tate Modern and Tate Britain for whatever objects and fragments of objects they could find; these were then cleaned, as far as possible identified, and finally placed on display, together with flow charts and photographs, in a large glass-fronted mahogany cabinet.

During his time in St, Ives, Dion, like Begum, found his inspiration, to a large degree, in the artefacts and livelihood of fishing; more specifically, with relation to Porthmeor Studios, in the harmonious ways in which the working fishermen and working artists have come to occupy the same space. Originally built for the pilchard industry, fishermen still use part of the building for storing gear and setting nets, while much of the rest was converted into artists’ studios which have been home to the likes of Ben Nicholson, Wilhelmina Barns-Graham and Patrick Heron.

Commissioned to make a work which would mark the completion of the restoration of the Studios, Dion followed his normal practice, using a group of students from Falmouth University, to source as many artefacts from the local fishing industry as possible; these Dion carefully arranged on one side of one of the cellars below the building, with artists’ tools and paraphernalia on the other.  The resulting work, The Maritime Artist, remains on display and is well worth seeing – but remember, on Wednesdays only, after 10.00am.

DSC_0070

DSC_0069

DSC_0068

 

NB There’s a fascinating exhibition of Rana Begum’s work in the Djanogly Gallery at Lakeside Arts Centre, Nottingham, until the end of September.

Begum

Advertisements

Art Chroncicles: Killed Negatives & the F.S.A.

Lange

Much as, for many people, Dorothea Lange’s portrait of Florence Owens Thompson, known as Migrant Mother, epitomises the suffering and endurance of the American heartland during the Great Depression, so this and other photographs that Lange took when she was employed by the Farm Security Administration in the 30s have come to be more or less fully representative of her career. This despite the fact that half a lifetime and more than half of that career were ahead of her.

After working for the FSA, she was hired by the War Location Authority to document the internment of Japanese American citizens following Pearl Harbour and then collaborated with Ansel Adams in documenting the lives of shipyard workers, men and, increasingly, women, who had moved to California to work in the booming wartime shipping industry in the final years of WW2. In the 1950s. together with her writer-son, Daniel Dixon, she produced an in-depth portrait of rural life in Ireland, before returning to America and working on photo essays dealing with inequalities in the justice system and the effects of large-scale government land projects on local communities.

Lange died in 1965 at the age of seventy, just a few months before a retrospective exhibition of her work opened at MOMA in New York. She wrote the following as a postscript to the show …

I would like to add a line to encourage persons interested in using a camera to concern themselves with making photographs of the life which surrounds them, to raise his [or her] sights to include what’s going on about us, to the camera to show this awareness.

Dorothea Lange: Politics of Seeing [in conjunction with Vanessa Winchip: And Time Folds] is at the Barbican until September 2nd. And, running until August 26, there is a very  interesting exhibition at the Whitechapel Art Gallery, Killed Negatives: Unseen Images of 1930s America, which gives considerable insight into how Lange and the other photographers employed by the F.S.A. – Walker Evans, Margaret Bourke-White, Gordon Parks, Marion Post Wolcott et al – were directed, encouraged and generally managed by Roy E. Stryker, who worked for the Farm Security Administration as Chief of the Historical Section of the Division of Information.

As Stryker later described himself …

I’m the guy who sat in the middle … I kept the store … My goal was to write the history of the Farm Security Administration. We didn’t collect many documents. We collected pictures. Many think I went down to Washington with a plan. I didn’t. There was no such plan … I was one-half editor, one-half papa, one-half hell-raiser, one-half publishing agent, and occasionally psychoanalyst without portfolio.

He may not have had a plan when he arrived in Washington at the beginning of his tenure, but, if indeed that were the case, one soon became clear. Arthur Rothstein, the first of Stryker’s hirings, was left in little doubt …

It was our job to document the problems of the depression so that we could justify the New Deal legislation that was designed to alleviate them.

Here’s an extract from a letter Stryker sent to another photographer, Jack Delano …

Please watch out for autumn pictures, as calls are beginning to come in for them and we are short. These should be rather the symbol of Autumn … cornfields, pumpkins … Emphasize the idea of abundance – the ‘horn of plenty’ – and pour maple syrup over it – you know, mix well with white clouds and put on a sky-blue platter. I know your damned photographer’s soul writhes, but to hell with it. Do you think I give a damn about a photographer’s soul with Hitler on our doorstep? You are nothing but camera fodder to me.

As becomes clear from the photographs and letters on display at the Whitechapel, Stryker was quick to dismiss a photo that, to his mind, didn’t reinforce the impression of America in the Depression that he was after, just as he would discard an image he considered to be inadequately  focussed or badly framed. These – and this is reflected in the name of the show – he ‘killed’ by punching holes through the negative – an act which Dorothea Lange considered an act of vandalism, but that didn’t stop him. Any more than it stopped him sending strongly-worded letters to his men and women in the field, criticising them for what he perceived as their lack of technical skill. And one of the pleasures of the exhibition is deciding on which grounds – poetical, artistic or technical – Styrker had decided to make his cull.

Lee-Russell_Untitled-photo-possibly-related-to-Mr.-Tronson-farmer-near-Wheelock-North-Dakota-copy-370x280

 

Killed-Negatives_8a00531a_Web-570x428

NB . The Stryker and Rothstein quotes come from Paul Hendrickson’s excellent book, Looking for the Light: The Hidden Life and Art of Marion Post Wolcott [Knopf, 1992] Currently out of print but ready available and, as is the case with all of Hendrickson’s  books, well worth reading.

 

Alex Prager at The Photographers’ Gallery

AP_LM18291_Crowd_3_Beach_hr2

Crowd #3 (Pelican Beach) 2013 Alex Prager

If one of The Photography Gallery’s ambitions when setting up it’s current pair of shows  (until 14th October, 2018) was to establish the widest possible contrast between two artists’ practice, they could hardly have chosen better than to focus on Tish Murtha [whom I wrote about in my previous blog post] and Alex Prager. Murtha is firmly in the school of documentary realism, black and white, working class, political, small scale in image, universal in reach and meaning. Prager, in contrast, is high colour, glossy, large scale, concerned with politics of gender and deeply indebted to film imagery and technique – not any kind of film, but that exemplified by Hitchcock and Douglas Sirk – technicoloured melodramas that simultaneously present a heightened version of real life at the very same time as they foreground the means they use (colour, lighting, mise-en-scene) to point up its falseness, its fakery. Gendered Hollywood fairy tales. [Like all fairy tales?]

Shots like the one above were made on a sound stage using up to 150 extras.
Images such as the one below, which could almost be a production still from The Birds, make explicit not just Pragers’ obsession with Hitchcock, but her obsession with his obsession – young blonde women under threat, held under the camera’s gaze.

The section in The Photographers’ Gallery regular booklet series, Loose Associations, which deals with Prager’s work, includes extracts from feminist film critic and academic Laura Mulvey’s key 1975 article Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, which dissects the ways in which classic Hollywood film positions women at the ultimately passive receiving end of the all-powerful male gaze. And that’s a three-way: male behind the camera; male within the narrative; male in the audience. Hitchcock – for Prager, whose concerns, one suspects, are similar to Mulvey’s  – is, of course, the perfect subject, the perfect example, perfect for them both, in that he is transparent as to both ends and means. After several viewings, it seems to me, it’s difficult not to see Vertigo, for instance, as an object lesson in just how male dominance of the female in terms of image, action and emotional response can be achieved.

NINTCHDBPICT000412569137

The Big Valley: Eve 2008 Alex Prager

It’s no surprise that Prager moved from photography – the kind of large scale, pre-planned and well-resourced still photography that is well displayed on two floors at TPG – to film itself. Short films with large crews and real stars. For Touch of Evil, commissioned by the New York Times, she managed to nab a host of A-listers including Jessica Chastain, George Clooney, Kirsten Dunst and Rooney Mara. The ‘star’ of Face in the Crowd, one of the films showing at TPG, is Elizabeth Banks, playing an attractive blonde woman (what else) forever, seemingly, trapped behind a wall of glass, while around her – the film is shown on three screens, central, left & right – various crowds are shown on the beach, at a ball game, crowds from which individuals are intermittently seen in close up, expressing their doubts and fears to camera.

Is it possible to look at Prager’s work and see only the surface, enjoy the size, the visceral pleasure, the high-gloss slickness of it, and not be concerned with what rides beneath? That, after all, would be the mainstream Hollywood way. But here we’re not submerged in the dark. We’re in a gallery and this is art. As well as responding on an immediate love, we’re expected to think. And we do.

 

Tish Murtha at The Photographers’ Gallery

Circumstances dictate 50/60 minutes of slowly walking back and forth, standing, staring, is about all I can manage right now, which means I’ll be back at The Photographers’ Gallery more than once before it’s recently opened brace of shows closes on October 14th.

On the second floor is a cross-section of the work of Tish Murtha, a too-little-known (until now) and under-represented member of that group of British documentary realist photographers of the 70s & 80s who saw their function as being to show the rancid decay of working class life and community under a Conservative government. Men laid off. Heavy industry in decline. Mass youth unemployment.

Murtha grew up, one of ten children, on a housing estate in the Elswick area of Newcastle, got herself to college, got a camera, got a place on David Hurn’s Documentary Photography course at Newport College of Art in South Wales. Newport – Newcastle : in many ways not so very different. “I want to learn to take photographs of policemen kicking kids,” she allegedly said at her interview.

Looking at the work – kids, mainly kids – youths in unemployed abundance – I was reminded of something I’d quoted in my last piece on this blog about another artist from the north-east, the poet Barry MacSweeney …

After Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative Government was elected in 1979, MacSweeney’s work became more vicious and despairingly political.

Except that, political as it clearly is, and some pictures do depict a moribund sense of despair, there is little or nothing that I would describe as vicious in Murtha’s depictions of the places and people she knew and whose backgrounds she had shared. What I see is understanding, compassion – two-shots showing love, togetherness, fortitude – a young girl, perhaps eight or nine years old, staring back at the camera as if asking what can my life be, can I be like you?

David Hurn suggests an affinity with the work and ambition of the American photographer, Lewis Hine …

I wanted to show the things that had to be corrected. I wanted to show the things that had to be appreciated.

Tish Murtha does both.

Tish Murtha: Works 1976-1991 was curated by Val Williams and Gordon MacDonald, with Karen McQuaid, and with the co-operation of the Tish Murtha Archive, which her daughter, Ella, has managed since Tish’s death in 2013. It is showing, together with Alex Pregar: Silver Lake Drive, at The Photographers’ Gallery, London W1F7LW until October 14th, 2018. 

DSC00580

Art Chronicles: A Trip to the Mayfair Triangle …

Cross Regent Street into Mayfair – having first fortified yourself with a short latté and cinnamon bun in the Nordic Bakery on Golden Square – and immediately you’re in a world of high rents, high fashion and ostentatious money. [If you’ve ever played Monopoly you’ll know what I mean.] And now, more than ever there’s art. That’s art with a hefty price sign and a capital A. There were always small and slightly exclusive galleries along Cork Street and its neighbours; and, of course, there’s the Royal Academy, recently much-expanded, to the south on Piccadilly. But in recent years the big movers and shakers in the art market have moved in with a vengeance. Hauser and Wirth – who have galleries in New York and L.A., Hong Kong, Zurich and Gstaad – and on a farm in Somerset – now have a double gallery on Saville Row, across from West End Central Police Station [and just a little way up from where my good friend, the late Tony Burns, laboured in the tailoring trade.] Gagosian, with galleries in Rome, Paris, Hong Kong, Geneva, New York, San Francisco and Beverley Hills, have opened no great distance away, on Grosvenor Hill; and Victoria Miro, having previously been in Cork Street, returned to Mayfair in 2013 with a gallery on St. George Street, immediately behind Sotheby’s on Bond Street; this is in addition to a vast double gallery converted from a former piano factory between Hoxton and Islington in North-East London and an intimate canal-side location in Venice,

Our first stop on this particular morning is at Hauser and Wirth, where one gallery is currently showing work by Swiss artists from the 1930s to the present day, curated by Gianni Jetzer; the other has an exhibition of photographs by August Sander, Men Without Masks. My guide and companion, who has previously visited both, suggests we leave the Swiss for another day.

August Sander’s central ambition was to create a picture of Germany in the first half of the last century, doing so in the main through a vast number of portraits which ranged widely across class, occupation and gender. His basic method was to photograph his subject full-on, often against a neutral background, and in the majority of cases with the subject looking back directly into the lens. It suggests a kind of neutrality, removes any too obvious trace of the photographer himself, allows the subject, as it were, to own the picture, command the frame. This is me: this is who I am. Well, that’s the illusion, that’s the idea – Men Without Masks, indeed.

Almost all the examples of Sander’s work I’ve seen previously have been quite small in scale and what is exceptional about this show, which is on till July 28th, and makes it especially well worth visiting, is that these, in the main, are in a larger, full-scale format.

cri_000000324347

Man of the Soil

 

cri_000000172100

Member of Parliament

cri_000000119040

Sisters

You don’t have to spend long with the work to be conscious of the influence Sander had on photographers who came after him; on Diane Arbus, on Walker Evans. Nor, looking a the portrait of the ‘peasant woman’ below is it hard to see the inffluence on Sander of artists like Cezanne.

cri_000000119028

Peasant Woman

Moving on, the current show at the Gagosian [till July 28th] is Howard Hodgkin’s Last Paintings, comprising the final six paintings he finished in India before his death in 2017, and twenty others not previously shown in Europe.

I remember – and how’s this for a brazen display of one-upmanship and name dropping? – a conversation I had about Hodgkin with Geoff Dyer some twenty years ago, when we were travelling by coach across Romania as part of a British Council delegation of writers. I’d been luxuriating in having an open ticket to the exhibition of Hodgkin’s work at the Hayward Gallery, making the point quite strongly that the more opportunities I had to see the paintings, stand in front of them and look at them properly, the more I liked them. Ah, said Geoff, well I think I feel precisely the opposite.

Which shouldn’t have been enough to make me revise my opinion, though I suspect that it did – or, at the very least, got me to consider the possibility of revising my opinion, which, in fact. I think I did in time, and might even have done so without Geoff’s prompting. I was certainly feeling pretty agnostic by the time of the Time & Place paintings shown at Modern Art Oxford in 2010, though my positivity was partly reclaimed by some of the later pieces  in Absent Friends at the National Portrait Gallery in 2017.

hodgin-2

“Patrick in Italy” 1991-93

While remaining to some degree resistant to Hodgkin’s frequent assertion that his work is representational rather than abstract, there’s perhaps enough in a painting such as Patrick in Italy (above) to agree that it works on a level partly of metaphor, partly a gesture (well, several) towards a kind of representation. [Oh, Lordy! Is that what metaphor IS anyway? Discuss. Or, better, don’t.] And actually, I don’t too much care. I’m responding on a level outside the purely intellectual. Like most of Hodgkin’s best work, the painting’s appeal is overwhelmingly sensual. It’s about the paint and the way it’s applied. About colour. The richness of colour. [No wonder he was obsessed with India.] It’s the richness that wins one over; the sensuousness of the texture, the brilliance of the paint, the warmth, the – yes – the sexuality of it.

The other painting that stopped me in my tracks at the NPG was this …

hodgk-2012-0015-blue-portrait_crop-1280x1220

“Blue Portrait” 2011-12

One of my favourite pieces in the show and, as a portrait, for that’s clearly from the title what it claims to be, one almost entirely given over to metaphor. Two broad brushstrokes, swipes, if you like, down and across a piece of wood, Hodgkin’s memory of Selina Fellows, standing at the bar in a brilliant blue dress at the Museo Nacional Centre de Arte Reina Sofia in 2006. The painting was made in 2011-12. I love it. Loved it then – sorry, Geoff – love it now. And the paintings that I most enjoyed at the Gagosian were of the same ilk, shared many of the same components: they were small, smaller than the rest, unfussy, simple – the richness that made pieces like Patrick in Italy so close to overwhelming, so irresistible, has been reduced to this. Urgent. Quick. Two compatible colours overlapping. Late work. Among the very last.

DSC00531

“Darkness at Noon” 2015-16

DSC00536

“Don’t Tell a Soul” 2016

ebddcdc6bbdd8b486ee1b3d5cb557c5f

“Over To You” 2015-17

Which leaves the final destination on our tour of Mayfair: Victoria Miro. And first, another small back story. In 2016 my partner gave me as a birthday present [78th, since you ask] the catalogue for Women of Abstract Expressionism, a show organised by Denver Art Museum and due to travel from there to Charlotte, North Carolina, hence to Palm Springs and finally to the Whitechapel gallery in London in the summer of  2017. Oh, my God! Those painters – Mitchell, Frankenthaler, Hartigan, Krasner, de Kooning – whose work I have long loved and admired, all too often at a distance, along with more than a dozen others from the 1940s to the 60s. I could not believe it. And I was right not to. For whatever reasons – and when I asked, they  played their cards politely close to their chest – the show would not come to the Whitechapel. Which made it all the more exciting when Victoria Miro advertised Surface Work – “a celebration of women artists who have shaped and transformed, and continue to influence and expanse, the language and definition of abstract painting.” Perhaps this would fill the gap left by the missing show from Denver?

Sadly, no. For one thing, there was relatively little from the period when abstract expressionism was at its height [The curators should get some kind of award for sourcing the only Joan Mitchell that could be described as dull] and much of the work on display in the twinned galleries on Wharf Road was more recent, some of it contemporary, and to my  eyes not very good at all. An argument, rather, in favour of the point of view that it is nigh on impossible to create something original and worthwhile in abstract expressionism now. That moment has gone. The only artist who claimed my attention favourably was Elizabeth Neel, with a piece of work created especially for the exhibition. I can’t show it here, but these images give an idea of her style …

elizabeth_neel_american

“American Standard” 2009

1429ab42-1f2a-468f-b15a-232108f5d36d_212_263

“Fixtures Morning to Evening”

So it was that I arrived at St. George Street with a mixture of hope and apprehension. Could they have been saving the best for last? Uh-huh.

7950_6

Helen Frankenthaler: “Winter Figure with Black Overhead” 1959

There it is, smack in front of you as you enter. Not the rich, stained, echoes of landscape Frankenthaler, but energetic, darting – skating – quick and alive; unlike anyone else and so immediately recognisable. And she’s in smart company.  To her right, a painting by Alma Thomas, who was the first African-American woman to have a solo exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York – though even then she had to wait until the age of 80 – and whose work was shown in London recently as part of the excellent Soul of a Nation show at Tate Modern. Thomas moved into abstraction relatively late in her career, and here are two examples, not from this show.

SAAM-1980.36.1_1

Alma Thomas: “Fall Begins” 1973

 

thomas_orion

Alma Thomas: “Orion” 1973

On the wall to Frankenthaler’s left is “End of Winter”, a strong, dark, swirling painting by Betty Parsons, better known for running the Betty Parsons Gallery in New York, which she did from 1946 to 1982, but clearly no mean artist herself.

988afc3bb4a986efef3ffff24f79e2a9

Betty Parsons : “End of Winter” 1958-59

And beside her and instantly, I think, recognisable for the brownish-orange colour palate and the heavy use of line, an oil and paper collage on canvas by Lee Krasner …

jpg

Lee Krasner: “The Farthest Point” 1981

There’s more, and we look at it but fleetingly; this, I think, is a good place to stop. My companion assures me he knows where there’s a Pret large enough that we can be assured a seat even at what is now the busiest time of the day. And as we head out I’m already tossing up between the normally dependable, and relatively cheap, egg and cress or maybe the also dependable but more expensive chicken and avocado …

Art Chronicles: Tate St.Ives

After being closed for rebuilding, renovation and refurbishment for what seems like a very long time, it was a surprise to walk into a building that seemed almost overwhelmingly familiar. The gallery spaces, the shop, the cafe … but wait … what is new  and what is pretty wonderful is the new permanent display – Modern Art and St. Ives – which does what, I think, many visitors come to gallery looking for – an in depth survey of the principle British Artists associated with Western Cornwall and St.Ives – Nicholson, Hepworth, Patrick Heron, Naum Gabo, Peter Lanyon, Sandra Blow –  together with examples of the European and North American artist who inspired them and with whom their work is associated – Nicholson and Marlow Moss, for instance, alongside Mondrian.

DSC00431

A conscious attempt seems to have been made to include a higher percentage of work by female artists than is all too often the case, including here Margaret Mellish, Marlow Moss and, particularly, Wilhelmina Barns-Graham, who is represented with three pieces which illustrate the development of her practice, from naively representational through differing kinds of abstraction and an almost fierce use of colour.

DSC00435

Wilhelmina Barns-Graham: “Island Sheds, St. Ives, No. 1” 1940

DSC00438

Wilhelmina Barns-Graham : “Rock Theme (St. Just)” 1953 [detail]

DSC00442

Wilhelmina Barns-Graham : “Red Form” 1954 [detail]

What has been added to the gallery – after lengthy negotiations with residents, the town council et cetera – is a single, large high-ceilinged room, which can be used, as in its initial display, to show the work of a single artist – in this case, Rebecca Warren – or, where necessary, divided by a series of removable walls.

For the exhibition of Warren’s witty and provocative work,  she has chosen the title All That Heaven Allows, taken from the 1955 Douglas Sirk film, which uses both melodramatic narrative form and heightened use of colour to dramatise the situation of a middle-class widow trapped within rigid expectations of class, gender and sexuality. Tall, angular sculptures of human figures are placed at irregular intervals across the room’s wide space; collages in neon vitrines placed here and there on the walls. Once visitors start walking around and between them, the sculptures begin to take on an exaggerated life of their own, commenting on the viewers and on themselves as works of art.

Tate St Ives

The roughly worked, one might almost say deliberately ham-fisted, construction of the figures with their clumpy surfaces and irregular colour, make a marked and deliberate contrast to the smooth surfaces and satisfying curves of the Barbara Hepworth sculptures in the permanent exhibition, just as the wall pieces, with their apparently random, yet personal, selection of objects and use of neon, offer an alternative to the more austere and geometrical work of Ben Nicholson and Naum Gabo.

DSC00449 1

Rebecca Warren : “All That Heaven Allows”