Art Chronicles: Best of 2017

Ask who are my favourite artists and the answer comes without hesitation: Helen Frankenthaler and Joan Mitchell. Ask who I think is the greatest artist of the last 150 years – great in terms of the overall quality of the work and the pleasures it brings, great in terms of its originality and influence – and I’ll turn slightly pale and tell you such a distinction is not only worthless but impossible. And then, when my arm is metaphorically up my back and the pressure is on, I’ll say, well, of course, it’s Cezanne.

Cezanne_medium

The current show at the National Portrait Gallery [till February 11th, 2018] concentrates on the portraits (Duh!) which formed a significant part of Cezanne’s work, although he’s not, I think, primarily thought of as a portrait painter. What they illustrate is his growing confidence as an artist, his expanding love of colour, of the richness of paint on canvas, the mark, as he progressed from impressionism towards a burgeoning modernism that held within itself the beginnings of cubism – of Modern Art. And this without losing sight of the sitter, his or her individuality.

Without being (thankfully) of block-busting proportions, it’s a large show, with the works well-displayed and aided rather than, as if too often the case, detracted from, by the wall captions, which are clearly and sensible written, giving just the right amount and kind of information, avoiding the all-too-typical ‘art speak’ that mars far too many exhibitions with over-intellectualised gobbledygook.

soul

 

Perhaps the most important single exhibition of the year, however, was Soul of a Nation at Tate Modern. Sub-titled Art in the Age of Black Power, and concentrating on work from the two decades following the struggle for Civil Rights, this gave a first showing in this country to a large number of black artists whose work had previously been overlooked, at the same time as giving a wider platform to painters such as Norman Lewis and David Hammons and the photographer Roy DeCarava.

The Place is Here, at Nottingham Contemporary, was the perfect companion piece to Soul of a Nation, concentrating as it did on the work of Black British artists during the 1980s, including Lubaina Himid’s  “A Fashionable Marriage”, one of the pieces for which she was awarded this year’s Turner Prize.

American Art was generally well represented. America After The Fall at the Royal Academy and American Prints: Pop to the Present at the British Museum were absorbing surveys, in the case of the BM quite splendidly displayed. And both the exhibition of Rauschenberg’s work at Tate Modern at the beginning of the year, and that of Jasper Johns at the Royal Academy towards the end, were testimony to the breadth and seriousness of their practice. [Johns, he’s that bloke that paints flags, yeah? Well, look again.]

Amongst the other shows I visited during the year, these also stood out …

  • Walhalla – Anselm Kiefer : White Cube, Bermondsey
  • Wolfgang Tillmanns 2017 : Tate Modern
  • The Discovery of Mondrian : Gemeentemuseum, Den Haag
  • Revolution – Russian Art 1917-1932 : Royal Academy
  • Alice Neel, Uptown : Victoria Miro
  • States of America : Nottingham Contemporary
  • Instant Stories – Wim Wenders’ Polaroids : Photographers’ Gallery
  • Impulse – Pace Gallery
  • Soutine – Cooks, Waiters & Bellboys : Courtauld Gallery

 

 

 

Advertisements

Frank’s Friends

Celebrations of Frank O’Hara’s life and work, both, of course, closely entwined, continue apace. Last Saturday’s colloquium at the ICA – Frank O’Hara and Friends – broadened out those celebrations to include references to the work of some of the other poets and painters of the New York School with whom O’Hara was closely associated. One such, the artist (and sometime jazz musician) Larry Rivers, contributed the collage, based on his own nude portrait of O’Hara, used on the cover of the 1974 Vintage edition of O’Hara’s Selected Poems, edited by Donald Allen, and shown below. And today, it  should be noted, marks the 89th birthday of one of the foremost of the New York poets, John Ashbery.

O'Hara 1

The ICA event was, as those occasions tend to be, a mixture of the interesting and entertaining with the academically obscure and self-serving, the first keynote speaker, Geoff Ward, Principal of Homerton College, Cambridge, being all of the former and none of the latter.  Jess Cotton, a PhD student from UCL, talked interestingly about the relationship and cross-influences linking O’Hara and fellow poet James Schuyler, and Eleanor Careless (great name!), studying for a PhD at Sussex, spoke of the connections between O’Hara and the painter Helen Frankenthaler and his poem/her painting Blue Territory in the context of “gendered risk”.

Last night’s event at Five Leaves Bookshop in Nottingham, organised by Leah Wilkins, was an altogether less grandiose affair and none the less enjoyable for that. Some fifty people crowded into the store, taking up all the available chairs and filling all the nooks and crannies between bookstands, to listen to largely unexplicated readings of O’Hara’s poems by, amongst others,  the poet and lecturer, Matthew Welton; the newly in place director of Nottingham Contemporary, Sam Thorne; gay literature historian, Gregory Woods; and founder of Mud Press, Georgina Wilding. As I said when someone commented kindly on my reading of The Day Lady Died, that poem is so close to perfect that being given the opportunity to read it aloud feels almost like stealing.

O'Hara 2

 

Mona Hatoum

The first time I knowingly came across the work of the artist, Mona Hatoum, was when three of of her pieces were included in Between Cinema and a Hard Place, a group show at Tate Modern in 2000, curated by Frances Morris and including work by, amongst others, Douglas Gordon, Anthony Gormley, Anish Kapoor, Cornelia Parker and Rachel Whiteread. It wasn’t until some years later, 2011, when I was taking a course taught by Dr. Diane Silverthorne, Art & Identity: History, Memory and Post-war Art, as part of the History of Art programme at Birkbeck, University of London, that I encountered her work again, when it was included in the exhibition, Jean Genet Act 1 & Act 2, at Nottingham Contemporary.

The second half of that exhibition, Act 2, was organised around Genet’s support for anti-colonialism, focussing on the Black Panthers in the United States and the freedom fighters of the Palestinian Fedayeen. Born in Beirut to a Palestinian family but living in London, and later, Berlin, it was in this latter context that Hatoum’s work was shown.

There were two of Hatoum’s pieces in the show, Keffiah (1998 – 2000) a traditional Arab scarf , embroidered with female human hair and Still Life (2008-2009) made from glazed ceramics, wood and painted steel.

As I noted at the time, in this latter work there are 42 small ceramic pieces, each individually coloured and approximately the size of a piece of fruit such as an apple you might hold in your hand. Some are round, like baubles, others oval: some are smooth, but the majority are divided on the outer surface into ridged sections similar to the outside of a pineapple. In general, the colours – greens, blues, yellow, orange, red, white and black – are bright, the surfaces highly glazed so as to reflect the light.

Mona-Hatoum-Still-Life-2008

The objects are arranged in a seemingly casual way on a wooden table, open to view, open – apparently – to touch. Their very openness is appealing, and, within the setting of the gallery, unusual. Their brightness invites us to come close, walk around the table, examine them as we would pieces of fruit – the title, Still Life – reinforces this notion. And yet we don’t pick them up. In part, due to our awareness of what is appropriate and inappropriate with works of art, but also because our initial reading of the objects has now (surely?) been replaced by another. These attractive, seemingly innocent objects are potentially lethal; they are like hand grenades, small explosive devices, and to touch (like Eve plucking the forbidden apple from the tree) is to court destruction. The title, Still Life, takes on an ironic twist.

Hatoum has said that her work is often “about conflict and contradiction, and that conflict and contradiction can be within the actual object.

And further, “I want the work in the first instance to have a strong formal presence, and through the physical experience to activate a psychological and emotional response.

The current exhibition at Tate Modern (till August 21st), a retrospective that concentrates on the sculptures and installations Hatoum has been making since the late 1980s, makes clear the extent to which she has achieved those aims. Piece after piece draws you in then sends a jolt to your brain while kicking you in the gut. It’s terrific work, not least because it’s about stuff that matters.

Take Light Sentence (1992), seen below …

large

… a three-sided construction made up of wire mesh lockers and illuminated by a single light bulb moving slowly up and down at the centre and casting shadows on the surrounding walls. We think of animal cages, experiments; think of blocks of flats, certain kinds of architecture, human beings crammed together, caged; as we walk around the light throws our shadows, too, onto the walls amongst the grids and squares so that for the time we walk around we have this sense of being trapped there, caged also.

Or Measures of Distance (1988) …

Measures of Distance 1988 by Mona Hatoum born 1952

Measures of Distance 1988 Mona Hatoum born 1952 Purchased 1999 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/T07538

… a video piece in which Arabic writing, representing the letters Hatoum received from her mother while living in London, is veiled across images of her mother in the shower at her home in Beirut, the soundtrack carrying both a conversation between Hatoum and her mother in Arabic and Hatoum’s voice reading a translation of the letters into English. As well as showing the closeness and intensity of their relationship, as Hatoum says, “it also speaks of exile, displacement, disorientation and a tremendous sense of loss as a result of the separation caused by the war.”

One of Hatoum’s earliest works was a performance piece in which she walked through the streets of Brixton in bare feet with Doc Marten boots – footwear favoured by both skinheads and police – attached to her ankles by their laces. On the day of my first visit to the exhibition at Tate Modern, we were followed around by two men in their late 20s, early 30s, both wearing shorts, each man holding a long pair of leather reins – the kind more normally associated with dogs – at the end of which two small children crawled and tottered and cried.  Containment, anyone? Conflict, contradiction? It should have been an art work, but it wasn’t.

This is a wonderful show, genuinely thought-provoking, by a major artist, and for anyone interested in the relationships between contemporary art and life pretty essential. See it if you can.

Art Shows of the Year, 2015

For me, there were three absolutely brilliant shows this year, each challenging in the artist’s own way and equally unforgettable: Marlene Dumas’ “The Image as Burden” at Tate Modern, Agnes Martin, also at Tate Modern, and Frank Auerbach at Tate Britain.

Marlene Dumas

Marlene Dumas: ‘Evil is Banal’

Close behind those, I was exhilarated and delighted by Peter Lanyon’s landscape/gliding paintings, “Soaring Flight” at the Courtauld.

Peter Lanyon: 'Soaring Flight'

Peter Lanyon: ‘Soaring Flight’

There were other exhibitions of real quality: Richard Diebenkorn at the Royal Academy; Glen Ligon’s “Encounters and Collisions” at Nottingham Contemporary; Cornelia Parker at the Whitworth, Manchester; George Shaw’s “The Last Days of Belief” at the Wilkinson Gallery; Jackson Pollock’s “Blind Spots” at Tate Liverpool.

And three excellent survey shows: “Reality – Modern & Contemporary British Painting” at the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool; “Abstract Britain” at The Higgins, Bedford; and “The Bigger Picture – Painting in Cornwall from the 1920s to the 1960s” at Penlee House in Penzance.