Still zinging a little from the variety and brilliance of the Rauschenberg show at Tate Modern and planning a quick return (or two), I just came across a reproduction of Rebus, one of his early combines, made from attaching objects to a painted surface, often ‘stuff’ he found laying around his studio in Lower Manhattan.
This particular piece comprising … Oil, synthetic polymer paint, pencil, crayon, pastel, cut-and-pasted printed and painted papers, and fabric on canvas mounted and stapled to fabric, three panels.
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.
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 …
… 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) …
… 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.
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.
Close behind those, I was exhilarated and delighted by Peter Lanyon’s landscape/gliding paintings, “Soaring Flight” at the Courtauld.
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.
Until Saturday 6th September, the De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill is hosting a small but impressive Bridget Riley retrospective: The Curve Paintings 1961 – 2014. Turn the first corner of the gallery and you come face to face with three of the black and white OpArt pieces from the 60s with which Riley first made her name – the work which, if Jonathan James is to be believed [and occasionally, beneath all that manufactured bluster and bad grace he does strike the truth] makes her, along with Howard Hodgkin, an artist of a very different abstraction, one of the two most important British artists of the modern age. http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2015/jun/11/messing-with-your-mind-bridget-riley-at-the-de-la-warr-pavilion
These pieces are extraordinary. [“Awesome!” as the small boy managed to shout before his parents dragged him back out in search of something else fattening to eat.] Let your eye for one minute engage and they will not let you go. They move. They do. You shift your eyeline, change your position, and still they move. Stare at them long enough and your eyes begin to ache; any longer and the floor beneath you seems to lurch, uncertain.
Well, she couldn’t carry on doing that forever.
What this show majors on are the larger, brightly coloured paintings of more recent years … no longer black and white but full, startling colour, which I thought must be done in acrylic, but no, it’s oil on linen; and curves which overlap and inter-connect. Most of the pieces large enough, bright enough to command the eye. I found them pleasurable, beautifully made, but little more than grandly decorative and though the pleasure they give is real, for me it was no longer lasting than the excellent Italian ice cream from the Di Paulo Café across the road.
Back in London, I made my third visit to the exhibition of Agnes Martin’s paintings at Tate Modern. Although she and Riley are both working within the field of what could loosely be called geometric abstraction, the work could scarcely be more different. Martin makes little attempt to stop you in your tracks, to claim your eye – should you choose to, and, sadly, people, too many people, do, you can stroll on by with hardly a second glance. There is no shout, no clamour; these paintings whisper, shift small degrees in an unseen breeze.
Somewhere between her early days sharing Manhattan studio space and coffee with the likes of Ellsworth Kelly, Ad Reinhardt, Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman, and her time living in a self-built adobe outside Taos, New Mexico, Martin turned her back on the curve in favour of the grid. Square canvasses, lines crossing the left to right, hand-drawn, at differing widths; bands of pale pastel colours, rose pink and blue grey – so pale sometimes it’s as if she begrudged them being colours at all. Something glimpsed in the first light of dawn, perhaps, or the last light of the sun. If people are content to stand and stare at clouds, Martin says, or the shifting patterns of waves on the sea, they should look at my paintings in the same way. Stand long enough, give yourself and the work time enough and the surface starts gradually to move, as do the sea or the sky. Not the violent, challenging movement of a Bridget Riley, but something smaller, calmer; a small vibration as the paint moves in and out of focus, as the minute breaks in the hand-drawn lines appear then disappear.
My paintings have neither objects nor space nor time nor anything – no forms. They are light, lightness, about merging, about formlessness, breaking down form.
Agnes Martin, 1966
My formats are square, but the grids never are absolutely square; they are rectangles, a little bit off square, making a sort of contradiction, a dissonance, though I didn’t set out to do it that way.
Agnes Martin: Writings, 1991
Most memorable is an installation of twelve large paintings, “The Islands”, which with its contemplative atmosphere is comparable to the Rothko Chapel in Houston. When you first enter the room, all twelve pieces seem to be the same square, ghostly white, lacking definition, lacking difference; stand a while and details begin to emerge, taking on shifting shape and form like islands that appear gradually, in and out of the mist; a wavering line here, a differing shade there – blues, greys and yellows – Martin’s colours – that seem to shimmer their way through the over-riding white and then just as strangely disappear.
Agnes Martin is at Tate Modern until October 11th.
There are art shows currently in London – Diebenkorn at the RA, for instance, or Sonia Delaunay at Tate Modern – you can – should – enjoy for their sense of colour, of form, of texture, of light; for the sheer pleasure of looking, of seeing, finding familiar, finding new. Sheer pleasure. Delight. Then there is – or there was until today – Marlene Dumas’ The Image as Burden, also at Tate Modern.
There is – don’t get me wrong – much pleasure to be found here in the manipulation of paint, the movement of line, the expressiveness of colour; there is even humour, though it’s not too long before the smile is smacked from the side of your face.
This is the art of confrontation: art as confrontation.
These faces, large portraits in close-up. Don’t look away, fucker! Look at me!
Although it’s the last morning, traditionally the time when people flock to shows they have not got around to and don’t want to miss, the galleries are far from crowded; more so than when I first visited a few weeks before, but not enough. [I want to got hold, somehow, of the hordes who shuffle slowly, reverentially, round in front of canvases like Monet’s water lillies, and drag them here by the scruff of the neck.]
The Image as Burden. You get the sense, from what she says, that there’s an uncertainty always for Dumas in what she does as an artist, what she paints. As if she’s never quite satisfied with the results. And yet painting is what she has to do. The work. Her work, a burden; images as burden.
She doesn’t use living models (because something in the traditional artist-model/male-female role feels – is – wrong?) but photographs; the people in her paintings have already, as she says, been framed, made into an image, an image which may already be, for them as subject, a burden. Because of their colour and ethnicity, their gender and sexuality. A burden which, in a sense, Dumas takes on and amplifies, forcing us to acknowledge it, be aware.
Love, death, pride, shame, identity.
Perhaps most striking are these big, close to overwhelming portraits which are so much a feature of the exhibition, faces filling the frame, little to encourage disengagement, distraction. Just the eyes, the paint, the picture frame, the forcefulness of colour: the eyes that don’t let you go.
Towards the end of the exhibition, which, at Dumas’ suggestion, is arranged chronologically, are a number of paintings in which the subject matter is more specifically political in a non-personal sense, paintings that deal with international conflict, terrorism, martyrdom. One, Stern, uses as its basis the same photograph of Ulrike Meinhof, dead in her Stammheim prison cell, previously used by Gerhard Richter. Another, Dead Girl 2002 – again, hard to look at, hard to look away – is based on the newspaper photo of would-be terrorist who was killed in her attempt to hijack a plane.
But for me the single most striking image in the show is the 1994 work, The Painter, based on photographs of Dumas’ daughter, Helena.
It’s the gaze, of course, like so many of the others in the show, challenging, confronting you, daring you to question, answer back; the pose, strong, assertive; the hands that have been dipped, one supposes, deep into paint; the right hand blue with the paint the child has smeared, as children do, across her body, the left hand dark red with paint reminiscent of blood, a forecast of (menstrual) blood to come. Above all, defiant; subject as well as maker; painter of her own portrait, mistress of her own image.
Seeing it the first time I was propelled back immediately to those evenings when I had sat at our daughter’s bed while she slept, no more than three or four years old and yet, it sometimes seemed (as in a different way it does now) that she was so much older than she looked, so much older than her chronological age. As if that head, that brain already contained everything and in feigning a kind of childish ignorance she was only playing a game, playing along – save for those moments when not in words but in a look she made it clear just how much she knew, how aware she was, aware of what was happening now and what was to come.
Historically painting was seen as female but, the males were the painters, and the females the models. Now the female (the daughter) takes the main road. She paints herself. The model becomes the artist. She creates herself. She is not there to please you. She pleases herself. The question is not “Who is she?” but “Who are you?”