Tired but inspired after doing 3 shows in London: Agnes Martin and Sonia Delaunay at Tate Modern and Joseph Cornell at the RA.
After just three rooms of Agnes Martin I was ready to call it a day: either call it a day for my art career – for what point when she has done so much of what I’m exploring – or call it a day and go back home to the studio and get to work with renewed fire and vigour! As it happened I forced myself to be disciplined and make the best of the day in London.
I had been really looking forward to seeing Martin’s work after being recommended by a friend. I wasn’t disappointed, though the quality was variable ranging from averagely interesting to sublimely beautiful and completely enveloping. Some of the early work and some of her last seemed to lack a positive spark, seemed to be floundering, looking for a connection. The rest was hard-wired to her muse. Most of it I would love to take home with me and look after lovingly!
I may write in more detail about particular pieces, but over all I felt she was investigating similar areas to my current and recent work, that there is more than a superficial similarity in the way the finished pieces look.
I only scooted round the Delaunay because I was with my daughter and thought she may be interested in the costume and textiles. It was nice to reconnect to a few favourite pieces from my last visit, but it didn’t add to the positive inspirational effect of the day so far.
The Joseph Cornell was a disappointment and a delight: irritating and inspirational. I first came across his work in the early 1970s but never got to see the show in London around that time. At that time I was making sets and boxes – in a very different style – and was very drawn to and, possibly, influenced by his work. The disappointment was that photographs have shown them brighter and somehow more polished. In the flesh they seem a little dull. The delight was in the detail. If I had seen them in the seventies I would have been put off by the apparent slapdash construction, but now I can accept and cherish the poor mitres and uneven paintwork: it’s the ideas that captivate and intrigue and they are mostly put together perfectly. There was less humour than I expected: quite a few had fairly dark subject matter. I liked that many were physically dark, making you work to see what was there. I liked that the show connected me back to the best of the ideas and materials I was exploring back in college days that I have started to tinker with again.
In my last post I left the narrative of my trip to London at the end of last week ar the Royal Academy. What I failed to relate was my disappointment with the lack of interest and training in the staff at the RA. I have to say there is something odd about the RA to my mind.
The founding Royal Academicians in a painting by Johan Zoffany
I never feel comfortable there really, yet have never investigated why that might be. I avoided visiting for a long time. I started to get a bit of a feeling about it on this visit – and it’s not just because it is a different clientele to the Tate.
A friend once, in response to me voicing my unease, said “well they are a bit up themselves there aren’t they?” The clientele is definitely more conservative, more establishment, more old-money, more class-conscious and there is the sense of a posh club. I feel as if the RA as an establishment doesn’t really care about its visitors or it would have paid more attention to the basics of its retail/visitor-attraction offering. The terrible indictment I realised when I left was that in 11 interactions with Royal Academy staff only one was “good” (the lady in the cloakroom), one “adequate” (the person who checked my ticket) and all the rest were below the basic standard you would expect for day-to-day dealings let alone a major art gallery and visitor attraction. For example, I asked four different staff members (three at desks) where I might find the “Converse and Dazed” show “you know, the emerging artist thing” and they had no idea. Rather than taking responsibility the first three suggested asking someone else (“ask at the desk”, “ask downstairs”, “you’ll need to ask at the information desk for that”). The woman at the information desk looked at her screen and seemed not to be able to find it and treated me as if I was mad and not giving her enough information to go on! Whoever is responsible for visitor-facing staff at the RA really needs to visit Tate Modern to see how to improve; or the Whitechapel to make the visitor feel involved; or for a proper object lesson in how to do it properly they should take a look how they do it at the Turner Contemporary!
So I finally managed to get to the Converse and Dazed show (despite the poor signage, lack of information and aggressive security staff!) and had to take some time to calm myself before I was in a good place to look at the art. You enter the show through Jonathan Trayte’s “The Shopper’s Guide” and it is as good a place as any to shake off the irritation. It is fun, wry and quizzical: I can see why Grayson Perry picked it as his favourite. It didn’t hold my attention for long enough in the end and my rosette goes to Rachel Pimm’s “India Rubber” which is engrossing and subtle and, at times, quite beautiful. I can’t illustrate this as there are no relevant images on the RA website!
One of Klaus Staudt’s pieces at the Mayor Gallery
I then went for a little wander down Cork Street where Klaus Staudt’s show at the Mayor Gallery was quite interesting, especially the very minimalist pieces. I also found some Gillian Ayres work at the Alan Cristea not really to my taste. Her work is vibrant and colourful but my reaction to her work is often black and white: love it or leave it. I feel I would do well to spend some more time looking at her work to examine just why!
Next stop was Tate Britain to see the Salt and Silver exhibition. I had been prompted to visit through the Tate’s marketing, Tate Etc and the (careful) selection of images I had seen. I was especially drawn to the statements about the “materiality” of these prints; the image being absorbed in the top layers of the paper rather than a surface coating giving them a more artistic sense compared with other early photographic processes. Sadly I was disappointed not to get any of this sense of the image becoming an object. Behind glass and in the subdued light needed to preserve them I found them pretty much the same as any other early prints and even the side-by-side display of three techniques failed to make much impression on me, though I am sure if I was holding them in my hand in normal light the differences would be obvious. That aside, the exhibition did illustrate the history of 20 years of early photography but what is it doing in an Art Gallery? This should have been a free show in the Science Museum where they would have done an even better job of telling the story of the process. I looked at the images (and I do find old photographs interesting and involving) and thought “so even back then people took boring snaps of old ruins!” I have dozens of old postcards and many wartime images, bought or taken by my father, which have similar poorly-composed, tonally-challenged images of random people, churches, ruins and the like. They too are not fit subjects to be in a paid-for show in a major international art gallery. And yes, there is a historical, documentary aspect to the show – 20 years of a few countries in flux – but that’s a job for a museum not the Tate. The photographers were, with a few exceptions, not artists and were not recording the world from an art perspective or intending to make aesthetic creations; they were lawyers, politicians, scientists and generally rich folk! I quite liked the uncropped ones where the edges are black in swathes from the excess silver salts exposed in full light. I didn’t have to pay extra as I have Tate membership but I would have been pissed off if I had to pay £12 to see it! Perhaps I am being harsh – and there were perhaps a dozen images that were a true delight – but frankly I would have been just as happy seeing them in a nicely printed book because behind glass I could not see that special “materiality” of the image as object.
Nick Wapplington image of Alexander McQueen creation
So after a few experiences where my expectation was higher than the exhibitions delivered, one that was the opposite. I wasn’t even intending to go to the Nick Wapplington/Alexander McQueen: Working Process exhibition but I am pleased I did. By this time I was tired and had done a lot of art and wished I’d seen this earlier. If I had I would have spent a lot more time with it. It is a shame I won’t get a chance to revisit before it closes. What started out as a photobook collaboration has been transformed into a larger-than-life celebration of McQueen’s final 2009 “Horn of Plenty” collection. The photographs of every aspect of the working process of putting a major fashion show together are fascinating and involving and often movingly beautiful. These are juxtaposed with Wapplington’s huge images from landfill sites and recycling plants which act as a comment on the short life of consumer goods, fashion, art and the regeneration and constant reuse of ideas within the creative industries.
The headline indicates that I saw a range of art in London this last two days. I went to major shows at the Tate and Royal Academy; called in to the ICA and some Cork Street galleries; and visited the Other Art Fair. The snap judgement that “sublime to the ridiculous” suggests is, of course, bound to elicit a similar stereotype response, but where it’s the sublime to be found? I realise now that little I saw this last two days truly falls into the category of sublime – and I don’t intend this turn into a discussion of what I saw that was sublime or any attempt to define the sublime in art – I am merely indicating a wide range of work of varying quality and perceived financial value. What is true, in my belief, it’s that the best is not necessarily the most valued or highly regarded.
Cover of Ydessa Hendeles notes on the exhibition “From Her Wooden Sleep”
I started yesterday at the ICA to see “From Her Wooden Sleep” a fascinating, almost spell-binding, tableau featuring dozens of articulating dolls and artists’ mannequins set out on ranked wooden chairs almost like a school-room or town meeting: a chapel or early medical operating theatre. Rows of wooden people all looking at a figure at the front. Others round the sides; a collection of wooden banjos and an array of distorting mirrors. Part museum, part installation. Something I have never seen before and something that captured and captivated me probably even before I entered the theatre/ room. A visual delight, I found it a fascinating and heart-warming experience.
I also had a quick look round the other show at the ICA. “Looks” is a group show which I am told “explores the ways in which mass digital culture informs how identity is constructed, performed and challenged.” Sadly I failed to find anything that fitted that description and I don’t really understand what they mean by an identity being “performed”. That’s not to say that the work was without interest, I just couldn’t see how the description fitted. And if I am honest, the work didn’t have enough interest to engage me and make my visit more than just “a quick look round”.
From the ICA I walked round to the Royal Academy to see the Richard Diebenkorn show which I was really looking forward to and in which I found myself sadly disappointed. Perhaps I had been looking forward to it too much, seeing my expectations to high, but instead of finding the sublime I found myself classifying it as “quite nice” and “pleasant enough”. The work seemed to literal for me: an abstraction rather than abstract and is as if he can’t decide what is and what is not of importance and value. My notes read, “an art of hesitancy, indecision and bumbling along!” Somehow it’s not decisive enough to hold an essence or transfer emotion. Like my reaction the Richard Tuttle shows recently it seems a little lazy. Who am I to judge, but I felt the figurative and representational pieces to be compositional weak and poorly painted. All this was a great surprise to me.
Richard Diebenkorn: Ocean Park #116
I had expected to fall in love with them all. I may have seen a few works before but mostly I had just seen pieces in print or online and had projected on to them a luminous, spiritual quality I found oddly lacking in the actual pieces. There is a quiet, contemplative beauty to some of the Ocean Park pieces but it actually didn’t stand up for me under scrutiny and contemplation! I can’t believe I am about to say this, but they are nice decoration and a joy to the casual glance but, for me, lack substance. There’s a wealth of nice detail and I liked some of the gouache and collaged pieces very much but overall I couldn’t get excited by it all.
My #Letter365 installation Bridport Arts Centre meant I have had a couple of months of concentrated hard work and I still have got some loose ends to tie up, like updating the blog with images and relating some of the story lines from the show. I still haven’t mentioned it much on this blog!
Part of the #Letter365 installation at Bridport Arts Centre, Allsop Gallery
I’m starting to get my energy levels up again but I plan to do some major clearing up in the garden over the coming weeks and I have lots of work to get on with in the studio, so I thought I’d take a couple of days out to take in some art before I get bogged down.
I’m aiming to go to the ICA today. There’s an interesting-looking installation “From Her Wooden Sleep” I want to see. Then there’s the Diebenkorn show at the Royal Academy that I’m looking forward to very much. This evening I aim to go to the Other Art Fair. I want to see what’s going on and gauge if it’s of use to me as well as catching the work of Hanna ten Doornkaat whose work I really like.
The other things I hope to fit in, depending on time and energy levels, are the Sonia Delaunay at Tate Modern (and another look at the Marlene Dumas too before it closes); Salt and Silver at Tate Britain; the Jim Dine gift at the British Museum and of course the Ravilious at the Dulwich Picture Gallery.
I know I never finished the piece on my last trip to London and I’ve got loads of my own work to catch up on, but I’ve been to London for the day and have a long train journey so I may as well scribble a few notes about the day while it’s fresh in my mind
Of the two places I visited today there is of course no contest the Marlene Dumas at Tate Modern is streets ahead of the Works On Paper fair. Having spent much less time at WOP I want sure how to make good use of my time. I nearly just stayed at the Science Museum. There’s always interesting stuff on there. I didn’t even know if the Dumas show had started; moreover I was unsure if I wanted to see it. I was not familiar with her work and hasn’t really read the publicity or reviews.
I was almost immediately moved and disturbed by the work. Whatever you might say about her, Dumas knows how to compose a painting to give it power and to convey strong emotions. Ugly, crude, rude, angry, exquisite, composed, uneasy – nearly every painting commands attention. You can see that she can draw and that she sees so much more than just the physical form, so Dumas distorts and simplifies at will to deliver images that assault the emotions. There’s no escape: every blow is a low punch. Sometimes you are confused in what you feel, but there’s no doubt that you feel it!
But she is exploring far more than creating strong shapes to cause reactions. There’s a wealth of cultural, political and artistic explorations and allusions that I cannot begin to write about now.
I’m not really competent to judge her work technically, but I suspect some would criticise her thin paint and scrappy presentation. Yet her choice of medium seems perfect for each piece, for example the louche and sordid use of watercolour when exploring the pornographic and erotic. For me it worked perfectly and the freedom with which she uses her materials holds many lessons for me. That’s not to say I liked her work. I don’t think I’d be able to live with any of it, but I think it is very strong work and highly recommend it. I recommend it to all, men and women. In the limited things I have read there seems to be a sense this is being touted as a women’s exhibition and the vast majority of visitors when I was there were women.
So what about the Works On Paper fair. Frankly it was mostly a pretty scrappy affair. So much of it seemed to be the dog ends of artists with a bit of a name. I was shocked that it was so traditional! When there is so much exciting work being done now on paper there was little to be seen. What little there was didn’t exactly push boundaries, being mostly representational and easy on the eye. The rest was stuff salvaged from artists’ dustbins and junk shops and apart from a couple of half-decent Bawden’s (not all were that good) and a few of the many Terry Frost cards I wouldn’t give house room to most of it. I suspect that is unfair of me. I’m sure there were gems I missed, I passed by because I was finding it a little sad that money gravitates to the familiar. I’m also sad that bad work from artists with a name sells for more than good work by the unknown.
Lighting track from the ceiling of a Cork Street gallery
I’ve had a couple of days in London checking out some galleries. The principle reason I chose to visit at this time was because I had an invite to the opening of Adventures of the Black Square at the Whitechapel. How could I not go? I have been playing with black squares – or rather, black squares that are neither truly black nor quite square -for some time. In fact it was a day or two after my first tweets using #blacksquare that I got the email telling me about the show.
I’m going to start this blog near to the end of today’s time in London, with the image above. I have included a picture I took in a Cork Street gallery of the lighting track and stained ceiling tiles because I find it interesting, attractive, intriguing, meditative, arresting, though-provoking and irritating. The fact that it causes such a range of emotional and intellectual reactions is something I celebrate. The fact that far too few of the things presented to me in the last 36 hours or so as art managed to cause as much reaction in me is depressing! There was a point today when I had been to a few galleries and was overwhelmed with a wonder at the futility of it all. I was seriously doubting if “art” – including my own work – had any intrinsic value! Fortunately, I subsequently saw some Richard Serra etchings at Phillip’s which to some degree ameliorated my slumped mood.
Yesterday I started at Tate Britain. The Late Turner show hasn’t long to run and I wanted to catch it. It’s probably fair to say that I felt I ought to catch it. I’m pretty familiar with his oeuvre (and it’s a pretty big one) but it was a good opportunity to take a fresh look from a different perspective. The show was packed, so sometimes that perspective was a distant view partially obscured by other visitors. The shocking thing was the average age must have been over 70! I know it was mid week, but I was genuinely surprised there were not more younger people or students. I was not surprised that that the show had attracted that older audience, an audience that seemed to be affluent, conservative, well-travelled and “county”. Turner is probably seen as “safe” by this group who, from overheard conversations, were mostly interested in telling each other about their visits to Turner’s sights! I found it interesting that the works I found most interesting were the least crowded. So what did I think? First, it was great to see some all-time favourites. As a teenager I occasionally would go to London on a Sunday and head straight for the Turners at the Tate and still pop in often to pay homage. I suppose the most interesting revelation of looking just at the late works was that Turner never seemed able to shake off the influence of painters such as Claude. There he was breaking new ground in so many ways, when up pop some old traditional clichés that nail him back into less interesting areas.