Tag Archives: RA

After some ridiculous, some more disapppointments, some fun verging on the ridiculous and you’ll have to wait for the sublime

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

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

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!

Salt print image of Captain Lord Balgonie by Roger Fenton

Captain Lord Balgonie, Grenadier Guards, Roger Fenton © Wilson Centre for Photography

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

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.

Anselm Kiefer and Richard Tuttle

I always find it’s useful to go to major exhibitions – especially retrospectives – to help my understanding of what art it’s about, what art should do. Today I’ve been to two London shows, a Anselm Kiefer at the Royal Academy and Richard Tuttle at the Whitechapel. In some ways I was disappointed with both exhibitions. I came away from the Kiefer with questions and emotions and a deepened respect for the artist. I came away from the Tuttle wondering why he is rated as highly as he is.

But this had caused me to ponder some more about the nature of art. What is art for? What is it meant to do? In particular I am thinking about modern visual art; art since the point when the camera freed artists from the tyranny of representation; art principally from westernised culture.

Art must engage the viewer in some way. When it ceases to do so it becomes decoration at best. Not that decoration and decorative elements cannot be part of art, but I would expect such elements to be present to help convey content not be content.

So in what ways might art engage the viewer? Broadly, for me, it comes down to the emotions and the intellect, ideally art would engage me with a balance of both. Art should cause some kind of reaction in the viewer: it might challenge our views, make us look at things in a fresh way, ask us to look rather than just see. Art might cause awe or disgust, amusement or puzzlement, fury or delight, relaxation or invigoration. It may ask us what we are really seeing, it may ask us what we are really thinking. It may inform us about the world, tell us how things sit with things, communicate in visual poetry. It may just say, “Seen one of these? Nice isn’t it?” What art might cause doesn’t have to be grand or deep, but it has to engage us.

When I say art has to engage us I would normally exclude irritation caused by the artwork’s failure to engage with the viewer. This is where I find myself with Richard Tuttle’s show. I was really looking forward to seeing his work, being pretty unfamiliar with it in the flesh and not really having seen much even in reproduction since the late 60s. I like to approach work afresh using my eyes and intellect, so I seldom read labels or gallery notes until after I have made my initial engagement with a work. If that initial engagement prompts it then I may choose to broaden my understanding and appreciation by referring to supporting notes. If words or other data are vital to the piece they should be included as part of the piece. It seems to me that Tuttle has importance for the words he sticks in the corners of the room away from the artwork, but they don’t help me access his work in any case!  Tuttle’s work seems to be presented principally as conceptual (the slapdash conduction of most pieces confirms that aesthetics is not the main purpose) so why make us search out the verbal clues?

The work seems to be the work of a lazy communicator: work someone might make when they were stoned but forgot to reappraise when sober. There seemed to be no deliberation in the choice of material or the quality of construction. It irritated me that things were badly made and badly presented. I’d sack my framer if he produced such poor stuff! As we will see with Kiefer, if the idea is strong enough it doesn’t matter if the execution is messy, naive, ugly or irritating, but frankly I failed to find any content in Tuttle’s work because he seemed not to value it or care about it himself. Even if it is not to my taste, Kiefer knows how to use materials, how to choose those materials appropriately to get the effect he desires. I get the feeling Tuttle doesn’t give a monkeys! I wasn’t convinced by the interview with him either: he seemed bored and I got bored. There seemed to be no love and delight in the materials at all despite what we are led to believe. There seems to be some amazement that a man should have such a career-long relationship to fabrics; that he doesn’t use them in a masculine way. The stereotype is irrelevant and denies the history of the fabric and tailoring crafts. What is more remarkable is how Tuttle can deny the nature of fabrics so comprehensively and make such unremarkable work. But perhaps that’s what he intends.

Anselm Kiefer is at the other end of the spectrum. It’s big and bold and mucky and haunting and angry and megalomaniacal and murky and probably, at times, cynical. I cannot say that I really liked any piece in it’s entirety. I may have admired bits of the execution or the ideas or the allusions but never the whole. Yet my mind and emotions were assailed and stimulated continually.

At times, I believe, the content of Kiefer’s work was less accessible to me because of the execution – perhaps the visual mess or sometimes a naivety or poor drawing – but it didn’t ever stop me engaging with the work. It’s not just the grand scale that impresses (though scale is a vital element) the smaller works, such as the books, grip the senses and irritate the mind.

I cannot decide if Kiefer is a nutcase or a genius, but he certainly is involved in the process of creating art and his art does engage with the viewer both viscerally and mentally. It will be interesting to see how I think and feel about Kiefer in the days and weeks to follow but whatever my deliberations, I am pleased that I saw this major show of a towering influence in modern art.