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Friday 4 March 2011

Aidan McNeill's World of Theatre @ PayneShurvell

Review by Laura E. Barone, a candidate for the MA in Art History at Richmond the American International University in London.

Aidan McNeill’s first solo show, Cast, is a stunning photographic and filmic induction into the world of the theatre. Her photographic works are powerful images not of thespians, but of the physicality of the most basic elements of the theatre – the lights and the stage. Add some smoke effects, high angles, color swatches, and a camera to McNeill’s hands and the theatre puts on an altogether different kind of production.

The seven photographic works, entitled Revolve I - VI form a series of images that are almost other-worldly due to the billowing effect of projecting different colored lights onto heavy smoke from a machine. The same flat, black stage serves as the background for each photograph, indicating location but also possibility, and it is breathtakingly transformed with just a few added elements. In Revolve I, a blast of tornado-shaped beiges and blues swirl powerfully together, creating an almost baroque intensity and three-dimensionality that conjures up associations with the Dust Bowl. The horizontal stage has become the vertical backdrop to an intense storm. By contrast, Revolve V is shot from such an alarming angle and cropped so that the stage appears to plummet drastically downwards; with thick white and blue fog occupying the space of the ‘decline’, the colours and movement of the smoke appear to create a steep and vigorous waterfall. Cosmic oranges and purples wisp across the ‘landscape’ of the stage in other images and transport viewers to a cosmic view of far-off galaxies. The imagination is welcomed to get lost in the photographs and to delight in playing with the theatricality of it all– anything big, dramatic, and incredulous will fit particularly well.

But there not all is romance and majesty – there are elements of work and human traces that McNeill does not leave out and which are crucial to lending the photographs greater depth. The theatre has its own geography, its own way of mapping people, things, lights and music in and through its unique space, and McNeill grounds her work with this recognition. Human traces are indicated by tape marks, usually set or prop indicators, as well as vents, and even trap doors. These marks are signposts for human activity, for a collectivity of cast, crew, technicians, and musicians who put on the show each and every night. The cast, the show’s namesake, might be what theatergoers first see, but it is certainly not all. McNeill herself works with lighting at the theatre where these images were shot and she knows the labour required to create a seemingly flawless display – much like the often overlooked contrived nature of photography itself.

In addition to the photographs is a video installation, Performance 349, a live taping of a major West-End musical in which viewers are positioned in the pit, looking up at the conductor and out into the balconies. The music is muted, and all that can be heard are verbal cues for lights and other effects, mundane combinations of letters and numbers said, as the title indicates, for the three hundred and forty-ninth time. The decided passion of the conductor (he often dabs his sweat off with a hankerchief) contrasts greatly with the experience of the person speaking in code whose body is set apart from the emotional drama of the performance. A few members of the audience seated in the first row can be seen as well, and their utter entrancement with the drama on the stage before them makes evident the kind of effect that music, light, and actors in costume have upon viewers, and its strange power. The film is both funny and alarming in the disparities of experiences that people in different positions of power have in the highly coded, planned, and manipulated location of the theatre, and makes viewers question their own perspective and perception.

I think that McNeill presents an homage and critique of sorts to the theatre: in her photographs and her film, she recognizes the powerful and moving ability of theatrical effects like light and sound but also brings viewers around on a bit of a tour, allowing us to see the spectacle and enjoy it, and then she dismantles it to present a more nuanced and poignant presentation of the theatre.

The exhibition opens today and continues at PayneShurvell at 16 Hewett St, London until 2 April. www.payneshurvell.com

Revolve II, Archival C-type print, 2011
courtesy of PayneShurvell, London

Thursday 3 March 2011

Dustin Yellin @ 20 Hoxton Square

Review by Carla MacKinnon

New York based artist Dustin Yellin creates his unique work by layering 2D images between sheets of glass to create extraordinary 3D images, collages and illusions. In the first room of his current show at 20 Hoxton Square, visitors are greeted by a selection of small works mounted on plinths. Yellin's technique makes each piece a satisfying physical object; smooth square transparent bricks capture an array of cut out images ranging from the political to the comical. The images in this first space are light-hearted, almost kitsch, referencing iconic images from popular culture and the media and weaving these into unlikely tableaux. The method is reminiscent of applique, pop-up books and Victorian theatre sets, giving the work a reference point in narrative and craft.

Moving into the second room, the mood changes dramatically. The lights are lower here, and each piece is separately illuminated. The resin blocks capture this light, creating an eerie and attractive glow and imparting a sense of hushed enchantment. The subject matter seems weightier too. Landscapes and seascapes, simple from a distance, break down into complex collages of evocative visual information as a viewer moves towards them. Power Lines is a nightmarish, apocalyptic vision, combining military and industrial imagery with glimpses of an incongruous utopia in a disquiet and unnatural landscape. By contrast, The Anchorite presents a vast, empty vista across a wild, snowy valley. The piece excites a sense of awe, reenforced by the simplicity of its composition and the absence of chaotic detail present in the rest of Yellin's work. The sense of looking through a window to a remote, frozen and inhuman corner of the world is palpable and powerful.

Till Human Voices Wake Us is a large landscape dominating the far end of the gallery. Reminiscent of a Turner seascape it initially presents a simple and traditional composition. With proximity, however, this illusion breaks and the piece reveals its secrets nestling amongst the waves. Typewriters, talismans and totems – cross-cultural material evidence of human endeavour – are tossed in the stormy sea. The items range from the iconic to the seemingly random. Some are fully visible while others nestle between waves, only partially visible. There is a sense that we can only see a fraction of the material trapped between the many resin waves. The sea itself is masterfully constructed. Yellin impressively captures a wild energy through his extraordinarily exact and disciplined technique.

In the centre of the gallery space is Osiris on The Table. In the myth of Osiris, the God-Pharaoh is killed but reconstructed by his mourning wife, who brings him back to life through her love. Yellin's portrayal of Osiris sees him constructed out of thousands of tiny elements. Insects, plants, waves and flames combine with inorganic materials to create a sculptural recreation of a human form. The work could be viewed as some meeting point between Fred Tomaselli's fantastical creations, Hirst's dissected animals and Arcimboldo's 16th Century portraits of heads made from animals, plants or food. Here the body becomes a landscape, an environment of controlled chaos hinting at both decomposition and complex living ecosystems. The anatomy seems whimsical and symbolic by turns, each layer and each body part telling a story. As in the myth, the love and care invested in this piece breathes life into it. The work is an astonishing, unforgettable effigy, simultaneously a single organism and a self-contained universe.

Dustin Yellin Osiris on the Table continues until March 12. For more information on 20 Hoxton Square please visit www.20hoxtonsquare.com

Image: Courtesy of 20 Hoxton Square and Dustin Yellin.

Wednesday 2 March 2011

Horizon Hypnotique @ French Rivieria 1988

Review by Emily Sack, a candidate for the MA in Art History at Richmond the American International University in London.

“This is our romance,” state artist duo and new gallery owners/curators Samuel Levack and Jennifer Lewandowski in reference to the name of French Riviera 1988 that opened in February in East London. The inaugural show entitled Horizon Hypnotique features the work of Levack and Lewandowski as well as six other contemporary artists.

The romantic title of the gallery and exhibition create an atmosphere of imagination and escapism. The works alternate between taking the viewer far from ordinary life and rather existential themes. This undulation of perceived location within the exhibition transports the viewer around the world multiple times before bringing them back to London. Most of the pieces deal with implications of exotic locations, but the experiences are somehow familiar.

The first work is off the shoulder of Orion by Kris Emmerson and is a video of a satellite traveling in the Earth’s atmosphere. Though it is traveling many miles at a great speed, the machine almost appears to be hovering in place. It is hypnotic to watch the satellite move amongst the clouds, but it also reminds the viewer how small our world really is. The existential theme is countered by the humour of playing this video on a bright yellow Orion brand television, thus the title refers to both the constellation and the material device.

I Cannot See The […] Caught in the Forest by Lucy Woodhouse brings the gallery visitor back to Earth. The piece contains passport-sized photographs of individuals with closed eyes standing by a storefront in Bethnal Green, the neighborhood of French Riviera. The press release for Horizon Hypnotique refers to this image as a “portrait of Bethnal Green” as opposed to a portrait of individuals. The photographs are repeated in a symmetrical pattern on the green and yellow background. The borrowing of the title from a work by AndrĂ© Breton, the father of surrealism, refers to the unconscious and dream – the various subjects, with their eyes closed can no longer see their immediate surroundings and instead can be transported anywhere their imaginations desire. The juxtaposition of existence and escapism is especially poignant in this piece where the subjects are simultaneously present in a concrete reality and an unknown unconscious state.

The pieces that best represent this contrast between the escapist and existential themes of the exhibition are the two videos by Alex Ressel. Played after each other, Six Miles from Paternoster Square and One thousand Three Hundred and Forty Four Miles from Paternoster Square embellish the common theme of making the strange familiar and the familiar strange. The first video documents a walk in East London accompanied by a soundtrack of various urban sounds including trains, cars and airplanes. The second is taken from an airplane over parts of New Zealand while a soundtrack of ethereal music plays. The obvious contrast here is between the urban and the rural – the mundane and the exotic. However, where Ressel succeeds is in giving residents of London, and in fact most of the urban Western world, a new vantage point of the city in which he finds beauty in unexpected places. On his website, the artist includes walking directions to follow the path he takes in the video inviting the viewers to experience firsthand the reality of London. New Zealand, by contrast, is a beautiful locale frequented by vacationers attempting to escape the modern world. Ressel, by filming from an airplane, distances himself physically from the subject and implies a literal and figurative barrier between the viewer and the sense of pure exoticism. The use of soundtrack listened to via headphones causes the viewer to distance themselves from their current reality and become immersed in the experience of the video.

Overall, though the exhibit was small, Horizon Hypnotique is successful as an inaugural exhibition. The viewer is encouraged to examine their place in the world and their notions of the exotic. Through the alternating, and sometimes juxtaposed, themes of existentialism and escapism, the exhibition relates to the romanticism referenced by Levack and Lewandowski and sets the stage for future projects.

Horizon Hypnotique continues at French Riviera, Bethnal Green, until 13 March. For more information please visit www.frenchriviera1988.com

All artworks copyright the artists. Courtesy of French Riviera, London
Kris Emmerson
off the shoulder of Orion
Digital animation, dvd system, television, plinth
127 x 36 x 36 cm

Tuesday 1 March 2011

Louise Bourgeois & Tracey Emin @ Hauser & Wirth, London

Review by Laura E. Barone, a candidate for the MA in Art History at Richmond the American International University in London.

Louise Bourgeois and Tracey Emin’s joint project, Do Not Abandon Me is a plea directed to the female body. All sixteen of the works in the show are of headless torsos, male and female, that put particular emphasis on sexuality: erect penises, swollen bellies, full breasts and rounded buttocks dominate. But these are not objectified bodies; they are lived in bodies, painted with regard for form but in an un-idealized palette of reds, pinks, black and blue gouaches on white cloth. The paintings have a rough and quick style to them, the colours deep and bold, almost Fauvist, and referencing the act of sex, or at least the memory of it. Bourgeois, in her nineties at the time, gave these images to Emin, who, greatly compelled by them, adoringly carried them around with her until she decided what to do with them. The result is the addition of roughly drawn, wiry, miniature female figures that interact with Bourgeois’ paintings in surprising ways. Emin also includes text within the works which force darker narratives of loss and emptiness onto Bourgeois’ original forms.

There seems to be three ways in which Emin’s figures engage with Bourgeois’ bodies: they are either women pleasuring themselves, women interacting with the male body, or women to whom Emin has added a foetus or reference to it. The sparsely drawn, nude women can be seen masturbating or lounging inside torsos or, in A million ways to cum, directly onto a magenta coloured erect penis. The figures do other things to the phallus, they kiss it, lean on, or even hang off of with by a noose. In Just hanging the woman limply hangs from a thin string that is tied around a dark blue, erect penis, set off from the lighter blue of the body. The elongated, emaciated and tiny woman hangs miserably from the male body which stands strong and hard and as the sight of her own destruction.

In Come unto me, set on a red male torso, two female figures kneel on either side of a penis, bowing down in prayer to a crucifixion scene drawn directly onto the erection. This reverence to the phallus is both humorous and striking – it is a desperate attempt to both mourn and to bring back from the dead that which gave such hope and joy – not a saviour, but sexuality. It also questions the extent to which sex is lived out as a metaphor for a religion and how it might be seen to satisfy desires for comfort, love, and ecstasy. The title too, points to this: Come unto me, spoken by Jesus, could easily be replaced here by Cum unto me, by a woman. The mourning women have come but they cannot cum – the time has passed and they must bid farewell to their life source - sex. Perhaps as a woman confronting her fifties, Emin is paying/praying tribute to the sexual drive of her youth. The religion of sex is portrayed as one that grows weaker and darker with the difficulty of experience and the changing priorities of age.

There are also images where Emin has added no figures, but just text, as in Deep Inside My Heart, where an image of a woman with a protruding belly is filled in with a dark black and blue form inside of her. Under it, Emin has written, ‘Dark Black Lonely Space’. Is that empty space within the woman in her heart, as the title suggests or in her belly, as the image does, or in both? And, is this regret for an abortion, or just an acknowledgement, a remembrance? Emin’s texts have no regard for grammar, and there are spelling mistakes and letters written backwards, all pointing to a raw, primal sort of pain, confusion, and anger.

Perhaps where the older artist, Bourgeois, has come to terms with the real complexity inherent in the not so clear-cut dichotomies of body/mind, loss/gain, male/female, the younger artist, Emin, is still grappling with them, and she injects a more present pain and longing to the works. For two artists whose work is known as so deeply personal, their artist collision results in something more than their own sexuality. Bourgeois, in the act of giving Emin her paintings, allows Emin space to be a complex woman, but also to have a taste of that glorious freedom of self-security and self-respect that comes with age. In an interesting parallel, Bourgeois signs each of the pieces by stitching her initials securely and neatly into the works, while Emin leaves a quick signature in pencil – one of the artists has dealt with the phrase “Do Not Abandon Me” and the other is still demanding it.

The exhibition continues at Hauser & Wirth at 15 Old Bond Street, London until 12 March. www.hauserwirth.com

I wanted to love you more
Archival dyes printed on cloth
61 x 76.2 cm / 24 x 30 in
Printed by Dye-namix, New York
© Louise Bourgeois Trust and Tracey Emin
Courtesy Carolina Nitsch Contemporary Art and Hauser & Wirth

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