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Friday 25 March 2011

Examining the Role of Performance: SHOW, Jerwood Visual Arts

Review by Charles Danby

The Jerwood Encounters series was launched in 2008 to investigate the margins of the primary fields of the Jerwood visual arts programme, of painting, sculpture, drawing and photography, and as such it has most readily orientated itself around performance, media and event. SHOW is the latest of this series, the fourth devised and curated by in-house curator Sarah Williams. In line with her previous outputs, Locate (2010), Laboratory (2009), An Experiment in Collaboration (2008), SHOW places new work, process, documentation, and durational activity, centrally to an investigation of what an exhibition and curatorial framework is and can be.

Jerwood curator Sarah Williams has throughout these projects put forward progressive proposals as to what can constitute documentation and archive within the work and activity of the exhibiting artists she has worked with. In Laboratory (2009) an online platform was used to build a working archive through the duration of the project. This placed contributions from commissioned writers alongside conversations from online forums, mixed press cuttings with emails, and offset official photographic documentation with images posted externally. Unedited this material was printed to create a catalogue. In SHOW the commissions of artists Edwina Ashton, Jack Strange and Bedwyr Williams have been supported by a stand-alone website and two essays, one written by Catherine Wood (Tate Curator of Performance / Contemporary Art), and the other by SHOW’s curator.

Williams’ text makes a practical dissection of the artists involved, unpicking (in its introduction) the context of “performance” as considered within SHOW. Performance here is noted to be central, but not exclusive, to the practices of the selected artists. This trajectory of contemporary performance as a partial component of a wider more discursive output also underpins Catherine Wood’s text.

Wood notes the central placement of performance within the framework of contemporary mixed media practices, sighting one emerging aspect of this tendency as being an alternative exposure of practical input, “Performance offers a means of dramatizing the process of artistic creation itself: the ‘work’ of art as the ‘work of art’…” This is a process that Wood further suggests has become a valuable mechanism by which artists choose to connect (socially and analytically) to the (recurrent) question of “how art makes sense in our world today”. Wood also draws attention to the altered territory (engagement) of viewing that contemporary practices demand, a revision within which, she suggests, performance (as live moment) emerges naturally as a connecting tissue, “For many artists working today the choreography of positions between artist, artwork and audience is what constitutes the meaning of the work, and what draws attention to the particular nature of art experience.”

The opening night of SHOW saw the deployment of performance within the work of each of the three commissioned artists. It was however only Bedwyr Williams that took directly to the stage as both artist and performer. The work of both Edwina Ashton and Jack Strange was enacted remotely by instructed performers, who curiously in both cases, and through very different circumstance, where like the artists, ‘unseen’. Ashton’s performers (lobsters) through the heavy cladding of their all-over costumes, and Strange’s performers through their selective revealing of body parts. In the first room of the Jerwood Gallery very little was visible aside from the mass of people attending. Artworks are often obscured and barely visible at openings and so the actual emptiness of the gallery did not appear to raise issue and in many ways was simply conducive to norms. On the main wall however there were two small circular holes around 6 to 8 feet apart and a foot and a half or so from the floor. These ‘glory’ holes were vicariously animated by legs jiggling as both mute (and possibly substitutive) gesture, and as certification of the fact that they were real legs and not inert fabricated appropriations. Their quivering aliveness questioned the stasis of the object, and specifically the (often partial) object mannequins of artists such as, Robert Gober, Maurizio Cattelan, and Jemima Brown, but here the synthesised dismemberment of a human body (a leg) remained unquestionably attached to a living entity. As such the work took on a dynamic of physical constraint and limitation rather than a double-take manifested through approximate material concern. Through this shift Strange tapped the work (latently) into a host of art and performance tropes, but while many of these were implicitly transgressive, the work hovered and resonated with little more than polite and quiet removal.

In the furthest gallery Edwina Ashton presented Peaceful serious creatures (lobster arranging) (2011), a cluttered room of collected materials familiar to the detritus of studio or gallery. These ranged from rough breaks of plasterboard, odd ends of 2x1 wood, and packing blankets, to less familiar items such as egg cartons and an electric keyboard. The contrivance of stage-set was apparent and predictable, but what was interesting and curious was the compelling nature of the orchestrated intervention within the space by a series of performers dressed as lobsters. At undisclosed intervals a solitary ‘human’ lobster inhabited the space and went silently about its business - whatever that might have been. Moving within the mass of (generally uninspiring) materials the lobster would pick things up, put things down, organise, assemble, and disassemble. The differences between these actions, ordinarily readily discernible, became difficult to assess under the circumstance of the displacement of the performer; their invisibility (under a heavily draped costume), their silence, and the restriction imposed by the costume on their movement. The action (communication) of the lobster was reduced to the handling of materials, and this occurred through large awkward claws that slowed and eliminated any familiar or habitual movement. Ashton’s deployment of the performer as lobster is tied to a characteristic of the animal whereby it constantly rearranges its living space. The connection to (or commentary on) human (or specifically artistic) behavioural tendencies was not intrinsically interesting in itself. What was interesting was the curious unlocking of materials through intensive introspection (on the part of the performer) that emerged through the slowness and awkwardness of the active moments of performance.

Welsh artist Bedwyr Williams had likewise constructed a stage-set, this time not as a playground, but rather to serve one specific function, a single short moment of performance presented at the opening of the exhibition to mark the launch of a book, a compendium of almost all of his previous performances to date. A central platform was filled with piles of Williams’ book, usefully titled Bedwyr I’m sorry I missed your performance, a line that has no doubt resonated at regular interval in shops and pubs, on Williams’ mobile phone, and in the sanctum of his online inbox throughout the fifteen or so years of his performances.

To either side of the stage were large projected images. On the left screen was a heavy-tread (tractor) tyre, set on an empty background, eternally forward rolling, and emblazoned by the flames of a fast food advert. To the right was a stationary image of the artist, flat cap and jacket, with this back turned to the camera, gazing towards a distant pastoral void. In the top left corner a moving graphic depicted what appeared to be mechanically jointed legs. To the side of the platform was a pair of shoes, while on stage alongside the books was a medical kneeling (back) chair, a microphone, and an exercise ball.

The performance, under the title of Urban Hick, after initial introductions, “…Hi Bedwir, Hi Bedw-uh…This is how posh people mispronounce my name…” a short musing on the role of performance, “…a performance once it’s done has a stink to it… To use it again you need to turn it inside out…” and the collective imagining of each listener as a mole (bad eyesight no doubt being the key), began with a quick tour of London. The audience was taken from the “…tang of piss with the burning glove waft of crispy duck…” on Charing Cross Road to the East End where “Drag Queens are the live art equivalent of a ready meal. Ultimately unsatisfying.” Leaving London, still as incantations of burrowing moles, Williams described performing for a client at a private dinner party. In line with the twofold ‘mirrored’ nature of the exhibition’s title, SHOW, this was likewise contingent to the recurrent paradox of performance - that of who is performing, and to whom. Having arrived at the house Williams’ story continued, “They are all acting weird. Pretending to be disinterested. Who is going to be doing this performance anyway?”

Williams has an exacting eye for observation, his storytelling was as sharp tongued, potty-mouthed, and impeccably delivered as anyone familiar with this work would have expected. Less here, but lines deployed by Williams are often delivered and left simply to hang in isolation. Such a notion of unsightedness and apparition seemed to reach across the works, conjuring a partial retrieval of things already shown.

SHOW continues at JVA, Jerwood Space until 21 April. For more information please visit www.jerwoodvisualarts.org. To access Aesthetica's feature on the Jerwood Contemporary Makers please click here.

Image: Edwina Ashton, Peaceful serious creatures (lobster arranging), performance, duration: three hours intermittently, 2011

Pop Up Art: Temporary Contemporary Art Space, Gateshead

A disused terraced house in Bensham, Tyneside, which is scheduled for demolition, is to briefly enjoy a radical new life – as a contemporary art gallery. The property – a converted fair of flats – is playing host to a unique project inspired by the changes being brought about in the local area and carried out by members of Behsham’s growing art community.

The project – Nest – will open this Saturday (26 March) before permanently closing again next Wednesday. The properties are scheduled for demolition as part of a scheme to redevelop the area and create much-needed new family homes.

Each of the rooms in the property has been converted into an individual work of art inspired by the empty house and the changing environment beyond. There is an intriguing variety of work on display at Nest, highlighting not only the growing art community in the area but also the wide range of voices having their say.

Gateshead is acquiring a reputation for creating new art in unexpected places. The recent Shop Art project has seen disused shop fronts in Gateshead town centre converted into works of art, and The Shed in Gateshead’s High Street is currently providing rent and rate-free workspace for up to 36 local artists and creative entrepreneurs.

Nest has given local artists such as Jo Scandrett, whose installation entitled Found: No.5 Dunsmuir Grove showcases an assortment of seemingly nondescript items left in the house by previous occupants, Araminta Swan, whose Welcome to My Parlour relates to tea parties, traps and cocoons and David Goard whose Time and Tide is a response to the physical and social changes in Bensham the chance to express what is happening in their area.

Nest is located at 5/7 Dunsmuir Grove, off Saltwell Road in Gateshead and will be open to the public on Saturday 26 March from 11.00am until 4.00pm, and on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday from 1.00pm until 7.00pm. For more information please visit www.gateshead.gov.uk

Thursday 24 March 2011

Claude Cahun/Sue Tompkins at Inverleith House, Edinburgh

Review by Colin Herd

In a tiny photograph of a domestic interior, the doors of an ornate wooden cabinet gape open. In the lower half, a chest of drawers; the upper half, three deep shelves. On the top two shelves are books, papers and medicine vials; on the third shelf, something altogether more surreal: a slight-built young woman lithely scrunched into the cupboard. Dressed in shorts, white socks and a sleeveless polka-dot blouse with a bow in her hair, she looks both adolescent and feline, insouciantly stretched out, all gangly limbs and eyes tight shut, apparently asleep. In spite of the bow and the polka dots, there’s something provocatively boyish about the prominent arm and leg dangling from the edge of the shelf, limbs tanned the colour of bronze. Her face, too, has a statuesque lustre from heavy, monochrome bronze make-up. Subverting erotic fantasies and tropes of Western Art, the image is transgressively androgynous, ironically refusing easy categorization even as its subject is literally placed ‘on the shelf’. Taken in 1932, this unforgettable photograph is one of over fifty self-portraits by the French Surrealist Claude Cahun (1894-1954), currently on show at Inverleith House.

Cahun was born Lucy Schwob, niece of the Symbolist writer Marcel Schwob. She was best known in her lifetime as an experimental writer who blended fact and fiction in fragmented and disjointed texts that vacillate constantly in style and tone. In 1937, Cahun and her life-partner (also step-sister) Suzanne Malherbe, known under the pseudonym Marcel Moore, settled on Jersey, and very quickly found themselves under German occupation. Showing tremendous bravery, as well as remarkable skill and cunning, the pair were active in the resistance movement, producing anti-German fliers which they disseminated by dressing up as German soldiers and infiltrating military events, to surprising effect. Finally, in 1944, Cahun and Moore were arrested and sentenced to death, but both escaped due to the looming end of the war, and Cahun died nine years later. It wasn’t until the French writer François Leperlier was researching a book on Surrealism in the mid-1980s that he discovered the wealth of photographic experiments created over a forty-year period. Since their discovery, the photographs, which are almost exclusively self-portraits, often in androgynous poses, have come to be championed by Queer theorists and are seen as an important antecedent to the gender-bending photographs with which Cindy Sherman burst on to the art scene in the 80s.

When seen in such an extensive exhibition, Cahun’s chameleon-like ability to portray herself in different styles and poses is astonishing. In one picture, she’s wearing what looks like a trapeze-artist’s leotard and men’s baggy sports shorts. Her hair is slicked to her head, except from two curling whiskers. On either cheek there is a face-painted love heart and on her breast, two black buttons. She’s holding a set of dumbbells. Scrawled in messy handwriting across her chest is the slogan: “Don’t kiss me, I’m in training.” In another image, she’s doubled, looking in a mirror, with her hair crew-cut. Both the collar on her checked coat and her chin point insouciantly and intimidatingly skywards. Anticipating the Psychoanalytical theories of Jacques Lacan, it’s as if Cahun is caught in “the mirror stage”, permanently experiencing the gap between emotional self-image and perceived appearance. A definitive image, in a body of work that thoroughly rejects the idea of a definitive image or identity, might be Self portrait, with masks (1929). Cahun is standing in front of a heavily patterned curtain, wearing thick woollen tights and patent black shoes, her toes pointed outwards. Her hair is neatly bobbed around her face, and her lips are bashfully pursed. She’d look the picture of honesty, and slightly awkward innocence, if it wasn’t for the black cape she’s wearing, covered with sewn-on masks.

Once you adjust to the procession of bizarre, disturbing, and often amusing portraits, perhaps the most disarming of all are those that employ and subvert a veneer of naturalism and vulnerability. In one, Cahun is seen bald-headed and shoulders bared, wearing a loose black chiffon robe, which encloses her arms. Her face is turned towards the ground, and she appears sensitive, tender and ill-at-ease. As with all these pictures, Cahun reminds us it is just that, an appearance and an artificial effect. A piece of black chiffon almost identical to the one worn by Cahun is pinned to the wall behind her like a minimalist work of art. The colour of her skin behind the chiffon is almost identical to the grayish colour of the wall. Deconstructing our impressions of transparency and femininity, it’s a meticulously posed photograph that wears its artifice on its sleeve.

Downstairs in the ground floor gallery, Inverleith are showing new work by Glasgow-based artist Sue Tompkins. Tompkins, who graduated from Glasgow School of Art in 1994, found cult fame thanks to her distinctive vocal performances with the indie band Life Without Buildings, a glorious blend of talk-singing, shouting and squealing, the epitome of hyperactive passion and nervous energy. The exhibition consists of six object-based pieces and a performance entitled Hallo Welcome to Keith Street, which she has also recently performed at The Hayward as part of British Art Show 7. Her work channels the tradition of radical experimental writing, a tradition that includes Cahun herself. On either side of a huge, wall-sized folded sheet of non-archival newsprint, the words W. Coast and E. Coast, cut, it looks like, with scissors from a piece of tartan fabric. On the newsprint there’s a typewritten text, spaced out in constellations and conglomerations. Making use of all the page’s dynamics, it has to be read vertically, diagonally and horizontally. Given the use of newsprint, it’s tempting to see the text as not a text at all, but an erasure, and re-arrangement of a newspaper. Perhaps less fancifully, it’s as if the text is the spilling over of half-mindful projections experienced while reading a newspaper. An obvious influence would be the concrete poet Ian Hamilton Finlay (Tompkins was included in the ICA’s recent survey of text-based art which took its title from Finlay’s legendary magazine ‘Poor. Old. Tired. Horse’) but the artist I was most reminded of is the American poet Hannah Wiener. Wiener’s performance pieces, as well as her long, experimental projects of personal ‘journalism’, shared with Tompkins a restless investigation of language and personal expression, conducted through the details and debris of everyday language-use.

The collage-aspect so prevalent in much contemporary experimental writing is provocatively taken out from the text and overtly stuck or pinned to the wall in a number of Tompkins’ pieces. A torn magazine advert for Clinique combines with safety pins and keys in a humorous dynamic of, what, give-and-take maybe, or nip-and-tuck. In other pieces, Tompkins’ exploration of text crosses over into an exploration of textile, such as three wall-collages made from purplish chiffon, safety pins and zips, in various states of open and closed. But even in her silent, non-text-based pieces, Tompkins seems to be hinting at the complex procedures of transparency and obliqueness through which we communicate to each other. Her work lays bare possible scenarios and metaphors for the processes by which language connotations attach to one another and through which texts are fabricated. Zips, (as the creators of the T.V. show Rainbow knew), can also be a potent metaphor for the mouth. Just as in her photographs, Cahun deconstructs the self-portrait, Tompkins dismantles its literary equivalents: the diary, the lyric and the personal utterance. It’s a piece of subtle and inspired programming from Inverleith House to show these two artists together.

Claude Cahun/Sue Tompkins continues at Inverleith House until 17 April. For more information please visit their website here.

Image: Sue Tompkins Untitled, 2011. Typewritten text on newsprint, fabric, photograph: Paul Nesbitt.

Wednesday 23 March 2011

SHADOWBOXING: Mariana Castillo Deball, Sean Dockray, Marysia Lewandowska and Wendelien van Oldenborgh @ RCA

Review by Emma Cummins

In November 2010, the graduating students of the MA Curating Contemporary Art course at the Royal College of Art, invited the artists Mariana Castillo Deball, Sean Dockray, Marysia Lewandowska and Wendelien van Oldenborgh to respond to Giorgio Agamben’s seminal essay What is an Apparatus? (2009). The dialogue prompted by this text was central to the development of SHADOWBOXING; a dynamic exhibition accompanied by an ongoing series of events, talks and publications.

What is an Apparatus? is an extraordinary exposition of Michel Foucault’s concept of the dispositif (apparatus). In its original Foucauldian sense, an apparatus is the network that exists between ‘a thoroughly heterogeneous set consisting of discourses, institutions, architectural forms, regulatory decisions, laws, administrative measures, scientific statements, philosophical, moral and philanthropic propositions’. This network is by nature strategic - it involves a certain manipulation and intervention into the complex relations of forces which encircle and define the human subject.

In Agamben’s deployment of the term, any apparatus – from mobile telephones, to cigarettes, to computers – aims to separate us from our own subjectivities. Anything – or perhaps everything – we encounter and interact with has ‘the capacity to capture, orient, determine, intercept, model, control, or secure the gestures, behaviours, opinions or discourse of living beings’.

Defined by a desire to educate, illuminate and perhaps motivate viewers, SHADOWBOXING provides an abundance of text and gallery literature on philosophy, cultural theory and political activism. Although those unfamiliar with heavy, theoretical texts such as Agamben’s might struggle in places; the curators have chosen an engaging and varied collection of works. Permeated by theoretical and pedagogical narratives, SHADOWBOXING combines videos, films, sculpture and mixed media installations which attempt to expose, appropriate and infiltrate the everyday apparatuses of power, governance and knowledge. How, the curators ask, can one challenge forces that have become so internalised that they are indistinguishable from one’s own shadow?

Expounding the ways in which art can upset, interrupt or contest the all-encompassing power of the state – ‘in subtle as opposed to revolutionary ways’ - this is an intellectually stimulating exhibition which aims to affect our perceptions of familiar media and institutions. Lewandowska’s work is a case in point, as for SHADOWBOXING, the site she exposes is the precise institution in which her work is displayed. For Subject to Change (2011), the artist has orchestrated a series of interventions into the spaces and archives of the RCA. Consisting of historical documents, archival film footage and a site specific installation; the project allows visitors to experience and reflect upon the institution’s otherwise hidden histories, rituals and resources.

In my experience of the work, Subject to Change exists as a complex map of the possibilities and limitations of working in an institutional context. In one section of the project, Lewandowska has relocated the RCA’s Senior Common Room lounge into one of the college’s public gallery spaces. A members-only space, established in the early 1950s, the Senior Common Room is not normally accessible to students or non-academic staff. As well as removing and relocating the contents of this space, the artist invited all RCA employees to choose a work from the college’s art collection to be presented as part of the installation.

Although this is a unique opportunity to view works by artists such as Frank Auerbach, Camille Pissarro and L. S. Lowry; it could be argued that this is merely a case of moving some institutional furniture. There is no resistance here; nothing radical. Without a priori knowledge of the college’s spatial practices, Subject to Change is a modest, temporary intervention into a very specific site. Unfortunately, it is not without irony that this installation is perhaps more interesting for the members of this very institution; its staff and students, as well as the elite members of the Senior Common room itself.

Other aspects of this project, however, seem much more in tune with the students’ curatorial strategy. For example, in a separate, panoramic display of literature, photographs and historical documents, Lewandowska reflects upon moments when students (past and present) have challenged the hierarchical authority of the academic institution. Focusing on political protests and moments of activism organised by RCA scholars, this particular section of Subject to Change exposes how bureaucratic decisions can be disrupted by individual will and collective force.

Unlike Lewandowska’s appropriation of the Senior Common room, this collection of documents (many of which visitors can take home) is timely and politically relevant. It is fitting that Lewandowsa’s installation takes place in the RCA’s entrance hall; a space recently occupied by students in response to government cuts to higher education. Most importantly, this detailed, analytical work solicits a visual and intellectual dialogue between the past and the present which, in turn, leads our gaze to the future.

If the power of the state apparatus relies on the reproduction of social relations and institutional conventions, it is not only in the present that it seeks to control us. In turn, the desire to resist or to change, is not only an action or intervention, but a speculative vision of a future condition. To this reviewer, the potentiality of affecting a future yet to come is a more fruitful component of the RCA students’ curatorship. In contrast to ideas of appropriation, adjustment or rearrangement (as seen in Lewandoska’s Senior Common room piece), the more conjectural objectives of works such as Dockray’s Public Monument(2011) seem to have a greater capacity to disturb dominant social and epistemological contexts.

Public Monument; an interactive audio installation, muses upon a future moment when DAB digital technology has replaced traditional, analogue radio. The transmogrification of a supposedly decaying apparatus would (or will), in Agamben’s reading, equate to a form of strategic control. As well as affecting the manufacturing industry, this fundamentally ideological decision, made by the state, affects the products we consume, the technology we use and, most importantly, the way that we acquire knowledge.

By asking people to contribute to an audio time capsule designed to be listened to in the year 2021, Dockray’s work creates a fertile ground for exploring the ways in which cultural mechanisms can be playfully challenged or contested. Accompanied by an image of a semi-fictional broadcasting tower, where the recordings at SHADOWBOXING will (actually or hypothetically) be transmitted; Public Monument is at once reliant on its existence in real time, and its vestigial presence in an impending, yet volatile future. Occupying a strange, spatio-temporal realm, its aim is not to ‘capture or secure the gestures, behaviours, opinions or discourse of living beings’ in the present, but to capture and ignite the imagination and memories of a future audience.

SHADOWBOXING continues until 3 April. For more information visit the Royal College of Art website.

Marysia Lewandowska - Subject to Change, 2011

Tuesday 22 March 2011

Pick Me Up: Contemporary Graphic Design Fair @ Somerset House

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

The Embankment Galleries at Somerset House have been transformed into a vibrant, living and breathing art space for the second year of Pick Me Up: Contemporary Graphic Art Fair. Packed to the brim with established and new talent, the fair includes Pick Me Up Selects, a showcase of international design from new talent in graphic arts, an open studio with designer-in-residence Anthony Burrill, and spaces for several London graphic art collectives and galleries including Print Club London and Evening Tweed.

Pick Me Up Selects features twenty-four designers from around the world chosen by a panel to display their work. The designers range in experience, style, and focus, but one thing is clear: the panel had plenty of talent to choose from. Brighton-based Zara Wood has a stunning display of shimmering gold and silver silkscreen prints of whimsical subjects. One print, a portrait of a thin-browed, big-eyed woman features a boat floating on the side of her immaculate hair like a bow. Wood’s successful Star Gaze Collection for Topshop, featuring tiny girls with large heads and lots of owls hanging about, is reminiscent in her graphic work featured here, but updated in a more glamorous and sharp yet equally playful way. Japanese artist Takeru Toyokura, trained as an illustrator, stands out with his use of felt in the magical children’s scenes he creates. Adding to the innocence and tactile nature of children’s active imagination, the brightly coloured drawn and felt scenes of rocket ships, fireworks, and childhood rambling reflect the magic of seeing the world from a child’s perspective and also mirrors the artist’s unbounded vision. More to see are Victo Ngai’s intricate Japanese woodcut block influenced pieces and Eda Akaltun’s prints with lively touches of film-noir. As part of their acceptance into the fair, each of the twenty four designers was commissioned to make a new print for sale at £20 each which can be purchased at centrally located checkpoints and picked up later. Although the Selects is the most conventional art fair-like aspect of Pick Me Up, the affordable prices, diversity of images, and uncontested skill of the young artists is not.

Right upstairs from the Selects is Anthony Burrill’s ten day studio residency. An independent graphic designer, Burrill’s work, featured from Wallpaper to the London Underground, has a clean-cut and humorous aesthetic to it. His working studio will be receiving plenty of visitors in different media; the open studio schedule is packed with everything from guest DJs to Kinetic printmaking to live photo-booth portraits. Visitors are also encouraged to do their own work of sorts in the space, with various designs, cardstock, and scissors provided to create their own images if the hustle and bustle is not enough already.

The graphic art collectives and galleries are perhaps the most unique part of the fair. Some line the more narrow upstairs hall of the space, while others have a more open feel a floor below the Selects (with a stocked Robert Ryan shop near the downstairs exit). The artists are available to speak to, or are busy making more t-shirts, plates, mugs, and prints as they sell. Many went to university together and are part of a tight-knit community resulting in a distinctive and genuine art school feel - and it seems sincere; one of the artists from the newer collective, Puck, gushed about being surrounded by his artistic heroes. Events are going on here, as well: in It’s Nice That’s generous space will be a daily drawing event where ten illustrators must create a work in under thirty minutes which will then be sold at £35 each. Walking through the space of the collectives is rather like wandering through art studios rather than shops, each with their own distinctive and lived-in feel. This is, admittedly, helpful in creating an atmosphere for people wanting to buy – seeing a tote bag get printed and then waiting for it to dry while chatting with the artist is as close as an experience one is going to get to the design and the designer. But, it doesn’t seem contrived -there is a real sense of excitement not only in the prints, but the people making and buying. The sense of community, cutting-edge vibe, and playfulness of the collectives make art school seem like the best thing that could happen to anyone, and the graphic artists the ones to follow after graduation.

Pick Me Up: Contemporary Graphic Art Fair continues until 27 March at Somerset House. Visit Somerset House for more information and event programming.

MVM Rap Face (2010)
Portrait study, personal work
© The artist

Monday 21 March 2011

Nancy Spero @ the Serpentine Gallery

Review by Paul Hardman

Right from the first moment of entering this exhibition at the Serpentine, Spero's art makes an assertive and powerful impression. Immediately after passing through the gallery's doors, a panorama manifests itself across the whole field of vision. Disembodied heads on the end of chains radiate out of a central point in the centre of the ceiling as if from a demented hellish maypole. Each face is composed of rough distressed marks, colours bleeding into each other, surfaces pitted, expressions of horror and torment, some screaming in rage or pain, others sticking out long tongues. That this will be a visceral and uncompromising exhibition is apparent immediately.

Spero began producing the body of work that she is known for, from which a selection makes up this exhibition, relatively late in her life, in her early forties. It was through becoming politicized in the cauldron of the 1960s in New York, to the backdrop of the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Movement, that Spero found what is essentially her muse –injustice, in particular sexism and war. These subjects have provided a target for her aggression, a focus for her activism, and an anger that fuelled her intense artistic practice up until her death in 2009 at the age of 83.

In a period in which political and radical artists, particularly in New York, were tearing down the boundaries of what art could be, first through pop art, then minimalism, conceptual art, land art, performance art and so on, Spero occupies an unusual position. She was extremely political and engaged, yet exclusively used traditional mediums such as drawing, painting, collage and printmaking. She has worked with an apparent unconcern for the theoretical which, conversely, now makes her work feel extremely fresh.

Literally on the surface level, the exhibition contains a vast array of visual substance. Spero has used every method of mark making at her disposal, water colour, gouache, pencil and ink strokes, paper is scratched until holes appear, images are printed over hand made lines, large woodblock lettering with damaged surfaces serve as headline messages alongside hand typed columns of text, ripped out and fixed next to strange cut out figures and multiplied found images. Certain figures reappear throughout the pieces, drawn with simple lines, but with warped bodies and multiple legs and breasts. The marks are full of movement and violence, compositions are free form and experimental, as are the formats for the work and their installation in this gallery. One room features panoramic scrolls several metres long. In another the walls are covered on all four sides with a collection of densely packed pieces that reach up to the ceiling.

All this is not entertainment though, but a means to an end. The feminist and anti-war message here is forceful and direct but never simplistic, Spero shows these problems are deeply carved into the human psyche and takes both an epic view, globally and across time, to a specific and personal view, including typed testimonies of specific instances of abusive behaviour. In Marduk (1986) several drawings of female figures walking on all fours are interspersed with texts describing state sanctioned abduction, rape, and torture of women. Testimonies from Argentina, Turkey, El Salvador, and China amongst others demonstrate the scope of Spero's conception of the feminist struggle as a ubiquitous problem. Another combined drawing and text piece contains a pasted passage by Hélène Cixous making a psychoanalytical criticism of male domination, discussing Freudian notions of envy and conflict between the sexes. These texts serve to contextualise the images that occur elsewhere in the exhibition, when, for example in Azur (2002), repeated prints of one woman naked and bound, and another with a noose around her neck, are juxtaposed with classical and tribal statues of the body. Throughout, Spero's work always points towards a bigger picture, so that not only individual cases of sexism are the issue, but the root of the tendency itself.

The same approach is applied when she makes war her focus, the familiar symbols such as mushroom clouds and helicopters are made uncanny in a series of her drawings from 1966-67, here a helicopter has sprouted breasts, another decapitates with it's blades in Victims, in Atomic Mushroom Cloud the explosion blasts out sperm with tiny male heads. Spero attacks male chauvinism in the most direct way, by highlighting its sexual nature in monstrous imagery.

The exhibition includes a good cross-section of Spero's work, showing examples of the metaphysical drawings she would make before becoming overtly political, which are quite beautiful in themselves, to other key works in her development such as the series of drawings based on quotations from Artaud. One of which, from 1969 sums up the visceral experience of seeing her work: "this crucible of Fire and Real Meat", Spero's roughly made brush strokes depict an imperfect and troubled world, but one full of a fearsome vitality.

To read Kiki Smith's short essay on Spero on the Aesthetica Blog please click here. Nancy Spero continues until 2 May. For more information visit the Serpentine Gallery - why not pick up a copy of Aesthetica while you're there?

Installation view at Anthony Reynolds Gallery
Photograph: Dave Morgan
Courtesy of Estate of Nancy Spero and Anthony Reynolds Gallery, London

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