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Friday 22 April 2011

The Outsider: Still Lives, Robert Lenkiewicz, Royal West of England Academy, Bristol

Review by Regina Papachlimitzou

Speaking in relation to the second major controversy he triggered in a course of a creatively chaotic life (namely, his deal with one of his closest friends that the latter’s body would be embalmed after his death and kept at the artist’s studio), Lenkiewicz observed that, in his opinion, what people are struck with when witnessing death is the ‘total absence of the person running parallel to the total presence of the body’. Lenkiewicz’s preoccupation with absence, ageing, and dying, and his lifelong attempt to grapple with these concepts inform the majority of the works exhibited at the Royal West of England Academy.

The first gallery exhibits works such as Mr. Earl Senior, of Earl of Plymouth Funeral Service; Employees and Family and Mr. Harry’s Club, large canvases populated by groups of sitters. Both works are remarkable in the fact that the majority of the people depicted are not making eye contact, with the neither the viewer nor each other. There is a haunted quality to the sitters, a feeling of avoidance and subterfuge: as though the formal attire worn for the occasion by the group in the former painting and the bright-coloured party clothes of the group in the latter are meant to draw the viewer’s attention (and the sitters’ own) away from the ever-present spectre of death hovering around them. The Burial of John Kynance is particularly poignant in that respect, as in this painting Death himself puts in an appearance: a pale figure almost blending into the background, unnoticeable at first against the dark browns and somber blacks of the rest of the figures. Ever present in his jester’s hat, he mocks the living; who turn their attention toward the dead, all the while ignoring the very presence of death around them.

The smaller gallery to the right showcases a number of self-portraits, the proliferation of which invites comparison to the numerous self-portraits executed by Rembrandt. And yet, where the Flemish master uses self-portraiture to document in agonising detail the ravages wrought by a lifetime onto his face (and psyche), Lenkiewicz’s approach to the practice stands in diametric opposition. Although his self-portraits span more than four decades, there is little if any change in the artist's physiognomy through the years. These portraits, it is implied, aim not to portray Robert Lenkiewicz but a picture of him: a representation not of a person, but of a picture of a person. Thus, twice removed from his work, Lenkiewicz manages to extract himself from the here and now, from the passage of time and its necessary restrictions. Far from attempting to achieve immortality through art, he presents himself as already if not immortal, then unchangeable and unageing, and therefore occupying the best vantage point from which to expose ageing and death to others through the medium of painting. It is no coincidence that in most of the self-portraits the artist’s eyes peer out with the almost cold and disinterested air of clinical observation.

Especially worthy of note is Self-Portrait With Mephistopheles. The canvas is split roughly down the middle into two panels, crowding into each other and vying for the viewer’s attention: two framed mirrors at odd angles, the one reflecting the artist’s arm (presumably in the act of painting), the other his face. In the lower foreground of the composition, on an empty chair –an object which for Lenkiewicz encapsulated the concept of absence- a spurt of red paint jets upward and forward, as though gushing out of the discarded paint tubes visible in the bottom left-hand corner of the mirror. On closer inspection, the jet of red turns out to be an elongated figure tightly clutching its fiery cloak around itself, its head bowed in a gesture of servitude which is nonetheless belied by the sly conniving grin on its face. Is the painting an admission or a warning? Perhaps it is simply a statement of kinship; it is worth remembering that, at least in Marlowe’s version, while Mephistopheles may have enabled Faustus’s empowerment in exchange for damnation, he was all the while himself trapped in his own hell.

In the adjacent room, Study of the Painter’s Dead Mother exemplifies the way in which the artist’s defiance of temporal restrictions informs his work. The painting is a masterful depiction of the moment immediately following the transition from living to deceased, the mother's eyes half closed, her mouth hanging slightly open, her face literally glazing over before our very eyes. The mother’s head is shown floating in a sea of white, which could be the sheets on the bed, or it could be the inside of a coffin, or it could be the nothingness that comes after death. The transition between being alive and being dead is seamless, and already deadness flows into what until a moment ago was a locus of life. At the same time, observing the painting we are reminded that death is as much a momentary transition as it is a process: death happens not only to the person who dies but also to their loved ones, who will subsequently have to go through the motions of grieving and processing the loss. A painter can take months or years to complete a work depicting a moment that has long since transpired, and the work will be no less valid. Parallel to that, an individual can take equal amount of time to fully come to terms with a death, which in effect will not fully take place until the moment when it is truly accepted by the bereaved.

Still Lives, by Robert Lenkiewicz continues at The Royal West of England Academy, Bristol until 31 May. For further information please visit the website: www.rwa.org.uk

The Painter with Mary in Newspaper Magi-Fool’s Hats. 1981
48 x 69 cm. Oil on canvas.
Project – The Painter with Mary: a Study in Obsessional Behaviour.
Courtesy the artist and The Royal West of England Academy

Thursday 21 April 2011

Everyday Scenarios & Complex Iconography: Paul Graham, Whitechapel Gallery, London.

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

A visit to Whitechapel Gallery to view Paul Graham 1981-2006 is a transatlantic adventure beginning in England and Northern Ireland then moving to the United States after a brief sojourn in Tokyo. Graham presents his audience with a startlingly honest insight into the reality of daily existence. The exhibition moves in a roughly chronological order, but the viewer first finds himself or herself confronted by a relatively recent series of everyday people watching television. These figures are completely absorbed in the activity without acknowledging the photographer’s presence. These photographs highlight how television has become an integral part of modern life and the reality of its impact upon the human condition.

The series entitled Beyond Caring from 1984-1985 exhibits several unemployment agencies and captures the sense of hopelessness apparent in each of the figures. One particularly poignant photograph displays a toddler bundled in a pink coat and hat standing slightly distanced from the chairs where others wait. The other figures in the scene are middle-aged and even elderly and the juxtaposition of their situation and that of the little girl implies the cyclical nature of poverty and unemployment – that girl may eventually be sitting in one of those chairs hoping for relief.

On a journey reminiscent of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, Graham travels the length of Britain’s A1 highway photographing the geographic and social landscape. Graham does not always portray his home country in the most positive light, but he also has a tendency to find beauty in typically un-beautiful scenes littered with gas stations and clumsy advertisements. The theme of the journey and the road trip recur throughout the artist’s oeuvre, often in unexpected ways – such as the jigsaw puzzle of a historical ship.

The exhibition continues upstairs with a series entitled End of an Age (1996-1998) explores a number of teenagers in an unnamed European city. The photographs are displayed almost touching around all four walls of the gallery space in order to best capture the circular motion of the figures. Each youth holds their head facing in a different direction and Graham organizes the works so that a complete cycle is made from facing far left to far right. The subjects of these works are in an uncertain time of their life, and their adolescence is mirrored by the ambiguity of the closing of one millennium and the beginning of another. Some of the images are blurred becoming almost more of a study of colour than humanity, but others are remarkably crisp. The lighting and proximity of the subject to the camera are unforgiving, and blemishes and unfortunate haircuts are immediately apparent to the viewers. Whether the young adults are scared, hopeless or contemplative, they are the future because the new millennium marks the end of their childhood.

Returning to the motif of the journey, Graham travelled to the United States and captured images in many major American cities. The first half of the American works is part of a series entitled American Nights from 1998-2002. Several large-scale photographs are labelled based on the urban centre they depict, but curiously the majority of the photos are overexposed rendering the actual image difficult to decipher. Many of such images from cities including Detroit, Memphis and Atlanta include a solitary figure presumably walking along the road, though some images do not contain any figures. New York and California, however, appear in full colour. Paul Graham, as an outsider looking in on American culture, experiences a much less romantic image of New York than the Times Square and Central Park conceptions of the city. The figures chosen as subjects are African Americans – two figures wear an eye patch and one woman is captured in profile so the viewer cannot make eye contact with her. These downtrodden individuals certainly do not lead a glamorous life, and these images parallel the A1 series from earlier in the artist’s career. California, however, is seen as an upper-middle class suburban home complete with a red American-made car. Based on popular television shows and the Hollywood lifestyle, California is believed to be an Arcadian idyll of American modern culture, but in reality the people and landscape are quite diverse.

Among other photographs in the American series are a flower salesman in San Francisco, a couple walking home from the grocery store with two cases of Pepsi, and a man cutting the grass along the side of a highway. By capturing such iconic images as the McDonalds logo, Pepsi, and Camel and Newport cigarettes, among others, the consumerism of American culture becomes apparent. Overall, Graham’s images of the United States are less than complimentary, but they are not meant to derogatory. In the same vein as his works in Britain, the photographer is interested in artistically documenting modern life. By depicting scenes in Europe, America and even Asia, Graham is highlighting important aspects of the various cultures and inviting the viewers to create their own interpretations and their own commentary.

Paul Graham Photographs 1981-2006 continues until 19 June. For further information on the exhibition please visit www.whitechapelgallery.org

Paul Graham
Texas, 2005, (Pepsi Walkers),
from the series A Shimmer of Possibility
Pigment ink prints
32.9 x 45.3cm
Courtesy Kirkland Collection, London

Wednesday 20 April 2011

Contemporary Russian Discourse: Practice For Everyday Life, Calvert 22, London.

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

Calvert 22 is a not for profit foundation that focuses its attention on exposing visitors to contemporary art from Russia and Eastern Europe. Promoting an understanding and exposure, the gallery hopes to generate excitement and interest in this rapidly developing art scene. These artists offer a fresh perspective, having studied on a global level and incorporating the canon of Western art as well as an examination of their own cultural identity and heritage, their work speaks to every viewer in a personal way.

The current show, The Practice For Everyday Life, frames the work of eight young Russian artists who employ a variety of medias. The title for the exhibition draws its name from the seminal text by theorist Michel de Certeau. In this text Certeau combined various theories to understand how mass culture appropriates and consumes all aspects of everyday life to create their own understanding. Both appropriate and playful in connotation, the title conveys both a defining element for each piece, as well as a direction and sense of ongoing development and experimentation. Ranging from social critiquing films to books sculpted into architectonic forms, these artists are truly engaging in a fascinating critique on the current status of society. Each piece deals with a different aspect of life and values, speaking to a cross-cultural audience: despite gender, nationality or personal convictions, the show promotes discussion and introspection through a variety of mediums.

An extremely poignant video installation by the artist Taus Makhacheva, entitled Rehlen (avar language flock) (2009), shows a young man wearing a traditional sheepskin coat, the traditional attire of shepherds, scrambling towards a herd of sheep and attempting to join their flock. Upon first glance, the sheep are quite easily discernible and identifiable, but when watching further, your eye adjusts and there is a gargantuan mass covered in sheepskin lumbering around with the flock. After watching for a while, it becomes easy to distinguish a man literally in sheep’s clothing. What Makhacheva is critiquing is the loss of community in modern society. Isolated by the technological advancements of our contemporary world, we have lost all sense of community and interaction. We live in large cities, surround ourselves with people everyday, but a sense of isolation still exists. People will do anything to fit into and find a place within the world they so long to belong to and this experiment of man and flock of sheep also illustrates the limits and extremes that people will go to so as to find a place within a community setting that offers security and support. All through videos poignantly critique current relationships to the environment, identity and culture.

The paintings of interior spaces by Yulia Ivashkina appear to be a snapshot of someone’s home and personal space that has just been vacated. There is a haunting presence of someone just gone; a missing or unseen presence haunts the limits of the canvas. There is a profound sense of voyeurism that permeates the painting but also a recognizable feeling of human indifference and a sense of isolation that has been crafted by the technological world we exist in.

In a series of works by Sergey Ogurtsov entitled Empty Homes of Being, (2008-10) the artist has taken key texts by influential writers such as Antonin Artaud and Gaston Bachelard, opened the book to the middle and folded the pages into intricate, architectonic sculptures. By taking books of such an iconic status and recreating them into small, pristine sculptures, Ogurtsov is forcing the viewer to evaluate the importance we place on such texts. As a society that focuses more on popular culture than revisiting our past and understanding it, we look at as something of beauty and a text that makes one sound intellectual to quote without really knowing the context.

The exhibition as a whole is one cohesive show that, upon leaving, resonates and allows for questions and an introspective look at the self and society. Although the artist’s are all Russian, and that is ever present in their work, there is also a sense of universality. Everyone, despite associations can understand, comprehend and find a deeper sense of introspection, share a laugh and see some truly inspired art by some talented young artists.

Practice For Everyday Life - Young Artists From Russia continues at Calvert 22 until 29 May. Visit the website for further information and curator essays.

Aesthetica Magazine
We hope you enjoying reading the Aesthetica Blog, if you want to explore more of the best in contemporary arts and culture you should read us in print too. In the spirit of celebration, Issue 40 includes features on James Turrell, Wim Wenders, sculptors Alice Anderson and Kate MccGwire plus an extended feature on the Making is Thinking show at Witte De With Center for Contemporary Art in Rotterdam. You can buy it today by calling +44(0)1904 479 168. Even better, subscribe to Aesthetica and save 20%. Go on, enjoy!

Image: Tanya Akhmetgalieva
The chrysalis phase (2009)
Courtesy the artist and Calvert 22

Tuesday 19 April 2011

Joan Miró at Tate Modern: The Ladder of Escape

Review by Ruby Beelsey

The latest in a string of blockbuster shows at Tate Modern, Joan Miró needs no introduction. As one of the defining protagonists of the surrealist movement Miró also fused Fauvism, Cubism, magic realism and abstraction with his own surroundings and wild subconscious over his illustrious 60 year career. Profoundly defined by his Catalan identity, and living through the tumultuous events of the Spanish Civil War and Franco’s dictatorship, not to mention an “internal exile” from occupied Paris during the Second World War, it is a testament to his art that Miró’s works have long been viewed as essentially internationalist. During his extended trips to New York he was impressed by the freedom and gestural liberation of the Abstract Expressionists and, while his mid-century works undoubtedly referenced this school, they always shy away from such a place-specific identification. Even the surrealism that defines him in many a soundbite is peppered with myriad elements from elsewhere in art history to the extent that his work, while undergoing a vast evolution over the years, is essentially unique, based on a life-long pictorial language of stars and line, which can be used to represent any and every figure in his boundless imagination.

Arranged roughly chronologically Matthew Gale, Kerryn Greenberg and Marko Daniel illustrate the myriad progressions and unifying idioms of Miró’s career. His early works in the first room focus on the rural surroundings of Mont Roig, where he spent his formative years and where the seeds of the repetitive motif of Catalan peasant were sown. Inevitably the most notable piece is The Farm, once owned by Ernest Hemingway and a burden for the artist to sell, it now serves as a precursor to Miró’s monumental career. It is a work of figurative fantasy, each element identifiable, and yet somehow out of place in the rustic surroundings of Tarragona. Miró eliminates perspective, but the painting inexplicably draws you in, each flat layer of colour creating a depth of field that climbs sharply up the canvas. In The Farm it feels like every element tells its own story and is a discrete autonomous unit destined to re-surface in Miró’s later works, but on the other hand it presents an revealingly honest glimpse into Miró’s inner pscyche, and we see the virulent imagination of an artist who would be liberated by his first encounters in Paris with the pre-manifesto Surrealists in 1920. Rather than confining itself to any particular genre however, The Farm represents the freedom with which Miró would approach his entire career, and traces of Henri Rousseau and magic realism can be seen in the early works as well as fauvist and cubist experiments.

In this open-mindedness Miró’s work flourishes, and beginning with this exceptional painting the exhibition runs from strength to strength, spanning over 150 works in the first major retrospective in 50 years. But while the curation is well informed and allows the works to breathe (as well as an escape, to an extent, from the suffocating crowds that plagued the Gauguin exhibition), the exhibition forces the point of context, where sometimes the only context seems to be the artist’s fervent imagination. It is true that occasionally, and this is where Tate has chosen to focus its efforts, Miró’s works are ambiguously political, darkly reticent and as uncertain as their times, but these openly political works are, quite rightfully, not where the artist has built his reputation. The Barcelona series spans one long wall of the exhibition, its tyrants explicitly referencing the despots and dictators of his day and the works are sinister and grotesque. While fine examples of political satire however, the inky scrawls deny the colour, childishness and humour of Miró’s finest works and serve more as a point of historical reference than a balanced insight into the artist’s oeuvre.

In contrast, a small room devoted to Miró’s paintings on copper and his brief liaison with collage represents an experimental formalism which is often overlooked in favour of the more easily recognisable visual motifs of his art. The more intimate size of these works, coupled with their absurd titles and barren landscapes, have a luminosity that transcends any political concerns. By painting onto copper Miró infuses these pieces with light, creating an otherworldly quality to match his fantastical compositions. Man and Woman in Front of a Pile of Excrement displays spectacular night skies, ethereal deserts and almost psychedelic figures which are simultaneously childlike and erotic through their paint box colours and exaggerated sexual organs, to an extent that it becomes an astonishing display in Miró’s virtuosity with his materials.

In short, Miró’s experimentation, both formally and compositionally, is what retains his legacy today. Despite his Surrealist connections, André Breton describing him as “the most surrealist of us all,” Miró refused to be confined by the genre. The Ladder of Escape showcases a wonderful collection from a remarkably fertile artist and perhaps the best work with which to reference him is not The Farm representing his routes, nor The Hope of a Condemned Man representing his political frustrations, but in the self portrait of 1937 and 1960. To see the full scope of his productiveness it is important to immerse yourself in his surreal compositions but you’d do well to end your experience here. In the intricate and soft pencil shading and the graphic, expressive line of Miró’s trademark compositions, this single canvas represents so much of the evolution of this fantastic and fantastical career.

Miró continues at Tate Modern until 11 September. For tickets visit www.tate.org.uk

Aesthetica Magazine
We hope you enjoying reading the Aesthetica Blog, if you want to explore more of the best in contemporary arts and culture you should read us in print too. In the spirit of celebration, Issue 40 includes features on James Turrell, Wim Wenders, sculptors Alice Anderson and Kate MccGwire plus an extended feature on the Making is Thinking show at Witte De With Center for Contemporary Art in Rotterdam. You can buy it today by calling +44(0)1904 479 168. Even better, subscribe to Aesthetica and save 20%. Go on, enjoy!

Joan Miró
The Escape Ladder 1940
Museum of Modern Art, New York © Joan Miró and Fundació Joan Miró, Barcelona

Monday 18 April 2011

The Post-Photographic Era: Alastair Cook, Analogue Decay, Howden Park Centre

Review by Colin Herd

The names of difficult-to-get-hold-of and in some cases discontinued-altogether photographic film have something of the poetry of a catalogue of obscure plant-names or endangered species: Kodachrome 64, Kodacolor VR-G 200, V-G-40, Ektachrome 320 T, E100 VS, Fujifilm Sensia 100, 400, Ilford XP2, FP4, FP5. And that is precisely what they are becoming in a way, relics of an outdated technology, outstripped and surpassed in the public imagination by the instant gratification, the ease, of digital. But just as the advent of photography in the 19th century didn’t kill off painting, merely refocusing it on the specific qualities of its medium that it could do better than any other (in the first instance expressive abstraction) and producing some of the most exciting movements in painting history, it could be that the digital era or the ‘post-photographic era’ as it’s sometimes termed, will counter-intuitively come to be seen as a halcyon time for analogue photography, as its artists go through the same up-against-the-ropes period of re-adjustment that painting had to and is still going through, mining analogue’s unique processes and redefining its aims.

Certainly, filmmaker and photographer Alastair Cook’s new solo show at the Howden Park Centre, Livingston, does just that, and can be read like a photographic essay. As the title suggests, Cook is specifically interested in the fragility and unpredictability of analogue, the possibility at every stage of the process for something unexpected to occur. The exhibition is arranged into five sequences. The central sequence, Analogue Decay, is made up of seven images that have suffered partial damage at some point in the development process. In one image, of Achastle, Caithness, we’re told that fluid has accidently spilled in the processing machine during development. The outline of the spillage on the print appears to lick in from the sea, penetrating the cliff like a transparent, furry, metallic tongue. It brings to mind oil spills and flooding. In an image of Lochgilphead, damage to the fifteen or so year-old negative means the image is infected by what look like scratchy veins, or barbed wire. Both these images are disorientating because the defects look out-of-place and inherent at once; they’re illusory and surreal. Perhaps most disconcerting of all is an image of Portobello, one of Edinburgh’s beaches, in which the camera has opened accidentally. The colour of the beach at the bottom of the image shifts colour as it recedes, from damp, sandy grey to bleached, porcelain white.

In presenting these accidentally manipulated photographs Cook seems to be coyly riffing on post-production, the digital manipulation of images. I say coy because rather than a knee-jerk appeal to analogue’s higher claim on veracity in the face of digital’s fakery, as some photographers do, Cook’s more thoughtful approach is to prioritise analogue’s own propensity towards illusion and uncertainty. Viewing these images, you’re constantly caught between a cloud and a negative scratch, a natural bubbling texture in the water and the result of a fluid spill. His Bagsværd Triptych comprises three photographs of architectural details from Bagsværd Kirke, a church not far from Copenhagen designed by the renowned Danish Architect Jørn Utzon, most famous for designing the Sydney Opera House. Cook himself is trained as an architect and his images focus on the way the different textures of the building’s surface (mainly concrete and glazed porcelain cladding) interact with the light. In designing the church, Utzon was interested in the movements of clouds and how they might be incorporated into the ceiling of a building. Cook performs a sort of return serve, taking what must be small details of the walls, where one building material meets another. The resulting highly-textured images capture the subtle variations of muted colour in the building and look more like empty Scandinavian landscapes meeting a horizon than building-details.

All the more so because they’re hung on the wall next to a series of gorgeous Scottish seascapes, from Arran to Saclet, Lybster, and Portobello. These images call to mind something the poet and art-critic Kevin Killian recently wrote in a catalogue essay about the San Francisco-based painter Bruno Fazzolari, and which I’m in fact quoting from Dodie Bellamy’s recent book ‘the buddhist’: “you can see a familiar horizon four-fifths down the page—not the most comforting proportion, but one often used by Turner and other painters with gigantic and tormented skies—so the earth shrinks from the sky as if wounded by it.” Cook positions the horizon more like two thirds or three quarters down the page, but the expressive woundedness certainly holds true. It’s as if, in his especially overcast seascapes, the wound, the scar where sky meets sea, overrides the colour, saturating the image with a purplish bruise.

The opening evening also saw the premiere of Cook’s most recent short film, The Forty Elephants, named after the notorious all-female gang of thieves based around Elephant and Castle from around 1870 to the 1950s. Cook calls it a psycho-geographic film-poem. Shots from the window of a moving subway train slowed right down are punctuated by quick flashes of street corners and deteriorating housing estates. It’s here perhaps that Cook’s interest in architectural and photographic conservation merge, a poetic and meditative encounter with Elephant and Catsle, its history, its architecture, its modes of transport and the people on its streets. In this, Cook is working in the same vein as the filmmaker Patrick Keiller. But if Keiller’s films take on the rhythm, the pace and suggest the form of an essayistic novel, Cook’s film paces and structures itself more like a poem, making heavy use of repetition in varying degrees for effects similar to the way a poet uses emphasis, alliteration and rhyme, echoed in the voice-over. Delivered and penned by the actor and writer Gérard Rudolf, it’s a vaguely threatening and seedily hypnotic invocation listing variations on the phrase “no rest tonight”.

A thoughtful and smart exhibition that explores the specific things analogue photography can do better than its digital counterpart (non-totalizing, imperfect, expressive, chance-oriented), the photographs in Analogue Decay are beguiling and breathtaking: decay, maybe; extinction, no.

Alastair Cook, Analogue Decay, is on at Howden Park Centre, Livingston until 9 May. For more information please visit the Alastair Cook's website.

Aesthetica Magazine
We hope you enjoying reading the Aesthetica Blog, if you want to explore more of the best in contemporary arts and culture you should read us in print too. In the spirit of celebration, Issue 40 includes features on James Turrell, Wim Wenders, sculptors Alice Anderson and Kate MccGwire plus an extended feature on the Making is Thinking show at Witte De With Center for Contemporary Art in Rotterdam. You can buy it today by calling +44(0)1904 479 168. Even better, subscribe to Aesthetica and save 20%. Go on, enjoy!

Image: Alastair Cook Aldmari
Courtesy the artist

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