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Thursday 12 May 2011

Two Portrayals of Life: Miroslav Tichý and Shimabuku's My Teacher Tortoise, Wilkinson Gallery, London.

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

Located in the lively art scene of Vyner Street, Wilkinson Gallery currently boasts two exhibitions with work reflecting different approaches of life. The lower gallery contains a collection of untitled photographs by Czechoslovakian artist Miroslav Tichý from the 1960s, as the floor above houses a conceptual exhibition entitled My Teacher Tortoise by contemporary Japanese installation-artist, Shimabuku.

Because the photographs of the recently-deceased Czech artist come directly from his personal archives, they are shown in a minimalist fashion without the addition of labels. Contrary to the large, open space of the gallery, the framed works are small in scale to offer the spectator a private viewing. This is particularly interesting considering the voyeuristic approach taken to the work in the collection. Tichý used a homemade camera that he assembled from found objects, such as toilet rolls, tin boxes, and bottle caps, as well as a makeshift photo enlarger to produce his images. Each photograph contains a number of imperfections –some are discolored spots resulting from the printing process, while the majority involve scratches, creases, and spattering of pigment that result from rodent exposure as well as the artist’s personal use of them as coasters.

Following in the practice of street photography, Tichý documents spontaneous moments of women throughout the streets of his hometown, Kyjov. Although the photographs appear unstaged, the artist captures his sitters in positions that exude sexuality, like that of a woman inserting a finger in her mouth while seemingly cupping her breast. Another image depicts a woman licking an ice-cream cone while standing with her legs apart. By removing the context of these photographs, Tichý is able to erotize these women who were unaware of his camera. Other photographs are cropped to exhibit certain areas of the female body, such as a clothed bum or a bare chest. The absence of heads in both images eliminates their identities, causing them to become fetishized objects rather than individuals. In his attempt to reinvent the nude, Tichý closes the gap between high and low art through combining areas of realism and pornography. When men are present in his photographs, they are either oddly-cropped or blurred into silhouettes in the background. Thus women are emphasized as the central focus in Tichý’s personal collection.

As a non-conformist working under Communist rule, it is important to take notice of the political symbolism underlying in Tichý’s photographs. The blurred focus, rapid sense of movement, and unbalanced composition within the works not only imitate the Czech government’s widespread surveillance project of the period, but satirize it as well. While his work conveys the invasive and politically unjust issues of the time, it also illustrates a demoralizing view of 1960’s Czech women as sexually available.

While My Teacher Tortoise is the title of Shimabuku’s exhibition, it also refers to the show’s highlight which assumes the same title. Centered along the back wall of the gallery is a box-like structure that encloses an open, minimalist habitat fit for a tortoise. Suspended from the ceiling is a heat lamp to recharge the cold-blooded fellow with energy. He finds nourishment in a small alcove that is heaping with soft hay, encapsulated in the far-right corner. The title suggests that we can learn something from the tortoise, a renowned symbol of wisdom and thoughtfulness. When standing against the left side of the installation, in view of the tortoise’s shaded retreat spot, the text painting displayed on the opposite wall becomes all the more clear. It reads: “Stop. Stop and Think. Return. Occasionally Run,” before the artist addresses a Stephen Hawking quote that states “Man should try to avoid contact with alien life forms.” While Shimabuku’s presentation of the text is undoubtedly more beautifully-crafted than mine, it is important to mention it due to the conceptual dialogue that exists between both works. In connection to My Teacher Tortoise, the artist de-contextualizes Hawking’s advice on encountering extraterrestrials in order to encompass all life forms that are alien to us. He encourages us to follow, enjoy, and embrace our curiosities while also literally advising us to “stop and think.”

Similarly, the video installation entitled Leaves Swim presents us with the unknown and challenges our mindful attempts to define the bizarre. Viewed from a single perspective, the film focuses on a leafy sea dragon moving underwater at a close distance. This rare sea creature that appears to possess leaf-like appendages is unfamiliar to many and undoubtedly marvelous in nature. The soft and seemingly effortless motion of the underwater seahorse creates a rhythmic force that captivates the viewer. Simply by bringing it into the gallery, Shimabuku has translated this aspect of natural life into an artistic language as to provide us with a spectacle of the world’s hidden beauty. Through his artistic practice, he offers us the opportunity to embrace and admire what we do not understand, rather than searching for solutions to answer what we judge to be alien and strange.

Miroslav Tichy and Shimabuku continue at Wilkinson gallery until 5 June. Please visit www.wilkinsongallery.com for further information.

My Teacher Tortoise, 2011
Mixed media installation
Installation dimensions variable

Wednesday 11 May 2011

Sam Knowles, Fearful Sphere, at Simon Oldfield Gallery, London

Sam Knowles’ first solo exhibition, Fearful Sphere opens tonight in London.

Knowles’ (b.1983) practice deals with metaphysical concerns, and the notion that the world – and man’s existence in it – can be explained by the "grand" theories of philosophy, art and science. Fearful Sphere explores and questions the narratives that have become enshrined in our physical libraries and internal consciousness. Presenting new wall based works as well as a group of sculptures, Knowles dissects and splices, sometimes line by line. The "truths" which flow from these carefully selected texts and bindings are interrupted by Knowles’ intricate and graphic gold markings or by the artists’ slicing into and restructuring of these historical tomes.

Knowles’ interventions on bindings and found imagery, tied down by the shape and size of the surfaces on which he is working, transform the pages and create a series of new values and meanings. Black and white images are interrupted to intersect and change the viewer's reading of the originals; imagery emerging from the page with renewed vigour and unbound from their scholarly ties.

Since graduating from Wimbledon College of Art in 2009, Knowles has been awarded the Pienkow International Art Workshop Residency and gained 1st Prize. Recent exhibitions include: Bloomberg New Contemporaries, 2010; Base Metal (group show), Simon Oldfield Gallery, 2010; thecentre:mk Annual Painting Prize, 2009 and Knowles is currently exhibiting in Beyond Ourselves at the Royal Society, London. Knowles’ work can also been seen at the Pollen Street Social, London.

The show continues until 11 June. http://www.simonoldfield.com/

Orbit (detail)
Gold leaf on found four book pages
63.5cm x 63.5cm

Tuesday 10 May 2011

Ian Hamilton Finlay | Definitions at Victoria Miro, London

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

Ian Hamilton Finlay’s show currently at the Victoria Miro Gallery is evocative of classicism, coupled with an informed philosophical and historical glance into tradition. The show is entitled Definitions and is punctuated throughout the gallery with Finlay’s often witty and multivalent definitions of words such as Purity, Apollo, Inspiration and Militaria. Illustrate Finlay’s desire to explore the materiality of words in relations to the sculptures which are the other aspect of the culture. The presence of these classical sculptures it feels like one is walking the mystical carnage of a preserved world of antiquity, only intact to share knowledge and predict the future, which alas remains uncertain and far removed from the seeming certainty of antiquity.

This uncertainty manifests itself in the series of bronze busts entitled, Four Muses. In mythology, there were always three muses were the artistic inspiration of man. Traditionally representing beauty, charm and creativity, these women were the reason’s man created art and always possessed solidity as to who they would inspire and the great product of this inspiration would become a milestone in the historical record of artist production. Finlay has however, depicted four muses. While the three are expected the fourth is not, and she, facing the same direction as the others but still she looks into the future, rather uncertain and without the same solidarity prescribed to the other muses and in this way Finlay appears to be questioning the investment contemporary society has placed in antiquity concerning politics and academia in establishing foundations.

In the upstairs of the gallery, there are a series of small, temple like structures to walk in and also there are a series of five stone statues. The work, Five Finials, show’s five stone sculptures in an evolutionary state. Beginning with a circular sculpture and evolving to an orb, then developing into a cone shape and an acorn and then finally evolving into a grenade. Showing this progression of art as well as military is something that represents the evolution of man kind, warfare and the distance we have set between our society and that of antiquity. Seemingly only statues, these little sculptures possess a meaning that hides behind the innocuous, seemingly harmless guise of being only statues, but they are much more than that, commenting on politics, society and classicism.

After examining the sculptures, which without an understanding of classicism may be a bit difficult to fully grasp, the definitions which magically manifest on the walls, serve as a way to better illustrate the artists message as conveyed through his sculptures. He takes words that an audience feels they understand or know in passing and then breaks them down into short, witty phrases that incite a laugh and subsequently a better understanding of the cohesiveness of the show.

The entire oeuvre of Finlay’s work presented here is investigating the relationship between Ancient Greek and Roman classicism which inspires so much of life and tradition today in relation to the volatile environment of today’s society and the way that many of those values have been lost. By employing classical busts and columns, Finlay evokes tradition but in a new and interesting way that uses his perfectly choreographed definitions throughout the gallery to take the viewer on a journey of the vitality of the written word and its necessity in understanding everything. This rings true in examining today’s world where we constantly peruse the Internet for immediacy of explanation and understanding. Society today needs that relationship between word and image so we can fully and instantly gains an understanding of what’s happening around us. The beauty of the show though is the open-ended nature of the definitions and the sculpture which allows for every visitor to gain a different understanding and take away a variety of meanings.

His employment of lost traditional forms of art production such as stone tablets etched with words, marble busts to record a likeness of a person gone by and the formalist approach of defining every word and concept on first impression situate this show as a neoclassical revival. Seemingly not existing in the same category of contemporary as that of his peers, Finlay’s work requires a deeper exploration and understanding of what he is attempting to say. Not the type of show you simply walk in and out of quickly again having your daily fill of art, but it resonates within the mind and hours later the viewer is still contemplating the meaning of the work and coming to a new understanding of the power of art. Finlay’s work situates the viewer in a contemporary art setting by looking into a somewhat mysterious future by examining the past that was once seen as solid and unshakeable, which we can now see wasn’t that much different from our own world.

Definitions continues until 1 June. www.victoria-miro.com


© Ian Hamilton Finlay Five Finals (2001)

Monday 9 May 2011

Vija Celmins, Television and Disaster (1964 - 1966), LACMA, LA.

Review by Jareh Das

Los Angeles County Museum of Art presents an intimate exhibition of Vija Celmins works, focusing on the artist's time in Los Angeles between 1964 - 1966. These works comment particularly on the media's representation of disasters, at a time when war, guns and other images of death and disaster were repetitively prominent and reported. Having escaped Soviet invasion in Europe as a child and emigrated to the USA, as a young adult, Celmins was about to experience a different type of war given that 1960s America was characterised by The Cold War. This began with the aftermath of the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, through to the easing of relations between the Soviet Union and The Unites States of America in 1969 to late 1970s. Other significant unsettling events included the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War antiwar movement.

During this period, Celmins was a graduate student in California, and although she is now renowned for palettes of realist black and grey imagery, she often used HB pencil. Celmins renders these limitless spaces i.e. seascapes, night skies, and the barren desert floor with an uncanny accuracy, working for a long period of time on a single image. This period between 1964 – 66, although often overlooked, forms a significant part of Celmin's oeuvre as it presents her preoccupation with current affairs of the time. It was also a period which illustrates early painting and sculptures that inform her later career. In California, Celmins was making art about cold hard facts, she has said: "I decided to go back to looking at something outside myself. I was going back to what I thought was the basic, stupid painting. You know: there's the surface, there's me, there's my hand. There's my eye, I paint. I don't embellish anymore, I don't compose, and I don't jazz up the colour”.

As one approaches this modest exhibition space located on Level 2 of LACMA's Ahmanson Building, a small miniature sculpture of a house titled, House #2 (1965) sits on a plinth outside the exhibition space. The sculpture, a miniature house reminiscent of a dollhouse is painted in grey and depicts a sombre skyline with clouds on the exterior of the structure. The roof however, is more chaotic as it is represents the burining aftermath of a plane crash. It looks as if the plane crashed on the roof of the house, with flames coming out of the top windows. It's almost an ironic gesture symbolising quite literally “The roof is on fire”. There is another dollhouse in the main gallery space House #1 (1965), although the same scale as to the other house, this piece depicts a flying plane, a train and a figure in flight. Its roof has a poignant image of a hand pointing a gun through the clouds. The roof is detachable, exposing the fur interior of the house.

Other works in the exhibition continue in this grey skyline palette depicting war planes in the painting T.V.(1964), guns being aimed about to be fired, Hand Holding a Firing Gun (1964) and more plane crashes in Burning Plane (1965). Celmins wittily presents sculptures such as House #1, House #2 and WW II Puzzle Toy (1965) as if they were children's toys, perhaps a parody of man-made disasters such as war and violence.

Television and Disaster (1964 - 1966) feels contemporary as although today we experience war and disaster as familiar to contemporary life, we face a new type of warfare that has similar innuendos with the cold war i.e. the threat of terrorism, the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, as well as the threat of nuclear invasion. We are still constantly bombarded with imagery from disasters, wars and devastation by the media. It’s almost as if we watch and follow these as if they were theatre, something to be intrigued as well as repulsed by, which opens up new lines of enquiry between art and terrorism. A relationship which may not be as antithetical as the media would have us believe.

Television and Disaster (1964 - 1966) is on show until 5 June. For further information and opening times please visit www.lacma.org

Vija Celmins Burning Man (1966)
Courtesy the artist 2011

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