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Friday 30 December 2011

Contemporary Art in Northern Ireland | Parliament Buildings | Stormont

Text by Angela Darby

Below the gilded King Edward VII chandeliers and between the Italian travertine engraved marble walkway the exhibition Contemporary Art in Northern Ireland is situated in The Great Hall of Parliament Buildings at Stormont. The exhibition’s curator Dr Suzanne Lyle, Head of Arts and Acquisitions at the Arts Council of Northern Ireland, states: “The invitation from the Speaker to bring this exhibition to Parliament Buildings is an important opportunity to champion our artists... business leaders will cite the strength of a society’s arts and culture as a key factor influencing any decision to invest...” Staging the exhibition in Stormont is a positive step to improving public access and additionally the political decision makers who allocate cultural funds can view firsthand the quality of the works on display. The 24 selected artists are drawn from emerging and established artists. Miguel Martin (b.1985), a talented young artist pays homage to an established artist with an intricate, detailed line drawing entitled Neil Shawcross’s Studio Space whilst internationally recognised artist Colin Darke (b.1957) raises questions concerning intellectual copyright and appropriation in his painting Mannish Boy V – Policeman. This breadth of practice is well represented throughout the exhibition.

Brendan Jamison’s (b.1979) large impressive sculpture Yellow Helicopter shares an eyeline with the bronze statue of Sir James Craig, the first Prime Minister of Northern Ireland. The striking work grabs the viewers’ attention with its skeletal composition and bright woolly draped flesh. The piece sits in The Hall as an ironic testament to the military occupation of Northern Ireland’s past. Artists such as Christopher McCambridge and Jennifer Trouton seem to relate metaphorically to the environment. In Re-interpretation: Falling for Grandeur, McCambridge meticulously stitches his canvas with royal blue, blossom pink and turquoise threads. The chinoiserie wallpaper referenced is rendered by the artist’s physical action into a luxurious tapestry, an historical artefact echoing the affluence of the architectural environment within which it hangs. Trouton’s oil on linen painting Harrow captures a similar sensibility. An intricate photo-realist painting of a textured blanket draped over a chair suggests a story of comfort and tranquillity. But the fragments of broken crockery strewn and discarded beside the chair disturb the picture’s equilibrium. As the painting’s title suggests there is no room for harmony.

Simon McWilliams’ oil on canvas, Stairwell captures a fragment of Belfast’s prolific re-development that spread throughout the city like a raging virus. Resembling invasive weeds on a riverbank, green fluorescent netting and scaffolding provide a stagnant ‘still’ from an emergent tower block’s metamorphic growth. Caught in a frozen moment the image reveals the city’s faltering regeneration. The artists Terry McAllister, Gareth Reid, Gail Ritchie and Robert Peters poignantly capture aspects of rural landscapes and woodlands. Ritchie’s Dead Tree, a fine graphite pencil drawing on paper, hauntingly commemorates the traditional 12th of July Orange March to the field in Edenderry Village, Belfast. The faces of menacing sprites and gargoyles emerge from the gnarled bark and twisted knots on the tree’s decaying surface. The tree’s totemic symbolism seems to point to a time before the transformation of the province’s political situation and a time when one community had a monopoly over the other. Robert Peters’ digital print, entitled Uccello of the Potato Field I and II, portrays a traditional children’s game played in the potato fields on his family farm during the 1970s. This is not a game of childish innocence however but one of brutal combat as the sport’s object is to target and hurt one’s opponent by hurling potatoes propelled from the sticks. Peters has arranged the composition of his improvised weaponry to correspond with the upright lances in The Battle of San Romano (1438-1440) by the Florentine painter Paolo Uccello.

In the works by Zoe Murdoch, Maria McKinney, Shaleen Temple and Carrie McKee there is a polar presence of escapism and capture. Murdoch’s sensitive and melancholic sculpture Oh Muse Be Near Me Now and Make a Strange Song is dedicated to a long distanced correspondence. The anatomical objects and printed text contained within the small wooden box form clues to the artists’ reflection on the frustrations of a relationship spent apart. Maria McKinney examines the pursuit of leisure time and the activities devised to combat monotony in an appropriated jigsaw composition The Earl of Leicester. The photographic portraits by Temple and McKee poignantly narrate the condition of each of their subject’s entrapment. From the series entitled Boys and Girls, Temple’s documentation of South African servants exposes a world of subordination and subservience. The artist’s subject, Jerita stands tentatively in the interior of her employer’s home in Johannesburg. The red wall’s arch and dark wooden furniture frames and engulfs Jerita, the very objects that define her occupation seem to imprison her. Temple draws attention to these domestic servants who would otherwise be overlooked and in so doing she credits them with the recognition that they deserve. McKee chooses the backdrop of derelict Belfast cityscapes for her stunning depictions of young dancers. In Orlaigh (2011), a girl poses defensively with her arms folded; she is dressed in a bright orange and fuchsia coloured costume, a large pink blossom frames her face. This beautiful, ‘tiger lily’ sprouts with strength and determination from the desolate wasteland, waiting for her hopes and aspirations to be fulfilled.

One can easily imagine how Stormont’s opulent surroundings and ornate architectural features might overshadow the exhibiting works, rendering them undistinguished and lacking in impact. Surprisingly this is not the case; Dr Lyle’s strong curatorial vision corresponds with the context of this stately environment.

Contemporary Art in Northern Ireland, 21/11/2011 - 04/01/2012, Parliament Buildings, Stormont. www.artscouncil-ni.org

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Carrie Mckee Gilded Youth - Orlaigh Burns 2011
Courtesy the artist

Wednesday 28 December 2011

Mette Winckelmann | We Have A Body | Den Frie Centre for Contemporary Art | Copenhagen

Text by Bethany Rex

We Have A Body is a comprehensive solo exhibition by Mette Winckelmann. Winckelmann initiates a dialogue with Den Frie Centre for Contemporary Art's architecture and history as well as J.F. Willumsen's thoughts behind the exhibition space's layout and colour combinations. We spoke to Mette before the exhibition opening to find out more:

A: We Have A Body features installation work, painting, textile collages, objects and Sønderjyske Solæg – a speciality from Southern Jutland. What exactly is Sønderjyske Solæg and why have you chosen to work in this medium?

MW: Yes, Sønderjyske Solæg is a speciality from Southern Jutland. I am familiar with this phenomena since I grew up in this area of Denmark. I sometimes use language/dialect and different local traditions from this area in my practice. This is how you make the eggs: you boil the egg for quite a long time, then you put them in saltwater for 3-4 weeks, and then you peel them, and divide them in halves. Take one half boiled egg, lift up the, now greenish, yolk, put in some tabasco, mustard, oil and vinegar, eat it together with an Aquavit. This is a personal ritual which everyone has to do on their own. It is interesting to use this ritual because it divides people into a certain and unexpected hierarchy in the exhibition space, a hierarchy of people who might, and people who don’t, know about this ritual, and it creates a new agenda. It is also a repetition of a recipe, a phenomena which is important in terms of defining our identity. The fact that people physically accept the work by eating it is also of great value. The fact that it is an egg is also very nice as it is quite a heavy symbol of where your body came from in the very beginning. It is for the same reason that I am using the Danish dialect, or as I did in other works, dealt with insider gay language or abstraction. In all cases it defines an agenda that might or might not be familiar to you, depending on your background and experiences.

A: The abstract painting plays a central role in your practice. When did you start working with abstractions and why do you consider it to be the most appropriate ‘container’ for your messages?

MW: I have always worked in abstract, from a very young age with objects like rugs, made at the sewing machine. For me abstraction is a basic way to express important questions about our society, because it refers to the actual surroundings without trying to make an illusion or story of the imagination which stops at the edge of the square. In an abstract work, the materials step forward and become a significant part of the work itself. I believe that the viewer meets the abstract work in a physical way. The body immediately compares an object in a space to the body its self, and it enables a physical stimulating dialogue. I also see the abstract painting tradition as an important part of my own ethnic history as well as the Scandinavian patchwork tradition. Using it, or fragments of these traditions, combined with each other, or other ethnic traditions, I try to find new possible spaces.

A: This exhibition focuses on ‘the body’ and how different forms of artistic practice can liberate the body from traditional ways of looking. This is certainly not a new idea but I’m interested to hear your interpretation on this?

MW: The body is everyone’s basic starting point and basic material. The human body defines itself in relation to other bodies, placing other bodies in categories. When there is a body there is a gender, which is one of the strongest ways to categorize the human body (and individual) today. The problem is that the focus on gender deals with men and women as two binary poles. By focusing on the body and not the gender highlights my believe that there are variations of gender. It is flexible, meaning that there are many genders, and that they can change over time.

I consider my works as redefined bodies. In a very simple way, you could say that the media is the body, the material is the gender, and that it can be performed in many ways. That is also why I often make more than one version of each image, using the same abstract image, repeated in different versions and materials: as a flag, a painting or a fabric collage etc…. And that is why I also use exactly the same material in two totally different works! In our society I think it is a problem that people don't think about the body as flexible and unique. That constitutes a problem for developing our society if we believe that we have to fit into a certain idea about the ideal way of performing the body.

A: Do you have your own answer to the subtitle of the exhibition: Do our views on gender and sexuality have an effect on our view of art and historiography?

MW: Actually that was not a subtitle that I came up with, more an explanation written by the curators. For me, I would rather ask the question: Are our lives, lifestyles and ideas about what we want from life influenced by the selection of artworks in the national museums and collections, which have become, both in their status and actual physical size, much like a powerful and religious monument?

A: When it comes to looking at painting through the lens of queer theory, I can understand how this would open up the possibility of the work in a new light, but surely this is the case for any object of criticism? For example, if we apply the theories of psychoanalysis to an artist’s work, we might achieve a broader experience, but not necessary an accurate one. If you were to carry out a mini ‘reception study’ during the exhibition what would you hope to find?

MW: During the work I have different experiences with the materials and media I am using. I sincerely believe that, if every person thought about the body as a flexible object it would open up a variety of new perspectives on gender, sexuality, age, family life, feminism, equal rights for every person and eventually lead to a more stimulating society. I wonder why people in general don't know that their body is actually owned and dictated by the law, and that every country has its own idea about the ideal life, even countries like Denmark which in general is defined as liberated and democratic. As a woman in Denmark you are not allowed to reduce the gender you were born with. I mean, if you want to remove your breasts, you are required to have psychological tests beforehand. On the other hand, if you want to get a breast enlargement, you can just go ahead and do it. It is my belief that any improvement in this situation is beneficial, not only for the people who do not fit into the normative ideal idea of the body, but maybe also for the people who actually fit in in terms of a emancipation by having or getting a totally different view on the body.

03/12/2011 - 29/01/2012, Den Frie Centre for Contemporary Art, Copenhagen, Denmark. www.denfrie.dk

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We hope you enjoy reading the Aesthetica Blog, if you want to explore more of the best in contemporary art and culture you should read us in print too. You can buy it today by calling +44(0)1904 479 168. Even better, subscribe to Aesthetica and save 20%. Go on, enjoy!

Monday 26 December 2011

United Enemies: The Problem of Sculpture in Britain in the 1960s and 1970s | Henry Moore Institute | Leeds

Text by Daniel Potts

United Enemies brings with it the spirit of Arte Inglese Oggi (English Art Today) – a 1976 British Council show in Milan featuring the work of many of the artists included – but concentrates on the complex nature of British sculpture in the 1960s and 1970s. Arte Inglese Oggi was organised into strict categories: Sculpture, Painting, Performance Art, Artist’s Film and Alternative Practices. United Enemies retrospectively allows us to carefully consider sculpture in relation to these other practices. The ambition is to impart how the concerns of sculpture at this time were relevant to contemporary artistic change and thinking, and thus formed the basis for the New British Sculpture of the 1980s, and what followed. This exhibition is divided into three sections – Manual Thinking, Standing and Groundwork.

Manual Thinking is the first section encountered by the visitor. Here we are encouraged to appreciate how the hand preoccupies the pieces and the methods of production. The work nearest to the entrance of the gallery certainly engages the viewer in this way. It is Roelof Louw's (b.1936) Soul City (Pyramid of Oranges), (1967). We are invited to take and consume one of the oranges from the pyramid. Doing so begs the question: what is the nature of this work? Does the placing of the oranges in a pyramid by the artist constitute the work? Or does the work consist in the taking of an individual orange by the viewer? And so, does an exhibit need to be physically made to constitute a work? These questions alter the parameters of aesthetic perception, thus the work is a successful example of how the concerns of sculpture, at the time of its production, were relevant to artistic change and thinking. However, it is also a most striking work for the brightness of the constitutive parts taken together, and for the regularity of the large-scale geometry. The pungent citric aroma, redolent of the childhood stocking-filler associated with this time of year might prove a welcome waft of nostalgia for many visitors.

In the same section we find the exhibit Untitled (1961-62), by Stuart Brisley (b. 1933). This wall-mounted work consists of pieces of dark wood, many of them curved and set in one direction with the effect of a sense of sweeping movement in that direction, mounted on a wooden frame. The sweeping effect is occasionally balanced by other sections of the dark wood, contiguous with the relatively square direction conveyed of the frame. The piece is striking because of the contrast between, on the one hand, the different natures of the apparent direction of movement conveyed by the mounted pieces of wood, and, on the other, the homogeneity of the material used. It is possible that the work will strike the viewer in an irksome, unsettling way because of this contrast, and because the dark wood used is somewhat reminiscent of that used in the construction of furniture.

The second section of the exhibition is Standing. Here, spatial tensions are used to unsettle and challenge the viewer. Two works seemed most remarkable for the unsettling sense of synaesthesia they conveyed, subsisting between the title of the works and the physical manifestation. One was Sir Anthony Caro's (b. 1924) Whispering (1969). Made from (what seemed to be) some sort of heavy metal and painted red, the piece was somewhat reminiscent of a very long thin anchor, precariously leaning against the wall, with the addition, again consistently homogeneous in the use of material, of a sort of long extended spiral of the shape of those used in the distillation of alcoholic spirits. This addition, with the regular undulations of the thin strip when viewed from most angles, seemed to convey the bubbling, breathy scratchiness of the phenomenon implied by the title. And taken together with the general precariousness of the work, this seemed to impart and evoke the annoyance often felt when one hears the sound of whispering without perceiving the detail.

The other work was Maid of Honour (1965) by Garth Evans (b. 1934). Consisting of what seemed to be, two long, thin pyramids arranged vertically, the uppermost point of one meeting and enveloping the other which pointed to the floor, their coupling requiring that both uppermost points were not visible, the work was taller than the average person. Blocks and lines of colour adorned this tall piece. The sense of synaesthesia between the title and the work seems to come from the severity of the sharp lines of what seemed to suggest a formal dress and that of the old-fashioned word 'maid'. The sense of severity also comes from the anonymity – there is certainly no discernible physical, human identity. Perhaps the general sense of severity conveyed is unsettling because it suggests emotional damage and severity of character. The nuptial association compounds this sense.

The third section of United Enemies is Groundwork. This focuses on the ground as a sculptural subject. Bruce McLean's photograph, titled Floataway Piece, Beverley Brook Barnes 1967 (1967) is a depiction of wooden sticks floating in a brook. Monochrome allowed for a starker contrast between the light coloured sticks and the dark waters, which they seem to frame as corpuscles of the natural world, taken collectively as the aggregration of things framed and interrupted.

United Enemies does not claim to be a comprehensive survey of British sculpture in the 1960s and 1970s. However, it does convey an illuminating sense of the way things were moving during this period, and acts as an explanation of the convergence of different and varied practices that come under the term sculpture, with which we have contemporary acquaintance.

United Enemies: The Problem of Sculpture in Britain in the 1960s and 1970s, 01/12/2011 - 11/03/2012, Henry Moore Institute, The Headrow, Leeds. www.henry-moore.org

United Enemies Events:
Gallery Discussion - 18 January 2012 2-4pm
Film Screening 1: Manual Thinking - 1 February 2012
Film Screening 2: Standing - 8 February 2012
Film Screening 3: Groundwork - 15 February 2012

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We hope you enjoy reading the Aesthetica Blog, if you want to explore more of the best in contemporary art and culture you should read us in print too. You can buy it today by calling +44(0)1904 479 168. Even better, subscribe to Aesthetica and save 20%. Go on, join in!

Roelof Louw
Soul City (Pyramid of Oranges) (1967)
6,000 large oranges, timber framework, plastic ground sheet
© Leeds Museums and Galleries (Art Gallery) and the artist

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