John Latham at the Serpentine Gallery review ****

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John Latham: A World View

Serpentine Gallery, 17th March 2017

in recent years I have had a growing fascination with the “pure” Conceptual Art (only capitals will do here) of the 1960’s and 1970s and the way it appears to have come to influence chunks of today’s artistic discourse. This is from the perspective of an amateur observer/consumer so I have no idea about the theories that lie behind it, how it is taught in art schools and who owns or buys this stuff, but I have sought out opportunities to see some of it and feel compelled to investigate further.

It makes sense to me to distil art down to the concept that lies behind it and I am strongly drawn to minimalist artistic out put (in music as well as “art”). I am not a maximalist which I think is why most of the Western art canon from the C17, C18 and C19 leaves me cold. I just can’t be doing with acres of flesh and frocks and gods and classicism and rich folk. I like the straightforward where looking doesn’t give me a headache. If I walk through a “national” collection I will pay close attention to the Flemish, Dutch and Italian “primitive”, the Dutch Golden Age portraits and still lifes, then ignore everything until some of the Impressionists and post Impressionists appear, then again be selective about the C20 until the really minimalist stuff appears. Oh and then most contemporary stuff also leaves me cold.

Now I gather that the UK and US fellas (usually blokes) who first came up with the Conceptual wheeze (Sol LeWitt, this bloke Latham, Art & Language, Fluxus, John Cage and so on) were not entirely enamoured of the kind of minimalism represented by the likes of Donald Judd, Agnes Martin, Elsworth Kelly, Frank Stella, Carl Andre and so on so I must be careful not to get by -isms in a pickle. But there is something for me in this Conceptualism I think.

The Conceptual Art in Britain 1964-1979 exhibition last year at the Tate Britain turned out to be a cracking insight into what I found interesting and in some cases less interesting about Conceptual Art of this era. The bit where the theorising disappears up its own a***hole, and I fear there are a lot of these, are hard to handle. The pointless simplicity or hopeless naivety of some of the “concepts” can also be frustrating. It is all well and good preaching that artistic endeavour should seek to criticise its own ecosystem (though to me a bit pointless as it is axiomatic that a) artists go to art school and b) that artists only exist when public or private patrons are there to “own” the art), as well as explore the relationship between art and society/culture, but if the best you can come up with is a neon light sculpture saying bash the rich then in my book you need to try harder.

And there are also an awful lot of wry, one note visual jokes in Conceptual Art. Oh and a lot of junk scattered on the floor or glued on the wall.

Then I see something where the idea and the making process is interesting and thought provoking and multi layered and where the result has some sort of aesthetic beauty (for me). And that really. really works for me. Not in the way that peering at a van Eyck does but still a comparable rush.

And this exhibition of John Latham’s output has all of this for me with very little of the “tough to bear” stuff that this simpleton can’t fathom. I confess the theory stuff, “least” events and “flat time” was well beyond me but the works, the one second spray paintings, the burnt books, the roller blind paintings, the land art, were all fascinating. And the way in which his ideas have gone on to influence a current generation, communication and language in art, the interaction of art with science and philosophy, the role of chance, intervention and the role of the artist in government, was an eye opener.

So no need to swallow all the potentially pretentious, brain aching stuff and nothing ugly to look at just a very condensed introduction to a fascinating character in a lovely space. And some thoughts to take away. Take a look if you are in the vicinity. It’s on until 21st May. It’s free. Oh and wander along to the Serpentine Sackler Gallery next door. There are four artists whose work is directly informed by John Latham. I wasn’t sure about 3 of them but the video of Tania Bruguera describing what she is up to in Cuba both artistically and politically is inspiring.

 

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