From Selfie to Self-Expression at the Saatchi Gallery review ****

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From Selfie to Self-Expression

Saatchi Gallery, 20th August 2017

I hadn’t really intended to seek out this exhibition at the Saatchi Gallery. I had forgotten it was on but realised I would be passing when engaged on another mission (taking a twirl around the relatively newly opened National Army Museum, since you ask – highly recommended, since you ask, even for those, like me, who are not routinely drawn to this sort of thing).

The exhibitions at the Saatchi are normally rum affairs, usually cobbled together with whatever the curators could lay their hands on and lenders, including the eponymous owner, are willing to lend. This serves to boost the profile of the artists and therefore the value of the artworks on display to the benefit of the owners. Not complaining, that is the point of a private gallery, though Saatchi by its very size, and massive digital presence, occupies more of a private-public role. Nor am I for one moment suggesting that this means there isn’t some dammed fine stuff on show. Just that it is all a bit haphazard. And this exhibition is no exception.

The conceit here is to track artistic depictions of the self, from the works of the canonic great masters through to the ubiquitous, democratised, smartphone selfies of today. And with that all sorts of stuff is then chucked at the walls (and floors) of the Saatchi galleries. There’s a bit of vague explanation for many of the works but nothing to hurt the head. And yet, as I wandered through, I actually found the juxtaposition of all this stuff much more interesting than I had expected.

The exhibition kicks off with some backlit digital images of some tip top self portraits by pre C20 masters. These are just images. There is no paint. They are completely flat. The artificial light is very bright. The images are constantly rolling through as slideshows. You can press “like” buttons. For a pretentious twat like me, armed with a bit of “art knowledge”, is should have been a nightmare. And, true to form, at first I stood there inwardly tutting. But, but, but it turns out that, for those pictures which I have seen before (I don’t “know” them nor ever will), it was really interesting to compare these strange, bastard, “copies” with the memory in my head. Got me thinking again about what it is about the most striking self portraits here (the Rembrandt, Cezanne, van Gogh) that really gets to me compared to the admittedly marvellous stuff elsewhere in the room. And about the way in which paint conveys so much more than a “photo”. A photo is no more a slice of objective reality than a can of beans (not entirely sure what I mean by that but hopefully you catch my drift). It is still two-dimensional. It is not the way we see – try looking at something without moving you eyes – impossible. We construct our own reality and modify thereafter. There is no time dimension in a photo. The colours are mediated through the print or digital process which creates the image. An so on and so on.

So call me a crusty old fart but I would far rather look at a painting than a photo. Even if the painting was probably constructed will the help of some sort of optical process. And self-portraits are as near to as perfect a refinement of the painting process as it is possible to get. Now I am not going to get all “staring into the windows of the soul” on you. That is patently bollocks. But seeing, through a series of paint marks made with tools, what the artists sees of, (and,yes in), him or herself can be pretty moving.

So, like I say, being confronted with this in such a striking way in this first room was an eye-opener. Literally. And it was a smart, if predictable, choice to show Las Meninas projected on one wall. I am not sure yet where I stand on Velazquez, but this riff on the art of portraiture (and status), is a cracker and stands as metaphor for much of what follows. As instructed by clever people I spent a fair amount of time looking at this in the Prado and did the same again here. And you can have a good old nose at this without getting in anyone’s way. And it is really weird to see the projected flat image of the paint and marks right up close. And not as massively empty and experience compared to “real thing” as it should have been. Strange.

The next room contains a raggle-taggle of other C20 and contemporary artists takes on the self portrait – again some “copies’ of paintings, others which were/are photos. Bacon, Freud, Hockney, Chuck Close (I highly recommend you read about the life and work of this fascinating artist), Tracey Emin, Hirst, Warhol, Bruce Naumann, Nan Goldin’s disturbing testament, Cindy Sherman’s unsettling “Hollywood” poses – there is a whole bunch of stuff in here which is rewarding and gets a bit closer to some of the questions I think the exhibition wanted to ask.

Right thereafter I started to get confused, though still kind of stimulated. Juno Calypso’s slightly voyeuristic, slightly baffling work. A room of full of art photos of celebrities (including celebrity artists) and selfies by celebrities/politicians. Rooms of art works constructed from selfies, individually or en masse. These are “ordinary” people, to contrast with the “celebrities”, inanely grinning, like “ordinary” people, just with more cash. Very provoking. There are playful interactive art works (most interesting is the “smoke eyes” of Rafael Lozano-Hemmer). Odd bits of sculpture. Shortlisted entries for a selfie competition. Interestingly most of these competition entries work because they omit the face of the creator. And many are elaborately staged. Thus reminding us of two valuable lessons. Pictures of people (whether self generated or not) are predominantly as dull as ditchwater (I prefer the old etymology here as in other things) and even “reality”. especially when photographed takes an age to set up.

There were one or two things that really stood out, notably the Noble/Weston sculpture/projection, (always wanted to see their work), and the Alison Jackson “fake” selfies – with a call back to the Velazquez. But far more important was the overall impression that the exhibition created, and the food for thought that it provided on the nature of the public image of self, exactly because so much of what is shown here is ostensibly “artificial”. Does the nature of the “self” change with the exponential rise in images of “selves” – over a million a day and rising? Just asking. Remember too, historically the average punter had neither the inclination, time or technology to care about his identity. So count yourself lucky. Or unlucky. 

I’ve only ever taken a handful of selfies. I like to pretend it is because I forget I have a phone. But the reality is I have no audience. I have nowhere to “put” the image and no-one to “send” it to. And when I do take one I “peer” strangely into the camera. Why?

See this bloody exhibition has made me think too much. So I suggest you get along to this. Of course it is full of banality. There isn’t too much in the way of “art” to consume for those of us trying to “educate” ourselves but it is mightily entertaining and everyone there when I visited seemed to have a whale of a time. Can’t really ask for anything more.

Except of course an empty room with my own late Rembrandt self portrait with no idiot youths gurning in front of me endlessly taking selfies on their phones.

Reflection, projection, it’s alway been there. Leaps in technology just mean more people can create images – doesn’t make them better. Old Rembrandt knew that. It is in his eyes, like just about everything else that has happened, or could ever happen. 

 

 

 

Queer British Art at Tate Britain review ***

Bathing 1911 by Duncan Grant 1885-1978

Queer British Art 1861-1967

Tate Britain, 18th August 2017

I learnt a lot from this exhibition. A damming reflection of my ignorance of gay history in Britain over the period under review. However I am afraid I didn’t really see much in the way of compelling art or artists which I had not already encountered. No matter. Sometimes it is good just to learn and with a muppet like me sometimes all that is required to achieve that aim are a few pictures and some well chosen words.

Now in some ways the reason why the history lesson was of such interest was precisely because curator Clare Barlow mixed up work by gay artists, with portraits and mementoes of courageous heroes of gay history, as well as art which depicts ostensibly gay themes, whether acknowledged or moreorless concealed. For someone with no prior insight the shifting content did not detract from the edification. For those more versed in the art itself or gay social history this jumbling up may prove less satisfying. It did also mean there is a lot of rippling torso on show to draw the eye from the absorbing captions.

The first room kicks off with a Pre-Raphaelite extravaganza, reminding me of how much I detest this art, but also how overtly camp it is even as it hides, badly, behind its classical allusion. Sorry if you feel differently. But it does neatly emphasise the enduring link back to the High Renaissance and in turn to ancient Greece. It seems some will never tire of the classical nude. Room 2 explores how gay identity filtered through into public and “scientific” discourse through the late C19 and early C20. Room 3, largely through some fine photographs, explores how the notion of the “theatrical” acted as a conduit for queer expression to a sometimes knowing audience. As with Room 2 no real art of any great consequence (a sign of the artistic times) but bags of insight for me. In Room 4 we get a some recognisable pictures, but largely from the Bloomsbury Group and their acolytes. Now I know these toffs are terribly important in the development of British Art in the C20 and they are an endlessly fascinating bunch of characters, but this is hardly unexplored territory, and Vanessa Bell excepted, (and obviously Keynes in his chosen field), their output isn’t up to much – witness the Duncan Grant contribution above. (The SO will kill me if she reads this given the implied dissing ofVirginia Woolf). Room 5 finally serves up some fine pictures (to my eyes) for example the Laura Knight self portrait (though the thematic link here is tenuous) and explores notable female same sex relationships. Room 6 was the most interesting to me in terms of painters with works from diverse names such as Edward Burra (a real highlight), John Craxton. John Minton and Keith Vaughan all offering new viewing opportunities. Great stuff. Back to the history lesson in Room 7 showing the dichotomy between public and private gay lives in the 1950s and 1960s before the first step to decriminalisation in 1967 (the exhibition timeline having begun with the abolition of the death penalty for sodomy in 1861). Room 8 loads up Hockney and Bacon, though there might have been more of their genius .

So I would say carve out some time to get along to the exhibition (it ends on October 1st) ideally with a chum or two (this is not a show for private contemplation) to soak up some defiant stories of fearless people sticking it to the fearful. Just don’t expect too many draw-dropping pictures.

Rabbits at the Park Theatre review ***

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Rabbits

Park Theatre, 17th August 2017

Even after seeing Rabbits I am scratching my head somewhat as to why I did. Others have remarked on the slightly wayward output of the Park Theatre under Jez Bond’s tutelage but you can’t fault the breadth of the offers and it is all delivered in such a friendly package that it doesn’t seem to matter. Rabbits was another play which, if I am honest didn’t scale any theatrical heights, but did offer a diverting 90 minutes or so and did have a few interesting things to say.

This is writer Joe Hampson’s stage debut, having previously focussed on TV and radio. It sort of shows, as the interaction between the fairly minimal set ,and the three strong cast, across the three acts, was somewhat laboured despite the good ideas. Subversive black comedy with an undertone of menace and disorientating plot twists, underpinning a plea for sexual tolerance, was the vibe that Mr Hampson was striving for – think contemporary Orton – and by and large he succeeded, especially through the second act. It still felt though, that the play that he, and young director Sadie Spencer, saw in their minds and wrote on the page, might have been more acerbic and layered than that which was actually served up. Even so it was hard not to warm to the whole affair.

Frank (David Schaal) and Susan (Karen Ascoe) are a couple with a penchant for spicing up their relationship. Alex Ferns tripled up to play the various foils to the couple’s explorations, Kevin, a Glaswegian low-life with questionable hygiene and career choice, Andrew, a mildly condescending pyschoanalyst and Pete, a friend on a shared holiday. Karen Ascoe looked the most comfortable of the three in her role, with Alex Ferns, off the telly, prone to overdoing it a bit to get the laughs and David Schaal a little stilted albeit in the trickiest part on the small Park 90 stage. You know from the off that all is not what it seems in the couple’s relationship and the way Mr Hampson describes the sexual games that hold them together is sometimes inventive if not always entirely satisfying (no double entendre intended).

So there is enough here to suggest our writer was on to something and it will be interesting to see where he goes next. And I continue to believe that the Park will deliver an absolute belter of a play with wide appeal sometime soon.

 

Alexander Melnikov and the Latvian Radio Choir at Cadogan Hall review ****

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Alexander Melnikov (piano), Latvian Radio Choir, Sigvards Klava

Proms Chamber Music No 5, Cadogan Hall, 14th August 2017

  • Dimitri Shostakovich – Preludes and Fugues Op 87 – Nos 1, 2, 3, 4, 7. 8
  • Dimitri Shostakovich – Ten Poems on Texts by Revolutionary Poets, Op 88 – Nos 5,6,7,8,9

Previous posts will have revealed my passion for Shostakovich’s music despite, or maybe because of, its sometimes disturbing crassness. So what better way than this to spend a birthday. Off I toddled for this lunchtime chamber Prom of which there have been a few this year at Cadogan Hall. An excellent innovation. Oh, and before I get down to business, don’t worry birthday boy’s day turned more social thanks to a welcome surprise from the SO, BD and LD.

Now these pieces are interesting because of their chronology, in the middle of his oeuvre, but still in the uncertain (for DSCH) period before Stalin popped his clogs, and also because of their form. The Ten Poems are a capella for choir, though DSCH makes sure there are proper tunes to be heard, which is a form he used sparingly. He also produced some other weighty piano compositions, notably the Op 34 Preludes and the Sonata No 2 Op 61, but the rest of the piano works are more lightweight (though still interesting). The Op 87 Preludes and Fugues are a full blooded exploration of the piano’s range across 3 hours or so. The recorded version I have is by dedicatee Tatiana Nikolayeva and is an old favourite. Alexander Melnikov’s recording is judged by some as better so I was looking forward to this.

Since the Ten Poems on Texts by Revolutionary Poets are exactly that it is tricky to cast around for the usual DSCH subtext here. These poems are straight up and down descriptions of the suffering of the people at the hands of the Tsarist authorities at the time of the first failed 1905 Revolution. Similarly the structured format of the Preludes and Fugues also precludes too much navel gazing about the “meaning” of the works. So we can just concentrate on the sounds. Now I don’t know the Poem settings as well as I should but this seemed to me a very well crafted performance by the Latvian Radio Choir under director Sigvards Klava (who had been in town primarily to deliver a Rachmaninov Vespers the night before). The five settings on show only run to a few minutes each and the syllabical structures are very straightforward but the delivery was as crisp as you like and sung across the board with real fervour. The programme notes a similarity to Mussorgsky’s operatic choruses: I get it.

However Mr Melnikov was even more convincing. The six Preludes and Fugues he played were very convincing and performed with real authority. In particular those Fugues with fortissimo passages really struck home. I was dead impressed. I think this work is somewhere near the top of the best piano music ever written. I reckon Mr Melnikov agrees. Time to add his version to the collection.

Happy birthday to me then.

Bodies at the Royal Court Theatre review ****

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Bodies

Royal Court Theatre, 10th August 2017

Bodies is my first exposure to the writing of Vivienne Franzmann and I hope it will not be my last. A few quibbles aside this is overall a thoughtful play which sympathetically explores the issues that it chooses to highlight.

Here’s the set up. Clem (Justine Mitchell) and Josh (Brian Ferguson) cannot have children naturally and have chosen to pay for a surrogate, Lakshmi (Salma Hoque), in India to carry “their” child (via eggs from a ‘mother” in Russia). Clem’s father, David (Philip Goldacre), has motor neurone disease and requires constant care delivered by Oni (Lorna Brown).

Clem’s desperation to have a child is manifest in the conversations she has with an imagined teenage Daughter (Hannah Rae). Justine Mitchell’s performance as Clem is finely drawn and never histrionic. I found the scenes with a confident Hannah Rae as the Daughter very effective, a pointed device to externalise Clem’s fears and wishes. Clem is determined to navigate her way with compassion through the moral maze she has constructed but slowly the threads unravel. Her proud father, very convincingly delivered by Philip Goldacre, is a union man, and thinks what she is doing is plain wrong. Josh the husband, whilst never admitting it to his liberal self, has a more acute sense of the transactional entitlement in their course of action. Oni, whose husband and child are back home, serves to wryly puncture the couple’s bubble and to remind Clem of her obligations to her father. Whilst the couple do initially travel to India to meet Lakshmi, (Selma Hoque’s lines are few and weighted to the end but powerfully conveyed) their “relationship” is mediated at long distance by the clinic’s head Dr Sharma (the voice of Manjinder Virk) which means the couple can accept a convenient pretence about Lakshmi’s situation.

Ms Franzmann is careful to offer a sympathetic take on each character’s actions whilst still very clearly revealing the human costs of “fertility tourism”. Indeed I see from a quick skim through the text that the more overt exposition from some characters has been cut which I think fits the tone of careful examination more effectively The play is an already economic 90 minutes or so but might even have been tighter given the intelligent construction of the scenes. It sometimes felt as if Ms Franzmann needed to underline her already effectively constructed dilemmas. There is no need – the delicate dialogue is consistently revealing. The set is also occasionally ungainly and there are some avian based metaphors which seem a little superfluous.

But these are such minor objections I feel impolite to mention them. This is very rewarding piece of theatre with fine performances and direction from Jude Christian, which is made more powerful in my view by its low-key tone. In fact it is turning into one of those plays which gently gnaws away in my conscience. Examining exploitation, at any scale, whilst still allowing sympathy, is an awkward undertaking. This is more than up to the task.

Grayson Perry at the Serpentine Gallery review ****

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Grayson Perry: The Most Popular Art Exhibition Ever!

Serpentine Gallery, 8th August 2017

Grayson Perry has set himself up as an “astute commentator on contemporary society” as the blurb for his current exhibition would have it. And very good at it he is too. If you haven’t seen any of his Channel 4 documentaries which explore individual and collective identity then you should. He and his films are full of surprises.

These subjects are explored in this exhibition, together with the nature of “popular” contemporary art. Whilst I admire the man, the few pieces of his art that I had seenup to now (a couple of the pots and some drawings) have underwhelmed. Not here though. Context clearly is all.

The first room has a few good laughs with its ceramics exploring the role of the contemporary artist. In particular “Puff Piece” which contains quotes that Mr P has attributed to art critics about his work tickled me. But this is hardly ground-breaking. Though the fact that Mr P is way more visible than most contemporary artists, and chooses to engage with many different people and record the results, makes his art more stimulating in my book. I was a little less interested in the room of works which were produced in conjunction with a recent TV series, All Man, which explores masculinity in contemporary Britain. The documentaries are fascinating but the objects, a skateboard, bicycle, motorbike, shrine, which have been “feminised” and “infantilised”, don’t really do much for me. There is some admiration in the craft and they have a charm but that’s it for me.

The main gallery however is way more interesting. Here we have the pair of pots that Mr P produced for another recent documentary, Divided Britain, which pictorialise social media comments and images from groups of ardent Leave (from Boston, Lincs) and Remain (Hackney) voters in last year’s Referendum. As Mr P observes what is striking is the commonality not the differences. The two tapestries in this room, Battle of Britain and Red Carpet, are marvellous. Battle of Britain, with its allusions to Paul Nash, takes an imagined landscape in his native Essex and overlays symbols of contemporary Britain. Red Carpet uses an imagined map of Britain to relate key social media words and phrases around a theme of Us and Them.

Further on we see another beautifully crated tapestry, Death of a Working Hero, redolent of the trade union banners paraded at the annual Durham Miners Gala ,full again of striking details. Animal Spirit is a fine wood-cut depicting a bear of sorts and other symbols derived from financial markets. I would also point out the folk art “bronzes” ,King of Nowhere and Our Mother, in the larger rooms.

Now to be fair none of this is new territory for Mr P, nor is any of this particularly subtle. And the criterati love having a pop at Mr P on exactly these grounds. It seems his artistic output is sullied in their eyes precisely because he courts recognition and uses this as the platform to explore his chosen concerns. I say good on him. And judging by the attention being devoted to the works by a range of visitors it works. My favourite arse about face argument was in the Telegraph review of this exhibition which argued that Mr P’s TV stints have no “real bearing on Perry’s value as an artist”!! Of course it does. This daft statement lays bare the dilemma of the “proper” artist and the symbiotic critic since the dawn of Modernism. I don’t want the uncultured hoi-polloi to know what I am doing or why I am doing it but I get really wound up if I am completely ignored and can’t sell.

Britain does appear to be fractured by a cultural schism between the “outward-looking, university educated, metropolitan, liberal, tolerant” half (maybe a little less) and the “rooted, inward-looking, threatened, conservative” half (maybe a little more). Or is this complete b*llocks and just lazy stereotyping? Are our politicians pandering to these stereotypes? How best to facilitate the debate around issues of national and personal identity? These seem to me to be vital questions for an artist to explore, and Mr P, albeit that he sometimes uses tools that do not go far beyond the novelty however well made, should be commended for the playful and intelligent way he sets about his task. And he is sufficiently self-aware not to be in any danger of disappearing up his own arsehole in the manner of much contemporary art whose “social criticism” is either desperately banal or so well hidden as to be meaningless.

This exhibition runs through until 10th September before shooting off to the Arnolfini in Bristol. Ignore the critics. Take a look. Plenty of other people are. Turns out as contemporary art goes (and I mean contemporary not the canonic art sanctioned in artistic old age or posthumously) it is pretty popular.

Dessert at the Southwark Playhouse review ***

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Dessert

Southwark Playhouse, 5th August

Dessert is the first play I have seen from actor/playwright Oliver Cotton and I have to say that overall I enjoyed it. Subtle it ain’t but it makes its points with a deal of humour, and occasionally, an enlightening punch. The title gives an insight: it’s a dinner party, dessert is coming, until a turn of events forces characters and audience to contemplate whether what they get in life is fair: whether they get their “just desserts”.

Hugh Fennell (played with amoral certainty by Michael Simkins) is a very rich self made man, who seems to have made his money buying and selling public companies. (As usual with dramatic accounts of “people in finance” Mr Cotton exhibits a pretty shaking understanding of how modern, neo-liberal mixed economies work which irks me immensely, but, no matter, we have our demon). He and his underwritten wife, Gill, (Alexandra Gilbreath) are entertaining American friends, slimey Wesley Barnes (Stuart Milligan) and Meredith (Teresa Banham). Dinner is served by Roger (a fine Graham Turner), the Fennells’ “man” who from the off shows signs of mental instability. The dinner party sets up a quick debate around provenance in art, price and value via Hugh’s newly acquired “maybe” Giorgione.

Cue the arrival of Eddie Williams (a splendid performance littered with malevolent sarcasm from Stephen Hagan). Now I would hesitate to call the “elite class dinner party interrupted by a stranger (real or imagined) with malicious intent” hackneyed but it is hardly untested. No matter. It works. Eddie is a soldier, leg damaged in Afghanistan, whose newsagent Dad invested life savings (lesson: always diversify your assets) into one of Hugh’s “companies”. It went belly up though Hugh somehow secured a whopping pension as a result. We then have an accident with the aforementioned painting and heated arguments over whether the Fennells and Barnes’s “deserve” their wealth. Some of this is perfunctory but some is insightful and there are a couple of speeches from Eddie which Stephen Hagan invests with real passion. No dumb squaddie cliche here. And the twist by which Eddie plans to exact revenge is sweet.

Under Trevor Nunn’s direction the play trips along and nothing is left uncovered. It is laugh at loud at points. But it is simplistic. That is not to say we need some even-handed defence extolling the virtues of capitalism. Far from it. But once its main point is made the play doesn’t really move on. Still full house at the SP who clearly loved it.