Soul of a Nation exhibition at Tate Modern ****

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Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power

Tate Modern, 5th October 2017

I seem to have taken an age to get around to seeing Tate’s survey of African American Art through the vital twenty year period from 1963. There are a couple of weeks left to see it however should it be on your radar. It is, like the recently ended Queer British Art exhibition at Tate Britain (Queer British Art at Tate Britain review ***), an insightful overview for the uninitiated like me. Here we get a broad investigation of the Black American experience through these turbulent times and the artistic response to that experience.

It is focussed almost exclusively on the work of Black artists, with one or two exceptions (including a Warhol portrait of Muhammad Ali), and does an exemplary job in highlighting what it meant to be a Black artist in these decades of heightened Black consciousness. It groups artists from different regions, cities, collectives, exhibitions, and sometimes, movements, in order to map these responses which, on the whole, works, though perhaps makes it a little trickier for the dumb observer like yours truly to track the work of individual artists through the rooms.

For me the most interesting and effective art here was the most obviously political. The work that set out directly to highlight the impact of social and cultural change on African Americans, and specifically to attack the injustices meted out to African Americans both in the 1960s and 1970s but also stretching back through American history, was extremely affecting. Contemporary art with vague political entreaties can often seem naive to me. Here the anger, particularly in the work from the 1960s, was visceral.

The curators (Mark Godfrey and Zoe Whitley, who have clearly put a lot of work in here) were, I think, keen to explore the question of whether there was a Black Art independent of the subjects. There were certainly some fine works in the exhibition which portrayed Black American cultural and political “heroes” but I am not sure I understand how this necessarily related to notion of a bounded Black Art. I did however see how disagreements about this concept were debated, and it did help me in my thinking about how cultural superstructures more generally are defined and articulated. It was also interesting to see how the materials and techniques which inform contemporary art (and more specifically the increasing absence of paint) meant that the overtly political narrative seen in the works from the early 1960s became far more diffuse by the time we got to the early 1980s.

It also got me to thinking why I didn’t know any of these artists. OK so I am only a moderately interested observer/consumer, though my awareness has come on in leaps and bounds in the last couple of years. It is also fair to say that it is the job of curators in public galleries to expand the modern and contemporary art canon to our advantage, exactly what they are doing here. And, at the end of the day, it is they, and the rich who buy the works, who chose what we see. In essence if they don’t tell us, we won’t know. But to not really know any of these artists from the country which, I am loathe to admit, has dominated plastic arts in the 70 years, suggests that access to the public consciousness for many of these artists was a problem then and may still be now.

What about the works? Of course there was a fair bit of stuff here which didn’t do much for me. But there was other stuff which really did work on many levels. For what it is worth (precisely nothing) here are my highlights.

  • In Room 1 the work of the Spiral group active through 1963 to 1965 in New York is represented. They chose only to work in black and white in their only exhibition which lends real drama to, for example, Norman’s Lewis two near abstract oil canvases, Procession (which is is a theme he has explored in later works), and Alabama, which is a genuinely chilling depiction of Klansmen at night. The collages of Romare Bearden, a co-founder of Spiral, are nearly as affecting in a different way. This group sought direct engagement with the Civil Rights movement and created a powerful legacy for the next generation of African American artists.
  • Room 6 contains works by Charles White, David Hammons and Timothy Washington from their 1971 exhibition, Three Graphic Artists. White’s harrowing but dignified drawings, including his Wanted series of posters, detail the bloody history of slavery. Hammons’s body paintings were a revelation to me, in terms of the technique and their power. Injustice Case, which shows Bobby Seale, the founder of the Black Panthers, bound and gagged at his trial, will punch yo right in the gut. Hammons’s later engaging conceptual work is also featured at the end of the exhibition. Timothy Washington’s One Nation Under God engraving has multiple layers of meaning. This, along with the Spiral room, was the most compelling for me.
  • I think I could safely ignore the abstract artists in room 7 with the exception of Frank Bowling (born in Guyana) whose large canvas here, (sorry I lost my note of the title – note to self: perhaps this would be a reason to use a phone), refers to his birthplace and whose meditative canvas Texas Louise graces Room 10,
  • In Room 8 there is a wall of black and white photographs from Roy DeCarava which I guarantee will draw you in. The exposures are generally very dark which forces you to look very closely, especially at the portraits, whether they be everyday folk or famous Black musicians. On that note I also found myself fascinated by an OpArt portrait, maybe in Room 2, not because it was an especially powerful painting but because it was the divine Miles Davies.
  • Room 9 is comprised of Black Heroes and my eye was immediately drawn to the ironic self portraits of Barkley Hendricks, one as Superman, its sub-title Superman Never Saved Any Black People referencing a courtroom quote from Bobby Seale, and one nude responding to a critic’s comic (I won’t spoil the joke). His portrait What’s Going On comprised of four men in early 70s high camp white (mocking our expectations of “cool”) and one nude woman in acrylic and oil, refers to the classic Marvin Gaye song which was penned in response to the brutality of the response by police to the Berkeley protest through the 1960’s.
  • Room 10, Improvisation and Experimentation, shows just how diffuse art practice became in the 1970s and into the 1980’s and it is hard to see how this reflects any notion of a shared Black aesthetic. However the screen of barbed wire and chains which makes up Melvin Edwards’s Curtain screams incarceration even if the artist apparently claimed an entirely abstract intent.
  • Room 11 is devoted to the assemblages of Bettye Saar, now in her 90s. Her work also appears in Room 4 I think. The ideas and materials she employs are intriguing and create a link, which others have productively employed, back to African art.

 

Rachel Whiteread at Tate Britain review *****

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Rachel Whiteread

Tate Britain, 25th September 2017

If you take even a passing interest in contemporary British art you are probably aware of Rachel Whiteread, and you may well have seen some of her work. Even if you are not interested, or are firmly in the nihilistic, hater camp that thinks this is all bollocks (a diminishing minority I am pleased to say), you will have heard of her. In the early 1990’s the “popular” press got it another one of their pathetic lathers about her work House, in East London, which helped her win the Turner Prize. The “controversy” was then comically ratcheted up as Tower Hamlets council proceeded to knock it down, thereby getting us arty-farty, liberal types in a tizz. Thus proving the whole point of public art – engagement.

You might also remember her project Monument for the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square, a resin cast of the very plinth on which it is set. A perfect transparent mirror image. I seem to recall it was one of the more loved of the commissions in this most public of locations, but that might just be me.

You are also likely then to be aware of her making process which generally involves complex casting in a wealth of materials at a range of scales. Her chosen subjects are normally mundane, sinks, bog rolls, windows, doors, even rooms and buildings, but what she achieves is mesmerising.

For me this exhibition is a must see. It encompasses some her earliest work from the years following the Slade through to the exhilarating resin casts of doors and windows from the last few years. I gather she started as a painter but shifted to sculpture thanks to Richard Wilson. Thank goodness for that. Mr Wilson is concerned with with the nature of architectural space, and with creating striking ways of seeing this space, and it is pretty straightforward to read the thread through to Ms Whiteread. If you ever get a chance go see 20:50, Richard Wilson’s installation of sump oil. It will take your breath away. Or if you turn up early for some gig or other entertainment at the 02 walk east along the river until you see a bit of ship otherwise know as Slice of Reality. Or look out for Square the Block at the bottom of Kingsway or stop for a moment to admire the giant “wing”, Slipstream, before you enter the purgatory of Heathrow’s Terminal 2.

Sorry back to RW. I think Closet is the earliest work in the room (the gallery has been opened up to encompass all the works in the exhibition). This is a plaster cast of the interior of a wardrobe encased in felt. No immediate aesthetic attraction for me but it opens up the possibilities that RW has subsequently mined from the idea of “negative space”. That is the space around and, more importantly, inside the subject. Often explored in two dimensional images through the Modern age but less so in sculpture (though Bruce Naumann and other US minimalists/conceptualists had kicked off the exploration). Obviously casting is a fundamental part of the sculptural process but as a means to an end not usually the end. And this is what makes RW so important and interesting, especially when compared to other British artists of her generation who are a little more “shouty” and a little less insightful than RW in more opinion.

Next door to Closet is a plaster cast of a dressing table which is more interesting, as not only does the material itself have more appeal to me, the stimulus to eyes and brain as you try to unravel the “reversal” of the space gives far more pleasure. This carries through to the rest of the early works” sinks, baths, beds and furniture. They both are, and are not, what they purport to be.

Around the corner is a vitrine of 9 hot water bottles (and similarly shaped objects like enema bags!), another common subject for RW, and here we see the dimension that the variation in materials brings, resin, plaster, aluminium, wax, concrete and rubber. These are termed Torsos. A seemingly obvious process, with seemingly obvious subjects and seemingly obvious materials is transmuted into an homage to classical sculpture and the Renaissance masters who worshipped their forebears. There is also something of the womb about them. So we see the “concept’ become the subject and finally the object. Absolutely thrilling. Trust me.

In Room 101 and the floorboards cast in resin next to it further dimensions of RW’s art are revealed. Room 101 is a plasticised plaster cast of a room in BBC Broadcasting House where George Orwell worked and which was allegedly the inspiration for the eponymous space in 1984. So lots to chew on there in addition to the effect of the reversal of the space on a much larger scale than other subjects in the exhibition. Whilst there is a cast, Chicken Shed, in the garden in front of the Tate, and we have materials relating to the planning of RW’s more monumental outdoor works (definitely read up on these) ,we can only imagine what they look like but Room 101 helps. Next door the light falling on the resin floorboards emphasises the grain of the wood with every mark, scratch and knot evidence of time passing.

Nearby there is another fascinating large scale work in a cast of some library bookshelves. The detail of the pages from the books is intriguing as the spines are positioned inwards on shelves. So the shelves turn the knowledge inwards but we are not shut out. Imagine this on a much larger scale. That would be a sight to behold. And that is why I want to see the Holocaust Memorial or Nameless Library in Vienna which is exactly that.

The coloured objects and boxes along the back wall and far corner (relative to the entrance) of the exhibition room are less successful in my view, (along with the papier mache architectural fragments where are definition and detail is lost). Turning toilet roll cardboard tubes into things of rare chalky beauty is a masterly achievement, but, overall, the “fact” of the process, and any beauty in the form and function of the object (in contrast to the architectural subjects), is less visible to me. These pieces were produced after RW had completed Embankment for the Tate Modern Turbine Hall which had a mixed public and critical response I understand. I never saw it so can’t comment but the photographic record, conjuring up an ice palace, looks pretty groovy to me.

In contrast the mighty cast Untitled (Stairs) is exactly that, mighty. Like the floors on show the wear and tear of use sing out, but the reversal of the space is somehow less interesting, or maybe too familiar from the works of Escher and others. This is not true though of the wall of doors and windows, the most recent works, and for me the very best of RW’s work on show here. There are just beautiful. Especially the coloured resin casts. Seeing “through” the windows echoes their purpose. I couldn’t take my eyes off the resin doors, especially the two “antique” subjects from the C17 and C18 century, with the light casting shadows and reflections through on to the wall behind them. Mind you I do like old doors.

So when you finally tear yourself from these works, pass through the room of works by other artists curated by RW, which show the association with other British conceptual sculptors of an earlier vintage who also weren’t prepared to sacrifice aesthetic appeal in their work. RW has followed a clear and identifiable artistic journey but the link bank to the first generation of US minimalists and US/UK conceptualists is strong.

Then make sure to see Untitled (One Hundred Spaces) in the solemn Duveen Gallery. 100 coloured resin casts of the “internal” space of little side tables arranged in, I think, random order. Like tiny sentinels, ice cubes, soaps, sweets or children’s toys. A “terracotta army” of plastic. A New York panorama. The pastel colours echo the use of plastic in modern consumer goods. Yet the colours are faded, the opacity compromised, creating an air of melancholy. Sad, baby tables. Or rather the insides of sad, baby tables. I think I better stop there.

The exhibition goes on to 21st January next year. If a quick glance at pictures of her work leaves you cold then maybe you are excused (though I still think you are missing out) but if you have even the vaguest interest please check this out. The best exhibition in London this year (so far)? For me yes. If you crave colour, emotion, passion then this may not cut it. If you like simplicity, volume. form, function, detail – if you are in touch with your inner ascetic – then pop on your sharpest threads (all black was a favoured look on my visit) and get down to Millbank.

PS. I note on Wiki that Ms Whiteread spent a little time working at Highgate Cemetery fixing lids on time damaged coffins. I cannot think of work that would have bettered informed her art.

Encounter drawings at the National Portrait Gallery review ***

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The Encounter: Drawings from Leonardo to Rembrandt

National Portrait Gallery, 7th September 2017

Short, sweet and eclectic. The exhibition of 50 or so portrait drawings at the NPG contains works by some of the greatest draughtsmen revered by art history from the Renaissance and Baroque, but blink and you might miss them.

Now drawings from masters are rare treasures indeed, either being disposed once the work for which they were prepared having been completed or having suffered through the vicissitudes of time. So it is always welcome to get a chance to have a good long peek. We get a quick overview of the process of drawing at the outset and the survey covers a range of media; chalks, charcoal, pastel, ink, metalpoint. There are a series of 8 Holbein sketches from the Queen’s collection, (which were full of life in a way I had not anticipated), a wall of fine drawings from the Carraccis with 4 I think from Annibale, courtesy of the Chatsworth collection, a couple of dashing young men from sculptor Bernini, some exquisite little heads from Rembrandt, a preparatory sketch of a toff from Durer, a Rubens, a van Dyck, a Pisanello, a Pontormo, a Parmigianino, a muscle man from Leonardo and a partridge in a pear tree (I may have made the last bit up).

My highlights were the Head of an Old Woman by Domenico Ghirlandaio, Michelangelo’s teacher, in metal-point with white shading on some sort of orange paper, a curly-haired youth also in metal-point on grey paper from Benozzo Gozzoli, (he of the fancy and perfectly preserved frescos in the Magi Chapel in the Palazzo Medeci-Riccardi in Florence), and the final drawing another Old Woman in a ruff and cap attributed to Jacob Jordaens.

So if this is your bag then well worth a detour but for us generalists I wonder if there may not be quite enough here to make this a must see. Sacrilege for some I suspect but your time might be better spent focussing on a part of the National Gallery next door (not forgetting to hand over a few quid for that privilege).

 

 

 

Judith at the Arcola Theatre review ***

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Judith: A Parting from the Body

Arcola Theatre, 7th September 2017

I am guessing they don’t watch Bake-Off in the Barker household.

Howard Barker does not write easy plays. By his own admission he wants each of us to experience his plays as an individual: none of that namby-pamby rush of joy in the realisation that we are all sharing in the theatrical experience. His “Theatre of Catastrophe” will always try to make themes more complex and ambiguous. He has created his own company, The Wrestling School, to produce his work in Britain. Obviously he is adored in the rest of Europe where there like a challenge. Oh and he doesn’t backslide on the subjects for his plays, taking historical or literary stepping off points to create works with multiple viewpoints which explore the darker side of the human condition. Mischief Theatre it ain’t.

Judith: A Parting from the Body was originally produced by RENO Productions at the Arcola in 2015 as part of a double bill with the premiere of The Twelfth Battle of Isonzo. This is the same cast but just a workout for Judith which clocked in at an hour or so. Now you arty types will know the Old Testament story of Judith beheading Holofernes like the back of your hand. It was a Renaissance and Baroque art staple based on a story which I understand is itself a common subject in the so called Power of Women topos, “heroic or wise men dominated by women”. Through time the depiction of Judith became more sexualised and titillating. On the face of it antifeminist claptrap but there may be scope for more complex readings and this is what Mr Barker succeeds in doing with his play.

Liam Smith as general Holofernes expounds on the nature of power and sacrifice demanded by war. But his philosophising gives way to loneliness and vulnerability. Judith, a beautiful widow played by Catherine Cusack, with her plebian maid (Kristin Hutchinson), enters the enemy Assyrian camp on the eve of the battle and gets to his tent. There is much enigmatic chat and sexual frisson  between the three before Judith does the deed to save her city of Bethulia. Yet Judith and the maid become fascinated with Holofernes and his motives and Judith’s emotions become conflicted.

Now I am not saying this was an comfortable night out. Mr Barker is not interested in simply getting us from A to B in the standard way. The language veers abruptly between mellifluous poetry to profane banality. These characters are full of contradiction. Love and violence are intertwined. Nothing is made easy to grasp. I can’t pretend I was bowled over but it was intriguing and as I whizzed through the script on the way home, I started to get more out of it. I will add Mr Barker to my list of challenging playwrights where I must do more work.

The three strong cast were faultless, they know this inside out. Same was true of director Robyn Winfield-Smith and the set of Rosanna Vize was perfectly imagined. The small space at the Arcola was also a perfect fit. So no better advocates than these I think. Yet is is still a hardcore offering. So if you fancy a bit of dramatic pummelling take the plunge. I see the production is off to Poole and Colchester.

 

 

Sargent Watercolours at Dulwich Picture Gallery review *****

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Sargent: The Watercolours

Dulwich Picture Gallery, 5th September 2017

There have been some top drawer exhibitions already this year. The comprehensive survey of American painting in the 1930s at the Orangerie and Royal Academy, the joyous Rauschenberg retrospective at Tate Modern, the astonishing survey of Michael Andrews’s spray painted landscapes at the Gagosian, the journey through modern and contemporary US artists prints at the British Museum and the insight into Giacometti at Tate Modern. There have been others as well which would be equally worthy of a mention.

And there is more to look forward too at the end of the year, notably for me the survey of Monochrome works coming up at the National Gallery, the Cezanne Portraits at the National Portrait Gallery and the Jasper Johns survey at the Royal Academy.

Yet if I take total time spent in an exhibition and total joy derived (tricky to measure I accept) then this bunch of watercolours from the American sophisticate John Singer Sargent, might just beat them all. Though I am a sucker for watercolours – I had a fine time at the recent British Museum splurge of British watercolours – British Watercolour Landscapes at the British Museum review **** – and I would commend you to take in the Turner watercolours at the end of the Clore Gallery in the Tate – if I am honest they are my favourite of all the great man’s works.

Now this apparently is the first time in 100 years or so that we have been able to see a large scale assortment of Mr Sargent’s watercolours. There are a fair few dotted around the place in the UK but to see these eighty or so works together is reason enough to pop along to the Dulwich Picture Gallery if you haven’t already done so. (There is a month of so left of this exhibiton). And best of all the ratio of land- and city- scapes to portraits is skewed firmly in the favour of the former.

JSS made his name as a portrait painter, like his idol Velazquez, with the great and good nouveau riche at the turn of the C19, from the US and Europe, queueing up to offer their patronage. Whilst there is no doubt that having one of his large scale, full length, expressively bold, oil portraits towering over you is a sobering experience, it can get a bit overwhelming. The a la mode frocks and coats of the toffs are all terribly la-di-dah and he could never resist the urge to show off his skill in painting white fabrics. Everyone he painted looked so stylish, thin, pale, with hints of androgyny in the formality. And they pull you up in a gallery. Witness that Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose in Tate Britain (trust me you have seen an image). Drop dead gorgeous.

But for me it is the watercolours, after he packed in the oil portraits, that is his best stuff. There are many reasons to like JSS, not least his fulsome tache and beard combo and his love of his grub, but the watercolours he painted in Venice top the lot. Now Venice is a popular choice for the artistically inclined, it being the most beautiful place on earth by some margin. And JSS chose to look at the small rather than the big picture here with his watercolours of views seen from the vantage point of a gondola; light, water, colour and architectural feature and texture perfectly captured. Detail not panorama. These are not classic compositions and in some cases the angles take a bit of adjusting to but this, I think, is the way everyone really captures this city in their eye and minds. He had me at the first fragments of Venice in the first room. There is something in the water – literally. I can’t ever recall the play of light on water captured so exactly.

Other cities and other landscapes are fully represented across the exhibition, as are figures and portraits in the final room (with some of his trademark elegant young ladies lolling about in white dresses).

have no idea how to paint in watercolours but to me these looked technically faultless. Big washes of colour, clear confident marks, never overworked, with the paper still present underneath to lend a stunning luminescence and real dynamism. The way he crops the compositions is fascinating. None of that wishy-washy, impression of a landscape, wide-skied, nonsense here. Our man just picked up the brush and “drew” with it. Just like that. 

These paintings generally weren’t commissioned or intended to be exhibited. They were largely painted for his own pleasure, as he jaunted round Europe, and it shows. Some might say they are too pretty, unthreatening, too clean, too urbane. I say poppycock. Take a closer look. Sometimes art doesn’t have to punch you in the face to work. It is OK to feel good.

The cutting edge of artistic endeavour has always been suspicious of JSS. He in turn wasn’t bowled over by the work of his contemporary Modernists. A peripatetic lifestyle, an emigre, siblings who didn’t make it to adulthood and a complex sexual identity. All this, in the minds of the criterati, should lead to dark, emotional stuff which doesn’t seem, on first viewing, seem to be there in his work. So what I say. There is substance here to marry with the style. 

I hasten you to get along to this exhibition. Take your teenage kids, your granny, your aunty or even a mate who professes to have no interest in painting. I promise you they will love this. That or your money back. If you can find me. Mind you I will probably go again so you just might.

 

 

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 ***

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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.