Faith Ringgold at the Serpentine Galleries review ****

Faith Ringgold

Serpentine Galleries, 22nd August 2019

Once again it has taken the Tourist way too long to gather his thoughts on something he has seen. Which means this snappy retrospective of the work of Africa- American artist has now finished. Sorry. It was Very Good. I guess that doesn’t help.

I first encountered Ms Ringgold’s work at the Soul of a Nation exhibition at Tate Modern in 2017. Thematic anthologies are always a dream for an art numpty like the Tourist, giving an opportunity to discover all manner of ideas and artists, but this exhibition was especially fertile. Norman Lewis, Romare Bearden, Charles White, (especially) David Hammons, Timothy Washington, Barkley Hendricks and Melvin Edwards. All blokes. Which made Betye Saar and especially Faith Ringgold stand out, because not only does their art tackle issues of race, African-American identity and history, it also powerfully explores gender inequality.

Given Ms Ringgold’s engagement with the civil rights and feminist movements in the US over her five decade career it is perhaps surprising to learn that this the first exhibition devoted solely to her work in Europe let alone the UK. Through paintings, posters, books, sculpture, performance and her fascinating quilts she makes acute political points whose relevance has certainly not declined with time. Through her teaching and through the National Black Feminist Organisation which she founded in 1973 with her artist daughter Michelle Wallace, Ms Ringgold has been as much activist and influencer, (with real purpose, not like today’s self-obsessed “model/icons”), as artist.

She was born (1930) in Harlem where she grew up immersed in jazz culture and the legacy of the Harlem Renaissance, majored in art education and started her career teaching. She began painting in the 1950s and 1960s influenced by African art, Impressionism and Cubism and inspired by writers such as James Baldwin and Amiri Baraka. She turned to art full time in 1973.

This survey opens with 7 paintings from her American People series from 1963 to 1967 which examines social inequality and racial tensions at the height of the Civil Rights movement from a woman’s perspective. These works formed the core of her inaugural exhibition at the Spectrum Gallery in 1967. The large scale US Postage Stamp Commemorating The Advent Of Black Power about sums it up. Oversizing a stamp, Pop Art style, depicting 100 sets of eyes and noses, in a grid, with 10 black faces across the diagonal, (symbolising the 10% of the population that was African American in 1967), the worlds BLACK POWER are spelled out across the other diagonal, but with WHITE POWER not so subtly encrypted horizontally. As with her quilts later on you are presented with an arresting overall image, here using flat, bright paint, which demands further detailed inspection, even after the message has made its mark. At the time FR said she did not have a clear idea of what Black Power represented but she did feel the need to ask the question about how women would fit into the struggle. And, if you ever wondered where the inspiration for the iconic Obama Hope poster campaign came from look no further.

In the 1970’s she led protests against the representation of women and Black artists in galleries, designed posters to support her politics and organised The People’s Flag Show in 1973 where she was arrested for “desecrating” the American flag. Her paintings darkened in tone, drawing from African art and, away from traditional oils. She began to explore the potential in fabric after being stirred by the C14 and C15 Tibetan tanka paintings that she saw in the Rijksmuseum on a visit to Europe in 1972.

Less convincingly to my eyes were the abstract works from the Windows of the World series made with her fashion designer mother Willi Posey. This diverse practice was represented in Room 2 but. based on the punters when I visited, one work in particular reels you in. The United States of Attica dates from 1971/72, prompted by the Attica NY prison riots where 43 people died, and depicts a map of the US in green, red and black, the colours of Marcus Garvey’s black nationalist flag, recording the details of genocides that have occurred in the US from the colonial era.

In the 1980s FR first turned to the story quilts for which she is best known and which form the heart of this exhibition. These incorporate images and text to present the inter-generational stories of African American women from slavery through to the present, often painful and poignant, but also powerful and uplifting. FR’s great-great grandmother Susie Shannon, born into slavery, was compelled to sew quilts for plantation owners.

I was particularly struck by the triptych of quilts extracted from the Slave Rape series which show naked women modelled on FR’s daughters fleeing through stylised undergrowth. The colours and lines reflect the rich textiles of Central Africa, the images are made more alarming by the absence of the pursuers. Then there is Who’s Afraid of Aunt Jemina? from 1983 which reimagines the racist stereotype from interwar minstrel shows used in the pancake mix brand as a determined matriarch who runs her own restaurant chain. The embroidering is exquisite, the characters sparkle, the text demands to be read. Rare sight to see people. after the regulation snap on their phones then standing still to follow the story across four generations. The other highlight was the personal Change: Faith Ringgold’s Over 100 Pounds Weight Loss Performance Story Quilt from 1986.

Later on in the 1980s FR moved away from narrative quilts to something closer to her earlier oil paintings and, for me at least, some of the classic art of the Harlem Renaissance, most obviously in Jazz Stories . Though the powerful political messages remain. In fact maybe even more so. Even without the text these dense complex works, as in the earlier pieces, need time to fully take in. We Came to America from 1997, part of the American Collection, shows a dreadlocked Statue of Liberty with black baby in one hand and torch in the other, astride an Atlantic Ocean, filled with writhing black bodies. The ship in the background is based on JMW Turner’s The Slave Ship. FR created a fictional artist creator for the series who dreams of walking back across the sea to Africa arm in arm with her brothers and sisters.

The Tar Beach quilt from 1988 is more autobiographical recalling childhood summers spent on the hot roof of her apartment building in Harlem with parents, friends and siblings. This formed the basis for FR’s acclaimed books for children. Subway Graffiti from 1987 shows friends and neighbours crammed on a subways platform with names and tags filling the panels which surround them.

But just in case we get too comfortable this collection ends with something more trenchant in the form of 1997’s The Flag is Bleeding again from the American Collection. We see a black women bleeding from her heart protecting her two small children all against the backdrop of the Stars and Stripes. The title is the same as that used in the American People series which opened the exhibition though that picture shows a black man armed with a knife, a white woman, and a white armed man peering through the bleeding flag.

The exhibition, and this is no criticism, did not include any of FR’s mixed media masks and costumes which she created in 1973, notably the Witch Mask series and the Family of Woman Mask series. Or any of her life-sized soft sculptures, which, like the masks, take inspiration from African art. The masks and costumes, together with music and dance, formed the basis of FR’s performance in the 1970s and 1980s which often retold the stories in her quilts.

Even without these elements this exhibition gave a very clear overview of FR’s practice. This is art with a clear message on behalf of those marginalised by race or gender, aware of its origins and its history. Nothing ambiguous or simplistic here. It elevates materials and making over theory and process, anger over aesthetic, and invites the viewer to take time to reflect on its meaning.

Above all else FR is a story teller. I like stories. And, I’ll bet, you do to. It’s just a shame that some of these stories still have to be told.

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.

Some ideas for the culturally inclined in London

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Here is a very brief round-up, (apparently I can drone on a bit so have tried to be disciplined), of the current and forthcoming major theatre and exhibition events in London that have caught my eye (and ear). I have a list of classical concerts which is still good to go for those that way inclined (Some forthcoming classical music concert ideas (with a bit of nostalgia thrown in) and will take a look at the best of the forthcoming seasons at the two major opera houses in another post.

No particular order and not at all obscure. There should be tickets available for all of these but in some cases you may need to get your finger out.

Hope this helps if, unlike me, you are not over endowed with time.

Theatre

I can vouch for the first four below and the rest are those which I think are likely to be the most likely to turn into “must-sees”.

  • Hamlet – Harold Pinter Theatre – June to September 2017

If you think Shakespeare is not for you then think again. Andrew Scott as our eponymous prince could be chatting to you in the pub it is that easy to follow (mind you, you’d think he was a bit of a nutter) and Robert Icke’s direction is revelatory. Plenty of tickets and whilst it’s not cheap they aren’t gouging your eyes out compared to other West End shows. Here’s what I thought.

Hamlet at the Almeida review *****

  • The Ferryman – Gielgud Theatre – June to October 2017

This will almost certainly be the best play of 2017 and will be an oft revived classic. It is better than writer Jez Butterworth’s previous masterpiece, Jerusalem. Prices are steep but the Gielgud is a theatre where the cheap seats are tolerable. If you see one play this year make this it.

The Ferryman at the Royal Court Theatre review *****

  • Babette’s Feast – Print Room Coronet – to early June 2017

There are a couple of weeks left on this. Probably helps if you know the film or book. I was enchanted though proper reviews less so. Loads of tickets, cheap as chips, not demanding at all, lovely venue.

Babette’s Feast at the Print Room Coronet review ****

  • Othello – Wilton’s Music Hall – to early June 2017

Again just a couple of weeks left here. Once again perfect Shakespeare for those who don’t think it is for them. Big Will’s best play and an outstandingly dynamic production. Another atmospheric venue, though I would say get right up close. A bargain for this much class.

Othello at Wilton’s Music Hall review ****

  • The Tempest – Barbican Theatre – July and August 2017

This is the RSC transfer from Stratford. Simon Russell Beale, our best stage actor, as Prospero. Some fancy dan technology is employed. Reviews generally positive though you always get sniffiness from broadsheets whenever RSC plays a bit fast and loose with big Will. Not cheap but at least at the Barbican you will be comfy (if you don’t go too cheap).

  • Macbeth – Barbican Theatre – 5th to 8th October 2017

More bloody Shakespeare. Literally. On this you are going to have to trust me. Ninagawa is a Japanese theatre company renowned for its revelatory productions. So in Japanese with surtitles. But when these top class international companies come to the Barbican it is usually off the scale awesome. I’ve been waiting years to see them. Enough tickets left at £50 quid a pop but it will sell out I think.

  • The Suppliant Women – Young Vic – 13th to 25th November 2017

Reviews when this was shown at Royal Lyceum in Edinburgh were very good. Aeschylus, so one of them Greeks, updated to shed light on the refugee crisis. Maybe not everyone’s cup of tea, and you can probably wait until closer to opening, but I still think this will turn into a must see.

  • Ink – Almeida Theatre – June to August 2017

Writer James Graham’s last major outing, This House, about politics in 1970s Britain, was hilarious and insightful. This is based on the early life of Rupert Murdoch so expect a similar skewering. Directed by Almeida’s own Rupert Goold with Bertie Carvel the lead (the sh*t of a husband in that Doctor Foster off the telly). I have very high hopes for this,

  • Against – Almeida Theatre – August and September 2017

New play which sounds like it is about some crazy US billionaire taking over the world (I could be hopelessly wrong as Almeida doesn’t tell you much). Written by American wunderkind Chris Shin, directed by master of clarity Ian Rickson, and with Ben Wishaw in the lead. Don’t know how much availability as public booking only opens 25th May, but I would get in quick here and buy blind. Almeida now a lot comfier with the padded seats and still a bargain for what is normally world class theatre.

  • Prism – Hampstead Theatre – September and October 2017

New play from the marvellous Terry Johnson who writes brainy comedy Robert Lindsay in the lead role of a retired cinematographer. I have a feeling there will be more to this than meets the eye (!!) and will buy blind on the public booking opening. Usually around £30 a ticket so if it turns into a hit, as Hampstead productions sometimes do, it is a bargain.

  • Young Marx – The Bridge Theatre – October to December 2017

So this is the opener from the team at the Bridge which is the first large scale commercial theatre to be opened in London for decades. The genius Nick Hytner directs and the play is written by Richard Bean and Clive Coleman. The last time these three came together out popped One Man, Two Guvnors. Rory Kinnear and Oliver Chris (trust me you will know him off the telly) play the young Marx and Engels in London. Hard to think of a set up that could get me more excited but if any part appeals to you I would book now. There are loads of performances so no urgency but, if they have any sense at all, the seats here will be v. comfy with good views as it is all brand new, so taking a punt on a cheap seat will probably turn out well.

  • Julius Caesar – The Bridge Theatre – January to April 2018

Bridge again. Julius Caesar so probably need to know what you are letting yourself in for as solus Roman Shakespeare’s can sometimes frustrate. BUT with David Morrissey, Ben Wishaw, David Calder and Michelle Fairley, it is a super heavyweight cast. Same logic as above – it might be worth booking early and nabbing a cheap seat on the assumption they would be mad not to serve up the best auditorium in London if the venture is to succeed.

  • The Retreat – Park Theatre – November 2017

The Park often puts on stuff that sounds way better than it actually turns out to be, but this looks the pick of its forthcoming intriguing bunch. Written by Sam Bain (Peep Show and Fresh Meat) and directed by Kathy Burke. Comedy about a City high flyer who gives it all up but can’t escape the past. If anything is guaranteed to wheel in the North London 40 and 50 somethings then this is it. No cast announcement yet but I bet they rope some comic into the lead.

  • The Real Thing – The Rose Theatre Kingston – 2nd to 14th October

A co-production with Theatre Royal Bath and Cambridge Arts Theatre of one of Stoppard’s greatest plays. I really want this to be a cracking revival for my local.

Exhibitions

Here is the pick of the forthcoming blockbusters which I hope to get to see. The Jasper Johns and the Cezanne Portraits are the ones I am most excited about.

  • Giacometti – Tate Modern – just opened until 10th September 2017
  • Pink Floyd: Their Mortal Remains – V and A – until 1st October 2017
  • Into the Unknown: A Journey Through Science Fiction – Barbican Art Gallery – from 3rd June 2017
  • Grayson Perry: The Most Popular Art Exhibition Ever! – Serpentine Gallery – from 8th June 2017
  • Jasper Johns: Something Resembling Truth – Royal Academy – from 23rd September 2017
  • Opera: Passion, Power and Politics – V and A – from 30th September 2017
  • Cezanne Portraits – National Portrait Gallery – from 26th October 2017
  • Monochrome: Painting in Black and White – National Gallery – from 30th October 2017
  • Impressionists in London – Tate Britain – from 2nd November 2017
  • Red Star Over Russia – Tate Modern – from 8th November 2017
  • Modigliani – Tate Modern – from 23rd November 2017

 

 

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.