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.

 

Giacometti at Tate Modern review ****

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Giacometti

Tate Modern, 5th July 2017

Alberto Giacometti fitted the bill of the artist perfectly. Day upon day, month upon month, year upon year ploughing the same furrow. To capture the essence of the human form largely through sculpture and occasionally with paint. More than a nod to the representation of the human form in Ancient Egypt, the Etruscan world and in African culture, with the same relentless elongation. A recognition that, after the horror of WW2, another way of looking at humanity was needed.

A limited number of models (dad, wife, brother, mistress, a few other patrons/luminaries and, for me anyway, himself, indirectly if not directly). And brother and wife looking after all the wordly stuff.

You can see the constant reworking in the works before eventually they could be cast, if required, in bronze. Apparently he was never satisfied. Now for some this might come over as all a bit cliched. But the simple fact is it is impossible not to be drawn into his world. The early p*ssing around with other artistic movements is tossed aside. Thereafter the character of his models, at least in the more substantial busts, becomes clearer and clearer. The structure and basis of human forward movement is revealed in the “walking men”. All through, the “eyes” literally have it. You think you know Giacometti’s work and ideas. But this still pulls you up in places. 

Room 1 kicks things off in style with a host of tightly packed heads of different materials and arranged broadly chronologically. It is easy to see Giacometti’s early experimentation with, for example, cubism but it is even easier to the end to which he was inevitably going to be drawn. Room 2 also shows how he flirted with other more abstract and surrealist solutions to capturing the human form. These works are interesting but not really convincing – the surrealists (a generally bitchy bunch anyway) apparently got on his case for being too naturalistically inclined. Room 3 shows his flair for decoration but it is only in Room 4 that we get a taste of the larger scale works that were to follow. There are some cracking pieces here, some very disturbing if I am honest. Room 5 shows AG’s fascination with the very small scale. In Room 6 we see the “classic” AG forms, in groups, or “penned” in some way. Room 7 brings together 8 of the 9 the Women of Venice series AG created for the 1956 Biennale and they really are fascinating (to me and judging by the stares most of the other punters as well). Rooms 8, 9 and 10 give us paint as well as walkers and the best of the heads of the people he clearly loved. And a film with AG doing his full on artist shtick, little garretty studio (Left Bank – where else?), buckets of espressos, fag dangling, mess all the place, plaster splattered jacket. The works. But his eye connects to the eye of the journo who is acting as his model and voice-over and then you absolutely get what Giacometti was about.

So a terrific exhibition of the work of, for me, a terrific artist. But I am partial as AG for me fulfils in spades two of my favourite artistic traits. The power of repetition. And the gift of emotional connection. Anyway it’s on through to September so see for yourself.

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

 

 

Wolfgang Tillmans at Tate Modern review ****

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Wolfgang Tillmans: 2017

Tate Modern, 9th March 2017

Oh my giddy aunt. What to make of this. I am slowly clambering my way up the shaky but intriguing edifice that is contemporary art. I have a rough map in my head but still have a long way to go and need to put a lot more hours in. So that means soaking up anything that the smart people at the Tate can throw at me. After all if it never makes its way into a trophy national gallery show then it’s not art is it. But if everything was like this then the journey would be pure pleasure and no pain.

I knew nothing of Mr Tillmans before this exhibition. Well maybe I had seen one or two of the spectral images where he had arsed about with the photographic production process (don’t ask me how) like Exhibit A above. But my oh my, does he get about. Different angles and perspectives, lots of close ups, street scenes, night scenes, landscapes, seascapes, still lives, portraits, self-portraits, fashion shoots, adverts, studio manipulation, the studio itself, colour fields, colour fields in a box. It seems that everything which has been fair game to the fine, the decorative and the commercial artistic worlds in the past and present can be appropriated by Mr T. And all this work is displayed in all manner of ways to further the assault. The OED should probably create an addendum for its definition of prolific.

However, in the hands of a halfwits like me, and, no offence intended, maybe you, this plethora of photos would just be so much garbage. The world is not short of digital images but it is short of this man’s. It is just endlessly fascinating and thought provoking with a host of strikingly attractive images many of which leap far beyond my aesthetic hurdle. Waves, a deconstructed (literally) digital printer, car headlights, lobster claws, fungi, pears, an arsehole and a pair of bollocks in alarming proximity, a pair of jeans in a box. Just some of the stuff I can remember.

And then there is all the material with a political or moral perspective. No empty one-note sloganising here (well maybe a bit), but some developed ideas and provocations drawn from many sources. I particularly liked the room which juxtaposied newspaper and other media stories about key geopolitical events with extracts and lists from psychological and neuroscience journals outlining frontier research on cognition, behaviour and heuristics.

Oh to have the eye and brain of Mr T. Mind you, whilst I am a keen advocate of the elevated audio experience, (though in practice am addicted to my old style I Pod and newer MP3 kit), I have to draw the line at his taste in music. If you have state of the art kit then playing late 80s electronic, white funk/reggae reclusives Colourbox on it is a big mistake, (they were the worst band on 4AD and that is saying something). And a portrait of Morrissey only adds fuel to this particular lapse-in-musical-taste fire.

Still forgive and forget eh major when there is just so much life on show here. You kids with your constant screen tapping and minimal attention spans will love it. Seriously though, and switching off the curmudgeonly, misanthropic pose for a moment, it really will appeal to anyway with a interest in life. So that’s everybody. You look around. So does he. He is just better at knowing how and when to record and extend the experience than you are. So that you can then breathe it all in. The perfect synthesis of high and low art. And a lot of joy in the mundane and a child-like glee in his making process. Not unlike the Rauschenberg retrospective which was next door and just wound up.

Highly recommended and on until mid June.

 

 

The Radical Eye at Tate Modern review ***

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The Radical Eye: Modernist Photography from the Sir Elton John Collection

Tate Modern, 29th March 2017

Sir Elton John is a thoroughly good bloke in my book. Firstly, for letting the Tate conjure up an exhibition of iconic works by renowned photographers (Man Ray, Dali, Kertesz, Strand), secondly for not coming over like a pretentious kn*b when explaining why he started buying them in the video that accompanies the exhibition – essentially because he liked them and it helped him get over the booze – and thirdly because he intends to gift the collection in time I gather. I can even forgive him for accepting the invitation from Kate Bush to sing on the Fifty Words for Snow album (mind you Stephen Fry should also have put the phone down). Though to be fair it is Kate’s fault for asking and my theory is she deliberately makes these lapses of judgement to confuse us into thinking she is human and not actually a god.

Having said that the house where Sir Elton displays them could do with a bit of colour accessorising in my view – there is a whiff of show home here. As perhaps could this exhibition. There are some absolutely stunning images here make no mistake, but they are all so perfect in pristine black and white, whether portraits, nudes, landscapes, close ups, surrealist mash-ups or still lifes, that in the end I was overwhelmed rather than engaged. The “coffee table book syndrome” that can often hit me in photography exhibitions came fast and came big. It is entirely my fault but I just ended up needing a hit of paint (mmm a bit of Doig would have done the trick if I had time – I know, I know now who is the pretentious kn*b).

If you know what you are looking at then I gather this is the bee’s knees. If you are a casual observer is it worth a whizz round? Yes. But if I only had time for one in Tate Modern right now the Wolfgang Tillmans would get my vote. Nothing pretty about most of his photos but way more to chew on.