Mark Wallinger’s ID – A Conversation (Part Three).

On May 1st, Richard Guest & I visited Mark Wallinger’s show  ID  at Hauser & Wirth London W1. Afterwards, we discussed the show by email. The following is the result of several weeks’ electronic toing and froing. You can read part Two here:

fresco of hands

Mark Wallinger’s Ego

…David: In the way you describe it, Ego comes across as a possibly disingenuous but certainly disarming glimpse behind the scenes at the moment of artistic creation in 2016. I like to think the ink under his fingernails is from the Id paintings, and Ego represents a kind of dumb show which shows the conscious perception of the creative moment in the mind of the artist in all its glory and shoddiness. Maybe it started as a sarcastic gesture of either satisfaction or dissatisfaction. I can see that it is in a way describing the meeting of our modern selves and our cultural past, but can it simultaneously subvert and promote the creative act? Wallinger seems to be saying this is nothing, but is also everything…can we absorb that paradox?

The Id paintings seem like a cathartic release of the need to paint, to make marks and of course the need to make big canvasses to fill that huge space. Can’t do that with a couple of sheets of A4. They are giant Rorschach tests, no more, no less. On the one hand they seem to be a weak echo of Yves Klein’s Body paintings , on the other because they are so many and they are all the-same-but-different they seem to be devaluing and denigrating the gestural mark in art.  Wallinger seems to be saying ‘marks are nice to look at and fun to make, but in the end one mark or the other – take your pick – call it a face or a cloud if you like – but it makes no odds. All that remains are just the marks. Everything else is your interpretation, based on the primitive parts of your brain that needed to make sense of abstract shapes when we were hunting in the wild and painting in caves. Sort of Anti-Impressionism. Anti-transcendence. We are not in the wild any more.

Mark Wallinger ID Painting 29 2015 Acrylic on canvas 360 x 180 cm / 141 3/4 x 70 7/8 in Photo: Alex Delfanne

Mark Wallinger ID Painting 29 2015 Acrylic on canvas 360 x 180 cm / 141 3/4 x 70 7/8 in Photo: Alex Delfanne

Richard: I’m not so sure…maybe this is a tentative (not so?) step in that direction. One definition of the Id is: the part of the mind in which innate instinctive impulses and primary processes are manifest. Are these paintings titled Id because Wallinger followed his instinct to make marks with his own hands, rather than develop another clean, cool, detached neo-conceptual work? Or has he found a conceptually acceptable excuse to be a painter again (I’m interested in their conception. The canvases are divided vertically down the middle, so that the two sides of the painting roughly mirror each other. There are variations in some marks, which underlines the hand-made quality. But in some of the paintings there are clear central dividing lines, like the ones you get if you try to create a mirror image in image manipulation software (such as Photoshop) (very difficult to get rid of, believe me…) Which makes me wonder whether MW created his images digitally and then used them as a model for the eventual paintings).

They look like they were a lot of fun to make (and I’m disturbed that so many of them suggest to me scenes from Star Trek). And I’d hazard MW was a lot more physically involved (he, not a studio assistant, made these – they are effectively massive finger paintings) in the creation of the final objects than he was with Ego and Superego, so there’s a lot more of him present in the Id works.

Proportionally, the paintings take up a lot of space at Hauser & Wirth. If this show is about the act of creation, which I think it is, does this mean Wallinger is placing more value on the Id than the Ego and Superego in the creative act? Do you think the paintings have more worth as works (and consequently monetary value)?

Mark Wallinger id Painting 56 2015 Acrylic on canvas 360 x 180 cm / 141 3/4 x 70 7/8 in Photo: Alex Delfanne

Mark Wallinger id Painting 56 2015 Acrylic on canvas 360 x 180 cm / 141 3/4 x 70 7/8 in Photo: Alex Delfanne

David: It clearly is no accident that the paintings are linked to the primitive part of the brain, and photographs and printing are linked to the conscious. Photographs capture an image of something that already exists. The moment of the shutter opens is the moment of cognisance: analogous to the awakening of consciousness of the ego as it observes the world and perceives its own distance from it. Paintings – particularly abstract expressionist paintings like the kind the id paintings reference – seek to be making visible the viscera of the internal subconscious without reference to external reality. The Id paintings feel like therapy, but their context points to an ironical rather than a straight reading of them. Freud was a long time ago and any reference to him feels retro, knowing – like wearing a tweed jacket and smoking a pipe.

To me it is like this. Wallinger feels (deep down in the unconscious part of his brain) the need to make art. He gets a three metre canvas (well, he gets quite a few of them because after all he has a big show coming up) and starts to finger paint black on white in a sort of planned-unplanned way. It feels honest and direct; but Wallinger is reflective and oblique. Maybe he did do a digital version first. But I think the tactile element is important here. Having made a couple of id paintings he sits back with a coffee and a cigarette (reaching a bit here). In this contemplative moment of self-awareness he sees himself clearly. He is a creator of work, yes. But the work is unsatisfactory, tawdry, second-hand. And unbidden the image of the Sistine Chapel comes to mind. He compares himself to Michelangelo…maybe arrogantly, maybe abjectly. He touches his own fingers together in a sardonic act. Both acknowledging and taking the piss out of his own self, his work and his situation as a leading contemporary artist. He is in that moment God, Adam and Wallinger. Then another level of mind above all that kicks and and says “hey, you know what? That might be a work there you know?” Ego is born. It is rather a feeble specimen next to the lusty Id paintings and the cold, blank Superego and I wonder who might have the courage to buy it ahead of the other larger archivally made gallery fillers…

Mark Wallinger’s ID – A Conversation (Part Two).

On May 1st, Richard Guest & I visited Mark Wallinger’s show  ID  at Hauser & Wirth London W1. Afterwards, we discussed the show by email. The following is the result of several weeks’ electronic toing and froing. Here is Part Two – you can read Part One here.

 

My accidental version of Shadow Walker in Lisson Grove – the twins in the camo trousers I was surreptitiously trying to photograph cropped off at the head!

My accidental version of Shadow Walker in Lisson Grove – the twins in the camo trousers I was surreptitiously trying to photograph cropped off at the head!

David: Ever Since and Shadow Walker left me pretty cold I have to say, but there are a couple of things that make me scratch my head. Shadow Walker is on a screen resting on the floor, leaning against the wall. It was shot on a phone of some sort I think, it is very poor quality footage anyway, and it’s vertical). Ever Since is the reverse – very high quality and projected directly onto the wall. Leaning stuff has been everywhere recently..so maybe I am tired of it, but is the slipshod presentation of Shadow Walker a little studied – do you really feel any spontaneity looking at it or is Wallinger tying to be too clever by juxtaposing all these disparate idioms?

As soon as we move into the North Gallery we are (if we had been going round the right way) greeted by Ego which is a pair of peeling inkjet prints ‘shot on an iPhone’ we are told. They are stuck on the wall any old how, with blu-tac or similar it looked like. Again there is a massive and deliberate contrast between this and the standardised size of the Id paintings which seem to have the correct production values for H&W. Does this contrast work for you, and does it seem to be a clue to unlocking Wallinger’s approach?

Ego – Gallery tour in progress...we hung back.

Ego – Gallery tour in progress…we hung back.

Richard: Wallinger could be trying to be too clever, but I prefer to think he’s problem-solving, without regard to aesthetics – finding the most direct way to express what he wants to say and going with it (the resulting object is what it is, its aesthetic a part of the message). For me there’s a freshness to this show, which could not have been achieved if it had been all paintings or all videos (But in answer to your question, I don’t feel any spontaneity looking at Shadow Walker, more a wave of ennui crashing over me).

Yes, I think there is a clue in Ego to what Wallinger is doing. He is an artist, regardless of media or technique, who understands that everything he makes has an intrinsic aesthetic value, in part based on what it looks like and in part what that appearance “means”. (To a certain extent, I think he sends up his role as an artist) Ego, for example, would mean something quite different had it been painted. He’s clearly alluding to Michaelangelo’s Sistine Chapel (and possibly the opening title sequence of The South Bank Show), but the image was made in the quickest way possible and reproduced without fuss. Ego carries an idea as much as any of the other work in the show, so its appearance may be lowly in comparison with the Id paintings, but its worth as a statement is equal. Do you like it as a work?

David: Honestly, it’s only because I am talking to you about it that I have even stopped to think about it. It is not just ephemeral but scruffy…slapdash and proud. You are completely right I think to suggest that the method of production is integral to the meaning, but whether it really is produced without regard to ultimate aesthetic impact is hard to say. Outside the gallery context this work would just be two pieces of paper – within it, it feels like a deliberate old-school provocation. It is almost Dadaist in character and Wallinger must know that. It is the key work of the show I think, but I have difficulty with it . I am curious about its conception…but it seems to forestall my scepticism by referencing the most famous and sublime depiction of creation (and by implication artistic creation) while simultaneously seeming to disrespect it by casually presenting it as a second-hand experience.

Ego installation view …appropriately shot on a blurry phone.

Ego installation view …appropriately shot on a blurry phone.

It’s all a bit too cool for me. It is very far from the impulse that first drove a cave dweller to pick up a piece of burnt charcoal and draw a horse on the walls of a cave. It falls into the category of comment rather than expression. Problem solving is a very positive way of looking at it. For me it is part of a sub genre of critical commentary in an artistic medium. Is that unfair?

Richard: As far as Wallinger’s method is concerned, I’m not so sure it is that far removed from the Paleolithic decorating impulse – the cave dwellers would have used a quick and convenient method to convey their message, with the materials they had at hand, I think, without regard to aesthetics (because they were in the process of inventing them).

For me, Ego represents the shortest route from conception to creation in the show. It appears to be a joke, but it’s a complex one:

  • Wallinger unfairly compares the craft of his work to that of Michaelangelo
  • (whilst simultaneously daring the gallery to sell inkjet prints of photographs he took on his phone)
  • and makes light of the fact that he has spent little time crafting the finished work (once he’d had the idea, he surrendered it to a mechanical means of production)
  • he asks the question, “where do the ideas for my art come from?”
  • and answers it, “from me and my accumulated knowledge of art” (both hands are his)
  • and finally he invites the audience to laugh at the shoddiness (and cheek) of it all
  • and asks, “have you got the guts to buy this?”

What I found really interesting about it as an image was that in it Wallinger has black dirt under his fingernails and the Id paintings are all black – does this suggest we can date Ego to the same period? Did he produce Ego in a creative rush after finishing a particularly satisfying Id painting (if so that makes his joke even funnier)? Do you think he achieved personal satisfaction from executing any of the Id paintings, or was his approach to them as conceptual and cool as it appears to have been with Ego?

David: That is as good an all round picture of how Ego functions as we are going to get, I think. But what it tells me is that if Mark Wallinger is anything to go by when we look around we no longer do it with our eyes, but with our iPhones; and what we see is not life in the raw, but a series of references – images quoted from the past. As if only by looking in the mirror of Michelangelo’s Creations can we correctly place our own. Our ability to directly experience things is compromised by our knowledge of art and our insatiable image capturing technology. There has been a Fall – a loss of innocence and there is no going back. This robs art of its primal power of redefining how you look at something on its own terms as if for the first time. It is always doing so as part of a network of critical references, and each work is merely an inflection of this ongoing critical environment. In a way it’s like the block chain security devised by Bitcoin where each transaction is recorded onto an ever-growing chain of verified transactions. If an incoming transaction does not have all the previous ones attached it will be rejected. Works of art in the critical canon have to absorb and reflect all previous works and critical positions: if they do not then they cannot be verified critically and cannot sit within the canon. They are in outer darkness critically and commercially. Meanwhile the critical canon becomes ever more bloated, unwieldy and impenetrable.

Read Part Three here

Mark Wallinger’s ID – A Conversation (Part One).

On May 1st, Richard Guest & I visited Mark Wallinger’s show  ID  at Hauser & Wirth London W1. Afterwards, we discussed the show by email. The following is the result of several weeks’ electronic toing and froing.

Superego 2016 Stainless steel, glass mirror, motor 350 x 160 x 160 cm / 137 3/4 x 63 x 63 in Photo: Alex Delfanne

Wallinger’s Superego 2016 Stainless steel, glass mirror, motor 350 x 160 x 160 cm  Photo: Alex Delfanne

David: Firstly let me confess that I don’t know much about Mark Wallinger or his work apart from the copies of the Stubbs horse paintings which I prefer to the originals but consider pretty pointless. What (unusually) made me want to see this show were some reviews of it that I saw. I didn’t read them too closely but the fact they reached me in my bunker caused me to think that Hauser and Wirth are trying to reshape the critical landscape that art inhabits in a way that hasn’t been done (in London at least) since White Cube thrust itself upon us about fifteen years ago, and in a way that say Anthony d’Offay or the Lisson gallery have in the past. Is there a bit of a curatorial turf war in progress and is Mark Wallinger a pawn or a player? Or should I just be looking at the work?

Richard: I can see H&W as a hipper D’Offay (a gallery I used to love). Not sure what MW’s role is, but the exhibition’s an interesting one. The works I think of when I think of MW are Ecce Homo (1999) (a human-sized Jesus on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square), State Britain (2007) (a recreation in Tate Britain of peace campaigner Brian Haw’s anti-war protest display outside Parliament) and a video work called Angel. They were all conceptual works to a certain extent, but ones that had a strong emotional effect.

Shall we talk about the work in the order we saw it?

David: Well, the show comprises just six works (although one is a series of paintings) sparsely occupying the two pristine HW spaces on Saville Row. The first piece we saw in the South Gallery was Superego (2016) which is essentially a large mirrored triangular prism mounted on a rotating pole about three metres off the ground in the centre of a large bare room. I was watching it for a little while before it dawned on me that it was a replica of the famous Scotland Yard Sign with mirrored faces. The mirrors reflect only the room, and first I read it just as an optical toy, but then when I remembered where I had seen the shape before and it assumed another meaning in my mind (and probably only in my mind). The blankness of the mirrored facets reflecting the empty gallery although defining the motion in a hypnotic way seemed to imply a mindless automaton –  a machine efficiently ruling an empty world, indifferent to the futility of its task. Is this some kind of comment about the Met Police or is Wallinger just appropriating and abstracting a familiar shape in a way derivative of Jasper Johns’ Flag? (Amazing how much contemporary art seems to owe to that piece – much more than to Duchamp or anyone it seems to me).

Richard: Wallinger likes to play with British (pop cultural) icons – he displayed a shiny, super-reflective, Tardis at the Hayward Gallery in 2009 (Time and Relative Dimensions in Space, 2001). In that case, it looked as if Doctor Who’s police-box-shaped time machine was dematerialising in front of the viewer. The police again…

My gut feeling is that Wallinger is taking the Johns route, which coincidentally (or not) brings with it a certain amount of wry comment (in the 1970s, to the little kid me, the revolving sign, when seen on TV news, communicated the idea of law and order, and the authority (and possible omniscience) of the police. And did it succinctly. Who else had a revolving sign in the UK at the time? – it was positively space age!).

So with Superego, Mark Wallinger has stripped the object of its crime-fighting power and presents us with what? A deliberately dumb object. A symbol of authority transformed into a decorative object. Where Superego differs from Johns’ Flag is that the flag is in an ongoing relationship with the nation it represents. Wallinger’s Superego is time-locked to a certain extent; I feel like there is a definable demographic who would “get it”.

Definition:

superego

suːpərˈiːɡəʊ,-ˈɛɡəʊ,sjuː-/

noun

Psychoanalysis

noun: superego; plural noun: superegos; noun: super-ego; plural noun: super-egos

  1. the part of a person’s mind that acts as a self-critical conscience, reflecting social standards learned from parents and teachers.

“the father is the model for the superego”

Of course, it may just be a revolving mirror, ha ha.

In any case, I like how big it is, and the fact that it seems, initially at least, not to be saying anything. Is it the odd-man-out in the exhibition?

David: Maybe it is just an image of our superego as the police force of the mind, tirelessly reflecting society and its values back at us. It could be that literal. It’s hard to say if it’s the odd one out because MW seems keen to avoid any deliberate pattern to his work – at least in appearance – but there is a Freudian theme to the titles in the show. There is a sentence in the gallerist blurb which made my heart sink as I read it : “Wallinger utilises Sigmund Freud’s terms id, ego and superego in an interrogation of the psyche, the self and the subject”.  Oh dear. I don’t know how much clinical weight Freud’s definition of levels of consciousness still carries as a description of the mind but in art they seem to be familiar labels. Too familiar, perhaps. But we are getting ahead of ourselves: we came to id and ego after superego in the North Gallery, so once again we are going round an exhibition backwards, but we seem to like it better that way!

Found myself driving by one of the roundabouts on the A10, close to Orrery’s location. I did not find my muse here though…

Found myself driving by one of the roundabouts on the A10, close to Orrery’s location. I did not find my muse here though…

As it was we came to the three video works next. For me the most persuasive of the three pieces was Orrery (2016) – four journeys around a roundabout made at different times of the year shown on four screens where the viewer was in the middle. It was quite a neat trick to turn the commonplace experience of driving around a roundabout into a description of the cosmos but the other two video pieces – a filmed shadow walk and a static tableau of a barber’s shop – were less successful for me.  I think we both have reservations about video in galleries, or maybe just short attention spans…did these work for you?

Richard: Yes, I liked Orrery and its air of flat artlessness (it made me feel nostalgic for video art in the Eighties (specifically the late night spot on our local ITV channel, which I watched religiously).

Ever Since (2012), the static tableau of a barber’s shop was interesting for having no discernible action taking place, and at first I thought it was one element of a video installation – Shadow Walker being the other part. There was a nice tension in the room between the static image of one and the relentless motion of the other. I liked the mystery of Ever Since. Seen in isolation, Shadow Walker reminded me of a lot of boring (not in a good way), handheld video made in the Nineties and 2000s). Watching someone’s (Wallinger?) shadow as they progress along a street from the perspective of a handheld camera quickly pales as a viewing experience. I’m sure this is the point, but I was impatient to get away from the video after a couple of minutes. Having said that, Shadow Walker creates a nice bit of visual noise, which destabilises the exhibition and keeps me interested in what Wallinger chose to show.

…(Part Two to follow)…

London Art Odyssey #1 Down the Hackney Road

HackneyRoad_01

Smile! You’re on the Hackney Road.

So many times we hear lip service paid to the concept of art outside the gallery. Usually from artists and gallerists who want to expand their ego or their selling space for nothing. But sometimes there are naturally occurring efflorescences of art in the real world. Driving down the Hackney Road, which is not somewhere I  used to go that often, I was amazed at the variety of street art. There are murals, painted hoardings and all sorts of other official and not so official graffiti. I decided to go back on foot and take a closer look. The trip along it on foot took me about twenty minutes from Shoreditch High Street up towards Mare St. It is one of those well trodden routes of London which are continually changing like a river bank as life flows along them. I did not see any actual galleries in the Hackney Road, but there was a lot to look at, and the pictures inspire you to look at other things around as if they were art too…better than most exhibitions in fact.

Not Dürer...

Not Dürer…

These artists know each other I am sure, but I don’t know who they are at all and I quite like that. I am instantly freed of the burden of trying to remember their names and contextualising their career.  Although I feel slightly like I am looking at their work like a zoologist would at the mating rituals of an exotic insect. What has been created – and I doubt it will last forever – is an amazing visually rich environment in the scuffed urban landscape.

There are themes that recur: a sort of ironic take on consumer culture, giant comics particularly science fiction ones, a sort of vaguely anti-capitalist paranoia, a little art history but the images are diverse and spontaneous – what’s more they are unafraid. They have nothing to lose – so unlike what is inside art galleries, where reputations and valuations around art brands are effectively straightjackets of style and we are fed an institutionalised version of innovation.

Hackney Road

Hackney Road

The ephemeral nature of painting on a hoarding frees the mind – this work feels honest and uninhibited, but because the practitioners have experience it is not unsophisticated. The Hackney Road painters are probably artists away from the street art too, but I suspect that the on-street work is the most true and expressive because it is a direct form of communication to people who will actually see it as they pass by -all sorts of people,  not the self selected elite who choose to go to an art gallery. In their ‘real’ work I bet these artists are one way or another hidebound by the conventions of the art world in whichever area they have gravitated to, by trying to please that audience.

Here today, covered by Father Ted tomorrow...

Here today, covered by Father Ted tomorrow…

Distressed walls provide a natural aesthetic – it looks real because it is real. In a gallery that level of decay always feels false, but here it feels true. The flyposters, adverts and signs add – they are not just noise in the signal as they would be normally. The paintings compete on level terms with ads and signs and are integrating art into the area in a way no gallery could. There are little ‘site specific’ touches and  a lot of detail, so much detail in fact that I only spotted it when going through the photos afterwards. There is an amazing layering at work too, graffiti and overpainting are an integral part of the organic decay and rebirth that ties the work to the place. Some images have so much in them that even now I can’t spot it all –

 

MinervaSt_01

Minerva Street, corner of Hackney Road and details following

MinervaSt_02

Minerva Street

MinervaSt_03

Minerva Street

You can start to look at all things as if they were art. This beautiful bit of road painting was my favorite…

20 -20 vision in the Hackney Road

20 -20 vision in the Hackney Road

The Golden Donut Award

Anish Kapoor at the Lisson Gallery, 52-54 Bell Street

...and the award goes to...

…and the award goes to…

Anish Kapoor has become one of the most established British Artists of today. A bit of an irony since he started as an ‘outsider’ to the art establishment of the 1980s.

But that was a time when merely being from a different ethnic group sufficed to make you seem an ‘interesting’ artist; apparently we did not expect people with Indian heritage to be making European style contemporary art back then. Although he was obviously not the first, he did synthesise the two cultures quite neatly. His use of loose pigment in bright colours on top of simple geometric forms displayed on the floor was fresh and appealing. The pigment recalled an Indian tradition, the forms a more modern kind of minimal European one.

Classic 1980s Kapoor. Image: Tate

Classic 1980s Kapoor. Image: Tate

The work was not overly intellectual or emotionally involving, but carrying just enough of the right kind of artistic baggage to be let into the Fine Art club. It was instantly recognisable and marketable – he became one of the golden stars of the Lisson Gallery pantheon, the success of whom made Nicholas Logsdail seem the Svengali of the minimal. Much art at the Lisson is very ‘cool’ in tone – detached and ironically self aware.

Spin the clock forward thirty years to this new Lisson Gallery show and there is something new on offer. Paintings of resin and silicon. Meant to suggest meat, flesh and blood they hang on the wall thick and overpoweringly heavy and red. The dense physicality of the resin stretching across these huge works does have impact: almost defiling that clean and ordered space. For contrast there are a couple of more familiar mirror surface curved forms and a couple of stone floor sculptures – very smooth and cool.

New work does not meat expectations...

New work does not meat expectations…

But it is all about the meat paintings. I say paintings, but really they are reliefs. They are not successful – they fall between various styles. Imagine a similar work done by Ron Mueck or the Boyle family – it would be rivetingly hyper-real. Or imagine it done by Leon Kossoff – it would have the full emotional impact of flesh riven from the bone. Or even dear old Damien Hirst. He would leave us in no doubt about the reality of the situation, or the sensual high to be had by examining the decay of our flesh.

There is none of this. The blurb invokes Rembrandt, Soutine and Bacon, it should not. These works are neither a visceral realistic recreation of meat nor an imaginative equivalent. The colours are wrong – too simple to be real and yet somehow to descriptive to be painterly. Instead we are faced with something akin to a slasher film which has no plot, and hopes that buckets of fake gore will do the trick. Some weak minded punters may get a cheap thrill, but even for them I suspect that feeling will fade real quick. You can’t condemn an artist for trying something new, but I don’t think he will be remembered for this work.

The qualities of the resin beguiled him into making this leap, but on their own they cannot support it – Kapoor would love to regard himself as a painter, but he has been too cool to get his hands dirty up to now, but now it is too late.

He appears very interested in surfaces. He is a superficial artist – in the best possible sense. He allows the surface more prominence than other sculptors. His form merely allows the surface to display its properties – colour, reflection, absorption and so on. A while back I met a fabricator who had worked for him when I was teaching a 3D modelling class. I remarked that some of the sculptures at his previous Lisson show (this was in 2007) looked like a Maya primitive object with one or two vertices pulled out and then carved or cast on a large scale in a material with a gorgeous surface. He agreed, and said that was pretty much the case. But in a way this allows the simple forms to speak, and that is all to the good.

Some say his work is spiritual, but I would say that it is – to me anyway – blank. Perhaps my spiritual life is void, but I would suggest any spirituality seen in this work is a cultural overlay brought by the viewer. Who cares though, when the surfaces are this delicious?

you can see the centre of the universe from here.

You can see the centre of the universe from here.

Talkin’ Serra (part two)

Concluding part of a visit to Richard Serra at the Gagosian Gallery in King’s Cross with David Cook and Richard Guest. (continued from here)

Richard Serra's Backdoor Pipeline photo by David Cook

Richard Serra’s Backdoor Pipeline photo by David Cook

Richard: Ha, ha, yes, that’s a fair summary – if I feel I know an artist’s work a bit (and in Serra’s case I think back to a big Saatchi show in the Eighties), I don’t particularly want to see more of the same; I want to learn and experience something new. With London Cross I had a strong feeling of “file under Richard Serra”. But like you say, it does have that sense of threat about it (but without the visceral thrill at the Saatchi show that these things could fall on you at any moment and squash you flat), and a scale that tells you there is something bigger in the room than you.

The walls of the room got me thinking – they (hardboard? Temporary. Painted white in an even rollered texture) are very similar to the ones in Tate Britain and Modern and Saatchi), don’t give you the impression you’re in a real room. I wonder whether this robs the work of its power to a certain extent – the threat is weakened because you are standing in an unreal space – you have temporarily stepped out of “reality” into a zone of art contemplation. How important do you think context is to these works?

An aside: Kim Gordon (visual artist and former member of Sonic Youth) in her autobiography, Girl In A Band (2014, Faber & Faber) (it’s an excellent read by the way), says that she knew Larry Gagosian as a teenager and at the time, “[Larry] sold schlocky, mass-produced prints of works by contemporary artists…in cheap, ugly metal frames”. Later she says, “He was…the last person on the planet I would have ever thought would later become the world’s most powerful art dealer.”

David: Well it makes it very clear that the gallery is really a showroom. This fact usually isn’t that manifest though – but because Serra’s work has the durability of Stonehenge almost, it makes the gallery seem very transient. Which it obviously is. I don’t remember thinking anything like that about the Saatchi show, which I also remember clearly. That was like being with some dangerous animals in an open enclosure. This show felt a bit more like a pet shop!

Some works are more self-contained though – they bring their own space with them and don’t rely on the space of the gallery in the same way. I am thinking in particular about ‘Backdoor Pipeline’ which is a work I think we both found intriguing. Two sheets of half-inch steel – corroded to a uniform brown rust colour – folded into a curved tunnel that you are invited to walk through. Is it too literal to view this as some kind of birthing metaphor? Or given the title are we being excreted when we walk out of the other end?

Richard: Given the shape of the entrance, I’d say Serra was strongly hinting at a birth canal. This is a very different experience to London Cross. Insomuch as a Serra can be seductive, this is. I can imagine sitting inside it for hours; the way the light from the other opening reveals itself and gently illuminates the interior curve is very satisfying. It looks as if Backdoor Pipeline has spent a lot of time outside in the rain – it’s a weathered-looking soft brown. The patina lends the metal a warmth the other works in the show lack. After the metal pseudo-graveyard which is Ramble, Backdoor Pipeline seems positively organic!

Richard Serra's Backdoor Pipeline photo by David Cook

Richard Serra’s Backdoor Pipeline photo by David Cook

 

David: Ramble for me is the least successful piece. It was just an obstacle between London Cross and Backdoor Pipeline. But it shares a slight hint of the representational with the latter. We both found that hint slightly atypical for Serra’s work and I think that is significant.

Overall I was struck by the muteness of all his work – of a lack of direct reference to modern culture, life and imagery. Air travel, the internet, photography: all are absent. These sculptures are as mute as the Easter Island statues, or Stonehenge. Like ‘Henge, the only real cultural reference it contains is the use of a very particular material – in Serra’s case rolled steel. This is something that future archaeologists will be able to trace to the late 20th Century, and probably to specific parts of the US. But as to why we transported these huge bits of metal across oceans there will be no clue.

I would be happy to use the word monumental to describe his work but the question is – a monument to what?

Richard: Yes, I think Serra’s work ignores all but the basic experiences of life: birth, obstacles, death. Maybe he thinks nothing else is worth confronting: no other subject matter would create the same visceral reaction in the viewer.

What makes writing about these sculptures so difficult is that a big part of the experience of seeing them is the sheer scale of the things. Without being in their presence, their power is greatly diminished – as ideas what are they?

David: They are difficult to write about because not only are they infuriatingly blank, but they do also have enormous presence. In the sense though that the humans walking around in the space are part of the work I think it is more akin to an installation than a sculpture, and that dictates the scale. I don’t think that is a factor when talking about Don Judd or Carl Andre whose work seems more about shape, arrangement, the play of light and so on. Serra’s work is more of a place than a thing.

Serra was born in 1939 and I think World War 2 has influenced his work. For some postwar artists it made human representation impossible and Serra, even though a generation younger than Pollock et al, saw no way to include any direct representation. But unlike say Judd or Andre whose work seems dedicated to formal beauty and harmony (feel free to disagree!), Serra is trying to monumentalise an abstract version of the human spirit. Or parts of it anyway. Almost as if he had been an alien trying to reconstruct us from radio telescope information without knowing what we looked like and then project it back to us in a way we can feel but we can’t see; bypassing the conscious part of the brain which is so obsessed with images and patterns.

David in Backdoor Pipeline photo by Richard Guest

David in Backdoor Pipeline photo by Richard Guest

 

 

Talkin’ Serra (part one)

A visit to Richard Serra at the Gagosian Gallery in King’s Cross with David Cook and Richard Guest.

Gagosian Gallery intercom by Richard Guest

Gagosian Gallery intercom by Richard Guest

Richard: This is a space I’ve not visited before; you told me it was big, so I was anticipating scale. And Serra’s work is big and heavy and metal and I was fully expecting lots of slabs of steel resting against each other in precarious, dangerous-looking ways. Only one work disappointed me by living up to this and that was London Cross.
Given that the siting of Serra’s work is so important, I found the entrance to the exhibition really interesting. You enter the gallery through a reception area with a desk to your left. There’s a shop/ office next to it, and straight ahead openings to two exhibition spaces. To your right a spiral staircase suggests there is a second floor (but it’s closed to the public), and beyond this lies another opening/ doorway. No work is immediately visible.  It’s a curiously blank way to begin an exhibition – the lighting is cold – it filled me with a kind of sense of funereal expectation.  David, you’ve seen other shows in this gallery – was the set-up similar with them or is this something specific to the Serra?
David: I have seen three shows here before – Cy Twombly, Georg Baselitz and Jenny Saville. All painters and all working to a scale directly aimed at institutional buyers (by the gallery if not by the artist). I find it a pretty cold space to be honest, but the calibre of artists cannot be ignored. I think that there are similarly huge spaces now with a bit of character and warmth, but this feels like a temple of high seriousness. Richard Serra is in many ways a perfect artist for it.

I think it is very hard not to have preconceptions about Serra’s work once you have seen a couple. It is very uncompromising and monolithic. Or monometallic. It causes spaces to be constructed around it rather than fit in to existing ones. I think that is a huge plus – it stakes a claim for art to be in the modern world, to occupy space. Art is very easily marginalised and made into decorative or bland wall covering. Serra’s work stands its ground and so tends to divide opinion.

This show consists of only four pieces. The space, as you say, is huge: but it is very amply filled by these four works. I find that simplicity very refreshing. He is not trying to spin his themes out into untold variations, but seems content to let each one speak.

Richard: I like it that the exhibition is so pared down – simplicity makes it memorable. And it functions as a showcase: each of the four works acts as a representative of a distinct strand of Serra’s work (each with its own scale). The walls are white, the floors poured, polished concrete; it looks like an art institution. All of which makes the gallery seem like a shop built for the busy buyer. You made a very interesting point when we were walking around about imagining the works in a carpeted space – it’s very difficult to see these works being owned by an individual. Who do you think would buy these works?

David: Well, someone with more than a big garden and an understanding partner. Quite a few of his big works are commissioned – and not just by plutocrats who put them in front of the offices they own to intimidate their employees. Although I think there might be a bit of that…a few of the public commissions have been controversial like Tilted Arc, because of his ‘marmitey’ quality. And that raises the question of who art in public spaces is really *for*. Does it have to be so bland that no-one dislikes it even though it means no-one actually likes it? Or is it the taste of an elite being oppressively imposed on those of us who live/work/study in these places?

Interestingly (at least according to Wikipedia) the top price for a Serra sculpture is only $1.65m (and that was back in the 1980s). So compared to some artists of lesser stature he is a bargain! But the imposing character of the work makes it difficult to live with I guess… although, interestingly, the drawings are relatively expensive. Easier to live with, obviously. But it bucks the otherwise universal trend of bigger = more expensive. Almost all art obeys this, but maybe there is a point on the size graph where the price per artistic square inch goes down?

London Cross by David Cook

London Cross by David Cook

Richard: That’s a really interesting notion – is there a maximum size beyond which an artwork becomes de trop and therefore in some way suspect? – like a balloon with a potentially dangerous volume of gas inside.

Anyway, the first room we entered contained London Cross. This for me was the least successful of the four works. It did what I expected a Richard Serra sculpture to do – it was big and flat and heavy and looked precariously balanced. What I remember talking about in this room was how the work had been installed…

David: I am fascinated by your reaction to this piece because as far as I can tell, you are disappointed because it met your expectations! For most people I think, the works they like best in any show are the ones that conform most closely to the ideal of their expectation. They come to a exhibition with a pre-imagined experience and live it out when they are going round the gallery. And I don’t exclude myself from that either. Sometimes it’s hard for a viewer to spontaneously absorb non-canon works where an artist moves away from a core style, but that is what a creative artist who is not stuck in a rut will do!

London Cross is from the core Serra style, and the room had clearly been constructed around the work – and in a lot of ways the work is more solid than the building that supports it. The cross piece hangs overhead in a vaguely threatening way, but as it is obviously well supported it is an abstract threat. Its weight, material and scale suggest it is more than simply a way of dividing space.

Perhaps our image of Serra in the UK is a bit narrow and very much shaped by the Broadgate sculpture [http://www.broadgate.co.uk/art/Fulcrum], because looking at his work as a whole the other pieces in this show are not in fact so atypical. Am I/we really so parochial?