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…

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To Be Perfectly Frank – The Movie

selfportraitauerbach-largeJust back from a screening of Frank, a new documentary portrait of Frank Auerbach by his son, film-maker Jake Auerbach at King’s Place.

It was a simple format – Frank was shown a video of his retrospective in Bonn (the same show now at Tate Britain) and he talks about the paintings and issues arising.

Overall you are left with the sense that Frank is one of the few people who has not wasted his time on Planet Earth. He has pursued the ostensibly pointless diversion of painting with an obsession that endows it with extraordinary intensity and unique value.

The seemingly limitless choices of creativity seem like a paradise to those of us who live within walls prescribed by quotidian exigencies. We are constrained by our lives, but to paint without restriction imposes its own harder discipline. Frank has accepted that servitude gladly and we are given the benefits of his dedication when we look at his paintings.

In the film, Frank is illuminating about the process behind his paintings but in a way that mystifies it more. There are some things that cannot be explained – they have to be experienced. When paintings ‘work’ they are precious vessels that share life experience between people over thousands of miles, over centuries. The difficulty of attaining this goal causes Frank to ruthlessly revise his work until it does: a process that can take years for a single picture.

Frank abandoned a career as an actor in favour of painting. This seems almost unbelievable given his apparent reticence to talk about his work or appear on camera. His stance seems almost the obverse of Andy Warhol who seems to have been shy in the extreme in his private life and the reverse in his artistic one. Frank may have kept the art world at arm’s length, but he knows exactly how long his arm is…

His work is the embodiment of the tension between the Old Masters and Contemporary  Art, yet it belongs to neither. It goes its own way. Stick to your guns, Frank!

To Be Perfectly Frank

Frank Auerbach at Tate Britain Millbank London SW1

Miles Richmond at Messum’s Cork St London W1

Frank Auerbach Head of JYM 1984-5

Frank Auerbach Head of JYM 1984-5

The Frank Auerbach show at Tate Britain is a very classy retrospective hung by the artist and long time Auerbach cohort Catherine Lampert (depicted in some of the pictures). It does not follow the usual pattern of a retrospective: although chronological it doesn’t really attempt to show linear artistic development. Rather it shows evolving treatments of the same themes (sometimes the exact same ones) over a lifetime’s work. And at Tate Britain rather than Tate Modern it eschews the ephemeral trendiness of the latter for a more enduring relationship with the past.

Auerbach is famous, slightly notorious in some ways, for his extreme work ethic – seven long days a week in the studio. But a relatively small output – a couple of dozen paintings a year. This show is a core sample of that intense output, showing the same sitters and views from the 1950s to today. There is no fat on it. Now well into his eighties he has not let up at all, rather the reverse – still a lot of painting he needs to do, he says, and he is more reluctant than ever to leave the studio. So what’s my excuse?

Frank in the Studio - a good day at the office...

Frank in the Studio – a good day at the office…

Sometimes I think Frank’s painting is Impressionism gone mad, sometimes it seems more like Expressionism gone sane. It is the tension between and synthesis of the two that makes his work so compelling. Everything in the work comes from observation of the subject, but he is building a pictorial equivalent of the subject through dynamic interaction with paint not an illustration. Some people just never get this. That’s just the way it goes. Yet to some he is a stubborn reactionary for whom other postwar ‘developments’ in art simply never happened.

In the years 1945-53 the gears of the world were still turning and the seeds of the future being sown despite the exhaustion following the war. Pol Pot was studying engineering in Paris and in Minnesota, the four year old Bob Dylan was singing ‘Accentuate the Positive’ at a family gathering. In London, Frank Auerbach was attending David Bomberg’s drawing classes .

Miles Richmond - Ronda Landscape

Miles Richmond – Ronda Landscape

Miles Richmond - Self Portrait

Miles Richmond – Self Portrait

Bomberg had by this time turned his back on the aggressive modernism of his youth and returned to painting from life. Also there was Miles Richmond, whose work is also on show in London at the moment. Lesser known, and much more redolent of Bomberg, there is nonetheless a lot of energy and interest in Richmond’s work. It just has not forged a new vision in the way that Auerbach’s has. And I think that has a lot to do with the extreme commitment that Auerbach makes to every painting and the despair that he accordingly feels when it falls short – as all paintings inevitably do. But that only reinforces his determination to carry on. And as he is a very introspective, even insular artist who very much goes his own way oblivious to the rest of the art world, this internal conflict between energy and rational despair gives his hand its unique quality. So many artists today, almost all of them in fact, are desperate to avoid the ‘hand’ of the artist being apparent. It is not Duchampian, Warholian, Johnsian, empirical – they would maintain. But that is because their hands are weak.

Lucien Freud in bed under an Auerbach drawing (Daily Telegraph)

Lucien Freud in bed under an Auerbach drawing (Daily Telegraph)

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

Probably The Best Blind Painter in Peckham (reprise and finale).

Sargy Mann - from his 2013 show at Cadogan Contemporary

Sargy Mann – from his 2013 show at Cadogan Contemporary

It was with tremendous sadness that I belatedly learned last night of the death of Sargy Mann a couple of months ago.

You can read his obituary here, and also my previous two posts about him and his work here (2013) and here (2014).

I was very fortunate to have been taught by Sargy at Camberweil and I still think often of his passion for drawing and painting. This passion led him to surmount the seemingly impossible challenge of painting when blind. When I remember how demanding he could be about painting, I know that he felt the potential of images keenly and was only too aware that anything less than the very best you could give was a wasted opportunity.

So long then Sargy, and thank you.

From Darkness, Light.

Rembrandt – The Late Works at the National Gallery

 

Hampstead Rembrandt

Hampstead Rembrandt

 

I usually avoid these blockbuster shows but occasionally it seems that the judgement of the majority, or of the mainstream, is correct. I worry that these shows will give me to much to digest or show me things that were never meant to be seen together at once. Not fond of the crush either. All of those things were true about this show.  Nonetheless it was a worthwhile pilgrimage.

The show was a generous mix of paintings, drawings and prints. I struggled with the many stages of the various prints which felt laboured and penitent almost, almost like multiple layer comps in Photoshop but taking exponentially longer to do. A lot of them seem to get darker and darker as they go on. The end results are dramatic, and excellent in their way, but static in comparison to the drawings because they have been fixed firmly into position by multiple iterations. Whereas the drawings are free – nothing is fixed until it is all over, and even then…There is a spontaneity about Rembrandt’s drawings that captivates. As strong as Michaelangelo, and as fluid as any Chinese brushwork – his drawing  is unsurpassed. For example this ink study of a woman – the cover of my old Thames & Hudson book of Rembrandt drawings – probably took him under five minutes. Such infinite precision, in a few movements of the brush, is a window to a moment.

Rembrandt - young woman sleeping

Rembrandt – young woman sleeping

The distant past is a dark place. Often it is hard to remember that people then lived as people now, with rich distinct lives with individual dreams, loves and disappointments. Occasionally the work of an artist can be like a beacon of light in that darkness – can briefly show us what life was then, and is now.

The show starts with a room full of late self portraits: some of the very greatest of all paintings. These pictures seem completely modern, yet they were painted thirty years before the birth of J. S. Bach and only forty years after the death of Shakespeare. It is not simply a question of ‘realism’ in the treatment of light and form, it is the abandonment of pretence –  to look into the eyes of one of Rembrandt’s late self portraits is to look into his life. Like looking into the face of a friend – feeling empathy, a connection, but never entirely knowing what they are thinking and feeling. That distance made real is an implicit acknowledgement that the other is human as we are, they think and feel as we do and they are not mere shells of appearance. That is rare to find in art.

 

Washington Rembrandt

Washington Rembrandt

They are so powerful, so present in fact that they mask the shambling dead wood of the crowd. When you are connected to their gaze you are alone in the room with Rembrandt. How does he make them so great? In this show there are some old friends from the National Gallery’s own collection and the great self portrait from Kenwood House (at the top) and some new ones – this one from Washington in particular held me.

I have thought about the source of their power for years and still it is not entirely clear – they seem to have simplicity and complexity in equal measure. The composition is deceptively simple – but completely correct. Everything is in balance. The fluid or indistinct treatment of certain areas allows the eye to rest on the face and apprehend its expression. In his focus Rembrandt anticipates photography – still two hundred years away.  Intuitively Rembrandt focuses his energy and our eyes on the bits of the face we most want to see  – not the background, not the hat, but the actual face through the mask of time, of his clothes of his age. He allows light into his pictures only to illuminate what he chooses. The light that comes out of the pictures carries an echo of his soul that remains with the viewer.

 

 

 

We Are All Peasants Now

Bruegel's The Bad Shepherd

Bruegel’s ‘The Bad Shepherd’

The Bad Shepherd – Christie’s Mayfair

This fine show is a very peculiar juxtaposition of Jan Bruegel and his contemporaries with Peter Doig and a group of our contemporaries including Jeff Koons and Sarah Lucas. The ostensible link is a moral one – it seems a bit obscure – the ambiguous parable of the Bad Shepherd depicted twice here by Bruegel suggests our choice between freedom and duty. One of those Bible references that means nothing to a modern audience. Well, me anyway. Nonetheless this is an extremely fine collection of high quality stuff.

Doig - it's snowing, I think

Doig – it’s snowing, I think

Some of Doig’s best work is on show here -paintings that have travelled widely enough through 20C art to allow themselves the luxury of sensuality and know how it may still be achieved with paint even in the digital age. He has certainly come out of the other side of Abstract Expressionism in the freedom of paint application, Nolde in the fierce colouration, Richter and Polke in the use of photography. Doig does not have the same history to investigate as Richter. His world is not a product of the Holocaust, but of the post-war era. Unlike Polke he does not use photographic imagery in an ironic context. Instead he seems to find it a springboard to create a dreamlike half-memory state that through the floating paint and vibrant colours we can enter and remain suspended in for a moment.

That moment is the vital moment of connection – the slim bridge over which all artistic communication travels. Some of Doig’s earlier work seems complacent and naieve in an awkward way common to a lot of expressionist painting. Some of the more recent work too seems like Schnabel’s a little too assured of its own lovability. But these Night Fishing paintings really hit the mark.

Doig 'Night Fishing'

Doig ‘Night Fishing’

To be honest I could barely begin to look at the other contemporary stuff. Sarah Lucas seemed tame. Jeff Koons as ever is utterly pointless. Really there is nothing In any of his work that I have ever seen that I would want to go back to or think about. Even the Cicciolina pictures. I find it hard to see Jeff Koons’ work having any moral to impart and Doig seems similarly blank. But maybe the blind leading the blind is the moral nowadays.

Bruegel on the other hand remains fascinatingly morally ambivalent. I prefer the enigma to the painful translation of every element as a symbol favoured by a lot of art historians. I love the way in which he introduced Bible stories into his own contemporary world. The Triumph of Death by Bruegel has been one of my all time favourite paintings since I saw it on the cover of Black Sabbath’s Greatest Hits (The second record I ever bought – because I loved the cover before I had even heard the music) at the age of 13. But apparently it’s by Pieter Bruegel (the Elder) and anyway it’s in the Prado, sadly they didn’t have it here. But the themes are also present in his brother’s work albeit less dramatically rendered. He does not shy away from coarseness or brutality (the Massacre of the Innocents is depicted twice here) but there is reflection and sensitivity too. I am so culturally distant from him I cannot apprehend the moral lessons that he might want me to see, and a million art historian’s explanations won’t help me. His composition skills for groups of figures are second to none and his paint has a quality of luminous porcelain – at once solid and delicate.  The peasants are happy – drinking, ploughing, slaughtering. The dance of their lives is what holds me.

Perhaps the link in the modern work is this unjudging gaze that  Bruegel has  and the others (perhaps) share. If that’s right, then we are all the peasants now, dancing all to our own strange rhythm.

Bruegel watches the Dance

Bruegel watches the Dance