You’ve Lost That Conceptual Feeling

 

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Book burning Latham style…

John Latham at the Serpentine Gallery/’Speak’ at the Serpentine Sackler Gallery (Tania Bruguera, Douglas Gordon, Laure Prouvost and Cally Spooner)

2 Mar 2017 to 21 May 2017

John Latham is an artist whose repuation rests on nothing. Or very little. This show – a survey of his most exhibitable works – puts the late artist at the centre of the minimalist conceptual movement that emerged in the 1960s and 1970s. This movement embraced counter cultural vaules, is uncomfortable with the production of objects, mistrusts the art market and  attempts to achieve transfiguration through ideas. Latham conceived the concept of the Noit – the ‘No It’ – as a motif, or indeed a motive, for his work. He was very thin.

I decided to go for a little trip to the Serpentine today – didn’t know what was on, but it’s one of the few galleries to open on a Bank Holiday Monday. While parking my bike I heard someone walking round the outside who had not been in say to their companion, actually say out loud: “…conceptual rubbish, Emperor’s New Clothes…”. I cannot think of any other single phrase that irritates me as much. If I hear it I know that person is not only unwilling to approach new ideas but is unable to think up an original way in which to flaunt that ignorance.

So I was feeling quite favourably towards John Latham as I walked in. He is an artist that will test your patience though.  When I go to a gallery I like to think, but not necessarily just ‘What the hell is that?’

In truth I have not always been a fan and I’m probably still not. Mostly because I know he burned a lot of books, and I find that troubling. Joesph Beuys was a fan though, and I am a huge admirer of Beuys. But then again Joseph Beuys was bonkers. I strongly suspect Latham was bonkers too. In this revealing interview he seems oblivious to the obvious impressions the book burning would make and focuses instead on secondary formal considerations: how the book stuck out of the canvas, how the open pages at once denied the time based notions of reading but exposed the ‘strata’ of the book. I don’t know if they were good books or not, but book burning still has its authoritarian censorship stigma. Latham was making these works when Pol Pot was rounding up anyone who wore glasses in Cambodia, so he cannot have been unaware.  This peversely oblique attitude to how his work might be received is one of Latham’s many opaque attributes. Burning a stack of Encyclopedia Brittanica in London in 1966 surely had obvious symbolism and it disingenuous to ignore it. The burnt book works remain Latham’s most iconic output.

Some of these works are genuinely powerful and arresting such as his reworking of El Greco’s The Burial of Count Orgaz, (1958). This painting is surely as good as anything Rauschenberg was doing at the time.

Somewhere in the second part of last century the mirror of art splintered into the bewildering array of fragments that we see today. Not just different styles but different modes of activity altogether. Matisse and Mondrian for example had very different ideas and approaches but they expressed them through the same medium – paint on canvas. If you remove that commonality and allow art to be made of anything – or nothing – artists have less and less in common with one another. Some people are making objects, striving to make them original and new. Others are making more of a cultural commentary of that historical moment.

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The Cosmos as envisioned by Latham

Latham stands at the root of this bifurcation or at least of one splinter. He is a maker of objects, aesthetic ones too – but they are tangential to his practice. Really they are nothing more (or less) than a snapshot of his lively but rambling mind; so the show is pleasantly full and varied. Given that we are living in the post-conceptual age, this show with videos, floor based objects and things hanging on the wall looks familiar and almost traditional. Moreover you can feel these works were the product of a lively (if somewhat deranged) mind. There is a lot of cosmic subtext to the works and a time-based element. There is the inevitable film that I did not have time for, but seemed to evoke Norman McLaren – it seemed quite playful and sensual, lots of abstract form and colour. Not what I expected from the Godfather of Minimalism at all.

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Stars and stripes featuring ironically on a Latham roller blind painting.

The paintings on roller blinds seemed conceived in a spirit of fun also – time based mutational paintings which sardonincally reference the giant unstretched canvasses of colour field painting then in vogue. Ah…so he was mates with Barry Flanagan. Now it makes a bit more sense! There are a number of ‘One Second Drawings’ leaning on a characteristically grubby white shelf. Black dots on a white ground – they do have a sort of negative cosmic intensity to them, a snapshot of an artistic black hole you are looking at for a lot longer than it took him to make. God filling the void, first mark best mark. Pollock redux. It is all of those things and none of them: either you buy the link or you don’t. At the other end of the scale there is monumental land art – The Five Sisters – which although simply shaped and iconic is anything but minimal in scale. All these seem a pointed and sarcastic responses to the land grab of the artistic high ground by abstract expressionism and its children – by American art in other words. Along with his (in)famous ‘Still and Chew’ (1966-7) where he invited his students to chew and regurgitate Clement Greenberg’s ‘Art and Culture’, it makes his cultural position very clear in place and time. It is a rejection of received wisdom and authority in the first instance and then a further rejection of the Transatlantic respawning of it – a rejection of the whole process of authoritarian paternalistic culture’s self-regeneration. The ghost of Dada permeates this as many other things – not least his American contemporary Robert Rauschenberg – and the description of Dada as ‘a little yes and a big no’ also fits Latham pretty well.

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‘One Second Drawings’ leaning on a characteristically grubby white shelf.

Latham’s talk of ‘skoobs’ – backwards ideas of books – and ‘noits’ sound like words from the Bizarro universe. They suggest that he was great at unravelling ideas but not so great at stringing them together again in a comprehensible way. He comes over as a sort of English Duchamp – but without a manifesto,  an English eccentric rather than a French Revolutionary or an English Beuys – a sardonic dreamer rather than a charismatic radical. The white wood mounts for some of these works are showing their age and quite a lot of scuffs and fingermarks from handling that speak of a history. They are a bit projecty and charming – they are objects, objects from which the ideas have blown away and what remains is just the husk of the work. Charming, yes, but it can’t lead me anywhere. This feeling is confirmed when I wander up to the Serpentine Sackler Gallery for ‘Speak’: a disparate and unengaging tribute show featuring contemporary artists’ response to Latham’s iconic minimalism. But sadly anything times zero will always be zero.

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Conceptual door outside Serpentine gallery…leading nowhere.

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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

I’m a fan of a man called Keith

Keith Arnatt's Self Burial

Keith Arnatt’s Self Burial

I’m a Real Photographer Keith Arnatt Photographs 1974 -2002 by David Hurn and Claire Grafik

Boycotting all galleries and exhibitions for Frieze week, but looking at a book instead. A while ago I went over to the Serpentine with the intention of looking at a show, but it was in between times and there was only the pavilion/coffee shop and the bookshop open. We looked at the pavilion and Mrs Eyeball talked at (slightly unnecessary) length to the young guys who had been curating the Marina Abramovic show. The one where she just looked at attendees and whispered in their ears. I was only half listening, although apparently it changed some people’s lives. Another one I missed. I went to the bookshop instead and was rummaging around in there and found a treasure.

I’m a Real Photographer is a survey of Keith Arnatt’s work. Previously I had only really known Arnatt’s iconic Self Burial from 1969. This is one of the most wonderful of all late 20th Century works for me – it encapsulates the contrast between making an egotistic work of art and being naturally self-effacing. Literally self-effacing in this case. Its simple deadpan delivery is so strong against all the falsely dramatised narratives that we encounter in film, tv and more ‘expressive’ art. The simple sequence of photographs documenting the narrative – tragic but also hilarious.

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I looked for other work by him for a while and found very little until I found this book. It turns out that his work as a photographer was incredibly varied. Sometimes art just speaks to you and no effort is involved on your part and that is how I felt when I found this book. There are crazy pictures in here, of old rubbish tips, cows, portraits of people with their dogs, dog excrement, toys… yet there is a collective and poignant humanity to them that is eternal and transcendent.

Some of the pictures of industrial gloves appear patinated like the most exquisite bronzes, but they also point to our poisoning of our world with toxicity, and by extension our inability to even touch things without protection. We are alienated from our own image. The pictures of discarded toys also have this pathos, combined with a sensual power  that makes them seductive and dangerous.

Keith Arnatt's Tin Can Sunsets

Keith Arnatt’s Tin Can Sunsets

The Tin Can sunsets are slightly different – satirical, and exploring the worthy trope of beauty being where you look for it. Ahead of brit pack artists subsequently exploring the dump (like Webster & Noble) in terms not only of time, but also of quality. The care and painterliness of this body of work just make it a continual delight in a way that is all too rare in a world of conceptual one liners.

There are also many other wonderful things in the book – the notes from his wife, the double portraits of people and their dogs – that make you wonder why Arnatt was not more successful. Even when I can’t quite go with him – the pictures of dog turds for instance – I trust his judgement and hope that one day I will be able to see it as he saw it.

If you have ever read London Fields by that effete literary snob Martin Amis you may like me have a tarnished association with the name Keith. Doubtless unfairly it is a name that evokes sparse beards covering pasty chins, ill fitting polo shirts and darts. It is a shocking admission to myself that exotic artists’  names are likely to make me look at work in a different way, but I am proud to be a fan of a man called Keith.