Michael Andrews: A Conversation (Part Three)

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School IV -Barracuda under Skipjack Tuna, 1978

Part Three of my conversation with Richard Guest about Michael Andrews.

Read part one here & part two here!

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David: There were a number of large underwater paintings of fish swimming in the upstairs galleries. I was wondering how they fit into this…fish are potentially a banal subject. Obviously there is the parallel of floating, and a kind of luminosity to the surface and again the ambiguous relationship to photography. What do you make of them?

Richard: The fish paintings really do look like nothing so much as pretty paintings of fish. I’ve been staring at the painting above for a while and I’m getting nothing else from it. It’s very relaxing – like a fish tank. I feel distanced from the subject matter and it holds little to no meaning for me in art historical terms – it doesn’t fall into any of the usual categories/ genres. There’s just the emptiness you talked about (and I can see why you mentioned Alan Watts. And the artist’s hand is missing – no expressive marks to muddy the waters.). Were the fish paintings the latest? Perhaps Andrews was always working toward this empty space. A moment for a tired patron to clear away their mental cobwebs. Matisse’s philosophy taken to its logical conclusion? What do you think was Andrews’ attitude to the selling of his work?

David: He once wrote: ‘I don’t paint for money, but I do sell for money’. Seeing as James Kirkman and Anthony d’Offay were his dealers, I would say his attitude was pretty clear. He certainly wasn’t about to flood the market – he certainly never felt the need to make multiples or anything like that – all we have is the paintings. I am not sure that he envisioned where the paintings would end up too much, but to the extent he did, I think would have wanted them to be a place to lose yourself (or your Self) momentarily.

What is the difference though between his work and that of a talented amateur – who might well paint fish, or a landscape from a photograph? They are not like Gerhard Richter’s blank photo paintings. Richter’s use of photography undermines its documentary properties and generally reflects on the truth of the perceived image, whereas Andrews seems more about using photographs for what he can take from them – more like Bacon. They are reference but he is happy to forget them too. There are passages in the fish paintings in the backgrounds which are breathtakingly beautiful pieces of abstract composition, but he always frames them within a figurative context. That contrast is not the work of an amateur.

School I, 1977

School I, 1977

I think he is always flirting with analogy though – the fish are called ‘School’ and he was apparently hinting at human behaviour, conformity, predation etc. But it can really only be described as a very loose analogy that is submerged in formal play of light and texture.His thought process was often unclear. He was aware of this and did not want it to intrude into the paintings, where his visual intuition ruled. But there is a conflict and tension between the two that feeds this sort of intertwining between the figurative and the abstract, the traditional and the modern, in his work.  If we ignore the connotations of the subject and concentrate on sensation – a lot of which is about lightness, floating, flying etc we will approach the work more closely.

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Thames Painting – the Estuary, 1994-5

You say the artist’s hand is missing, but I would say it is invisible. He certainly hasn’t removed it – he made all the paintings by hand – even when he was stencilling or using a spraycan. Everything is delicately felt. Can we finish by talking a little bit about ‘Thames Painting – the Estuary, 1994-5’ – his last painting? In Estuary he had the painting on the floor and washed piles of mud and fine stones over the canvas with turpentine – like a real estuary in miniature. There are sharp depictions of old fashioned lightermen and fishermen combined with a streak of varnish that seems to have escaped from a Sigmar Polke painting…does it seem like the summit of his work?

Richard: It’s my favourite of his paintings. It teeters on the edge of total abstraction – like an English take on Tachism, its structure hidden in the blasted, dark, land and seascape. The figures are little more than silhouettes seen from a distant cliff edge. The paint marks that describe the estuary are spectacular in scale by comparison. The figures could so easily be wiped out with a brushstroke, or a spill of varnish. The land and sea look like shots of the Earth taken from space.  And yet the landscape’s very subtly described – there are no hard outlines. It’s a vertiginous experience as if the viewer is being tipped head first into the picture. The dark patch at the centre of the painting is enthralling, and appears to be drawing the rest of the painting into it (but I love negativity, so I would see that). I wonder if he knew this was his last painting.

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Michael Andrews: 30 October 1928 – 19 July 1995

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Michael Andrews – A Conversation (Part Two)

 

Lights VII – A Shadow, 1974

Part Two of my conversation with Richard Guest about Michael Andrews. Part One here.

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David: One thing Michael Andrews does not do is clearly set out his intention. I don’t think he has a program which is one of the reasons he appeals to me. The fusion of contemporary imagery (often through photographs), with a painterly surface and traditional, directly observed drawing further masks his thought process.

The Lights series is not really a series in a strict sense, but it is linked by the balloon viewpoints. This sensation of floating above things clearly appealed to him – of apprehending a very wide and distant view with nothing in the way and having a god-like clarity.  Lights VII seems to have the composition and handling of a Rothko, and the palette and light of a Corot. Abstract Expressionism pulling against a representational landscape ‘view’. The shadow defines scale and space but the drawn elements are evanescent – only just there. It’s a really unusual fusion of these disparate artistic strands that shouldn’t be able to live together; yet it seems so natural. But what is in front of us feels like air and not abstract pictorial space. Or is that just all in my head?

Richard: No, I don’t think it is. And, it’s a great sensation. This is the first picture in the exhibition to make me wonder if Andrews’ concern is purely with picture-making, that the dialogues and tensions in the works are him merely trying to resolve pictorial challenges. This painting in particular seems not so much about intention as exploration – the balloon being a good vehicle (no pun intended). I’m trying to discover the content – is there any, or is this picture-making for its own sake?

Lights I - Out of Doors 1970

Lights I – Out of Doors (1970) Installation view at the Gagosian Gallery

David: I think that question came up because we were talking about that painting in a formal way, rather than just exploring feelings. It brought me up short because I really can’t say for sure. One thing we can clear him of is having a Manifesto. He is not trying to lay down a set of formal rules for painting for the next thousand years, but although Andrews deliberately avoids Expressionistic or overly dramatic subjects I don’t think this means they are devoid of content. I think the content is essentially quietly spiritual – which is an inadequate word for something so rational and secular. It is a space between the painting and the viewer for resting a moment with clarity of mind. It is especially manifest in this picture (Lights VII). To confirm this feeling I did what I very rarely do and read something the artist said about his work – in this case an interview Andrews did with William Feaver. He seems to have been taken by the phrase ‘skin encapsulated ego’ that comes from R D Laing (this was the 1970s, remember), and simultaneously an image he saw in a newspaper of a balloon – that seemed to him a perfect image of this. It was a serendipitous visual metaphor for the shedding of the weight of ego. In other pictures in the series you see the balloon or part of it, but in this painting (number 7- the last of the Lights pictures), the balloon itself disappears leaving only its shadow.

Richard: It’s about nullification then – it makes a lot of sense – the Rothko-like composition, the slightness of the image and gestures. Back to feelings, looking at the paintings again, there’s a sense of loss about a lot of them, a lack, a not-quite-thereness, or some kind of imbalance with a resulting sense of unease. I’ve been trying to work out what distinguishes them from straightforward landscapes and I think that’s what it is.
David: I think you’re on to something there – this work is far more complex than it first appears. Partly I think that is because there is a recognisable image that has not been grossly distorted we unconsciously underestimate the ‘artistic’ content and just look at the pretty picture. In Andrews’ case this involves a paring down – of the subject and also of the thickness of the paint on the canvas. I don’t think that is a coincidence. Like many 20th century painters Andrews preference was to diminish the artist’s hand in his painting – he was just subtler and more successful in his approach at blending into the background of his work than most. In a sense there is no real foreground in his painting. The foreground in Lights is somehow where the viewer is.

‘The only difference between a madman and myself is that I am not mad’ as Salvador Dali used to say…similarly the difference between a Michael Andrews landscape and a normal one seems to be everything and nothing. And going back to your previous question I don’t think this is picture making for its own sake but a supremely skillful use of painting as a medium of expression. What we are offered is not a portrayal of the landscape as such but the definition – almost the synthesis – of a feeling. I think there are ideas from Zen and Alan Watts floating about here from what I can gather, but while that might be obtrusive in most people’s work Andrews seems able to weave it into the structure without the painting becoming a riddle with an easy philosophical key. That idea of creating openness in the structure of art is very wonderful – it leaves space for the viewer. It is not the same as just producing unresolved work.

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Continued in Part Three

Michael Andrews: A Conversation (Part One)

Andrews, Michael, 1928-1995; The Cathedral, The Southern Faces/Uluru (Ayers Rock)

The Cathedral, The Southern Faces/Uluru (Ayers Rock), 1987

Earlier in the year, I visited the Michael Andrews show at the Gagosian Gallery in London with Richard Guest. We spent the next couple of months exchanging thoughts about the show. Definitely one of our toughest assignments: here are the results!

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David: I first came across Michael Andrews’ through his Ayers Rock paintings in the mid 1980s, some of which are in this show. I didn’t know quite what to make of them, but I was intrigued and have always tried to see his work when I get the chance – not that often. This is a really great show covering his entire career – an amazing show for a private gallery to mount. It’s clearly a sign that, twenty years after his death, his reputation is at last reaching the level it deserves. For too long he has been eclipsed by his better known friends (Bacon, Auerbach et al). Is this the first time you have seen a retrospective of his work?

Richard: The first time I saw a lot of his work was at a 2001 retrospective at Tate Britain. I was working there, which meant I got to see the exhibition several times. It was a shock to discover a British artist who was so interesting and prolific, and who I’d somehow overlooked. The only work I’d seen up to that point was the Ayers Rock paintings (and that was on TV).

This show is the right size, I think, it needs to be big so the viewer can get an idea of who he was and what he painted – his subject matter and approaches are quite diverse. Shall we talk about one of the early paintings?

David: I’m not sure that he was all that prolific. Apparently the sixty four paintings in this show represent about a quarter of his entire output. Which might go some way to explaining why he isn’t better known. The art market is driven by volume, not quality.

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The Colony Room I, 1962

 

This painting shows us inside the Colony Room – a drinking club on Dean Street in Soho that was famously the haunt of Francis Bacon and others keen to drink the afternoon away. I always wanted to be a member, partly I think because this painting made the prospect appear more glamorous than it really was. The way Lucian Freud is staring out at us makes him look like Hugh Grant – but I think in reality it was a bunch of lost souls trying to draw strength from each other’s loneliness. Perhaps only Bacon could really do this – I am not entirely sure that Andrews perceives the Baudelairean depths of desperation in the scene before him. It seems urbane, and the hideous institutional green gloss of the walls is softened into a kind of Soho pastoral. It’s a fascinating painting though with a lot of movement and life. Some people are sharply in focus and recognisable, others are painted out – faceless nonentities. It has a slightly drunken quality – unsteady but riding a wave. It certainly contains the tension between representational and non-representational painting that is such a key feature of Andrews’ work.

Richard: Yes, I think we can see Francis Bacon with his back to us on the right-hand side of the painting. For me it doesn’t look urbane and glamorous so much as claustrophobic, oppressive and suggestive of German Expressionist painting. There’s quite a lot of black in the mix and the figures tend to melt into the dark background. There are a few anxious faces. And an overwhelming sensation of things slipping away – expressions, detail, light. And time, and although he apparently spent a lot of it there I’m not sure from this that he really enjoyed it. It’s an interesting painting in this show, because there’s nothing else like it. I think the composition and colour hint at the landscapes to come. Do you think of Andrews as primarily a landscape painter?

David: He certainly has a very strong connection with landscape, but his approach is too varied and oblique to call him a landscape painter which sounds, (to me anyway), slightly pejorative. Some paintings appear to be pure landscape:

SAX A.D. 832 – First Painting, 1982

On the face of it this seems to be almost the opposite of the urban Expressionist tinged Colony Room painting: quiet, bucolic, quintessentially English. The muted palette of grey and green… it is as though we are moving through a large landscape almost like light itself, still but effortlessly distant. Perhaps all this is deceptive though – the angle is clearly from a low flying perspective, possibly that of a bird or a balloon. (Have subsequently found out he was up a telegraph pole). The road cleaves the landscape in two, but the only thing that might be on it – the horse – turns away from it. It’s the sort of thing that could be significant or merely happenstance when Andrews took the photo – it presumably was a photo – for reference. He has an ambivalent relationship with photography – he  uses it but feels its limitations. He did paint portraits from life but I am not sure about his landscapes. There seem to be some watercolours and sketches but I am sure these use photography too as pretty direct reference and some of the paintings have a distinctly photographic look – although still feel painterly, which is a hard trick to pull off. Should we be aware of paintings’ sources, and if we are should we care?

Richard: Not necessarily – I think it depends on the artist’s intention. Is he drawing our attention to his source material? In the case of SAX A.D. 832 – First Painting, the composition doesn’t look like it would be possible without some kind of photographic source. The landscape suggests that a hill where the viewer is standing would be unlikely – the road looks flat, there’s no suggestion of a rise, which leaves the possibility of a bridge being the vantage point. But the height above the track or road looks wrong for someone standing on a bridge (painting at an easel). It could just about be right for a photograph taken from a car seat passing over a bridge. It makes sense that it was taken from a telegraph pole. It’s a really odd vantage point. Andrews has presented a painting with an “obvious” photographic source – no one could paint up a telegraph pole. So, why has he done so? Perhaps he is trying to ask us how we perceive our landscape post-photography, and what this shift in perception means.

 

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.

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

On the Road in Bucharest

Create like a god, command like a king, work like a slave. (Constantin Brancusi)

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Brancusi’s l’oiseau dans l’espace c 1932 (Bird in Space – Sold at Philips in NY for $100,000 in 2013)

I was whisked to Bucharest for work a week or so ago and although I didn’t have long, I did take a look at a couple of things. Although I was not really expecting the city to really be the Paris of the East, it did in some ways feel like that. There is the contrast between ornate Nineteenth century architecture and modern brutalist apartments, chaotic traffic and lots of graffiti. The women are very dressed up too, and there is a certain intense superficiality that feels Parisian. But people are a lot more friendly (how could they not be?) and the few tourists have even fewer places to eat. Its galleries and museums are also very different.

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Nicely shaded graffiti in Bucharest

After a long search for food one afternoon we visited the National Art Collections museum. A massive museum  which houses a spectacularly mediocre collection of post-impressionist Romanian art culled from individual collections that the state has acquired: it was a dispiriting experience. It is a large building with a handsome courtyard; there are several doors. When you go in you are not sure you have chosen the right one because there is no-one else to be seen. But in a little while a cloakroom attendant appears and directs you to the ticket office in the bowels of the establishment. There is a lot of stone on the floor and walls and everything echoes, you are still the only visitor in sight. When you get there and buy a ticket the lady gives you a map and tells you at length the route to take in order to see absolutely everything. But museum fatigue sets in around about the second room and you realise you are never going to make it. There are endless rooms of genre scenes, flowers landscapes charmless dingy daubs that break your will to look at art. But you are the only punters there and the staff (of whom there are many) are very keen to help you round and make sure that you see everything…so you go on. Room after room of hopeless stupidity of so many artists pursuing a goal with no vision and the equally terrible determination of the state to keep it all.

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The beautiful house where we were filming

But a Brancusi exhibition in the other National Gallery a bit further along the road was closed. Days passed. It was my last morning and it was raining hard. I had to walk all around the building (which is very large) to find the right door for the Brancusi show. I felt briefly like a pilgrim. When I found it, my faith in looking at art was restored because although only two small rooms, it was a gem of a show. Black & white photographs of Brancusi’s studio in Paris that he took himself shortly after being taught how to use a camera by Man Ray. They are breathtakingly atmospheric, and totally fill you with the aura of creativity of that time and of the man himself. Beautifully composed, the forms breathe next to one another – they seem relaxed in a way that they never could in a gallery, freshly created or still coming into being. Behaving naturally like animals in their natural habitat rather than a zoo.

Charmingly, also in the gallery there was a little stand with wood, marble and metal and tools to cut and polish them to give the visitor an idea of Brancusi’s favourite materials, without safety restrictions.959549-Brancusi_studio,_Le_Baiser_1923-1925,_La_Colonne_sans_fin,_detruite_ulterieurement,_La_Colonne_sans_fin_I_v._1925,_LOiseau_dans_lespace,_marbre_blanc_1925

Brancusi was of course Romanian, but he went to live and work in Paris, the Paris of the West with the rude French people. The crumbling legacy of the Ceausescu era lies quite close to the surface here and much of value has, like Brancusi, gone to find richer pastures.

I was dismayed to learn that in Paris you can visit a reconstruction of this studio, which cannot be anything but a soulless theme park. Paris may have all the crowds at its celebrated shows, but there is something in Bucharest of life that is still felt and experienced directly in a way that some more sophisticated places have forgotten.

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Romanians saying what we all feel from time to time. In the men’s toilets at the Fire Bar in Bucharest.