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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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)…

On the Road in Bucharest

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

right

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.

P1080181

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.

P1080242

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.

P1080159

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

Joseph Cornell: a conversation (part three)

Jasper Johns Target with Four Faces 1955

Jasper Johns: Target with Four Faces 1955

On 5th September 2015, Richard Guest and I visited the Joseph Cornell exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts in London. We continued to talk about the show via email for a number of weeks. This is the final part of that electronic conversation – you can read part two here.

Richard: It’s a fine line. But I think Cornell is so involved with the process he discovered that the work comes across as warm, genuine and generous. He’s working hard at making poetic images. The evidence is in the work. Everything is considered.  To me, Toward the Blue Peninsula: for Emily Dickinson, c. 1953 looks like an embryonic Louise Bourgouis work. I wonder how much of an influence Cornell was on her. There are other works that remind me of other artists. Planet Set, Tête Etoilée, Giuditta Pasta (dédicace) 1950 is strongly reminiscent of Jasper Johns’ Target with Four Faces, 1955  (and we know he was aware of Cornell’s work, because he is a lender to this exhibition), and there was at least one work that made me think of Julian Schnabel’s monumental paintings. Do you think Cornell’s work has had influence beyond the art world (And become a “standard” in the way Sinatra made standards of particular songs)?

David: In my professional area I think Cornell has been massively influential, or has at least become iconic. If you Google ‘Cornell Box’ you will see it is a name for a test rendering environment for global illumination and radiosity (diffuse interreflection) environments. Which is to say computer lighting that plausibly imitates real world lighting behaviour by bouncing light rather than just direct illumination. The set up of these (usually just cubes or spheres) objects in a plain white box allows the usually unobserved interplay of surface and light to be seen is a good way to evaluate the behaviour of a render engine with certain known values (of reflection, refraction etc). This is one I made in my favourite renderer, Arnold.

Cornell Box, Rendered in Arnold

Cornell Box, Rendered in Arnold

I find the comparison with Schnabel a bit beyond me though – his work seems so opposite to Cornell’s. Loud extroverted exhortations to the art world to notice him – Cornell’s quiet poetry is a million miles away, a flower growing unobserved in a shady wood. I think I see a connection with the broken surface of the plates to the world within a world of the boxes – but it really seems a loss of innocence, because I believe Cornell’s motivation was pure (I know that sounds laughable) and I am certain Schnabel s a cynical charlatan.

I really like the idea of art ‘standards’. Although they get so mangled it’s only the crazy old Jazzers who can recognise them half the time. That’s us in a couple of years!

Richard: There was one work (quite a small one), which unfortunately I can’t remember the name of – it featured a painted abstract shape that was reminiscent of Schnabel’s brushwork and the way he constructs some of his big abstracts. We’ll have to disagree over Schnabel – I think there’s poetry there – it’s Beat poetry, but it’s there (and perhaps I’m naive, but from interviews I’ve seen and read with him he’s anything but cynical).

Ha, yes! Hope I make it to be an old jazzer. I love it that Cornell’s influence has become part of the greater culture – I’ve just thought of another example: William Gibson’s 1984 novel, Neuromancer (a seminal work in the cyberpunk genre) has Cornell’s work at its heart.

Neuromancer

It’s interesting that the idea of Cornell’s work has had as much influence as its form. I like it that playing with Arnold or reading Gibson’s book might lead to someone discovering Cornell’s work. Cultural feedback – perhaps something that does not happen with Schnabel…

David: I am not sure that most good artists would like their followers; just as well that they usually come posthumously. Yet it is inevitable where someone has a really strong style like Cornell that some people who are short of ideas or short of ability to put their ideas into form will pinch the superficial aspects of it. In a way that how your style becomes A Standard, (or a cliché possibly) but it can’t help but water down the impact of the original.

Tetsumi Kudo

Tetsumi Kudo at Hauser and Werth

I saw the Tetsumi Kudo show at Hauser and Wirth the other day and this piece seemed to me an insult to Cornell, probably unfairly, but it is surely a tribute to Cornell that I thought of him first and not what I was actually looking at. Like using subject matter that is a bit overpowering, a strong influence can overshadow a work sometimes. None of us can avoid them but we need to mix them up carefully, a bit like seasoning food!

Richard: Yes, this looks blunt and obvious in comparison with a Cornell box. One last thing I’d like to say about Cornell’s work is that it creates its own time. The Kudo work seems to contain a “blink and you’ll miss it” concept, whereas Cornell’s work seems to exist outside the normal pace of life – his boxes draw you in and hold your attention in some kind of suspended space/ time, while the world carries on around you.

Joseph Cornell: a conversation (part two)

Joseph Cornell, Untitled (Tilly Losch), c. 1935-38

Joseph Cornell, Untitled (Tilly Losch), c. 1935-38

On 5th September 2015, Richard Guest and I visited the Joseph Cornell exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts in London. We continued to talk about the show via email for a number of weeks. This is the second part of that electronic conversation – you can read part one here.

Richard: Except in a broad sense, I don’t see autobiography in Cornell’s work. He did not travel much outside Flushing, New York – he was a carer for his brother and mother, and a lot of biogs refer to his reclusiveness. So, I think a lot of the boxes are products of isolation – they spring from a yearning to escape the day-to-day routine. Although some titles refer to specific events or people, I don’t think Cornell had any connection with many of them beyond fantasy. For example, I Googled Tilly Losch – she was also known as Ottilie Ethel Leopoldine Herbert, Countess of Carnarvon (she was a dancer, choreographer, actress and painter).

In Untitled (Tilly Losch), I wonder whether he is projecting his idea of what Tilly’s life could feel like. There is a lightness, a buoyancy to the image – the (puppet theatre) figure (who bears no resemblance to Tilly Losch) is held aloft by the strings of an unseen hot air balloon, floating above a barren mountain landscape, and seemingly anchored to  her spatial coordinates by a small, compositionally perfect, red bead. Could it be Cornell’s equivalent of Heat magazine? There, I’ve done it – gone and ruined a work…

David: Not ruined… but it does rather make Cornell’s work (and a lot of other art) a sort of fascinating by-product of unhealthy emotional conditions, like a geological specimen or mutant plant that occurred only because of a freak circumstance. It is not degenerate art, neither does being emotionally unbalanced make you creative. Sometimes though, a combination of a creative person and severe emotional repression results in the creation of works that can contain and embody that displaced love and energy. This does make the work quite escapist: inside the box you are in a wondrous place. If you don’t completely escape with Cornell into the box though, you are left outside it dissecting a bunch of obscure images and objects that may have no connection other than the aesthetic.

Falls the Shadow...lighting in the gallery

Falls the Shadow…lighting in the gallery

Although some of the works did draw me in, some of them left me out in the cold and I wonder whether that might have been to do with the way that they were displayed. The very clinical mounting of the boxes inside display cases made them feel very dead and the hard top lighting was also unsympathetic, with the top of the box frame often casting a very hard shadow over the contents and detracting from the composition. Do you think they might have benefitted from different staging? The show could have boldly remade the gallery as an archaic apartment or some other non-artworld place rather than the standard paint it white and put it all in order approach, which was what we got here.

Richard: Yes, interesting idea. I’m not sure the white cube was the standard exhibition design when Cornell was making the bulk of these works, so I wonder what he would make of such stark, harshly lit surroundings. A hard shadow changes the reading of delicate compositions like these quite significantly. And there’s a distinct lack of playfulness in the RA display. The work suggests Cornell liked to play: both visually and with ideas – I wonder where he thought the boxes would eventually reside? I’m guessing the private home as a Surreal surprise amongst the ornaments (and where the lighting would be softer and more conducive to dreaming). The actor Tony Curtis was a big collector of Cornell’s work; I wonder how he displayed the work…

There are works that don’t work at all for me either – and I’m not sure if it’s just the lighting. Could the images and materials Cornell used be too far removed in time and cultural association to chime with us in the twenty-first century?

David: I’m not sure they are too far removed in time, but it may be sometimes that the objects are a bit too curious in themselves. It could be that those things like clay pipes, jars of gold pigment and butterfly wings etc may have been more commonplace back in the middle of the last century but I doubt it. These objects were not part of the common vernacular like a Brillo box or can of soup. They belong to a world that is a deliberate illusion, looking back at those theatrical magicians of the past – the alchemists whose biggest secret was that they had no secret. The objects seem very deliberately chosen to evoke this world. Pharmacy(1943) seems clearly to reference this tradition. The danger is that these objects are very loaded and can overpower a lot of the more subtle formal elements in the work. This is not a problem unique to Cornell, and he does seem to have been aware of it and often eschews the more outlandish curios in favour of a more restrained palette of objects.

In Toward the Blue Peninsula: for Emily Dickinson, c. 1953. Cornell manages to evoke a very intense emotional space with just a few relatively abstract forms. I think the more image based objects are a bit of a smokescreen and for a long time put me off his work to tell you the truth, but he clearly is superior to those artists who are just making endless montages of found objects.

Toward the Blue Peninsula - for Emily Dickinson

Toward the Blue Peninsula – for Emily Dickinson

Joseph Cornell: a conversation (part one)

On 5th September 2015, Richard Guest and I visited the Joseph Cornell exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts in London. We continued to talk about the show via email for a number of weeks. Here is the result of that electronic conversation.

Joseph Cornell: Naples, 1942

Joseph Cornell: Naples, 1942

David: This show was a show that we were both very keen to see, and I don’t think either of us was disappointed. I wouldn’t say that I loved every piece, but the ones that caught my eye were intriguing, atmospheric and formally perfect. You would need to look at them for a very long time to really appreciate all their qualities.

You had a much better idea of his work than I did before we went – I was eager to go based on his reputation. And Cornell’s reputation is very strong among contemporary art audiences …I am curious about why that is. He is much more highly regarded at the moment than say Picabia or even Max Ernst and yet he seems to have been a one-off artist producing work in a slightly insular style. Some of the work in the show was from Jasper Johns’ collection and I think that might be a clue. Although I loathe the expression, is he an artist’s artist?

Richard: To American artists, I think he offers a link back to the European artists of pre-WWII – his work was included in Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism at MoMA New York in 1936 and he was friends with Marcel Duchamp, who (according to the RA’s exhibition leaflet) considered him one of the best American artists of the day.

I can sort of see why he might be more highly regarded than Picabia and Ernst at the moment – his work is, to a certain extent, hands off – Cornell doesn’t create the images or objects he uses, and it’s all about creating meaning and effects through juxtaposition. (So his work is not tied to a particular genre or movement and perhaps by being a one-off his work has a greater appeal, because he’s not so easily categorised. A lot of contemporary art has its roots in Duchamp’s readymades or Pop Art and Cornell’s work speaks a similar, although distinct, language. I can see him being an artist’s artist (and in one piece in particular an ancestor to Julian Schnabel’s painting), but I think he has a pretty broad appeal; the constituent parts of his works are easy to identify, what he’s doing is not baffling, but the magic he weaves is.

Shall we talk about Object (Soap Bubble Set)?

Joseph Cornell Object (Soap Bubble Set), 1941 Box construction, 46.4 x 31.4 x 9.5 cm The Robert Lehrman Art Trust, Courtesy of Aimee and Robert Lehrman (c) The Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation/VAGA, NY/DACS, London 2015 Photo: Quicksilver Photographers, LLC. Exhibition organised by the Royal Academy of Arts, London, and Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna Press use is considered to be moderate use of images to report a current event or to illustrate a review or criticism of the work, as defined by the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 Chapter 48 Section 30 Subsections (1) - (3). Reproductions which comply with the above do not need to be licensed. Reproductions for all non-press uses or for press uses where the above criteria do not apply (e.g. covers and feature articles) must be licensed before publication. Further information can be obtained at www.dacs.org.uk or by contacting DACS licensing on +44 207 336 8811. Due to UK copyright law only applying to UK publications, any articles or press uses which are published outside of the UK and include reproductions of these images will need to have sought authorisation with the relevant copyright society of that country. Please also ensure that all works that are provided are shown in full, with no overprinting or manipulation.

Joseph Cornell:   Object (Soap Bubble Set), 1941

David: Well when I look at Object (Soap Bubble Set), quite a lot of things are happening at once – I see the overall object on the wall, I can identify particular ‘real world’ objects (the pipe here), I can perceive that some things are not real world objects but images (the shells), I get the reference in the arrangement of them to smoke rising from the pipe, I enjoy the subtle interplay of colours and enjoy the illusion of a frozen moment – movement seems to be stilled here. But there is more…the nocturnal, contemplative atmosphere is beguiling and there is also the strong and unique fascination of the box – which allows all this to come to life, but which we can never enter.

Cornell certainly had a strong sense of how to use colour. The limited palette of this piece is stunning.  The brown wood of the box and the pipe shaft with the warm whites of the ceramic and the cooler ones of the shells are simply very beautiful against the pure black. I think you’re right that juxtaposition is fundamental in Cornell’s work. And I was struck by how his work seemed to emerge from Surrealism – can’t think of any other American artist who got so much from that movement. ‘As beautiful as the chance encounter of the sewing machine and the umbrella on the operating table’ – the only working definition of Surrealism for me – gives me a way in to Object (Soap Bubble Set), but that isn’t the whole story. How do you see it?

Richard: Cornell took from the Surrealists, but not much of his work (if any) is concerned with eroticism, fetishism or the abject, so there’s a difference in tone – as you say, contemplative. He’s not out to shock. He’s out to seduce and I think Object (Soap Bubble Set) is a very seductive work – it draws you into Cornell’s world. It’s a nice place to start and it was one of the first boxes in the exhibition. Apart from anything else, it’s beautifully composed – and presents itself as a peculiar, frozen moment. I wonder what significance each of the elements has for him, and want to decode the box (even though doing so would probably ruin the work). Does he want us to decode it?

Joseph Cornell, Untitled (Tilly Losch), c. 1935-38

Joseph Cornell, Untitled (Tilly Losch), c. 1935-38

David: I think Cornell uses very suggestive objects and images that while not perhaps fetishistic in a literal sense imply subconscious associations that can never be decoded by conscious thought. But I could be completely wrong about that because I know so little about him. I’m not good at decoding anyway. It reduces the power of art in the guise of demystification so that people ignorant of the actual practice and meaning of art (whether critics or art historians) can assume power over it in defiance of established social hierarchies.

Or something like that.

Perhaps it’s more ‘what sort of question could this be the answer to?’ His work does come from the golden age of psychoanalysis. Some of the works seem to me have a sort of theatrical Doll’s House Asylum quality – stages where puppets of the id and the ego could enact dreamlike fantasies or play out roles trapped in an eternal silence. I am looking at Untitled (Tilly Losch), The inspiration for this could have been an event or a person in his life – I don’t know. What remains in the work is a mute mask like figure, intriguing but distant. How do you see his use of the figure?

(end of part one – read part two here.)