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 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”.






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)…

Lunch in Mayfair – Bring Your Own Potato

Julian Opie Ruth Smoking £6,000

Julian Opie Ruth Smoking £6,000


Evening and Day Editions at Phillips Berkeley Square, 22nd January.


Although we live in a world where we can access all sorts of content free and on demand, it seems that most people still want to own physical things that are somehow culturally important to them, that express something about them. We can call it art, we can call it shopping. We may admire the work of Rembrandt or Gerhard Richter in galleries and museums but most individuals are unable to come up with the tens of millions needed for a major original. But what if you want something for a little bit less?

You could of course just steal one, but even presuming that you could get away with it (and like me you have no moral qualms), you could never really show it to anyone. And you might feel a bit like a Nazi war criminal.

So you have to consider copies, acknowledged and unacknowledged,  or you  could just print out the highest resolution image on the internet and hang that on the wall instead. And why not? Now for a major Rembrandt or Richter oil painting, it would obviously not have all the qualities of the original and scale would still be an issue unless you have a very large printer. But for a drawing or a print at the correct scale on a similar paper, the artefact might be physically close enough to bear looking at. But there is no connection to the artist, and that’s cold.

Now if you are talking about a cold artist: a Duchamp, a Warhol or conceivably a Polke, that might just be ok. But Picasso? No. I want to feel that my Picasso was blessed by his touch however briefly or even just his presence in the room. What might I be able to (maybe) afford one day that has that? The Multiple: museum quality art for a fraction of the price (ok it’s still pretty expensive), the only downside being that a couple of hundred other people have the exact same thing. But it is ‘market authentic’ – it is branded and the label still shows when you wear it, which is what you want.

Hodgkin at Gagosian

Hodgkin at Gagosian

Which brings me to the Phillips contemporary sale in their swanky new Berkeley Square rooms last month. I came across it by accident – I wandered down after I saw some Howard Hodgkin prints at Gagosian Mayfair and was thinking that they might be the kind of art you could actually live with – a domestic scale, colourful and with just enough content to hold your interest and not be corporate-bland and not so much content that it would forever dominate your room. And at the Phillips sale there was a whole menagerie of similar work. These were works blessed by the artists, or their estates, and all seemed like fairly good examples of mature work by artists we all recognise. Your dwelling could become a miniature Museum of Modern Art for under $100,000 – or less than the price of a posh car.

It’s not just prints though – the Multiple embraces editions of sculptures of all sorts even less obviously commercial ones like Kippenberger. Even Beuys shows his ironic appreciation of his commodification with his slogan Kunst = Kapital.

Beuys tells us how it is.

Beuys tells us how it is.


Yes, Joseph Art is Money, so what does that make this, precisely?  If Polke is your thing there was an intriguing Apparatus Whereby One Potato Can Orbit Another. An edition of 30, potato not included.

Sigmar Polke. A different kind of multiple

Sigmar Polke. A different kind of multiple

Providing a potato is the extreme limit of my curatorial prowess though. Anything that needs more maintenance than that can forget it. I am not an institution with staff. My pick would have been either one of the striking Francis Bacon prints or this lovely Picasso vase. Just have to be careful to put it somewhere safe…


Breakable Picasso for £18,750



We Are All Peasants Now

Bruegel's The Bad Shepherd

Bruegel’s ‘The Bad Shepherd’

The Bad Shepherd – Christie’s Mayfair

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

Doig - it's snowing, I think

Doig – it’s snowing, I think

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

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

Doig 'Night Fishing'

Doig ‘Night Fishing’

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

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

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

Bruegel watches the Dance

Bruegel watches the Dance

Alien Santa Has Landed

Matthew Barney2

Matthew Barney – Crown Victoria


Matthew Barney Crown Zinc   at Sadie Coles Hq

The centrepiece of the show is the large sculpture ~ Crown Victoria

It looks like a prop from the unmade Alien Christmas special. The one where Alien Santa comes down from space with some rather scary black reindeer and drops egg pods at the foot of children’s beds.

What I find disturbing is the very obvious influence of Joseph Beuys (whose undying fan I am as all readers of this blog should be aware). But it seems very literal and half digested here. Beuys was a genuine sociopath and his psychic bond with the strange materials he used was instinctive, charismatically shamanistic. Felt, tallow, brown floor paint etc – these were fetishes in a shamanistic sense of having a devotional quality that connected the artist with the wider reality. This use of materials made Beuys a unique artist, it gave him power that other artists using traditional materials (oil paint, stone etc) or randomly found materials could not match.

Ah! The vitrine...

Ah! The vitrine…

Here Barney seems to be trying to develop the same level of mania as Beuys for his materials but it’s not compelling, and it does not feel genuine. The drawings feel mannered and derivative. The use of the vitrine feels false. The evidence of some sort of chemical processes (oxidation and crystallisation) likewise. The show is very well presented – it brings out the best aspect of the work and the works themselves must be achingly expensive to produce – some pieces are cast in silver, zinc and brass. But it feels literally and metaphorically too polished. The metaphor of alchemy is apt – showy, promising much but ultimately without basis and doomed to barren failure.

Beuys’ art came from a very deep visceral place. Some of it made absolutely no sense even when, perhaps especially when, he explained it…but you could feel the connection of the earthly, the human and the transcendent. This is clearly what Barney is aiming at – because there is a large chunk of the blurb devoted to Norman Mailer’s Ancient Evenings – an overwritten factional tome about ancient Egypt. This conscious evocation is not enough. We need to sacrifice a goat, a virgin…anything at all. Without it there will be no divine answer for this unworthy prayer.


Bloody Decomposition

Jonas Burgert not cheering me up

Jonas Burgert not cheering me up


Jonas Burgert Stück Hirn Blind at Blain|Southern

I walked past this show a couple of times and thought: ‘Yikes! I really don’t want to go and see that’. Huge expressionistic horror canvasses painted in sludge brown and dayglo yellow and orange. But then it got me one day. The show of the ‘acclaimed’ German Artist is in the prominent Hanover Square Blain|Southern Gallery. Large paint on canvas paintings and a few (I think bronze) sculptures. The paintings are somewhat realistic in rendering, but impossibly dystopian in content.

There is an issue for people who can draw – who are enticed into making a career as an artist because of that talent. What does it mean right now? What can you do with it? It is possible to draw something simple and beautiful and make it count. That is to say – to compete with other forms of image making, to make it sit in the contemporary market and to satisfy the mind of a critical and demanding creator. Otherwise you have to turn your back on it and become a bitter repressed anally retentive conceptualist or a joky popster.  I think it is possible but on the evidence of this show it can’t be easy.

Is that a lance in your pocket or are you just pleased to see me?

Is that a lance in your pocket or are you just pleased to see me?

Burgert clearly has a facility with paint, but the wallowing in horror type imagery suggests this is uncomfortable for him. The history of painting weights heavily on him – these paintings recall the battle pictures of Uccello and Leonardo’s Battle of Anghiari (lost) but overlaid with images of the Holocaust and the mutilated fetishes of chainsaw horror. Corpses decomposing, dereliction, mummy-style cerements in pseudo fluorescent colours all rendered with naturalistic shading. Lots of bloody splatters. It all seems impossibly adolescent and angsty.

It takes a lot of commitment to make this work….they are large paintings with complex surfaces – sanding, layering and lots of drips and ‘painterly’ brushwork. It suggests someone with a plan, someone knowing. This work is not a spontaneous reaction.

But wait. Downstairs there are some smaller paintings. Smaller paintings are almost always better, I think. They have directness – they are actual thoughts expressed as paintings. Not something pre-executed to cover an opulent wall. True for Rubens, and true for Burgert. Anyway, in just one picture there is a sign that he feels some frustration with the plan – he paints a head, gets frustrated. Scribbles it out. But because he is pretty good at drawing, his scribble looks like the best thing that Frank Auerbach never did! Check it out…