Monday, 19 July 2010

INTRODUCTION

The aim of Currentartpics was to demonstrate a new approach to recent art history and its categories of style, or stylistics. That approach is fully presented at www.depictionandpainting.net. In spite of the title, it proposes a framework accommodating sculpture, printing - especially photography - and Conceptual work.

At Currentartpics, weekly assessments of individual artists allowed me to show how they relate to key strands and styles in Late 20th Century Art, and to some extent, how these are related to each other. The approach is distinctive both for the range of work considered, and its depth or integration, on one hand discerning individual achievement, on the other, competing issues in painting and across the plastic arts.

Artists were chosen on the basis of prominent current exhibitions, in the hope of attracting a wide audience, but this did not always provide opportunities to review important artists such as an Andy Warhol, Martin Kippenberger or Richard Hamilton, for example. So there are surprising and unfortunate omissions, for which I can only direct the reader to the history section of
www.depictionandpainting.net. Currentartpics also allowed me to deal with sculpture, photography and Conceptual works in more depth than was available at www.depictionandpainting.net so that it complements a general theory there in vital ways.

Another important omission has been in video and performance documentation. I had originally assumed that examples of work by say, Douglas Aitkin or Douglas Gordon, Pipilotti Rist or Moriko Mori, would be available on You Tube or similar, but examples there at the time fell short as illustrations, and that branch to the project must await another site, a more generous web.

Nevertheless, after a hundred posts, I felt the site had provided a fairly comprehensive cross-section of contemporary art and pointed out underlying issues for various periods, groups and individual styles, usually ignored or overlooked in established texts. In this respect my approach is a formalist or technical one, dwelling on the constituents of a style, at odds with prevailing interest in cultural or sociological priorities, perhaps, although as I see it, by no means hostile to them.

Gerry Bell
July 2010

Tuesday, 12 August 2008

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OLAFUR ELIASSON VERSUS JORGE PARDO

Both artists specialise in installations, in temporary, site-specific works and commissioned fabrication or ‘readily-mades’ (see also Posts 25 and 49). Both artists prominently exploit architectural features, recent technology or engineering, and arrive at a calculated, theatrical presentation. Yet Eliasson favours an increasingly grand scale, samples a site or buildings against a radical redistribution of lighting, temperature, moisture, vapour or vegetation – is intent upon engineering nature as much as the nature of engineering. Pardo, by contrast, proceeds from details of interior design, from by-gone fashions, nostalgic motifs, colour schemes and accessories; freely revises and repositions wallpaper, furniture, lighting, doors and fittings, to highlight the layers of ornament to functions, the layers of function to ornament.

One is immediately severe and profound, the other slight and scattered, perhaps slightly scattered, even frivolous. Yet both are committed to the plastic potential of design, to greater variations establishing a firmer underlying theme or nature. And both find that greater variation involves an environmental scale, an inclusion of the observer that then involves a literal disorientation or loss. This post traces an overlooked but persistent trait to recent installation, takes their work as actually two sides of the same coin.

Eliasson’s use of light to generate colours for interiors is usually seen as inheriting the Minimalist colour environments of Robert Irwin and James Turrell (as the Los Angeles-based Light and Space movement, of the late 60s). The difference is Eliasson’s indifference to surfaces as a field of unusual intensity for a given colour, a disinterest in contrasts or harmonies or accompanying optical constraints. Instead he foregrounds the necessary equipment, cables, stands, their invitation to shadows and silhouettes of participants, their integration with surrounding architecture. Eliasson uses colour to set a level of visibility and mood for all elements to a site, rather than to construct a static and exclusively pictorial spectacle. His installations are predominantly temporary and changing, allow little of the permanence or ‘purity’ of Irwin or Turrell.

In other respects Eliasson’s work echoes familiar developments throughout the 20th century, with its modular assemblies and symmetrical structures recalling Minimalism (see also Posts 42 and 96), the emphasis upon technology and engineering recalling the long and deep ties with industry and design (see also Post 8). Infact Eliasson can seem more kitsch or superficial than Pardo in his tastes. However the artist’s shiny materials, unlike most earlier uses, are dedicated to environmental interaction, reflect landscape and climate, population and resources and demonstrate a steady symbiosis between building and surrounds, that is usually understood as an embrace with nature. Yet the work is often experienced as somewhat bleak or aloof, no matter how crowded or dynamic. For all their inclusion in the work, the participant or observer has no function beyond idle presence, can admire the engagement with nature, provided others do not get in the way. The desired participation in such generous work ultimately herds people, reflects a dubious conception of involvement or environment. And equally, the artist’s hand or eye quickly retreats into so much co-operation or collaboration, leaves the observer with that much less to observe, more to suspect.

Like the recurring use of ‘your’ in titles, there is the telling motif of the mirror, variously resisting closer inspection or penetration of surface with compelling reflection or deflection, briefly holding subjects spellbound by their own presence, prostrate before the work. As a symbol for involvement or artist, it firmly establishes a one-way relation.

As noted, Pardo’s concerns remain more rooted in interiors, are less subject to gradual developments, the influence of atmosphere or climate, although not exclusively. Initial concerns would seem to lie with identifying style to routine lighting fixtures, such as Raymond Hill Lamp (1990) exhibiting a functioning lamp so that it brackets a style of fixture with a quality of light, this in turn reflected by placement and setting. Other early work co-ordinates sculptural elements with gallery surroundings, as in the installation Hawaii (1995), where various rectangular panels, spread across the floor, share shape and colour relations with the abutting yellow wall and filing panel to the reception desk. The work is thus slyly dispersed; its ‘properties’ detected according to architectural considerations; these further distinguishing differences and alignments amongst floor panels. This approach is common throughout the 90s (see also Posts 46, 76 and 93).

But Pardo is particularly interested in the blurring of function and ornament or style. He has continued to use lamps, striking both for their extravagant or stylish fittings and unexpected placements. The nature of a lamp is thus contrasted with an emphatic flourish of culture or style. Again, it is as much the quality of light that then inflects setting, invokes other qualities to space and furniture, as whimsical design or nostalgia. The artist has similarly applied extreme design to clocks and doors (and here briefly, Pardo and Eliasson’s interests coincide, in a group show at Petzel, NY in 2007). These allow various degrees of function, of separation from the strictly decorative.

The loosening of function, the dispersal of the work into surrounding architecture also has a pictorial or 2-D extension. Pardo’s customised wallpapers for example, exploit computer graphics, introduce complex combinations of pictures that defy standard function as wallpaper, yet refuse any single framing between wall and picture. Elsewhere paintings are devoted to familiar decorative motifs or are predictably adorned with additional paraphernalia, underlining the integration with a wider and widening work.

Typically a Pardo installation looks to amplify affinities or links between an array of modest, domestic elements. Often geometric or biomorphic motifs are echoed or coincide with setting or shadows. Functions to objects are relaxed or resisted, so that one can equally regard a dining table and chairs for amusing and sensual rhythm or crystalline modules as a model for illumination or refraction. The work accommodates all, in part, and yet functions undercut by style and situation at some point immobilize the immersed observer. Where nothing is quite used or useable and style is never settled, the work engulfs its surroundings, blurs its boundaries and includes the observer, only to exclude a vantage point. We regard more stylistically there, but only by retreating from any familiar function, in the end style too dissolves under the withdrawal.

For all the whimsy and reverie to Pardo’s work, like Eliasson’s, it carries a subtle and uneasy view of the implied person, for the smoothly expanding installation, where the observer is given so much to look at, but always when in the way of something else.


Eliasson’s own website has been especially helpful in researching this post.

Tuesday, 5 August 2008

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SIGMAR POLKE


Polke’s stylistic lineage is obvious and yet puzzling. Like colleague Gerhard Richter, Polke’s career benefits from the success of a younger generation of German painters in the late 70s and early 80s, the Neue Wilden or Neo-Expressionists. Interest in immediate precedents then recognises Polke’s steady drift from Pop Art, his broadening sources, provocative themes, layers of imagery transferred as metaphors, perhaps allegory (see also Posts 26, 40 and 97). But in as much as he exerts an influence, it is only on artists like Albert Oehlen and Martin Kippenberger, initially based in Hamburg, where Polke was employed as a teacher. However his interests encompass as much abstraction and process as impulsive expression, and while this scope (also shared by Richter) surely influences later Cologne-based artists (see also Posts 76 and 82) it is curious, given how little impact Minimalism or Pattern and Decoration have upon German painting directly, how much of it Polke converts.

Polke finally remains loyal to a print sampling model for painting (again, like Richter) that no longer exerts influence, looks decidedly nostalgic by digital and multimedia standards; seems rather to encapsulate a by-gone era. Through it, he sums up many of the concerns of the late 20th century, not least the ambition of a grand synthesis of the abstract and figurative, the painterly and print-sourced, pattern and permutation, 2-D and 3-D. But for Polke, these strands are there almost from the start, in the early 60s. One of the reasons his work seemingly lacks the consistency of Richter, is because his options quickly multiply. If he lacks the commitment to be more than peripheral to Pop Art, it is because Pop Art is quickly peripheral to his commitment.

Polke’s development lies along three lines. The first expands upon print sources for painting, begins with commercial illustration and half-tone screens from common sources, usually, but not always photographic, to gradually include stencils and tracing identified as such by familiar sources, eventually to traditional woodcuts or etchings, these in turn subject to tone screens, more recently, even pixels, and transcribed with varying diligence. The second expands upon print content, begins with obvious and mundane print subjects (see also Posts 16, 61 and 89) then moves to content associated with other kinds of print or stencil, to traditional and historical themes. The third deals with print accuracy or efficiency of process and begins with the ‘dot gain’ to greatly enlarged details of tone screens, accenting distortion or loss of content. Polke then, surprisingly, adopts printed fabrics as supports, contrasting the strictness or accuracy of print, as well as regularity of pattern, with additional painting. Painting’s role as foil or errant instance of print or pattern is then highlighted by its abrupt interruption to the supporting surface. It is this deft alignment of painted canvas with printed fabric that smoothly assimilates pattern and abstraction, exploits figurative motifs as well as more abstract pattern.

Polke can then contrast geometric printed fabrics with clichéd stencils, with vigorous or casual treatment, tracing or more idle depiction, or use more figurative printed fabrics for additional and irregular figuration, further stencils of varying accuracy or recognition, multiple layers. Indeed, a key trait is system or pattern extended or contrasted with unexpected fragments, faltering technique. Polke can mock ‘the rules’ for formal composition, the banality of painting’s abstraction, or the rigour of its enforcement, but ultimately there are sources projected, ‘authorities’, no matter how diminished or distant. This testing or stretching of order or authority, is carried through to content, reflected in political and sexual themes, exotic and historical settings.

Printed fabrics subsequently invite sheer or transparent supports that appeal directly to the stretcher braces as structure or pattern, insist upon an explicit three-dimensional element to the flimsiest of two-dimensional content. And again, this formal feature has its counterpart in the themes, in quaint custom, ritual and formalities. His later interest in freer gesture or application, in spills and delayed chemical reactions for pigment, do not so much deny regularity or compliance with print instance or norm as invoke more occult or mystic powers, ‘higher’ but less reliable authorities, are echoed in the choice of folk tales and maxims, more diffuse imprinting. Polke ‘obeys’ them all, to the extent that they disrupt and obscure one another, to the extent that one marvels at the options, notes the hollow, degraded and eccentric instance, once set against others.

A Polke dot is never a polka dot, is always an enigma plot or a stigma halter, the spots for pics point to optical tricks, for the poked pried loose of the poker.

Tuesday, 29 July 2008

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RINEKE DIJKSTRA


The Dutch photographer is noted for her portraits in which uncertain pose is contrasted with reserved or grave facial expressions, obvious role or costume with individual candour or unease. Dijkstra’s work initially favoured severe frontal compositions, central, often symmetrical placement of subjects and discreet, recreational locations. Her large format camera gives the work a compelling focus or resolution that is hardly preserved in JPEGs, yet adds to the strict formality of occasion, the sense of stillness or rigidity, a restraint to figures. The work also reflects photography’s concern with documentary norms, with sharply distinguishing form and content; at a time when digital options would appear to announce their immanent dissolution, when greater fiction is often preferred (see also Posts 12, 60 and 90).

Dijkstra’s work emerged in the mid 90s, with a series of children on summer beaches (1992-6). The works provide a wide frame for a full-length figure, usually in swimming costume, standing with their back to an empty seaside. The figures are occasionally (and engagingly) grouped, but tend to stand alone, empty-handed, directly facing the camera, their slender limbs and physique accentuated by pose and costume. Early examples perhaps use additional, filling light, separating the figure from setting, highlighting the artifice and isolation. The emphasis on the body, the awkward poses thus assume prominence so that the portraits are of immaturity, a gangly patience, a palpably physical impetus to personality.

In this sense, they document typical and social specimens and appeal to photography’s role in realism. This is largely in the service of science rather than art, of course, but in more unusual and imaginative categories, such as those of August Sander or Bernd and Hilla Becher, the documentary approach can prove surprisingly inventive (see also Post 41). The work of Thomas Ruff or Bernhard Fuchs for example, takes up a similar formal austerity inspired by just these sources.

But Dijkstra’s careful formalities are a little conspicuous for just social record. The willowy, unformed figures also flag how bodily personality is conveyed, how directly potential is reflected there. The artist’s preference for youth is largely a category of this. Significantly, a concurrent series poses nude mothers with newborn babies, presumably in a hospital setting, again at full-length, to measure their rounded torsos against small red infants. Mother and baby are seen as a nakedly bodily relation. And again, the distance of framing also suggests a remove for the photographer, a safe distance from issues.

Later works relax the distance, slightly compromise on the extent of the body. In a series at dance clubs (1995-6), the artist singles out young women, their distinctive fashions and demeanour, clearly influenced by the festivities. Here she uses videotapes as well as stills to record their wary reactions to her, but again compositions remain strict. Now individuals are not so much at the mercy of an immature body as conform to circumstances, are subdued or distracted by stimulants, comply in uniformity of dress and fashion. Following works such as a series of Portuguese matadors (2000) similarly record individual immersed in role; their dishevelled appearance immediately after bull fights, at odds with their deadpan, somewhat comic composure. A similar contrast operates in portraits of military figures (2002), but is less effective for the familiarity of role. The works verge on recruiting promotion.

In other works Dijkstra relaxes the strict frontality slightly, as in the series of ‘Almerisas’ (1996-2005), with its angled chair a subtle prop by which to gauge body size, comfort and composure. But the appeal to documentary rigour also carries constraints on category or subject. The isolated or unitary specimen excludes many vital aspects to roles and person, sooner or later relies on greater pictorial resources and involvement. But with this, the photographer then surrenders reassuring norms, some of the touchstones for objectivity and detachment.

For Dijkstra, her increasing subtlety to portraits must risk too much subtlety or triviality. In works such as Vondelpark, Amsterdam (2005) the artist returns to full-length figures and groups, but with new relaxation to pose and composition, a new confidence to the encounter. The work retains the theme of recreation or leisure, offers an almost idyllic setting and attractive subjects yet the meeting is markedly less ardent. Subjects regard the camera evenly, tolerantly, while the photographer is content to include the detritus, to let body and purpose sprawl. The picture no longer holds persons as firmly, but elicits a response to her need to greet and share, to fill a frame with poise.

Tuesday, 22 July 2008

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DAVID SALLE


The paintings of David Salle were first recognised as part of the Neo-Expressionist movement of the early 80s. While the artist soon tightened his rendering, restricted gesture and materials, his distinctive compositions of multiple pictures, or layouts, in many ways continue to anchor the work in older concerns, increasingly signal the end of a period rather than a beginning. This post looks at how his style arose, where it led.

From the artist’s account, his earliest works, of the mid 70s, were small silhouettes. This echoes concerns in New Image Painting (see also Post 56) where strict outlines tend to signal a symbolic or metaphoric meaning, acquire a print-like currency. Salle then refined these with tone and modelling and conspicuously sets them well within or around large sheets of paper, drawing attention to placement, the picture’s ‘framing’ distinct from the support. Subsequent paintings invert, superimpose and contrast styles and subjects between pictures, reinforce this disjuncture and unitary arrangement. Where New Image Painting arrives at template-like icons that urge symbolic meaning, Salle abstracts pictures another way, stresses their literal removal or transference, equally prompts non-literal or metaphoric meaning.

Metaphor occurs through contrasts and affinities with other pictures to a layout, occasionally text and then qualities of supporting material. They struggle for a common theme or clear context though, variously obscure or embellish one another, and for a while Salle is happy to extend this relation to collaged supports, accompanying fixtures, including furniture. All variously reflect and contrast with pictures, frame, inflect and participate in style and subjects. In as much as pictures achieve metaphors here, it is firstly for their versatility and uncertainty; their convenient framing yet inconvenient exclusions. The paintings want context for contained pictures, but mostly from other pictures, so that they never quite get enough to give much, endlessly defer to each other and surroundings.

Related to this is the abiding theme of the female nude or seductively presented woman, her face or gaze mostly averted or omitted, the pose submissive yet calculated, formal but carnal. Sexuality here also suffers from a delayed or deferred context; means too many things in too many ways to properly or fully engage; is at once explicit yet fraught with myriad implications. The work reveals and revels in an urgent but shallow focus. Salle clutters or co-ordinates, lest he impose or subordinate.

The theme is developed initially from soft porn and other print sources, to staging his own very theatrical, somewhat fetishist photography, as sources for paintings, in strictly juxtaposed or partitioned layouts, to augmentation with single objects, at times abstract design or irregular framing. All increase the variety of pictures and painterly treatments; encompass stylistic parody and pastiche, more intricate layouts. Yet the work does not necessarily achieve greater distinction. Indeed, the smoother and more diverse Salle’s layouts, the more they remind us of others, especially the work of Robert Rauschenberg and James Rosenquist, of how closely the work remains tethered to print sources, for the affinity. Salle’s simple line and tone sketches quickly suffer for the sophistication. Later, more fluent eclecticists such as John Currin or Glenn Brown only underline how crude Salle’s mastery remains, how clumsy his intuitions.

Similarly, Salle’s use of superimpositions and printed fabric supports is overshadowed by the precedent of Sigmar Polke, by a longer, more comprehensive project. Salle was not so much influenced by Polke as arrives a little later at a similar remove from print sources, a similar taste in the outré. In other respects, the kind of multiple and diffuse metaphors that Salle’s layouts summon soon demand a more sustained or continuous picture, or stricter structure; otherwise expire in tedium or chaos. Salle is occasionally drawn to symmetry, to greater pattern in layout, but shuns more schematic arrangements, explored by say, a Pittman, a Taaffe or a de Balincourt. Again this tethers the work to an earlier period; escapes the stark metaphors of European Neo-Expressionism (see also Posts 26, 40 and 44) and New Image Painting, but stops short of following interests in stylisation and diagram.

Finally, where Salle does engage with greater integration in recent works, drawing introduces unusual distortion or exaggeration to figures, elsewhere resorts to a software ‘swirl filter’ for greater abstraction. All are applied to the female figure. The old problem - perhaps the only problem - persists, of separating style from subject or substance, of giving subject more than one style, of allowing style more than one subject. In this, Salle is still caught regarding formalities as something more, remaining at arm’s length from more intimate association.