Tuesday, 30 October 2007



The recent show of paintings by Gary Hume at White Cube, London continued the artist’s interest in flat shapes or silhouettes played across grounds, often the polished aluminium support the artist has favoured since the late 90s. The outlines are characteristically ambiguous, the fill to them occasionally a more modulated field of hatched lines or small strokes of various colours now, introducing a subtle concession to gesture, but essentially maintaining the format.

Hume’s most popular works are probably the portraits, animal and floral motifs that arise in the mid 90s. His work there shares interesting parallels with other ‘trace and fill’ approaches, such as that of Lisa Ruyter. However Hume is much freer with his tracing and the emphasis shifts accordingly. His project has more to do with the distance the bold tracing places on familiar icons. The work abstracts the object, but only so far, toys with a kind of debased or clichéd abstraction; hovers between standard icon and greater abstraction. This interest owes more to the erosion of boundaries between the two that occurs throughout the 80s, in works by artists such as Philip Taaffe and Lari Pittman.

Hume emerged around 1990, with a series of works using the design of a door or double doors, often the kind with inset windows (this example not a painting of course), found in institutions, sometimes with inset panels, recalling a past era. However the salient feature to these works is not the style of the doors but their 1:1 or life scale and high gloss enamel finish in commercial or industrial colours. In size, design, colour and finish works such as Incubus (1991) are actually scrupulously realistic, and yet the absence of volume or tone almost obscures such accuracy. Instead the works are as easily treated as an abstraction – which of course they are – but interestingly now, the choice of commercial pastels and high key tertiaries resist the norms for geometric abstraction as well, so that shapes, proportion and composition then give the painting a peculiar and uneasy scale, the work is door-sized, yet shapes, colour and space also take relations from the picture frame, give the materials and painting a ghostly (even parasitic, as the title suggests) proximity to the object depicted.

Hume’s project then is about abstracting or filtering out various qualities to commercial enamels, standard door design; geometric abstraction in painting. The design is not just for a standard door or abstract painting, the painting is not just a door or design, the door is equal parts abstract and actual. This variable or polyvalent approach to painting straddles abstraction and the more concrete or figurative; floats between the popular and obscure. It gives the work an arch attitude, not quite Pop, not quite purist or formalist, a bemused detachment from more concerted painting, from a closer engagement with icons and their worlds. It is an attitude shared by many of his British contemporaries.

Hume’s work subsequently turns to more figure-based themes, but it is notable that shapes are rarely dogged tracing, that they keep their distance from common icons, maintain a high gloss finish, if only to contrast with the uncertainty of shape or outline. Elsewhere they are transferred to prints, and surrender a little of that insistent finish. Works such as Francis Bacon (1998) or Whistler (1996) can nevertheless deliver an amusing caricature and much of Hume’s popularity lies in his ingenuity in this. However in following works Hume sheds the flat colours to allow mere outlines, stressing the simplification to icons. Bare outlines soon allow superimposed sets or layers of competing versions that again tend to filter out a literal reading, take on a more abstract function, underline a given width, hesitation or brittleness for a given object.

The exercise is hardly novel but it shows how Hume gradually extends outline, continues to balance abstraction against the figure; looks for the simple and familiar from which to build the complex and elusive. More recent work looks to less obvious objects, Pink and Green Smoke (2005) and Regents Park (2005) attenuate the derivation, trace more freely. Other work returns to flat silhouettes, thus distanced. Drawing and colour can still tease the object but they lack the link to décor offered by doors. Works such as American Tan VIII (2006-7) now compound layers, use outline against fill and polished surface and the effect is elegant, but each layer now filters a little less, is stricter for the variation. While superimposition has freed his tracing, it remains to be seen if it can bring a similar liberation to colour and finish.

Tuesday, 23 October 2007



This post coincides with the elaborate installation by the artist now at the Haus der Kunst in Munich. The sculpture of Anish Kapoor is notable for the way it has merged Minimalist abstraction with an older concern for biomorphic imagery, with reliance upon fabrication and industrial process yet an attitude toward materials that often gives work a site-specific and ritualistic accent. Kapoor’s Anglo-Indian heritage perhaps disposes him toward some of this, and much commentary is quick to point to the link, but here his style is traced simply in terms of sculpture in the closing decades of the twentieth century.

Kapoor’s work first gained recognition in the early 80s, along with a wave of British contemporaries such as Bill Woodrow, Tony Cragg and Richard Deacon, yet Kapoor’s work is distinct firstly for its biomorphic imagery, mixing botanical and biological shapes, often with a strong sexual element to protuberances and recesses. This Surrealist strain continued in particular in the work of Louise Bourgeois. Secondly, there is Kapoor’s use of vivid pigments in powder form at this time, the surplus in generous piles, anchoring the work to the floor and a precise location.

The pigments in effect disguise the surface of the materials (variously, polystyrene, cement, earth, acrylic and wood) and identify the shapes by colour and pigment attributes, a single physical location, so that coating and overspill become the sculpture, in more ways than one. The colours condition the perception of volume, even scale, and give the shapes a theatrical aspect – a role or play to surface and volume, that is usually described in terms of spirit or transcendence. The grounding of the work, literally on the floor, also has echoes in Bourgeois’ work in the late 60s and 70s, but the treatment of materials by pigment in this way actually paces a different strand to sculpture.

In the work of Conceptual artists like Richard Long and Andy Goldsworthy from the times, objects and sample materials to a specific location are often arranged in Minimalist forms – circles, squares, piles and lines - either to be documented or removed to exhibition sites. What is sampled from a location – the materials collected – is by necessity given a form in presentation, yet what is sampled and what is sampler in this way, or what is presentation and representation, are not always clear cut. The form necessarily channels its content; the content absorbs some of its form. Like Kapoor’s pigments, we cannot know what such forms would do to other materials on other occasions, so that their true impact or the ‘true shape’ to a material remains conspicuously fugitive in such presentations, ultimately salutes spirit. In this sense Kapoor’s use of pigments owe as much to contemporary developments in sculpture as to Indian customs.

However, while such coatings remain an abiding concern for Kapoor, powdered pigment does not. By the same token while an abstracted, even divine sexuality to recesses, protuberances and uprights continues in his work, the more organic or biomorphic does not. The work becomes more abstract, sexuality is transformed into a planar and spatial interplay.

Later works steadily contrast holes and uprights with their material, surface and volume, as much as colour, so that holes smoothly assume circles, flatten into dishes, lengthen into tubes, take on a topological slipperiness only accentuated by highly polished surfaces, and more recently, mirrored surfaces. Mirrors of course, instantly draw upon their surroundings in perception, so that again work becomes both anchored to site, yet evasive, a surface difficult to catch as plane or volume, evanescent and immaculate. Thus works like Mother as A Mountain (1985) give way to examples such as Mountain (1989-91) or Mother As Void (1989-90) to When I am Pregnant (1992) to Red Circle (1996) to Turning The World Inside Out (1997) to Untitled (2003) to Untitled/Pregnant Square (2004) to S-Curve (2006). Or, for a more masculine accent, works develop from Untitled (1983) to Untitled (1987/8) to Ishis Light (2003) to Spire (2004) to Reverse Perverse (2006).

The gigantic Marsyas (2002) is surely the most extravagant demonstration of this shape shifting, exalted topology. Later works such as Untitled (2006) refine these concerns, faintly echo the sexual metaphor yet surrender more to fabrication and finish. This year’s installation in Munich promises a return to more tactile and frankly, messy surfaces, while Kapoor now embarks upon a kinetic dimension to his work. It is a mark of both the fundamental nature of his interests and his invention, that his themes easily assimilate motion, even amongst the period architecture and décor of the Haus der Kunst.

Tuesday, 16 October 2007



The paintings of Jules de Balincourt are a good example of the way painting now moderates and alternates between abstraction and the more concrete, encounters new demands even as it relaxes old ones. The grand design or shrewd diagram, a revered colour code or proportion to outline, text or ground, all beg questions of perspective and propriety, of the final allegiance for such Olympian detachment. Politics baulks at that, doubts the big picture. By the same token, there is no starting ‘bottom-up’ either, with mere detail or pure means, without appealing to some sub-class or genre. The ambitious painter cannot trust a class or its members, a style or its objects and consequently painting proceeds with a mixture of suspicion and allure.

Balincourt is a relative newcomer, recognised around 2002-3 and noted firstly for his maps in which US nationhood and foreign relations are amusingly shuffled. While the example of Jasper Johns inevitably comes to mind, Balincourt’s concern is closer to the metaphorical mapping schemes of later artists, particularly from the 80s onwards, either in extending the allegory of Neo-Expressionism (see also Posts 26, 40 and 44) or to the charts and layouts that follow from Pattern and Decoration (see also Posts 2, 24 and 53). Balincourt’s touch is lighter, looser for the most part and significantly, he is not content with just the broad sweep of the master plan. From the beginning, other works look to more concrete examples for symptoms of some overall scheme. His work there shares some of the hard edge qualities of commercial illustrative style, but tellingly, Balincourt’s temperament and informality shy from stricter detail, so that the effect is often clumsy or faux-naif.

In works such as Gathering (2003) and Peaceful Protesters (2003) we move from the schematic to generic scene, the ‘naïve’ idealism of a sect or sub-culture, but the mesh of graphics is not quite standard and generic enough, nor more forthrightly naïve, and ultimately lack conviction, cannot project. This unfocussed, technical shortcoming nags at later works, especially with figures, as in Neighbourhood Watch (2004) and New Found Land (2004). Understandably Balincourt shifts the focus to more architectural concerns in Feast of Fools (2004) and The People Who Play and The People Who Pay (2004) and looks more confident devoted to the single comic figure or stereotype such as Youth Nationalism (2004) Poor Vision (2005) and this year’s impressive Holy Arab (2007).

On the other hand, the ‘big picture’ flourishes along themes of transmission or projection, from the modest Media information Center (2003) to Ambitious New Plans (2005) Violent Peace, Violent Healing (2006) Infect You, You Infect Me (2006) and Open for Season (2007). The military agenda that accompanies many of these works climaxes in his recent show at Zach Feuer, NY, with Think Globally, Act Locally (2007) and Unknowing Man’s Nature (2007) where a city grid is target or battery for a bombardment of incomings or outgoings. It is a vision that irresistibly suggests recent American foreign policy, as it ruthlessly extends the metaphor for communication. The works attain an impressive spatial abstraction, but while assuming a lofty ‘strategic’ viewpoint, cannot then quite cede greater latitude to paint, allow more abstraction. Interestingly, works like Boxing Your Subconscious (2005) and Remembering Our Great Dead Heroes (2007) address precisely this heritage to painterly abstraction and mock the organic and gestural against the hard edge and geometric.

Balincourt also returned to his maps this year with We Warned you About China (2007) a less direct cartography now, and the show was also notable for works devoted to landscape, such as I’m Just a Fire in The Night (2007) Untitled-cliffs (2007) Untitled-lake (2007) where attention to atmosphere, stylisation of water or light to crucial panoramas, again are less than compelling, largely because the detail needed cannot be sustained by loose handling. Balincourt wants the particulars but seems undecided on what they are or how to render them.

More successful are smaller, freer subjects, such as Cycles of Morning and Dyeing (2007) – a makeshift rack of coloured rags on a beach, that with eyes, takes on a haunting persona. This intersecting of the abstract and concrete, the more and less stylised, is an issue shared by contemporaries as diverse as Neo Rauch and Dana Schutz. Balincourt’s scope and invention distinguish him, although as yet he perhaps lacks the technical assurance of either. It may be his work will never achieve greater consistency, but lack of rigour is sometimes the price for inspiration.

Tuesday, 9 October 2007



The paintings of Julian Schnabel continue to be well publicised, perhaps less in public galleries than some of his contemporaries. Schnabel will probably remain ‘the broken-plate guy’ in art history, forever associated with his beds of shattered plates; that marked his emergence in the late 70s. These are less in evidence in recent years but his work remains surprisingly consistent in emphasis on materials and techniques. Schnabel, along with David Salle is often regarded as an American exponent of Neo-Expressionism, yet their work remains at some distance from German or Italian versions (see also Posts 40 and 44). This difference is essential to an appreciation of Schnabel.

An early work such as Muchos gracias por las insiables (1975) shows how his work grew out of collage, already favoured broad painterly treatment. In particular the figures on the left are variously outlined and filled by painting, grant the prints a little of the role of templates that variously channel depiction. This aspect in fact is close to a wider trend, identified mostly with Richard Marshall’s New Image Painting exhibition in 1978. The model is really the early work of Jasper Johns, where the use of a design or template orders brushwork and colour, inflects the design through intermittent and approximate compliance. This ambivalence holds an enduring appeal for American artists (see also Posts 13 and 24). Where Warhol then imports standard graphics and silkscreen printing to this end, later artists sometimes look to forge new or less familiar icons within a similar format.

Amongst New Image artists like Neil Jenney and Susan Rothenberg, something akin to John’s short, broad brushwork persists, while the more subdued techniques of Nicholas Africano, Denise Green, Lois Lane and Robert Moscowitz still contrast facture with outline, often with a single or flat colour. Only David True and Joe Zucker extend drawing beyond icon and ground, only Jennifer Bartlett and Michael Hurson use a layout of multiple pictures. Notably, Zucker’s cartoon-like drawing is executed with an extreme facture, adopting cotton swabs and Rhomplex. This comes closest to Schnabel’s use of broken plates.

But Schnabel actually reverses the priority. Facture does not conform to drawing or outline, on the contrary, drawing contends with facture or surface, and drawing is neither especially familiar nor strict. This marks his big break. The work often has the feeling of an explosion or disintegration. In The Patients and Doctors (1978) and Divan (1979) facture is extended to a collage of shattered plates, in some ways reminiscent of the mosaics of Gaudi’s Casa Mila, although fragments are often placed in approximate order to their wholes, stressing derivation and disintegration. It is a determination to include material that literally outweighs drawing, resists depiction at all costs. In short, Schnabel exchanges ambivalence for extravagance. While the plates rarely serve as metaphor for the object depicted, they nevertheless express a fragility or destructiveness to materials, indeed a certain wanton abandon to opportunity or indulgence. It is a recipe that literally labours the picture across a surface. Then again, drawing is adjusted to rugged surface, radical pigment or application, vast scale, weathering or other distress, to duly draw the surface into the picture, if only reluctantly, or ‘badly’.

The key difference between a Schnabel and a Kiefer – between American and German Neo-Expressionism – lies in the relation between materials and picture (and largely explains preferences in subjects). For Kiefer materials demonstrate a revision of uses and a renewal of reference, for Schnabel materials demonstrate a continuation of painting, a persistence of reference. The first embraces the endlessly sayable and restatement, the second an assimilation of the ineffable or inchoate. Both arrive at Neo-Expressionism in drawing, less as a revival than to stress indifference to preceding print or template forms, to standard or literal meaning. Both use text in casual scripts, but for Schnabel their literary value is stretched against graphic relations to other marks and surface.

Schnabel’s expansion of painting is not confined to broken plates. Animal hides, velvet and antlers are recruited; various found surfaces including discarded theatrical backdrops, also serve. Painting takes on a superimposed, graffiti-like role, also suggested in the use of spray cans and scrawled inscriptions. ‘Site-specific’ amendments loom as an obvious progression by the 90s, although subsequently Schnabel devotes more of his career to film making. His painting then oscillates between more conventional – and frankly, disappointing – depiction and looser gestures, tied to text or collage. He maintains a commitment to novel materials and techniques, even as this dilation soon recommends installation (see also Post 3).

Tuesday, 2 October 2007



A show earlier this year at The Serpentine Gallery, London and a touring survey prompt this post. Kilimnik’s work centres on painting, extends to photography and installation and concerns a kind of bemused worship or ardent identification with glamorous and fanciful roles and stories drawn from unlikely sources. Her work is not restricted to popular or topical subjects, her paintings do not underline print sources, so while her work nevertheless derives from Pop Art in some respects, focus lies elsewhere.

The target is not just cherished fiction for the young or vulnerable, but a kind of painting that answers the identification a little too wholeheartedly or not quite wholeheartedly enough. And where Kilimnik finds her range, the effect is not quite cheerful or sentimental, but rather an uneasy pathos. It is this acute, psychological dimension that finally distinguishes – and recommends – her work.

Kilimnik’s style developed slowly. An early example such as Brigitte Bardot Shopping in Shorts (1985) significantly looks to a star from an earlier era, invests her with a further nostalgia. The drawing, like a fashion sketch, notes the belt over a loose blouse, hot pants and sandals, is not just of a star in France, but essentially costume and attitude. However the drawing does not convey much more than the dress illustrator’s sketch as yet, does not acquire the neurotic attachment to remote icons of her mature work. A slightly later work, the photograph Me as Elizabeth Taylor in National Velvet Before Horse Race (1988) squarely focuses on the relationship between fan and icon, the discrepancy between child star and adult woman (notably against an abstracted background, in soft focus). But the work is in some ways eclipsed by similar themes in the photography of Cindy Sherman at this time, and, one suspects it sacrifices too much of her source material in the interests of self-portraiture. Her subsequent photography does not pursue this direction.

Kilimnik’s drawing can include anecdote and strengthen the sense of spontaneous and intimate engagement, but it is as she broadens her range of subjects and uses a looser treatment that the work finds a subtler genre, makes a more incisive attitude. The works are small scale, even at a time when the trend is to easel-scale painting, and now include historical pastiche as well as images of sentimentality. The work is often dismissed as dealing in the faux-naif, inspired by Jim Shaw’s Thrift Store Paintings, perhaps, or the slacker indifference of Luc Tuymans, and her work overlaps with these certainly, in Chloe from Blood on Satan’s Claw (1996) and Me Getting Ready to Go Out to a Rock Concert with Bernadette in Moscow in 1977 (1997) the latter work, not to be confused with a larger, 2006 version. But importantly, the range of subjects and treatments increasingly comprise ensembles, are exhibited in salon-like clusters, and usually in an installation providing elaborate décor, an all-encompassing framework for this diffusion; sometimes called the scattered approach.

Kilimnik’s work is often bracketed with that of Elizabeth Peyton, and the differences are illuminating. Peyton’s work is more narrowly concerned with celebrity portraiture, in particular with contemporary young men. Her treatment stresses bright lips, an effete or effeminate expression and often passive pose. Peyton sentimentalises, in a knowing parody of adolescent girl’s depictions of male idols and this has no parallel in Kilimnik. Even where Kilimnik covers similar ground, her picture conveys an emptiness rather than prettiness, literally struggles to depict Leonardo DiCaprio, for example, much less render him on adorable terms.

The difference points to a more general feature to Kilimnik’s work; the fixation on distant or childhood icons, their hasty or casual treatment. In works such as Steed Leaving for Costume Party on Deserted Island - Emma Stays Home to Work (2006) drawing remains surprisingly accurate while painting looks rushed or a travesty. To some extent Kilimnik uses painting to translate the figures (from The Avengers TV series of the 60s) into a desperate folk art, beyond that demonstrates an inadequacy on both sides: as painting and mythic couple. There is finally, a crippling vacuum between them. Kilimnik seizes and hordes old identifications but there is anxiety in what use they might now provide, in the overload. Tellingly, the arrays prompt décor, furniture, perhaps summon old episodes or more recently, a whole ballet of ritual gesture, but the sense is of an absence of more than that, the fuller person or picture, the more assimilated enterprise. The work clings to relics at the periphery, for compensation.