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.

Tuesday, 15 July 2008

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RACHEL WHITEREAD


Whiteread’s signature is casts of architectural features, furniture and fixtures, various common containers from cardboard boxes or packaging to hot-water bottles and baths, in modest materials including plaster, resin, concrete and rubber. The work is instantly recognisable yet strangely detached, anonymous. Casts invert solids into space or voids; detach volumes from context or practical function, assume a symbolic role as container or imprint of fluid yet final practices. They fill and fulfil, measure repleteness or occupation against sealed and standard space. Whiteread’s work often evokes a sense of loss, of being sealed off, somehow excluded. Her most famous work is the monument to Holocaust victims in Judenplatz, Vienna, adding to the sense of interment.

Her work emerged in the early 90s and while the artist acknowledges the influence of Bruce Nauman’s A Cast of the Space under My Chair (1965–68) the interest in turn reflects two strands to British sculpture at the time. The first is the use of domestic furniture as material, not strictly as a ready-made, but rather extension to the Minimalist’s strict modules, to be assembled in some serial or convenient manner (see also Post 36) or combined with other materials, as in the work of Bill Woodrow. Whiteread’s early work paces these concerns; later efforts similarly appeal to modular assembly.

The second is the striking use of architecture as means to reconsider aspects of volume, proportion, light, function, etc. A close precedent is the work of Richard Wilson, with installations such as 20:50 (1987-96) in which a gallery (originally Matt’s Gallery, London) is filled waist high with used engine oil within a steel-plated lining that carefully traces the contours of the room. In such work, Wilson contrasted an interior with unwelcome fluid, invokes a sealed volume with an enclosed or confined one.

Whiteread’s castings of architecture, such as House (1993) and Apartment (2001) similarly highlight a sealed quality to walls and rooms, similarly record a fluid content. However her concern is not really with event or installation, but something more permanent. In theory, she could sample voids by filling them with any number of solid elements of potent association, in manner ranging from Arman to David Mach, and fix them there, but casting announces a fluid presence and its pouring, spraying and coating shape the meaning in certain ways.

Casting is associated with duplication as well as recording, with reinforcing and repair on persons. While many critics seize upon the latter in granting her works a bodily extension, a sense of personal space preserved or defended, there is a more directly sculptural sense in which casting enables duplication or reproduction; points to industry and conformity. The two senses are not mutually exclusive of course, but they do give the work more nuance than is generally allowed in commentary on her work. Casts invert solid and void, encase or simplify volumes, accent containment in smaller works, sheer capacity in larger ones. But the expression or metaphor is equally of a severely compartmentalised engagement as well as an undifferentiated filling, a literal pouring into place or holder. On the one hand, we apprehend familiar objects on terms of novel volume, on the other they are pointedly isolated, all the more remote for maintaining scale and surface detail.

The ambivalence is especially acute where the choice of object involves some prestige or authority. In works based upon display plinths and bookshelves, casting the surrounding space takes on a more provocative or ‘negative space’. Plinths anticipate or respect sculpture for example, but inspire only their inverse in shape, display merely a substitution of materials, the urge to supply only an equivalent volume. With bookshelves, it is the treatment of collections as simply a single volume that seems both amusing (a pun on her surname) and uneasy. There is no distinction by author or subject – at most schematic colour. Rather, they are a measure of décor, a token repository, again possessed on strict yet empty terms.

In the Holocaust memorial this allegiance extends to ‘The People of The Book.’ Yet her choice of the local name tellingly broadens the identity. It is hard to think of a major faith that does not place a premium on scriptures. It would be misleading to think librarians and bibliophiles were chief among the victims. Whiteread is devoted to the cause in the same way that her work adheres to surroundings, opportunities to reside and possess at a gut level. All are occasions to pour herself into situation, to parcel the experience simply in terms of bulk; in the case of libraries, by volume of volumes.

CAP thanks Bill Woodrow for prompt advice in researching this post.

Tuesday, 8 July 2008

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KERRY JAMES MARSHALL


At Jack Shainman, NY, the artist presents a series of symbolic portraits of the black artist shielded by enormous palettes or perhaps supporting greatly increased means of painting. Other works provide idyllic scenes of seaside retreat, where figures feature the Afro hairstyle and fashions of the 60s, give the ideals of Black Power a mocking sentimentality or remoteness, much as some recent works hint at a desperate escapism there.

Marshall’s work is noted for its Black or Afro-American themes, a dedication to their roles and standing and the compelling means by which he assimilates these to contemporary painting. The concern with schematic or symbolic arrangements of pictorial space (see also Posts 53 and 57) is foremost and traits drawn from folk and commercial depiction (print and not) reinforce the status of common content as genre, through more concerted or accentuated painting (see also Posts 5, 11, 16 and 43).

The work achieved wider recognition in the early 90s, developing from a Neo-Expressionism with African roots, toward more complex themes; more refined drawing. Figures are now resolutely black, given little or no modelling and approach silhouettes (see also Post 13). They take on an elegant, if anonymous or generic quality, recall commercial illustration, while scrolled captions and large, un-stretched canvas supports recall public banners. The artist also includes stencilled floral motifs, often clogged or dripping with vigorous application, photo-collage or imagery denoting a coarse print source, sentimental and decorative motifs alternated with bold, graffiti-like or abstract gestures that further stretch the array of treatments, compound layout and dense surface.

This ‘maximising’ of techniques also has potent resonance in abstract painting at the time (see Posts 10 and 79) and for Marshall forges a crucial integrity not only across painting and print sources, symbolic and literal settings, but positions ‘black’ figures between a racial identity and a wider, pictorial one. In this, he anticipates the work of Kara Walker, but where Walker anchors her milieu in the ante bellum, in vivid folk and children’s tales, Marshall’s genre is more diffuse, contemporary. His figures are also ‘blacked out’ pictorially, but signal a deeply formal, self-conscious presence, occasionally giving sexual episodes a touching, comic aspect; frequently accompanying scenes of loss or neglect. The ‘black’ figure stares back, out of the picture, wary or resigned with childhood or civic ideals, with the gestures and roles available, the sentiments and tokens expected. The ‘black’ figure is as much a blank figure, the role denied or ignored, supplied for the sake of custom, obscured by a welter of formality.

There is often a wistful, elegiac tone, sometimes explicitly historical, but initially loss or departure is also through the accretion of embellishment or correction, the steady corruption of picture and person, often symbolised by the abuse of floral motifs. These tend to pale colours or white, granting the picture deeper symbolic meaning as it obscures or confines figures, amplifies the sense of lack to ‘black’.

Marshall has been prolific and his work subsequently includes more abstract forays, photography, installation, text-only prints and comic strips. The concern with Black Americans has remained, for the most part, but in painting, sources have thinned, technique narrowed. Tone is decidedly lighter. His interest in text in pictures is predictably drawn to comic strips, but the results are somewhat inert, for the injection of ‘black’ content into a stricter form, for the overpowering precedent of Pop Art and his own, more adventurous use of text and picture in earlier work. The shift gives his Black Power slogans a more nostalgic, wry quality, the stern font recalling banal public instruction or faith. As noted, figures featuring the Afro hairstyle also associated with the era, now take on greater modelling, a more rounded, if slighter picture, when not simply comic for conviction or fashions. The lighter tone and iconography seem almost in counterpoint to Walker’s mythic slavery. The ideals of the 60s now deflated proportionate to her excesses. But Marshall has yet to hit upon a style quite as elegant and provocative as Walkers’. That may lie closer to the work of Chris Ofili.

Similarly, in the series of romantic vignettes included in the current show, the pictures are restricted to a range of greys relieved only by saccharine valentines. Again the illustrational style cannot bring the same weight or wealth of meaning to romance or ‘black’ lovers. Marshall’s figures have become more rounded, more comfortable, less ‘black’ or blank, but are more confined for the maturity.

Tuesday, 1 July 2008

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CHRISTOPHER BROWN


Christopher Brown (b.1951) so far has little international reputation, is mainly a West Coast presence. With a long exhibition record and steady following, his work enjoys a certain level of support, but no further. It is tempting to suppose his work does not win wider recognition for the same reason that it holds a firm place at a lesser level – that his charm is at the same time his flaw. This post looks at the work of an artist who is in many ways peripheral to the stylistic influences traced throughout painting in this blog, at advantages and disadvantages to such a position.

Brown’s paintings reveal a tentative, essentially conservative outlook. Examples from the 80s (these only the earliest available on the web – the artist by this time in his early 30s) show a range of interests, from an Expressionist portrait and close study (perhaps ‘appropriation’) after Thomas Eakins, to a stylised or schematic view of Mao swimming within buoys or hats and a bustling but fragmented crowd scene,with a precise historical source in the title November 19, 1863 (1989). Taken together, what would seem to attract the artist are figures placed in public, if not public figures, their spatial situation given some additional emblematic or deeper meaning and vigorous brushwork that further distances them and literal situation. Subsequent works such as Winter’s Blue Cold (1991) and Forty Flakes (1991) give figures a more even distribution or pattern and costume, use a steeper spatial projection and a blurring to figures and shadows that encourages a photographic reference - to long lens views and again a marked ‘distance’. In this, Brown is drawn to photographic genres (see also Posts 30 and 51) and inevitably recalls the work of Gerhard Richter.

But rather than proceed to similar resources, such as surveillance footage and other discreet public documentation, Brown turns to sources with more historical and significant roles for figures, to their identification by period fashions and customs. These are clearly less generic, more specific as pictures and their painterly treatment struggles to distance them from print source, to do more than echo Pop art or Photo-realism, while preserving period detail. Consequently the works are a little academic and sentimental. The figures underline Brown’s need for distant but distinct roles. The artist occasionally ventures into studies of the single figure in the 90s and to more schematic treatments of historical sources, but perhaps sensing the difficulty of bringing adequate pictorial structure to less guarded figures, or maintaining such structures without figures, increasingly turns to schemes or layouts dealing in native birds and their habitats.

These allow the artist a more relaxed approach to drawing, greater scope for abstraction, while using birds as a suitably distant metaphor for human community, adaptation and permutation. They soon inspire similar schemes with related environmental themes, a greater confidence in metaphor and structure and perhaps suggest a reversal in the approach to the figure. Rather than a stark structure derived from actual or literal incident, the structure now determines the appearance and tasks of figures. Works tellingly transfer habitat to house, abstract its sides and space, propose a diagram of property and propriety.

This concern with stylisation or a degree of abstraction is shared across much more acclaimed painting with the turn of the century and Brown’s interests to some extent are echoed in the work of a younger generation (see also Posts 34, 57 and 70). What separates him is firstly how much more tentative and scattered the work looks for seesawing between the linear and painterly, schema and figure across the length of a career. Secondly, the difference is in the weight that the local, regional and recreational acquire as Brown dispenses with the historical and distanced. Now he never quite engages the figures beyond home maintenance – literally in painting – and the sense is unmistakeably of disengagement or retreat, beyond other than home or heartland, a lack of method or rigour to content beyond that.

This is amplified in the most recent work where the artist returns to figures in winter recreation, although can now boldly equate them with home and even painting in the more ambitious works, can more confidently reshuffle space and scale , the painterly and abstract with the linear and figurative. Yet for all the formal freedom, Brown does not stray far from home. Nor can he be at home with more than a house, without gauging points of egress, mapping his options. For the work is happiest at departure and play, dipping into matters or skiing over them, as season allows, taken with appearances closer to home, toying with them, further a field. For the artist’s advocates, these are his virtues, for a wider constituency, as yet they are vices.

Tuesday, 24 June 2008

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ANDREA ZITTEL


The present show at Regen Projects, LA - Energetic Accumulators and Token Exchanges – continues to adapt furniture to precise tasks of day to day living; in this case mainly desk spaces for stacking small, miscellaneous items, in satisfying arrangements. Of course, the artist’s tasks seem mainly the adaptation of her day to day surroundings, giving the project a certain circular logic, but her concerns are really hypothetical rather than practical.

Zittel’s work is often comic, exaggerating the reductive functions supposed by domestic design, the life confined to such minimal terms, simple needs and rigid organisation. An intense conformity is partly the point. The absurd dictates of ‘form follows function’ or ‘a machine for living’ results only in life becoming more formalised, more machine-like. But beyond her demonstrations of simple (self) construction from inexpensive materials, there is also a strangely alienated, behaviouristic view of life, a need to define activities so concretely, in terms of objects to hand, for lack of any larger – especially interactive or interpersonal – ambit. It is design that fusses over the details to domestic order to allay more central concerns; that plays at a self-containment and isolation there rather than work at more testing circumstances. It is design for the person without purpose.

Alternatively, the work allows such items to be taken on sculptural or formal terms, as an arrangement of materials, irrespective of function, and to demonstrate underlying links between fine and applied art, to urge a broader definition of ‘function’. Zittel is one of a number of artists, including Carsten Höller, Jorge Pardo, Tobias Rehberger (see also Post 8) and Franz West, that use furniture, fixtures and architectural features to broaden sculpture thus, to anchor installation to explicit design issues.

Such work relies less upon judicious display of found items – the ‘ready-made’ – than on commissioned fabrication – as the ‘readily-made’ and in this participates in a wider trend (see also Posts 25 and 49). However for Zittel, fabrication is mostly concerned with simplified and D-I-Y steps, modest and common materials, so this aspect is less pronounced than for example in a Koons or Rehberger. Furthermore, the design is sometimes so general that its realisation takes on more of a collaboration with particular builders, whom Zittel duly credits. This gives the work a less certain trajectory, undercuts the crucial distinction between design and function and means that it is not always clear in what sense the work stands as a model – how literal or hypothetical its application might be.

Her early work presented schemes for mating pigeons, as both elegant wooden abstraction – in particular recalling the Minimalist modules of Donald Judd – and practical models for avian breeding. The stark contrast between dedicated function and formal beauty is part of a steady challenge to formal properties in sculpture, following Minimalism. ‘Materials’ then gradually include uses and methods – ‘maximise’ properties – while abstraction subtly inherits connotations of authority and control. But it is when Zittel exchanges birds for humans, switches from breeding to isolating specimens, that her work gains greater complexity. As noted, the concentration on the individual and the isolation of (usually) her needs, takes on a whimsical quality as activities are arbitrarily assigned cubicles, costumes, localities and furnishings. Zittel’s work ranges from painting and prints to sculptures, installations, with lighting fixtures, storage units, carpet and shelving, demonstrating the phases to planning, promotion and merchandising, inevitably including a website.

The emphasis upon self-containment reaches its peak in Prototype for a Pocket Property (1999) literally a small island built for one, from concrete, apparently free-floating and located somewhere off the coast of Denmark. Typically the model is, in some respects, literally a small island, in others no more than a pretence or metaphor for profound withdrawal or abandon. A later project in the high desert of California provides a permanent location for equally remote or far-fetched abodes. It too has a website.

But increasingly, Zittel’s attention seems to lie with the association or combination of possessions, with fundamental questions of affinities and categories. Her Prototype for a Billboard (2005) confidently announces their crucial yet illusory role. Significantly, the billboard features a pair of birds, held in disembodied hands, beside barren bushes, the lower portions of which are left unpainted, along with a square – presumably for text – to the left of the birds. The unpainted timber may be part of the design, may simply be that for which the artist as yet can find no plan or category, may be illusion or ‘the way the world works’ in spite of all plans. Either way, the artist finally does not hold with certainty of function.

Tuesday, 17 June 2008

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STEFAN KÜRTEN


A series of paintings, mainly of outdoor sculpture, saw the artist vary his usual concern with architecture and surrounding garden in a recent show at Thomas Dane, London. Kürten has for some time contrasted and stylised differences between man’s design and nature, sometimes extending this to pictorial structures that assert or deny perspective, elsewhere displaying uncanny echoes and expressive aspects to both. The work is unassuming yet deceptively complex and Kürten’s love of linear precision tends to give the work a patient, cautious quality. The pictures of sculpture extend these concerns with appearance and function and where the sculptures are figurative introduce a new, more directly human note. Sadly, the Dane gallery’s web pages for the show are now reduced to installation views. However other web resources allow illustration of underlying elements to his style.

Kürten’s choice of architecture sometimes coincides with that of Peter Doig and the comparison is instructive. Doig also stylises surrounding nature in ways that highlight architectural and spatial qualities, often excludes figures and emphasises a linear rhythm even tracing. But Doig’s sources are casual or private, snapshots of places in passing, where detachment or estrangement are paramount. In Kürten line rarely signals tracing and subjects recall standard domestic models, the genre of home and garden, the carefully planned and preserved abode. Kürten’s attention to detail and pattern often compound the viewing angle with linear and planar aspects to the architecture, sometimes colour and light, so that what is pictured and how it is pictured are fused, present an array from flat pattern elements, either in foreground or background, to perspective and complex volumes. The feeling is of a profound but reluctant, almost furtive attachment across the spectrum.

The emphasis upon architecture in recent German painting is pervasive, quite distinct from mere urban landscape, the work of Christian Hellmich, Martin Kobe, Susanne Kühn, Ulf Puder, Neo Rauch, Thomas Scheibitz, David Schnell, Dirk Skreber and Matthias Weischer, for example, all feature building as a crucial building-block for depiction. It is tempting to suppose this reflects older Bauhaus teachings (see also Post 8) but space here prevents closer analysis.

Kürten’s training at the Düsseldorf Academy surely inclines him to studies in architecture, but while the influence of Bernd and Hilla Becher and their students such as Thomas Struth (see also Post 41) Thomas Ruff (see also Post 66) and Andreas Gursky all concentrate on documentary standards for photography and unusual classes of architecture, painting frames architecture somewhat differently. In any case Kürten has no interest in grand symmetries or panoramas, in imposing scale or wider civic design. Nevertheless he arrives at just as much abstraction. He is interested in looking through surroundings to the architecture, at how these modify or inflect the integrity of planes, such as walls or windows, roofs or paving, at how they build other, larger designs from the state of gardens, the layers of posts, fences, railings, lattices etc.

This glimpsed unity is underscored in the continuous, if somewhat faltering outline, that allows in-filled or coloured areas, especially skies or shadow, foliage or greenery, greater latitude, further flattening the picture, reinforcing the linear cohesion. These are qualities that build upon photographic composition, particularly in attention to precise tonalities, yet when transferred to outline and freer colouring, point to more fundamental issues – to perspective’s preference for architecture, its dependence upon framing in perceiving additional and unexpected aspects.

Occasionally the artist dispenses with a coherent perspective to build from collage-like fragments that hover between pattern and picture. He sometimes uses metallic paints as grounds to further animate outlined areas, so that they reflect differently depending upon light and position of spectator. At other times this in-filling takes the form of roughly repeating motifs, depending upon intensity or complexity of colour and this deft shift from outline to pattern – from continuous line to short, broken ones – is prominent in the treatment of greenery, goes toward a stylistic distinction between nature and culture. The technique also allows a further level of pattern – usually circular shapes of varying colour that appear to float before the scenes, as if an optical distraction. In all three ways, Kürten carries architectural and pictorial qualities through to painting and samples not only a genre of depicted domestic architecture, but expresses an attitude, in the quiet meeting of chance and design, nature and culture.

The paintings of outdoor sculpture also stress placement in parks and gardens, and in more figurative cases, signal a similar approach to person, as circumspect and circumstantial, as architecture or place.

Tuesday, 10 June 2008

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JAKE & DINOS CHAPMAN


With current shows at White Cube, London, and L&M Arts, NY, the Chapman brothers once more claim attention with their winning brand of ferocious sadism, furious mayhem and free ranging contempt. Yet it would be wrong to see their work driven solely by controversy or provocation. More precisely, their concerns lie firstly with limitations to sculpture or modelling; with the way mode of reference can render outrages unconvincing or comic rather than a failure of reference scheme; how literally the scale and scope of 3-D modelling, implicitly assigns a level of detachment or simplification. Secondly, throughout their work the relentless hostility is often directed to tradition and established norms, for example, in re-creating works by Goya using Plasticine or retail mannequins, in painting upon discarded 18th century portraits or satirical carvings of ‘primitive’ idols. All attack received categories for materials, source and sentiment. Yet where the protest is so loud, the agenda shifts closer to home. Accumulatively, the protests point to an underlying discomfort with identity or integrity, issues with special weight in a partnership. In this sense, the work attacks in order to allay threat at a more basic level. Righteous vigour here flags a private anxiety.

The Chapmans belong to the wave of British artists that emerged in the early 90s under the patronage of Charles Saatchi. But their approach finds scarce precedent or parallel in British art. Their use of toy or hobby figurines in early works is closer to the use of children’s dolls by Mike Kelley, in adopting standard figures or models to unlikely tasks (see also Post 20) as well as Charles Ray’s use of fabricated retail mannequins to perverse ends. Indeed, The Chapmans soon turn to similar mannequins but supply far freer modifications, although with a similar focus upon sexuality. Tony Matelli is another kindred spirit, but his development is slightly later.

The Chapmans’ figurines are initially used to re-create scenes from Goya’s etchings The Disasters of War (1993). The curious conjunction of children’s modelling medium and renowned record of Napoleonic atrocity immediately gives the work an uneasy ambivalence. Goya seems trivialised, toy figurines given impossible gravity, so that atrocities are either distanced or rendered child’s play, while models struggle for a verisimilitude atrocity simply cannot accommodate. The works are really at war with themselves; suggest a war in their making.

Subsequent work vastly extends the tableau. Hell (1999) – sadly lost in a fire in 2004 – contained over 30.000 figures and dwelt upon Nazi atrocities. Larger figures, based on retail mannequins also echo Goya, while others trade in bizarre sexual fictions (these also echoed in recent works by Paul McCarthy, an older, kindred spirit, possible influence). Such figures are often joined at the waist and elsewhere, defying easy reference beyond siblings and sexuality, while steadily advancing the claim for an identity of more than one body, a person of parts scattered or shared; partnership beyond the practical or permanent. The balance of these two themes goes to the heart of their work.

Given the impetus to transgress or surpass, it is perhaps inevitable that their work embraces installation, prints and painting as well as sculpture. Their series of reworked 18th century portraits predictably visits fantastic disfigurements upon subjects; renders them absurd fictions that tellingly deny any stylistic coherence, any historical identity. Portraits are a particularly sore point, here.

But their targets are not always or only art history. In Übermensch (1995) they ridicule the achievements of physicist Stephan Hawking, as the cult of the hero, the supremely gifted and dedicated individual, overcoming enormous adversity. The title links such veneration to fascism. Conversely, Hawking’s example stands as either an overwhelming threat to those committed to collective identities, or endorsement for the mechanically or artificially extended individual.

In the series The Chapman Family Collection works such as Unholy McTrinity (2002) and Grimace (2002) conflate ‘primitive’ idols with toys and Christianity, global marketing, consumerism and faith. These are amongst their more appealing works. Essentially they extend religious imagery, much as they have treated Goya or retail mannequins. But the test remains how true such works remain to their sources, how effectively they direct reference elsewhere.

In the current work, ‘Little Death Machines’, the violence has become more abstract or remote, the models less directly derived from past or present. In fact works now flourish a kind of ramshackle obscurity to their torture; a more confined or rarefied model. The works hint at the machinations of industry, but also allow a more relaxed, whimsical side. The reference now is more diffuse, the violence subtler, more insidious.

Tuesday, 3 June 2008

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GREGORY CREWDSON VERSUS COLLIER SCHORR


Both photographers downplay particular camera features or distinctive printing options, instead concentrate on manipulation and classification of subject for rather than by the camera. In other words, what characterises their work is less a matter of how than what, strictly, of the informal over the formal. In this they conform to a wider trend (see also Posts 12 and 27). For Crewdson, elaborate theatrical tableaux steadily expand to engage realism and cinematic anecdote, while for Schorr the quality sought from her young male subjects grows more elusive or fleeting, and most recently is pursued in drawing.

Both photographers stress fiction or artifice. But while Crewdson often uses theatrical lighting and framing from a conveniently empty foreground to reveal fixed poses and stereotypical figures, Schorr confines fiction to a few military props for some of her young men, to role-reversed poses from pin-ups or traditional poses, to modest still lives as a metaphor for place or belonging.

Thirdly, both photographers deal in a marked estrangement or alienation from the presentational norms upon which they draw. For Crewdson, the broader more elaborate views of Middle American life are deliberately hollow projections from some grander vantage point that finally register something like fear or contempt through ostentatious displays of logistics or pyrotechnics. For Schorr, young men are documented as wrestlers, soldiers – even Nazis – and pin-ups, yet the theme remains male youth in roles that require no female counterpart, that if not overtly hostile, then fail as a measure of the feminine, for the feminine. But the threat is not in the roles assigned, nor their indifference to them, but at a much more basic level, where Schorr cannot identify.

Crewdson’s work first gained attention in the early 90s, with intimate tableau of birds and insects, significantly, of collective behaviour in ‘nature’; both viewed at some remove. However, in subsequent works, such as the Twilight series (1998) the artist shifts attention to episodes in the American heartland, often literally dark and disturbing, as much for the intense artifice as errant behaviour. Here the connection is often made to David Lynch’s film Blue Velvet (1986) with its opening and closing scenes of high artifice, bracketing a tale of terror and crime. Crewdson’s earlier works are seen as announcing similar revelations, but his clever play on nature and naturalism through models, does more than frame scenes of disruption and dysfunction. They render them disturbingly restrained and distant, as if no more than models in some higher scheme.

Indeed as the scenes become more expansive, there are works dedicated to the production values, to the extent of manipulation and artifice engaged; that are literally more revealing of the work’s tenor and priorities. And as whole neighbourhoods appear to fall under such schemes, they too are seen as just a more elaborate model or staging, not quite real, or perhaps worth greater effort. Either way, the uneasiness with the extent of artifice leaves the fiction of too much. It becomes forced projection of squalor or desolation, from a distance that ultimately lacks engagement or conviction. They are visions of something hardly known, largely denied. This is quite different from Lynch’s Expressionism or the paintings of Edward Hopper, another frequent comparison that misses the stylistic differences available and necessary to still photography.

Schorr’s work arrives a little later in the 90s, and while there are early works concerned with aspects of student life, her themes are usually young American wrestlers and a family of German youths at leisure. With each, Schorr isolates a peer group, deals less in interaction than individuality illuminated by role and circumstance. But while the wrestlers are factual and the soldiers fictional, neither quite confines young men to such roles nor convinces that such roles are only for young men. And where other work substitutes young men for women, as pin-ups and artist’s models, noted above, the interest in young men clearly points to an absence of options, a frustration with roles. The agenda appears to have only one gender and it is a hostile one.

As in Crewdson’s work, this grants the work a curious distance, and while Schorr is happy to also place men against a backdrop of nature, even camouflaged by it, their nature is no more forthright for it, her photography no closer to identification. Interestingly, her recent work uses drawing to bring figures together, to transcend the iconography of roles, to avoid the isolation of her photography. But both artists bring new expressive dimensions to familiar iconography, even though the expressions may be troubling or unwelcome.