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, 29 July 2008
Tuesday, 22 July 2008
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
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.
Tuesday, 8 July 2008
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
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.