Monthly Archives: October 2012

Richard Hamilton: The Late Works, National Gallery

It must be slightly galling for those artists who enjoyed success in their formative years to struggle to attain as much critical or popular acclaim later down the line. To be remembered for early, slightly rough and ready pieces of work. Richard Hamilton is one such prodigy who springs to mind: Google his name and the word ‘artist’ and the first piece of work which appears is his iconic 1956 piece Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different, so appealing?  It’s the work of his you’re most likely to recognise, with the buff, nearly naked guy holding a giant lollypop as an extension of his manhood, set within an oddly proportioned, ‘modern’ sitting room. A naked lampshade headed woman with conical breasts reclines on the sofa, whilst another hoovers the staircase wearing a glamorous red dress. Here is 1950’s America at its consumerist, aesthetically stimulating best, and this is the work which has seen critics credit Hamilton with ‘inventing’ Pop Art.

When you contrast that image and moniker with the late artist’s work currently work on display at the National Gallery, you can see that Hamilton was much more than a relic of his youth. The works look familiar as many of the same themes and motifs are on display: the interior architectural space, and the difficulties in perspective which multiple lines can create; the naked female; the repetition and visual playfulness. In these newer works an exploration of art history is also displayed, perhaps instigated by his supposed creation of an art movement which he denied, there is a curiosity here with past masters,

There is no escaping the fact that these works are, literally, visually stunning. The interior spaces are crisp, more perfect than real life; they draw you in and dispend belief. Hamilton’s reliance on Photoshop and digital technology is unmistakable, and would be even to complete technology-phobes. But whilst these works have technical precision in abundance, they appear drab and outdated once viewed in succession. There is little visible feeling, these are largely clean and clinical depictions, the warmth has been digitised out of them. It looks as though the same cold eye has been glanced across, say, a table lamp as a living human form. As a result, the naked female figures cannot be called nudes, Hamilton’s frosty critical appraisal leaves them slightly less than human.

The obsession, and I don’t use the word lightly, with the naked female form seems at once childish and irrelevant, and if considered more deeply is slightly irksome. Balzac, where a naked woman in repose is displayed for the three artistic masters behind her and the viewer in front would no doubt fall into the NG’s categorisation of Hamilton’s ‘theme of…beautiful woman and desire’. It’s a traditional pose, we’re free to stare at her wares as much as we like as the woman in question has her eyes closed, and is therefore seemingly unaware of this intrusion into her privacy. To me, this notion of female beauty and the (often elderly) male desire being projected onto her youthful abundant flesh is like a dirty little artworld secret which should have died out by now, Page 3 being its media equivalent. Yes, young naked women are appealing, but no we don’t need to see yet another one, we don’t need to become the voyeur of youth again despite the link to art history. And whilst we certainly don’t need another man projecting his idealistic view of the female form into the minds of all female viewers, we equally don’t need to see it hung on the wall of a national gallery. I left feeling slightly cold, though impressed with the bathroom tiles.

Richard Hamilton, Balzac (2011)

On display until 13th January 2013.


Edvard Munch and Images 36

Two visually striking London-based exhibitions were on display at the beginning of this month, and whilst you may have missed the Munch retrospective at Tate Modern, you have seven rainy days to get yourself down to Somerset House before another chance to view is lost forever.

Edvard Munch, hailed as one of the ‘Blockbuster’ shows of the autumn, comprised twelve rooms of the artist’s garish, nightmarish visions interspersed with little seen photographs and film work.

Advertising image for the Tate Modern show. Edvard Munch, detail of ‘The Girls on the Bridge’ (1927), oil on canvas.

There were some significant weaknesses in this exhibition. Munch was a strong printmaker; I was disappointed that more of his linocuts, woodcuts and lithographs were not considered important enough for the retrospective. The lack of The Scream was as glaringly obvious as the latent misogyny in the work, a slightly disturbing thread weaving its way quietly through the narrative (which Tate would probably argue should be viewed within the context of the time). The ubiquitous crowds also made for irritating and fragmented viewing.

However, there were major strengths in highlighting the artist’s repetition of themes and showing some of his lesser known works. The last room in the display was the most descriptive for me; of the artist’s character, his fears and of the preoccupation with death and disease which dogged him his entire life. You imagine him as a hugely awkward and introspective individual, and it was obvious from the vein of the exhibition that it isn’t possible to separate the artist and his work, and the life that he led and suffered.

On the whole the paintings were exactly what we would come to expect: stunning, brash, vivid, dark, descriptive, almost hallucinogenic, rich and sombre. Most people are aware of some of the darker biographical moments in the artist’s life, and the textual interpretation alongside this show explained much more. Munch’s body of work represents a unique and troubled mind, one that inspired many others in his wake, and if you made it to Tate Modern in time to see this show I doubt you regretted it.

On a completely different scale is Images 36 at Somerset House, an exhibition of the best of British illustration from 2012, as judged by the Association of Illustrators (AOI) competition.

Advertising image for the Somerset House exhibition. Illustration by Anuska Allepuz.

This is a vivid, engaging and lively little show which will no doubt have attracted fewer visitors than it deserves. Don’t let the advertising image lead you into believing that this is a show of images designed for children. There are three large rooms displaying various themes and techniques employed by working illustrators, with work created for a variety of publications. Advertising campaigns, pieces of political satire, magazine commissions and graphic novels are all represented within the competition, as well as the expected animal characters and sweetly rendered scenes from storybooks.

It was a revelation for me to be exposed to such diversity in method, and I can see how the judges must have had a difficult time in choosing the winning entrants. This exhibition has all the things that the Jerwood Drawing Prize (see post dated 06.10.12) is lacking; glaring talent, a neat and professional display, a coherent yet broad range of works and an ability to induce real delight and curiosity. This exhibition made me want to rush home and crack open my underused colouring pencils, watercolours and inks. What loftier aspiration can organisers have, than to try and encourage the sleeping creative potential in its visitors that we each secretly possess? One not to miss.

Lenka Hrehova, Tell the truth and look which way you are going to run (2011).

Edvard Munch was curated by Nicholas Cullinan, assisted by Shoair Mavlian.

Images 36 is on display until 28th October 2012.

I wasn’t familiar with the work of this artist before, nor (rather shamefully) had I acquainted myself with the venue. Described by this exhibition press team as a ‘celebrated British artist’, further research into Benney’s background reveals a quietly comfortable career and moderate successes. He has work in the MET  and the National Portrait Gallery collections, has exhibited fairly widely and now, until 9th December, has secured a solo show of his paintings in the ‘Deadhouse’ at Somerset House.

The entrance to this exhibition was standard enough, until it led to the exterior of the basement into what looked like an old fashioned stable yard. The first set of works were enclosed within individual vault like rooms along a cobbled semi-circular path. The heavy stone walls and imposing think black doors gave a sense of entombment, it was late evening on my visit and the remains of the bad weather were dripping along the interior of the walls. Setting the tone for the show, Benney’s opener, The Burning, depicted a single figure with a cane stood amongst heaps of burning flame, amid a smoky, Turner-esque pastel sky. The vision was dreamlike, an apocalyptic kind of dream, or resembled your worst imaginings of Afghanistan or any other modern war.

Paul Benney, The Burning (2012), oil on wood.

Enclosed within another of the cells was Levitation, my favourite piece showing a male figure clenched tightly into a clasped ball under a rippled blue surface of water. There wasn’t enough disturbance in the water to suggest the man had dived into his position, he was apparently hung there as if suspended just under the surface. The murky khaki of the deeper waters seemed to encroach on his eerily white, vulnerable body and inside the claustrophobia of the small stone room, it felt as though it was me holding my breath.

Paul Benney, Levitation (2005), oil on wood.

Slightly further on, when the cobbled path had led to the Deadhouse itself, I was inside the core of the exhibition. Religious symbols were referenced a number of times: saints, candles, the sense of martyrdom. Some of these works employed resin to create a glossy, translucent surface that the figures could be submerged underneath. In one work, a man reached his fist through the milky dream-like surface of the paint, as if reaching out to the real world. Whether Benney’s protagonists are willing inhabitants of his indistinct imaginary worlds, or whether they would consider themselves captives remains unanswerable.

The play of light and shadow in the Night Paintings does occasionally, convincingly pull you into a deep reverie. These works demand isolation in their viewing, I was largely alone on my visit and the experience was all the more complete for the lack of noise. Some of the works had a distinctly monumental quality, a slight dash of Anselm Kiefer, but at their worst Benney’s paintings seemed tacky and obvious, gaudily displaying the flaws in the artist’s figure painting ability. A couple of the more figurative works looked clumsy and crass, completely overwhelmed by the interior architecture.

This show has been sold by Somerset House as an atmospheric and unique experience, and it would be easy to buy into the temptation of believing this statement within the confines of the dimly lit space. The reality within the paintings seemed to shift between something quite tangible, to an afterlife scenario or fabrication of the truth. Yet how far the multiple interpretations were enhanced due to the location is hard to gauge, would these works have such impressive presence within a white cube gallery space? This is not a consistent display, by any means, but I still consider it worth a visit to draw your own conclusions to this question.

One of the cell like , exhibition rooms awaiting you at Somerset House.

Curated by the artist. On display until 9th December 2012.

The small but perfectly formed Arnolfini in Bristol has been taken over by a series of silk prints, photographs and aging faux holiday posters that look like they derive from the 1970s. Welcome to the work of German artist Matti Braun in this solo show of his works spanning the past fifteen years. Enter into Braun’s world, step inside and feel like you’re looking at a flawed and western idealistic version of the future, as imagined fifty years ago.

The exterior of the Arnolfini, Bristol.

The diminutive ground floor gallery space, as introduction to the show, on first glance seems to indicate an eclectic practise. In the dimness a series of lovely fluid images adorn the walls. Splodges of sooty liquid seeped into silk are reminiscent of an oil spill, or of the multi-coloured sheen of grease across the surface of a puddle in an industrial waste-ground, the type of polluted water which you know you shouldn’t touch. Wells of cracked paint sit on the surface, there are thick swirls of glossy varnish and translucent wax, and bubbles of thick ink just asking to be popped. Hung alongside these plays on surface are two sets of photographs, which look like an adventurer’s collection from the 1970s. Each image has an indistinct quality of age, a washed out look that, whilst not quite sepia, indicates the old fashioned process of photographic print production. All the clichés of ‘foreign lands’ are here, a sandy slope in the dessert, a feather, a tribal mask, a footprint in the earth. When viewed alongside this imagery, the raw silk works can be newly interpreted as an exploration of craft, but the overall affect is slightly jarring.

Upstairs the seemingly confused themes begin to pull together more cohesively. The first room contains more of the oil spills and bursts of colour in the form of psychedelic vibrant screen prints on silk. The text accompanying the show speaks of Braun challenging ”conventional interpretations of Modernity” in his work, but for children of the nineties like me this already seems such an irrelevant and prehistoric concept. What does Modernity even represent anymore but a utopian idealistic realm of the past where change was in the air and people could suddenly have anything or do anything, without regard to the consequences?  The period is seen as a time of the freeing up of people’s roles and expectations, where the God of consumerism brought about a new desire for all things shiny. This is a time which younger generations now look back on with a slight contempt (if we look back at all).

The next three rooms get to the crux of this discussion, with the first showing a selection 70s-esque holiday posters, playing on our idea of how things were in the past. This was back when the world was full of exotic, exciting destinations, and the sense of ‘the other’ was most intoxicating. Other cultures were consumer products and guaranteed experiences waiting to be discovered, this was well before the notions of responsible travel and sustainable tourism had appeared. The pseudo travel shop leads into the most pleasurable room in the show, a body of black murky water broken up by stepping stones hewn from tree stumps. The visitor is invited to step across these stumps, to create their own path (although in reality there is only one possible) through to the last room of the exhibition. The innately enjoyable act of striding from island to island is replaced, on further reflection, with guilt at the death of the trees and the unavoidable connotations of pollution, destruction and commodification.

Matti Braun, “S.R.” (2003). Wood, foil and water

The last arena is filled with supposed artefacts of a newly discovered ‘tribal’ culture. Replicas of tapestries hang on the walls, there are more of the seemingly random selections of ‘holiday’ photographs, and prints with words written in languages unknown. On the far wall there are seven photographs which look like futuristic film sets from the middle half of last century, oddly and colourfully dressed actors exist inside a striped monochrome room. It looks like a cross between living inside a Bridget Riley painting and Star Trek circa Captain Kirk, when the remit was still to “to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life forms and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before”. The room feels very of its time and creates an uncomfortable atmosphere, increased by the fact that even as we recognise these objects and images as stemming from a dated mindset, we know that they were created this century.

As mentioned, there is now a guilt attached to these notions of the other and the commodification of other cultures as represented by Braun’s work. The idealised notion of the future which was dreamed up back then now looks politically incorrect, overly naive and oversimplified, a bit sci-fi. The work on display here challenges our relationship to a past where none of the implications of consumerist activity were fully understood, the tension derives from our new position of knowing. Of course, as Braun subtly suggests, our concept of the period suggested by the works, the baby boomer 1960s and 70s, is a constructed narrative which suits the position we find ourselves in now. It’s easy to look back with jaded eyes at the past, jealously coveting a time where you could act guiltlessly and make hay while the sun shone. A time where we imagine you could go anywhere and buy anything and not have to worry about recycling, or pollution, or global warming, the banking crisis, debt, famine, corruption, racial tensions, religious extremism or war. How truly this idealistic realm of the past matches the original is insignificant, more telling is that we now look back in the same vein as they looked forwards.

On display until 6th January 2013.

The annual Jerwood Drawing Prize aims to ‘explore and celebrate the diversity, excellence and range of current drawing practice in the UK’. Competitions such as these, based on type of medium, are often open to a lot of criticism (think Brian Sewell on the BP Portrait Award). The criteria can immediately cast doubt on whether each work is chosen on merit, is being used to demonstrate the scope of the medium, or is merely a wall-filler, the best of a bad bunch. My verdict in this case would be dismally unfavorable.

As an ex-printmaker whose practice was heavily based around scribbling and sketching I always look to the Jerwood with high hopes, and am often disappointed by the quality of the exhibition. This year, sadly, the selection again didn’t meet up to its promise, but there were a few understated delicacies hidden amongst the dross to keep me happy. Katie Aggett, one of the two student prize winners, had presented a duo of precise architectural forms drawn in black ink, entitled N1C 4TB W10 5UU. There was a Bridget Riley-esque quality within the geometric lines, representing a sign of good things to come further along in her career. Hung a little further down in the same room was a delicate conte on silk piece by Heeseung Choi, consisting of five layers of fabric depicting a towerscape drawn from full scale to ruination. Between remembering and oblivion 3 had an almost holographic quality with the sheen of the silk and the layered image creating a sense of the destructive action in motion. This work was well constructed and felt unique, more than could be said for much of the selection.

Heeseung Choi, Between remembering and oblivion 3 (2012), conte on silk

Another three artists to note were Carl Randall, Tanya Wood and Richard Galloway. Randall had submitted a series of 78 small line drawings, Notes from the Tokyo Underground, which showed commuters engrossed in a variety of activities on the subway. Some of the portraits were funny, others poignant, and together these works had real presence. The smart mounting was also a plus (future entrants take note), proof that hastily created work doesn’t have to be shoddily presented. Wood’s careful recreation of a pillow spoke of trace and intimacy, and showed real drawing and observational abilities. Galloway has achieved prior recognition for his linocuts on Japanese paper, and a high level of professionalism and intelligence was present in the work selected for this competition, Dolor.

Carl Randall, detail from Notes from the Tokyo Underground (2012), pen on paper

Contrasting with these few gems were a group of largely dreadful, amateur works which wouldn’t look out of place in a church hall art show. The range of material on show also called into question the point of the show, how a spray painted party hat in a frame could be selected as a drawing or even a thing that’s worthy of hanging on a gallery wall is beyond me. Another ‘work’ consisted of the carcass of an emptied sketchbook artistically pulled apart at the wiring and framed. The curators might argue that this work showed the passage of time or was proof of the production of drawing but I felt that its inclusion was an insult to the other entrants. I can understand the appeal of entering this competition for artists, it’s a high profile group exhibition which looks good on the CV. Unless the Jerwood organisers sort out the quality control, however, this show is never going to say about drawing what they want it to say, it’s not going to create respect for the medium or have an impact of any worth. There are lots of talented artists out there who work with drawing of some sort; I would like to see more prints, more illustrative works, architectural renderings, mappings, pieces demonstrating real imagination and skill.

The winning artist managed to pull back some credibility for this show in the form of her animation piece. Karolina Glusiec had created a poignant story in her sweetly rendered work, Velocity, where drawings acted as a substitute for faulty or desecrated memories of her childhood town. The narrative was repetitive and slowed down to a series of moments which occurred in a day, representing the drawn out nature of a childhood where seemingly insignificant events like a train passing begin to act as markers of time. One memorable section of the film showed the landscape passing by in the train window and the figures outside obliterated into a blur. The imagery in the story travelled from trees and people chatting happily in their apartment windows, to factory smoke and people trudging to work, while the descriptive sentences were deceptive in their simplicity, revealing menacing undertones. Trains and mass exoduses toward working in factories can hint at unspeakable things in mainland Europe, and on watching the full six minutes you are left with a sense of wanting to know more. Glusiec was a deserving winner, please include more like her next year Jerwood judges.

Karolina Glusiec, Velocity (2012), Animation still with graphite on paper

Works selected by Stephen Coppel, Kate Macfarlane and Lisa Milroy. On display at Jerwood Visual Arts until 28th October 2012.