Archive

Monthly Archives: April 2013

Ansel Adams: Photography from the Mountains to the Sea

There is no doubting the skill of this iconic American photographer, it’s evident to anyone who is familiar with his striking, precise images, beautifying the wilds of the great national parks like Yosemite. In their exhibition, despite the title, the National Maritime Museum has, in a rather twee fashion, focused on water topics. There are seas and coastlines, great soaring mountains reflected into pristinely calm lakes, rivers, storms, snow and geysers. This ignores the fact that many of Adams’ strong images contain only land and sky, and is also quite limiting in terms of curation.

Despite this, the exhibition opens well, with an interesting introduction text and some lovely early photographs where Adams was learning his craft. A small, slightly hidden, section displays diminutive, very focused tidal scenes. Gorgeous curves of water, sultry blacks and glittering sand; these are almost abstract forms. They could be aerial views of a whole coastline from way up high or shallow waterfalls. The most striking images, however, felt large in scale. Epic shots where bold mountains meet water, eternally conjoined as a double image of the sky, these are the money shots for Adams.

Ansel Adams, Maroon Bells nr Aspen, Colorado (1951)

Ansel Adams, Maroon Bells nr Aspen, Colorado (1951)

Small details say huge amounts. Carefully framed whooshes of sea spray tell the story of the power of the sea. A leaping, towering geyser stream looks almost otherworldly; it states a life-force of its own. A man who did not love nature, did not spend hours in isolation with only the mountains and trees for company could not draw out these connection. Some of his photographs look hyper-real, like film stills or outrageously intricate ink drawings by the best draftsman that has ever lived. As stunning as nature can be, I am sure I have never seen it so awe-inspiring, so unspoilt as in the best of the images on display. The containment provided by the paper’s edge removes distraction, any evidence of human activity or presence, bad weather, small annoyances. It’s the landscape equivalent of a perfectly lit and proportioned airbrushed fashion model.

With some exhibitions, you are aware that you are witnessing something groundbreaking or so unique that you’ll never see quite the same thing in your lifetime. Not every show can be a heart-stopper though, provoking curiosity, showcasing the best of an artist’s body of work or making new, unseen connections are all equally valid outcomes. Here, you can’t question that you’ve seen the work of a great artist, but the lack of atmosphere, the ugly space and clumsy hang devalue the experience. The end effect would have been better received in a coffee-table book (there is one on sale, obviously), and but for three large photographic murals in the show the scale would have been much the same.

Ansel Adams, Stream, Sea, Clouds, Rodeo Lagoon, Marin County California (1962)

Ansel Adams, Stream, Sea, Clouds, Rodeo Lagoon, Marin County California (1962)

http://www.rmg.co.uk/visit/events/ansel-adams

On display until tomorrow (28th April 2013).

Souzou: Outsider Art from Japan

Much can be read from an exhibition title. The success of a show can rest on thousands of individuals making one small decision, asking themselves one question: does this sound interesting and appeal to me? The title of the Wellcome Collection’s newest temporary exhibition makes the promise of something curious, something new.

Japan is an enigma to those Westerners who have never made the trip, has an exotic, far-away, otherworldly feel, the yin to our yang. It feels like an opposite in almost everything. Tokyo, situated 6000 miles away from London, fills the imagination. We use popular culture to guide our ideas of the place: Kill Bill, bullet trains, Harajuku Girls, anime, James Bond, geishas, Japanese tea and flower gardens, Hello Kitty and overcrowding. Added into the mix is the “otherness” of outsider art, a curious term defined as “raw art” created outside of the main sphere of culture and society, by marginalised individuals. Expectations are being created, vague notions of the primitive and naive…

It’s easy to imagine furtive minds at serious play, studiously bent at desks and tables working through the nights. But this is a collaborative process. Whilst this work may not have been made for public consumption, staff at the various homes and institutions where the artists live or attend have recognised the talent, ambition and rate of production of those in their care and helped to make this project happen. There is certainly evidence of a lot of interest on my visit; there are animated conversations and debates going on around the room. The most disparaging comments write the exhibition off as a gimmick, the work as childish, with some artists more than others gaining critical approval.

On first glance this is a difficult show to connect with. The first works are pencil scribbles on paper, childish cartoon drawings detailing television programmes and colourful felt pen creations. Leading on from this there are vibrant rainbow weavings, a collection of miniature sparkly figures, what look like giant potato prints of animals and other weirdly wonderful creations. It’s hard to know how to judge or read many of the works as there are so few points of reference; this assemblage of art sits far “beyond” normal art history and artist practise.

Toshiko Yamanishi. Mother (Undated), coloured pencil on paper

Toshiko Yamanishi. Mother (Undated), coloured pencil on paper

There were a few gems for me, the first in the shape of Masaaki Oe’s ceramic figures, an “American” man in a suit and tie and two smaller “Dutch” fellows kitted out in trenches and hats. There was a humour evident in these characterisations as well as a skill in the working of the material. Takuya Gamo offered delicately intricate pencil and pen drawings of flora and fauna, whilst teenager Norimitsu Kokubo displayed city drawings huge in scale and definitely summing up the dual meanings of “souzou” (creation and imagination). The works which drew me in and impressed the most were the 13 clay figures by Shinichi Sawada, depicting cartoon like Aztec style monsters from the land and sea.

As a complete collection the exhibition showcases the product of people with dissimilar brain functioning communicating with and understanding their worlds. There is much focus on the humanoid figure, whether as person or robotic creation, and of repetitive abstract forms. The Wellcome Collection has tried to make sense of the disparate, often confusing, works by providing context within six overall sections or headings. As a location which wants to provoke curiosity this was a good second venue for a show which began life at a Psychiatry museum in the Netherlands. Unfortunately, with the over prescriptive texts describing the visual work on display, the interpretation is far too heavy handed, reading like a beginners guide.

The written content often felt overwhelming and congested an already overcrowded room full of powerful work. Surely trying to fully explain and categorise art of this nature is self-defeating, as by its very definition it is singular and unique? Bringing together the work of 46 separate artists who have only a few things in common, their country of residence being the strongest parallel drawn here, does not create a cohesive art movement nor make for smooth viewing. Nevertheless a challenging, positively disorientating and lively experience awaits those seeking something “other”.

Shinichi Sawada, Untitled (2006-10), clay and natural glaze

Shinichi Sawada, Untitled (2006-10), clay and natural glaze

On display until 30th June 2013.

http://www.wellcomecollection.org/whats-on/exhibitions/souzou.aspx

At the Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest

This small exhibition inherently courts controversy, how could it not? Yet it isn’t the general subject matter which is shocking, especially not to a cultured twenty and thirty-something-year-old crowd who’ve been raised on tit-tastic, pouting MTV videos and hardcore internet porn. The jarring, unnerving edge is in the subtle details, the hint of static violence and humiliation which clings with gripped gnarly fingers to the periphery of every shot. This doesn’t feel pretend, like hyper real unrealistically-proportioned starlets faux screaming in a movie, this feels darkly real, at times chillingly cruel.

Helmut Newton, Monte Carlo (1983)

Helmut Newton, Monte Carlo (1983)

The opening section of the retrospective show looks toward the independently produced Helmut Newton’s Illustrated, four magazines published at random intervals on whatever subjects took the photographer’s fancy. Anyone who is familiar with Newton’s work can rightly guess what types of images predominate (if not I’ll give you a clue – the title of the first issue was Sex and Power). The second section, co-joined with the first, is his portfolio of images entitled Private Property, captured from 1972 to 1983 during which time the photographer was moving through his fifties. Age wasn’t a restraint on his work; his continuing career is demonstrative of an unstoppable appetite.

Sadomasochism elegantly displays its thin neck in the form of items which bind and contain. A woman’s bare leg is encased from ankle to cheek in a barbed-wire like casing, metal pricking into the surface of her pearly flesh. In another photograph, which if a little less strategically lit and artfully framed could have criminal undertones, a woman in stockings lies otherwise naked, face down onto the floor and handcuffed to a battered metal radiator. But these aren’t throw away material to hold in sweaty palms during alone time, these are depictions of sculpted, athletic and highly eroticised bodies. They are the ultimate site of fetish, the most sophisticated form of fantasy and precisely applied brutality is projected onto this lean version of female.

The female which populates these images is also capable of being the latent antagonist, showing signs of aggression which don’t align with the idea of a victim. Sharpened, striking nails as talons are a recurring theme. Whilst in most images undressed women are impassively looked over or bound next to fully dressed men, in others girl on girl possession is illustrated. One thing remains true: whether strong and dominating, or more often subservient and reduced, woman as seen through Newton’s lens is an object. In one photo from 1977 entitled Mannequins Reclining, the mannequins in question are actually naked women, languidly stretched out on a rug in the sunshine filtering through a window. In many other images parts of bodies are shown, dissected. The fullness and complete potential of woman is reduced.

Helmut Newton, Mannequins Reclining (1977)

Helmut Newton, Mannequins Reclining (1977)

In the third section, the advertising images titled A Gun for Hire, the themes continue, albeit slightly diluted. Each fashion house has clearly dictated elements of the look, the girl and the stage. In full technicolor these are less interesting, a little more tawdry, less film noir. In one image the middle section of a model is thrust forward at the groin, she is seemingly tied to a white railing pole. The high-cut leather swimsuit which cuts across her crotch pulls attention to the visible shaving bumps all along its lower edge. Another campaign shows a dead-looking woman in girlish clothing being casually pinned down to a bed of newspapers by a man’s sneakered foot. These people are all interchangeable, blank eyed and glossy. In a couple of shots the girl-women even hold a photograph of their faces over their actual face, further illustrating that these bodies are blank sites to be projected onto.

Helmut Newton, Thierry Mugler (1998)

Helmut Newton, Thierry Mugler (1998)

Newton’s argument that he was a feminist is a difficult pill to swallow. While he certainly idolises a pale, model perfect female body, he reduces her to less than human. For every strong female image (largely in the advertising shots which he didn’t fully control) there are five more where woman is a sex doll, a dead mute carcass, a collection of body parts or a thing subservient to men, to the camera or to a harder edged masculine woman. Violation is everywhere. A full cooked chicken being prised apart by a clawed hand calls to mind splayed female genitalia. A dog lunges upwards in between a woman’s open legs, just on the cusp of attack. Heels, cuffs, chains and guns are recurring.

These virulent ideas and descriptions, once considered fetish, have long since bled into everyday consciousness. Elements of the same cruel and self-fuelling imagery can be evidenced in newspapers, Hollywood and pornographic movies, magazine pages, pop videos, fashion shows, strip clubs and high streets across most of the globe. Only one thing dates these images as slightly less than current: the prevalence of public hair. Nowadays we prefer our sexual fantasy parts gleaming bare, just like a mannequin. The final set of photographs in the show sum up the unrealistic point we have now reached. In this advertising campaign for Vogue tiny teenage girls in tinier bikinis flaunt their hard, hairless bodies, passively displaying their firm breasts and podgy blossoming faces. This is what we women now expect, to be sold our clothing and our notion of what it means to be female through the image of a highly sexualised child.

Helmut Newton, Thierry Mugler Monaco, (1998)

Helmut Newton, Thierry Mugler Monaco, (1998)

Curated by Péter Boki. On display until 14th July 2013.

http://www.szepmuveszeti.hu/exhibitions/helmut-newton-1920-2004-847

 

Have you questioned, since primary and secondary evidence was introduced to you at secondary school, who owned a history? Wondered why one particular image or idea has been given or absorbed precedence over another, whose truth has been told where a cacophony once existed?

Exhibition image

George Catlin was an American lawyer-turned-painter who held a fascination with Native Americans; between 1830 and 1836 he visited around fifty tribes visually recording clothing, customs and scenes from everyday life. A showman, the artist collected together his sketches and paintings to create the world’s one and only travelling Indian Gallery. It traversed across the United States and then in 1839 came to Europe, where audiences were wowed by the vibrancy and unfamiliar details in the paintings. The art wasn’t enough to keep the public interested for too long, however. By the mid-peak of his career the Gallery was accompanied by Native Americans performing traditional, tribal dances and ceremonies. Catlin had produced a sensationalist travelling circus of sorts.

At the National Portrait Gallery there are, thankfully, no “performers” on display. Scores of proud people gaze down from the walls, adorned with face paint, feathers, beading and weapons. In the exhibition text they are individually named but the detail concentrates on the description of the finery and the costume. One 12 year old girl, Mint, is reduced to a “belle” with peculiar course grey hair and a winsome gaze. A paragraph about individual tribal leaders references their strength and prowess in battle. We feel no closer to these people than to the models in a fashion magazine, the interpretation feels equally as hollow. This is clearly an outsider’s view. Catlin didn’t spend time with one tribe or sit, in the traditional sense, with his subject for a sustained period. He collected imagery; he was hungry for difference, for the minute differences between each tribe, between them and us. His work, quickly produced, isn’t of great quality and reveals the eagerness of the artist to capture more and more.

George Catlin, American Indian Portraits seems a strange story for the National Portrait Gallery to tell, an unusual side of history to have aligned with. This show promises to “suggest the sense of spectacle created by Catlin and demonstrate how he constructed a particular image of American Indians in the minds of his audience”. The only difference is, this is 2013 not 1839 and dissimilar cultures don’t suggest a spectacle. Reconstructing an image as an exact replica without additional interpretation doesn’t demonstrate a time and place, it simply recreates and reinvigorates the original image. How many of us now have firsthand experience in knowing about the Native American way of life, or could honestly say we came to this exhibition to learn more about the individuals instead of to be awed by the aesthetics?

George Catlin: American Indian Portraits, the salon hang at the National Portrait Gallery.

George Catlin: American Indian Portraits, the salon hang at the National Portrait Gallery.

Perhaps the most striking element of this exhibition is the replica of the salon hang. Some of the frames retain their original numbering from the hang in London over 150 years ago. Twenty-four paintings hang in rows of three, the top two rows being too high up the wall to study in detail and the whole display discouraging close reflection. In this way the images become almost caricatures, here is a selection of American Indians displayed for your curiosity and amusement. In the room just along from the salon hang a telling black and white photograph from 1901 shows the Indian Gallery at the Smithsonian. The only difference, there wasn’t room (or desire?) to include the display cases containing the clothing and paraphernalia here.

You might argue that the paintings in the Smithsonian’s collection are the only real surviving body of work which represent a lost way of life, and so that they rightfully belong on display. But It is the nature of the display which is troubling, the question of who is holding the power and who hasn’t been included or consulted. These are works painted by a white man, owned by a rich and powerful cultural organisation in the US who has traded the right to show these works at a national museum in London. For a gallery which concentrates on portraits of people, this is a departure, because these aren’t portraits. At best they are an anthropological study, and at worst they are storybook depictions best placed in a history museum.

George Catlin, Sha-kó-ka, Mint, a Pretty Girl (1832)

George Catlin, Sha-kó-ka, Mint, a Pretty Girl (1832)

On display until 23rd June 2013.