It’s with some odd mixture of excitement and trepidation that I walk up to the London Business Design Centre for this year’s London Art Fair. I’ve been keeping my nose out of contemporary art magazines and exhibitions for the past couple of years in order to focus on writing my recent book, so it feels a bit like coming back to normality, friends and family after a long, hard expedition. I’m wondering how I’m going to evaluate what I see, and whether my lenses have been coloured or cleared by what I’ve been thinking about recently, i.e. an obscure Yorkshire female sculptor who stuck by her traditional “New Sculpture” principles in defiance of Modernism, (and who arguably found obscurity because of it).
My only experience of art fairs are Frieze and Zoo, on which I’ve written before, and which generally contain an international array of challenging new work. By contrast the London Art Fair broadly presents established figures and styles, with the majority of galleries showing traditional (Modernism and Pop are now traditional) wall hung or plinth based art. The main hall is split up into a bemusing maze of white stands, which splits onto different levels with a mezzanine and a balcony, with another wing housing the so called “Projects” area and the photographic exhibition. Initially rather bamboozled I turn straight to the darker painted grey calm of the Hepworth Gallery‘s exhibition stand at the entrance. The hall is humming with voices and confusion, so the type of spiritual calm and dwelling you might associate with Barbara Hepworth is a welcome retreat. It strikes me first of all that it is interesting to have a Yorkshire female sculptor as the big name here. Were there any other female modernists? I cannot think of any apart from those of the Bauhaus. When I google “female modernist” there are plenty of returns, but all of them writers. One web page suggests women’s greatest role in Modernism was in America, but as purchasers and supporters rather than as artists themselves. So Hepworth is an interesting starting point.
There are a good selection of works on show from the Hepworth, most of which are by male artists. I knew when Axisweb asked what kind of angle I might take on this article, that there were certain buzzwires that would set me off and “woman’s place in art” is one of them. I am sensitised by my recent research into the early women students at the Slade, by women who had to fight to transcend the lot their gender automatically dealt them. Just metres from the Hepworth gallery is a small red canvas, a 1972 Pop Art calendar girl. Amid much Modernism, contemporary Pop prevails at the L.A.F. inhabited by cartoon characters, song lyrics and political dictators, rendered in painted scrawl, collage, print or Banksyesque stencil. It must sell, but the incision of Warhol and Hamilton is rarely present.
Only one other work provokes this feminist buzzwire: a large luxurious painting of female body parts, breasts and buttocks set amid grapes and streams of colour by Simon Casson. These images not only re-establish the power code of fully clothed male painter opposite the naked female, but go further: Casson paints over or eliminates the female face. Thus there is a comfortable distance from the identity of the actual woman (inclusion of character might command respect); it is much as animal parts are sold for consumption. At least the Pop Art nudes of the sixties and seventies, and Page Three girls (as well as the traditional nude) have faces and identities, a spirit, a character. In comparison the 1972 Pop Art piece seems strangely naive. Casson’s are seductive works, I cannot deny the actual painting is beautiful (one thinks of Neo Rauch), but the work itself is deeply flawed by its very essence: the elimination of the individual, the sum of all parts, and by decapitating her, woman is as a usable object, her mind and feelings irrelevant. It does not surprise me when I find out that this gallery also represents Charlotte Cory whose concepts I also find dubious. Perhaps it is because I have spent so long trying to recover the identities of many lost portraits recently, but I can only think that by sticking the heads of animals onto Victorian photographic portraits she also denies the original sitters their identities; arguably their last possession of self and communication of it in this world. It is part of a trend I see at other galleries too, where the faces of early photographs are obliterated by stitches or paint, elsewhere the Chapman brothers have overpainted portraits (“One day you will no longer be loved”), as well as Goyas, but it all seems cynical, superficial and callous in the cause of one comic moment, one ring of the till.
In direct contrast to this devaluation of individual life are three works which instead seem to delve more into the nature and value of the existent.
1 Memorial by Tasman Richardson at The Residence Gallery begins with a simple little quatrefoil shape projected onto a black wall, it’s content is indeterminate at first but appears to be a film of candle smoke. The quatrefoil is gradually surrounded by a ring of images, in what emerges as a projected Rose Window. Each “pane” is a loop of frames from various films depicting the face of St. Joan of Arc, all juddering in various states of emotion. A self or a projected self fragmented, the whole appears to be a reflection of the human state in various moods, levels of anxiety and decision and the effect echoes Sartrean existentialist anxiety as much as Christian passion or patriotic angst. The circumference of the circle continues to expand as another ring of images emerges, shots of the same character from a different film, then another circle, and then another until there is a fully fretted Rose window illuminated on the wall. I’m told it references the window in Rheims Cathedral which has significant links to Joan of Arc. The piece is a strange thing to see in contemporary art. One is quite accustomed to seeing the notion of spirit and religion ridiculed and vilified in sensationalist works by the likes of Hirst, but it doesn’t seem to be the case here. It is as though the human state, spiritual, mental and physical is dissected and cross-examined. Like a mass of flickering candle flames the window is illuminating (tiny) narratives, much as the original stained glass windows did, and perhaps stained glass windows with their use of light through colour are actually a closer ancestor to video art than painting. Memorial was originally part of a larger installation of Richardson’s video works, Necropolis at Toronto’s MOCCA in 2012.
2 Secondly one of two works by Francisca Prieto, a brilliant Chilean artist, on display at Jaggedart. Between Folds/ Royal and Noble Authors. 146 x 118cm.
“Folded pages, a series of portraits that illustrate the Earl of Orford’s catalogue of Royal and Noble authors”. A book has been dismantled and its pages have been meticulously folded into semi opened squares, much like an origami lotus flower and the vital information of the book, has been encased within the folds. I have disliked disembodied book works in the past as usually the information, the instrinsic value of the book, is destroyed for decorative purposes, but Prieto’s subject matter plays upon the actual content of the book she has dismantled. The faces of these existents, existing now only as the authors Orford knew them to be, have been unfolded. Once hidden in the depths of a bookshelf and long forgotten these authors now exist as linked to their writing once again. It is a type of resurrection. There is something a little musical and elegiac about the piece whose repetitive patterns of folds suggest rhythm, and where some are more deeply folded blanks which depict a question mark. (The blanks perhaps suggesting the unknown authors who were not so Royal or Noble). So many intelligent people wondering and thinking and creating as we still do now throughout all of history. We are none the wiser, but the continuance of such activity is integral to the human condition, and this I feel makes the work elegiac, as much for our state as theirs. However, crucially there is hope and joy in this piece as within the folds their identities and works as authors are remembered as one might hope to be.
3 Underground Stories III by Andrew Gadd on show at John Martin Gallery. This painting stopped me in my tracks as it utilises the preconceived idea of a form, which tricks you into expecting something different. Initially what I thought I saw was an outsized old photograph in one of those old circular golden mounts with a dark wood frame. Looking again, the mount was not golden, but pale wood, and suddenly the work felt ten times more contemporary than much of the plastic and pop around me. Once I really looked at the painting, for all its stylistic references to Bastien-Lepage, the Newlyn Group and Waterhouse, I realised that what I was looking at was a scene from contemporary life: a tube journey. If a function of art is to reintroduce you to reality, as poetry does with ostrananie, then this is it. The central figure reminded me of women in Manet’s paintings, caught mid thought, mid action in a fleeting moment of their lives. Sat next to her is a hooded figure in a parka, a very familiar sight. People take photographs on their phones all the time these days and such an image as this, an isolated female and an anonymous entity in a parka bent over the pages of their book somehow deals us our current hand. This is what we have now, snapshot images anywhere and people hiding from cameras, who although isolated in public are connected in other technological ways, masses of individuals on many trains.
While Impressionism countered painting’s new rival, the camera with “off edge” compositions and snapshot moment images, Gadd seems to go back and reassess the situation at the point in history where perhaps painting left off for the various strands of Modernism.
William Blake‘s poetic truth and luminosity have always attracted me. In his Auguries to Innocence it was Blake who coined “To see a world in a grain of sand and heaven in a wild flower”. Some artworks seem to sum up as much truth and capture an essence of what you know surrounds you but couldn’t quite fix. Mike Ballard’s A Vertical Expression of a Horizontal Desire, (Graphical score) at The Residence Gallery is a startlingly beautiful object. It is a painting in that the tiny rows of Super8 film have been painted upon, marbled and smeared in jewel like colours, it is a sculpture in that it is a three dimensional piece comprising a lightbox where light emits vertically through the film and it is a conceptual piece in that it is in a sense a piece of visual music, “a vertical expression”. The film is reportedly a mixture of home videos, shorts and pornography, now all equalised in their diminution in size and their obliteration with the paint, and all rendered beautiful and new by a new projection of light through them. Unlike the particular obliteration of a portrait which specifically lends ridicule to a dead individual this general obliteration somehow redeems something once amateur or toxic. Such a reduction and obliteration of the original frames to passages of colour offers a removal and distancing from human actants which reminds me of images of the earth taken from space: all the joys and woes, blessings and sins, war and peace, cruelties and kindnesses, inequalities and equalities become morphed into a far off idea of humanity.
Another visionary artist and poet Liliane Lijn has produced amazingly poetic work for decades and is shortlisted as one of the next artists for Trafalgar Square’s Fourth Plinth. Blake spoke of a world in a grain of sand, for Liliane it is a universe in a Koan. I was lucky enough to hear her speak at Culture Lab at Newcastle University back in 2010 about her Star Dust project. Collaborating with NASA Liliane had produced works using material from outer space connected with Aerogel.
From Riflemaker where the works were shown in 2008: Lijn believes that Aerogel confirms the physicist David Bohm’s vision of matter as ‘frozen light’. ‘I felt that Aerogel was a piece of the sky. The way it reacted to light, the impact cones made in it by cosmic dust, its net structure creating a solid that was also empty; I recognized all of these characteristics as part of the language of my work.’
Her kinetic Koans have been a form she has worked with for years and somehow draw energy, light, vision and poetry all together. Lijn was famous in the 1960s for her poetry machines her work is often subject to flux and play. I was therefore very excited to find a Koan at the Multiples Store. As the gaze is shifted the colours seem to become fluid and mutable. It’s quite a humble and simple little object really, truly a little grain of sand, but its resonance with the spectrums, energies, movements and forms of this world, and beyond perhaps, make it a magical piece dense with significance. It’s also great fun to look at.
And here it was at the Multiples Store at an affordable price in an edition of thirty! Inequalities means that I can’t call Liliane Lijn a future “Old Master”, (“Mistress” has unfortunate connotations of degradation), but I am sure she will in time become renowned as such.