Archives for posts with tag: Art Exhibition
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Monochrome after Van Gogh Sunflowers: 1-12

Sherrie Levine’s show is about art and appropriation. There are bronze casts of works by unknown artists (or at least artists unnamed in this exhibition). There are photographs of reproductions of photographs by Russell Lee. Who made these works? Who do they belong to? Are these authentic artworks?

Complex questions, and Levine’s response leaves me cold. I’m not convinced that reproducing the work of others and saying ‘look, this is appropriation, see how I appropriate’ is enough to make the appropriation ok or worthwhile, and I don’t see what it adds to the debate about appropriation, especially when appropriating stuff that is so often appropriated anyway. Punch up, not down.

Gamelan Figures

Also, I found it boring. I love me some conceptual art, all that shit that makes some people despise contemporary art. But Levine’s Monochromes after Van Gogh Sunflowers: 1-12 is, to me, an oversized Dulux colour chart of Van Gogh’s drabbest colours.

Detail from After Russell Lee: 1-60

Her photo series After Russell Lee: 1-60 interests me a little more. Russell Lee’s photographs of rural American life – generally beaut – are seen by some as exploitative, so maybe there’s a suggestion of ‘how bad is it to reproduce these images when the original artist isn’t exactly clean as a whistle’. It is also conceptually interesting and politically charged for a female artist to work with appropriation of works by famous male artists. But realistically, they’re the same potentially exploitative images. It made me think about rural life in America. It didn’t really make me think about art. Somehow this show didn’t do it for me. If you don’t get to see it today before it closes you’ll survive.

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‘In Sheep’s Clothing’ by Martin Puryear

Space and material are prominent in Martin Puryear’s peaceful retrospective at Parasol Unit. Brunhild is an enclosed space, but nonetheless conveys openness through the broad curves of its wooden trellis structure. In Sheep’s Clothing and Big Phrygian by contrast have a very solid presence, strong in the space they occupy. In Sheep’s Clothing is hollow, I peered into the small opening and inhaled the fragrance of the pine. Many of the sculptures are wooden, and the iron works look as if they were originally carved in wood then cast. The works generally feel very organic, all handmade with respect for the materials. Puryear’s work respects and reveres craftsmanship and the natural.

‘Brunhild’ by Martin Puryear

The sculptures are motionless but there is a sense of air and movement nonetheless. Night Watch is like a section of a field, long grasses blown in the wind. The inflated shape of Brunhild suggests a breeze. Where Brunhild breathes, however, The Load tightens and encases, hard to place within the exhibition. It shares with Shackled, a heavy iron work, a recognition of human history. 

‘Shackled’ by Martin Puryear

Peacefulness is restored elsewhere with works like Cerulan, a near-perfect circle, almost meditative in its shape and colour.

‘Cerulean’ by Martin Puryear


While Happy Jack needs a bigger room to be fully appreciated, and Puryear’s prints feel hidden in the seperate gallery upstairs, the main galleries of Parasol Unit generally suit these works. It’s less like a white cube than it otherwise might have without the extension of the gallery into the green outside space. Perhaps it’s the presence of Puryear’s works – the outside is contained within them. 

I’ve always been sceptical when people say they’ve cried in art galleries, their breath literally taken away by a piece of art. I always believed it was at best an exaggeration, at worst a pretension. 

‘Fire’ by Fahrelnissa Zeid


It happened to me yesterday. I walked into a room of Zeid’s glorious abstract paintings, riots of colour, peaceful and dynamic. I stood in front of Fire, 1964, and fought back tears. There is magic in this painting, the rich vibrancy of the blues, the light and depth, the texture of the scratched oil paint, the flash of red flame. It’s like a shower of sparks in a pine forest at dusk.

Next to Fire hangs Puncta Imperica (‘Sea Cave’), 1963. Rounded forms, like rocks worn away by the sea, fill the canvas in blue, orange, green, pink. Looking at this, I can smell the ocean.

Detail from ‘Untitled’ by Fahrelnissa Zeid


This show took my breath away. I will always sing the praises of a smaller space – a blockbuster of 12 rooms leaves me grumpy and exhausted. Five or six rooms is enough to show Zeid’s mastery of colour. Sitting in the middle of a room of her gargantuan abstract, mosaic-like canvases is an act of meditation. Her portraits are potent, her subjects wear clothes that could be made from her canvases.

‘Self-Portrait’ by Fahrelnissa Zeid


As a middle eastern woman, Zeid’s work has a different flavour and feel from most of the art available in museums and galleries. You can feel the difference radiating from the canvases. It is exciting. This is what happens when galleries move away from the white male dominance of art history. The viewer is no longer missing out, deprived of art made outside such a narrow perspective. We can see art history with the blinkers off. 

I managed to avoid most of the history modules during my Russian degree, preferring to read novels and learn about the country through its fiction. I found the Soviet Union aesthetically depressing – drab and dreary run-down buildings, all in grey and red. But the Revolution had always been thrilling to me, the promise of such radical change for the better, the promise of a utopia. I love the art that it produced. I like that when I see an exhibition of Soviet art, there are works by women on the walls, presented as artists in their own right rather than members of an imaginary art movement known as ‘women’s art’, separated from ‘proper art’.

This year is the centenary of the Russian Revolution so London has been inundated with Russian exhibitions. I liked the Royal Academy’s ‘Revolution: Now!’ with all its Kandinsky, Goncharova and Malevich, and I loved the Design Museum’s ‘Imagine Moscow’ for bringing to my attention the Soviet plan to build a building taller than the Empire State, topped with a 100m tall statue of Lenin. I felt something akin to grief when I found out this laughably ridiculous dream never came to fruition.

‘Angels and Airplanes’ by Natalia Goncharova

The British Library’s ‘Hope, Tragedy, Myths’ has been the most politically interesting of the three. It’s more a museum exhibition than an art show, heavy in historical documentation, including Lenin’s handwritten application for a reading pass at the BL. The variety and quantity of the documents – manifestos, diary entries, propaganda posters, maps, letters, decrees – makes clear the confusion and chaos around the Revolution. My personal myth of the glorious Revolution is shattered and I start to understand quite how frenzied and bloody it was.

The show examines mythologies at length. Stalin made serious errors in his various roles under Lenin’s leadership, but once Stalin’s leadership was underway, all his previous roles were mythologised to show him as a hero. Both the Red and White Armies perpetrated myths that they alone were defenders of the people while their opponents were bloodthirsty murderers. A particularly strong curatorial choice was to have audio recordings of diary extracts of soldiers from both the White and Red armies. Both extracts describe the brutality and violence of the other side, and it is horrible listening. A propaganda poster showed Bolshevik soldiers ransacking a village, including killing the villagers’ goose, reminiscent of a grim scene from Isaac Babel’s short stories ‘Red Army’, a copy of which was also on display.

The artworks in the show, as in revolutionary Russia, were largely restricted to propaganda posters and book illustrations, but a couple of others stood out for me. Two lithographs by Natalia Goncharova encapsulate the dichotomy of the times – her mix of angels and architecture is at once mythological and practical, hopeful and destructive. Another image that stands out is The Burial of the Victims of the Revolution by Edward Barnard Lintott. It’s a journalistic watercolour depicting an icy funeral, red flags providing the only colour against a darkening white and grey landscape. It shows the hardship of the Revolution, fighting for change on the ice.

‘Hope, Tragedy, Myths’ is a great show, offering a fairer portrayal of the moods and circumstances in Revolutionary Russia than I’m used to. By including items from other countries where people were in support of the Russian Revolution, the British Library shows Russia as part of a global whole. Communism, after all, is pointless unless it’s global. A pleasant respite from the common portrayal of Russia as isolated in its own Marxist madness. The Revolution is shown as hopeful and desperate. One Red Army soldier wrote in his diary: ‘People have only one way to go – towards the light. And the light is Communism.’

I was early to meet a friend for this little art trip, so I lurked in the bookshop. I picked up a copy of Matt Houlbrook’s ‘Queer London’. The blurb contained the following line:

He also describes how London shaped the politics of queer life; and how London was in turn shaped by the lives of queer men.

Queer men, everyone. Not queer people, or the queer community, you’ll notice. This level of erasure of queer women (hello) and non-binary folk did not instil me with great hopes for the exhibition. I was livid before I’d even got through the door.

So I went in thinking it’d be a bit shit and fall short of what the British Queer community deserve. Tate seems to be aware of how easy it is to mess up shows like this. The wall text set out a lot of boundaries and caveats – the show looks at the specific time period 1861 – 1967, the dates of the abolition of the death penalty for sodomy and the partial decriminalisation of sex between men respectively. These dates don’t refer to gay women and it was highlighted throughout the show that gay women were largely ignored by the law. This isn’t the Tate’s fault, obviously, but it irks me nonetheless. The text did contain this nice little phrase ‘this is a history punctuated by bonfires and dustbins’, which succinctly encapsulates the violence experienced by the queer community throughout history. But they’ve also claimed that there is ‘little surviving material’ for some aspects of queer life, which increased my apprehension about whose perspectives the show would platform.

Simeon Solomon’s ‘The Bride, the Bridegroom and Sad Love’ 1865

Like queer history, the show focuses mostly on gay men. Tate did well to try to show a diverse view of queer identities, including two lovers identifying as one person, and various relationships of three people or more. But it is largely a show about white cis gay men.
Diversity of experience aside, the multiplicity of feeling in queer life is shown well. Aubrey Beardsley’s uproarious, erotic and high lols drawings depicts men with massive cocks literally bigger than them. Homoeroticism, sex and humour are at the forefront of these images. Compare these to Simeon Solomon’s The Bride, Bridegroom and Sad Love, a devastating drawing showing the heartbreak of a homosexual entering into a heterosexual marriage, and leaving behind former lovers. There’s a richness of sexuality and emotion in the works on show.

Aubrey Beardsley ‘The Lacedaemonian Ambassadors’ 1896

Rooms 3 & 4 are nicely juxtaposed, showing two opposite sides of queerness living side by side. ‘Theatrical types’ in room 4 showcases the camp and the glam of queerness, our love of feathers and tiaras, how the theatrical arena has long been a safe space for queer people. This room, with its costumes and photographs of Vaudeville cross dressing stars, is the art historical equivalent of Pride and Drag Race.

Leaving behind the glitz and glamour, the next room, ‘Bloomsbury and Beyond’, is filled largely with images of domesticity, of afternoon tea and vases of flowers. Ethel Sands’ Tea with Sickert shows a warm domestic scene with the table laid for tea, and is hardly an explicit or erotic depiction of homosexuality. Here is the deeply mundane, sheer normality of queer life. In the words of comedian Susan Calman, it’s not all sex swings and dildos.

Ethel Sands’ ‘Tea with Sickert’ 1911-12

A blockbuster show of Queer Art in a major institution is quite something. Undoubtedly it demonstrates the relatively new openness that surrounds the LGBT+ community, and is something to be celebrated as a mark of ‘how far we’ve come’. It’s also easy to get wrong. Tate has managed OK, there are numerous portrayals of non gay-cis-white-male aspects of queerness, and Tate has addressed some shortfallings directly, such as pointing out Edward Wolfe’s racist exoticisation of his black male models, but failed entirely to reference any gay women of colour. Filling the last room with Hockney and Bacon underlined the prominence of white cis gay artists on the queer art scene. Perhaps this is why I found the show a bit dull. If the remit of the show extended past 1967 maybe Tate would not be able to hide behind history as a reason for omitting aspects of queer life.

 

I like the wetness of Maisie Cousins’ work. The sexuality is so obvious it screams at you. A wet finger enters the petals of a flower, with red flecks like menstrual blood. Viscous, clear liquid dripping off orchids. Turgid flower stems. Cousins doesn’t fuck about.

It’s also gross, with slugs crawling over boobs and ants over fruit, and a video of a millipede squirming around over roses. Bodily-fluid-esque slime mixes with snail slime. The natural grossness that exists in sex is addressed in Cousins’ photographs.

The erect stems of flowers drip with sex much more than the nudes do. A hypersexualised flower next to a natural bum is refreshing – you can see hair where hair normally grows.

The show is pretty and femme. The flowers are pink and white, the walls are bubblegum, and the floor is gold mirror – a little sexy disco grotto. I could see up my own skirt in the reflection from the floor and I spent some time trying to make my own bum mimic the massive bum print on the wall (I had the gallery to myself). I don’t know if that was what the gold mirror floor was there for but I enjoyed it.

Cousins’ work feels very cool. The show is like walking into an uber-femme zine. I am looking forward to seeing how her practice develops as trends change and I suspect she will be leading the charge.

CN/TW: Mention of rape

Picasso by now has been the subject of endless solo shows, you can’t really give him a retrospective – you have to find a theme in his work. This exhibition was a close reading of the Spanish artist’s work on bulls, bullfighting, and the myth of the Minotaur. The show purportedly examines the following Picasso quote: “If all the ways I have been along were marked on a map and joined up with a line, it might represent a Minotaur.”

Commercial galleries like Gagosian don’t tend to have interpretations on the walls explaining or discussing the works like the national institutions do, so in this case it is up to the press release and the viewer (hello) to connect Picasso’s life to the myth of the Minotaur through this selection of works. This quote isn’t sufficient to fully describe the themes of Picasso’s Minotaur work – the exhibition doesn’t reflect the sense of journeying that his words convey. I think the exhibition also needs to be read alongside Picasso’s famously complex (shit) attitude towards women: “For me,” he told his mistress in 1943, “there are only two kinds of women, goddesses and doormats.”

The bull and the Minotaur clearly represent male sexuality and virility, nicely demonstrated in Faune Priape, 1957, a little sculpture of a man/bull with a massive boner approximately the size of the figure’s torso (I wish I could pop a photo here because  it was high lols but they were very strict on the no photography rule). Unusually for any art exhibition there was a lot more male than female nudity, and by ‘male nudity’ I mean copious amounts of aggressively huge dicks and bull testicles.

fig. 1 Pablo Picasso

La femme torero, 1934

The heterosexual masculinity of Picasso’s work plays out in opposition to femininity. There are two female ‘types’ in this show that correspond with two ‘types’ of masculinity. Mostly, the man is the Minotaur, all macho violent strength, and the woman is at best object, at worst victim. There are reams of rapes, women with their heads thrown back and their eyes rolling. Even in the works that depict consensual sex, the woman is lying back, being done – the Minotaur is active and the woman is passive. Minotaure dans une barque sauvant une femme, 1937, could show a Minotaur saving a woman from drowning – he’s carrying a limp female form from the sea into the safety of a boat  – but this surely refers to the myth of Europa, ‘seduced’ (read: raped) by Zeus disguised as a bull. As much as the bull head in this work appears impassive and non-violent, Picasso has made sure to depict the figure’s balls at almost the centre of the work, so there is no avoiding the reference to sexuality.  My copy of Ovid (Raeburn’s translation if  anyone wants to check) describes Europa as a ‘frightened prize’ – this is a rape as much as Picasso’s more overtly violent Minotaur series. FYI Zeus’s bull became the constellation Taurus – the most enduring vision of a bull that we have in Europe is a by-product of a rape. La femme torero, 1934, is another example – the woman Matador is thrown backwards by the bull, penetrated by the bull’s horn (probably a penis metaphor as usual), and she is carried off on the bull’s back, just like Europa. Picasso’s violent bull exists in partnership with his view of a woman as ‘doormat’, as object.

Image result for deux faunes et une nymphe picasso 1938

Deux faunes et une nymphe, 1938

There’s a rare glimpse of woman as Goddess in Deux faunes et une nymphe, 1938. There’s no macho masculinity in the dancing faun, dancing or curtsying in front of a nymph who sits on a throne, wearing a hat that is like a crown. She holds an anchor and looks unimpressed. The second faun is non-threatening, sat quietly in the background with clasped hands. There is a noticeable lack of dick in this work, and therefore a lack of male sexuality. But then, a faun is not a Minotaur – he’s half goat, not half bull. Maybe faced with a Minotaur, with Picasso’s vision of masculinity, this imperial nymph would not remain so composed.

There are a couple of instances of masculine vulnerability in this show. A winged bull in le chaval aile, 1948, stands with his guts spilling out of a hole in his belly, surrounded by three enormous black vultures. The dying bull stands strong and upright, genitals enormous and prominent as usual. In barque de naiades et faune blesse, 1937, a faun slumps on a shore, arrow piercing his torso, with a boatful of women sailing past without assisting. There’s pain, and maybe fear in his face. Again, though, he isn’t a Minotaur. Femininity can only have power in these works when masculinity is lacking – nymphs can sail past a dying faun, but women must be subjected to the will of the Minotaur.

In minotaure aveugle guide par un fillette, 1934-5, a blind Minotaur is guided through the night by a little girl holding a dove. The Minotaur howls in pain at the starry sky, and three sailors watch from the sides of the work. There’s a Paula Rego’s Nursery Rhymes quality to this piece, with its strong shading and assorted cast of characters. It’s quite a theatrical work, the stars and sea look almost like a painted backdrop to the figures. This is the only work in the show that depicts a vulnerable Minotaur, and the girl is the only non Goddess/Doormat female.

For all that I’m not a fan of these views on masculinity and femininity, I loved this show. I love anything mythical and Picasso is generally a delight. The works are absolutely beautiful, my favourite being minotaure aveugle guide par un fillette for its nighttime theatricality. There were a couple of works that seemed a bit out of place (paintings with no Minotaurs or Matadors involved), but the show as a whole was beautiful. There are some examples of Picasso’s ceramics, and I think there’s a lightheartedness in these – wouldn’t it be jokes to eat your breakfast from a plate decorated with bull genitals? – which makes the exhibition a little less serious. It’s a nice warm up for Tate’s blockbuster Picasso show coming up in 2018. I’ll probably be going back.