Archives for posts with tag: artcriticism

The Caged Bird’s Song


This is a magical display. Chris Ofili has created a watercolour which has been woven into a tapestry by Dovecot Tapestry Studio. The tapestry is enormous, a triptych covering a whole wall of the exhibition space, and it’s beautiful. Ofili’s image is rich and bright, reds and oranges bleeding into blues and turquoises and purples. The left and right panels show figures drawing back theatre curtains to show a mythical, watery, tropical scene. A couple sit at the centre of the work underneath a waterfall, him serenading her on a guitar with a still ocean behind them. She’s holding a cocktail glass, into which a nymph or god in a tree pours a sparkling liquid. This heavenly cocktail waiter, it turns out, is Mario Balotelli. The adjacent room shows Ofili’s studies for his watercolour, the most magical of which are those where Balotelli rises from cocktail glasses like a genie robed in smoke. The piece is titled ‘The Caged Bird’s Song’, referring to the first part of the great Maya Angelou’s autobiography. A caged bird is depicted in the right of the work but the whole piece is musical. 


There’s a calmness in the room – I could sit in here for hours, like in the Rothko room at Tate Modern. There’s also a happiness and serenity in the tapestry, as well as a heady tropical expectation in the black storm clouds on the horizon. I’ve never been to Trinidad, where Ofili is based, but there’s a flavour of Caribbean nature in this piece. The couple are under the waterfall, so I doubt the imminent downpour will bother them. The work is so rich, I want to hear the tale of these figures and the myth of this landscape. The medium of tapestry is itself mythical – maybe Arachne wove this. This display doesn’t need a soundscape. You can hear the water through the tapestry. 

Balotelli the genie


From afar, the tapestry looks like a watercolour. The pigments bleed into each other like watered down paint, mixing with the waterfall and the sea. The level of skill in this piece is phenomenal – the weavers have somehow managed to translate water into wool. 

This is a tapestry not a watercolour – how

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The Egyptian influence on Alberto Giacometti’s work featured prominently in this exhibition. Looking through books on Egyptology, Giacometti would copy the photographs, often sketching directly over the printed text. I found these drawings appealing – the mix of photograph, text, and sketch is very aesthetically pleasing. It might seem like Giacometti isn’t treating these books with their due deference – you shouldn’t draw on books amirite – but for me his additions liven up otherwise pretty dead-looking academic tomes. 

Across from the display of books are several of Giacometti’s tall, thin human forms with Egyptian-style heavy bases. This is visually different to the influence apparent in The Head of Isabel (the Egyptian), 1936, a white bust of a woman with heavy, structured hair. The visual link to ancient Egyptian statuary lends a serenity and nobility to the figure of Isabel, but the texture of the sculpture is completely different from his tall thin figures. It’s interesting to see how the Egyptian influence carries into Giacometti’s different styles.

This show is curated and interpreted in a way that opened my eyes to Giacometti’s practice; I now understand the work better and like it more as a result. I guess that’s one of the things that good curation can do. Three Men Walking, 1948, Four Women on a Base, 1950, and other groups of tall, elongated figures, are clustered together like a forest of silver birches. From far away they’re almost indistinguishable from one another, they’re melancholy, they somehow feel like they’re standing in the rain. The interpretation points out that these works reflect the post war melancholia of Europe, and his stretched, sad figures, and paintings in muted greys and browns, make sense to me for the first time. There are some visual links between his work and that of Francis Bacon – there’s a similarity in the brush strokes – but Giacometti’s paintings in subdued tones of grey and brown are much calmer, much sadder than Bacon’s red angry monsters.

A video shows Giacometti in action, making a portrait in paint and a sculpture in clay. This was a beautiful insight into the process of his practice, emphasising the time taken in his process. Many of Giacometti’s sculptures feel very energetic, with figures like Walking Man, 1947, striding purposefully forward, so it’s a surprise to see how slow his sculptural process was. His work is not an immediate creation, there’s a huge amount of labour involved. It’s very unpretentious.  

My favourite piece is Tall Thin Head, 1954, a bronze bust that face on is ridiculously slender, but see it side on and it’s a full, bigger than life-size profile. I saw this, or a similar piece, at Gagosian last summer and I loved it then too. I love the way this uses space and perspective – it becomes a different sculpture from every angle.

The Nose, 1947-9, is another highlight. I like a little bit of gruesome and this is very grim. A tortured looking head with a pointed, Pinocchio nose hangs suspended within an oblong box. The nose is superficially funny, poking out of the confines of the box, but when you notice the twisted, downturned mouth, and the cage-like structure within which the head hangs, it becomes more sinister, like a Grimm punishment for lying. Compared to the melancholy drudgery of his standing groups, The Nose is more harrowing, conveying a pain not present in his other figures. 

This show readjusted my view of Giacometti. I now get why he’s so revered, thanks in part to the curation and interpretation (props to Francis Morris and Catherine Grenier), but thanks mostly to seeing so much of his work in one space. God bless the retrospective.

This is a landscape photograph of the Iguazu Falls in Brazil. It’s a colour photo, but the muted grey of the flat water at the top of the image and the whiteness of the spray make it appear black and white. The muted tones belie the rushing activity of the water.

There are three sections in this image: the inverted triangle of falling water in the centre, framed by the spray at the sides of the image and the river and horizon at the top.

The high definition of the photograph picks out these sections in three distinct textures. The unfallen river is glassy and smooth, the spray is a soft, cloudy mist. Where the water pours over the edge, the very top of the waterfall, it has an intricate sculptural quality. The patterns of this central focus point are repeated elsewhere in nature – these shapes could be veins, or the inside of your iris, or a nebula. It’s an impersonal photograph, as I suppose landscapes often are, but in this universal structure there is a unifying quality. This shape could be anywhere in the universe, it could be inside you.

By photographing the waterfall, Tillmans has rendered movement still. Thanks to the camera, we are invited to examine the way the waterfall stands in one moment. It’s a very contemplative image. It captures three very different stages of movement; a seeming calm, a plunging rush downwards, and a soft, gentle rise. 

The power of the waterfall is almost lost in its beauty. Only the boats at the very top edge of the photograph recall the danger of the water, the fragility of the human world. Hung alongside photographs of shiny cars, this photo is a pause from urban life, a moment of meditation on something separate from humans. Without the boats, without Tillmans, Iguazu falls would go on falling. 

17 works by women photographers lent by the National Museum of Women in the Arts reflect the diverse, complex, and often shared experience of women worldwide.

Lying on a bed in a green dress, staring at the viewer with twirled hair styled and placed in a halo around her head, Daniela Rossell’s ‘Medusa’ is a better, more substantial precursor to Kendall Jenner’s most liked instagram pic. There is power here, and vulnerability and intimacy which, shockingly, is not present on Kendall’s gram.
Hellen van Meene’s photographs are like illustrations for a book of fairy tales. The text described them as looking natural but actually planned meticulously. To me they do look painstakingly curated and posed. To me there is nothing natural about the props and scenarios. Each subject seems to have an unclear but definite story – one girl is a bubblegum princess in a tower, another girl dead from a curse, a third girl blows magic dust to cast her spell. In this exhibition on the female body and the female gaze the fairytale element is unsurprising – fairytale women have very definite roles set out for them. Here there is some discussion of how real girls and women feel – bubblegum princess is bored, and the girl clutching the feather heart looks more angry and sad than happily in love.

Nan Goldin’s ‘Self-Portrait in Kimono with Brian, NYC’ has a melancholy intimacy about it. Partially clad on a bed in a rosy dawn or dusk light, this could be a romantic, post-coital scene, but the back to back figures seem to hold something from one another. Their tension and frustration is in contrast to Brian’s upfront sexuality that can be glimpsed in the photograph of him, cigarette dangling from lips, pinned in the top right corner of the work. This is an honest snapshot of a moment in relationship, and an almost universal experience.

It’s always a pleasant relief to see images of women through the eyes of women. Interestingly, there were no nudes in this exhibition – these were women’s and girls’ bodies without the sexualised male gaze. That’s not to say the women depicted were devoid of sexuality, rather that these women are more than simply sexual. There was an intimacy present in many of these photographs; the viewer is often invited into a bedroom, again not so much a sexual as a private place. But there were also grand scenes, such as Marina Abramovic as a peace warrior on a white stallion. Women can be everything, and there was a little bit of everything in these photographs.

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[Disclaimer – I whizzed round this exhibition because so little of it grabbed me.]

Robert Rauschenberg may have been the father of pop art but I was less than head over heels with this exhibition. His Red Paintings seemed dull rather than revolutionary, and the wall of his collage-esque silkscreens was uninspiring. These were new and innovative when Rauschenberg first made them, but their visual aesthetic is now so ubiquitous that it reminded me of the way we covered our GCSE art sketchbooks with various related images to make them look cool and arty. Although maybe that’s the point – his revolutionary has become our ordinary.

I did enjoy the goat. It’s pleasantly fitting that Rauschenberg really struggled to fit the notoriously stubborn goat into his art. He tried many goat compositions with none of them working, until he rammed it through a tire and voila.

I found the first room  by far the most exciting, showing his experimentation with everyday materials and the role of the artist in the creation of work. Rauschenberg barely contributed physically to the John Cage, Automobile Tire Print (1953), a long thin black tyre tread. Rauschenberg poured the paint, but Cage drove the car and made the image. So who made the work?

I picked out Erased de Kooning Drawing (1953) from afar for the aesthetics of the work, but totally lost my shit when I realised what was going on. Ostensibly just a grubby piece of paper in a gold frame, this is a work of conceptual genius. Rauschenberg had asked de Kooning to make a drawing which Rauschenberg could then erase. This work is a collaboration with de Kooning, or an ex de Kooning, an authorised undoing. A destruction and a creation. I’m still fangirling over this.

I can appreciate that Rauschenberg’s work has incredible artistic value, but alas many of his pieces were just not to my taste. Having said that, his experimental work where there is a blur around the question of markmaker as artist absolutely blew me away. Maybe with a little more understanding I’ll warm to him as an acquired taste.