Revelations | Robert Mason

This summer I had the pleasure of meeting British artist Robert Mason and discovering more about his life and practice from his studio on the Colne Estuary, ahead of his exhibition at the Colour Index Agency in London, organised by writer, editor and curator William Davie. The exhibition continues until 20th July 2019 by appointment.

“I’ve always worn a mask, all my life,” Robert Mason explains as we stroll through his home in the small town of Wivenhoe on the Colne Estuary. “It’s just sometimes that mask slips. Small things bring you back.” Mason is an artist long associated with sorrow. The tragedy of losing his parents, sister and brother as a young child has somewhat defined his career, with critics all too ready to embrace the story as a familiar tale of tormented genius. But despite the macabre dealings of his past, Mason has emerged a beacon of optimism. Now in his early 70s, Mason is even mildly surprised to find himself at this point. “It was never meant to be this way,” he teases gently.

Mason comes from a generation of artists that emerged at a time when the so-called “School of London” was at the height of its powers. Of all the London painters, Mason is perhaps most closely connected to Frank Auerbach. It was Auerbach who encouraged Mason to disregard the nature of fads and trends, to ignore the proclamation that painting was dead and follow his own path. Akin to these giants of Modern British Art, Mason has remained resolutely figurative in his practice, grounding his darkly evocative imagery in the poignant experience of what it means to be human.

Bones, masks, animal carcases and crouching figures are unavoidably connected to his early suffering, but at the heart of Mason’s method is a need to feel something – be it the loss of family or the despair of grief or another sensation all together. For that reason, the Norwegian artist Edvard Munch also holds a particular grip. Munch’s haunting painting of his own sister upon her death bed resonates only too clearly with Mason’s anguish. Much like Hamlet, cowered over an open grave, Mason bought four skulls in the 1970s to represent each of his parents and siblings, painting a series of spectral images in their silhouettes. For Mason there must always be a searing emotional truth that draws the viewer in and holds them there.

Mason grew up in Yorkshire, immersed in the rolling hills that inspired Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth, and studied in Harrogate ( 1963-1965) before taking up a place at Hornsey College of Art in London (1965-1968). Mason originally trained as a sculptor and worked as an assistant to Hubert Dalwood, a member of the informal group of artists known as the ‘Geometry of Fear’ who rejected the rise of Abstract Expressionism and Minimalism from across the Atlantic. At the height of the Swinging Sixties, and as the anti-Vietnam War protests raged, Mason travelled to The British School in Rome (1968-1970). For the first time, Mason worked from his own studio space, opening up a new world of possibilities and igniting a passion for Italian culture that remains with him some fifty years later. It was here, as he laid new paintings out for passers-by in the Piazza Navona, that he was discovered by Laura Crispolti of the Galleria Condotti and found his work suddenly exhibited alongside those of Giorgio de Chirico.

Mason roamed the ancient sites of Rome, looking with fascination at archaeologists digging amongst the ruins. It was in Rome that he met Anthony Blunt the Art Historian, later revealed as a Soviet spy, who would accompany a group of young artists to look at masterpieces by Caravaggio and Bernini in the city ‘s churches, both under the natural cascade of sunlight and by candlelight. This experience of the melodrama of Baroque art has had a significant influence on Mason’s practice.

The notion of excavation has stayed with Mason, apparent in the way his brooding works gradually make themselves known and coalesce into the hints of bodies or edges of natural forms. Often using transferred images as his foundation, Mason engages in a layering process with paper and paint, building up luscious marks of acrylic which are then scrubbed away with his fingertips, flagellating the impasto to dismantle and remake the work many times over. In the midst of this process, there is a sense of peeling back the deposits of material, exposing the residue of memories and reflections of the surrounding world that lie hidden. Through the relentless physicality of his practice, and its need for both time and effort, Mason has been left with hardly any fingerprints at all. Indebted to Robert Rauschenberg’s array of post-war collages, Mason’s layered works are imbued with the essential suffering of human existence. Being an artist is hard after all, Mason reminds us, a struggle formed by experience.

Emerging from the gloom, Mason’s works are filled with the same flare for drama as the European masters of old – speaking to the majesty of Michelangelo and Gian Lorenzo Bernini, the agony of Dante’s Inferno, the nightmarish apparitions of Henry Fuseli and the violence of Francisco de Goya. The restless changes of light and colour, like the flickering candles of Roman churches, bring his tattered forms into view. Within this purgatory, Mason’s images sing of the grand allegories of life and death, through all the crescendos and diminuendos of a tragic opera. Veiling and unveiling, Mason’s works seem to play the roles of a masquerade, like a performance of the Italian Commedia dell’arte.

From Italy, Mason travelled to America to teach at the University of Florida before returning to England in 1971, where he settled in Shoreditch – exchanging the antiquities of Rome for the detritus of the East End. Mason’s work plunged back into the shadow of nostalgia, but embraced a greater sense of gesture and a more vivid palette. The birth of his own children prompted a series of poignant mother and child works in the late 1980s, filled with a new hope, whilst referencing the Baroque visions of the Pieta. Through the symphony of his oeuvre, Mason oscillates between the revelations of his interior world and the return to secrecy and concealment, as if treading carefully out into the light and retreating once again.

From his studio in East London, Mason made a series of still life works based on bird carcasses purchased from the local market, reminiscent of the palpable flesh of Chaïm Soutine’s hanging meat paintings. Using these bodies for his artwork, Mason then plucked and roasted his subjects, consuming their remains in a full cycle of creative life. Mason recalls how he once joined the painter Michael Andrews on a stag shoot in Scotland, but the pitiable remains of the dead animal disgusted him. As Mason explains, he was just too close to death to take any pleasure in a first kill. Mason’s series based upon the myth of Actaeon, transformed into a deer and torn apart by ravenous dogs, captures something of this gruesome experience.

Mason’s work moves in cycles, often taking its starting point from an arrangement of objects like a memento mori, pulsating with the inescapable transience of life. These cabinets of curiosities pay homage to Joseph Cornell’s assemblages, amassed from the antique shops and dime stores of Manhattan, and even Henry Moore’s scattered collections of driftwood, shells and shards of bone. In one of his most recent series, Clear Point, Mason has turned to an array of encrusted oyster shells from the Essex coastline for inspiration, delving into their rich tactile surface and gleaming veneer.

Perhaps Mason’s most important body of work to date is the Broadgate series (1989-1990), inspired by the Liverpool Street building development. Originally asked to create a single painting, Broadgate came to dominate an entire year of Mason’s life, during which he produced one hundred and fifty pictures, and a group of elaborate triptychs of the construction. Fascinated by the renovation of the area, in a flurry of noise and destruction, Mason was also moved by the struggle of the workers – recalling his father’s profession as a lorry driver. Delving into the labyrinth of dark tunnels, Mason’s spectral images of the labourers, their bodies stooped and backs arched, were now based upon living people rather than the ghosts of his past. These images looked back almost inevitably to Henry Moore’s accounts of the wartime shelters of London’s underground. Far from simply a documentary enterprise, Mason uncovered the deeper resonances of architecture through the Broadgate series: its ability to overwhelm and subdue. Structures of buildings and the hunched forms of workers are treated in the same way – their outlines mottled and decayed, coarse and textured, as if to encapsulate the demolition and revival of life. In 2006 Mason also spent time in Indonesia; producing work based on the rapid urban development of Jakarta called the Grand Indonesia series. In contrast to Broadgate, however, Mason was this time an observer, removed from the labour, the dust and the dirt.

Dowsed in myriad mythological and literary references, the intimate format of Mason’s work encourages the viewer to breathe deeply and plunge into a tremendous swell of emotion, compressed into the smallest of scales. Mason immerses the viewer in this space, an arena of shifting emotions that both nourishes and consumes. Stripped of all we know of Mason’s personal mythology and resisting the urge to fetishize his tragic past, these works are not simply cathartic exercises. Their heady mix of renewal, violence and melancholia makes the breath catch in our throats, forcing us to feel something that perhaps we never thought possible.

Vija Celmins | Reaching for The Stars

“For myself, I declare I don’t know anything…But the sight of the stars always makes me dream.” Vincent van Gogh

In an interview with the Latvian-American artist Vija Celmins, and his fellow student from Yale University’s 1961 Summer Programme, Chuck Close suggested that only two people have ever truly been able to handle stars: Vincent van Gogh and Celmins.

Throughout history, the celestial vista of the night sky has been a subject filled with reverie, inspiring artists to look heavenwards to the vast unknown. For Celmins, who began her career by painting the mundane objects of her studio, a love affair with the cosmos began in the 1960s when she discovered photographs of the moon taken by the Soviet Union’s space mission Luna 9. Over time, the otherworldly surface of the moon moved into sublime panoramas of oceans, deserts and galaxies, devoid of human life. Having fled Latvia as a child when the Iron Curtain fell, Celmins and her family first settled in Indianapolis before she went on to study painting in Los Angeles. Immersed in the furore of the space race in California, Celmins has since returned over and again to intricate images of stars burning in the night sky; each iteration conjuring a different emotional resonance through the slightest of changes.

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Published in 2005 by New York’s Museum of Modern Art, The Stars features three prints by Celmins on this cosmic theme, accompanied by a lyrical poem from the essayist and translator Eliot Weinberger. An etching of dappled textures and tones of midnight-blue serves as the wrap-around cover; a trompe l’oeil in effect that mimics the worn, stitched binding of a late 19th or early 20th century Japanese book.

Inside, the two remaining prints evoke very different readings of the stars, their varied surface and timbre. The first is a double gatefold etching, embedded in Weinberger’s text: a delicate, translucent page of vellum, sprinkled with a constellation of dark dust. Folded upon itself, the stars in this inverse image are layered upon one another, adding further complexity to the night sky and visually representing the parallel universe theory. In this deluxe edition of The Stars of twenty-six (numbered A – Z), a version of this etching, printed in a more traditional format on embossed paper, is tucked inside a separate silk portfolio.

Celmins’ final image performs as the book’s epilogue: a matrix of lines punctuated by flecks of white that mimic Weinberger’s definition of stars as “holes in the great curtain.” This wiry grid, made by drawing onto an etching plate through an acid-resistant coating, emphasises the meticulous nature of Celmins process, which she explains allows her to forge “an intimacy with the subject…to enter that grey world in a personal way and…draw my way out of it.” The lattice also disrupts the gaze and breaks the spell, reminding the viewer that this is not the night sky at all, but a conceptual re-imagining of a photograph.

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Accompanying Celmins mesmeric and minutely detailed images are Weinberger’s profound words, questioning “the stars: what are they?” The answer appears in a curious ode to the cosmic beings, moving effortlessly from portents of evil to fiery embers of creation. Through countless visual synonyms and tales of Vishnu, Varuna, Thjasse and Dhruva, Andromeda, Perseus and King Arthur, Weinberger expresses the endless invention of the human imagination, mirrored by the nature of the boundless night sky stretching out into the darkness.

Inspired by a plethora of meanings, Weinberger’s verse is translated into Arabic, Chinese, Hindi, Japanese and Maori. For Celmins, translation is at the heart of her own process, not only in terms of the dialogue between Latvian and English, but the transformation of one medium into another. Working always from photographs and dog-eared cuttings from literature, Celmins does not simply picture the experience of the heavens. Instead, she distances herself from the subject, choosing to re-imagine a reproduction and the act of looking itself; controlling, compressing and transforming a found image of the sky into a painting, drawing or print. As Celmins’ explains, “even though you may think they came out of lying under the stars, for me, they came out of loving the blackness of the pencil.”

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In The Stars, Celmins relishes the physicality of the printing process, the tender precision of each sharp scratch and mark on the etching plate resulting in nuances of tone and line. Having experimented with printmaking as a student, Celmins discovered the real potential of the medium in 1980 when she collaborated with Gemini (G.E.L., Los Angeles) and Doris Simmelink, who also worked on the etchings for The Stars. Using diverse techniques of photogravure, soft ground, burnishing, spit bite and aquatint, across multiple plates, Celmins fills her prints with so much texture and life that they become “fat” – as the artist would say. Celmin’s careful and painstaking method echoes the eons that it takes for light to travel from the furthest stars to earth. Her playful use of borders too – at times allowing the prints to expand to their edges and at others to be contained by white margins – counters and aligns with the notion of the limitless universe. The physicality of Celmins’ etchings, highlighted by these marks and edges, opens a dialogue between the elusive stars and the physically-present reproductions of the night sky that she uses as her source material.

While Celmins’ prints in The Stars are rooted in a fascination with this negotiation between the intangible and tangible, the juxtaposition of her visual language with Weinberger’s poetry cannot help but conjure a sense of romance. This sentiment is shared by Marina Abramović, who proclaims in her own manifesto that, “An artist should stay for long periods of time looking at the stars in the night sky.”

Taking America by Storm | Marianna Simnett at the New Museum

“Is it going to hurt?” a young girl asks. “It’ll just be a little bit of pressure,” the doctor promises her, “nothing more.”

Gruesome, nauseating, grisly – these are just some of the words that have become associated with rising British artist Marianna Simnett in recent years. With tales of clinical procedures, hypodermic needles, disease and infection, it is not surprising that Simnett has earned something of a reputation. Under the watchful eye of curator Helga Christoffersen at the New Museum on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, visitors to Simnett’s first institutional show on American soil would be right to come armed with a sense of trepidation. Simnett’s films may not be for those of faint-heart (or stomach), but critics are quick to reduce them to their gory themes. If she wanted to disgust, Simnett argues, there would be much simpler ways to go about it.

SPEAKER 01 GRADE.02_35_20_06.Still119.jpgMarianna Simnett, Blood In My Milk, 2018 (still). 5-channel HD video installation with 9.1 surround sound; 73 min. Courtesy the artist and Matt’s Gallery

Since graduating from the Slade School of Art in 2013, Simnett has received several high-profile nods of approval from the art world, including the Jerwood/FVU award (2015) and exhibitions at the Serpentine Pavilion (2015) and Zabludowicz Collection (2018). Blood In My Milk returns to four pivotal films that have defined Simnett’s oeuvre so far and transforms them into a single multi-channel edit, which moves from a rural dairy farm and a sterile doctor’s office to secret medical facilities.

Splicing her films The Udder (2014), Blood (2015), Blue Roses (2015) and Worst Gift (2017) into one surreal tale is a new practice for Simnett and one that offers a means to challenge the very nature of storytelling. Blood In My Milk presents the viewer with multiple perspectives across five screens, manipulating the narrative while accepting the multiplicity of personal experience. The common ground between Simnett’s four films lies in a warning against the unseen systems of control that punctuate modern life. This moral code is brought to life as nauseating medical procedures and scientific experiments, which distill the body into something contained, ordered.

SPEAKER 01 GRADE.02_07_42_21.Still062.jpgMarianna Simnett, Blood In My Milk, 2018 (still). 5-channel HD video installation with 9.1 surround sound; 73 min. Courtesy the artist and Comar

Simnett’s fable begins in the English countryside with a young girl called Isabel, who the artist plucked from obscurity from a dairy farm in Sussex. An incarnation of innocence with her blue eyes and blonde hair, Isabel is an eerie doppelganger for Simnett, though she argues the likeness was never intentional. Isabel is told she is “too beautiful to go outside” and risk contaminating her purity. Chastity and cleanliness become entwined, evoked both literally and metaphorically by the daily rituals of the farm to ward off disease. Anxieties surrounding the body abound in an apt commentary on the subtle mechanics of society to control our definition of feminine beauty.

As the film shifts, Isabel undergoes a toe-curling operation to remove two pieces of cartilage from her nose. Now transformed, it seems Isabel has been cleansed and made whole again. In other moments a leg riddled with varicose veins receives treatment, a visceral reminder of the tainted body when it has not been purified. Simnett herself, hanging upside down, describes the symptoms as blood pours into her head. The meeting between blood and milk in this film conjures something unsettling – now poisoned and polluted. These corporeal fluids return through Simnett’s narrative, their changeable essence echoing the connection of the female body to breastfeeding and motherhood. Clothed in a white dress and glittering slippers, Simnett later prowls a medical facility looking for answers before a worm wriggles from her mouth.

SPEAKER 01 GRADE.01_55_47_14.Still049.jpgMarianna Simnett, Blood In My Milk, 2018 (still). 5-channel HD video installation with 9.1 surround sound; 73 min. Courtesy the artist and Jerwood/FVU Awards

While Simnett draws on a legacy of female artists who have used their own bodies as an expression of grassroots feminism, including Carolee Schneemann, Yayoi Kusama and Valie Export, the representation of gender never takes central stage. In the same breath as Isabel’s story, pubescent boys are forced to endure injections to lower their voices (a treatment Simnett also demands for herself) and cockroaches are transformed into biobots. If anything, Simnett shows gender to be yet another area of life that society seeks to control and define.

As a trained musician, Simnett’s use of song is pivotal as it reminds the viewer through strange and whimsical ditties that this world is far from reality and closer to an allegory or fairy tale. The music for Blood in My Milk is its own sonic language, filled with slurps of milk, the slap of surgical gloves and cuts of the doctor’s scalpel. At one point the fragments of Isabel’s nose reappear as an all-singing-all-dancing duo, protesting indignantly, “but we belong to your interior and you cut us out!”

SPEAKER 01 GRADE.02_24_52_20.Still087.jpgMarianna Simnett, Blood In My Milk, 2018 (still). 5-channel HD video installation with 9.1 surround sound; 73 min. Courtesy the artist and Matt’s Gallery

Cocooned in the New Museum, we are invited to step into a world that lies somewhere between dream, reality and a horror film. But embrace its twists and turns, and Simnett will guide you through a story that is unlike anything your parents ever read to you at bedtime.

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The artist that was too beautiful for feminism | Hannah Wilke

In 1975, the great and the good of the New York art world gathered to see Lynda Benglis’ new exhibition at Paula Cooper Gallery. They were expecting an evening of sculptures by the woman who had just taken out a full-page ad in Artforum for a photograph of herself, naked and clasping a double-ended dildo. Instead, they were met by an unexpected striptease by the raven-haired artist Hannah Wilke.

Among the trailblazing feminist artists of the 1970s that we have come to know and love, Hannah Wilke cuts a solitary figure. The daughter of Eastern European immigrant parents, Wilke was tall and curvaceous, dark-eyed and elegant. In fact, she was just plain gorgeous. Too gorgeous some would say for the feminists that dominated the conversation of the time, including Mary Kelly, Judy Chicago, Miriam Schapiro, Barbara Kruger and Carolee Schneemann. Wilke might have used her body in the same way as this sisterhood of artists, but there was something strange about the comfort she felt in her own skin. She wore high heels, she stripped, she moved lithely in front of the camera. The feminists argued that Wilke was just a narcissist. And Benglis hated being shown-up at her own private view.

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Hello Boys (1975)

In one of her earliest works, Wilke poses in a sweater, boots and thin hosiery – the first of many self-portraits that peppered her career. Taken by her boyfriend at the time Claes Oldenburg (eleven years her senior and otherwise known for his soft sculptures of burgers and club sandwiches), the image was used on the poster for Wilke’s first exhibition, held at Ronald Feldman Fine Arts. A confrontational, daring exploit that demonstrated Wilke’s awareness of the female body as an object as well as an agent of its own destiny – it paved the way for her sidestep from ‘traditional’ feminism.

Photography turned to performance in works such as Hello Boys (1975) and Hannah Wilke Through Large Glass (1976) where her sensual figure slides effortlessly from pose to pose, challenging the male gaze as she reveals and masks the body. In another video, Wilke pats and strokes her face into shape, tracing her hands over the flesh in a moment that should be entirely personal, but is laid bare for all to see. Wilke was also one of the first to use vaginal forms with a vengeance, kneading labias from erasers and terracotta to reclaim the negative connotations that female genitalia had been stuck with in the past. She scarred her body and face with vulvas made of gum, showing the female body as something ready be chewed up and spat out.

Her repetition of these vaginal motifs echoed parallel works of out and out feminist artists like Carolee Schneemann, who pulled a scroll from her vagina (1975) and Judy Chicago, whose Dinner Party (1979) set of dishes was layered with vaginas. So what is it that really divided Wilke from her contemporaries?

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S.O.S. – Starification Object Series, 1974-82

The reason we don’t hear the name Hannah Wilke on a regular basis is largely down to the bad press she received from the Second Generation of feminists, who came to prominence in the 1970s. They balked at Wilke’s beauty and protested it had nothing to do with their own brand of feminism. In fact, for these women, who considered carefully the way they dressed and appeared in public, Wilke’s natural sex appeal positively encouraged the patriarchy rather than smashing it to pieces.

In Intercourse with… (1978) we hear some of the men in Wilke’s life, including Oldenburg and her husband and editor of Artnews Donald Goddard, fawning and cooing over her, eager to take some piece of Wilke for their own. Another reason why she never fitted in with the feminists – Wilke was far too willing to sacrifice herself on the altar of the patriarchy to make a point. In the same year, Wilke asked Goddard to photograph her in a series destined for New York’s P.S.1. Naked and clasping a small pistol, Wilke used these images as the backdrop to the audio recordings of male politicians, authors and artists, forcing the viewer to listen to the familiar words of Hitler and Nietzsche with a new understanding.

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So help me Hannah (1978)

Wilke’s beauty, which had unsettled so many of her contemporaries, took a turn when she was diagnosed with cancer in 1987. Through the heart-wrenching effects of bone marrow transplants and chemotherapy, Wilke captured the transformation of her body up to the day she died in 1993. Wilke herself responded to the hypocrisy of her feminist critics by explaining how, by taking control of her body, she was able to draw attention its objectification and policing. She retorted, “people give me this bullshit of, ‘What would you have done if you weren’t so gorgeous?’ What different does it make?…Gorgeous people die as do the stereotypical ‘ugly.’ Everybody dies.”

What’s fascinating is the realisation that the playground antics between feminists are still happening today. Consider voices like Germaine Greer who was heavily criticised for her attacks against trans-women when she stated they were not women at all and the divisions within the #MeToo movement. Let’s learn the lesson and not allow an extraordinary artist like Hannah Wilke or the next trailblazer to be ignored while we squabble over what a real feminist looks like. We all die after all.

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Intra-Venus (1991-1993)

Alison Jacques exhibition of Hannah Wilke’s work continues until 21 December 2018.

What’s eating art fairs? The rise and fall of the immersive stand

Picture this.

It’s 2014. A time before ‘He Who Must Not Be Named’ has moved into the White House and even before the word Brexit has been uttered. It’s a warm afternoon in October in Regent’s Park and the great and good of the art world have flocked to the first preview of Frieze Masters – the sister fair of the slightly showier Frieze London that specializes in art made before the year 2000. The doors open and it’s handbags at dawn as heiresses and collectors storm the aisles to get their hands on a masterpiece. Weaving their way through the stands, something catches their eye. Piles of dirty plates, discarded papers and an overflowing ashtray are nestled among a peppering of artworks by Picasso, Miró, Morandi and Magritte. Is this stuff for sale? Or have we just wandered into someone’s house by mistake?

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Helly Nahmad, The Collector, Frieze Masters, 2014

Helly Nahmad’s stand at Frieze Masters 2014 caused a seismic shift in the landscape of art fairs as they recreated the apartment of a fictional art collector – personal effects and all. Suddenly, a stand wasn’t simply a case of sticking some works of art on the wall and waiting for the rich and famous to arrive – they were a conceptual tool that could transport viewers to a strange and wonderful new land, and perhaps convince them to part with a few more dollars along the way. A clever way of selling art, but an even cleverer way of harnessing the power of social media. Helly Nahmad’s apartment was also curiously designed by the director of two of Robbie Williams’ music videos.

Take from that what you will.

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Helly Nahmad’s Art Brut Asylum at Frieze Masters 2015

After that galleries began to play catch up to the big idea that fair stands should be a conceptual affair – with a tremendous amount of effort needed along the way. Helly Nahmad returned in 2015 with a re-imagining of an asylum, complete with haunting operatic music and frantic scribbles on the walls. This was the perfect backdrop to a number of astonishing works by Jean Dubuffet – the king of outsider art who praised the instinctive, spontaneous skills of untrained artists like the clinically insane.

In 2017 Waddington Custot jumped on the band wagon when they transferred all the contents of Peter Blake’s studio to Regent’s Park, ranging from memorabilia of wrestling matches and old photographs to art ready for sale. Waddington Custot also turned to Robbie Williams’ director Robin Brown to take the helm, adopting a tried and tested formula built for success.

It was clear the game had changed again. It was not just an artist’s work being offered up to the lions, but the entirety of their creative world. Cannibalistic? Well, it’s all in the name of art – or at least in the name of the art market.

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Waddington Custot, At Work with Peter Blake, Frieze Masters, 2017

This year the award for most flamboyant and Instagram-friendly stand went without fuss to Dickinson: the London fine art dealer of tremendous knowledge and clout, who recreated the Cornish studio of Barbara Hepworth – fake plants, stuffed seagull and all. This was no small undertaking when you consider the floor had to be reinforced to shoulder the weight of four tons of rocks and a half-ton of bronze sculpture.

While not all galleries get it right, the proof is in the pudding for Dickinson, who sold the most expensive piece from their stand, River Form, during the first preview – more than can be said for other galleries hit by the whispers of Brexit.

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Dickinson, Frieze Masters, 2018

However, with the arrival of Dickinson’s stand, came from the first signs of conceptual stand fatigue. Dickinson might have been the talk of the fair (for better or worse), but most other galleries opted for a far less troublesome affair with simply-designed stands built to display art and art alone. Dealers from different sides of the market also increasingly joined forces and curated stands filled with fascinating contrasts and harmonies.

Does that mean the fad is finally over? Can we go back to looking at art now? There have been a lot of gallery underlings in recent years bemoaning conceptual stands as a cheap trick built for a few Instagram likes and the press, but pretty useless when it comes to snaring a discerning collector.

Like the swings and roundabouts of the market – the art fair goes through life cycles. These days we are seeing a downturn in the conceptual stand, but a rise in the stock value of good old-fashioned white cube curating. And if galleries are ready to strip away the bells and whistles, we should trust ourselves to close those Instagram accounts and get back to the business of looking at art.

 

Camaraderie, backstabbing and the gallery system

During some recent water-cooler chat, a colleague of mine was lamenting the death-grip of the gallery model. In fact, he was arguing that galleries stop artists from collaborating  altogether and force them to compete with each other instead.

As we’ve heard in countless articles, lectures and podcasts on the subject – galleries as we know them are dying. The idea of a program of exhibitions and a roster of artists is fast becoming outdated thanks to a generation who are happy to buy their art straight from Instagram. But have we overlooked another big problem staring us in the face? The gallery system has also done a number on the way we nurture and think about artists.

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“Freeze” opening party, showing (left to right), Ian Davenport, Damien Hirst, Angela Bulloch, Fiona Rae, Stephen Park, Anya Gallaccio, Sarah Lucas and Gary Hume

With the help of the market, a certain roster of big-ticket names have become trophies for the rich and famous, and the gallery model has scrambled to reflect this method of buying art through its relationships with artists. In the most delicate way possible, the gallerist-cum-kingmaker must convince their artists to make stuff that will fundamentally sell.

Of course to be an artist by nature you also need to be able to blow your own trumpet and sell yourself a bit – it’s just part of the game. Some of the most famous artists have been some of the best marketeers – just take a look at Andy Warhol, Jeff Koons or Damien Hirst. Which ever way you spin it, making art is a competitive affair. But does that mean it has to happen in isolation?

Damien Hirst with Sarah Lucas, Colony Room, London, 1999

Sarah Lucas and Damien Hirst at the Colony Room Club

Speaking of Damien…

The last time Britain saw a group of artists transcend the gallery model and lift each other up in the process was the YBAs (Young British Artists), led by an ambitious Hirst. This raucous and fearless collective erupted out of Goldsmiths in the ’90s and challenged the establishment by putting on their own exhibition called ‘Freeze’ at the Surrey Docks in south-east London. Little could they have known it would be one of the defining moments in 20th century British art.

Before the YBAs there was Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud and friends swilling whisky in Soho’s dingiest clubs and bars. And before that were the avant-garde artists sheltering from war along the windswept coasts of Cornwall with Barbara Hepworth and Peter Lanyon. These groups possessed an innate rivalry and passion that spurred each other on and created some pretty spectacular artwork along the way.

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Timothy Behrens, Lucien Freud, Francis Bacon, Frank Auerbach and Michael Andrews having lunch

In London there are a few artist-run spaces where a supportive network allows artists to get a fair showing, including CGP in Southwark Park and Dilston Grove, Yinka Shonibare’s Guest Projects and Beaconsfield Gallery just a hop skip and a jump from Damien Hirst’s place in Vauxhall. These galleries liberate artists from stuffy dealers, who would dictate the work shown on their walls and give young artists a chance to cut their teeth at curating and exhibiting. Instead of answering to the market, these artists answer to themselves and their creative instincts alone (with one eye on the money of course).

It’s fair to say that the gallery model is tough. Getting represented by a gallery worth its salt is tough. And by in large, a lot of artists fall through the cracks, least of all because not every artist can afford to attend an art school where they are seen by a gallery with enough capital and clout.

But how would it be if we banned the gallery altogether and encouraged artists to turn to each other for help instead? Would we just become a generation of Instagram hoarders? We shouldn’t let a market and an antiquated gallery model keep artists in a stranglehold for cash or worse – in isolation. Great art was never made in a vacuum and we all love a story of an embattled group of artists waging war on the establishment.

 

The artist, the fetish and me | Frida Kahlo at the V&A

There is something troubling happening over at the V&A this summer – and it isn’t just the number tourists taking up space in the cast court. The smash hit of the season, dubbed ‘an extraordinary testimony to suffering and spirit’, is a show dedicated to Frida Kahlo. Nothing surprising there. It’s a familiar format for the V&A by now – fixing on a particular person, group or movement that has changed pop culture and making it seem so sexy it is almost impossible not to visit. From David Bowie to Pink Floyd to Alexander McQueen, the V&A has become a powerhouse for these kind of hit blockbusters.

2018’s Pop feast is Frida Kahlo, the spectacular Mexican painter known for her intimate self-portraits who reemerged in the 1980s as an icon of 20th century liberalism, fashion and art. In fact, devotion to Frida has become so popular that it has strayed into the land of cults.

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With that heavy mono-brow, tumbling flowers in her hair and unforgettable style, inspired by the women of the Tehuantepec region of Mexico, Kahlo created an identity that has become much more important than her artwork. We could all pick her out of a line-up, but how many could name some of her most famous paintings?

Of course, the amount of work Kahlo produced during her lifetime was severely encumbered by the pain she experienced from an early bout of polio and the terrible road accident which left her spine in tatters and largely bed-bound. Even from this limited number of paintings, Kahlo’s art is still hard to find in a public forum because most has found its way into private hands. But for an artist that refused to surrender her paint brush no matter how badly her body protested, it feels wrong to covet her image so highly over the work she made. It’s hard to imagine that is what Kahlo wanted her fate to be.

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The V&A show is dominated by some 200 objects loaned by the Museo Frida Kahlo, otherwise known as the miraculous Blue House where Kahlo and her husband Diego Rivera lived. These precious items were discovered in Kahlo’s private bathroom, which Rivera had ordered to remain locked for 50 years after her death. In 2014 time was up and the masses entered the inner sanctum of Kahlo’s life, discovering pieces of make-up, personal letters and even the prosthetic leg she used after her amputation in 1953. Seeing all these objects now carefully labelled, archived and displayed in a museum is nothing short of creepy.

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Director of the Museo Frida Kahlo, Hilda Trujillo, even hesitated when it came time to open the bathroom: ‘I felt like an intruder, for what right do I have to be there with Frida’s things? At times I thought I wasn’t entitled to do this, that no-one was. However, it was also important to restore, rescue […] the letters and photographs – had been left as they were, frozen in time, and some textiles – but they were in very bad condition. You could tell that cats and rats had made their way in and gnawed at them.’

The results are uncomfortable. The innermost secrets of Kahlo’s love affairs and the  emotional and physical pain she faced are laid completely bare. There is a palpable melancholy and sense that something unspeakable has happened. Kahlo is no longer an artist, choosing to reveal her innermost thoughts and feelings through her art, but an object to be sliced up and consumed. We are all carnivores at this dinner party.

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The idea of the artist’s personal story overtaking their importance as a creator is not something new, but when it comes to Kahlo there is a frantic religious devotion unlike any other. We have made her Christ crucified.

But when will this fetish end – will we be wheeling out Marilyn Monroe’s push-up bra or Jean-Michel Basquiat’s toothbrush next? Is it morally right to display the personal effects of a force of nature like Kahlo? And even worse to make them into something cold and unemotional behind glass? Museum directors, marketeers and sponsorship hunters would all say yes, but it’s hard not to feel like you’ve bought into a cult at this seance.

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The Ghoulish Queen of Transformation | Mary Reid Kelley at Tate Liverpool

“What are you, the Beethoven of organs?” comes the first insult. “I’m the heart of the matter!” comes the searing the reply. “You’re the VP of Gore!” “You’re the Pollock of splatter!”

This slanging match is taking place between a churlish liver and a prima donna heart that lie exposed on an operating table. As the pathologist arrives to examine the cadaver, the organs continue to hurl abuse and try to blame each other for the body’s current predicament. It is a strange embodiment of the age-old mantra – head over heart or mind over matter.

American artist Mary Reid Kelley has forged her reputation with these kind of surreal moments in ultra-stylised black and white films that are made in collaboration with her husband Patrick and inspired by the pages of history and literature. The films are often one-woman affairs as Reid Kelley casts herself as a host of characters who have never had much airtime before. For that reason, Reid Kelley’s sharply witty films tend towards a feminist outlook that give figures like the First World War Belgian prostitute and the female factory worker a voice for the first time. Tate Liverpool’s Assistant Curator, Lauren Barnes, explains that these bitingly sardonic and playful works, which combine fine art, performance and poetry are probably best described as “animated paintings.”

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For her exhibition ‘We are Ghosts’ at Tate Liverpool, Reid Kelley showcases two films: the tragicomic story of a suicide victim titled ‘This is Offal’ (2016) and the tale of a Second World War American submarine called ‘In the Body of Sturgeon’ (2017). This show, alongside Joan Jonas’s major retrospective at Tate Modern, demonstrates Tate’s new commitment to introducing more performance and video art into its exhibition programme. While this might be her first solo outing at a UK institution, Reid Kelley’s work is already well known on British shores. Represented by the leading contemporary gallery Pilar Corrias, the set for the Sturgeon submarine was exhibited at Frieze London in 2017.

‘This is Offal’ began as a live performance for Tate Modern in 2015. The women who have met their watery ends in the river Thames inspired this sombre tale of a drowning victim and her squabbling innards. In constructing the film, Reid Kelly turned to Thomas Hood’s poem ‘The Bridge of Sighs’ (1844) in which a woman leaps into the river from Waterloo Bridge. Hood glamorised the beauty of the alabaster female corpse as a macabre 19th century fetish, akin to John Millais’s Pre-Raphaelite painting of Ophelia drifting downstream. Reid Kelley’s distinctive take on the subject makes a parody of the gorgeous suicide victim by highlighting her sensuality in dark lines around her breasts beside the ghastly slash down her sternum.

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Reid Kelley gives a voice to this damsel in distress and teases what her ghost may have been like in life. As she primps her decaying body, the deceased delights in the attention of it all, crying: “Luckily my carcass is so clever / It found a way to stay on earth forever!” Patrick Reid Kelley, playing the part of the pathologist, puts her vanity into perspective when he laments: “I wish these people thought about the feelings / Of those who cut their bodies down from ceilings.”

The second film is a new Tate commission and changes tack with a tale from American history. This is a true ghost story from the body of a Second World War submarine where the voices of drowned sailors are heard once more: “No one knows us, no one heeds us, / Hidden in the • mighty Sturgeon.” For this film, Reid Kelley transforms herself into a scantily clad sailor in drag, a young boy in despair and even President Harry Truman announcing a possible nuclear attack from Cuba. Reid Kelley casts a rhythmic spell with a script constructed entirely from fragments of phrases and words in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s epic poem ‘The Song of Hiawatha’. By cutting and pasting Longfellow’s verse, Reid Kelley pokes fun at the poet’s original patchwork of Native American stories and reminds the viewer that there can be several sides to a familiar tale.

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Reid Kelley’s use of language is vital to her practice as it plays a powerful role in bringing remote narratives from the past into contemporary syntax. With her double puns and quick quips, Reid Kelley forces the audience to listen carefully to each word these forgotten figures have to say. Like the strict set of rules that language has to abide by, Reid Kelley also controls the severe monochromatic palette and cast of players in her films.

At Tate Liverpool, the key characters from the two films are shown in several light boxes, which reveal the intricate craftsmanship of their clothes and makeup. While Reid Kelley shies away from the “made quality” of her work, it is hard to separate these films from the artistry of their sets and costumes. Her flamboyant attires allow Reid Kelley to negotiate the line between comedy and tragedy, the profound and the ridiculous, akin to dada performer Hugo Ball in his lobster costume at the Cabaret Voltaire in 1916. These fearless makeovers also align Reid Kelley with chameleon female artists Cindy Sherman and Gillian Wearing.

Consequently, we should address Reid Kelley’s films as part of the canon of female performance, which Sally Potter describes in her essay for the ICA’s 1980 exhibition on pioneering women artists: “woman as entertainer is a history of varying manifestations of female oppression, disguised, romanticised.” Through her own bold transformations, Reid Kelley makes a crucial commentary on the sliding scale of gender and the essential nature of human existence. Perhaps her dolled-up corpse said it perfectly when she exclaimed: “I stink, therefore I am! Cast off all / Vanity ‘cause This is Offal!”

For her first outing at a public British institution, Reid Kelley’s wry exhibition both challenges and delights; going some way to establishing her reputation as an international force to be reckoned with.

Who put the personality back into art?

When did we all get so self-referential about making art? In fact, when we did all become so concerned with oversharing?

A recent trip to Eddie Peake’s exhibition at White Cube in Bermondsey set my mind racing over these questions, wondering – what would Leonardo and Michelangelo have made of all this self-obsessed art-making? If you missed White Cube’s latest offering, Peake’s show was inspired by the bric-a-brac, landmarks and soundtrack to his misspent youth in north London’s leafy Finsbury Park. Snaking through Larry Gagosian’s outpost in Bermondsey was an array of steel tables covered with trays boasting a curious selection of objects purchased on the local Stroud Green Road and a bare concrete floor that mimicked the playground where Peake used to while away the hours. A gentle hum of noises taken from Finsbury Park, punctuated by oldskool jungle and drum and bass from Kool FM, provided a unique ambience along with fluorescent pink lighting.

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Peake understood long ago as a rambunctious student at the RA that anything can be art. And that includes graffiti, dance, music and even football. He first made a splash with a naked five-a-side football match at Burlington House in 2013 before he had roller-skaters in sheer onesies rolling around the Barbican in 2015. At White Cube, Peake takes this mantra to the next level by making his own personal and cultural experience into a body of work, laying himself bare for an audience’s delight. In Peake’s press release for ‘Concrete Pitch’ he muses, ‘There’s often a sort of quest for identity in my work – and that, I think, is the staggeringly beautiful thing about being an artist. You are afforded the luxury of creating a space for yourself as an individual in the world.’

But how far can this type of art-making, which twists its head back to the artist again and again, really take us? What higher notion of human existence can we access when we are only looking back at ourselves?

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Take Tracey Emin – the Queen of subjective art who has made a career by splashing her life’s story all over tents and unmade beds. The now infamous messy bed, nominated for the Turner Prize in 1999 and one of the jewels of Tate’s collection, was ripped straight out of the pages of Emin’s personal history, from a time of playful sexual experience and dark depression. Sacrificed on the alter of art, the bed is transformed into a cultural object; empty vodka bottles, discarded knickers and all. There’s no doubt that ‘My Bed’ has spurred on a generation of artists to adopt a similarly brave practice and reveal their inner most secrets in the name of art.

Since the Renaissance, the myth of the artist as a tormented soul with a troublesome backstory to boot has held a certain power. Not only are we suckers for the ultimate comeback kid and a salacious memoir, the notion of ‘genius’ somehow legitimises the alchemy of art-making.  But what is really concerning is the moment when all this reverence for the artist tips the scale so far towards the self that the art ceases to matter. It’s certainly hard to imagine Peake scrutinising the aesthetic value or emotional truth of those objects he found on Stroud Green Road.

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At a recent viewing of the award-winning documentary ‘Rose & Roy’ about the husband and wife duo Rose Wylie and Roy Oxlade, I was struck by the contrary school of thought. Both Wylie and Oxlade attested to the value of observation of the world around us and recoiled from an art form built on one person’s subjective vision of what a still life with a bowl of fruit looks like. They argued that artists should capture the essence of what is really there beyond what they perceive with their eyes, otherwise, what is the point?

Oxlade was one of David Bomberg’s eager disciples at London’s Borough Polytechnic after the Second World War beside Frank Auerbach and Leon Kossoff. These ardent young followers drank the kool-aid and rallied behind the importance of immediate expression and truth of feeling above anything. In Oxlade’s writings on the subject, he turned to Gertrude Stein’s famous discussion of ‘entity’ to describe what his version of art making was all about. Stein rejected the idea that a work of art should do a great imitation of something. Instead, it should capture the interior qualities (or ‘entity’) that are not defined by the self or even our relationship to that bowl of fruit.

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It seems impossible to escape the grizzly cult of the artist or our obsession with the tormented genius in his atelier. And that is all well and good if we are satisfied with a body of work based upon a whimsical youth spent in north London. What we should be wary of is allowing the artist to seize too much power over their art.

There is something unsettling about something created that is too close to its maker. Like a glitch in the matrix. Perhaps that is the problem with Peake’s self-referential attitude, sooner or later it will run out of train tracks. And that way lies madness.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The leader of the gang | John Ruskin

Many of you are probably already feverishly counting down the days on your calendar until the 100 year anniversary of the illustrious British art critic John Ruskin, otherwise known as the kingmaker of 19th century taste. Or maybe it’s more likely that you’ve never even heard of this curious man and for that – you can be forgiven.

Ranking amongst the least sexy eras of British art, filled with swooning damsels, medieval narrative and pinpoint accuracy, the Victorian period was John Ruskin’s stomping ground. Aside from the notorious rumours about his sexless relationship with Effie Gray, who abandoned the marriage for greener pastures with Pre-Raphaelite and darling of the Royal Academy John Millais, Ruskin is best remembered as the most powerful writer and critic of the time. 2019 marks Ruskin’s 100th birthday and several museums across the country are taking it as the perfect opportunity to celebrate this key figure in British art history and put just a little swagger in his step.

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Two Temple place are the first to take up the challenge in London with a major display that will later travel to Sheffield, where the Ruskin Collection is housed, while in the USA, Delaware Art Museum puts images of the natural world by Ruskin and American artist Andrew Wyeth in the spotlight.

Let’s break down what all the fuss is about.

John Ruskin was all about truth. Truth in art, truth in nature, truth in life. His epic five volume ‘Modern Painters’ extolled the virtues of an artist who, in his opinion, epitomised this gilded rule – J.M.W. Turner. This obsession with getting even the most minute details right has hardly done much for Ruskin’s sex appeal.

Ruskin also brought Romanticism – think Wordsworth, Keats and Shelley – into alignment with contemporary art of the 19th century and defined a new movement of painting for the public to understand. ‘The Stones of Venice’ was the other major achievement of Ruskin’s lifetime, which praised the virtues of gothic architecture and started a whole wave of copy cat designers in England. He even came face to face with Whistler at a court case in 1878 that bankrupted the artist and left Ruskin’s reputation in tatters.

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As a fervent Christian, Ruskin made collecting a palatable pastime for the devout. Spirituality, the natural world and painting on a canvas suddenly became part of the same wheelhouse. And this is where Ruskin veered from the path of Pre-Raphaelites as he became the leader of this morally and socially responsible art form.

At some point, Ruskin’s stuffy and obsessive ways turned off society and he became something of a recluse. But perhaps 2019’s festivities will be the redemption of this pivotal figure in British art history.