Sometimes an artist creates a work where you understand how it is done but cannot imagine being able to do it; carving a block or marble into somebody recognisable for instance. Other times you cannot guess at the processes the artist has used to get the results. Jackie Attwood’s amazingly intricate boxes come into that category. They incorporate found objects, screen printing, transfers and result in something which looks as though it has a special purpose, though you are not quite sure what. A time travelling machine perhaps; a device for listening in on the thoughts of others. It is easy to imagine being sucked into to that word. In one of her boxes there are a stack of spectacles; they could have magical properties, Jackie works as a technician at Sussex Coast College; her work has been exhibited in Rye and there was an exhibition of her work last week in the Corridor Gallery. Her speciality is screen printing; her passion is making these amazing boxes. Most of them seem to involve some kind of narrative. Look closely at the screen in the box below and there are a tiny pair of knickers; the woman in the box is working as a prostitute and you can see the attitude of society printed on the cubes to the left. In a film she would be played by Helena Bonham Carter looking wonderful. It’s romantic steam punk.
Jackie browses antique and junk shops for suitable boxes; she takes inspiration from old books and then builds up layers of meanings. She screen prints things you would have thought would have been impossible to screen print such as the interior of a light bulb – it is actually done by means of a transfer. The boxes, Jackie told me are unplanned; they develop over weeks as she finds and puts together the right components. Jackie also makes other craft objects, extraordinary ceramic buttons for instance; I had an image of her working away like one of the characters in her boxes – surrounded by wonderful things, somehow not quite of our time.
I am interested at the moment in exploring that no man’s land between attraction and repulsion. I have knocked up a several maquettes which I hope evoke that ambivalent response and am currently busy building a sculpture which isn’t quite a stomach, or a heart or something gynaecological but is a sort of a mixture of the three. I see it as being definitely human and female; there is, or rather she has, a cavity and it will be filled with ……well I will do a short post about it when it is finished and reveal all.
Meanwhile I wanted to examine what I found disgusting and see how other artists approached the subject of disgust and whether there was common ground between them. While I could think of contemporary artists who work in that area–Peter Buggenhout, Jenny Saville, Damien Hirst, I was also interested to discover whether this was just a twentieth and twenty first century phenomenon, and look at the work of earlier artists
The Wellcome Collection with its collection of medical oddities seemed a pretty good place to start. Also I had seen pictures of John Isaacs sculpture “I can not help theway I feel.” It looked as if it might hit the spot. Indeed it does.
It is a huge, grotesquely obese figure, composed out of some pink flesh like substance. Isaac explains in a notice to the side that the work is “a metaphor for the way in which we become incapacitated by the emotional landscape in which we live and over which we have no control.” At Wellcome, it appeared simply to be a metaphor for the disadvantages of getting fat. As I heard one of the thoughtful attendants explain to a group of fascinated schoolchildren, obesity is a western disease, whereas malaria is a disease of developing countries. She also pointed out, in case they hadn’t noticed, that the the body had no head and no genitals so it was impossible to know what sex it was. I didn’t allow this detail to confuse me; I decided instantly that it was male, something about the relative size of the bottom compared with the rest of him. The thing that made him so compelling was his horrible legs which were covered in rather lifelike sores and his very small feet. I found it an interesting work, not one I might add which you would really want in the corner of the kitchen or dining room but I spent quite a lot of time examining him it. So there was a kind of attraction there and the combination of fleshiness and disease did evoke the disgust response. I soon found that the disease aspect alone was not enough to do it.
In a neighbouring gallery there was a display of the images which were winners of the Wellcome Image Awards. The image below of cancer cells dividing for me had absolutely no emotional impact; it was rather beautiful; in no way did it produce a disgust response.
Interestingly the picture of the brain did – before knowing what it was, I had that kind of momentary shudder. Judging from the reactions of others to whom I have shown the photograph it was not just me. However, on reading the caption beneath – I found it wore off; the more I looked at the photograph, the more it seemed rather wonderful. Nevertheless there is something about the wetness and coils which repels and particularly that dark wormy shape which transects the photograph which is actually a vein taking de-oxygenated blood back to the heart.
The brain belonged to a living person and the photograph was taken during an operation to introduce an intracranial electrode in a patient suffering from epilepsy. So how about bits of dead people? I went back to the exhibition about the body; there was one of those platiscated cross sections of someone. I had read about these in the past and it certainly sounds a disgusting procedure; carving somebody up in slivers and pumping plastic into them to preserve the cross section if not for eternity for a number of years. Imagining the process is not for the squeamish, the circular saw cutting accurately through tissue, you would have thought the end result would be repellent, but the actual result seemed surprisingly antiseptic. No disgust response at all.
This was not true of the Peruvian mummy. I always feel rather uneasy with real dead people in museums; it’s one thing knowingly to donate slivers of yourself to medical science and the curious public and rather another to be dug up and have a spot light literally trained onto your old dead bones. Incidentally, I don’t think this is an entirely rational response – the dead Peruvian mummy couldn’t possibly mind but we are talking about emotion here and I do mind a bit on his behalf. Lying hunched up under a spot light is not very dignified especially if it falls on the way that your gums have somewhat rotted away from your teeth. Though he is real, he could almost be a sculpture and it is is interesting that it is not the fact that he is dead that produces that disgust response, it is also his thinness – the bones and the skin – the complete contrast to the Isaacs work.
I turned to see whether any paintings of the paintings had that effect. There were plenty of possible candidates. Interior with a surgeon attending to a wound, – to some extent.
A dissected pregnant female by Jacques -Fabien Gautier D’Agoty. Her face is to0 benign but the dissected babies at her feet almost have it.
The one that did it most for me was a painting of Herodias mutilating the severed head of Saint John the Baptist.
There are many far gorier paintings in existence – Saint Sebastian bristling with arrows like a porcupine, battle scenes, even within the Wellcome, collection, souls being carted off to Hell. The disgust response is elicited in this painting I think because they are doing something to his tongue – that and the truly chilling look on their faces. That is what makes it such a truly marvellous painting.
A million years ago when I was at school (the Abbey in Reading, seeing you ask) I spent quite a lot of the time staring at the prints on the wall rather than doing whatever it is was that I was supposed to be doing. That Monet of people coming through a poppy field seemed to follow me round, or perhaps they had more than one, so I got to know it quite well, that and the Renoir Umbrellas and then there was the Picasso of a Child with a Dove which I used to look at in Prayers, as we called Assembly then. Oh, I nearly forgot those Durer praying hands and the Giotto of an angel telling the Virgin Mary something or other. After all, it was, and indeed still is, a Church of England school. All of them, well, all except the hands, are good pictures by great artists, but hardly what you would call challenging. In fact if you were going to compile a job lot of pictures that could be relied upon not to upset the most conventional of parents, they could well be the first five on your list. I bet they are all still there today. If you happen to go to the Abbey, do let me know.
I had imagined until today that all girls’ schools were pretty well like that; indeed I would have been prepared to bet that you could find at least one of the above paintings in any girls’ school across the land. So you can imagine how impressed I was when I visited the Jerwood Gallery to see that Gillian Ayres exhibition and found that the series of her paintings that I liked the best had been specially commissioned in 1957 by architect Michael Greenwood to hang in the dining room at South Hampstead High School. ‘My, what a school that must have been,’ I thought, ‘and how inspirational it must have been for the girls to become familiar with art that was so confident, so bold, so exciting, so fun, so uplifting and a work furthermore which had been created by a woman, why, it must have made them feel they could achieve anything.’
All Ayres painting are large, exuberant, colourful and give the impression of motion but the Hampstead Mural is particularly so. It still appears fresh and dynamic. Over 50 years ago it must have seemed quite revolutionary. Ayres was just 27 when she painted it. In the video which accompanies the exhibition she explains how she was paid just £100 for the mural which is made up of four separate panels. Apart from this modest cash payment, the school had also provided beautifully primed boards on which to paint it. When workmen, employed on the renovation, and who had presumably done the careful priming, saw her adopt what was then her customary painting technique of placing the panels on the floor and pouring paint over them, they were alarmed and alerted Greenwood who of course saw nothing unexpected because he had the vision to recognise Ayres’ extraordinary talent in what were then her unconventional methods.
The showing at the Jerwood, is the first time that the Hampstead Mural has been on public display; it really is worth a visit, maybe even by girls from South Hampstead. Sadly when the work is at home it no longer presides over the dining room for which it was commissioned but lives in the staff room. Proving that schools the world over share the same flaws, the Hampstead Mural has not always been appreciated and at one point was covered up by wallpaper. Perhaps the Jerwood exhibition will underline to the school just what they possess.
While I particularly desired, the Hampstead Mural, I loved all the pieces in the Jerwood exhibition. Whereas with some art you come to appreciate it by studying it and trying to understand it, for me Ayres’ work had the immediate effect of inducing me to break the tenth commandment – thou shalt not covet. (See I did learn something in all those Abbey School RE lessons)
So why am I so enthusiastic about Ayres? Intellectualising what is a visceral feeling is always difficult; the works for a start have a wonderful richness of colours. They were apparently unplanned and indeed in the complexity of the paint effects that Ayres achieves, they appear to me to have been unplannable. She uses Ripolin, which is a French household gloss paint much used by Picasso. By introducing artist paints into the mix she creates, strange marbled effects. The paintings are all abstract though some bear the names of places of places Cwm Bran, for instance, a town in Wales where Ayres used to enjoy walking; others such as Cumuli or Unstill Centre suggest the thoughts were in her mind at the time.
Although abstract, the viewer will tend to see their own representational ideas – a sunburst , a beach, clouds – but not people. Ayres revealed that she was never interested in painting the human form. The more you look at the paintings, the more you see, strange wrinkles, splashes, cracks, streaks, spatters, odd gobbits of paint – odd but right; gobbits of other things, clear glue like dollops, bitumen perhaps; in places the paint is scraped away to show the hardboard beneath. In all, the paintings are a celebration of paint – and of painting, an instruction on what can be done with paint. It is amazing to think that many of them are fifty years old. As with all good celebrations there is an energy about them that is infectious; anybody who sees them surely must leave the exhibition feeling happier than when they went in.
“It’s a lot better than last year,” isn’t it?” I heard one woman say in the 2012 Frieze art fair. Better? Possibly; probably. But my overriding impression was that it was the same – not in the sense that the art works were the same as last year, but rather in the sensation of being there. Once past security I immediately went into what has become a familiar Zombiefriezed state. In the Dream in Julian Barnes’ History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters, the narrator find himself in the after life. He is asked “do you want to go shopping, or stay shopping?” He opts to go shopping. I felt I had been asked the equivalent question and opted to stay at Frieze. It was as if I had never left. All my good intentions to look at things systematically, to use the exhibition map to search out seminal works, were as nothing; I simply allowed myself to drift from stand to stand, being pulled in by some, no doubt missing loads, inadvertently finding myself back at the same place over and over again. I knew that because I kept coming across the pink seal, Oscar Tuazon’s huge shed like structure and the part that was roped off with police tape which I came to realise was not the real thing ( we get real police tape in Hastings) but Asli Cavusoglu’s performance piece. I had that familiar desire to see more, see it all and you simply can’t; so I tried to keep going, hardly stopped for overpriced tea, until was I finally spewed out, arted out, into the rain of Regent’s Park.
So what follows are simply works by 20 artists that for one reason or another I noticed. I am not claiming that they were the best or most interesting works there. With over 1000 works on display and having probably missed at least half of them, there were bound to be more worthy contenders for a top 20. So these are just 20 works I found interesting – in no particular order. Some are by well-known artists; others by those who are less well-known – at least by me.
1. Zhang Huan: Our Parents
It would have been hard not to have noticed this enormous work by Chinese artist Zhang Huan, in a dominant position on the White Cube stand; the family group looked down on the assembled visitors. It reminded me of some of the photographic-like works of Gerhard Richter. Where Richter depicts people in black and white you know that something bad has generally happened to them. I felt anxious for this family, a sense of unease not reduced by the fact that the pictures were created out of layers of ash, which gave them an interesting texture. It made me really want to know more about the family’s history and how his parents fared in China which its one child policy?
2. Sarah Lucas: Hanging Chair
I first saw Sarah Lucas’ works in Frieze two years ago and was fascinated by the strange limbs of her tights sculptures. Now the tights are back forming this striking hanging chair made of – er tits, complete with nipples.
3. Adrian Ghenie: Pie Fight
I thought this was a marvellous painting; I loved the humour; the way the paint was thickly applied with spatters echoing the spattering of the woman, the way that is representational but almost has an abstract quality and the use of colours.
4. Maria Nordin: Conversation Piece
Very different but also compelling were a series of large luminous watercolours by Maria Nordin, each one a portrait, concentrating on the eyes. They were painted with a limited palette, mainly in tones of pink and red, one in tones of grey, they seemed as far from the traditional watercolour as it is possible to be.
5. Tim Parchikov: the Bench
There were many wonderful photographs at Frieze, often of extraordinary and exotic places, some of them violent and disturbing but I found the simplicity of this photograph of a snow-covered bench striking. At first glance it looked as if the snow had been deliberately sculpted and then I realised it was a natural result of melting. Tim Parchikov had found and captured a natural sculpture.
6. Huma Mulji: Lost and Found
The life-sized, but essentially dead figure created by Pakistani artist Huma Mulji in fibre glass and treated hide gave an impression of great vulnerability; I think it is the suggestion of the penis, that and the fact the toes seem decayed. It is a strange work but one I particularly liked.
7. Tom Burr:
It sounds boring, blankets pined to a large board with upholstery tacks. This work by Tom Burr was fascinating in the way that it made one focus on the texture, the folds and the nature of the material by incorporating one small area of thinner and subtly differently coloured fabric.
8. Christina Lucas: Hacia Lo Salvaje
I was completely mesmerised by this 16 minute film by Christina Lucas, so much so that having come in half way through I watched it from the beginning so that I could see the complete work. This was despite the annoying antics of the people running the stand who insisted on fiddling with the controls. It is tale about a woman who presents herself at some kind of tribunal and appears to be sentenced to a punishment, the severity of which we remain uncertain. I was impressed how much we come to care about what happens to her as she passively accepts her hair being cut off, is stripped to the waist and is tarred and feathered by two grim-faced women, before being carted off in a truck. The end is unexpected and uplifting. It is beautifully shot. I also reflected that it must have taken quite extraordinary self-control on the part of the actress never once to put her hand to her face. Those feathers really must have been itchy.
9. Seung Yoi Ho: The ability to blow oneself up
This was a delightful short video lasting just 1.6 minutes and which had an amazingly simple concept – people blowing up balloons until they popped. Very funny and well worth watching.
10. Jimmie Durham: Resurrection
It wouldn’t be Frieze if you didn’t see something totally mad. The winner of the 2012 Artelogical “Gosh I could do that in Ten Minutes Prize” was Jimmie Durham with Resurrection. Each of the edition of 21 was an old fashioned television with its screen missing, as though it had been smashed by a brick which still lurked in its interior. They apparently cost E12,000 each. The nice lady on the stand told me she had already sold one and would sell more before Frieze was over. It would certainly need the right exhibition space. Put it in my home and it would simply look as though it were waiting for a one way trip to recycling.
11. Johan Cretan: Wallflowers; Les Polpes
I liked the large ceramic works by Johan Cretan, of which two are shown here; at least I liked the shapes, I was less sure about the glazing effects but looking at the photographs again I realise that his glazing colours – blues and golds, sea colours. fit the subject. It is rather that I have a totally unreasonable prejudice against glazing in sculpture.
12. Miriam Cahn
Many of the works on display at Frieze were monumental but I kept being drawn to this small painting by Miriam Cahn; it is only 32 x 26cm. It is simple but there is something really satisfying about the colours, the somewhat childlike execution and the way that the portrait has pared everything back to the essentials.
13. Rachel Harrison: Sculpture with Raincoat
It is strange, I have been quibbling about glazes on sculptures and yet I was immediately attracted to this brightly painted sculpture by Rachel Harrison. It was funny and colourful and I loved the inclusion of the raincoat. More than that, it was one of those pieces which might end up influencing some work that I am undertaking. I have made a series of maquettes about hidden things going on in the body and have been wondering about materials. I have been thinking about papier-mache, leather, resin and fabric. After seeing Harrison’s work, I might just add concrete and paint to the list.
14. Alice Channer: MAH627G
I was fascinated by three simple pieces by Alice Channer.They appeared to be chiffon scarves cast in resin. How can you cast something as soft as a chiffon scarf and yet somehow keep the quality of softness in a hard material? I also particularly liked the way that the light shone through them and the shadows that it cast.
15. Marcel Eichner
A series of large works by Marcel Eichner in oil and ink on canvas seemed to straddle the gap between cartoons and paintings; they looked anarchic, fascinating and disturbing.
16. Nandipha Mntambo
According to the press hand out Swaziland born Nandioha Mntambo has worked extensively in cow hide, I found particularly interesting the way she had a made a sculpture from hide and cow tails and then used hair from the tails as a medium with which to draw. This photograph shows both – I liked the contrast between the solidity and earthiness of the sculpture and the somewhat etherial quality of the hair drawings on paper.
17. Jay Heikes: Fur Elise
Here is another work I chose because of the artist’s use of materials – paper, ink, copper ore, and petrified stone. I don’t know what petrified stone is – I thought all stones were petrified; that surely is the quality of stone. But despite my internal argument with her description, I still liked the textures, the colours, the way that the work was a near, not a perfect rectangle and the three-dimensional effect to what was still a piece of wall art.
18. Edgar Bryan: Dead Souls
I thought this was an extremely clever piece, depicting transformed gramophone records – soul music? They have taken a new identity in what appears to be fabric but this is not a collage but is created in oil and acrylic on canvas.
19. Ilya and Emilia Kabakov: the Appearance of Collage
This painting by husband and wife Ilya and Emilia reminded me of Leonard Rossiman’s painting of a meeting of the Royal Academy. I suppose committee meetings have a similarity the world over. Here, in this work, we perhaps have clues as to what the group are discussing unless of course they are the imaginings of the seated figure to the left writing at his desk. I find interesting not just the way that the different elements are combined in the painting but also the idea of the couple working together collaboratively.
20. Gavin Turk: Blue Door
I have a problem with neons in that the wires can too often detract from the work as a whole. In this one by Gavin Turk, they did not. I saw it when I was feeling very tired; after some five hours of looking at art; it seemed to offer a portal to another world , or at least the exit, which amounted to the same thing. It was of course an illusion. Time is suspended; there is no way out. That is the human condition.
This week over at the Tate Gallery some idiot took it into his mind to deface a Mark Rothko painting with black ink. Fortunately curators at the Tate are optimistic that the work can be restored and will suffer no lasting damage. Sometimes things cannot so easily be put right. When Tracey Emin’s famous work Everyone I Have Ever Slept With, a tent in which the eponymous names had been appliquéd, was burnt in the Momart fire in 2004, it was impossible to repair. Emin decided that it could not be recreated despite a reputed £1m offer from Charles Saatchi.
“To recreate it would have been morally wrong. It wouldn’t have that emotional input to it,” she explained at the time. “It wasn’t simply the names of everyone I’d ever slept with. It was about intimacy.”
So when does a restoration become a copy and lose artistic integrity? How much of a work has to survive to remain an original after restoration? Is it 50%? 70%? More? Less? This week Julia Mitchell, whose work is signed simply Jules, faced that decision.
Jules is in my year group at Hastings College undertaking the course in Fine Art Contemporary Practice. Last summer her study 20 Polaroid Photographs earned her a distinction and was widely recognized as one of the most outstanding works of the year. She was invited to display it in the Corridor Gallery at the college and also in Sharon Haward’s Underground Studio Exhibition Out of the Frame as part of the Brighton Photo-Fringe festival in Hastings and St Leonards.
20 Polaroid Photographs was an intensely personal work which Jules created as a memorial to a close friend who died early in 2012. It comprised, as the name suggests, of twenty Polaroid photographs each one covered in paper clay and fired, creating, fragile biscuit-like objects that were both beautiful and enigmatic. Each one was different; the way that Jules had applied the clay and the firing process produced effects that were subtly intricate. Displayed in a Perspex box, on top of a plinth, they appeared, as in fact they were, precious and unique.
Covering photographs with clay might seem bizarre but it was in fact a logical progression of Jules’ earlier work. In February she had been responsible for clearing her friend’s possessions and had been struck by the way that when someone dies what remains are their shoes. She created an installation that was also in her memory, covering shoes with clay to signify the way that each of us returns to the earth.
It was later in the spring when looking at photographs of her friend, Jules realized that they did not reflect her memory of the time that they were taken. “They just seemed to be a record,” she said and so she began to experiment with materials to create something that better captured the moment. The result was striking because it reminded the viewer how impossible it is for any of us truly to capture memories and so, as well as being a memorial, the work became an exploration both of the nature of memories and of photography.
Last week there was an accident, the box was knocked from its plinth and a number of the Polaroids were destroyed. They will not be showing at the Photo-Fringe and you will not be able to see them, which is a shame as they were remarkable. Jules says she cannot recreate them; she currently believes there was too much emotion bound up in them. My personal view is that enough is left for the work to remain an original even if she were to create a few more of the strange clay Polaroids to take the number back to 20. I understand why she feels she cannot do it, but I hope she changes her mind.
If the public were given a vote about who should be the winner of the 2012 Turner Prize, then judging from the scribbled notes posted upon it, the comment board would be a strong contender. That and the Pre Raphaelites, whom the Tate, perhaps rather unkindly, from the point of view of this year’s shortlist, had bundled into a double ticket. Of course comment boards can’t win art prizes – why this one is only a few days old and the Pre Raphelites are all dead and if they were alive would be over 150 years old, not under 50 as specified in the rules.
The Pre Raphaelite exhibition brought together works by Millais, Ford Maddox Brown, Edward Burne-Jones and a host of others. Not all of them were to my taste; some pictures such as the death of Chatterton or Ophelia were so familiar, that it was almost impossible to have any reaction other than, “oh yes, there it is”. Some of them to modern eyes were overly sentimental. I did not much care for the religious imagery in the Scapegoat; actually I didn’t like the goat itself. But there were some wonderful works there. In Isabella, the painting inspired by Keats’ poem Millais had captured such extraordinary expressions on the faces of the people round the room. Isabella herself is so sensitively portrayed as she submits to the interrogation and fondles her dog for comfort. The bully aims a kick at it; round the window grow herbs reminding us that her lover will be killed and that she will bury his head in a pot of basil. Millais was 19 when he painted it.
Virtually all of the paintings in the exhibition exhibited such an extraordinary degree of skill. Flesh looked lifelike, colours were vibrant, there was amazing detail; I was particularly impressed about how the quality and texture of cloth could be rendered in paint in paintings such as Burne Jones’ the Golden Stairs. I wondered how many artists today would be capable of producing works of that quality. I was aware that going straight into the Turner Prize exhibition would bring an abrupt and probably uncomfortable jump into the 21st century. And so it proved.
The first work the visitor sees are the huge intricate graphite pencil drawings of Paul Noble. It was interesting to see the progression of his drawing from 1996, when there was still evidence of lines having been rubbed out and redrawn, to the work of the present day which is so meticulous it is hard to believe that it does not involve some degree of printing. The drawings are of the fictional city Nobson Newtown and include hands and abundant turd like objects. Most impressive are the way his drawings can portray transparent buildings. It is astonishing what can be done with just a pencil and an obsessive mind.