Returning to Tass Windows in St Leonard’s

I returned to the Baker Mamonova Gallery in St Leonard’s on Sea this week to see the latest exhibition of Tass Posters and a contemporary works inspired by them. I first wrote about Tass Windows in December 2012. I wanted to see how a new batch of artists had responded to the works. Russell Baker who owns the gallery has organised a split exhibition: upstairs on the mezzanine were some dozen original Tass posters; these were produced in great numbers in the 1940s to deliver propaganda messages in the Soviet Union. They were not printed but stencilled, which, along with the sans serif font, gives them a distinctive appearance.  On the ground floor were works by some seven contemporary artists. whom Baker had invited to make their own posters using the same kind of methods.

I had seen the Tass posters three years earlier and then had been rather more interested in the contemporary works. Unexpectedly, for me, this time, it was the Tass works which stole the show. Looking at them again I was struck by their optimism and idealism.  We know now that communism does not work, or perhaps, less categorically, we know that it has not worked in any society so far and tends to lead to inefficiency, corruption and oppression. But the artists themselves did not know that then.  They were convincingly and spiritedly able to exhort the public to work hard for the public good.

What was so touching was their romantic view of any kind of work. Men and women look noble whilst producing or mending tractors, making industrial chemical or tyres.


My particular favourite is a 1945 poster of women making chocolate.

DSC02554 (2)

A notice on the wall helpfully gives a translation,

Comrade confectioners! Let’s respond
To heroic work with Stakhanovite production,
So that young and old alike remember us over tea,
And there are enough sweets for every table.

There were of course overtly political messages as well; one poster shows fascist rats, leaving the sinking ship of Hitler’s regime. In all cases there was passion.

Downstairs the passion was largely absent. The seven invited artists had used the same kind of fonts and drawn from the same kind of techniques to produce some attractive images. But there was no exhortation to do anything, and as the original Tass posters were packed full of faces, surprisingly few people. Of course, these works were not supposed to be pastiche but an artistic response. Even so, however pleasing, a picture of the pier, or of nearby Dane Road, might be, it somehow didn’t have much connection with the originals. I felt Ed Williams got nearest to the spirit of Tass with his poster of Nomura, apparently a building designed by the firm of architects of which he is a member. But the whole concept of the Tass posters is more than just observation.

DSC02544 (2)

I also liked Wittgenstein’s dog by Patrick Adam Jones though didn’t see much connection with Tass and little with Wittgenstein – though I guess that was part of the point.


Working out who did what was difficult. The numbering and labelling of the works is confusing not just for me but, so it turned out, also for the staff on duty. When I first admired a small collage on an easel, nobody was able to tell me the artist. It turned turned out to be by Baker himself.

DSC02561 (2)

But my overriding feeling was that this was a great ides which had failed to deliver all that it could have done. I understand that the exhibition will be staged in Moscow later in the year which might be part of the reason that politics appeared to be so absent. I couldn’t help but wonder what the original Tass artists would have wanted to portray if they had time-travelled to today: refugees perhaps or the nobility of those helping them. A final thought, all the seven invited artists were men; given the importance of women artists in the Russian avant-garde movement and the fact that the Tass artists consistently showed women labouring and striving alongside men, I felt they would not have approved.

Looking at Okho Tass is showing  till 4 March at the Baker Mamonova Gallery, 43-45 Norman Road, St Leonard’s on Sea TN38010


Delayed decisions at the Camden Arts Centre

“I make the decision to postpone decision making for as long as possible,” German born artist Florian Roithmayr explains in the video which accompanies his solo exhibition, with, and, or without at the Camden Arts Centre. This avoidance of decision making extends to how the works are displayed. He is keen on collaboration so that the arrangement of the sculptures is  a team effort and is not even final, for he encourages the invigilation staff to rearrange the works. I noted that in the video the work shown below (name unknown as the exhibition has no labels) was lying on the floor but  when I visited, it had been promoted to the wall. Elsewhere, the concrete form inside a window shaped surround had been changed from the vertical to the horizontal.


These fruit like pieces, which according to the exhibition booklet are named Adoration, though previously exhibited as  Crustacean (another example of impermanence) are moved daily. It must be much better fun for the staff on duty than the more common gallery task of stopping people like me taking photographs. Last time I was at the Camden Arts Centre they were particularly fierce about this and I didn’t manage to sneak a single shot of my own, but refreshingly, yesterday there was no ban and they couldn’t have been more charming.


Much of the work in this exhibition is in concrete – but concrete made vulnerable. At times it has been coaxed into shapes such as these coloured walking-stick like objects that appear unlikely and fragile.


The desire for changeability drives the creative process but is harnessed by technical knowledge. Rothmayr spent some time learning the skills involved in industrial processes and in particular spent time as an apprentice to a ‘concrete beautician’ who specialised in smartening up and repairing concrete facades to buildings.

But it was not the smooth which attracted me the most, rather the structures which resembled something from the natural world, perhaps a lava flow or a segment of weathered coral. They are in fact created from a wholly unnatural process.

A wooden case is half filled with wet concrete which is then injected with expanding foam; Rothmayr explains how the nozzle judders and jumps as the foam penetrates the concrete under pressure. Each element then reacts with the other before equilibrium is reached and the concrete finally sets, riddled with the softer foam, which is then meticulously carved out using dental tools so that a honeycomb structure is left behind. Rothmayr does not even undertake the carving himself, that was undertaken by the Centre staff,  so that while he sets the process in motion the ultimate outcome is out of his control.


The result if extraordinarily tactile; the surface of the concrete has a faint sheen;  I really wanted to run my fingers into the gullies and hollows.


Rothmayr makes no promises that the work is stable. Indeed I notice a few hairline cracks in the surface which suggested that it might not be. It would be unlikely to trouble him. He never regards a piece as finished and likes to recycle parts of older works into the new. Elements of the work on show today may be destined for a reincarnation. I like the thought that in the future, his works could bear traces of successive workings and re-workings.

with, and, or without is showing at the Camden Arts Centre till March 6.