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Robert Rauschenberg at Tate Modern

6 Feb

In 1964 Robert Rauschenberg, whose works are currently on show at Tate Modern, became the first American to win the Gran Primeo at the Venice Biennale with his pioneering screen prints. It was the culmination of a highly successful 18 months. The previous year he had been given a major retrospective at the Jewish Museum in New York; it was followed by an exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery in London which broke attendance records.  Whereas his contemporary, Warhol,  used his own popularity to feed the market, turning out thousands of screen prints, a strategy which even today sees him rank second after Picasso in auction revenue, Rauschenberg had a radically different attitude. The day after his Venice success, he phoned his assistant and asked him to destroy any silk-screens left in the studio so he would not have the temptation to repeat himself.

Only someone highly confident of his ability to come up with fresh ideas  would  make such a decision. Tate visitors  can see that this confidence was fully justified. Everywhere you look, you see how he tried things nobody had tried before and which led to avenues which are still being explored by artists today.  Perhaps even more important than this confidence was the desire to enjoy himself; repeating himself would have been work; what is abundantly clear is that Rauschenberg wanted his art to be fun.

He was one of the first artists to introduce objects into his works – the Combines. Some worked better than others.  I rather liked the fans in the painting shown below but was less keen on one which incorporated a small table light.p1000947

It was good to see the goat, correctly titled Monogram – lent  by the Museum of Modern Art in Stockholm; it is fragile and rarely travels. Mounted on a horizontal canvas on the floor, it is,  fifty years later, still a striking piece – though somewhat pointless, though I suppose that is the point. But what fun he must have had with  it: –  finding it in a used furniture store, fixing it first to a vertical canvas, then to a horizontal one,   daubing its nose with paint, playing with the tyre, so that finally  in his words, they came to live happily ever after.

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Robert Rauschenberg: Monogram

But if tyre-wearing goats are not to your taste there is so much more to discover. One visit can hardly do the exhibition justice. I was intrigued by a small light-box, Shades, apparently a one-off as it was dedicated to his son Christopher. It contained six lithographs, only one of which was in a fixed position; the others could be re-ordered. Many artists would have created a practice around the concept; Rauschenberg was happy to make it and move on.

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Robert Rauschenberg: Shades

I loved the image of the tyre tread running along 20  of sheets of typing paper. Ruauschenberg had poured black house  paint in front of the back wheel of John Cage’s car and then got him to drive over the paper. There was the carboard scuplture which made me want to play around with cardboard myself.

p1000954 Most striking of his ‘art is fun’  works, must be  Mud Muse bubbling in a satisfying way with the sounds amplified so that it feels as if you are in the cauldron.

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Robert Rauschenberg: Mud Muse

All good art makes you see the world in a new light; I find myself pushing cardboard into new shapes, eyeing the table lamps and art now intrudes into breakfast; making porridge will never be quite the same.

Robert Rauschenberg is showing at Tate Modern until April 2.

 

Painting the soul

28 Dec

Go back a relatively short time and souls, angels and demons appeared regularly in art; Stanley Spencer, William Blake, Titian, Hieronymus Bosch, Fra Angelico: the list could go on and on. Angels appeared on mighty wings; demons had tails and teeth; souls were sometimes in paradise; sometimes tormented. But their appearance in paintings was so frequent as to be unremarkable. These days, despite surveys showing that 70% of people in Britain believe in the soul, spiritual paintings are something of a rarity.

I myself fall into the sceptical 30%.  The scientific evidence suggests that there is no little person dwelling inside our heads. Read of neuro-psychologist Michael Gazzaniga’s split brain experiments conducted on subjects where the connections between the left and right cortexes of the brain had been severed, and the single self becomes unconvincing. The scientists appeared to be able to communicate with each half of the brain separately. The experiments done by Benjamin Libet suggest that free will could be limited to the power of veto. He showed that subjects believed they had initiated actions such as switching a switch after their brains had demonstrated an electrical surge known as the readiness potential a full half-second earlier. It was the unconscious brain which had started the action, not the conscious self.   In the introduction to her excellent book Consciousness, an introduction, Susan Blackmore warns readers, as she had warned her students, that those of a religious persuasion could find their beliefs challenged.

Even those of us who side with the scientists have to admit, it still feels as if the soul is in there somewhere.  It is a distinctly reluctant siding.  So it was with a sense of delight that I came across De Anima, paintings and sculptures by the Belgian artist Johan Van Mullem at Unit London in Wardour Street. Van Mullem does not question the existence of the human soul but simply paints it. I enjoyed his certainty and I enjoyed the way that the spirits did not appear medieval but thoroughly 21st century.

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If there is an afterlife, how would you recognise your loved ones? It could be a problem. Van Mullem’s spirits are largely disembodied; the sculptures reveal that where bodies exist, they tend to peter out at the feet. You might catch a familiar expression or it could be too fleeting.

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For the most part the spirits peer out at you through a puff of multi-coloured smoke or an indistinct landscape. They look as though they could melt back into the vapours. Some are apparently caught in a force-field of digital dots. I spied one that looked like Mrs Thatcher, perhaps it was the hooded eye. Indeed, eyes are a feature of many of the paintings but in some cases the journey to the spirit world allows the survival of the mouth, an ear and hair.

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A few unfortunate spirits turn out to be nearly all mouth, while some, the bland or the woolly perhaps, find that their features have been obliterated and their surviving essence boils down to something which looks uncomfortably like a ball of yarn.

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None of the paintings has a title to help viewers discern influences;  they have reference numbers instead.  Titles are not needed as Van Mullen does not use a model or apparently have a set destination in mind. Instead, painting with inks on canvas, he works intuitively allowing his subconscious to capture what he perceives as the essential human. Just as I do not like all people, I did not like all his works but I am intrigued by them. If I am wrong and the soul survives, and Van Mullem has captured something of it, we can look forward to eccentricity, to variety, to colour, to chaos, to beauty and, because what is left is derived from the human, to cruelty as well. But at least it will be interesting.

De Anima is showing at Unit London 147 – 149 Wardour Street, Soho, London W1F 8WD until 6 January.

The Editions Show at Project 78

16 Dec

Still looking for Christmas presents and hoping to find something arty but affordable? The current exhibition at Project 78 in St Leonards might provide the answer. The gallery is selling limited edition pieces from the artists who have exhibited there during the past two years. I admit that I am biased as two of my works are included, but it makes for a fascinating show. There is such variety: sculpture, prints, a single record, a memory stick, a small bag of rice, even a table and in prices, which range from £25 to £2000.

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Here are a few of them; they will be on sale in the gallery until the second week of January and on line at www.project78gallery.com/

I wrote about Neil Ayling’s work back in November last year and for this exhibition he has produced is this small but intriguing aluminium sculpture in a limited edition of eight at £85 each.

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Izabela Brudkiewicz is a performance artist who spent a week last summer counting grains of rice; 21,780 of them. For this exhibition she has produced seven mysterious little hand-made bags each one representing an hour of her time and costing £60. Brudkiewicz will be returning to Project 78 and again counting rice in the New Year.

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I was impressed by the recent exhibition from Anne Marie Watson whose flow of consciousness writing took the form of a meticulous circle. She has produced seven much smaller ones, all diffferent but still mind-blowing in their precision. They cost £100 each, £120 framed

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Anybody must love Martin Symons‘ chickens in a limited edition of 10 at £75.p1000842

Or if you are feeling flush there may still be a chance to acquire one of Patrick Adam Jones‘ large and dramatic “I am” pictures at £2000; four of the edition of five have already sold.

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Or how about one of mine? They  relate to the floating sculptures Nostalgia for the Body  which was shown back in May and are part digital prints, part collage using material from the original installation which was itself hand-painted. They are each in an edition of ten, but all slightly different and cost £60 unframed, £100 framed.

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The little purple table, in a limited edition of ten is by Becky Beasley and Marc Camille Charmonicz and relates to the summer show A House of Life. It could well prove a profitable investment Marc Carmille Charmonicz’ exhibition, an Autumn Lexicon, has just finished at the Serpentine Gallery in London. The price of the table goes up by £100 every time one is purchased.

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A very popular item at the Private View was a memory stick containing the video of the haunting Trees and Keys by Overlap;

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they are £56 each, or if you prefer old technology for £80 you can buy one of an edition of ten singles of the work Bass Superstructure  by Caleb Madden which was recorded in the project space. p1000867

Editions 16 is showing at Project 78, until 7 January  78 Norman Road, St. Leonards-on-Sea, East Sussex, TN38 0EJ 

On Klint not Klimt

21 Mar

The other day, I mentioned to a former tutor how I wanted to see the works of Hilma af Klint, the Swedish artist whose abstract works are being shown at the Serpentine Gallery. He asked me whether I thought there was a difference between art by male artists and that of female artists.

It was a reasonable question for this is the first time that a major exhibition of Klint’s abstract  works have been on show to the public, as she decided not to exhibit them during her lifetime and stipulated in her will that they could not be exhibited for twenty years after her death. But my response was a knee-jerk ‘no’, a bit as though he had asked me whether male drivers were better than female drivers. Of course the right answer in both cases is, ‘ it all depends …’

Take Phyllida Barlow, her work has all the attributes that are commonly associated with male art; strong, large, impressive. Furthermore she often uses materials that might be found in a builder’s yard. Other artists such as Tracey Emin have built their practice around their role as a women whether it is by  innovating with stereotypically female art- forms such as embroidery or by drawing on their own experiences; the famous bed and tent would have been very different in their impact if they had been made by a man.

As it turned out, I would have found it hard to believe that a male artist could have produced the majority of Klint’s  paintings.

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Hilma af Klint, the Ten Largest Youth Group IV, 1907

There is something about the choice of colours, the pinks and oranges, the recurring motives, the organic shapes and the flowers that seemed female. They were also exciting, bold, grand and  remarkably fresh.

 

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Hilma af Klint: Altarpiece No 2, 1915

Even as I write that, I reflect that Damien Hirst has repeatedly used that feminine motif the butterfly, so appearances can be misleading, but I  cannot imagine that a man would ever have been so reticent about exhibiting.

For my MA thesis which I completed last summer,  I set out to discover why, despite being by far in the majority on art courses, women still fare less well than men in terms of gallery exposure, competitions and critical acclaim. It turned out to be complicated; and not all down to sexism, though that played a part. One factor appeared to be confidence; in fields where it could be measured, women tended to underestimate their abilities, men to overestimate .

So here she was,  this little known Swedish woman, turning out these large beautiful works in 1908 in a style that was completely original, possibly making her rather than Kandinsky, or Mondrian the first pioneer in abstraction.  Furthermore,  in her investigation of pure minimalist form, she also pre-dated Malevitch. And she decided to keep it all to herself and a few female friends.

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Hilma af Klint: Starting Picture No 1, 1920

 

I left the exhibition wanting to go back in time and shake her and ask her what she thought she was doing. Women artists need role models; there were far too few in the early years of the last century. She could have been a major influence on the avant garde. She could have ben recognised as starting a new movement. It was not that she was afraid of exhibiting per se. She was known as a landscape artist and portrait painter. Her work in these genres appears competent but conventional,

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Hilma Af Klint: Flowering Fruit Trees

It cannot really have been cherry blossom that excited her; such works  were surely the day job. Perhaps it was the nature of her inspiration that she felt to be intensely private: she and her friends who called themselves the Five (de Fem) gathered in her studio in  northern Stockholm  to commune with  group of mystic beings, which they called the High Masters.She believed they directly influenced her work

If I had known her I would have found this hocus pocus annoying despite the splendid results.  I wonder whether there had been ridicule at any point which might have made her shy about exhibiting what she had done. But then maybe not; spiritualism was in vogue and many of the male contemporary artists including Kadinsky and Mondrian, were also interested in the occult.

She might have been concerned about possible criticism.  In truth, they were not all good. There is a series, the Evolution Group, where the lettering tends to be crude and uneven and which includes a rather ridiculous pair of dogs, which have a certain charm but lack gravitas.  But these are the exceptions: most of the works are skilled and appear superbly confident in their execution. It has been suggested that Klint was dismayed by the reaction of Rudolf Steiner, whom she greatly admired,  but she had the self-belief to go on painting. Possibly she might have been concerned that the subject matter would have been considered unsuitable for a woman; much of the imagery appears sexual, revealing the influence of Freud.

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Helma af Klint: the Ten Largest, No 1 and No 2, Childhood, Group IV, 1907

 

It wasn’t that she didn’t want to be recognised; her writings suggested that her work might influence future generations and so it might. Apart from appreciating the form, the colour and the harmony,  women artists should look on her works and encourage themselves to put themselves forward.  It is hard for any artist to judge his or her own work;  these paintings are a clarion call for women to be braver.

Hilma af Klint, Painting the Unseen, is showing at the Serpentine Gallery till Sunday May 15.

 

 

Would Rubens recognise a Kebab?

9 Feb

Back in 1994, the New York police mounted a sting by circulating a leaflet saying that a film crew wanted to film graffiti artists at work and those featuring in the film would get a free trip to Los Angeles.  When the unfortunate youths had demonstrated their style and identified examples of their work, the film crew whipped out the handcuffs and nabbed them. I thought of this when, unexpectedly, I received an invitation from the Royal Academy to attend a bloggers evening to see the new Rubens and his Legacy Exhibition.  I kept expecting the photo police to jump out from behind the bar and cackle– “you lot are the worst offenders for taking unauthorised photographs,” and then herd us into some lock up in the basement.

But of course they didn’t and instead gave us a glass of wine, asked us very nicely not to take photographs of the exhibitions (and because I was  their guest I haven’t,  though a glass of wine does not necessarily buy my good behaviour on future occasions.) One of the RA’s experts also gave us a talk and told us quite a bit about Rubens which included the fact he was one of the most successful artists of his time and made over 5,000 paintings and drawings during his lifetime, making him very rich. Also that four years after his wife died, he married his niece, Helen Fourmant when she was just 16. He was 53, which was thought distasteful at the time. And remains so today.

The speaker also told us about a conversation he had had in the modern part of the exhibition which has been curated by Jenny Saville and includes Sarah LucasTwo Fried Eggs and a Kebab. A member of the public had maintained that it was not art and it surprised him that such attitudes still existed. I was surprised that he was surprised . But I did possibly have something in common with that unnamed member of the public, while I was happy to agree that the work is art, I couldn’t see what it possibly had to do with Rubens.

The exhibition does have a few fine paintings by the Master, including Garden of Love where all the women are disconcertingly modeled on Helen Fourmant. But if Rubens really did paint something in the order of 5,000, you would have thought that the folks at the RA would have managed to lay their hands on more of them. They have only managed to bring together six of his major works and, to make up for this,  the exhibition is padded out with a job lot of paintings that are supposed to have been influenced by him.  But it doesn’t really work . I can’t believe that when Constable was sketching out the Haywain he was thinking much of the fact that Rubens had also done a landscape; I think he was looking at the wide open skies around Dedham . Similarly artists had been painting Nativity scenes for centuries before  Rubens and it was hardly surprising that they continued to do so afterwards.

But it was  in the contemporary gallery that this kind of pretence that Rubens was single-handedly responsible for virtually all art became the most ridiculous. I often find that viewing contemporary works at the same outing as more classical paintings is a bit indigestible. It’s like starting a meal with wonderful roast beef and then finding the next course is a delicious spicy curry. Both are good It’s just not what you want together. Nonetheless, having started on this course of bringing in a whole lot of other painters who were supposedly influenced by Rubens, I can see why they chose Jenny Saville to do the curation of the recent stuff. In her large fleshy nudes, it is possible to see a line of direct influence. But Saville chose to include a work of her own that she made specifically for the exhibition. A near monochrome in charcoal with just touches of colour it was surprisingly different in style; it is called Voice of the Shuttle (Philomela).

The Rubens  influence appeared researched rather than emotional. Doing away with her habitual obsession with flesh, Saville has chosen to do her own version of the grisly myth, told by Ovid, in which  Philomela is raped by her brother in law Tereus, the king of Thrace who then, for good measure,  tears her tongue out.  She becomes a nightingale, whilst her sister revenges her by serving  the king his own son’s flesh at a banquet. Whilst Rubens indeed painted this subject, it is hard to imagine that Saville would have gone there if not asked to curate the exhibition. In some of the choices the links become extremely  tenuous. Lucien Freud’s works clearly shows signs of having benefited from the Rubens legacy, though the painting on show is not one of his better ones, but what about  William de Kooning? He used pink paint sometimes; Rubens used pink paint; is that it? As for the Two Fried Eggs and a Kebab, surely the fried eggs metaphor depicts flat chested women, hardly the best example of Rubens’ influence.I can’t believe that Rubens himself would have claimed responsibility.

So if you go to the exhibition you can expect annoyances. Even so, I felt it was well worth the visit if only to see two paintings. The first was the hunting scene widely used in the RA advertising. This is quite extraordinary, the tensions, the detail and the sheer virtuosity is dazzling,  But my favourite was Maria Grimaldi and her Dwart. I spent ages looking at it. Seen full-size it is immensely powerful. You cannot help but want to know  more about their lives.  There is such a contrast between her beauty, her perfect proportions, his enormous head and unreadable expression.  I still keep wondering about his opinion of the portrait and whether he liked how he was depicted.

Rubens and His Legacy is showing at the Royal Academy until 10 April 2015.

But would it fit in the Elevator 3: Paintings

28 Nov

Go round art departments in Britain’s universities and you might be forgiven for thinking that painting was so last millennium. Among both undergraduates and post grad students there appear to be more people into sound, installation or performance than there are fretting about brush strokes and colour. Go round the commercial galleries, as I did in New York, and it’s clear that while all forms of art are represented,  it is paintings, or near paintings, that are dominant.  It is hardly surprising; you don’t need a private art gallery to display a painting; the gap above the sofa will probably do.  The gap above the sofa may demand one. While there were some giant works, most of the wall based art would have fitted in the average elevator

The one exception was this strange and enormous piece by Italian artist Rudolf Stingel  at the Paula Cooper Gallery, where it benefited from being the sole work on display. Measuring at least twelve feet by eight, it would not immediately have passed the elevator test, though of course it could have been removed from its stretchers and then re-hung. This was not in any case the work for the average apartment; it would require a complete wall, if not a complete room to itself. I cannot imagine many people would want it on the wall opposite the bed. From a distance it looks like a very slightly out of focus photograph. Get closer and you see that this is actually painted in oils.

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I found the degrees of remove interesting. Here is a painting of an imaginary being that is presented to us in what appears to be an accurate portrayal of an amateurishly constructed dummy.  The creature/monster/demon clearly has wooden, rather than skeletal, arms and a fabric body, rather than one made of  ectoplasm or whatever is the substance of which spirits are customarily made. This is how Stringer has chosen to work the image, rather than go the more direct route and paint something imaginary from imagination. There was no information about the painting on the day that I visited so I was unclear whether he had constructed it in the first  place, or, as I thought more probable, since he has in the past painted portraits from photographs taken by other people, that it was created or photographed by a different artist. Also interesting is how different this is from so much of Stringers other work, Though he is no stranger to the macabre, he also paints landscapes and has made elaborate installations. With a painting such as this, like and dislike seem quite irrelevant terms. If it were not for the broomstick arms it could have been frightening. If it were not for the screaming skull head the drape of the fabric could have been seen as beautiful. It was both ridiculous and wonderful. It was not an image you could forget

Another artist who paints in a totally realistic way is Matthew Miller, but with very different results. Portraits of people you do not know are often not particularly interesting but there is something about Miller’s skill and the singularity of his face that made the series compelling, They were showing at the Hansel and Gretel Garden Pocket Utopia.

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The largest and most intricate showed Miller in the act of carving a piece of wood. The Gallery had wanted to show the block along with the painting; Miller had apparently not liked the idea as he thought it would distract from the precision of his work. But I was interested in seeing it and the gallery staff kindly took me out to a back room where it was lurking hidden under a plastic covering. So here is the photograph of the portrait and possibly the only published photograph of the block of wood. You will see that it was far less smooth than it appears in the painting and possibly Miller too is less smooth than the strange, soft, hairless way he portrays himself.

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If Miller’s paintings were almost photographicly accurate, David Antonides, though also representational, were swerving towards the abstract. Shown at the Project Gallery in Orchard Street, they were of  a wet oily off-key New York in that none of the pictures were shown from a totally vertical viewpoint. The technique Antonides used for these is to rub paint into sodden paper with a pumice stone producing this distressed effect.

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At Ameringer, McEnery, Yohe they were showing work by Monique Van Genderen. Almost entirely abstract I enjoyed the layered effect. You can see  the white shape in the foreground only partially conceals the painting behind, whilst the drip from the dark blue form goes over it. At first glance the paintings look very loose and fluid, then you realise that there is real precision there. Look at the bright green line, the way that it works with the black line to form what is suggestive of a figure in the centre of the work.

Monique van Genderen, 'Untitled,' 2014 , Ameringer | McEnery | Yohe

Monique van Genderen, 'Untitled (six of six),' 2014 , Ameringer | McEnery | Yohe

All the works are untitled and provide no clues about their meaning. They seem rather to rejoice in the act of painting. In the smaller work above, the same layering is evident, the same use of drip and again the exactitude of that yellow line.

Photographs do not do justice to the works of Marthe Keller at the Gallery Molly Krom; the subtlety of the different textures needs to be seen. The colours need to be as the artist mixed them and not an approximation that varies with the computer screen.

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While this was very clearly a painting on unstretched linen, rather than a 3D work, the mix also included acetate and the odd scrap of what looked like furnishing fabric.The effect was light and somewhat wistful. Nothing seemed fixed. The surfaces reacted to each other as if they were echoes. Keller apparently paints with some home-made tools, such as brushes tied together so that a randomness is introduced. In such works it must be difficult to judge the moment at which to stop.  Yet Keller appears to know instinctively when that is; nothing was overdone. It was the restraint that made them so unusual.

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Coming Round to Cardboard

24 Feb

I have never been keen on artworks made of cardboard. It seems strange to me quite how often somebody gets some cardboard boxes together, does something minimal to them and then tells you it is art. That is all very well when you are eight, or, at a push, twelve, but if you are older than that, I always feel like saying, “why not get some decent materials and do it properly?” So, when I saw a flyer in Paris for an exhibition that featured quite a large amount of cardboard and, what is more, it looked interesting, I just had to go.

I took the metro out to Riquet which is quite some way out from the centre in the 19th arrondissement and arrived at 104 (Cent Quatre). Set up in 2010, Cent Quatre  is a huge and also hugely entertaining community arts complex that seems to have every conceivable artistic activity going on under the rather elegant steel and glass roof.

A view of the Cent Quatre Arts Centre in Paris

Cent Quatre – much livelier now it is an Arts Centre and not a morgue

It was formerly a municipal morgue but now everybody seems very much alive; there are dancers practicing their routines, children playing, people skateboarding, artists’ studios, a book exchange, a bookshop, several eateries, an antique shop, photographic exhibitions and on the day I visited a labyrinth made exclusively of cardboard. It was as simple as that: rolls of corrugated cardboard had been loosely unfurled so that they retained a coiled appearance and formed undulating waves through which you could make out paths,which, as in all good labyrinths, led you to the centre.

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The installation is the work of Michelangelo Pistoletto, who is eighty and is a leading member of the Italian movement, l’Arte Povera, a movement that was started in the 1960s. Ironically, seeing its members claim to value simplicity, when they come to explain its principles, they favour very long, very wordy sentences and few if any paragraphs.

With my poor Italian and the help of Google translate I took from the movement’s website that works are  “characterized by the use of simple and natural materials that are evidenced by its banality and poverty, as is the case with plants, food, paper, felt, metal, earth. These materials are used in order to overcome the distinctions between art and everyday life, between nature and culture.”  There was a lot more but that seemed to be the gist.

Certainly Pistoletto’s cardboard work was quite unlike other gallery exhibits. What I found interesting  was that it was that it had been organised rather than made. There were no joins, no supports, no other materials, no cut-outs, no mark making. It was simply unfurled rolls of cardboard. It seemed more akin to land art than to anything else, as if material from the immediate environment had simply been rearranged.

Far from having notices not to touch, touching was unavoidable. The cardboard walls were about shoulder height but the paths through it quite narrow, so it felt somewhat like pushing through undergrowth. It was fun and I imagine small children would adore it. In some places the cardboard looked a bit worse for wear, where people must have fallen against it but it didn’t matter. A path led you to the centre where, on the inside of cardboard arranged in a circle, there was one of Pistoletto’s trademark mirrored sculptures. Looking down over the cardboard barrier which surrounded it, it appeared almost like a deep pool in the floor, and as the cardboard wobbled, it was hard not to fear falling into it.

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The mirrored pool at the centre of Michelagelo Pistoletto’s Labyrinthe

The pool was essential, it gave the labyrinth a purpose,  but it was the cardboard that I found so interesting. Just as in the old adage, there is no unsuitable weather, only unsuitable clothes, I realized that in art there are no unsuitable materials. In the right hands good art can be produced from anything.

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