Thursday, 18 June 2009

On Tacita Dean @ ACCA

More often not the most moving works of art affect us through making us aware of what is not there, what is lost, withheld or shrouded in ambiguity.  Tacita Dean, whose work can be seen in Melbourne's ACCA here in a decent and beautifully staged survey show, creates pieces across media that can often hypnotise as we look for meaning between their lightness of touch and boldness of subject matter, which might be mortality itself.

Although best known for her film pieces Dean works with found objects, or makes the ones she creates appear random, her seemingly guileless way of shooting (although 'capturing' might be more appropriate) has an important aesthetic effect.  She creates images that have the untidy half formed feel of memories, she is at the mercy of light and that slightly spectral feel to all of her work is what makes it so beguiling here, although it isn't always as substantial as we might like to believe it is. 

One of Dean's themes is loss, that's clear.  She looks at decay and erasure, of the fleeting nature of memory.  The redundancy of film is of course a theme made almost literal in the 'Kodak' piece.  A long film that follows, often on a fixed and only barely composed camera, the workings of a French celluloid film factory.  The tone and the subject suggest elegy, but what works most effectively is the way she captures, on her film, the play of light in the Kodak factory, it is almost an essay in the particularity of a medium.

What makes her choice of medium more than a nice intellectual irony is the very presence of film in the gallery.  As the constant whirr or projectors hums through the rooms you can't help but be aware of the delicacy of the film racing through sprockets and spindles.  The medium itself is precarious, it reminds us that it is not only technology but memory too that has its own mortality.

A more direct hint of death comes in the shape of 'Die Regimenstochter' a collection of thirty six opera and theatre programmes.  In the gallery their meaning is not quite apparent, each is from Berlin, and has a window cut out of their covers, revealing a page inside.  They appear ghostly but little else.  Since seeing the exhibition I've discovered that the holes cut from them are from where swastikas have been removed.  That realisation changes their meaning immediately, suddenly they are ghosts of a people as well as acts of defiance where evil is excised from a culture.  The work becomes as powerful as a holocaust reminder.  However one has to question the effectiveness of a work of art whose meaning is quite so reliant on knowledge of the provenance of found objects and not on their presentation.  Perhaps that clear link would have felt gauche and artless but it would have fulfilled the communicative function of art.

Dean is wonderful poet of surfaces, of how they are at once opaque and revealing.  The giant photographic prints of lichen encrusted rock that fill two walls of the first room, 'Small Study for Hünengrab II (Floating'), say this most clearly.  Printed in black and white on a high gloss paper all but the rock itself has been masked out with a matt black paint.  It makes what is so essentially solid appear weightless and with nothing else to distract us we can only focus on surface.

To call a piece about a poet poetic is almost too obvious.  But 'Michael Hamburger' has all the rhythmic power of metre and verse.  Dean captures images in the expatriate poet's home and garden that vibrate with strange resonance.  The day is rainy, the sky bruised and there is a very English drizzle in the air.  Behind the occasional birdsong is an irregular thrum, that might be the encroachment of a nearby road into this very English country garden.  Dean lets the camera linger, rain drips from leaf, birds alight and then fly away leaving a feeder swinging just as shadows paint their way across the green.  And then there's the apples.  We see their skins throughout, shining, mottled, ripening, blemished, we watch the care with which the old poet harvests them down, with an incongruous red plastic device and the way he handles them as he gives a history of his orchard.  The film would be touching if the only sound was Hamburger's personal and learned description of apple types, each seems to take on the quality of metaphor for unspoken experiences, but he then goes on to recite his poem in memoriam of Ted Hughes.

For Ted Hughes
October 29th 1998

After Gale and flood, on the brink of winter I see
A faint half-moon, haloed in haze half-earthly.
The huntress's light, Artemis, delicate as a cat
In her art of killing, self contained as a cat,
Adored for that, seducer to sacrifice.

But morning's, Apollo's and Aphrodite's
Cruelly too shines on the planters. the breeders
Of perishing cattle, crops.
Then it is love that hurts, not the coldness.

Both he must serve who was born in high summer,
Compelled to mother the children half-orphaned,
Magnanimous helper, friend .

Uneaten this day of his death
in either light the dark Devonshire apples lie
That from seed I raised on a harsher coast
In remembrance of him and his garden.
Difference filled out the trees,
Hardened, mellowed the fruit to outlast our days.

The piece is pitch perfect, Hamburger delivers his poem in a painfully stoic rhythm and we understand how objects can be elegies for fleeting lives.  This is Dean at her best.

My reservations with Dean's work come from the way she clings to the deliberate evasions of the avant garde.  The long, still, unwavering shots are like a challenge to boredom, like some kind of test of a viewers patience before they are allowed to receive their moment of revelation.  Those tricks aren't terribly new and represent a doctrinaire barrier between artist and viewer, one that Dean is well able to break.  'Merce Cunningham Performs 'Stillness' (in three movements) to John Cage's composition 4'33" with Trevor Carlson, New York City, 28 April 2007 (six performances; six films)' has so many of the individual pieces of the Emperor's New Clothes that it's amazing that, thanks to its beautiful lighting and the way it is staged on six screens with six projectors, some images appearing to float in the air, it does not collapse under the weight of its own title.   '4'33"' is Cage's arch piece of conceptualism, a period of scored silence.  It is a performance in the very loosest sense, Cunningham a real nonagenerian genius of modern dance, sits in different ways throughout.  However, again, there are layers outside the film itself.  Cage and Cunningham were lovers and thus that very famous silence is embued with emotion it never had as a conceptual trick.

I like what Tacita Dean does, although not all of it.  She works with a sensitivity to the physical that gives her opportunities to create things that are achingly powerful.  The power of some of the pieces here lies in their modesty, they are gentle and curious and like the change in the wash of light as a cloud passes over they can reveal much that is profound.  That's quite a beautiful quality for an artist.

Sunday, 14 June 2009

On Dali @ NGV

Everyone knows something about Dali, melting watches, curly moustaches, pouting lipglossed sofas, if you're a discerning art lover .  The problem with Dali is that the critical backlash where he is portrayed as kitschy quasi-fascist self-publicist is every bit as simple minded and reductive as his own eccentric artistic genius schtick.  To simply come to Dali from either position leaves us at an impasse. 

In 'Salvador Dali:  Liquid Desire' the NGV has put on an amazing show.  This is the official version of Dali, the lenders are the Fundacio Gala-Salvador Dali,the private foundation set up to promote and defend Dali's art and stature and the Dali Museum in St Petersburg, Florida, a museum built on the private collection of the Morse family.  That means you have a set of works with encyclopedic depth and breadth but none of the iconic works such as 'The Great Masturbator',  'The Persistence of Memory' or 'Soft Construction with Boiled Beans (Premonition of Civil War)' in Madrid, New York and Philadelphia respectively.  The show is quite brilliantly staged, from its neon signatures to black and red velvet rooms and a continuing ant and rhino motif (go and see, it's so much better than it can ever sound) and the curators should be applauded and awarded.

'Soft Self Portrait with Grilled Bacon' might limply straddle the two conventional views of Dali.  Here he is deflated, hollowed out, an artist held up by nothing but the crutches of his artifice.  Dali as his own subject and object.  At the same time he's the realist surrealist, the creator of images that burn into the brain and make the skin crawl, the artist of universal neuroses.  It is interesting to think that Dali is so derided for a his self-obsession, a trait that found him a perfect marriage partner not in Gala but in Freud, in a society as enamoured of its own image as ours.  This exhibition does pose questions about Dali's value to the past and present of art, it offers an opportunity to move away from the knee jerk reactions that began when his raised eyebrow so enraged the very serious abstract expressionists.  Dali's crimes against an art establishment so excited by its splashes of rebellious abstraction were manifold.  He had a sense of humour and he believed in figuration and classical technique.

As a student of art, who genuinely loved his many sources, Dali is much more than a pasticheur.  On arrival of America he attempts, through an exhibition to ignite a passion for the renaissance in his new American audience with riffs on Durer and Raphael, in a quest that might be on a little less fantastic than that of another of his subjects, Don Quixote.  His series of illustration to 'The Autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini' are appropriate, an artistic genius but a renaissance bastard Cellini's autobiography is ocassionally a work of ego-serving lies and exaggeration.  Dali's illustrations are both fantastical and sordid, the grip of his art sometimes loosening on the appeal of fantasy.  

Nothing here is a better example of how Dali understood the power art than 'Archaeological Reminiscence's of Millet's Angelus', one of a series of works where Dali explored one of the nineteenth century's most reproduced paintings.  Here the figure of the man and woman looking at their poor harvest and praying for better has been transformed into a pair of ruined steeples on a desert plain.  The melancholy sky and shadowed earth set the mood as a father and his son, tiny in the foreground, look on.  In Dali's universe the scene is turned into one of predatory sexuality, elsewhere the woman in a locust, here as culture crumbles it still leaves a long shadow.  You do not have to subscribe to Dali's personal mythology of sexual predation and initiation to feel certain resonances.

'The First Days of Spring' is there at the beginning of what we would recognise as archetypal Dali, a vast horizon lays out before us meeting a sapphire sky.  The landscape is a set of enormous steps that might be the base of some totalitarian edifice, a slash of classical linear perspective through the middle of the canvass.  Dali is dipping into his Freudian bag of symbols, in a combinaton of collage (photographs painted into the surface of the picture).  Father figures, men who might be fighting or fucking, fish and genitals are all part of this dreamscape and it feels much more like a psychoanalytic journal, than a work capable of communicating universal neuroses.  Dali's signature style, the vast fleshy forms, twisting, limp, deflated are what we know him best for.  There is a reason these are so powerful, like the works of the early expressionists they show a physical world transformed by inner trauma, but here the feeling of flesh and nerve endings is so palpable they are far more effective.

To look at Dali's career longitidunally you see an artist searching for a style, who finds a voice somewhere between Freudian symbology and soft figurative cubism.  As this voice becomes a patented style he continues searching for visual analogues for science and spiritualism, but never manages to find that visual bridge between the deeply personal and the universal again.  His art does touch on universality, his themes reach beyond personal neuroses when he finds archetypes for disgust, regret, absence and lust.  In one sense they are lessened when each image is so closely cross-referenced with Dali's biography, surrealism ought to be best understood at a sub-rational level, our eyes and gut are probably the best judge.

The NGV show puts Dali in his place, both historically and geographically, it is not irrelevant. The two influences that come out most clearly here are Giorgio de Chirico and El Greco.  De Chirico's classicism and architectural enigmas, are a clear visual precursor.  These imagined landscapes might be successor's to the 'memory palaces' created by renaissance humanists, mysteries and treasures lie hide within.  

The Spanish landscape of 'Cadaques From Creus Tower' might be a view of El Greco's Toledo.  More strikingly if we think of the way that El Greco took a leap out from Mannerism into a world of writhing, spectral spiritual energy rendered in colours we see something of a very Spanish Dali.  No less Spanish are the repetition of food, blood and shit, these are typically Catalan obsessions. it's when you force yourself to realise that Dali is a very Spanish painter that his work starts to make sense again and take shape beneath the blur of hype.

Later Dali does lose its way, there is no denying that.  His experimentation seems restless and gratuitous, his atomic period might be an isotope of analytical cubsim but there are still lines of continuity.  His masterful draughtsmanship and facility for realism are still important.  But at some point he starts to explore his own image rather than his own psyche, and this is where powerful slides into interesting which finally deflates into kitsch.  Celebrity navel gazing can never be as compelling as his relentless exploration the anxieties of our bodies and of occupying our own skin (which is what so many of his successors have failed equally to remember).  This is essentially why at least a significant amount of his work has proven to be so powerful and so many people while so much of surrealism, as an abstracted writerly movement, withered on the vine.

Dali's late re-embrace of Catholicism is the final straw for many of his critics.  He would never have been a saint in their eyes anyway.  Put together with the sympathy for Franco and we have an ideological bogeyman for latter day critics.  But the weird moral universe of the art world is illustrated by the avant garde saint André Breton's expulsion of Dali from the surrealist group.  Of course Dali's real sin was public ambition and cupidity, obscene wealth in artists ought to come in a hair shirt (if you're Picasso) or an ironic theoretical justification (if you're a Damien Hirst or Jeff Koons).  Creative rebellion tends to like conformity much more than it ever dares to admit.

Dali attempted to paint a new mythology for the century of the Self, he tried to capture the rift between a man's psyche and his physical environment and for a period that many artist's would kill for he succeeded brilliantly.  Art can never exculpate its creators of their crimes, but if we insist on the ethical and ideological purity of our artists we will find lots of empty picture hooks on museum walls.  This show might not make you love Dali the man but it ought to make you think again about Dali the painter. 

Sunday, 7 June 2009

On James Powditch

I love the moment when you realise that you have been utterly seduced an artist's work, when you had little or no expectations of what you were coming to.  James Powditch, in his new show Superpowers at Australian Galleries in Paddington, has  created something so witty, complex and layered that it seduces us easily.  The show is a collection of twenty five, quite large, collage pieces that are framed and hung as if they were paintings.  The individual pieces represent countries ('Made in Great Britain', 'Made in Japan', 'Made in Netherlands') each of whom have hosted the Olympic games.  This is a smart and useful distinction.  For all its rhetoric the Olympic's represents an oddly potent mix of old-fashioned nationalism and modern image building, both of which emphasise the thoughtfulness of some of these works.

Japan is represented by a red pulley wheel, in 'Made in Japan II', and the pages of a text that waxes about its post war economic miracle.  The wheel is an easy spot for the rising sun, but the whole piece also reflects the tension in Japanese visual culture between the ascetic and the ornate.  The result does just enough to draw the divergent ideas we have of modern and traditional Japan together.  'Made in Germany - Berlin 36' puts us beneath the Brandenburg gate and set of rulers that rise up vertically and would make Albert Speer proud.  The sense we are left with is of a technocratic brutality within an historic culture.

Rulers and measures are common place in Powditch's pieces.  It is as if he wants to measure out cultural time, to find an empirical way to communicate universally.  These are also common objects that remind us of how we have abandoned the aesthetics of craft.  It might also be as simple as their tactile and visual qualities, there is something beautiful about these everyday objects, their grooves and typefaces, the lamination and patina.  They feel well used and human, it gives us a link into the object.

An obvious reference point is Joseph Cornell, whose boxed assemblages of found objects are small treasures of the Twentieth Century.  However Cornell's is a private world, each box feels like a window into his sub-conscious and the obsessive compartmentalization felt like it might be pathological (a suspicion strengthened by his attraction to surrealism).  Powditch's is a more public world, the layers of image and reference describe a cultural life not a private one, 'Superpowers' is a conversation about shared meaning and memory.

When we look at the 'Made in Australia, Lake Burley Griffin' it's hard not to think of Rosalie Gascoigne.  The same attraction to meaningful detritus is there, but Gascoigne's work always looks as though the words and patterns arising are accidental (I never assumed they were, just that I was supposed to).  Powditch is far more structured.  Typically his work has a single strong geometric feature that sits above, or on the edge of, a field of tiled paperback pages or other ephemera.  This makes the work feel much more sculptural than graphic.  At the same time it is possible, literally, to read each piece and once you get past the novelty of recognizing individual elements you start to pick out echoes and half intentional meanings.  

The deep, dark wooden cases that each piece sits in lend them the air of an old school house or museum.  This sensitive framing is as much a part of their success as what sits within, it gives tat and trash gravitas.  However it's Powditch's eye that really makes this all work together because he has a strong formal sense.  A myriad of detail never overwhelms his strength of composition.  In 'Made In Spain', one of a serious of works where single 'objects' dominate centre and middle, an object that might reminds us of a spanner or an eagle's profile sits upon a background of romantic fiction, it reminds us of a darker side to Spain's history, of blood and power.

These works are both topography and archaeology.  The printed page is made strange as it is encased in glass, so that we might be looking at a zoological specimen.  What this does is make us more aware of the way our culture has been indelibly marked by such small artefacts and acts.  Fruitboxes, stamps, pulp novels and the maps we remember from our childhood are more important than officially sanctioned narratives in forming our notions of nations.  What Powditch does here is heighten that sense of democratic images and remind us of a time, somewhere in our own or the historical past, when the rest of the world felt different and exotic.  In doing this he taps into our innate curiosity and has created works that invite and encourage a deep interaction, it is very very good.

On Ricky Swallow

Novelty must be a harsh mistress.  She demands so much that there is little left of the people who serve her.  This is a problem for pop-conceptualists like Ricky Swallow, whose watercolours at Darren Knight Gallery try a little too hard to be a little bit novel, and are only a little bit clever.  The exhibition is made up of a series of what you might describe as 'imaginary portraits', effectively watercolour studies of images from movies or other painters.  As an exercise in doodling it's quite persuasive, but as a coherent piece from a critically and commercially successful artist it's a weak pastiche.

The dominant images are those of 'Ned Kelly' and his gang.  That is 'Ned Kelly' as played by Mick Jagger in Tony Richardson's 1970 film.  The layers of reference and irony are laid on by the spadeload.  We think of Sydney Nolan's Kelly series and of Andy Warhol's multiple screenprints of Jagger, and it's hard to imagine that we're not supposed to.  Swallow is accomplished, he captures the gangly sullen vulnerability that makes Jagger's casting in the film interesting (but never managed to do the same for the film itself).  Washed out in greys and browns, with Jaggers mouth a smeared scarlet scar the paintings are ugly beautiful.  They're also painfully pointless.

Swallow's nods toward the painterly are just as obvious.  He aims for Barcelona period Picasso, in a set of six bearded men who look equally like Van Gogh sketches.  He appropriates style and captures it, but for no apparent reason.  His 'Hooded Woman', a 'blue-period' homage is similarly well executed, finding that other worldliness that Picasso sought, but again it's hard to see why you would do it.  The stylistic reference is so direct that it feels more like an eager to please child showing off than an artist seeking something in his predecessors.  The feeling of desperation that comes from so many references worn so heavily is a hard one to get past.  It's like a joke taken too seriously, as it comes with theoretical justification included.

If all conceptual artists, and it's hard not to label Swallow as a conceptualist when so much of his work relies on the manipulation of external meaning, then Ricky Swallow's is rendering pop cultural artifacts in a 'fine art' style, whether it's watercolours or his accomplished sculpture.  It's perfectly post-modern, high art-lite, and fine tuned to push all the right buttons of critics.  The problem is that the the depth of meaning is pretty shallow, once you get the ironic juxtapositions that's it.  This might be enough to make someone feel mildly clever but it doesn't make for anything emotionally or intellectually satisfying.