Wednesday, 15 September 2010

European Masters @ NGV

I normally try to avoid comment on how exhibitions are branded or what they're called. In the case of
'European Masters' the NGV's show of works from Frankfurt's Stådel Museum. The problem might be that the catch all title doesn't quite capture what's going on here. The lead image of a Renoir lunch suggests an impressionist blockbuster awaits inside. Instead the NGV houses a path through the neurotic spasms of a national identity seeking a form. That nation is Germany through the nineteenth and into the early twentieth century. There's some great and compelling works hung inside here but there's also a lot of painting that is, frankly, kitsch and odd. Edited and pulled together it creates an interesting narrative, made sinister as we know the tragic point where it ends. So whilst there are great examples of Degas and Bonnard here they're not the real story, instead the odd procession from Romanticism through Symbolism to Expressionism captures something much stranger, if less immediately pleasurable.

German Romanticism is a complex set of impulses. Here it encompasses the neo-classicism, pagan fantasies and historical mythmaking. The pictures here show less of the primal urge toward the sublime that we might find in Casper David Freidrich and a far more twee version. Medieval and classical figures find themselves in the dark German forests, forging a link between the geography and culture. The images are polite, bloodless and a highly mediated version of nature making this very different fare to Romantics such as Goya or Turner operating elsewhere. Lighting is often theatrical and compositions tend to signpost the meaningful relation between the landscape and those inserted into it leaving each work looking like a restrained polemic. What becomes clear here, and never leaves through the rest of the rooms, is a penchant for fairly heavy handed symbolism without a corresponding stylistic tension. The approach feels all or nothing. Certain works look like academic exercises whilst others are full of bombast, all too often what they fail to provide is depth or ambiguity.

It seems fitting that in amongst the German work, and a respectable room of impressionism, there are smatterings of artists like James Ensor and Henri Rousseau, who are almost sui generis and and yet seem to add to the feverish searching of German artists. Amongst these figures is Odilon Redon. The work 'Christ and the Samaritan Woman' is of such hallucinatory beauty and mystical strangeness that one can hardly bear to walk away from it. There is a biblical story in there somewhere but it hardly matters. A Christ figure, manifests out of a layers of ochre at once a mirage and the memory of someone real. In the foreground the profile of a woman who is almost sculptural but who, with the greatest economy of paint, appears to be in a state of transcendent serenity. There's an abstract splash of purple in the middle of the frame and a scarlet wound of paint, like the sacred heart and something like a cloud or a splash below Christ, describing them is hard but together they feel like something necessary and essential that happens between these two figures. The tenderly minimal expressions (both have eyes downcast or closed) convey a sense of grace and surrender and allow us to identify the human core of something deeply spiritual. It's a wonderful quiet painting.

There are surprises. Wilhelm Trübner's 'Moor Reading a Newspaper' is beautiful and a real shock. This small portrait takes on the drab black blues and greens of workman's serge and imparts an oily quality to the air. The composition cuts the frame in a diagonal as the seated figures rest his feet, the light of a nineteenth century room hardly picking out black skin. It's the light that makes this so brilliant though. The only objects that stick out form a line across the middle of the painting, a pair of gloves on the empty portion of the chaise, the snow white newspaper and a hat and cane. This isn't a work that attempts o make exotic, rather one that defiantly normalises with symbols of bourgeois life. The newspaper, holding its form in a black hand is genuinely shocking, it's the last way you'd expect a black man in 1870's Germany (a mere ten years after American emancipation) to be presented.

There's a point in the exhibition where we see things start to lose their serene myth building. Where the subject and implicitly the viewer violently shifts. This is best seen in the way women become vampires and harpies having been the maidens and nymphs of a mythical bucolic past. Hindsight makes it tempting, and all too easy, to draw sociological and political conclusions but even if we avoid them it's clear that colour and form begin to change. There is a line of sinister, grotesque women that begins to appear with the symbolists. We see Lovis Corinth's slutty daubs and palate knived flesh and the bone pale temptress of Max Liebermann's 'Samson and Delilah' and, in both, women's skin itself seems toxic and dangerous, evidence of something hateful inside. This is where Max Slevogt's 'Frau Aventiture' is so revealing both thematically and the way paint restlessly clings to the canvass. The areas of pink and grey, flesh and steel, hard and soft just reinforces the idea of a conflict between male and female. What appears to be happening is unsure, a knight either lifting or strangling a naked woman, you can't help feeling it's the latter as it all takes place on a queasy green darkness. Without delving into the sexual politics it is both bravura and unpleasant.

It's probably not the done thing to express a pretty much blanket dislike for the many strands of German Expressionism. I've often thought that if anything were going to make an art movement impervious to criticism it was its censure by Adolf Hitler. This might be the root of my problem with the German strand of Expressionism. I understand the context and significance of Max Beckmann but more often than not his paintings descend into a caricature of neuroses on canvas. The twisted geometry and ugly decapitated proportions feel like a potent political cri de couer but are all angular aggression. It's hard to love these pictures even when, as in 'The Circus Carriage' Beckmann is creating and exposing his own personal mythology. Context can define the value of a political act, and Beckmann's defiance of Naziism through paint is inspirational, it can't determine aesthetic response.

My lack of sympathy for much expressionism comes from its inability to give a human access point to the work. The dark and light all comes in a flash in expressionism, and then another flash and a series of fireworks on top of one another until we're blinded. It's a sensational conceit but it suffers from a law of diminishing returns as the volume is constantly turned up to eleven. The work from the painters of 'Die Brücke' and the Expressionists here is often violently ugly. It often uses the clash of colour, and also of expectation of shape and colour, to to create a sensory disruption that has a psychological analogue. The effectiveness is undeniable but the sheer boldness make the works one dimensional. Whether these are the response to a violent world or the expression of an assaulted psyche or otherwise doesn't really matter, they seem to take a single emotional dimension at the expense of subtlety or ambiguity. That heavy handedness can be seen here in work by Emil Nolde and Franz Marc and it's as alienating as any Brechtian technique. This is in sharp contrast to works by artists such as Egon Schiele who captured no less angst and shock but retain their effectiveness because they're shown in concert with the brittle frailty of people.

There are two different stories at play in 'European Masters'. In one there is the battle for the visual identity of a nation, the discovery and rejection of a mythology. The second only just begins in the final room. It shows how the early Twentieth Century was less a crossroads for art and more a spawning ground. Multiple avant gardes and modernisms spring from it, the battle becoming one for self-expression rather than a single path or movement. All through this show there are works of power and beauty: August Macke's 'Naked girl with Headscarf', Kirchner's 'Reclining Woman in White Chemise' or Ferdinand Hodler's 'Childhood' all have the power to move. As an exhibition this challenges and enlightens which is in itself a fine thing, that much of the work might not be to my taste doesn't really matter and I'm simply glad the NGV have tried to tell an important story.

Sunday, 5 September 2010

On Runa Islam @ MCA

There's something comforting throughout the MCA's small but stunning Runa Islam retrospective, the analogue flicker of 16mm film, the gentle hum of spindle and the clatter of sprockets creates a welcoming soundtrack. The retro technology has a qualitative effect on all of the film pieces on show, there's a warmth and an intimacy in the medium that reflects much of the subject matter. The first couple of works one comes across borrow heavily from the past. One might be an Andy Warhol screentest, another takes the cold light of Fassbinder and the slow deliberate pans of Antonioni, together this seems like a visit to the past. However as you watch and spend time in and with these works you feel something very different. The icy nihilism of Warhol is nowhere to be found nor is the dispassionate dialectic of the modernist filmmakers, this work feels much more tangible and sympathetic but no less intellectually rigorous. In fact 'Assault', Islam's version of the Warhol 'Screen Tests' breaks down the cold modernist stare by involving and implicating the viewer. Here a young androgyne man is filmed having light shone through coloured gels directly into his eyes. To see the piece properly we have to stand in front of the translucent screen it's projected on, this when the light is at its strongest and the subject squints so does the viewer. It's tricksy and not entirely successful but it shows something that makes Islam interesting, she privileges the senses over the intellectual. This makes her far more affecting than any number media theorists and it gives the work depth and intrigue.

The most ambitious work here 'Scale 1/16 inch = 1 foot' hints at narrative as it focusses on reality and representation. In it a concrete multi-storey car park sits above a non-descript town like a spaceship landed. The film explores the car park and issues arising. The mildewed concrete of a Sixties municipal edifice are contrasted with the brilliant orange of chairs in a restaurant, and immediately a space is created between the idea of town planner's utopia and urban decay. The camera takes on a dispassionate and clinical role as it surveys the building, it is geometrically gorgeous but sits oddly amongst Victorian terraces and whilst this isn't a rant against brutalist architecture it is nonetheless unsettling. The name of the film can be pinned down to format and subject, Two interlinked reels are projected, on on to a small screen hanging in front of a much larger one. At times the images interact, most obviously when one screen has the camera moving around the exterior of the car-park and on the other the same movement is played out on an architect's scale model. The whole film gives a sense of dislocation, between people and their environment, between intention and result and between aesthetics and lived reality. It rewards viewing and is much more satisfying than its tricksy conceit might suggest.

'The House Belongs To Those Who Inhabit It' simply explores a derelict warehouse. A projection onto a suspended screen hangs in front of a dark wall but also seems to cut through it. A camera with a narrow field of vision, giving no sense of anything peripheral simply scans its surroundings, up and down and panning along. The movement and the blinkered field is unsettling, the whole picture refuses to reveal itself and as the camera moves around it takes on an urgent personality. we can imagine our surroundings but we will only believe our eyes. The screen becomes our aperture into another world from which we have been separated and in doing so it makes us much more conscious and appreciative of its details. In fact this is a familiar theme across the works here, Islam is concerned with the particularity of the senses, of their capacity to comfort or confuse us.

The heightened sensory property of film is again explored in 'Be the first to see what you see as you see it'. It looks like Fassbinder but feels like Hitchcock. In its almost narrative a girl in a china showroom lifts, rocks and spins pieces of porcelain. Watching her as coffee pots wobble is like waiting for a bomb to explode in a thriller. Islam doesn't just rely on the implicit fragility of china as symbol but layers on a brittle naturalistic soundtrack and has the protagonist touch the fragile crockery in extreme close up. What Islam manages to do is contrast experience with imagination, the whole film is a tease, we expect something to smash soon but it is always simply concentrating on the physicality of the object. The effect is at once hypnotic and thought provoking.

Runa Islam is a film buff's delight. She takes on Tarkovsky's 'Stalker', almost everything by Antonioni and the saturated directness of Fassbinder. This magpie borrowing makes it easy to see the works here as small essays on film history and the properties of a medium. It seems to me this is a lazy and narrow reading of what she does as despite these elements the films are far more emotional and visceral than conceptual. What Islam does is use the properties of film, when stripped of the demands of narrative, to explore how we experience our surroundings whether mediated by film or not. This makes the films curious and ruminative, they challenge us through our senses rather than through contrived visual oxymorons. The fact that these films have such a physical presence and effect is testimony that this is much more than 'art as lecture'. Runa Islam is asking us to consider how we see the world rather than how we see film, that's a far more righteous challenge.

Thursday, 2 September 2010

On 'Exit Through The Gift Shop'

I just can't help myself. The more I think about 'Exit Through The Gift Shop' a film by stencil artist Banksy the more I get the whiff of bad faith and it's not a smell I like. That's not to say it isn't smart, at times thoughtful and always entertaining - it's just that it looks and sounds like someone who's done really well out of a fairly modest situationist-lite pop-art derivative complaining about all the factors that have allowed him to be successful. That's not terribly edifying.

The story is fairly simple. An amiable French caricature, Thierry Guetta, obsessively films a new and growing generation of street artists. Eventually the camera turns on him and the film becomes a document of his bombastic and derivative entry into the art world. It's very funny. Guetta, or 'Mr BrainWash' as he styles himself once he becomes an artist, is a classic comic creation. He has the lack of self awareness that makes for great mockumentary characters, the film becomes "Inspector Clouseau meets Spinal Tap with a spray can". Of course the 'is he, isn't he?' question is the viral heart of the film. Mister Brainwash looks very much like a comic creation, his history seems to coincide with that of the production of the film. He is both its subject an its creation and the ambiguity around whether this is a real documentary of not can only be good for box-office.

A lot of things ring just wrong enough to make you smell le rat. The main one for me, perhaps with an English ear, is the sound of Banksy's diction. His observations sound well scripted and badly acted, even with his voice going through a distorting filter it's clear that this isn't spontaneous speech. Some of the wrongness is probably imaginary, like the uncanny resemblance between Thierry and Rob Schnieder, but still distracting. It feels like a big in-joke. The fact that Mr Brainwash provided the cover for Madonna's album 'Celebration' makes you think like it might be. Throughout you can almost hear the smug laughter of celebrities imagining they're being transgressive.

There's plenty to like about Banksy. He's not just a smug post-pop arsehole he's genuinely witty (visually and verbally) and he uses absurd juxtapositions for the right reasons. His kissing coppers and Ramallah wall stencils are clever and righteous, they undermine power through wicked humour. He quotes from art history relentlessly but you sense that he's only doing it to create a shared objective base for the twist of satire he brings to his subject. That said it's undeniable that Banksy is a bit of a one line joke, the images are conceptual jokes that feel both right and wrong, you smile, maybe laugh and then they're gone. This film's a bit like that. Banksy can't be held responsible for the imitators who have followed in his wake but he can't pretend not to have benefitted from the street art boom. 'Wall and Piece', the book he published in 2005 is a bestseller reaching out to the alternative middlebrow coffee table market.

I don't have anything against anti-establishment artists making money, far from it. However I do have a natural inclination for intellectual rigour. Creating a crass talentless version of yourself and watching him succeed in just the same cultural and commercial milieu you thrive in doesn't seem all that smart. Thierry puts on a massive post-modern mess of a pop art spectacle. Of course people come to it, but that doesn't make them stupid.

Ostensibly the joke is on the art market. Prices for street art rise and rise and the implicit message in the film is "you idiots will buy ANYTHING". That might be a fair critique but it's one made fairly gently, it would have been interesting to see the kind of collectors who will pay millions of dollars to see what started on a wall put into a frame. Instead, particularly in the shots of the concert sized crowds waiting to get into MBW's show, the joke is on the great unwashed who've been lured by the bait of free art. It's a cheap shot but one supposes more comfortable than potentially upsetting the real money who buy the real Banksy.

So the film comes with a giant set of inverted commas. The ironies are trowelled on, but the one never explored is that we seem to be watching a rogue and anti-establishment art form complaining about how it has been commoditized even when many of the artists concerned, from Banksy himself through to Shepard Fairey have thriving industries based around them. It's a fairly conservative moan and even if the whole movie is an elaborate spoof it isn't a terribly radical one. I quite like the Banksy who picks big targets, who takes on power with pisstaking and releases a dangerous idea with a spraycan. Given the context of some of the fights he's picked 'Exit Through The Gift Shop' all seems a bit too smug and whingey.