Tuesday 24 February 2009

On Cressida Campbell

There are times when moments in art history bubble up to the surface in the new and contemporary.  This might be in the form of quotation which, despite our post-modern magpieing, is as old as art itself.  At other times it is an echo of the way artists have attempted to express something universal in a manner that is very much their own.  It is in this latter way that we see in Cressida Campbell something of  Margaret Preston or Matisse and the clinical eye of every other artist who has tried to say something about our place in the world through the representation of things.

The Cressida Campbell retrospective, in the only place it should be, perched atop Observatory Hill in the S H Ervin Gallery on the shoulder of Sydney's Harbour Bridge, is full of deceptively sophisticated work in those disingenuous genres of landscape and still life.  Campbell's practice is interesting.  She begins with the image, painting directly onto plywood which when dried, she then etches to, in effect, create a woodblock.  To this she applies damp etching paper, creating a negative relief impression which she then paints in watercolour.  The result are two mirror images, one in chalky solid tempera on a board, the other in an aqueous ephemeral water colour.  The exhibition makes less of this than you might imagine, few pairs of images are juxtaposed and it would have been interesting to look further at how she uses the intersection between design and technique, drawing and colour.

Moving through the room is a surprising experience.  At times, as in the first monumental vista of Sydney Harbour, the precision and prettiness of some of Campbell's work leads down the path of the chocolate box and my first reaction was disappointment.  However deeper in the room you see quite startling and provocative plays with geometry and perspective that reveal a much more compelling art.

Campbell's most effective device is to flatten out the perspective to either create almost cubist geometric surfaces or to pull the viewer up flat against the plane of the picture, both effects reward repeated viewing.  In her images of a 'Chinese Garden, Sydney' she has sucked all the depth out of the frame, leaving geometric overlays, crazed leaded door frames (one is open, distorting the shape further) look out onto the undulating top of a wall, the line of tiles forming a regular wave across the space.  The knowledge that she's working in a naturalist style makes the effect of the distorted perspective cognitively stranger, we seek familiar shapes and objects and see them in a fresh light.

The mirrored images of 'Interiors with Anemones and Lemons' does something just as immediate, through which it's easy to see how she can be so popular.  Here, rather than flattening the depth of field, she appears to design the space from two viewpoints.  The scene is that of a sunlit room, the interior going back deep into the space of the picture our own viewpoint quite a way back from the pictorial plane.  But the second perspective is created by the table on which the lemons and anemones sit, cropped off against the frame of the picture the perspective is almost impossibly high, like we are pressed against the surface of the picture and our point of view is down toward our feet, interrupted by the subject of the still life.  This is at once alienating and endearing, we are drawn into and implicated in the picture but it is still very much an image, not illusionistic.

These effects combine with a strong sense of the geometry of objects, highlighted in the still life images of tools hung flat against a shed wall and an unpredictable cropping of the image (she often works in shapes and formats that longer and narrower than we might expect) make the experience of her art visually arresting without being gimmicks.  Her choice of materials, tempera and watercolour, also help her create something that feels peculiarly Australian.  Colour seems bleached from many surfaces, but the palette is that of Sydney, of tin and peeling paint, whitewash and washed in a local light.

Resonance abounds, some moments one sees David Hockney's LA portraits (minus the people), at another time a whole history of the Japanese woodblock.  These echoes are disparate but there are strings that run through them and that's what gives Campbell's work a quality that rises above the merely picturesque.  The modesty of her subject belies the acuteness of her visual sense and craft, making it all the more humane.  For that alone we should be thankful.

Thursday 19 February 2009

On Akram Khan and Juliette Binoche

Akram Khan demands attention when he steps onto any stage.  His art, an ever innovative meeting of the kathak dance tradition and modern kineticism, is often beautiful and almost always compelling.  He has made collaboration the heart of his creation, just as he blends traditions he has found partners like Anthony Gormley, Nitin Sawnhey, Hanif Kureshi, Anish Kapoor and Sylvie Guillem who have been foils for the speed and tension of his choreography.

In-I is his show with Juliette Binoche and it arrives with all the fanfare of an 'important' cultural event, but little of the substance.  It is, at times reminiscent of a drama school warm up, a celebrity reality TV show and an idea fumbled with gimmicks.

It's best to start with the narrative, as this gives an sense of the show and explains why so much of it is so thuddingly literal.  It begins with two chairs and the flickering back projection that reminds us of a movie theatre.  Binoche is a girl in a cinema, in case we needed reminding where we knew her from, and she is watching Fellini's Cassanova (which is a feat of endurance in itself), she notices a man, chases him down, they fuck, set up home, break up and fight.  The problem with this is that the thoroughly predictable amour fou requires a pantomime of voice-over and mime that is often comically leaden. 

The intial consumation with its hints of sex in various positions sees a switch in the plane of the action, the pair are vertical but light projected onto the back wall give the illusion of us having a God's eye view.  As they wake on a sunlit bed the trouble starts.

The next phase is an extended mine of domestic scenes, smoking, fucking, pissing, wiping.  The language is important, you sense a students (or conceptual artist's) excitement at low level shock as the pair mime their way through all the ciphers and clichés of an unravelling relationship.  It really, really looks like a drama class.  The piece finally breaks into a brief solo by Khan, recognisable in its speed and grace as his arms create frightening orbits around his body, the moment of abstraction and the relief from the narrative is welcome.

It is of course Juliette Binoche who is supposed to be the crowd-puller, and deny it as we might much of that appeal is the 'can she, can't she' spectacle of an actor dancing.  That celebrity dance show voyeurism is hugely distracting and whilst Binoche proves to be able one can't quite shake off the sense that the dancing isn't the thing, and that's why we have so much cloth eared narration and clownish mime.  There's a vast chasm between Binoche and the tensile dynamism of Khan's normal dancers, and that void is sadly apparent.

To say that there is nothing here to delight us in the work is churlish, the final duet approaches on the lyrical and there are moments of charm at the beginning.  However the heavy seriosity, the self-consciousness and the bad prose are hard to forgive.  This is disappointing as my tickets were bought months ago, months spent on tenterhooks.  Works like Kaash, zero degrees and Sacred Monsters have been among my favourite experiences in a theatre, but we ought not to judge a work on accumulated kudos.

It is a shame.

Some cultural collaborations are, like Ronald Biggs and The Sex Pistols or anyone with Bono are so  squirmingly pointless that they often transgress common decency.  Of course there are two clear causes why otherwise credible (and I exclude Bono from that description) artists.  The first is greed, the way the imagined spoils of a potential 'crossover' audience robs the artistic institutions that put these collaborations on robs them of their critical faculties.  The second is ego.  Just as George Bernard Shaw is reputed to have said, during a Hollywood meeting, "The trouble is, Mr Goldwyn, that you are only interested in art and I am only interested in money", 'popular' artists seek the patina of critical credibility of 'high culture' artists who, at the same time, seek the opiate of the others' fame.  

It isn't enough for Sydney to be grateful when graced by global names, in the interest of standards we have to be honest when we see the shark being jumped, even when it's by feet as starry as these.

Wednesday 11 February 2009

On Nebuchadnezzar on Fire Falling Over a Waterfall

The awe and pathos of fire over an Australian landscape might be too much for art at a time like this, raw and smouldering, enough nerves are on show that poeticizing it could verge on obscene.  

Arthur Boyd's 'Nebuchadnezzar on Fire Falling Over A Waterfall', in the AGNSW, is often on my mind, more so now than ever. It might be my favourite Australian painting, the one that I never leave the gallery without seeing, the one that I might willingly swap for the art on my walls.  Hypotheticals allow us to be frivolous, but the many layers of the painting, landscape, drama or allegory, mean that it could fill the space of meaning left by many others.  The scraggy surface, paint pulled and peeled, of those paperbarks, their bone white wood standing defiantly atop the escarpment from where the water falls place the scene in the outback. Between the trees the cataract breaks through in a spray of precious white water, the contrast rather than the solution to the Babylonian's blazing flight and above the bruised sunset is broken by a wound of red and white, Nebuchadnezzar's re-entry.  The surface glows like the Australian evening so that this could merely be glorious reportage, but its mythologised king signals something universal in his fall.  Nebuchadnezzar is surely not everyman but here he flies in flame between the earth and the sky, air and fire, between man and deity and in doing so he reminds us of what is glorious and vulnerable.

Genius is often found in detail, and the specific brush strokes of the very crowy crows that sit above the skyline, entirely blasé in their perfect birdieness, as they remain un-singed by the kings fiery descent give the painting its perfection.  Silent and unmoved the birds seem eternally weary of such folly and are the painting's raised eyebrow of a Greek chorus.  In fact they actually remind one of Auden's wry commentary in 'Musée des Beaux Arts', where Icarus plunges into the Mediterranean, 

"In Brueghel's Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away 
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may 
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry, 
But for him it was not an important failure"

Like Auden and Bruegel before him Boyd knows that the greatest part of human tragedy is that despite the promacy our own consciousness sometimes no one sees us fall and realising that opens a door on a particular kind of horror.

Boyd painted the work Nebuchadnezzar series in England between 1966 and 1968.  The burning flesh of Vietnam was at the front of his mind, and it might not be coincidence that here it is the king of our first great civilisation who rockets to the ground.  Whilst this is far too good a painting to easily accept a single metaphorical interpretation the folly of man set against eternal nature is never too far from the surface.  That leads to the second clear parallel, that of Icarus, the poster-boy for hubris thwarted.  Perhaps the Victorian bushfires make us that sense of futility before nature all the more acute, whilst we attempt to engineer the economy our very world engulfs us.  Icarus's death does not come without his momentary glory, he does indeed fly and that soaring is where the story crosses from cautionary to tragic.

The next time I'm in the Gallery again I know I will stop and spend some time with Nebuchadnezzar, the topography of his painted surface, that one red eye and that bloody crow mean that I will see more stories and more sunsets even as I wish that for once he never combusted but continued to ascend.

Monday 2 February 2009

On Degas at the NGA

Paint and ink have, so often, been used to conceal, dissimulate or persuade that one is almost jarred by the power of naked insight shown in the major retrospective,  'Degas: Master of French Art', at Canberra's NGA.  Degas is paradoxical in today's art world for, as we have fetishised an artist's milieu, personality and anecdotes, here is a painter who appeared to capture the most spontaneous and unguarded moments through endless and painstaking craft, a seeming anti-semite and misogynist who shows his respect for people through his realism.  Degas is a little complex for critics today, although tellingly popular.

The NGA's show is not encyclopedic, Degas was prolific and it's a testament to the quality here that without works like the Hermitage's 'Place de la Concorde' or the London National Gallery's 'Miss LaLa' the exhibition is still formidable.  The structure begins chronologically, opening with the sulky insolent self-portrait from 1857, where we meet his gaze for the first time.  Bold yet oblique that gaze was Degas' most formidable tool, he understood how vision, how we look at things, how the most important things aren't seen at the most obvious angle and how the eye is democratic if it is truthful.

In the recent times we have fetishised the idea of spontaneity in art, the smaller the distance and time between subject, painter and painting the supposedly greater its veracity.  This tendency can be directly attributed to the Impressionists and their 'en plein air' approach, the archetype for the 'natural' artist as romantic hero.  No one paints more vitally than Degas, in 'The Racecourse (Amateur jockeys close to the carriage)' he creates plane after plane of action that almost bulge out from the plane of the picture, a cropped carriage, a cut off horse fighting its rider for control and a top hatted gent who has to force himself into the bottom corner of the picture are immediately suggestive of how we experience a crowded race meet, a blur of stimulus our brains chase to keep up with.  Of course the pay-off here is that the canvas, begun in 1876 was only finished eleven years later.  No one cold ever accuse Degas of haste.  But this is what ought to make Degas great for us, he does not ask for his work to be judged on the circumstances of its making or the biography of its maker, he simply seeks to use his skill to show on canvas how the real world looks and makes us feel.  I think there can be few higher aims in art.

The breadth of work, if primarily limited to horse racing, the theatre, women at work (three of the 'themes' by which the work is arranged) and portraiture, is dizzying.  The oil paintings that are meticulous in their Velazquez like economy of effect, pastels that shimmer like daylight and the inky spontaneity of his monoprints show how Degas strove to match medium with affect.  Perhaps the most striking room is called 'Painterly Prints', composed of a significant sample of the monotypes where he demonstrated not only his spontaneity but an almost prescient eye for images that appear journalistic.  The process of monotyping requires that an artist work fast, whilst ink remains wet, and the sweeps and strokes recorded on paper are incredibly evocative of motion, light and atmosphere.  As striking are the seemingly haphazard compositions, irregular and asymetric, they are oddly cropped and sometimes the subjects are almost missed out of the picture or are a mere rumour in the inky dark.  This 'photographic' (and let us remember that Degas achieved these effects when photography was still overwhelmingly static and posed) are of course part of the character of Degas art, but in the blacks, greys and occasional startling gaslit whites of the monotypes we feel that we are looking at images captured urgent and true.

Degas command of the temporal, the captured moment whose significance is not always immediately obvious even to it participants comes back to his gaze.  What the eye just sees the mind spins stories around, and for each lurking silhouetted top hat or glance out of the frame of the painting we seek to assign significance.  This is part of Degas fascination, his narrative is compelling because it is almost always implied.

Whilst Degas was obviously consumed by the theatre and ballet he presents it to as not so much as spectacle than as microcosm.  We, the viewer, find ourselves backstage or in the wings, were we paying customers we would demand discounts because our sight lines are often obscured.  Even Degas' subjects are unsure where the spectacle is, in 'Ballet de 'Robert le Diable'' the member of the audience we focus on looks through opera glasses up and at a right angle to the plane of the stage, all human life is not to be seen there.  Clearly the play is not the thing, Degas shows us the innards, the boredom, the intrigue, the concentration and the distraction.  The accumulated message we hear might be 'if you look hard enough you will see behind this facade'.

It would be perverse not to mention 'Little dancer aged fourteen' as here it is set in the final room, spotlit in darkness and raised on a plinth.  What makes it extraordinary is that, despite this treatment she still retains a mix of vulnerability and snotty insolence.  The scale of the model is perfect, perhaps a little smaller than life size as such she demands our attention directly rather than becoming monumental or trivial.  The imperfections that mark Degas' making of her make her all the more affecting and perhaps this is why, as eerily familiar an image as she is, she never becomes banal.  Like so much else of Degas' work she appear poised to step out into our space as she has our consciousness.

Degas is one of the great painters of women.  We may question his relationship with them and their economic and social position at the time but it is women he gives the greatest compliment to, that of veracity.  His prostitutes exchange glances that speak volumes of the men they wait to serve, nudes are fleshy and honest in their self-posession and laundresses are afforded concentration, skill and composure.  'Woman Ironing (Blanchiseusse repassant)' is sharp and radical in its construction, reds and gauzy whites give the space an almost palpable humidity yet within it the veiled and bare armed the laundress is dignified in her composure.  We appear to glimpse women as best we can, they do not give themselves up to our view easily, even 'Mary Cassatt in the Louvre' will not deign to turn toward us.  Degas may not be the nicest painter of women, but he is an honest one.  If we find ourselves moved to pity, contempt or arousal it is not because the artist has loaded in contrived affect, it is because he has striven to find a moment and an image that is the most naked and humane, only that allows us to respond in such a directly emotional way.

The triumph of Degas is that he made art of a belief that each individual deserves not to be idealised or made gorgeous or noble but that the most beautiful is the most honest.  I think he shows that only by looking we might we understand, and that is why he still has the power to connect us with human truths and uncertainties today.

Sunday 1 February 2009

On Morphoses

There may never be many posts on Artkritique that concern dance.  Despite my fascination, indeed seduction, by contemporary dance I feel a lack of language, an absence of knowledge that places my experience and response in any kind of context.  Perhaps that's a good thing.

Morphoses, the company of superstar choreographer (as much as such a thing exists I suppose) Christopher Wheeldon arrived at the Sydney Festival with a critical fanfare as a saviour of modern dance.  Of course messiahs have an uncomfortable habit of turning out to be false, and in this case I failed to feel the get the religion.  The program was made up of four parts, the first 'Commedia' a work for the full company who appear as though ready for a Venetian masque, all primary cloaks, lace ruffs and harlequin lycra, to Stravinsky's 'Pulcinella Suite'.  The reference to the Commedia dell'Arte is only tutu deep and feels a little too pleased with itself.  This is the problem in a piece that felt too long, the ear to ear smiles of the dancers and the archness of pose make 'Commedia' feel like a camp pastiche, too knowing without being terribly smart, a candy confection dressed in a glib reference.  It was not a good start.

Had the second work been as arch I would have left at the interval, but luckily 'Slingerland Pas de Deux' was the most controlled and concentrated part of the evening, beautifully intimate and economical.  The piece emerges from the dark, a man and woman, in flesh toned costumes partially lit joined together in a penumbra.  As the woman weaves around the man their hands hardly part, their bodies often in tension a perfect counterpoint to one another.  If movement has a tone here it is an almost perfect echo the the profound ache of cello in Gavin Bryars' 'String Quartet Number One'.  This feels how most moving of dance feels, where muscle emotes and movement is eloquent the work is a perfect vignette of passion and need.

After the interval comes a piece called 'Distant Cries', again a duet.  Beginnning silently it strikes a more modern note.  Always graceful it evokes a private passion, of the unarticulated space between people and their efforts to cross it.  

The final piece, 'Fools Paradise' begins with a trio bathed in an expressionist cone of light and a dusting of petals, loose limbed and rapturous their movement is punctuated, like intakes of breath, by more rigid recognisably classical poses.  But this tender lyricism becomes increasingly portentous and fails to find its natural close.  In the end it feels terribly long and quite self indulgent.

The overwhelming sense one leaves with is that Wheeldon and his dancers are at their best in these smaller and more intimate pieces, the duets were highpoints.  There is something astonishing that can happen between a pair of dancers when light, sound and their bodies find the language of a moment.  Here they seem less arch and artful, the experience is direct and heady, perhaps the choreographer is liberated from the need to use all the toys and techniques at his disposal, and just reaches toward us with his art.