Monday 27 July 2009

On Rising Tide @ MCA

Walking back out into the Saturday chaos of Circular Quay after seeing the MCA's Rising Tide, a selection of Australian video works from the permanent collection my other half and I discussed what we'd found most interesting. Our opinions were pretty near identical, and then she said "you know, there's just something really boring that happens when you give blokes a video camera". Here at least she's right. The stand-out works in the show are all by Australian women. Four at least are confident, thoughtful, clever and often moving, by contrast the men deliver pieces that are in turns glib, dim and unjustifiably pleased with themselves.

In creating pieces of disturbing beauty and tenderness Patricia Piccinini is second to none amongst Australian's working today. Here science fiction fusions of man, animal and machine allow her to make consider fundamental questions about our own place in the world. 'Sandman' (extended excerpts can be seen on her website HERE), her work here, is no exception. A twenty minute loop of video sees a woman, dressed in white, adrift on a swelling ocean. The camera bobs, almost floating alongside her as she swims inexpertly and stops, there is no shore, nothing to orientate oneself or swim to. From time to time she submerges, or allows herself to sink, and the camera follows her, and we slowly realise that she is happy underwater. Calmer as she sinks in to the amniotic fluid of the ocean we also notice that the lines on her neck might be gills. The extraordinary feature of Piccinini's work is that these fantasy elements never detract from the essentially human conditions she explores, 'Sandman' never becomes an essay on amphibians. Rather it explores our sense of comfort and acceptance, of dislocation and relief and does prove to have hidden depths.

In a room nearby Jess MacNeil's two pieces are gentle optical tricks that encourage us to meditate on our own place in time and space. In 'The Shape of Between' four shallow hulled rafts float on the Ganges, they disturb the water, or their occupants do with oars or poles. Despite all apparent effort they go nowhere, their relationship to one another changes very little although they may turn or rotate. The effect, delivered in the low contrast washed out colours of a watery dawn that might almost be the surface of a porcelain glaze is softly hallucinatory. Perhaps like a circle of Hindu incarnation their places are fixed, or maybe they are fortunate enough to suspend a perfect moment. The delicate stasis has a spiritual meditative aspect and soon the movement we expect has become redundant. Along the adjoining wall is a fixed projection of the steps of the Sydney Opera House, across the faces of which flicker slices of the shadows of passer by. The hint of presence in the trickles of shadow is extremely affecting. The steps might be a megalithic monument, we lap over them like time and leave barely a trace. In both of these pieces we get to ponder impermanence consider how we pass through the world and the marks we make.

Susan Norrie's five screen projection, 'Passenger' does little more than hint atmospherically but is no less powerful for that. Each screen shows a different non-narrative. A black and white rendering of what looks like tourist home movies or found documentary footage (but are actually shot for the piece). Our urge toward narrative helps fill the gaps in-between and we arrive at something that might be a human made apocalypse. Norrie's work can't help but remind you of Chris Marker or Andrei Tarkovsky's post apocalyptic landscapes. The figures masked in full bio-hazard suits cannot help but give the sense that something sinister is happening, we feel potential contagion is possible. Simply through intimation Norrie has created something as gripping as thriller.

If only for poe-faced need of their desperation to shock the Kingpins take the biscuit. Their ersatz superhero/joggers performing co-ordinated routines in a selection of Sydney's Starbucks are intended to subvert something or other, perhaps an idea of cultural homegeneity. The work is a shopping list of the tired and familiar counter cultural ironic appropriations. Of course the inescapable problem here is the sheer banality of the insight, neither Starbucks or the Seventies Aussie male (signified as ever by blonde moustache and mullet wig) are original subjects or devices. The funniest thing to watch is just how unshocked the punters, who are of course targets as well as observers in the Kingpin's somewhat confused anti-consumerist happening, in and around each café are by all this. They're staples of satiric parody and subsequently this has all the earnest humour and hackneyed insight of a Year Ten project.

The idea that certain works are of interest or value thanks to their transgressive properties might be the single most problematic notion in art. Unsurprisingly it's where the boys fall over most predictably too. TV Moore's Ned Kelly pastiches were probably more fun to make than watch whilst Todd McMillan's pointless time-lapse marathon is even accompanied by the probably unintentionally hilarious text "McMillan filmed himself for twelve hours—from dusk to dawn—facing towards the bleak ocean in search of enlightenment. However, in the end nothing was achieved; ultimately introspection and self reflection did not bring any answers or renewed wisdom". The problem is that artists appear to have a really very low threshold for what is actually startling. Placing video screens of a series of visual clichés on the floor and then surrounding them with crap isn't 'challenging' as Daniel Von Sturmer says, it's just silly. Much the same goes for Tony Schwensen's videos of himself making faces which have such a tenuous link to the claims of political commentary and social satire that are made in the accompanying blurb that they almost seem unnecessary. Opacity is not the same as challenge or profundity. The formal non-sequiturs and leaden ironies of some of these pieces exist only in the theoretical verbiage of the artist's statement. To claim shock value is of course a 'get out of jail free' card, it virtually denies the possibility of criticism which would, supposedly, validate the work. That of course is pure sophistry, these pieces aren't shocking they're just comically self-important. Shaun Gladwell's 'Tangara' does manage to at least be beautiful, although more out of urban gymnastic curiosity than anything else, but again I was left feeling that there was much less than met the eye to his work.

Kate Murphy's incredible piece 'Prayer of a Mother' is one of the most affecting video installations I have seen. Twice now , with a couple of years in between, I've sat through it and been moved to tears (that might have something to do with my own Irish mother). In the middle of a simple set up of five adjacent video screens a mother, whose fingers worry away at her rosary, details her habitual prayers for her family along with her hopes and fears for them. On either side, in medium close up and deep shadow, so only their faces shine bright a revolving cast of eight siblings listen, laugh, tease and cry. It's an extraordinary work made compelling as each of the, mostly adult, children reveal personalities and positions brought out by their response to their mother's mantra. Mum wishes them all the gift of faith and in a sense that's what we bestowed. The darkness that surrounds each cannot isolate them, their family resemblance and the love of their mother is a chain that links them all. This is, foremost a piece about the human face and is easily the equal to any of Bill Viola's studies of that (and, as much as I love Viola's work, it is far superior to some of the actorly mugging in 'The Passions'). That at any given time the sons and daughters can respond in such different ways not only intrigues us but also marks out the complexity and nuance of human emotion itself, only in fiction do we feel things in a single way.

The highlights of 'Rising Tide' are very good indeed, even if the boys seem determined to show off to the grown-ups rather too much. There is far too much talk of irony in the showy high concept pieces (and often they are no such thing) when the real irony here is that the opaque and theory heavy works come accompanied by such specific explanations that they take on specific and narrow meanings which stops them being very interesting. By contrast pieces like Piccinini's, MacNeil's, Murphy's and Norrie's need no explanation and yet can sustain and encourage a range of response and interpretation, making them both fascinating and powerful.

Saturday 25 July 2009

On William Kentridge @ Cockatoo Island

'I am not me, the horse is not mine', William Kentridge's complex and immersive installation of music and moving pictures was easily the most accomplished and memorable work in Sydney's 2008 Biennale. In that context it showed how humour and thoughtfulness can be infinitely more subsersive than leaden irony or confected shock. Installed once more in the peeling masonry of the skeleton of a toolshed on Sydney's Cockatoo Island it reminds us again how Kentridge is one of the major artists at work anywhere today.

Eight video projectors run separate and distinct animations in a derelict first floor room.
Light seeps in through cracks in floor boards and a soundtrack echoes about us, as though a kabaret band is trying to burst through the din of a workshop. Each projection moulds and presses itself onto the irregular surfaces of the building, here wrapping itself around a door frame, there taking on the colour and texture of crumbling brickwork. It is a work to wander within, there is much pleasure to be had working out how each projection is different, how each has its own internal logic and how those might interact with the adjacent piece. The whole work seems to possess the building, and fill it with ghosts.

Ostensibly Kentridge's subject is Soviet Russia of the 1930's. His animated collages shimmer in on top of the walls. In one the shadow of a commissar whirls like a cossack whilst on the adjacent screen a Malevich figure performs disjointed acrobatics. One of his sources is Nikolai Gogol's short story 'The Nose', a classic of absurdism. From Gogol one can draw a line to the magic realist response to the Soviet system that we find in writers like Milan Kundera. That line extends through Dimitri Shostakovich, who created an opera around the story and now to Kentridge himself. In the story a Tsarist official wakes to find his nose has not only taken on a life of its own, it has also reached a higher rank. We see the flight of an anthropomorphized nose on one of the screens, on another Eisenteinian collage and montage fleshes out the story. It is never quite narrative but the surrounding fragments have a cumulative effect whether you are familiar with the details of the source or not.

Many familiar Kentridge techniques and themes are here, the fluid charcoal animation that makes us feel the image is being drawn rather than projected, the processions of characters that might be in a parade or a 'dance of death' and the continual metamorphosis between people and objects. It is a rich visual spectacle that has more depth than usual, whilst sometimes the animations seems like shadowplays or cut-outs occasionally a flag might wave or a skirt swirl and the figures come off of the wall. That sense of the artist's hand is always there in Kentridge, his stop motion animation and draughtsman's hand give his work a expressive quality that prevent it from being mere polemic. The projection onto brickwork gives the constructivist geometries a rough vulnerability. It portends a future when their makers would find that the mechanical positivism of the revolution turn on them.

At one end of the room is a projection of extracts from the transcripts of the 1937 show trial of Nikolai Bukharin, a voice of humanist socialism within Stalin's regime. The extracts read like Ionesco but they are harder to laugh at, as we know that the trial ends, as it was always supposed to, in execution and the final silence of dissent. It is this that reminds us that the co-option of modernism by totalitarianism is a continual theme in the twentieth century and it makes Kentridge's work hover on the cusp between tragedy and farcical comedy.

There is something untidy and chaotic in Kentridge's work, this is more important than a stylistic glitch. Modernism was crushed under Stalin and it is in that context that we ought to remember how shameful the willing seduction of so many artists by totalitarian aesthetics is. The elimination of the human from art is every bit as sinister as it sounds. That's why there is something beautifully edifying in seeing that order stumble and smudged in Kentridge's projections.

'I am not me, the horse is not mine' might be the closest we come today to great history painting. Taking his cue from a particular moment in the past Kentridge speaks eloquently about the human condition and universal ideas, this might be 'The Raft of the Medusa' or 'The Oath of Claudius Civilis' in the way it brings illustrates the present with the past. Kentridge presents a case for humanism parcelled up in an history of the Russian avant garde, he persuades through presenting the beautiful messiness of mankind in the face of the sterile logic of ideology

Wednesday 15 July 2009

On Intensely Dutch @ AGNSW

I've often wondered whether the triumph Abstract Expressionism, the moment when America became the motive force of the art world, could only be possible in a country with such a relatively unheralded canon of painting. Did Picasso, Giacometti or De Chirico feel such a need to engage in the visual histories of their cultures that they could never abandon figuration entirely? What then of the Dutch? Their old masters have been so comprehensively identified with the social and economic particularities of a certain historical moment that they are an almost parallel history of a nation. It must be tough coming after the 'Golden Age'. "Intensely Dutch", a significant and quietly publicised retrospective of Dutch abstraction at AGNSW reminds us brilliantly that artistic traditions need not cripple later generations.

Domestic genre painting, watery landscapes, still life and memento mori, there are hints of all of these here. The psychic geographies and vivid landscapes of Corneille, that we meet on the way in, are a striking introduction. His paintings balance between big emphatic blocks of colour and ramshackle cellular forms that seem human in scale against them, as in 'Le Grand Voyage du Grand Soleil Rouge (The Big Red Sun's Voyage)'. It's easy to see how this was an influence on the work of John Olsen, although the palette here firmly sets us in a Northern city. Much of the work here is firmly rooted in emerging urban landscapes. While Corneille's shapes solidify out of blocks of colour Constant, in a number of works from a decade long project 'New Babylon' constructs a skeleton for an imaginary world, left an ambiguous mesh of lines for its inhabitants to flesh out.

The CoBrA group of painters and poets are at the core of this exhibition and named after the conflux of avant garde groups from Copenhagen, Brussels and Amsterdam, of course they had a manifesto:

"Our art is the art of a revolutionary period... and the herald of a new era... it is the expression of a life-force that is all the stronger for being resisted, and of considerable psychological significance in the struggle to establish a new society. ... a painting is not a composition of colour and line but an animal. a night, a scream, a human being, or all these things together"

For all the revolutionary blather it is interesting that CoBrA is not formally exclusive, like so many art movements, and is all the better for creating a broad church rather than an ideologically narrow sect. Willem de Kooning is the clearest bridge between American and European abstraction, he is also an inescapable influence here, particularly on Karel Appel, the other better known name here.

The historic moment that these works spring from might explain some of their vibrancy. Like the Nouvelle Vague of French cinema there is a sense of mischief at play here, the notion that, post-liberation, the way we connect with others matters. This might explain why so much of the work feels so different in tone from the solipsism of American abstraction. The collaborations here between painter and poet, notably and beautifully Constant and Jan Elburg's 'Het Uitzicht van de Duif' (The Prospect of the Dove) 1952, point toward an art that embraces rather than escapes from community, even as it addresses the dark shadow of post war Europe.

Other painters, Lucebert in particular, were accomplished poets in their own right. His work looks like it might have germinated from the memory of an earlier European expressionism but forged his own particular iconography. His twisted animal forms seem to be scratched out of some surrealist subconscious. The skull faced dog in 'Dierentemmer (Animal Tamer)' is immediately unsettling, it seems to have scratched itself onto the smeared concrete of the background . It seems entirely unlikely that this animal is ever brought to heel.

As you pass through the exhibition you are filled with a sense that so many of these artists have a joyous relationship with paint, with the possibilities its weight and texture and surface affords them. This physicality makes the show feel very immediate and relevant, it transforms an historical oddity into living breathing experience. Jaap Nanninga's matted surfaces almost suck the light from the bright gallery. Jan Wagemaker's big accretions of sandy calcified paint might be personal deserts or moonscapes. In works like 'Les Traces' 1962 half recognised objects and chalky paint appear to wrestle one another to break through the surface of Wagemaker's canvasses. Bram Bogart sculpts whole primary coloured reliefs out of paint, pulling and carving the works are solid blocks of paint which, like the giant yellow and white block of 'Daybreak' force the way off of the walls and into our space. Striking and vivid they might be artist's totems to the cult of pigment.

Like Gaugin, Miro and Picasso artists who seek to describe something more than physical surfaces have reached for primal imagery. Again and again we recognise human and animal forms, and each time they resonate deeply at the level of archetype. De Kooning's jagged teeth appear like some inner monster in both his and Karel Appel while Constant's 'L'Animal Sorcier (The Animal Sorcerer)' might be a cave painting or a the shadow of a voodoo rite. This embrace of the primitive is not stylistically novel, but makes perfect sense here. You get a sense throughout of artists using paint in an urgent rush to find a language for a new world, it is no surprise that they should look to the most basic prehistoric symbols in search of it.

There is something rude and untamed about 'Intensely Dutch'. Like Appel's ' De Wilde Jongen (The Wild Boy)' it is barely controlled somewhere between sinister and mischievous, abstract and figurative. The energy of paint and imagination overcomes the polite earnestness of mid-century dogma and makes this an exhilarating and revealing exhibition.

Monday 13 July 2009

On Double Take: Anne Landa Award @ AGNSW

The art world is a strange parallel universe where the thirty year old phenomenon of video is still a 'new media', which suggests a less cutting edge mentality than artists and galleristas would normally have us believe.  "Double Take: Anne Landa Award", currently showing at Sydney's AGNSW, collects single works from seven artists to a theme that claims to be something about alternative personas and, more fashionably, avatars.  Despite all the thematic verbiage the pieces that work best eschew the theoretical and communicate in direct and surprising ways.

Entering into a darkened room you come upon one of the highlights of the show, Cao Fei's "Whose Utopia".  This video in three acts is set in an Osram lightbulb factory in China's Pearl River Delta.  It begins capturing the visual rhythms of the production line, the fragility of the bulbs adds a sense of anxiety as each part of the process is recorded.  When people are introduced their concentration and dexterity is no less compelling, it seems fitting somehow that they should be helping to create light.  The titles of the last two acts, "Factory Fairytale" and "My Future is not a Dream" suggest something of the strength and defiance of the inner human against the monotony of work, but also the very real opportunities that progress can afford.  The most memorable part of the piece is the inter-cutting of workers in their lives as rock musician, ballet and traditional dancers.  The shooting and editing is no less matter of fact, a mid range fixed camera, than the static portraits of the workers, this is simply another side of the men and women with clipboards and overalls.

These people are the ghosts in the machine of the 'Made in China' label, they are working people recovered from facelessness.  The curatorial notes of shifting identities are far less interesting than what Cao Fei achieves.  The quiet dignity of the people she shows suggests a richness of inner life, something I hope we would find it easy to ascribe to western workers.  "Whose Utopia" is beautiful, respectful and affecting.

It's hard to be as generous to some of the other work here.  TV Moore's mess of vogueish installation gimmicks, recording and framing him stoned and hypnotised, feels like the fruits of an undergraduate's response to new found freedom and an art theory primer.   The Mangano sister's video, "Absence of Evidence", relies heavily on the novelty of their being twins and fails to rise above that slight sense of voyeurism we have as we watch them pass a stream of paper over a wall.

English artist Phil Collins has produced the most surprising work here.  "Dunia Tak Akan Mendengar" is a large screen video of a series of Indonesian fans of The Smiths performing karaoke versions of every track on the compilation album "The World Won't Listen".  By rights it should be awful, but it manages to be joyous and provocative.  The Smiths combined a musical catharsis with lyrics that might be the most acute and poetic articulation of the need for, and absence of, human contact in pop music.  Subsequently Smiths fans are, even twenty years after these songs were released, more like acolytes than consumers.  Watching these intense, funny, geeky, cool, sweet and angry kids sing in a language many struggle with is often incredibly moving.  

The beatnik couple singing "There is a Light That Never Goes Out" contrast with the angry girl singing "Rubber Ring", itself a hymn to the connective quality of pop music in a world that appears not to listen.  What is touching here is the varieties of expression of the need to express ones self using the words of another which capture ones own feelings so well.  I'm hardly an impartial witness, I grew up to the songs of The Smiths with all the fanatic identification I see here, that only heightens the sense of wonder I feel when generations and continents of space between us are erased in a three minute karaoke in front of a Grand Canyon backdrop.  Collins avoids kitsch condescension and captures something essential and tender.
The whole show suffers from a cramped space, works that are immersive or interactive aren't served brilliantly and some pieces are left outside the exhibition space.  Its best moments might be quite traditional, both Collins and Cao Fei produced single channel video works, but they are very good indeed.  

Sunday 5 July 2009

On John Brack @ NGV

Something curious happened when I saw the compelling and exhaustive John Brack retrospective at the Federation Square branch of the NGV.  I wasn't sure how I felt.  If there is a Brack canon the parts I knew were the big canvasses of urban life, at a time when men still wore hats, that were at once insightful and hymns to geometry.  There were the nudes too, the precise and concrete drawings and lithographs of women on chairs and rugs.  On either side of this body of work (which spans around thirty years) sits a set of early observational portraits that seem to seethe with disapproval and rooms full of vast canvasses of unstill lives, almost allegorical paintings of a world populated only by hyper-realistically rendered pencils and mannequins.  Between these it felt like the middle, my romance with Brack, were being stretched until it snapped.

What makes so much of Brack's work seductive is the immediate recognition we have that it comes from a world we know, even when half a century separates us.  Often he painted what might have been called genre pictures in an earlier age, rendering the domestic and commercial with a fine brush and a non-judgemental eye.  However there is always a highly formal element to Brack, it would be possible to believe he preferred the geometry of a face to the person behind it.  The early pictures are unsettling if you expect nothing more than well observed vignettes of modern life.

Pictures such as 'The Veil' and 'The Jockey and his Wife' smack of a traditional bohemian distaste for the lower-middle classes.  Lack of empathy is betrayed by rictus smiles and it is virtually impossible to imagine that these paintings are even neutral in their regard for their subject.  Perhaps it's typical of a young artist struggling to find a way, the representation of the pleasure of working class women has always been a decent litmus test of the attitude of male writers and artists, the harpy and the harridan are fairly common dramatis personae from this period, with the world on the edge of a consumer revolution.    Even in something quite beautiful, like 'The New House' you can't quite escape the fact that the echo of Van Eyck's 'Arnolfini Portrait' might be a not so sly form of mockery.  All of that said a couple of pictures ought not to destroy our reckoning of a career and the NGV is, at least, honest in letting us see Brack's development.

This, let us be generous and say, 'distance' infects some of Brack's best known works.  'Collins St. 5p.m.' is perhaps the best known painting of Melbourne.  Its two lines of shuffling commuters, on either side of the street remind us of nothing so much as the drones of 'Metropolis'.  Skin, fabric and masonry all assume variations of the same tone as these contemporary types leave for home.  We see into the nostrils of every woman and each man (with one exception) has the same Easter Island profile.  The artist often denies the individuality of the masses, here it's just very close to the surface.  The sense of men and women shaped by their surroundings is still interesting.  The visual puns and rhymes of 'Men's Wear' manage to do this without condemning a whole class to flock-like oblivion.  The folded cloth on the shelves echoes the mannequin's features and perhaps it is the artist who, reflected as a silhouette in the mirror, who thinks twice about stepping in and donning a new face.

Brack's masterful observations of the Australian physiognomy are one of those things that bring us closer to him.  He captures faces and types in ways that aren't always so harsh.  'Three of the Players' from 1953 is both a perfect expression of football card stereotypes and a virtual snapshot of the Aussie bloke.  It's in the sporting milieu that Brack, following Degas and Toulouse-Lautrec, seems to find a balance between caricature and respect.  His racecourse pictures are show jockeys with etched skin like nut kernels and a thousand subtleties in the posture and gesture of their 'connections'.  The figures in these pictures inhabit real space even though they are still strongly graphic.  Each is highly economical, shadow is virtually absent, but the angle between jockey and trainer in 'The Conference' speaks more eloquently than any facial expression might.

It might be that what Brack did best was use the music of angles and lines to underscore stories of the human.  The straight back in 'Nude with Two Chairs' speaks of a disciplined composure whilst his ballroom dancers live in a world of arcs and planes of colour, along which they glide.  This might be the key to Brack's art, his composition and line which initially appear mannered and artificial are simply precise analogues for very human feelings.  This is, of course, no less authentic than the impressionistic slashes and impasto that we accept as visualisation of the internal.  It's just a little less conventional.

If Brack is an artist of the suburban and the domestic then it is the images of his daughters that are most affecting.  'The Girls at School' could not present two more beautifully characterized children, one grimly determined another resignedly serene.  Each almost strangles a posy in their respective fists and seems to burst out of the two grids, one of brick the other of dress fabric, that they are squeezed between.  As with the small drypoint prints of first, second, third and fourth daughter Brack finds something individual in their physical natures that appears to suggest a character type, there's the eager determined one one cleaning her teeth and the sulky brave one refusing to cry.  Never does the stylisation of these drawings make them seem clinical.

Portraiture might see the best of Brack.  In 'Portrait of a Man (Fred Williams)' and 'Portrait of Tam Purves' Brack adopts a more naturalistic and fleshy realism bit never veers away from dramatic and angular composition.  These portraits (and there are many highlights from this part of Brack's work in the show) demonstrate him as absolutely the humane artist.  The way Williams sits, a wrist on one knee a palm on the other captures a restless energy you might not associate with a big man.  This is coupled with a mid-distance stare that looks at once distratcted and brooding.  It is a portrait of turmoil.  Brack may have had a talent for observation on a broad reportage scale but the idea that an artist can identify and render such physical subtlety without a deep empathy for an individual subject is stretching a point past breaking.

I will confess that much of the late work of Brack, after the mid 1980's leaves me cold.  Here he appears to have settled into a series of visual experiments that revolve around postcards, pencils (hundreds of them) and playing cards.  They are executed in exquisite illusionist detail but each carrys with it a a heavy handed symbolism that means they have little to offer other than a visual game.  It is a strange detour for the final work of such a powerful artist, and not necessarily an easy one.  One can't help thinking that these inanimate objects were just less troublesome than people.

John Brack's work is challenging for us on a number of levels.  At times it's clear that given the choice between paint or people Brack would reach for his brush every time.  Yet he is also an incredible observer of Australians, you need only walk down a street or board a bus and you will see his faces around you.  At his best Brack uses his angular forms to reduce the human down to the essential, at his worst he makes real people appear to be caricatures, it is the difference between the inner and outer levels of observation.  There is much to admire here and much more to stimulate, John Brack is a less easy artist to love than I imagined but a far more interesting one.