Monday 31 August 2009

On A Streetcar Named Desire @ STC

Tennessee Williams, Liv Ullman and Cate Blanchett. It's a recipe for gushy advertorial.

The Sydney Theatre Company have produced a starry version of Tennessee Williams's 'A Streetcar Named Desire' that comes rich in association and borrowed gravitas, but it is also sadly lacking in the crackle and ache that can make the play so great. Given the heat and noise, if not light, around this production that feels like a badly missed opportunity.

The New Orleans set is in the mode of naturalist-monumental, a slab of dark plaster weighs heavy over a strip of apartment like a storm cloud gathering. The symbolism is heavy but the topography of the stage really presents a problem. The action is stretched out along a thin cinemascope envelope of rundown apartment which places vast amounts of space between characters in a piece that explores what happens when they rub together. This diminishes the pressure cooker of history and emotion, people speak twenty feet away from one another, it's no wonder that their delivery is shouty and actorly, they might never hear one another otherwise.

Heat is absent here, as a by-product of friction one would imagine the stage on fire, particularly when the temperature is spoken of so often. There is a real lack of sweat, no veil of humidity that hangs in the air, it might be a warm day in Brooklyn. That climatic specificity isn't irrelevant, Blanche's delusion comes out of the South, the certainties of plantation life, of long gloves and mint juleps, exchanged for the market place of muscle and desire. Perhaps the real lack is of sweat as a fluid human response in a bizarrely unsexy performance. There's little chemistry here, the antagonisms around class or manners or bathroom tenure seem just that prosaic, there's no hint of sexual tension, no confused desire or erotic need. It makes for an oddly frigid type of desire

Joel Edgerton's Stanley lacks the feral muscularity it requires. In a play where class is one of the intertwining tracks the shape of Stanley is important, he is a working man. Edgerton is beefcake, his body a solid slab constructed for the gaze in a gym not from dynamic graft, he lacks motion or the potential for it and that denudes him of any sense of explosive threat. The ties that ought to bind in the play are between Stanley and Stella. Robin McLeavy might deliver the most rounded performance as Blanche's fleshier little sister, but she ends up looking oddly dislocated, a small island of nicely modulated and downplayed sanity amidst so much mugging.

I know that Cate Blanchett is practically a secular saint in Australia but that ought not blind us to what actually happens when she's onstage. Blanche is a pretty standard jumble of postbellum ladylike affectation, which can occasionally make it feel like we're watching a drag act. It doesn't serve the play well, even though it is possible to make a case for Blanche delivering lines with the flutter of hand on chest or over-enunciated sincerity when she is, after all, delusional. All these are a particular type of clichés, they're stage clichés and that's a very clumsy and convenient shorthand for Blanche's precarious affliction. Subsequently the monologue to Mitch, where she reveals the psychic degradation from which she attempts to shield herself, feels less like a catharsis or revelation than a piece of narcissistic special pleading. The swoons and flutters and gestures scream of a self-conscious craft, there's a direct line that goes back to people like Laurence Olivier, a kind of 'Look at me, I'm acting' acting. Maybe that's why she holds a high place in middlebrow hearts, she fulfills a desire for a very properly English type of Australian actor.

Something has killed the pace in Streetcar. It's not just that it's slow, although it is slow, really slow. All music and rhythm has been squeezed from the text as a single vocal characteristic, the impersonated Southern drawl (although Edgerton places his accent closer to Tony Soprano), takes precedence. The problem though is not slowness, it is the lack of variety in pace. Action and emotion can be signified by a means other than volume, here they are not. Pace requires a continuum, a scale that can be navigated, here the director gives us a series of binaries: loud or quiet, arch or histrionic, black or white. It's no wonder the direction feels leaden and lacks the subtlety required to deliver emotional complexity and subsequent satisfaction.

The idea behind any revival is that it might shed new light or benefit from the new light shed upon it. I wish this Streetcar had. It is a play pregnant with potential meaning, Blanche's sexualized delusion reminds one of something of the desperate battle between public and private hedonism and morality, Stanley and Stella's messy mutual need always aches away familiarly and the fragility of an individual in a time that isn't their own will always ring bells. Those facets, and so many others as yet uncut, are all aching and ambiguous things, they require a light touch and held breath to give them a chance to bloom in front of an audience.

And so the performance meanders slowly, heavy handedly and predictably to its climax of rape, breakdown and institutionalization. By this time it feels like going through the motions, lights get darker and shouts get louder because that's what people do when they're supposed to demonstrate extreme emotion. In the end it's all a bit simple minded and embarrassing, a streetcar named panto, and that can never be very good.

Tuesday 25 August 2009

On Printmaking in the age of Romanticism @ AGNSW

There's a blue and pumping vein of individualism that has run through the artistic movements that have left their mark most clearly on our culture. The Renaissance presented the objective truth of the individual at the centre of art it gave bodies the dignity of singularity. Abstract Expressionists claimed the ultimate ascendancy of the individual's interior world and painted its mucky birthing into the external. Romanticism bloomed with the celebration of subjectivity, our selves governed the world as we experienced it and its meaning comes from how we see it. At the Art Gallery of New South Wales's exhibition
'Printmaking in the Age of Romanticism' we see how a subjective view of the world, where the land and the elements become expressions of our inner selves, was also an attempt to make sense of life in an uncertain world.

At either end of this of the lush red walled space created for the exhibition is a reminder that romanticism had some of itsroots deep and dark in the revival of the gothic. In the first room William Blake wrenches the tombs of Westminster Abbey that he saw as a boy into sinuous life, whilst Fuseli lifts the curtain on a dark pre-Freudian life of English literature. At the end sits the Charles Meryon's 'Vampire' and the Paris Morgue. This look over the shoulder back to the awesome certainties of a medieval world came at a time of massive social and economic change, as the industrial revolution rolled out of the heart of England. Romanticism sat across a period where radical politics confronted economic upheaval. Subsequently it is far more complex than it is often presented. The gothic strain is less a nostalgia and more a search for precedent and universal values to apply to the present in the past. The nature worship and sublimity of landscape is an external echo of the power of humanity and imagination

Nature looms large (and there is always an awful lot of looming in Turner) and another key theme here is the romantic longing for the pastoral. William Blake uses Virgil's pastoral's as jumping off points for a series of minute stylized wood engravings that present a very English paradise. Edward Calvert's series of tiny jewel like images hark back to a mythical England, a pre-lapsarian innocence. 'The Chamber Idyll' is sgriking in its modesty and guileless eroticism. Framed by beams that almost provide a proscenium there is a tremendous sense of voyeurism as we see a woman undress for her lover, around are symbols of passion and fecundity. This small exquisitely engraved piece is worth the visit alone.

The work of William Blake is always at least fascinating. His line filled figures are like El Greco's, pure spirit captured in flesh whilst, even if his personal symbology is opaque to viewers today, its drama is undeniable. The selections hear from 'The Book of Job' represent him perfectly, bordered with text, some biblical, some his own composition they show an absolutely vital spiritual ques, a negotiation between the Old Testament and a personal visionary mythology. Job's story is of faith and patience in the face of Satan, this is a strong point of identification for Blake and the personal gives these enormous power. What is most striking here is Blake's technique, eschewing stippling or shading he works in pure line and this gives a dynamism that almost makes the paper twist and clench.

There is evidence of both the literary and the fantastic throughout the exhibition. These prints are often narrative, taking their subjects from the Pantheon of English literature Chaucer, Shakespeare and Milton. These often feel like the most dated and least compelling work (although we ought to remember that their narrative function means that success or otherwise can be achieved through different criteria than those we apply today). Fuseli's grotesqueries look like English literature's greatest hits. In rendering Shakespeare and Milton so vividly he renders it literal, and as a result it looks one dimensional, there are also oddly jarring moments, like the hilariously English looking Miranda in his Tempest picture His paintings, with their smokey blackness hide, and subsequently provoke, more. The Miltonian work of John Martin is similarly dramatic whilst being oddly unmoving. His hell looks like one designed by Albert Speer (and his Babylon cold be a collaboration between DW Griffith and Saddam Hussein) and the sheer blackness of the work shows us why we think of dark as inky. The problem with the deployment of typically romantic technique in these literal contexts is the loss of the power of suggestion, subsequently Fuseli and Martin feel like curiosities.

One of the most enjoyable parts of the show is the presentation of Turner's prints in their different states, in particular 'Dartmouth Cove' this is less of technical interest but a powerful example of the romantic ethic. The twin states of Turner's pastoral landscapes, in particular are an illustration of both technique and meaning. In the earlier etching his lines are crisp and descriptive, in the second state he applies a layer of darkness, that comes over like the dark forebodings of a coastal storm. It is more than meteorological, the darkness takes is a layer of meaning, the picnickers are threatened, Turner feels and sees turmoil. This is how landscape becomes personal and symbolic.

Print is a comparatively egalitarian art form, these images here could be disseminated widely and would have an enormous impact on visual culture. It is important to remember that so many of the artists of the period were politically committed and active and often the romantic themes of the historic and the pastoral were intrinsically linked to calls for natural justice to be restored or declarations of the dignity of working people. This political expression is most clearly visible in the endlessly inventive satires of Honoré Daumier. In the lithograph 'Bring Down The Curtain this Farce is Over' a Comédie Francaise clown is about to put and end to a parliamentary sitting. It's worth remembering when contemporary artists talk about transgression that in Paris in 1834 sedition was life-threatening and this period was bookended by two revolutions.

The exhibition is composed of French and English artists, which form the gallery's holdings this is a shame that the scope could not have been expanded with loans, the contrast between this present and German artists would have been interesting. Of course the one of the greatest artists of the period also was the supreme printmaker and it would have been a coup to bring in Goya's tortured, wry and pessimistic Spanish Romanticism into the mix. However there is extraordinary work here and it allows us to see how a movement developed in response to a changing world and used the resources of history and nature to try to assert man's place, it's a good story.

Thursday 13 August 2009

Barrie Kosky's Poppea @ Sydney Opera House

There is a tried and trusted shocking list of luvvy affectations that we are supposed to find challenging when we step within the environs of the theatre. Nudity (especially male), cannibalism, cunnilingus, general ugliness, the aesthetic of the Seventies (yes, they were shocking), Weimar Berlin, the mixture of popular and classical music, lots of fake blood and a bare stage. Barrie Kosky's Poppea has moments of aching beauty but collapses beneath an accretion of portentous stylistic devices.

This Poppea is a translation of Monteverdi's baroque opera from Italian into German, the score is stripped back and orchestrated for three cellos and a piano. In-between the operatic score Kosky has inserted Cole Porter songs, so the show begins with Barbara Spitz as Amor singing 'Love For Sale' in a lascivious growl hammily reminiscent of Marianne Faithful. The stage is set, the goddess of love is set up as being something more like a madame of a Weimar brothel.

The cast is small and pared to the essentials. We have the beehived and basqued Amor, a shambling Tom of Finland Ottone, an older afro fright wigged Ottavia, a heroin chic Nero, a birdlike Drusilla, a naked Seneca and Poppea herself, bedraggled in a gossamer shift dress, red eyed and metal teethed (why she's wearing braces or grilles I'm really not sure). It's all self-consciously ugly and reminds one of the dehumanized aesthetic of Fellini's late visions of Rome.

Kosky's arrangement is jazzy and tango tinged, the cellos can be rhythmic and raw and they underscore some occasionally beautiful vocal performances. Nero in particular is beautifully expressive whilst Ottone is sung pure and clean. The star of the show is Ruth Brauer-Kvam as Drusilla, who is played shifting between taut and neurotic and besotted and tender, often trembling on tiptoes as she sings. The second half opens with the cellists playing a neurotic glissando and with Ottavia outlining her plans for revenge, her cartoonish performance often descends into comedy it reminds us that the most effective moments are played straight.

There are moments when things come together, the death of Seneca, whom Nero convinces to take open his veins in the bath. It's a beautiful moment that segues clunkily into 'Anything Goes'. Moving between the two musical texts is a part of the problem with the piece as a whole. The Porter sings are used to highlight emotional turning points in the story, but they don't so much highlight as type in capitals and multiple explanation marks. The effect is desperately heavy handed and not nearly as clever as it seems to think it is.

Kosky says that he admires Monteverdi's lack of passing judgement on his characters. That's disingenuous. Judgement is passed here. Only Poppea and Nero are afforded the dignity of not being sent-up, the other characters are loaded with so many tics and so much gurning that characterisation turns pantomime in no time at all. Of course Poppea and Nero's amour fou is a staple in pantheon of a certain type of art that stretches from the surrealists to 'Natural Born Killers' and beyond, so it's unsurprising that they merit that kind of treatment. Melita Jurisic's Poppea is a problem of the piece. She appears desperate and ravaged, lank haired and metal mouthed like a junkie madwoman. This is should be a woman men kill for but here love is arbitrary and ugly. If that's a the point that's being made it feels more like trendy high-art nihilism than anything terribly insightful.

So much of Kosky's play is Brecht-lite. The trowelled on distancing effects don't make any didactic point, or even carry much emotional impact, they seem like a child showing off. Childish? Of course. It's no great stretch to think of theatricals as like infants who have learnt to say a naughty word. They shout 'bum' and, perhaps finding it amusing, we chide them, thus playing into their game of attention grabbing. Soon they become less charming, tedious even, and eventually they grow out of it.

Too many directors still want the grown-ups to tell them off. You can tell this because they press the same buttons repeatedly, if they were once shocking they're no longer surprising and that's a shame. Some of Poppea is beautiful, much more often it is embarrassingly predictable and riddled with clichés that are smugly titillating rather then radical.

Friday 7 August 2009

Ms. & Mr. @ Kaliman Gallery

Sometimes you walk into a gallery and things will look like they're trying so achingly hard to actually look like art, that almost by sheer force of will it might become art, or at least certain type of art you'd find in a certain type of gallery. When you walk into the Ms. & Mr. show at Sydney's Kaliman Gallery, 'There There Dear Future' you feel like you ought to tread carefully for fear that a stray critical concept might cause the work to self-immolate in the heat of its own high concept.
You know the show is very high concept indeed as it is branded as much as it is curated, it comes complete with its own logo which positions it as a past and future retrospective. The scene then is set, the concept will have something or other to do with time. There are six pieces in this show: three are naive splashes of watercolour; three are video works presented on mounted monitors, one of which is 'to be completed in 2024'. The videos are cased on one face of hollow triangular mounts that are mirrored inside, their power cables are similarly and ostentatiously wrapped in reflective gold tape. The over all effect is of low budget science-fiction meets middle-brow surrealism. In scale and achievement it's fair to say the show is slight.
The video works initially seem the most promising things on display. 'Retroactive Walk' is a looped modified and piece of found footage from the CERN Large Hadron Collider. It features a short excerpt of a couple in white lab coats walking down a corridor, the pace has been slowed to almost frame by frame speed so their movements become both hardly perceptible and hugely significant, watching we almost will them to walk. Around them colour pulses in the edges between objects, the focus is blurred out and the frame appears to shudder. The overall effect is to give a sense of science fiction ominous. The evocation is of the public information films of the 1960s, that proclaimed the glories of the white heat of technological progress, it's something that one sees regularly in art galleries nowadays. In its jittery monochrome it also hints at science fiction B-movies. Of course the ironic re-appropriation of past visions of the future is a pretty tired device, one that has become a staple of mainstream TV, let alone art.

The theme of 'Time collisions' gives all of this work both its common thread, the old is made new and presented in some kind of kitsch futuristic context. Thus the watercolours hung on the walls around are, apparently, childhood works re-purposed and worked over with a psychedelic wash. It's here that I run out of much to say, but that doesn't seem to be something that stops 'Ms. and Mr.'. Doodles in a school exercise book are as hard to comment on as they are to take seriously.
'Frame Drag' is diverting but all style. Again a video montage and remix creates an unsettling atmosphere which reveals far less than it promises. In this case a youthful 'Mr.' and an older 'Ms.' blow smoke at one another. The principle interest is the out of synch interaction between the two figures in the frame, they appear together but also very much apart, their movements run at different speeds. Aside from the conceit of splicing current and archival footage of a couple into the same frame it feels like it could have been an hommage to Twin Peaks. That the work is so reminiscent of a David Lynch film sums up a lot of what's wrong here.

'Ms. & Mr.' seem content with assuming the surface appearance of a lucky dip of familiar mainstream avant garde tics (it's an oxymoron but then that's what you end up with when a style becomes so dominant and yet still pretends to be dangerous and edgy). That means that any intended meaning is more or less solely conveyed through layers of statement and exegesis: the show is called "The There Anxious Future"; the works "time collisions"; they have titles like "2024, Preparations for space-time dilation and Her". There is generally an inverse correlation between the conceptual depth of a work and the level of collateral explanation that accompanies it, and that equation seems accurate here. But then as none of the ideas here are terribly novel perhaps it is fitting that they are clothed in borrowed cliché and maybe art as studiously dumb and self-referential as this is supposed to disappear up its own wormhole.

Sunday 2 August 2009

On Sam Leach @ Sullivan + Strumpf Fine Art

I have a weakness for the work of Sam Leach. His exquisitely crafted paintings are small chamber pieces of skill and concep. Their technical accomplishment and almost anachronistic naturalism lifts their conceptual questions to something far more poetic than most glib post-modern juxtapositions. His current show "The Next Billion Years" at Sullivan + Strumpf in Paddington blurs the line between machine and organism, whilst being perfectly clear in every other sense. Again and again nature sits, almost existentially, on the edge of an infinite silky blackness and its gaze back at us forms a series of questions.

When Leach is described as creating a pastiche of classic Dutch still life painting he is being damned by faint praise. What he actually does is approach the exquisite craft of that style of painting, which is more than the simple borrowing of tropes and reference. The technical virtuosity of this work is key to its success. Leach is able to create odd contradictions between surface and form precisely because he paints so well. To see the stealth fighter surfaces rendered in a feather light texture, that sensory disorientation, is exactly why these works are so powerful at a physical as well as conceptual level. These are much more than visual tricks, there are layers of ambiguity here, mirrors, shadows and echoes, that are realised through acute but restrained illusionistic detail, as a result they seduce and hint rather than harangue and smirk.

It is entirely right that Leach should choose Dutch still life as model to explore contradiction. The tension between the cornucopia of gold plate and hanging game is set at a counterpoint against human skulls in the classic 'vanitas', a mortal reminder. It's worth remembering that the original genre thrived just as the Dutch, with their East India Company, were at the crest of the first great wave of mercantile globalization and asking familiar questions about material success and spiritual sacrifice.

Leach's pictures demand to be seen in the flesh. His technique involves finishing each with a thick layer of perfectly clear gloss varnish. This has the effect of capturing light, each shines like a dark pool in moonligh. More disconcerting is the mirror like effect that this achieves, in the darker paintings one sees oneself. This is most evident in the, largely, monochrome paintings of scenes from an observatory or laborator. These might be frames from 1950s corporate documentaries, the scientists and technicians look just like scientists and technicians ought to. We see 'Something Very Important' happening, although we don't know what. At the same time we see ourselves reflected and that is an unsettling experience, we might be observing the observers as they plot a course for our future, but they're sealed securely on the other side of the resin and will never know.

Detail is supposed to be the home to both genius and the devil. Leach might render each hair and feather with prefect precision but he also allows darker more unsettling hints to intrude. This is nowhere more apparent than in 'Bigger Incision' where a pair of playtpus appear, at first sight, to be laughing almost anthropomorphically, one telling a joke, the other rolling on the floor. But the prone platypus has a slash cut through the pelt on it's belly, in the blackness a smear of red might be blood is the word 'animus', hinting at the malice in the garden or Jung's notion of the inner spirit that complements our persona and sits at the heart of creativity. The scene is all the more sinister for a hint of red dot in the eye of the standing platypus, a 'Terminator' marsupial.

In 'Butterfly Viewer' and 'Simulator' butterflies seem to provide the perfect symbol for something as light and unruly as magic or the human spirit. The specks of coloured pigment don't belong, they are like ghosts that crept into the machine before it was hermetically sealed, they might move beneath the glaze. That element of the random and wild looks very much like a sign of hope.

I was reminded very much of the myth of Icarus throughout this exhibition. Just as each morphing bird is reminiscent of the hanging bounty of Dutch game it is also, wings folded, plummeting to the earth. Icarus is the mythological predecessor to all of our scientists and inventors, his tale is one of hubris, it reminds us that we ought to keep sight of the earth even as we soar to the skies. The best known artistic rendition of Icarus is that of Pieter Bruegel, in the Musée des Beaux Arts in Brussels, there we think of man and the futility of the Greek's endeavour, now we feel that it is just as likely to end in collateral damage as an unheard splash.

There is a crystalline logic to Sam Leach's jewel like paintings, even occasionally to the point off feeling cold and forensic, that feels like intellectual enquiry in paint. Given his sheer level of technical ability these are remarkably restrained pieces, their modesty giving them gravity, but they are multi facetted and should be treasured as they reward viewing and contemplation in manifold ways.