Elizabeth Peyton ‘Live Forever’

Craig (1997)

Craig (1997) (Image from Whitechapel Gallery)

“Oh my God, I didn’t realise they were so SMALL!”

This was my first startled reaction on entering Gallery 8 in the Whitechapel Gallery, London.  I’d seen many reproductions of Elizabeth Peyton’s work, but none in the flesh.  The scale took me totally by surprise.  Most of the works are not much bigger than an A4 piece of paper, and most are on thick slabs of what looks like MDF, making them quite chunky and substantial objects despite their small scale.

The size meant you got right up close to them, like you would to a photograph.  Once there, these paintings pack a real punch.  It’s not just the dense bursts of colour – which have been aptly described as ‘jewelled’ by many commentators.  It’s also the dreamy beauty of her subjects.  She describes their features in loving detail – particularly the eyes, and her trademark red mouths.  The rest of the figures are dealt with in a much looser fashion with a few dabs of paint.  And fashion is an apt word here.  Many of her drawings and paintings resemble fashion illustration, with fine noses and hands carefully outlined and long legs stylistically posed.  Her paintings seem to owe much to drawing, despite the painterly brushstrokes and washy glazes which are allowed to run into each other. 

The small scale lends her paintings intimacy, but her subjects seem absorbed in their inner world, unaware of a viewer’s presence.  The paintings share with their source photographic material a sense of voyeurism – we are peeking in at someone’s more private and reflective moments.  In ‘Nick Reading Moby Dick’ (2003), a young man wearing a bright red jacket with red-white-blue pin striped shirt has a book open on his knee.  He does not appear to be reading at all – rather, he is staring into space, his bright blue eyes depicted in fine detail with the dark outer ring of the iris, and salmon-pink eyelids.  He seems composed, dreamy, lost in thought.  The bright red of his jacket is enhanced by the dark greens and browns of the parkland surrounding him, with a flash of lime green grass glimpsed through trees. 

Some people I felt I’d met before, such as the blonde girl in ‘Liz and Diana’ (2006) where the pinkish tip of the girl’s nose is somehow familiar and totally human.  As she sits curled up, writing in a book on her lap, I feel I must have seen her often in a library somewhere.

I came across one or two on a much larger scale (we are still only talking 2 or 3 feet here!) and in contrast to the tiny portraits I had become used to, I found these strangely overwhelming and much less intimate.  They seemed to dominate me, and I didn’t like the feeling much.  I also felt that the more recent seated portraits taken from life rather than from a photographic source strangely lacked life, appearing flatter, packing less colour and emotional charge, and seeming less real somehow than her photo-sourced images.  For me, this calls into question one of those ‘truisms’ I am so often faced with that the only ‘real’ paintings are those that are painted from life.

Peyton somehow manages to make all her subjects look beautiful, with their finely defined noses and upper lips, incredibly detailed eyes and eyelashes, and their flowing hair.  After spending a couple of hours greedily drinking them in, I left the gallery only to find that everyone I saw – and I mean everyone – looked beautiful.  So beautiful that I wanted to draw the faces that I saw on the tube, to capture their individuality and their beauty.  Now that is a gift.

Live Forever is on at the Whitechapel Gallery in London from 9 July until 20 September 2009.

(Review also posted on a-n Interface)

Paula Chambers – ‘Bottom Drawer’

Paula Chambers 'Mother Dear'

The shadows looming on the wall, like Boltanski’s shadow puppets, draw me into the back room of the gallery.  As I round the corner of the dimly lit room, I am greeted by a colourful flock of knitted toys flying out towards me.  They seem to be escaping from the bottom drawer of a chest that lurches to one side, reminiscent of Robert Gober’s tilted playpen.  The knitted toys form a motley crew, some quite new, and others very patched, worn and grubby.  We are in Paula Chambers’ ‘Bottom Drawer’ at South Square Gallery at Thornton, near Bradford. 

The installation is intended to reference both teenage pregnancy and the tradition of dowries.  Traditionally the bottom drawer is a place for a woman to store her clothes, linen, etc. in preparation for marriage.  Paula Chambers’ bottom drawer is beautifully lined and padded.  The lurching chest suggests a violent incident has occurred to tilt the status quo; the emerging flock of toys suggest a childhood rapidly escaping from its padded closet.  The drawer can also stand in for the soft warmth of the maternal body.  As with all of Chambers’ work, this piece has many layers of meaning. 

Back out in the main gallery space, there are a collection of works, all of which make some comment on maternity.  A pair of marble gloves joined with a rusting chain is anything but warm and comforting.  Next to them stand a pair of toddler-sized wellington boots, cast in concrete.  The title – ‘Not Waving but Drowning’ – illustrates the hopelessly inappropriate nature of the material.  The trials of motherhood are graphically illustrated by baby clothes painstakingly knitted in stinging nettle yarn.  The title ‘For the Love of God’ prompts me to think of hair shirts and other self-sacrificing rituals associated with Christian worship.  Another Christian reference is provided by a set of nine commemorative sipper cups, carefully crafted from porcelain (another hopelessly inappropriate material).  They stand solemnly in a row, their fronts marked with black crusade-type crosses, suggesting more of a memorial than commemoration.  For me, they evoke war cemeteries with their multiplicity of identical white tombstones.  The fact that these are toddlers’ sipping cups suggests loss of children connected in some way to religion – perhaps the multiple deaths of girls in those religions where boys are prized and girls expensive.

If you are in the area do drop in, as this is a thought provoking exhibition with a good dash of wit, and meticulously presented.  Apart from anything else, there is also a vegetarian café, which serves luscious salads and reassuringly large slabs of home-made quiche.  ‘Bottom Drawer’ is on at South Square Gallery from 2 – 31 May 2009.

Annette Messager – The Messengers

Annette Messager from 'Articulated-Disarticulated' 2001-2002‘The Messengers‘ is a retrospective exhibition covering four decades of work by the French artist Annette Messager.  It is also apparently the first major exhibition of her work in the UK. Messager works with simple materials and found objects, using the kind of stuff that most of us would have around in our homes.  The exhibition guide describes her work as questioning ‘the tacit rules of art and life: challenging the roles assigned to women; subverting identity; using unorthodox materials … taking as her sources popular and folk art, the rituals of daily living, mythology and fairytales’.

On entering the first room, I was faced with a huge batlike creature painted onto the wall, its face made up of distorted photographs of human features (and not all facial features either).  This creature was surrounded by other smaller creatures, also collages of photographic features and paint (‘Chimaeras’).  The effect was both comic and disturbing, which I found to be a common feature of the subsequent works.  In a corner of the same room was a collection of drawings entitled ‘The horrifying adventures of Annette Messager, Trickster’ which depicted various disturbing and often lurid situations encountered by a mythical adventuress.  These are entirely a work of fiction by the artist, as she says in the exhibition guide – “I never recount my real life; these are never my true stories.”

An intriguing work for me was ‘Children with their eyes scratched out’, in which she had framed several found photographs of babies and children, upon which she had scribbled out their eyes with pen.  Responding to the conventional cultural expectation that all women should want to be mothers, she collected these images to form her own imaginary album of ‘her child’.  The act of violently scratching out their eyes she describes as making them more ‘truly’ her child.  Arranged in circles around these images are smaller drawings made by the artist purporting to be drawings by this imaginary child, who likes to draw ‘Mummy’ as she goes about her daily life.  For me, this piece questioned an important and often unquestioned assumption (all women want children) in a way that is playful, whilst also disturbing and disrupting ideas of conventional ‘real life’.

In ‘My Vows’, one of the pieces which explains why the entire exhibition took 2 months to hang, at least a hundred framed fragments of body parts hang suspended from strings so that the overlapped fragments form a circle.  Close to, trying to make sense of these fragments to form a whole is an impossible and fruitless project, illustrating for me the the way identities are equally fragmented and often irreconcilable.  Yet from a distance, these fragments cohere into a perfect circle suspended in space.  The effect is striking, and illustrates for me the artist’s brilliance in displaying her work to fit the exhibition space.  This attention to detail and positioning the work within the space is consistently managed throughout the show, so that you walk away knowing that you have just seen exemplary work from a top-class artist.  Full marks also to the team at the Hayward – this exhibition must have taken a lot of work, and it does the gallery credit.

The show also contains some of her later work, which is on a much larger scale, filling rooms with theatrical installations such as the one in the Liverpool Biennial.  Filling one room, large cartoon-like replicas of body organs constructed from colourful parachute fabric inflate and deflate in a choreographed dance, to the sound of whirring fans and rustling fabric.  The effect was comic but also a bit creepy.  There must be a word for ‘comic macabre’, and whatever that word is, Messager does it well and consistently.  In another room, ‘Casino’ invites the viewer to sit down on a bench (very welcome, as I’d been on my feet a while by then) and watch as a sea of scarlet silk rolls through a door  into the room like a vibrant sea.   Lulled by the waves, you then become aware of lighted objects hidden beneath the ‘sea’, like an enchanted underwater town.  Periodically, an illuminated clock comes into view behind the red silk, glimpsed through the door at the back of the room, creating for me a sense of timelessness rather than a reminder of the demands of time.  The overall effect was hypnotic.

There was so much more that I could describe, but I’m hoping that if you are reading this and can get to London, you might be inspired to visit.  It is well worth the time, and I’d suggest taking half a day to do it justice.  It’s on at the Hayward until 25th May 2009.

Altermodern – Tate Triennial at Tate Britain

Installation view from 'Altermodern'

Picture from the BBC

 Altermodern showing at the Tate Britain until 26th April 2009 asks the question ‘What comes after post-modernism’?  Which is why I went to see it, despite being exhausted after visiting the thoroughly wonderful Annette Messager exhibition (of which more later).

There was enough there to keep me awake – even to get me excited.  The show is curated by Nicolas Bourriaud, who coined the term ‘Altermodern’ to describe how artists are responding to the globalised world in which we live.   He describes the exhibition as an ongoing dialogue, inviting the artists to respond to the question of what comes after post-modernism, and to the Altermodern manifesto .

Highlights for me included Charles Avery, who showed an installation of drawings positioned around the ‘Aleph Null Head’ sculpture shown above.  These are from his ongoing project ‘The Islanders’, in which he is creating an imaginary island through drawings, texts and objects, meticulously documenting  the islands topography, inhabitants, vegetation and creatures.  One beautiful drawing, confidently executed in pencil, ink and gouache, depicts strange dog/horse like creatures with bird legs who are in the process of catching and devouring seagulls.

In Loris Greaud’s installation ‘Tremors where forever (frequency of an image, white edit)’, a room is filled with white boxes on the floor, each with wires trailing into a perspex ‘control’ box in the centre of the room, where tiny lights flash on and off indicating some sort of activity.  As you walk into the room, you realise that parts of the floor vibrate beneath your feet, then the tremors stop again.  Intrigued, I turned to the page in the brochure, to find that the installation represents a 30 minute recording of the artist’s own brain activity.  The recorded brainwaves have been converted into electrical frequencies which are broadcast to the vibrators.  Thus as a viewer, I am physically experiencing the thoughts of the artist. 

Simon Starling’s ‘Three White Desks’ recreates an alleged story of Francis Bacon designing a desk for an Australian Writer.  The artist asks three cabinet makers to recreate the desk purely from a photograph, and the resulting desks are on display perched on top of the crates in which they arrived at the Tate gallery.  There is also a group of photographs ‘documenting the evidence’ of the original desk.    The brochure explains that Starling takes examples of early modernist design and ‘puts them through a process of transformation, relocation or manipulation, drawing out convoluted narratives about their fabrication and the network of relationships they embody.’  For me, it seemed like an ironic look at the way we construct ‘facts’ out of the fragmented stories of history, and try to recreate them as solid ‘truths’ together with all the paraphenalia of mock-ups, models, photographs and diagrams.  I wasn’t (and am still not) even sure that the original story about Bacon was true.  Even if it is, why pick on that story?  I liked it in the way it reminded me to question everything, take nothing at face value, and ask ‘why does the narrator/recreator want to convince us of this story?’

The most exciting video installation for me (and there was a lot of video in the exhibition) was Lindsay Seers’ ‘Extramission 6 (Black Maria), shown in a wooden house-type construction.  Whilst I didn’t see all of it (I do wish they would display running times on video installations), I saw enough to become entranced by the story of a woman who wanted to become a camera, and then a slide projector, told using the documentary strategy of ‘interviewing’ the friends and family of the afflicted woman, interspersed with clips of her performing her function as camera and then slide projector.  This loses a lot in translation, and really has to be viewed.

Whilst this wasn’t my favourite exhibition of the weekend trip, it did provide food for thought, and a glimpse of how artists are responding to the world beyond ‘post-modernism’.

Mythologies – Haunch of Venison Exhibition


Jamie Shovlin 'Family Album' installation view

Jamie Shovlin 'Family Album' installation view

For Mythologies, the Haunch of Venison have taken over a fantastic building at 6 Burlington Gardens in London.  This used to be the Museum of Mankind, housing the British Museum’s ethnographic collections from 1970 to 1998.  Responding to the history of the building, Mythologies turns the whole building into a kind of Cabinet of Curiosities, using the paraphanelia of the ethnographic museum to re-present and reflect on the stories of our lives.  Wandering around the exhibition, I was encouraged to peek into spaces, gasp at detail, wonder at the inexplicable and make up my own stories.

Highlights for me included Jamie Shovlin’s ‘Family Album’, a dark room containing a wooden crate in one corner; in another corner an overturned vintage Pampers box with junk spilling out, lit up by a clicking slide projector; and some shelves above head-hight with more vintage ‘junk’ piled around a box.  I wandered around them in the dim light, wondering what stories the various items could tell.  Then I noticed light shining out from a slit at the bottom of the Pampers box, and I wondered whether I could see in.  The picture is what I saw – a tiny, jumbled bedroom, looking as if someone had just left the room.  It reminded me of Tracey Emin’s bed in its dishevelledness, and in my feelings of intruding.  On further exploration, I found lights shining out of tiny corners in the crate and in the box on the shelf, both of which revealled tiny interiors, dimly lit and dreamlike, or more like something out of a horror movie (an impression further enhanced by fragments of a movie soundtrack playing in the background, and by the click of the slide projector).  It was entrancing, but also disturbing.

Also entrancing, but in a different way, was Tim Noble and Sue Webster’s ‘Wall of Shame’.  On a plain white wall, etched white brass cut-out shapes like paper cut-outs hung suspended from nickel wires.  A light projector on the floor, slightly to the side of the hangings, cast a light across the wall, casting shadows.  The effect was to make the brass plates almost invisible, throwing the focus onto the shadows which looked like drawings on the wall.  Some were sketchy, some were very graphic.  Little scribbled figures cast their own shadow in the ‘drawing’, literally drawing attention to the process of their making.

Then there was Polly Morgan’s ‘Carrion Call’ – a battered wooden coffin, which from a distance appeared to have barnicles or fungus growing from various crevices.  On closer inspection, these resolved themselves into tiny hen chicks, beaks open, clamouring to get out.

Almost everything in the exhibition stimulated some sort of wonder, and I was particularly spellbound by Bill Viola’s ‘Incarnation’, a video portrait in which a naked man and woman walk towards us, viewed in a kind of fuzzy focus as if the channel was not properly tuned.  One of the figures puts out a hand towards us, and a flow of water breaks around their hand.  In slow motion, their bodies move towards us through a wall of breaking water, until they stand before us naked, vulnerable and dripping.  As they meet our eyes, we feel we are intruding, and become hyper aware of their discomfort at our gaze.  It spoke to me of Adam and Eve, the way we survey each other, and of our own vulnerability.

I won’t spoil any more suprises.  If you possibly can, go and see this exhibition for yourself.  It’s on until 25th April 2009, and it’s FREE!

Subversive Spaces at the Whitworth, Manchester

Lucy Gunning 'Climbing around my room'The Subversive Spaces exhibition now showing at the Whitworth Gallery in Manchester explores what lies below the surface of our everyday spaces.  Cosy domestic interiors become places of considerable unease, whilst city streets become places of escape, dreamscape, and hidden landscape.  The works on display show connections between the early Surrealist artists such as Andre Breton, and contemporary artists such as Sarah Lucas.  An upended sofa treads on the body of a mannekin upon which is projected the face of a woman telling us ‘it’s so beautiful’ (Tony Oursler ‘The Most Beautiful Thing I have Never Seen’).  Perhaps this alludes to women’s insistence, particularly in the past, on presenting an outward appearance of everything being just great in the home, even though the domesticity of cooking, cleaning, and childminding weighs them down.  A video piece (pictured) shows a woman literally ‘climbing the walls’ of her room, illustrating the potentially stifling experience of being a woman confined and voiceless to the domestic spaces of the home.  Mona Hatoum’s steel cot with a bed of thin wires hints at the violence of feelings in childcare.  The Surrealists wanted to bring out the hidden narratives of our everyday living spaces, interior and exterior, and this is being continued by contemporary artists.

The exhibition also includes ‘Kinderzimmer’ by Gregor Schneider, which has been specially commissioned, and apparently contains a replica of a child’s nursery from a German town that was destroyed to create an open cast mine.  Unfortunately I was unable to view it, as it has to be viewed one person at a time, and all the tickets had gone (in fact the last one went to the person in front of me – damn!)  So if you do visit, go early and go straight to the entrance to the ‘Kinderzimmer’ and get your ticket to avoid disappointment.

For my friends (and any readers) living around Warwickshire, this exhibtion will be moving to Compton Verney, showing from 13 June – 6 September 2009.

Baby, Picturing the ideal human 1840s-Now

The National Media Museum in Bradford has just opened a new exhibition exploring how babies have been represented through photography.  Given my current interest in family snapshots and childhood photographs, I found it a fascinating exhibition.  It showed how many of our images of children are ‘idealised’ – from Victorian times when any photograph had to present the baby perfectly dressed and presented – to today’s glossy images of celebrities with baby-accessory.  Images of the Royal Family showed how these formal photographs created a ‘template’ for other families to use when photographing their own families.  There were images of babies displayed in ‘baby pageants’ wearing frocks and swimsuits costing hundreds of dollars, and most disturbingly of all, photo-enhanced to ‘pluck’ eyebrows and add lipstick.  All of this was offset by some wonderful examples of photo-realism, pictures taken in photo-documentary style and showing families bringing children up in extreme poverty, as well as photographs of new mothers standing in hospital corridors with their tiny purple babies, looking honest and amazing but not at all cute.

All in all well worth a visit if you are in the area.  The website has some images from the exhibition as a taster.

Richard Wheater – ‘Them and Us’

Richard William Wheater 'Them and Us'

Richard Wheater  is an artist working in glass, exploring our relationship with the natural environment.  We went to the private view of his installation ‘Them and Us’ on Saturday at Dean Clough galleries  in Halifax.  Over a period of several months, Wheater travelled around the UK with a mobile glass furnace.  For each location he worked in, he made a number of glass birds relevant to that location (e.g. Sparrows in Sheffield).  At dawn, on location, he created his glass birds and then released them into the sky.  Needless to say they came crashing back to earth.  The installation consisted of several large format photographs of these events, some displayed in light boxes; the much-travelled furnace; and a few glass birds (mostly broken).

I found it remarkably moving.  Wheater ‘released’ the birds just as you would a real bird, and in the photographs the glass birds were caught in flight above his up-stretched arms.  Although I knew the project was doomed to failure, I still wanted them to fly.  I felt that the artist’s act was one of humbleness and respect for nature.  Although he could make these beautiful glass birds, they were not a patch on the real thing.  It was also, for me, literally a ‘letting go’.  As an artist, we make too much stuff.  As people, we hoard too many possessions.  It is the making, the creative act of living, that is important.  For Wheater, it is also a political comment on the collapse of industries such as glass in the UK, as companies source cheap imports from abroad.

Liverpool Biennial 2008

The Liverpool Biennial visitor centre is housed in the foyer of an old cinema, and is the start of a trail of specially commissioned site specific artworks across the city.  The first of these is by Annette Messager, and is housed within the old cinema auditorium.  We were conducted through the doors by an attendant with a torch, and plunged into almost-darkness.  It smelled damp and musty.  There was a whirring sound, reminiscent of the film projector.  Spilling out from the stage in front of us was a collection of inflatable figures, dimly lit from within.  Their surfaces were covered with what looked like maps of the world.  One of them seemed to droop over the edge of the stage area.  Above them dangled a skeleton’s torso and head, with a beak-like protrusion on its nose.  Attached to the skeleton by puppet-strings were black skeletal hands and feet, seemingly groping at the globe-like figures below. 

Beside us, a black shroud billowed across the seating area, with occasional glimpses of the dimly lit seats beneath it, evoking long-absent cinema-goers.  A fan hummed as air inflated the black cloth over the seats.  I was reminded of those childlike amusements which are also grotesque – inflatable santas and cruel puppets.

A complete contrast was provided by Yoko Ono’s Skyladders for Liverpool, set in the bombed out interior of St Luke’s church.  This space, which now contains gardens and musical instruments created out of ‘junk’, has been filled with ladders donated by members of the public.  Each ladder has a label tied to it with a message from the donor.  Many of these are tributes or remembrances, in keeping with the setting and with the symbolism of the ladders – enabling us to get closer to the sky.  The sounds of the instruments – bells and drums – added to the special atmosphere, as did the sun slanting through the remains of the window frames.

We also found time for a number of gallery visits, including the John Moores 25 painting exhibition, the Bluecoat Gallery (I strongly recommend the Sarah Sze installation), and of course the Tate.  The Made Up exhibition at the Tate had some rich and thought provoking contemporary painting and drawing, well worth the entrance fee.

Annelies Strba at the Bronte Parsonage Museum

Yesterday morning, a friend took me up to the Bronte Parsonage Museum to see an exhibition by Annelies Strba.   Strba had produced a series of haunting images in response to the Brontes and their home.  The images are digitally manipulated photographs of her daughters and granddaughters (I believe), and they have a fairy tale quality to them.  They are displayed on small canvases, carefully placed throughout the rooms of the museum, as if they were objects that could have been owned by the Brontes.  I found that these small, luminous images added a feminine spirit to the rooms, as if they were the spirits of the Bronte girls themselves.  In fact, I think they represent dreams – actually, Strba’s dreams but they could be the dreams of poor Emily Bronte who died on the sofa in the house.  The story of the Brontes is actually quite sad – the last remaining daughter, Charlotte, was only 38 when she died in childbirth – a death tragically prophesied by her Father who didn’t want her to marry her curate husband as he was afraid he would kill her.  Some of Strba’s pictures are quite dark, possibly in response.  Others explore feminine experience in quite an imaginative way, particularly one positioned over one of Branwell’s paintings of Madonna and Child, which I think explores what Mary’s actual experience might have been. 

Overall, an extremely rewarding exhibition, and I would definitely recommend a visit.  It’s on until 31 October this year.