Blog – Reindeer Antiques – ongoing

I keep a blog at Reindeer Antiques on Kensington Church Street, discussing a wide variety of issues and subjects to do with the world of antiques and fine art collecting. Here is a recent entry:

William Robinson Leigh, Home, Sweet Home, 1932, (101 x 152 cm)

American Art Soars at Auction

Some of you may be reading about the recent sale of a painting made in 1932, by the American artist William Robinson Leigh, entitled ‘Home Sweet Home‘. In fact, the work, which sold for $1.195 million on the 5th November, beat the artist’s previous sale record and thrust his name further up the list of auction highlights for 2011. It also continues the growing trend for pre-war American landscape painters that reflects an all too tardy desire to understand and interrogate the turbulent history of the USA.

In ‘Home Sweet Home’, three people are depicted seated around a camp fire, a vast and flat blue-tinged horizon cutting through the image about two-thirds of the way up the canvas. The fire, burning bright and concentrated at the centre of the scene, is placed exactly between the hand of the native American on the left and the booted foot of the European cowboy on the right, signalling the stormy and violent relationship between the two peoples represented by these generalised archetypes. The third man, a sinisterly painted fool-like harmonica player, seems to interrupt the quiet reverie of this grouping and, like a buzzing mosquito, disturb the vast and over-arching peace of the American mid-west depicted beyond.

The rich and textured detail littering the foreground of the picture appears at first glance somewhat extraneous to the figuritive elements of the work. However, this too plays upon the relationships at stake in the image. A marked and dirty trunk, filled with modern tinned foods, lies open near a beautiful native American woven blanket. Here, the dichotomy between vernacular craft versus mass-production, or native versus settler, is depicted with clarity and poignancy. A wooden horse cradle lies across the blanket, its crossed-wood structure symbolic of a simple gravestone. I don’t think, given how dire was the reality for the native populations at the time of the work’s completion, that we’re left in any doubt as to who or what is being commemmorated. A modern steel pistol, holstered in plain view on the belt of the Indian man, puts a final stamp on the moral direction of the painting; For Leigh, it was the arrival of the nineteenth-century frontiersmen that introduced violence and death into the lives of the native peoples, not the other way round.

Far from being what the auction house’s Vice President describes as a ‘compelling story of camaraderie on the plains’, the work is filled with a taught and quivering tension that cuts to the underlying turbulence of the American past. Though regressive in its themes and ‘too little too late’, Leigh’s image alludes to the continual unrest of the frontier’s westward movement, and the near extinction of North America’s native populations as a result of the European invasion.

Matthew Reeves, November 2011

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Exhibition – Ron Haselden | A Series of Postcards – November 2011

I installed the most recent exhibition of Ron Haselden’s ongoing Series of Postcards, which included 99 postcard-sized photographic works in the William Road gallery of John McAslan and Partners, Architects in November 2011. I wrote the press release for the exhibition, as well as a short response to the works and space of display that followed in December 2011:

Ninety-nine photographic works printed in postcard format were arranged chronologically around the headquarters of John McAslan and Partners, a large architects’ firm located on William Road, just to the northwest of Euston station. The presence of so many works, each displayed on individual shelves, necessitated the clearing of a large section of the studios’ ground floor workspace, and the use of over twenty-five meters of almost continuous wall space. Set up like a canteen with long tables gridding and dividing the floor plan of the firm’s creative hub, the space was sparsely utilitarian. This suited the works acutely, as their plethoric details, which up to this point had only previously been exhibited in larger formats, were further concentrated and condensed down to actual postcard size. To accommodate the exhibition, architects’ models in the form of sliced cross-sections, multi-story elevations, or specific motifs and details of buildings past, present and future, were stacked and arranged in the front window. Juxtaposed with these minutely intricate models, and visible from outside through their semi-transparent structures, Haselden’s Postcards took on the air of stage sets; scaled-down theatrical mock-ups akin to cardboard cut outs and maquettes of larger compositions. This emphasized the artist’s already perceptible concern for the arranging process of his chosen imagery, and his receptiveness to hidden or unconventional subjects, from the frost on a wooden post to the tongue of a bee or the graffiti on a beached boat’s hull. Cutting, intersecting, overlaying, composing; light, darkness, colour, saturation, tone; movement, stasis, perspective, centre and periphery – all of the works grapple with these pushes and pulls, and never privilege one viewpoint of a given subject over any other. This is further manifested by the number of framed shots included in each composition, often as if placed together in haste and sitting uneasily within the white rectangle of the paper support. They offer a restless choreography, a ballet dance of flora and fauna, shapes, objects and atmospheric conditions. With some exceptions, and reflective of the artist’s home in the countryside of northern Brittany, they are nearly always taken outdoors on the artist’s daily walks, looking and moving away from the built environment. Thus they are in certain ways directly opposed to the immovability of architecture (and in particular the architects’ office in which they were displayed); they seek to frame nature instead, in its vicissitudinous and ever changing formations of light, heat etc. They do not attempt to contextualise motifs or sensory phenomena within any given environment (they are distinctly undogmatic), so much as get to grips with what effect those processes have on the viewing ‘I’. The arrangement of each postcard’s imagery is necessarily both a form of post-production, reacting to single shots, and a creative act in itself, instigating wider visual relationships between things caught in a succession of photographs.

The ninety-nine Postcards on view were standardized along a single line at eye level, strafing quick-fire across the long wall spaces. Occasionally, a specific colour might dominate, a hue standing out of one or other of the images, while care was taken to edit out particularly glaring differences in this regard. This further emphasized the collective nature of the series, while allowing subtle variations to create a visual rhythm across the works – a fluctuating ribbon of density and saturation – when seen from a distance. Within this wider focus on the material and colour properties of the series, relationships between subjects or the artist’s recurring interests could still be seen with clarity across the space, for example in the profusion of piercing light sources Haselden captures in several of the works. His unceasing experimentation with each postcard’s compositional arrangement could also be plotted. Often in a group of three or four works here and there, the artist has chosen to crop and enclose motifs within oval or circular frames, or else standard rectangular images would be tilted, staggered across the paper in diagonals and slanting grid patterns. These groups rose out of the series as moments of questioning how best to portray a particular object, or else what effect such framing devices might have on narrative and subjectivity. The works had a sculptural quality as well, held up on plinths and casting soft triangular shadows against the walls behind. They thus took on a physical and visual status they haven’t had previously when framed behind glass, bolstered by the rigid, continuous line of their viewing shelves and more prominently by their sheer collective number. Yet at the same time they retained a modesty and unpretentiousness characteristic of the artist’s work. They perched delicately, leaning against the studio’s walls in a way more akin to museum postcard racks than framed and formalized artworks in white cube spaces. In this, they succeeded in breaking such taut conventions, allowing democracy to creep back into the viewing process. Indeed, the invitation was to experience them as mementos as much as creative products, and though they appeared sequentially around the space, connections between disparate images continuously drew the viewer from image to image regardless of their order.

Are they purely photographs then, or do they form part of a wider process of looking, asking, and existing in the world? Like any postcard, they declare ‘I’ve been there’, and offer proof for an experience that may otherwise be lost with time or the failing of one’s memory. Crucially however, (and again like any postcard) they blur these experiences. Place and time are often left vague. Titles such as ‘First Light’ or ‘Dawn Watch’, depress such rigid details and give specificity instead to what the artist has seen in a series of moments, not where he was at the time, or what distance he covered to get there. Representation of light, dark, sunrise, dusk, cold, hot, steam, frost, moss, water and being wet; none of these would help him to be rescued if he got lost, but are nevertheless fundamental aspects of a very primal and phenomenological mapping process bound by the here and now. Even smells are alluded to by these material inculcations, in the repetitions of skin seen from every angle, allusions to birth and nurturing, or cool stone, earth, and the wind across a camera lens recording a motorbike traveling at speed. Both singularly and collectively, the Postcards’ blurring of real-time and location coincides with a heightened clarity of experience.

Matthew Reeves, December 2011.

Catalogue – Adam Bridgland | Munsterland biennial festival – September/October 2011

Below is a text on Adam Bridgland that I wrote in Summer 2011 for the catalogue of the Munsterland biennial festival in Germany, at which he was representing Great Britain:

Adam Bridgland’s practice encompasses a variety of media, from textile patches and printmaking to painting, photography and sculpture. While he started his career solely as a printmaker, he has recently been commissioned to create public pieces that vary from large-scale sculptural installations to painted murals incorporating an interactive, workshop-style process that redefines their finished appearance.

Since graduating from the Royal College of Art in 2006, Bridgland has used this diverse range of materials and working methods to pursue an incisive and often witty exploration of distinctively British sentiments, externalising the underlying sense of loss and nostalgia that permeates our memories. Vignettes of British back-packer’s holidays, old-fashioned bus-tours, and childhood seaside breaks that figure strongly in his visual repertoire are often tinged with this feeling of time having passed too quickly, our memories gradually fading. Twinned with this however, is an upbeat celebration of themes distilled from children’s colouring books, paint-by-numbers kits, old public transport posters and kitsch postcards, which he imbues with the kaleidoscopic richness of carefully chosen and thickly applied primary colours. These everyday, almost mundane subjects are treated with the importance and status of emblems; centred in each work and often encapsulated within related text or target-like circular borders that focus our gaze.

Key to the artist’s visual language is his incorporation of phrases that are optimistic about the strength of emotional bonds. For example, “I know you will take care of all the little things”, printed alongside the black vignette of a sailing ship, perfectly encapsulates the idea of companionship, of our appreciation and trust for what we leave behind and might return to. But while we may be consoled by this vindication of purpose and responsibility, our companion’s ship is nevertheless sailing away in search of new waters.

The tension between an act of leaving and the people and experiences that are left behind is particularly visible in his choice of imagery. Not only ships, but lighthouses, anchors, and birds in flight are all recurring themes; emblems of adventure and of our emotional approach to farewells. The silhouetted lighthouses and anchors that the artist uses for their allusions to weight and immovability – safety in a storm – are nevertheless historic aspects of society’s attempts to explore even the most dangerous parts of the world. Their ability to represent safety and danger simultaneously becomes tied to what Bridgland sees as the delicate volatility of relationships; whether between people, or towards specific places, events, and memories of moments passed.

His use of birds runs in a similar vein; they are icons both of optimism and of transience. A recent work depicting swallows darting across the surface of the paper are a profound example of this idea of flux. Blocked out graphically in black with red flashes to their heads, these birds are caught only fleetingly, beside the work’s seasonal proclamation ‘And then summer comes’; the image implicit with the understanding that they will leave as quickly as they arrive.

Bridgland also incorporates more humble images – a quaint English cottage, a makeshift tent, or a child’s watercolour set – that he sees as having a certain romantic stoicism about them. They are often paired with cinematic and melancholy reminiscences such as “And play those same sad notes on the piano” that allude to our attempts to fix cherished memories and give them a kind of tangible form. That we might have pounced upon a family moment, or spent hours bewitched by a sunset witnessed with a lover, are experiences that Bridgland explores in depth. Dreamy visions of a rose-tinted sky and the glistening of sunlight on water are caught in their fullest bloom in the primary colours and outlined forms present in works such as ‘Our Thames Sunset’.  In this case a bold and vividly coloured paint set is encircled by a phrase of personal possession ‘our Thames sunset, caught in a watercolour wash’. The cameo-like exaltation of such a scene is an attempt to anchor a shared experience.

Whether descriptive of change or constancy, Bridgland’s work keys into our desire to remember and relive, and plays upon our tendency to elevate our shared memories with the rose-tinted, wistful spectacles we don when thinking of the past, as well as the future. His depictions of identity and belonging, nostalgia and emotion give to his work a hugely personal aspect, and are influenced by a graphic and visual tradition that is quite specific to Britain. Yet his subtle combinations of image and related text play on everyone’s perceptions of shared occasions. Perhaps then it is the delicately précised power of the experiences he attempts to capture that make Bridgland’s work so accessible to all.

Matthew Reeves, June 2011

Exhibition – Cordelia Donohoe | The Little Hours – June/July 2011

I was delighted to organise and hang a solo exhibition of the work of Cordelia Donohoe, whose current project The Little Hours is so close to my own studies in Medieval and Renaissance artistic production. The show incorporated photographic and text-based collages using found as well as edited and adapted images from the artist’s archive.

Cordelia’s website

Catalogue raisonné – Lluís Barba – April 2011

I acted as writer and editor for the most recent catalogue raisonné of the Spanish artist Lluís Barba, a publication which coincided with Art Basel 2011 and included an extended text on the artist’s works (see below).

The Hay Wain, Lluis Barba, 2009, (200 x 300cm)

Life in the Limelight

It is very difficult to assess a system of values that might relate the art of Lluís Barba to any particular cultural or artistic tradition. Though his is not a straight satire of the socially reprehensible in the Hogarthian trend, the immediate brashness and vulgarity of his large-scale works can at first glance appear to stick two fingers up to ‘high art’, with all the stagnant hierarchies so ingrained in the canons of art history. His ‘interventions’ are vivid, bright, and colourful, with photos of tanned celebrities and acid-pink Jeff Koons sculptures populating their surfaces. They are also immensely playful, and Barba quite obviously revels in the brawling visual noise created by the myriad cut-outs of celebrities and politicos he has collected through the lens of his camera or from the likes of ‘Hello’ magazine. As a result, each work becomes a visual charnel house for the pornographic, the hackneyed and the in-your-face. A kind of modern day Last Judgment scene, where all are thrown together to consider their lot and be judged by us the viewers.

But beneath their initial power to shock, their substance runs in a deep vein, directed by careful observation and a subtle reverence towards exactly those aspects of modern life that Barba chooses to lampoon. Paris Hilton might be dressed to the nines, smiling at the camera, but she has to contend with images of bound prisoners, a MacDonald’s logo, and Robert Indiana’s Love. These dichotomies of savagery and celebrity, artistic homage and contemporary drama that play out across all of Barba’s works, reveal an intricate commentary on social and sexual politics, one that has its roots in an established visual tradition populated by the likes of Brueghel and Goya. Barba’s use of the Hay Wain by Hieronymous Bosch, reveals the similarities between his work and that of these mysterious Old Masters, as well as a profound respect for their iconic and often sinister masterpieces. In Barba’s version of the Hay Wain, lurid reproductions of animals, from Hirst’s first lamb in formaldehyde piece to Koons’ pink dog, fill the scene alongside the usual crowds, starlets and trolley dollies. The human element of the work is interspersed, cut up, and distorted by these bestial symbols; turned into a zoo, or a theatre for the absurd. His engagement here is with the surreality of our very existence – the absurdity of how we believe, and importantly, what we choose to believe in. A good example of this thought process is the artist’s assertion that “Kate Moss is as important to art history as Andy Warhol”. Here then, like Bosch, he explicitly intermingles the emblems of our cultured human society, and our strivings toward art and beauty, with the gritty noise of the everyday and our seemingly aimless pursuit for the next covetable idol. The relativity of our own social systems to those critiqued by artists such as Brueghel, Bosch and Goya hundreds of years ago, playfully unfolds before us in his imagined human spectacles.

During the manipulation process, the artist also takes pains to embed his amassed cornucopia of imagery within the surface of the background artworks. Like Magritte’s lady on horseback, figures are woven behind and into their surrounding environment, pulling all dimensions into one illusionistic landscape. This process of getting under the skin of Old Masters and other paintings, allows Barba to play with the reality of the image, and rearrange or draw out the meanings he interprets in their surfaces. He duplicates cropped figures from one work to the next, enlarging and repositioning to question relationships again. In so doing, he redefines the focus of these interventions, and importantly the artworks behind. They become variations of many parallel alternatives, where a melancholic figure, standing at a gramophone after committing a murder, can easily mean the same as Angelina Jolie’s fictional role as the gun-wielding heroine from Tomb Raider. Such surreality and flexibility of meaning attacks established dogmas concerning originality, the intransience of tradition, and the distance at which history is kept. Time is collapsed in his works, pulling everything together as bedfellows in our visual culture.

Barba critiques our understanding of culture without mercy. Our collective propensity to snap photographs of an attraction without really looking is highlighted as a process of touristic consumption over considered engagement. We imbibe art as much as food or film stars, he points out, and by snapping every angle of a particular artwork or object we claim some small dominion over what is being looked at within the frame. He explores this further through the inclusion of his own portrait in each image, often pictured with camera in hand. The fact that we see him pointing the lens at a nude from Magritte’s The Assassin – a dead corpse laid out on the table and the focus of the painting’s drama – is a cyclical engagement with the image as spectacle, and the artist as fellow consumer/creator. He is partaking in a visual tourism, whereby he himself is a spectacle as much as he is a viewer, laying claim to the image before him. He doesn’t work around the issue of looking, but confronts it directly, and the camera becomes both a tool like the painter’s brush, and an icon of consumption, brandished for us all to see. Barba isn’t giving up his role in the artistry he so profusely references, he is merely conceding to the dominant medium of this age. And where our distinctions between art and life become confused in this process of tourism, where a painting is a lost artifact as well as part of an everyday language, the art object itself becomes a central concern and a peripheral one simultaneously.

The inclusion of the artist’s own image is important in a historical sense as well. In many works of art from the European tradition of the last six or seven hundred years the artist as well as his patrons could easily be found somewhere in the image, usually as a bystander to the main drama of the scene, if not actually a part of it. By including his own portrait, Barba further delineates and questions his function in the creative/consumptive process – he is often in the middle of it all, for better or worse. The role of patron (as benefactor, as consumer, as supporter) is transposed onto the celebrities populating his work, as well as onto himself; like patrons they want to be seen. Importantly though, we the viewers are also given this role. We engage in the seeing and the being seen, and we become extensions of the scene playing out before us. Barba highlights the death of one religion (that of traditional devotional patronage in the times of Breughel et al.) and the birth of another, filled with unlikely icons and demagogues from our own times. We are the patrons of these idols’ celebrity status though, so we cannot claim innocence. We have given them their place in society, and their role as art objects is governed by our consumption of their lives. But perhaps the message is that religion changes more fluidly than this, that it is merely transferred through a slower process of diffusion over time? Is it a part of every age of humanity? In much the same way that Brueghel’s figures would have pointed out to their contemporary audience, these works are made up of us, and what we have done to our fellow man.

More recent works, such as The Persistence of Memory, and Dog Sleeping in the Shade of the Sea (both after Dali), have as their focus the notion of identity, in a manner that veers away from Barba’s other, more explicit references to status and celebrity. Again he populates a work with images of bodies, most of which are nudes (or naked? It depends on how you want to see them), but most of them look away from us, not as he has otherwise arranged in confrontational poses, or processing towards the viewer. With backs turned, their nudity/nakedness is covered by barcodes and patterning; society’s own order and adornments on the otherwise individual and idiosyncratic human body. These works are a quieter play with denial, individuality, and the viewer/object relationship. They comment on the tensions between private and public on a much more personal level, while their severe typological arrangement and the recognizable identities of the artworks behind draws a wider engagement with humanity in general.

Barba’s plethoric choice of imagery is as much homage as it is critique. The importance of Art in an age governed by global communication, the collapse of distance, and the instantaneousness of information, is expressed through almost infinite combinations; images within images within images. Though Barba’s treatment of those who have for him negatively influenced the modern world is as barbed as the images of hell in some of his favourite Old Masters, his constant reflections on his own visual surroundings, and his almost encyclopedic references to these other artists and artworks, help define his work as a more positive view of modern life than one might at first recognize. That’s not to say that he necessarily believes art will save the world, but we should consider his work as part of an ongoing engagement with the wealth of visual stimulus and artistic endeavor that surrounds us. Like a set of scales at the Last Judgment, or Bosch’s dreamscapes on humanity, Barba weighs up and lays bare our own part in this world. While we may think we’re immune to the process, he drags us into the melting pot along with the culturally rich and the socially profane he so willingly dissects.

                        Matthew Reeves, April 2011

Exhibition – Joshua Compston Archive Project – January/April 2011

In January, to mark the twentieth year of The Courtauld Institute’s East Wing exhibition series, I gathered together a large selection of archive material concerning the first East Wing show and the later independent activities of its curator, the late Joshua Compston. I am sincerely grateful to the Compston family for their support and kind gift of material to the East Wing archive. My thanks are also due to Sam Crabtree, David Taborn and Darren Coffield, who all made the exhibition a success with their individual support.

It is hoped that this body of material will continue to expand over the coming years as the efforts of Joshua Compston become further recognised and celebrated.

press release