Do pick up a copy of the January – February 2014 edition of Art in Print, which includes Adam Bridgland’s 2013 portfolio TREASURE in its Selected New Editions section.
Adam and I worked on this portfolio, which reuses and reworks reclaimed photographs and postcard imagery from across the twentieth century, for the artist’s solo exhibition at the Idea Store, Whitechapel, last summer, and it was soon after acquired by the department of Prints and Drawings at the British Museum, London.
The contraposition inherent to death and memory are beautifully and modestly recorded by W. G. Sebald, who speaks of the lost tangibility of past civilization, and the concurrent weight of this loss upon the living individual in his remarkable book Austerlitz. As he walks down through the concrete tomb-like spaces of the Breendonk fortress in Belgium;
‘the darkness does not lift but becomes yet heavier as I think how little we can hold in mind, how everything is constantly lapsing into oblivion with every extinguished life, how the world is, as it were, draining itself, in that the history of countless places and objects which themselves have no power of memory is never heard, never described or passed on.’
Where Harold Clunn and his generation of Brutalism-empowered socialists discussed the optimism and potential of new urban systems, out of which more life could be sustained and supported, and in greater conditions, Sebald, and Benjamin as well in his way, suggests that all of this progress serves only to aid the process of recovering from/forgetting past realities. By thus forgetting, our collective ability to learn from the dead, or more importantly, to allow their histories to sound, is kept present only by a minority, including certain artists and writers, who shun this understanding of progress and who seek to return to the individual through a kind of anthropological and phenomenological salvage, digging at the hard stuffs of the made world or landschap, to reconstruct pasts as real and as fundamental as our own.
Gagosian’s Britannia Street gallery has mounted an intimate selection of the late Cy Twombly’s last paintings, alongside a survey of the artist’s photographs from the past seven decades.
Eight untitled paintings, all of the same large, portrait format, regurgitate variations of acid-toned swirls over a uniform green ground. Their corkscrews of colour record the action of an arm circling at the elbow, looping red on yellow from left to right across each plywood panel. Occasionally, overpainted arcs of either colour redraw elements so that no single passage ever dominates. Grouped together, they reverberate hotly across the space, and though individually they hum with polychromatic intensity, it is serially that they work to their full potential. ‘Drips’, ‘drizzles’, neither word adequately describes the fall of paint from their burning, brushed-on swathes, rippling down the panels with disturbance, violence, and urgency. They are related to the Camino Real series that inaugurated Gagosian’s Paris gallery in 2010, a group of works linked to Tennessee William’s 1953 play of the same name, concerned with aging, artistic courage, and the atrophy of dreams. Twombly’s dynamo-like explosions of red and yellow have much the same climactic quality, always grating from the inside out, and spinning with a kind of fatal velocity.
Every so often, near the top of each work, where the colours filter out to cleaner lines against the green behind, letters loom into view – ‘a’ or ‘e’ perhaps – maybe even a word – ‘read’ or ‘greed’. At the point of becoming recognisable, these scrawling phrases seem immediately to scramble before your eyes, pulsing in and out of focus and blending together as parts of an overarching, abstracted language. Perhaps Twombly felt his paintings could no longer be communicated through anything but pure colour. Many artists turn to broad brushstrokes in their late surges, removing all but the vital, immediate man-made mark in time. Certainly, those definable, mythologically imbued, or sexually charged words and names visible in many of Twombly’s earlier series are absent here. In their final move to abstraction, they are more like Albert Irvin’s canvases, though that artist is not producing anything nearly as potent a symbol of abstract colour as Twombly could in these last works, pregnant as they are with colours humming in tension.
Just as enticing for me are Twombly’s photographs, displayed in an adjacent space. They touch where, in my mind, the paintings cannot. Many of them record Twombly’s sculpted works, the act of sculpting in plaster, and the resultant objects in transition, affirming such processes through a medium at once instant, intimate, and distant, impartial, and mediating of their subjects. They observe spilt plaster, mounds of material and pseudo-plinths, building blocks of his sculptural style scrutinised in great depth. They are private images most of them, like Medardo Rosso’s studio shots; part of a process of assimilating and qualifying the sculptures by interrogating them through a lens. Can the objects they record stand up on their own? Are they of sufficient force? This is a fascinating strain to, and ability of, the photographic medium, and one which Twombly obviously felt very keenly indeed. These shots took time to develop of course, and as such also speak of that cooling off period after something is made, cast, or poured; they capture that precious gap between frenzied creation and the final, cold editing process.
Like many of Twombly’s paintings, particularly series overtly concerned with life and death such as the remarkable Fifty Days at Iliam, these photographs also express the temperament of an artist at home with death. Indeed, it seems as if, for Twombly, whatever subject appeared in each photograph was being judged on its ability to succeed or fail, live or die, as an object first and foremost. Gravestones and memorials, columns, flowers, or people – it didn’t matter to him, one senses. One of the more self-consciously posed images in the selection appears in the gallery’s grouping of early works. In it, a boy sits alongside a columnar plinth supporting a large marble bust above. Heightened exposure has caused tones to essentialise, and the boy’s form and planted chair legs serve to balance the monument beside him in binary opposition; light and dark, dead and living. Much of the bust is turned black (though it sits only in soft shadows), and the hard light hitting its back tears the stone in two in midair. It is clear from such an image that Twombly’s preoccupation with the essence of form and tone, a concept carried through to the very last works he made in every medium, was hatched from the very beginning, inbuilt and untaught.
Having suggested the elisions between Twombly’s chosen media, his photographs do serve to corroborate and explain the paintings. When chromatic qualities are at the forefront of the artist’s mind, focus is often compromised. Where colour is absent, the focus is pin-point, precise, and hard. However, the two are never far from each other, and each image appears to be permanently and precariously on the cusp of change. Alongside this, Twombly’s photos dip into colour with an acute feeling for what the subject communicates about forms in the moment of flowering, of vitality. As with a series of stunning sky-scapes, in which azurite skies hang between clusters of black canopic branches, where colour is used in the photographs it is simultaneously cool, yet full of the density and emotional redolence of the pigments that mark his paintings.
This is a well-considered selection of works, entirely suited to a farewell celebration. Moreover, the paintings and photographs gain strength from groupings not often available in museological contexts. The exhibition’s dedication to Twombly’s incisive powers of observation make it difficult to talk of an artist who is now dead, for in these works he feels very much alive, still scrutinizing and critical, still active in the sweep of each brushstroke. Even so, it is both fitting and fortuitous that on the return journey from the show’s opening, as I stood on Regents canal looking West, there was a London sunset of magnificent and searing beauty. It was heavy, laden with the pigments of atmospheric pollution, of light caught in an almost tangible state, with clouds, whole skies, on fire above the earth. More in the present tense, and of course infinitely more egalitarian than an exhibition at Gagosian, it was a send-off I think he think he would have enjoyed immensely.
Cy Twombly, The Last Paintings
Open 6 – 29 September 2012 at the Gagosian Gallery
I have to apologise for such a tardy review of an exhibition that has now been open several weeks. In truth, I have been thinking about it a lot since I walked round seven rooms of vintage photographs, which are on display at Tate Britain until the middle of this month. I have been trying to grapple with its purpose and meaning in the context of our national collection, a collection that, until recently, refused to stage a show of photographs at all, rebuffing them as a lower form of artistic endeavour. The Tate’s first exhibition solely dedicated to photographs was a mere 12 years ago, and before then it didn’t have an active acquisitions policy dedicated to photographs in their own right. Only those images, which fed into a wider artist’s practice (for example, Richard Long’s photographic documents of his walks and landscape interventions), were admitted, and even then, their purpose was purely to help explain the rest of the collection.
How things have changed. In fact, Another London marks something of a U-turn in Tate’s philosophy. Around 1400 photographs are being acquired for the nation, part gift and part purchase agreement with the owners, Eric and Louise Franck (the former, Henri Cartier-Bresson’s brother in law). The display reflects its illustrious owners, who still collect voraciously; the large majority of the prints on show are by Magnum photographers, though this may well reflect the agency’s domination of mid-century photo-reportage as much as it does the collectors’ partiality or ties to the group. Indeed, the show itself seeks to dissolve such biases, in displaying works only by foreign photographers, all coming to the central theme of London in individual ways. If you got to see the Museum of London’s street photography show a couple of years ago, the current display sits neatly as a kind of sister exhibition, looking repeatedly at London’s social milieu, its public spaces, and its private conversations, but this time from the point of view of outsiders looking in. Of the photographs being acquired, 177 are viewable at Tate Britain, highlighting some of the finest images of London to have been taken between 1930 and 1980. The survey starts with luscious, dense prints by visionaries such as Alvin Langdon Coburn, Bill Brandt, and Jacques-Henri Lartigue, and punctuates the medium with brash, highly posed punk portraits taken by Karen Knorr and Olivier Richon (how the dissenters consented…), and Leonard Freed’s monographic images of city dwellers in their own worlds.
One of my favourites is Eva by Ghanaian born James Barnor (above), who set up a photography studio called Ever Young when he was just 21. The seductive curve of Eva’s eye, extended with a lick of black eye liner, makes her a pure study of beauty. Going back to another image right at the start of the exhibition, the same tone as Eva’s make-up draws murky figures from the grenadier guards out of the soot of London’s atmosphere. This wonderful photograph, entitled London, the changing of the guard, by Laure Albin-Guillot, is a fresson print. It uses charcoal to create tonal abysses and black-brown shadows on the warm buff-coloured paper beneath. Other images, snapping coolly at the hubbub and chaos of London streets, corner house tearooms, and grand parades, are so heavy with soft nostalgia that one yearns to have been present in their scenes, however unsettled or in crisis the moments they capture really were. Take the ménage of sexual games being played in Wolfgang Suschitzky’s Lyons Corner House, Tottenham Court Road for example, with its nonchalant sitter bored by her male companion’s obviously lack-lustre conversational efforts. His shoulders drop, his cigarette hangs as limply from his mouth as her attention to his advances does in the air, and her eyes seem to look past him as though to another, more attractive option.
Kenneth Williams argued that a critic’s greatest responsibility was to communicate enthusiasm for the art they belong to. It is easy to forget such a crucial mantra at times, but I myself cannot find a single fault with the beautiful works on display in this exhibition, though personally I prefer the carefully developed, striven over images that mark the earlier decades represented in the show; those rare survivals and experimentations with speed, unrestrained activity, and the contrapuntal imagery of disparate classes melded together in the city streets. In this respect, it was an easy show to put on, I imagine. The curators could have just chosen their favourites from an unsurpassable collection of images for all we know, and the show would be a complete success. Or maybe there were too many good ones, and the choices they had to make were thus excruciatingly difficult. Even without seeing the rest of the collection, I would probably lean towards the latter…
Having said I am in love with the show, I must concede that the labelling system the curators have employed infuriates me to the point of distraction. With so many images on display, a lot of them not often seen before, it is frustrating that one must walk to a corner of a large room in order to try and decipher a grid-like group of labels that seem to bear little relation to a raft of 10 or more images stretching away across the walls. I cannot see what they must have thought would be distracting about putting individual labels under each work. After all, if it is for purity’s sake that they chose to relegate all information to the corners of each wall, then why use such bulky black frames around every photograph? They tend to unify everything, which concatenates the labelling issue further, especially when you’re never quite sure whether the next set of labels will pertain to images on your left or right as you walk round in a heady daze. The frames’ tendency towards overall grouping is of course an understandable aesthetic aim, since the show attempts to broker a delicate line between presenting individual works, while nevertheless retaining the overall structure and nature of their relationships; the fact that they are from a single collection. Archivy and curation seem to rub shoulders quite succinctly and simply I must admit, if also a little heavy-handedly. Still, within the display, no effort is made to discuss format either, which changes so dramatically across the works. Why is a Robert Frank landscape view treated uniformly the same as a Marc Riboud or a Cartier-Bresson? For those of us with less knowledge of photographic history, the tendency of the framing and labelling choices to unify whole sections of rather distinct works, make it often difficult to remember who took what after you’ve left the exhibition.
Regardless of this, the way in which the final room’s display of photographs open up and shatter chronology is very well achieved, and one gets the sense that the images here start to sound; they rise in volume and express an ongoing cacophonic activity fostered by, and created within, our rolling capital. Suddenly, a course charted through immigrant photography in the twentieth century has the distinct possibility of fragmenting into many different paths.
Therefore, my only real reservation about Another London is how its contents, and the rest of the acquisition, are to be used in the future. Has the whole thing been a necessary, and as a result, staged part of the bequest procedure, without serious consideration of the next step? How will these images now be integrated into the rest of the collection, or will they come to reside for a few weeks at a time, as continues to be the case with many photograph shows, in a separate room of Tate Modern? This show has created some urgent questions about the strengths of our national collection, and how it is represented to us. Of course, we must wait and see how many other photographic collections are acquired by Tate over the coming years, but I am sure they will have to be pretty significant to match the roster of works represented in this astounding gift.
Here’s a short piece I wrote on the current East Wing show for Courtauld Reviews, a student-led periodical of contemporary exhibition reviews published at the Institute each term:
EWX is slick, coherent, and well managed, with a roster of exciting artists – many of them newly established – and a particularly strong visual identity (perhaps the best yet?). The emphasis on serial and large-scale works has served to tie many of the Courtauld’s spaces to a single, consummate theme. Gabriel Dawe’s stunning thread piece – an apt placement of colour theory and materiality within the heart of the institute – is particularly successful. As a result however, less well considered parts of the Institute become pronounced; Rachel Whiteread’s beautifully understated assortment of cast boxes seems overpowered by a hotch-potch arrangement of less engaging works vying for attention within too small a space Perhaps one of the seminar rooms would have suited this collection of pseudo-sculptures better? Similarly, SR2 seems to have been used to hang works that couldn’t or wouldn’t go anywhere else. On the whole though, the pieces all sit well together, united by a strong theme. The committee has struck a keen balance between filling the space and allowing enough pauses in the show’s narrative for us to consider the many spatial and material relationships it proffers. I would particularly recommend SR1, where an eclectic mix of media and ideas resonate across every wall.
The curators’ engagement with the history of the East Wing series is, as yet, a little underdeveloped. Their ‘official’ book, which celebrates the show’s first twenty years, doesn’t really present sufficient information on any of the previous exhibitions. Regardless of this, the inevitable test for EWX will be whether it continues to grapple with issues of materiality – a subject so ingrained in the present, ever-temporary ‘now’ – over the remaining fifteen months. If talks by Tom Hunter and Rebecca Stevenson have been anything to go by, it has been a promising start to a dialogue that will need continuous reassertion.
Out of Focus is on from 25th April to 22nd July, 10am-6pm, 7 days a week
You can also find this review on the London Student website
Saatchi’s first major photography exhibition in a decade, and a self-styled cross-section of the world of photography now, Out of Focus collates the work of 38 artist/photographers whose diverse subject matter and approach to the medium offer a spectrum of delights within the space of the gallery.
As can be expected from the Saatchi curators, a staple selection of works include large-scale, brash pseudo-portraits (see Katy Grannan’s eyesore of a series in the first gallery) showcasing badly applied lipstick and ancient, wrinkled, blue-rinse tattoos. To be honest, I don’t mind them, they’ll soon be in American bank lobbies anyway (cynical, moi?). But, hold your breath, beyond these predictable hurdles you’ll find some acutely considered images by thoughtful and explorative artists, dotted through the show.
Noemie Goudal, who’s been around for a year or so on the main stage since graduating from the RCA (immediately into Saatchi’s hands), captivates me with her images of effected landscapes. Conventional by comparison with some of the artists exhibited she nevertheless subtly, quietly grapples with the photographic image as a means to record photography itself, reaching stalwartly into the constructed and psychological nature of the paradisical escape. She looks inward in a way few others in the show can or dare, and vastly outpaces the vulgar monochromatic mosaic pieces of her curatorial bedfellow in the gallery’s arrangement, Mat Collishaw, who’s own passé enlargements of newspaper cutouts-cum-facebook-photos are belligerent and selfish with the viewer’s vision.
Still, at least Collishaw demands an answer to what beauty in contemporary photography actually means. The works of some of the other exhibitors such as David Benjamin Sherry’s large acid-wash chromatic landscapes fall back on beauty as a refuge from the question ‘Why are you doing another Ansel Adams?’ This seems to cause a split in the show that remains unresolved, with interesting results. Is contemporary photography allowed to be beautiful, and if so is that all it needs to be? After all, its draw towards gritty reportage, visible in the work of Broomberg and Chanarin, can still produce some of the most stunning imagery we face within our increasingly alien but globalised community.
Taking on sexuality are photographers such as Michele Abeles and Laurel Nakadate, alongside veteran Ryan McGinley. The body as fetish, object, and pin-up is treated both in the camera lens and in post-production, though with mixed results; McGinley recaptures adolescent night-prowls and naked adventures with breathless magnetism, but Marlo Pascual’s less racy, torn female portrait turned leaning sculpture is a little underwhelming in it dulled and softened plexiglass form.
Most striking though is the inclusion of works that just aren’t photographs (if you think authorship is important) such as Collishaw’s, but more significantly those of John Stezaker. Although lifted wholesale and somewhat uninspiringly by the Saatchi curators from Stezaker’s recent Whitechapel retrospective, it is interesting to find his collage works are now so completely ingrained in contemporary photography, a realm he has skirted around for decades. Perhaps then, that is the show’s greatest success. It brings together a range of answers to the question of photography, some of which inevitably end with a collectible photograph, but many of which still want us to look at the underside, the edges, and whatever is caught (be it accidental, scripted, or contrived) in the middle.
Mariah Robertson’s stunning photogram experiments on a 70-meter roll of photographic paper take this to its extreme, producing a dazzle-camouflage of floor tiles and grid patterns in which the hiccups and bleeding edges are the raison d’être of the work. Repetition through variation akin to Len Lye’s forties film work cascades across the gallery floor. Photography as installation then, in the same space as photography as collage, and photography as site of contact; with light and material, mindscape, sexuality, and conflict. The show compounds all of them at once through a bricolage of disparate images that in many cases use photography as the barest of conjoining threads. Though this creates as many problems as it attempts to solve in its catch-all display, it returns us to a love of imagery itself. Saatchi is the only man who can give us such gavage, heaped on our plate and beckoning us to dive in. Vodka sponsorship aside, Out of Focus delights in retinal immersion; beauty, ugliness, and the questioning of it all.
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.