Wednesday 8 April 2015

Five Senses has moved - The new address is

I've now moved my blog to Wordpress at where you can read new articles and see The Art Channel films I've made with Grace Adam.

I will keep up an archive here on Blogger for the time being.

Thank you for reading and your support.

Monday 17 November 2014

Shinro Ohtake at Parasol Unit

Shinro Ohtake takes the process of layering pieces of paper to an obsession. As he randomly gathers magazine clippings, old photographs, bits of scrap, tape, paper and card, he hangs them together with string and wire or encrusts them onto supporting surfaces. The most significant piece in the show is a structure resembling a cabinet called ‘Retina’ from 1993 which floods the eye with obscure details, sifted, chosen and applied until the underlying object develops a skin of many images. Each slip of glued paper accumulates without any prevailing hierarchy of value. This profusion of cut and glued images initially suggests Cubist collage but it’s actually quite different. These tiny images are so decontextualized that they are reduced to the point of evaporation. Any narrative progression is negated through an endless series of cancellations.

Ohtake describes this process as ‘pasting’, a deliberate overlaying of material until it becomes an almost geological record of time and labour. Claiming a Japanese attachment to the accretion of material, this becomes problematic in a London exhibition space. In ‘Layers of Time Memory 2’ he takes a deep box resembling the reverse of a stretched canvas and fills the hollow space with strips of paper such that it becomes a web of accumulated lines that obscure the space and its depth. ‘Time Memory 28’ from 2014 flattens the relief effects of pasted paper so that he creates contrast between cut horizontal strips and torn, bright red blobs of painted paper that fall and scatter across the picture. From a distance the image resembles a Modernist grid and even echoes the restrained colours of geometric Nicholson or Mondrian paintings. Up close, you can see him filling space and making form akin to weaving or embroidery. The expression of the material determines its patterns.

‘Scrapbook #66’ uses the thickly, pasted pages of a book as structural strength so that it stands upright. We can see that the pages carry content but they are so close together that it’s impossible to observe them individually. Ohtake adds a leathery tail on the spine suggesting a reptilian mischief. This scrapbook illustrates how his art has an introverted quality that teasingly withholds significance. However, all of his work asks for an engagement. Ohtake’s art is less Conceptual and better understood as a rich interdependence of material, craftsmanship and process. They invite optical appreciation but threaten to overwhelm the viewer with a vast and almost infinite cosmos of stuff, floating free from any point of origin.

Monday 3 November 2014

Yoshitomo Nara: Greetings From a Place in My Heart at the Dairy, Bloomsbury

Yoshitomo Nara is an artist whose work blends the naivety and mischief of children.  At the Dairy in Bloomsbury, he's showing his distinctive paintings along with drawings and new sculptures inspired by the recent nuclear accident in Japan. His style and subject borrows largely from cartoons, particularly the winsome nature of Japanese ‘Animé’. Children stare directly back at the viewer with exaggerated features, particularly glossy, sparkling eyes in mismatching colours that sometimes incorporate symbols such as the nuclear disarmament sign in ‘Wish World Peace’. Mouths are tautly drawn in a horizontal slash and the nose is plainly described with two nostril dots. These children project the confidence of adults, but maintain infantile features. It is a disarming contradiction that Nara exhaustively repeats, setting up a tension without resolution throughout his work.

This innocence is overlaid with an ironic maturity. Defiance characterises these intense figures, which fill the paintings with brooding petulance. For all of their inherent charm, these characters project a disobedient fury. Sometimes Nara will overlay the works with text such as ‘Fuckin’ Politics! and ‘Rock’n Roll The Roll’ which suggest an anarchic negation rather than a programme for revolt. Music’s role as a means of self-expression and liberation is a recurring theme.

One room is devoted to Nara’s drawings over three decades, which upstage both the paintings and sculptures with a direct simplicity. They operate as an autobiographical record of work, travel and feeling. Any calculated charm in Nara’s more commercial work appears ineffectual and repetitive in comparison with these authentic and lively sketches that come to life as part of a larger exhibition installation.

A fountain of stacked plastic babies crying a cascade of real tears illustrates Nara’s propensity for theatricality. While some of life’s grittier challenges are alluded to in the exhibition, Nara’s art veers dangerously close to whimsy with an almost Victorian reverence for childhood as a place of emotional sanctuary and nostalgic retreat for adults.

Monday 15 September 2014

'Play What's Not Really There' at Raven Row

One of the most challenging exhibitions that I've recently seen in London was mounted at Raven Row over the summer, an independent foundation based in one of London’s oldest, surviving shops in Spitalfields. The starting point for the show can be summed up by the phrase coined by Miles Davis to ‘play what’s not there’. This impossible act became a metaphor for a larger enquiry around existential expression in art. Curator, Michael Bracewell, chose to explore artists working beyond Soren Kierkegaard’s description of ‘the despair of the aesthetic’, those infinite and potentially paralysing creative decisions, in order to achieve something more profound and ‘spiritual’. It is a highly romantic notion of artists as visionary and medium, compelled to reach for ‘truth’ despite the cost and then to share knowledge with those who choose a safer, more prosaic route.

In a succinct essay, Bracewell examines Kierkegaard’s philosophical quest for meaning in life. To illustrate the theme, he chose an eclectic number of works dating from the 1960s. You needn’t have shared Kierkegaard’s religious or intellectual interests to enjoy the show. The works ranged from Linder’s ‘The Working Class Goes to Paradise’, a trance-like performance in a Manchester nightclub to Edward Krasinki’s consciously awkward constructions in wood and wire. Cerith Wyn Evans’ Leaning Horizons, two upright rods leaning against the wall were neon illuminations embodying geometry, weight and gravity while standing as cocky intrusions in the room.

Most of the pieces in the show were isolated within dedicated rooms. This was appropriate for Robert Whitman’s Wavy Red Line, a laser powered projection of flickering, red lines that traced the proportions of an 18th century panelled room. The future incongruously met the past here. Perhaps the work that most addressed the notion of boundaries and transitions in comprehension was Bruce Nauman’s infamous ‘Clown Torture’ a pair of video works illustrating psychic confusion whereby a two characters dressed as clowns neurotically speak plaintive chants, which are later contradicted. He stages two fictional characters performing statements that might be factual or imagined, demonstrating the fine line between certainty and doubt and what lies between them. It’s those ambiguous, narrow spaces in language or materials that open up new meaning and knowledge.

Thursday 11 September 2014

‘Lookout’: The Folkestone Triennial

Can art revitalise a town? The Folkestone Triennial, now in it’s third edition, believes that it will. In tandem with the establishment of a creative quarter, the town has embraced art and design as way of attracting new visitors and activity to what was once an important port, much of whose former cargo now bypasses it through the Channel Tunnel and whose former visitors head south on cheap flights. This is a town compelled to re-invent itself.  The Triennial attempts to integrate art into the very fabric of civic space. These 21 guest artists take a guerrilla approach by placing artworks under bridges, on rooflines, within disused sites and even under the sea.

Lewis Biggs, the director, has named this year’s festival ‘Lookout’ taking a cue from the town’s maritime character. Some artists have embraced the theme, such as Pablo Bronstein’s ‘Beach Hut, in the style of Nicholas Hawksmoor, which resembles a miniature lighthouse placed beside other, more modest and traditional huts painted in jaunty, seaside colours. On press day, I saw Alex Hartley’s ramshackle eagle’s nest protruding from the roofline of a prominent hotel and Sixties eyesore, but missed the artist perching on the platform jutting out precariously over a car park, facing the sea. For the duration of the festival, he will periodically crawl out onto this makeshift ledge like an occupier or solitary mystic, combining architectural intervention with performance.

Marjetica Potrc and Ooze, an architectural and design practice, have constructed a temporary lift that rises up adjacent to the town’s extraordinary Victorian railway viaduct, the highest in Britain. Originally conceived as wind-powered,  the weather proved unreliable so the solution now is a digital screen indicating how much energy the turbine is feeding into the national grid and how much energy the lift extracts.

Other artists have taken a less technical approach, addressing specific sites and associated histories of the town. Jyll Bradley has built a temporary installation on the site of a former gasworks. Remembering days spent picking hops, a crop indigenous to Kent, she has constructed a matrix of string courses used to encourage the vines, supported by illuminated, upright struts.  ‘Green/Light’ invites you to stroll through this memorial to agricultural craft thereby revitalising what had become sad and redundant.

The highlight of my visit was a sound sculpture, ‘Undélaissé’ by Amina Menia, set up on a derelict site once inhabited by a food shop bombed during World War One. In an air raid, 60 queuing residents died. The pathos of that event is amplified by wandering across this neglected plot, now overgrown with thick clusters of buddleia that cuckoo plant colonising no-man’s land. Hidden speakers within the undergrowth repeat recipes for baking bread brought to the town by new migrants carrying memories of their roots. It’s a haunting work that links together death, loss and the simple but universal bonds of food, the stuff of life.

By the old harbour, Gabriel Lester has erected an impressive structure made of bamboo poles that sits above redundant railway lines, like much of Folkestone’s old infrastructure. Drawing on memories of living in China, the pavilion becomes a focus for considering the port’s historic relationship with the sea as trade increasingly reverts eastwards towards Asia.

As I strolled along the harbour front, I met Sarah Staton standing outside her ‘sculptural pavilion’ a large freestanding steel sculpture punctured with Modernist incisions. A bench shelters under the steel shell ringed by edible plants. She’s hoping the hybrid shelter and bench can become a permanent feature of the seashore.

Folkestone Triennial is not a grand affair like the Venice Biennale or the Edinburgh Festival. It’s modest and humorous and vernacular without losing ambition. While instigating the restoration of a local park, it still hosts international artists such as Michael Sailstorfer whose ‘Folkestone Digs’ has been generating most interest. Thirty pieces of gold are buried beneath the sand of a harbour beach and ‘Folkestone Digs’ continues into the future until all have been found.

I declined to roll up my trouser legs but enjoyed watching a large scrum of journalists, visitors and locals digging through wet sand in a hunt for gold hidden that morning under the cover of darkness. Despite some suspicions of an elaborate hoax, the diggers trustingly began the mucky task with gusto, instinctively hunting for treasure, like a pack hungry for food.

Wednesday 9 July 2014

Matisse: The Cut-Outs at Tate Modern

Responding to the restrictions of illness, Henri Matisse found a means to return art to the line, not a drawn line but a cut one. Simply manipulating scissors and painted papers, Matisse radically evolved a technique that expressed elemental qualities of shape, colour and silhouette. Tate Modern’s exhibition manages to elevate these humble Cut-Outs to pre-eminent importance. Long overlooked in favour of Matisse’s paintings of sensuous interiors and voluptuous nudes, these Cut-Outs leap off the wall in their confident simplicity.

The show starts by illustrating the use of these cut paper forms as designs for still lives. A pin-board holds apples and jugs held in place for their relational effects. Matisse has infinite choices in his arrangement of these forms placed on top of a table in a traditional still-life. Two diagonal pieces of string describe mark out the table's edges. Beside this malleable design is the completed painting characterised by Matisse’s fascination with pattern and texture seen here in some glazed ceramics, fruit, a tablecloth with a cloud-like motif, and the jagged edge of a conch shell. All the elements fall into place but we can see that the cut-out process was a crucial stage in making the painting. In the corner of the exhibition's first room is a tiny, modest lyre made in blue paper, the very first self-sufficient ‘decoupage’. It presents some of the significant ideas that Matisse developed in cut paper: the silhouette and positive form of the object set against the support which acts to pick out the fine strings of the instrument.

 ‘Jazz’, an illuminated book, which Matisse produced from 1943, demonstrates the vitality of these cut papers layered together, colours set against each other, and collage animating the image. The finished, printed plates demonstrate the inherent delicacy of the Cut-Outs. However, they do not reproduce well. The original materiality of the maquettes is diminished in the printing process as the edges, crinkled layering and textures are pushed to a graphic reduction . Matisse accepted that the project was flawed but it alerts us to the potential of this embryonic technique which he was developing in a time of war and occupation.

The Cut-Outs offered Matisse new opportunities particularly when immobilised by ill-health.  They became a private meditation on making images out of humble materials. Collectively they form a ‘poor’ art without the privileged status of oil paint or bronze. As you walk from room to room, you learn how these paper pieces provided private entertainment and a new purpose. They began as single pieces pinned to the wall of the studio where the draughts of air would gently move them. Gradually they would accumulate and became immersive ‘installations’ determined by architectural dimensions and the method of their production.

Perhaps the greatest work in the exhibition is the ‘Parakeet and the Mermaid’. Foliage here moves and flows as if shaped by breezes and currents embodying both the sea and the shore. What’s so artful is the choreography of the fronds in varying colours, directions and sizes. Matisse imagined bringing the increasingly inaccessible garden ‘inside’ in the manner of his paintings which connect the domestic interior to the surrounding environment through open windows and doors. We can see in a surviving photograph how this piece evolved in scale so that it began to turn corners at 90 degrees, as if growing naturally. Matisse deploys colour strategically here so that hot pinks and oranges project forward while cooler greens and blues recede until the eye eventually sees the ripe, blue pomegranates swaying in the gaps.

 ‘Work with Two Masks’ is a pronounced contrast because this piece originated out of a commission for a tiled mural in Los Angeles. Here Matisse begins a dialogue between symmetrical, repeating motifs, which subtly vary because they are individually hand-made. Blue neo-classical columns stand sentry at each end and a central band resembling embroidered flowers slices the work into two. This enormous assemblage of cut petals and seeds fluctuates between order and chance. In the penultimate gallery you can see the final, approved design for the mural project where Matisse dispenses with any symmetry and employs a set of fronds in balanced colours that rise up organically out the ground, as if a living plant.

The Chapel of the Rosary in Vence presented the greatest challenge to the cut paper technique. Matisse called the project the summation of his life’s work. While it largely avoids biblical references aside from a Madonna and Child, the composite elements combine to celebrate life and Meditterranean fecundity in the sunlight. Despite Picasso’s contempt for its religious purpose informed, no doubt,  by a twinge of jealousy, Matisse triumphantly deploys his cut-papers to conceive a Provencal ‘total artwork.’

Why is this show so successful and popular? I think the vitality of these works lies in their direct authenticity. They return us to childhood and the early exploration of the world through sight and touch. While we cannot handle the Cut-Outs, we can imagine the satisfying playfulness of holding the brightly painted paper while taking a pair of scissors on a meandering journey of description. As Matisse cuts, so he draws. The Cut-Outs dispense with any pre-conceived design and become assertively material, almost sculptural. Matisse creates fantasies out of painted papers without hiding the journey required to make them. What’s fundamentally entrancing about these Cut-Outs is that they manage to be miraculously both an object and an image.