Monday 24 October 2011

Mike Kelley – Exploded Fortress of Solitude at Gagosian, Britannia Street

Fictional places have a strange allure. They will never be visited except in the imagination. Details must necessarily be invented and staged. Mike Kelley continues an ongoing project dedicated to Kandor, Superman’s birthplace, which he now keeps alive in artificial conditions like a organism on life-support. But Kandor presents a challenge to any re-enactment because the comic strip offers so many differing examples, embodying the multifarious and contingent nature of cities, subject as they are to infinite representation.

The centerpiece of this show is a grotto made of imitation black rock within which sits a resin model of Kandor emitting a rosy, seductive glow like a giant jelly. Sealed within the sustaining environment of a bell jar, fed a special gas, Superman keeps Kandor alive as a fragile utopia.  His fortress is reminiscent of sacred shrines where our loss of innocence can be contemplated with sorrow but also where redemption may be planned. Kelley takes the Superman conceit and addresses it with theatrical relish. Kandor assumes multiple forms, sometimes resembling melting polychromatic glass orbs or erect columns of crystals pointing skyward in the style of Art Deco futurism. Superman’s idealism is perceptible but his physical absence is telling. He idealizes the past and projects fantasy into the future, but must constantly slip away.

Inserted into the Superman theme are some conscious but disorientating digressions. A film with characters inspired by Hammer House of Horror plays out sado-masochistic rituals involving corn cobs and whips. Titled ‘Vice Anglais’ after the reputed sexual repressions of the English, Kelley takes his audience on a sinister tour through human cruelty but links the film to the wider exhibition by staging the melodrama on a set using the Superman themed works. Another sculpture titled ‘Tie A Yellow Ribbon’ creates a tableau of sentimental objects memorializing ‘S/andy’ to accompany images of both a Marine and young woman. Such an ambivalent gender echoes Superman’s own overlapping identities and suggests the performative nature of human relations.

Kelley’s interrogation of comic book values produces dazzling formal work but risks aestheticizing the source-material to the point of entertaining irrelevance. Unlike Roy Lichtenstein’s detached translations of graphic novels, Kelley’s appropriations are close to overreaching.

Friday 9 September 2011

Masterplan No.9 at the Gibberd Garden, Harlow

Grace Adam’s ‘Masterplan No.9’ addresses questions that arise from Frederick Gibberd’s project to build Harlow New Town in the late 1940s in order to create a successful new community from the ground up.  Inspired by the title of a Gibberd architectural drawing, the exhibition uses his Harlow house and garden as an opportunity to explore the artist’s longstanding curiosity about notions of beauty and efficacy. William Morris once declared that you should have ‘nothing in your homes that you do not know to be useful and believe to be beautiful.’ But the values that inspire the creation of both objects and buildings alter and shift. Nothing in culture is fixed no matter how much we wish it were so.

Gibberd’s vision, in retrospect, may appear too assured, even naïve, but the idealism exemplified by Harlow remains as relevant as the years in which it was first conceived and constructed. Similar challenges for architects, designers and urban planners persist. How may we live today? How do we prepare for the future? Above all, how can we build sustainable communities that meet our social and material needs? The desire for urgent social change in the post-war period continues to act as an model.

The Gibberd Garden has become a fitting monument to the man whose role in twentieth -century design encapsulates all that was visionary after the catastrophe of war. Set amongst groves of trees and routes that lead the visitor through a series of outdoor rooms, the sculpture he collected reflects an eclectic, contemporary taste. The house, situated in countryside on the edge of the New Town,  is itself an imaginative response to necessity in microcosm. Denied permission to build a new structure, Gibberd adapted the existing one storey building as a satisfying home. This hybrid house reminds us how Harlow New Town was intended to be an adaptation to the surrounding ancient landscape of Essex with views from the Water Gardens and as surviving green wedges for recreational space.

The New Town was a very particular response to urgent social imperatives —for new housing and better living conditions with all the accompanying hope and aspiration of a victorious but exhausted nation. This modernist, almost romantic,  belief in progress is still beguiling particularly when we consider how urban environments  continue to frustrate the best intentions. The wars years produced tremendous difficulties for Londoners, bombed from the sky with new precision and cruel power. Imagine then the excitement of the resident whom Grace met on her walks around the town,  first cycling out from devastated London to look at the new homes being offered by this extraordinary social experiment. It’s hard today to locate an equivalent sense of promise.

Grace describes her site-specific work in the garden, ‘Small Folly’, as a ‘sculptural intervention’ in dialogue with the columns that Gibberd first rescued after making dramatic incisions into the Coutts bank façade on London’s Strand. As you head downhill from the house, you will discover them in a grove, close to the brook. They resemble props from a painting by Turner, cautionary metaphors for the cycles of history, fashion, hubris and decline. For all their nostalgia, these architectural fragments have an ironic quality. They have become 18th century imitations of classical antiquity forever stranded in time as amusing ornaments. This pastiche of Roman ruins is arguably an incongruous choice by Gibberd, a stone’s throw away from his progressive urban vision.

The adjacent row of four garlanded stone urns seems wholly superfluous even ridiculous, an example of ancient vessels translated into pleasing but dysfunctional copies. Gibberd was surely setting up a joke in this tableau, while at the same time proposing that architecture must respond to the needs of its age. The only role for these anachronistic  relics now is to create theatrical entertainment. However,  a paradox remains — for all his attachment to the concept of logical progress, Gibberd continues to value beauty for its own sake in the collection of sculpture and salvaged objects that he displayed throughout the garden in the manner of a Georgian aristocrat returning with souvenirs from the Grand Tour. In an interview he once said ‘the design of a town – like the design of a car – is based on function. It has to work smoothly and efficiently. But, as with a car, we like a town to give pleasure to the eye, to be beautiful.’

Grace engages with the irony of this Arcadian surprise by setting up a series of sculptural objects employing recycled wood, which echo features from the columns and urns. One component involves circular wooden slats kebabed together like soft scraps of compressed meat on a spit, their origins and histories lost in the process of stacking them together.  Where did these planks once lie? Whose feet have trodden across them? Each one embodies different stories and memories. But here they are reclaimed in a playful fashion to illustrate the contingency of all materials. Cut down, re-assembled and re-sited, the nutty-brown, varnished wood takes the domestic world into the garden — soft, organic grain in conversation with hard Portland stone, stained mossy green.

Another element in this group consists of an eight-sided wooden cylinder. Various chair legs and banisters grow out of it like MDF and mahogany horns on the head of a hunted stag. This mutant object formally mirrors the acanthus leaves in the Corinthian capitals carved on top of the stone columns. Such a clutter of shapes and textures suggests the slippery nature of taste and fashion. Modernism wished to dispense with imitation and quotation, but here in the tranquility of his garden, we discover Gibberd wryly tipping his hat to the past and Grace in turn implying our enduring confusion about what we seek from design.

Within the Gibberd Rooms, Grace has hung a series of watercolours and collages that convey Harlow’s original ambitions. Viewed from a cut embankment at the entrance to an underpass,  ‘Modern Fire Fighting’ illustrates a training tower for fire fighters, a tall symmetrical structure in glass and concrete so elongated that it begins to look wobbly.  As an amalgamation of sights and sensations, the image proposes how a healthy society anticipates all eventualities.  Grace articulates that gap between aspiration and implementation.  Below the tower, delicate lampposts stand ready to generate light for cars descending into a tunnel. An almost Caribbean, turquoise sky heralds a new age of provision.  In this imaginary climate, concrete glows instead of turning decrepit with damp.

Using collaged paper cutouts interlocking with architectural details made in watercolour, Grace captures the excitement of modernity and an air of accompanying disappointment.  Aspirations for a better world may be compromised by sobering realities. In the other works on paper, buildings rise up and cut across sightlines so that we continually experience the built environment as a series of competing geometries and surfaces. To be modern is to navigate a multiplicity of sensations, reminiscent of the astonished Cubists looking out of the windows of their Parisian cafes onto a new world. She asks the question what does modernity actually look like and how do we experience it? Is it a series of impressions, a checkerboard of concrete, glass and reflected light? Most importantly,  can our hopes for cities be realised?

As consumers and domestic dwellers, we remain attached to the pleasures of knick-knacks and furniture, the voluptuous curve of chair legs.  Our homes can never be arenas of perfection but are inevitably corrupted by dodgy taste and yesterday’s objects of desire becoming obsolete. Today’s hip sofa will in turn become a dubious heirloom or scrapyard fancy. In ‘Gibberds’ Chairs’ three armchairs function as if they were illustrations from a sale catalogue offering seductive possibilities for possession.  However, there is an uncanny familiarity because the original models belong to the same room. We are reminded that a functional object may assume many forms, styles and materials. Will a chair be round or square, upholstered or bare? Do we want old or new? How do we actually choose objects and what do they represent to us? Gibberd’s collection of Staffordshire dogs methodically arranged on the shelves in one corner nicely illustrates the idiosyncrasies of domestic interiors. This whimsical collection introduces  a sentimental  distubance into the cool,  efficient shell of his living space. Assembled over many years as a solution to the problem of what to give  Gibberd for his birthday, these china animals present a conundrum.  Is there a teasing,  knowing enjoyment  here of kitsch, a guilty pleasure,  or on the contrary a timeless appreciation of craftsmanship and tradition?

Much contemporary art carries a palpable sense of disengagement and many artists have ceded the social and political debate to other media. Working in tandem with the Gibberd Rooms and Garden, Grace Adam humorously and incisively employs this setting to address the work and ideas of a pivotal moment in British social history.  ‘Masterplan No.9’ suitably unsettles this modest memorial in an enquiry about the beliefs of a particular age while simultaneously saluting those instincts  of our better nature to improve society. In the light of recent national events,  this impulse is vitally important  even if we encounter disappointment  and doubt along the way.

The exhibition runs until September 28.

Saturday 27 August 2011

Guiseppe Penone at Haunch of Venison

Placed within a framing alcove above a formal staircase, a small sapling appears to grow out of a block of wood. Penone’s ‘To Repeat the Forest’ miraculously resuscitates a young sapling from a piece of commercial timber in which it has been entombed. Time has been stripped back and the facts of early genesis exposed. In this singular work alone, Penone demonstrates his lyrical interest in the irrepressible transitions that underlie all living and material forms.

‘Maritime Alps’, first made during the 1960s, documents how Penone retreats from urban life to photograph his physical encounters within the forest. With precision, he marks out where his body has touched the tree, using wire and nails embedded within the living bark. Elsewhere, the photographs record the action of installing a cage placed over a young tree which will ascend,  in tandem,  towards the light. Nature here expresses a primal response to human intervention. In the most pronounced gesture, he attaches a cast of his hand to the point of original touch oand subsequently documents how the tree grows around the tightly clinging hand. This ambivalent reaction appears both nurturing and suffocating. More recently, he subjects this invasive presence to radiography to create an eerie suggestion of disease, and the tree’s ensuing strategy for recovery.

‘Space of Light’is a hollowed trunk in which Penone strips out early growth leaving a vacuum filled with ambient light and a residue of resin as if the juices of the tree had pooled together in mortal exhalation. Richard Long’s ‘Stone Print Spiral’ shares the same room, a familiar unfurling circle on the floor harvested from a Danish river, which appears more assertive,  leaving less room for dialogue between fact and invention than Penone’s investigations of similar natural forces.  Long’s work, simultaneously shown in adjoining galleries, is more insistently concerned with the application of superimposed mathematical  and linguistic systems.

Penone also exhibits a remarkable new series of large drawings that extrude over paper backed by canvas.  Titled ‘Skin of Graphite’ these subtle works suggest patterns found on the surface of membranes, plants or rocks. The faint, silvery sheen of shapes made in pencil gradually emerge from the dark paper beneath and lock together in harmonious irregularity. These ambitious drawings serve to amplify Penone’s symbiosis of human culture and Nature, a dialogue of interdependence, control, impotence and renewal.

Monday 27 June 2011

Miroslav Tichy at The Wilkinson Gallery

A burlesque dancer elegantly raises her arms and thrusts her chest forward with an exaggerated smile facing an unseen audience. Wearing a corset decorated with spangles, the performer is captured from below the stage. The image is hesitantly composed and clumsily cropped. Weak exposure produces a narrow tonal range and the surface is mottled with damage. Such poor formal qualities appear to be the work of a struggling amateur. But if a wider context is ever needed, then the work of Miroslav Tichy asks for patient consideration.

Born in 1926, Tichy initially made modernist paintings during the early years of Czech communism and lived through its subsequent repressions. Resisting socialist realism and prone to mental illness, he spent much of his life in a provincial town where he instinctively documented life on the streets around him employing a home-made camera. The exhibition illustrates how Tichy furtively creates a world exclusively inhabited by anonymous women. These tentative images exhibit an erotic fascination, but any contact with his subjects is detached, for they are passive and involuntary models. The camera instead allows the consolation of surrogate intimacy.

Through disguising foliage in a park, several athletic beauties play volleyball in communal pleasure. A couple of friends in bikinis leisurely talk beside a swimming pool. In another image, a woman’s head is cropped out completely, our eye drawn down to a large heart printed on the dress below the buttocks. Tichy’s photographs enlist our voyeuristic complicity. Occasionally he is discovered looking. One woman waits on the side of a road quizzically tilting her head towards him, aware of his gaze, which amuses rather than disturbs her. Cumulatively, these works assert a masculine isolation amongst so many women recorded in secret. They also bear an uncanny resemblance to state surveillance material.

Untitled and un-numbered, these tiny prints, float delicately in their frames without mounts. Having survived rats or prosaic usage as beer mats, they are curious remnants of a marginalized life that found some direction and self-expression through resilient image making. There’s a pathos in Tichy’s ‘outsider’ status being mediated through the lens, and therein lies the value of these strange images, as the products of a dedicated existential enquiry.

Wednesday 20 April 2011

Barbara Hepworth House and Garden, St Ives

Barbara Hepworth has now attained international status as one of the few twentieth century sculptors of first rank. Her work is collected by museums across the world and her practice exemplifies Modernist idealism that she shared with Henry Moore, her contemporary.  So visiting her former home in St Ives, now run by Tate, felt more like an act of respectful curiosity rather than devotion. But the modest house on the corner of a steep residential street set back from the harbour proved to be one of the highlights of my visit to Cornwall. Unlike the pristine, curatorial control of an art museum, an artist’s home returns the visitor to the character and preoccupations of the original occupant where they once worked in seclusion, an environment fashioned for inspiration and productivity.

Hepworth died several decades ago, in a fire that took her life in her 70s while she was continuing to work. Here her life is almost uncomfortably exposed: a daybed still sits shoehorned into a tiny gardening shed, whose quilt now has a blemished, moth-eaten appearance; her tools are aid out on a work bench with a forbidding instruction to her former assistants not to remove anything; original plaster maquettes are forever exhibited in situ for the tourist as if she had been preparing them the day before; and the plants she chose still grow on a modest patch of ground with views to the sea. Such details exhume the personality of the artist, whose life is also documented by a series of original photographs and letters arranged chronologically in glass cases in the main entrance. She uncannily resembles Bette Davis in looks and character too. There is a determined, confident quality to her features. Hepworth seems to have applied a forceful, driven energy to her ambitions and there is a hint that undeniable charm accompanied any obstinacy.

It’s difficult to develop a fresh eye on the work, which is now so iconic and familiar, a sculptural language that has in time with critical approval has become emblematic of modernist abstraction. Much of the work is carved in wood or stone, with visible marks of the tools she employed to determine positive and negative space. Hard and resistant materials are tempered, yielding up apertures, which introduce spatial relationships within the garden.  Sometimes as you look through the sculptures, visitors fleetingly cross into your field of vision.

But it’s difficult to deny the timeless certainty and purity that the artist aspired to engender. She is quoted in the entrance as having identified universal shapes as a child in the landscape where she grew up. Like Moore, she spent her life as a sculptor tapping into ‘significant form’ that she felt to be timeless and cross-cultural, an embodied humanism that could speak to all audiences and articulate enduring values. 

But the true revelation of the house is actually the garden, filled with succulents and other plants more commonly found in the Mediterranean and other temperate regions of the world. Closely planted on a steep hill overlooking the town and sea,  Hepworth’s garden exploits St Ive’s mild climate and generous sunshine. Instead of heading south to France or Italy, Hepworth remained attached to her English roots while taking advantage of this fishing port’s famous light that apparently arises from the being on a peninsular surrounded on three sides by the sea.

Hepworth’s passion has an undeniable English restraint and intellectual quality, but a sublimated passion is still present and surprisingly engaging. We might then think of her Yorkshire flintiness transported to the English Atlantic as a concession to European influence to produce an instinctive Modernism without Brancusi’s distracting eroticism. For all that, Hepworth’s work sited in its original studio context, gently guides one to the desired contemplation and pleasure that she intended above more mundane, earthly concerns such as earning a living on the waves below.

Tuesday 12 April 2011

Douglas Gordon's 'K.364' – Gagosian Gallery, Britannia Street, London

Douglas Gordon carves the title of his new show, ‘K.364’, into the soft, white plaster of the gallery wall. A chisel has chipped away at the surface leaving pronounced strokes like lettering on a gravestone. A residue of paint and dust gathers on the ground below this faint incision into the architecture. Nearby, an anonymous fist clasps a burning candle from which hot wax drips onto bare skin that might indicate an act of prayer or remembrance.  Both works introduce a film that documents a train journey by two Israeli musicians through Poland in the footsteps of relatives who survived the Holocaust in what Gordon describes as ‘a battle between history and the fleeting beauty of music.’

Running on two large screens, which sit at oblique angles, the images are echoed back by several adjacent mirrors.  The protagonists describe how Poland evokes memories of survival handed down within their families. Dark forests that line the tracks are linked to forced removals while simultaneously forming sublime landscapes today. Shots of railway tracks and signals allude to people shunted towards the camps along these very same lines. Subsequently, the musicians perform Mozart’s chamber piece K.364 in Poznan where their passion for the music achieves consolation rather than cathartic resolution.

The restrained narrative leaves us in a former synagogue converted into a swimming pool in 1939, which is still in use today. Shots below the water line of kicking legs suggest spontaneous pleasure but can any place so associated with tragedy be free of contamination?

The difficulty remains that this is well-worn territory loaded with problems for any creative enquiry and the film does not take us much further in comprehending a catastrophe for mankind that took place within living memory. Where Gordon is more successful is in asserting Art’s indispensability to human civilization and he skillfully links the consequences of history to life in the present. Staging this pilgrimage to ancestral roots through music gives concrete expression to sorrow but cannot ultimately remove the underlying horror. Gordon acknowledges this conundrum by framing 32 charred sheets of Mozart’s musical score against mirrored mounts. Destruction and creative endurance sit in suspended tension for perpetuity.

Friday 25 February 2011

Gabriel Orozco at Tate Modern

The ornamental skull has become a familiar mordant feature of the artist’s box of tricks over hundreds of years. In the Western tradition, this can be traced back to Vanitas, still-life paintings that confront us with the irresistible trajectory of time, impelling all life towards mortality. More recently, Damien Hirst inimitably seized the enduring trope for an extended dialogue between art and money, by covering an anatomical copy with high carat diamonds, cut to fit the contours of the head. But several years before Gabriel Orozco had employed this subject when he was recovering from a collapsed lung. Spending many hours in recuperation, he purchased a real human skull in order to draw directly onto the surface (apparently there are two outlets in New York City where such an object can be legally sourced).

‘Black Kites is perhaps the most engaging object in Orozco’s retrospective at Tate Modern. Stripped of any individualising fleshy features, the ivory-toned skull now caries a chequerboard pattern of black squares that slip into elongated diamonds as Orozco moves with his pencil into the recesses of this bony head. The shock of standing before human remains, far from the catacomb or archaeological display, is upstaged by the skillful handling of the graphite two-tone effect by which the artist maps and probes this repository of human instinct, knowledge and experience. An evident uncanny, creepiness is overlaid with decorative excavation. Such a darkly humorous and ornamental approach to the skull returns to us Orozco’s native Mexico, to the religious iconography of Aztec heads and more recently the Catholic appropriation of pagan ritual in the Day of the Dead where skeletons are dressed up and decorated in an annual danse macabre.

Mortality takes on quite a different presence within the same room where large banners reproduce headlines from the New York Times obituary pages that Orozco has proportionally magnified by using the same fonts. A jumble of diverse lives is thus reduced to absurd summaries that clash and fight for prominence such as the ‘Actor Once Wed To Shirley Temple’ and the ‘Inventor of a Better Seat Belt.’
And so Orozco’s eclectic employment of differing sources and materials may explore a similar thematic interest.

La DS, a modified Citroen car, sits displaced from the street as a hyper-real object sharing the same distinctive profile but viewed from the front, it becomes clear that the artist has removed the engine, narrowed the body and welded together what remains to produce an uncanny alteration that leaves the viewer with enough information to read the object as a familiar product but shorn of its functionality. We are left with an exaggerated, streamlined approximation of speed and movement that is disconcerting.

A few metres away within the same gallery, Orozco places an irregular, stained ball of indeterminate material on the floor. We learn that it is in fact constructed of plastercine to match the artist’s exact weight. ‘Yielding Stone’ is an object that carries layers of experience and memory embedded in its crusty skin, for this humble, inconsequential blob has been rolled around as a witness to Orozco’s nomadic wandering in real physical environments. It becomes an autobiographical repository of multiple encounters and sin a subdued fashion articulates all that has shaped it.

In a series of photographs, the conceptual gives ground to a more lyrical quality: the moist residue of breath sits momentarily on top of a reflective, lacquered piano;  a squashed football hosts a rainwater puddle; a showerhead resembles a photograph of the comos taken from a satellite. These images play on the open-ended power of suggestion, which Orozco most fully realizes in a series of creased paper images conjured out of creased paper and oil based paint and begin to resemble ‘ink blot’ tests.

Elsewhere, Orozco reclaims the most abject and disregarded materials for the purpose of art. Stretched layers of fabric fluff, human hair and skin hang loosely on clotheslines. Formed around the drums of tumble dryers in New York Laundromats, these formless and indeterminate residues neatly summarise Orozco’s quixotic quest for revelation in the material world.

This bathetic teasing strategy is most explicit in his empty shoe box first exhibited at the Venice Biennale which feels firmly established in post- Duchampian tradition but instead of outrage induces little more than ennui. Orozco is capable of overreaching in his hunt for lyrical transformation. In a site-specific work made for the exhibition, ‘Chicotes’, fragments of left lying in the road after car tyres have exploded, which lacks either beauty or surprise. He over-eggs this pudding by dripping pools of liquid aluminium over some of these frayed rubber strips resembling melted wheels and car parts, so suggests the curator grasping at a viable interpretation for a piece that does not feel fully formed. But the work still manages to embody entropic inevitability within the material world and perhaps unconsciously reminds us yet again of vulnerable flesh for the piece is unavoidably reminiscent of animal parts and pelts found dismembered in an abattoir.

This ability to work in different media and scale articulates the artist’s hungry observation of the world. He seems tireless and constantly inspired, resembling an illusionist who draws gasps from a crowd. Showmanship runs through the exhibition but sometimes the work can consciously embrace bathos and deflation too. Orozco engages with shamanic illusions, transforming the familiar and banal into objects of considerable resonance and power. However, unlike Joseph Beuys, Orozco’s is more intimate, quizzical and less charismatic. A chopped up car and an ornamental skull entertain and surprise simultaneously but they are not invested with transformative social or political symbolism. Orozco remains attached to the wry gesture that operates with subtlety rather than mesmerisation. This is an art of interruption and alteration, momentarily shifting meaning gently along to a new position. We may stand before ‘Black Kites’ and feel entranced, but the broken jutting tooth returns us to its origins and the point of departure

Monday 31 January 2011

Martin Creed's 'Mothers' at Hauser and Wirth

It’s rare that a work of art entails genuine danger, but Martin’s Creed’s new sculpture is a billboard – sized, illuminated sign that rotates at increasing speed. Giant neon letters construct the word ‘MOTHERS’, which illuminates the surrounding space with a harsh light. To step into this space is to risk significant injury, confirmed by a sign on the wall anxiously imploring us not to touch. This work demands a tentative encounter. Elevated by 2.03 metres, there is sufficient height to stand beneath the beam, but it is still low enough to instill serious trepidation. 

The absurdity of this object on a scale suitable for a Los Angeles Freeway is evident. Squeezed into an interior, the sheer physical impact of the sculpture is shocking and yet undeniably funny. With all its universal significance, the word here becomes a menacing and mesmerizing obstacle. This maternal surrogate literally threatens to give you a smack round the head. Our filial ambivalence is given discomforting, concrete form and we are compelled to survive this confrontation. To Ed Ruscha’s questioning the size of words, Creed replies that they can be as large as you want to build them.

MOTHERS has an audacious self-sufficiency, but it is accompanied by work that might stem from another practice entirely. Creed paints geometric shapes and patterns onto small canvasses. Using wide brushes, he builds broad strokes of uniform or contrasting colours that narrow upwards like an stepped ziggurat. Elsewhere, he stacks thin and loose horizontal stripes in acrylic, enamel, ink, oil and watercolour pigment, meeting at varying lengths in a spectrum of blues or reds. Avoiding a finished quality, these small, raw paintings convey direct sensation and an aesthetic authenticity.

Incongruously, three large photographs of a big hound and a tiny lapdog suddenly appear in the hang and interfere with any hint of seriality. The dissonance is intentional. Furthermore, a silent black and white film of closely cropped female breast floats in a dark room without any apparent relationship to the adjacent work.

Creed’s disavowal of linked scale, subject and media is, he explains, a conscious enjoyment of freedom and a denial of expectations. However, such an exhibition strategy runs the risk of upstaging the value of the works themselves, which tend to embody a brave and playful artistic enquiry.

Thursday 13 January 2011

Decay and illusion

Recently, The Guardian published some remarkable photographs by two young French photographers, Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre taken from their new book, The Ruins of Detroit ( Discovering images of the abandoned Michigan Central Railway online, they embarked on a spontaneous project involving several trips to Detroit over five years. What they have captured is a tragic collapse of civic life in the heart of one of America’s greatest industrial cities.

For anyone with an attachment to American history, design or culture, these images starkly illustrate pervasive decline in Detroit, which seems to characterise an irreversible loss of America’s legendary economic power and accompanying confidence.

Once a majestic terminus and the tallest station in the world, Michigan Central Station constructed in the architectural language of Ancient Rome, now stands as an empty shell, stripped of purpose and dignity. What ought to be a landmark building and an exemplar of civic pride, is now an architectural ruin, a memorial to an age within living memory of America’s immense industrial ingenuity and productivity.

Motown’s world beating automobile industry which pioneered mass production in the 1920s and in the 1950s made cars that became the ultimate embodiment of post-war aspiration, are now on their knees fighting off competition from newly emerging economies. But with the wilting of demand for American-made cars is an accompanying faltering of an entire city. The Vanity Ballroom, built in 1929, where Duke Ellington, Tommy Dorsey and Benny Goodman once played is also a husk. Only the wonderful Art Deco chandeliers, still hanging from the scarred ceilings illustrate how seductive this Aztec-styled pleasure palace was for up to a 1000 dancing couples. This is the type of room influenced by hundreds of Hollywood sets built firstly for the silent screen and then the early days of sound during what we continue to call the ‘Jazz Age’ .

There’s something inevitably melancholic about seeing great buildings decay before our eyes. It’s too close to the bone perhaps, reminiscent of mortality and the entropic collapse of fantasy and entertainment embodied within extraordinary buildings. Detroit’s historic place at the heart of the industrial Mid-West made it a popular destination for the great migration of African-Americans heading north from the rural south in the early 20th century. This huge demographic dislocation largely produced a distinct musical culture in the city, which came of age during the 1960s with the emergence of the Motown sound.

Another website I found called compiles even more extensive photographic archives documenting the social collapse of Detroit produced in a less glossy style than Marchand and Meffre but neverless as painfully haunting. Numerous schools, apartment buildings, churches, libararies, hotels and clubs stand empty and disintegrating. This blogger explains that Detroit lost a million inhabitants between 1950 and 2010 as if the energy of the city just seeped away. To see the structures that housed an entire society with all its aspirations simply abandoned is to experience some of the trauma of walking through Pompeii in the Bay of Naples.

At White Cube in the West End, Gregory Crewdson is exhibiting a new series of photographs employing a similar theme of decay and the irrepressible march of time. Instead of staging his now familiar theatrical mise-en-scene of suburban fantasies in lush technicolour, Crewdson has opted for the subdued subtlety of black and white prints. Furthermore, he now opts to take images on the outdoor sets at Cinecitta, Rome’s dream factory. These images austerely record the strange ambiguity of sets built to resemble either Roman cities or historical periods such as the 19th century. What may appear to be accurate reconstructions are persistently subverted by Crewdson’s exposure of scaffolding, ropes and props designed to facilitate a fantasy in the movie theatre. So the viewer is invited to participate in a simulacra of history while simultaneously being encouraged to appreciate the elaborate pretence that defines the entire process of film-making.

Titled ‘Sanctuary’, the series aptly demonstrates the artifice of film itself. On the one hand the sets are painstaking re-enactments down to the intricate details of brickwork, friezes and sculpture but on the other we witness the sheer flimsiness of these constructions shedding plaster and wood before our eyes as they sit devoid of activity. Entirely two dimensional and propped up at the rear, the sets are flimsy two-dimensional facades allowing the camera to skim across the surface but not to penetrate any deeper.

Of the 41 prints, only one illustrates any human presence. Hung on it’s own in a side room, this last photograph shows a female gate keeper at the entrance to the studio, oddly resembling one of those ticket sellers from the 1930s who used to sit outside the elaborately themed cinemas. Crewdson seems to link the process of film making to the history of its distribution in an era when film-making on the grand scale of Cleopatra and other movies made on this lot in Rome are being superseded by new technologies and audiences.

So this elegiac, nostalgic quality is present in both the Detroit and Cinecitta series. Photography is a superlative medium for evoking a profound sense of loss, of time washing irretrievably over buildings and places like a corrosive high tide. But we can enjoy the immense layering of information that both photographic practices achieve. We could spend hours isolating elusive and obscure details that appear to be literally fading before us.

Crewdson successfully captures that uncanny, mysterious quality of ‘make-believe’ intrinsic to film. Ironically these sets are built close to the authentic historic site of the Roman Forum. But only a set will suffice because it can be manipulated in a hyper-real fashion. While across the Atlantic twentieth century ersatz derivations of Roman architecture already lie in ruins little more than a 100 years after they were constructed.