Wednesday 31 October 2012

Adam Pendleton's 'I'll Be Your' at Pace, London

Refuting rationality or narrative, Adam Pendleton incorporates cultural artefacts that he quotes and reconfigures within his work. This is a strategy he calls ‘Black Dada’ which is taken from Amiri Barak’s poem 1964 poem ‘Black Dada Nihilismus’. In the gallery, natural light picks out letters, diagonals and patterns silkscreened in glossier ink laid over matt black on canvas.   Two letters ‘A’ sit at 90 degrees to each other, separated by the thrust of a diagonal stripe, which cuts the image into opposing trianglar shapes with cropped ends. In the ‘Black Dada’ paintings he refers to Sol LeWitt’s Open Cube sculptures so that the pictures adopt graphic fragments from pre-existing cultural systems.

In another series, ‘System of Display, Pendleton silkscreens photographs of Pablo Picasso’s ‘primitive’ paintings exhibited at Documenta onto plexiglass and mirror. Form, context and source are translated across time and medium into new, self-sufficient objects. In a separate work, ‘Black Dada’ disconnected lines of text, some appropriated and some written by Pendleton, flow like a stream of consciousness across the creased and smudged support. Letters taken from the phrase ‘Black Dada’, a newspaper image of an unidentified man and blocks of geometric ink randomly float across the sequence of words referring to Sol LeWitt, art history and sexual desire.

Arguably the most convincing work ,‘Larry Hinton (white)’, comprises three panels that reproduce an old promotional photograph of an actor whose agent’s and photographer’s details are stamped in the corner, connecting it to a pre-existing functionality. The performer’s face is hung on the wall but two adjoining planks of irregular size sit stranded on the floor. Combining familiar elements of a billboard, casting headshot and publicity still, Larry’s pose is both cocky and debonair in his three piece suit, resonant of 1970s ‘Blaxploitation’ films.

Pendleton’s concept of ‘Black Dada’ does not appear to carry much intellectual coherence but instead employs an historic strategy of dislocation and reconfiguration. History surges forward into his work but leaves us awash in imagery and text that feels drained of signification beyond loose association. The work employs a tradition of anarchic sampling, but loses discernible satirical urgency or relevance on the way.  

Elgreen and Dragset's Harvest at Victoria Miro

Within an attic located up a steep flight of stairs, Elgreen and Dragset have made a faithful impression of a hayloft with tools hanging along the wall such as a harness, rake and scythe.  From a distance the timber structure of this imaginary barn spells out ‘kunst’, connecting the artifice of a working farm to art and the imagination. This blurring of boundaries sets up an entertaining enquiry into the realm of fantasy and expectation. On an opposing low wall the model of a boy sits looking down to the gallery below with his back to the tableau, while a resin vulture perches overhead. This menacing creature is named the ‘critic’ as a well-aimed barb at the expense of the media.

A darker theme is introduced by a miniature house placed on a rocking chair, titled ‘Home is the Place You Left. The reassuring environment of a farm with all its associations of nurture, fertility and abundance gradually acquires a gothic character arising out of these parodic props.  This uncanny set first establishes reassurance, and then undermines the apparent rural charm. Above a barn door, a stag’s antlers sprout from a head that is less skeletal than resiliently fleshy. An empty birdbox asserts the absence of life itself.

Continuing the Harvest theme below on the ground floor, the artists exhibit a project that sources layers of wall paint stripped from museums with techniques developed to preserve frescoes. Attached to framed canvasses, these fragments have been diligently removed from sites in Europe and the US and assume the monochromatic insistence of Minimalist painting. Tones range from bleached white to beige and textures vary from one ‘donor’ institution to the next. Their sizes are inconsistent as are the distances between each work, aping natural contrasts within public collections, and yet each banal surface of domestic paint shares formal origins and qualities.

Elgreen and Dragset’s hayloft introduces a nuanced psychic space of memory, discovery and potential trauma. The series of ‘paintings’ collected from and named after individual museums archly satirises Minimal seriality and institutional authority but this playfulness cannot compensate for a frustrating absence of enduring perceptual or conceptual weight.

Guillermo Kuitca at Hauser and Wirth

By taking architectural floorplans from the first, published encyclopaedia as a source for seven large scale works made of graphite and acrylic, Guillermo Kuitca sets up an enquiry into the processes and history of organizing knowledge. Encyclopaedias exhibit the best impulses of human curiosity but also carry inherent doubt and contingency . Kuitca’s large and impressive canvases appear to scatter original drawings of neo-classical buildings into intricate fragments as if we are observing a puzzle being re-assembled on a floor. While aspects of ‘Encylopedie VII’ remains coherent and identifiably reproduced from an original, printed plate, other areas of the image appear to be in a state of chaotic collapse. ‘Untitled’, 2010 is a  work almost measuring 2 by 4 metres and  occupies a room to itself, but unlike the other pieces in the series, this image is taken to the edge of legibility. Details are so atomised that the original source becomes elusive.

There is a familiar, contemporary technique here of digital imaging because these fragments are so confidently severed from each other as if Kuitca had applied ‘desktop’ strategies to manipulate copies. These enlarged and altered architectural plates, retrieved from history, extend Kuitca’s ongoing interest in epistemology, which he locates within the impulse to collate comprehensive information together .

In an adjoining gallery, the artist was exhibiting untitled paintings that extend the same theme within a contrasting formal style. These canvases mimic the painterly, analytic brushwork of cubist painting and yet originate in unidentified maps. Like the scattered architectural plates, these paintings reconfigure pictorial facts. However, these abstract paintings almost lose any power of communication except for lines of paint in red and yellow that may suggest roads or landmarks on a map. The viewer is left with a series of painterly marks that conflate analytic description with instinctual expression. Our bearings are lost as we are left with implied information within images seemingly driven by subjectivity.

Kuitca’s works inspired by the invention of the enclycopaedia brilliantly opens up a post-modern dialogue around meaning and authority, but the reconfigured maps are overly conceptual and are left adrift in a deep gap between invention and quotation so that they feel contrived and inert.

Nancy Holt at Haunch of Venison


Taking art beyond the studio to the landscape, Nancy Holt’s career has been linked with the ‘Land Art’ of Michael Heizer, Walter de Maria and her late husband, Robert Smithson. Concerned with temporal interventions in specific sites, the work has an ambivalent status located outside the traditional, commodified nature of the art market. At Haunch of Venison, Holt exhibits over hundred photographs that document such site specific work or thematically link existing natural or man-made structures.

‘Sunlight In Sun Tunnels’ of 1976 charts the progression of the sun in the sky as light flows through apertures drilled into the roof of a concrete tunnel. Like a series of cinematic frames, moving light and shadow within the tunnels evinces the nature of time determined by nature’s clock, the sun. Sunlight slips across the hard surface of the concrete skin while the surrounding landscape remains visibly fixed, framed by the entrance to this circular sculpture.

An earlier piece, ‘California Sun Signs’ of 1972, photographically documents marketing cliches on billboards and signs that connect Californian sunshine with notions of hedonism and health. But this ambition is ironically subverted by the kitsch designs and tatty condition of these motels and shops, casting doubt whether the promise of satisfaction can ever be fulfilled. Arranged as a randomly shaped grid, these images of metaphorical vitality acquire a pleading quality by selling a climate for cash.

Perhaps, the most successful piece in the show, titled ‘Western Graveyards’ of 1968 is a composite of 60 prints running alongside two full walls of one room, documenting westwards migration. These graves have an improvised quality. Love and respect drive attempts to build places of remembrance delineated by arrangements of stones, plastic flowers and ribbons. Often, scripts on wood or stone are eroded, barely legible. Many graves appear anonymous, abandoned or lost to memory and seem to be returning to dry dust. There is a pathos to this work, a tribute to the grind of building lives in an unyielding environment. But ‘Western Graveyards’ also speaks of the almost futile project to settle the mythic west.

Holt’s career addresses this human impulse to fashion nature whether on Dartmoor in England or in the American deserts. Where her work is most beguiling is on the boundary where hope and desire meets the resistance of environment, site and time.

Grayson Perry at Victoria Miro


Employing the model of Hogarth’s ‘A Rake’s Progress’, Grayson Perry presents a satirical morality tale of contemporary British life in The ‘Vanity of Small Differences’, a suite of six tapestries, measuring 200 by 400 in editions of six each. Designed using computer software, but made on traditional weaving looms in Spain, they form a remarkable new achievement for an artist affiliated to methods traditional craftsmanship and social satire as subject. The exhibition introduces several new pots made in his characteristic overlay of textural commentary and witty, graffiti-style illustrations, but the stars of this show are these exuberant and comic observations of British class and aspiration. These excavations of caste and class are stitched together from wool, cotton, acrylic, polyester and silk, a deliberate blending of luxury materials with the synthetic.

The six tapestries illustrate the life and tragic demise of a brilliant software designer, Tim Rakewell, born into working class life who uses his talent to build a fortune but whose success leads to a tragically early death when driving his luxury car too fast on a grimy city street. Perry returns to the allegorical model of the tapestry because it lends itself even more so than painting to storytelling, particularly caricature. Weaving cannot produce the hyper-real illusion of the brushstroke. Instead, the tapestry is an ideal form for instruction and a cartoon-like summation.

Perry has a deft understanding of Britain’s anxieties about wealth and status often expressed in feelings of envy, hostility and distrust. ‘Expulsion from Number 8 Eden Close’ illustrates  the protagonist’s final rupture with the family home as he moves towards bourgeois life with his middle-class girlfriend. All of the cultural chasms and subtleties of class distinction are laid bare. In the penultimate tapestry, Tim, is shown, hunting the upper class, personified by a stag being torn apart by hounds, which becomes a symbol for historical cycles of new money overtaking old.

‘The Vanity of Small Differences’ is a formally brilliant rendering of modern life, in the style of a parable. Perry’s flair for comedy produces an entertaining romp resembling a theatrical farce while still managing to create a persuasive critique of contemporary materialism.