Monday 28 January 2013

Breaking The Ice: Moscow Art 1960-1980s at the Saatchi Gallery

Organised with seemingly limited resources, this privately sponsored exhibition nevertheless serves to introduce a non-Russian audience to a very unfamiliar group of artists working in truly challenging conditions. These 22 artists who attempted to build careers during an era of totalitarian government and a prescribed national style, Socialist Realism, laid down by Joseph Stalin from the early 1930s. As late as 1974, artworks by many of these artists who attempted to exhibit to a public audience faced state sponsored vandalism when work was destroyed during the infamous ‘Bulldozer Exhibition’ of 1974, an open-air show on the edge of Moscow. It seems now remarkable that art could represent such a visceral threat to the Communist Party and its ideology. But this tension between approved art and the deep instinct for private expression explains how and why so many of the artists in ‘Breaking The Ice’ continued to make art despite the enormous difficulties in building a career, earning a living and avoiding official harassment.

We learn from this show of diverse interests and strategies under the rubric of ‘non-conformist’ art. Moscow functioned as the centre of an empire governed by a unifying political ideology and goals. As such, the city provided a hub for many migrants working in cultural activity. Even in a state of repression and limited possibilities for expression, the city facilitated debate and experimentation within non-conformist circles. Many of the artists exhibited here trained in the same academies and later acted as teachers and mentors to a new generation. Vladimir Nemukin was trained by teachers who had belonged to an avant-garde generation in Moscow immediately following the revolution. His abstract paintings took inspiration from American counterparts who exhibited during the Khrushchev thaw of the late 50s. ‘Spring In The City’ glows with yellow and white splashes as if they are electric beams within murky twilight. The brushwork is precise, building up patches of interlocking colour in that Expressionist ‘all-over’ effect. Sometimes a palette knife seems to cut through the wet paint to create delineated structure in the image. But this is less the sweeping assertion of Pollock and more the conscious, patient accumulation of detail found in the work of Joan Mitchell or the French artist Nicolas De Stael.

By contrast, Oskar Rabin employs a painterly treatment reminiscent of Soutine or Chagall. The city is described as alienating and hostile environment. Resembling expressionist work of the 1920s, Rabin illustrates a train emerging from a sagging tunnel beneath tower blocks that totter and sway under their own weight. Melancholia runs as a consistent thread through these sombre pictures denuded of dynamic colour. A violin sits forlornly on crumpled newspaper. In another painting, a fish rests on a cross functioning as a table assuming and you can almost smell its decay. These are private meditations on a dystopian experience of contemporary life imbued with a romantic longing for escape embodied by the picture of a solitary passport.

Contrasting responses to national and ideological decay might be seen in the work of Mikhail Roginsky who elevates the humble object to scrutiny. A green enamel cooking pot suggests a domestic history of utility and nostalgia. This is a variant of Pop Art without the commerce. Another picture uncannily resembles a Duchampian readymade but its pretence to a functional object is wryly subverted by its small size. Yevgeny Rukhin addresses private memory by copying the graffiti from his childhood hallway in ‘The Wall’. This incorporates lived experience into the painting and subtly alludes to imperfection and the shabby details of human activity. The painting revives private memory and a domestic arena free from public intrusion or control.

Ilya Kabakov has acquired an international reputation for his conceptual installations and seems to have used adversity to forge a distinctive voice that plays well beyond the Russian context although a work like ‘The Artist’s Despair’, simulating an act of vandalism by an imaginary artist against his own art, is rather laboured. Furthermore its date of 1994 is one among several in the exhibition stretching beyond the ostensible Soviet context and made well after Kabakov left for New York in 1989.

Elsewhere in the show we encounter works reminiscent of De Chirico and Morandi, still lives that investigate both the uncanny and the sublime but it’s the Sots Art (an abbreviation of ‘Socialist Art’) at the conclusion of the show that leaves the strongest impression. Perhaps it’s the courage and conviction with which artists like Komar and Melamid address the prevailing taste and ideology of the system. Their deployment of mockery and irony demonstrate the moral bankruptcy of the Soviet system. Stalin is presented like Hamlet staring into the mirror in a condition of existential anxiety. Kruschev meets Beria and is bathed in light like one of those Mannerist saints being blessed by divine favour. This is a world of insistent sloganeering reproduced in faux banners and posters.

Only in the last years of Perestroika could Russian artists fully acknowledge their satirical intentions which we can identify in Alexander Kosolopov’s collision of Soviet and American iconography so that Lenin’s head is used as a new form of branding for McDonalds. Boris Orlov too makes a direct assault on the pomposity and pretensions of the Soviet military with busts topped by tiny heads and chests festooned with medals. These forms of iconoclasm are momentarily amusing but feel rather strategized. What impresses and endures from this show is the quiet dedication of artists who continued to develop their craft without opportunities to exhibit or sell work. As a consequence there is weight to many paintings on display here borne of diligence and commitment. ‘Breaking the Ice’ therefore provides an inspirational counter to much of the work being exhibited below in the exhibition of contemporary Russian art made in the past ten years, which is often flighty and insubstantial without the skills and discipline earned from adversity.

Keith Arnatt: Works 1967 - 1996 at Maureen Paley

Announcing that ‘KEITH ARNATT IS AN ARTIST’ across the width of the gallery in bold letters made of black tape, Arnatt simultaneously introduces insistent bravado allied to a hesitant plea. Without spoken inflection, this declaration begins to question both material facts and imputed ideas within the white cube. Titled ‘Art and Egocentricity: A Perlocutionary Act?’ Arnatt’s sentence interrogates art as an act of suggestion rather than conclusion. Another piece titled ‘Jo’s Notes’ speaks both of domestic frustration and intimacy demanding actions such as ‘Let dogs out before you go to bed’. These scrawled instructions have a fragile quality and yet suggest the timeless urgency of communication.

Arnatt’s work consistently explores the instability of meaning within the image or object. Apparent certainties cede ground to weakness. In ‘Self- Cancelling System’ the reliability of mathematical progressions carry contradiction. A series of salt mounds double in size at regular distances until the volume of one mound necessarily collides with its neighbour. This logic of minimalist progression departs from a Donald Judd like coherence and collapses under the weight of its inherent contradiction. Oddly, the instructive text and diagram is inexplicably absent here leaving the floor piece rather orphaned from its conceptual parameters.

Perhaps the most engaging works are the photographic series like ‘Gardeners’ and ‘Taking The Dog For A Walk’ made in the 70s. They examine encounters between viewer, subject, time, place and activity. Acting as typologies, Arnatt uses these black and white prints to illustrate generic hobbies without losing specific details. Functioning both as archetypes and individuals, unnamed gardeners proudly display their plants and kitsch ornaments. A woman extends her kitchen into the garden by wearing a cooking apron while holding a pair of shears. Another man proudly pushes his lawnmower to conquer a lawn.

This retrospective of Arnatt’s modest formality and scope leads the viewer into art’s wider dialogue with the world whether in the investigation of logic and language or simply the eccentricities we indulge at home.

Monday 21 January 2013

A Bigger Splash: Painting After Performance at Tate Modern

Setting up a dialogue between Jackson Pollack and David Hockney offers a promising introduction to an exhibition that looks at the relationship between painting and performance over the past sixty years. Pollack’s Summertime No.9A demonstrates all of the intuitive release that flows out of his technique of placing the canvas on the floor thereby reasserting its materiality and intrinsic character as an object made through the application of paint to supporting surface. This is an art of impulse and wilfulness. He does not analytically study a subject to copy or describe it but acts in the moment fluidly moving through space to take the picture forward to a completion. Much has been written and said about Pollock’s methods and goals but when you see one of his mature paintings in the flesh their undeniable energy and restlessness demand consideration and ultimately respect for their insistent details of layered loops of paint. Within the exhibition the gallery takes the painting off the wall and returns it the floor, its place of origin and reminds the viewer of Pollock’s performative ritual. The image we see is part of a process and not an end in itself. To comprehend the revolutionary impact of this approach, we need to see it at our feet.

Hockney’s ‘A Bigger Splash’ elevates intellect and deliberation. Taking two weeks to paint the splash of water following an imaginary dive from an absent figure plunging deep into the water, Hockney privileges the viewer with a photographic freeze-framed image of displaced water. Looking at this complex spray of lifted white crested water, we know this is a device that reinforces the artificiality of painting and its translation of the observed world into fiction and effect. Water is never still in this way but moves so fast that it becomes a memory rather than something seen. Hockney’s emphasises both movement as stillness in this picture. The Californian bungalow glows hot colours in the sunlight and the palm tree takes carries Hockney’s desires as a Yorkshireman abroad searching for artistic and sexual freedom during the early 1960s. A Bigger Splash is an act of homage to Hollywood and a fantasy incorporating stereotypical motifs but he lends it an uncanny air rather like a De Chirico painting that suggests human activity through absence. So this is a work of synthesising different ideas and sources together to make something that is the antithesis of Pollock’s spontaneous dropping of paint.

These two paintings illustrate two critical themes in the exhibition: performance and staging. Sometimes these tactics come together so that they are not necessarily in opposition. The curators quote Allan Kaprow the pioneer of performance who says that after Pollock artists had to incorporate the performative, ‘real time’ element or give up painting entirely. We are led through Yves Klein, Niki de Saint Phalle and the Viennese Actionists who in turn take the act of painting towards a theatrical and improvised status. Where the exhibition begins to totter on the edge of relevance is the inclusion of artists exploring identity through disguise and characterisation such as Bruce Nauman and Cindy Sherman. Here make-up is literally taken as a proxy for paint applied to the body but now the show feels quite removed from either Pollock’s or Hockney’s concerns which we experienced in the first room.

The second half of the exhibition meanders even further from the thematic frame with a focus on individual artists working on installations that operate as sets or tableaux. Edward Krasinki’s application of blue lines of tape at a consistent height around the walls and across suspended mirrors raises interesting questions about control and autonomy at a time of political totalitarianism but feel like a digression. Further on we encounter a very stylised representation of Jean Cocteau’s world in an imaginary room by Marc Camille Chaimowicz that fails to convey much interest beyond contrivance. This is a theatrical set made inert by the absence of any performance.

Jutta Koether’s ‘The Inside Job’ connects one painting to the response of visitors in New York to the picture hanging inside a rented apartment but illustrates the problems of exhibiting a historic project outside the parameters of its original environment and audience. This is a challenge for exhibiting work related to performance beyond its original environment. Joseph Beuys managed to invest his objects and vitrines arising out of his performances with an enduring vitality. In the final room of this exhibition Lucy McKenzie’s beautiful hanging screens that masquerade as flat painted sets evoke that uncanny displacement and uncertainty we first found in Hockney’s Californian hedonism. Now McKenzie has given her illusions a life-sized architectural presence,  which are subsequently taken further into fiction as sets for an accompanying fictional film.

So what we discover inside this rambling exhibition a few moments when painting’s relationship to performance is explicit and appropriate but often the argument begins to ramble. Pollock and Hockney though remind us of painting’s power to reconnect us to urgent expression on the one hand and intricate invention on the other.

Thursday 3 January 2013

FOS' The Watchmaker at Max Wigram

<i>One Language Traveller 5 #3</i>, 2012

The word ‘Storage’ printed on the door of the gallery establishes the concept of a warehouse for the new series of work by FOS, otherwise known as the Danish artist, Thomas Paulsen. Predicated on the notion that the arena for exhibiting, promoting and selling art has moved from the commercial gallery to the art fair, FOS has turned the Max Wigram gallery into a transitional holding facility.  We are entering a physical space whose raison d’etre has apparently been made redundant by market forces.

Through the entrance, on the right, a vitrine of antique pocket watches implies the site of a pawnbroker or museum store.  The cultural and functional status of these objects is wholly disrupted in such an ambivalent physical site.

Visitors then pass up a ramp into a room panelled with cheap, painted wood. Objects here resemble artworks embodying various historic and stylistic concerns. A geometric relief appears to be made of cut and polished marble mounted in a brass frame but is actually shaped out of moulded salt. While employing the formal language of modernism, this piece eludes value, beyond the visual joke. Along the same wall hangs another vitrine contains a ‘primitive’mask, a biomorphic relief and a series of stacked cubes. Again, reference to art history is explicit.

The signature work ‘stored’ here is the ‘Watchmaker’ an awkward assemblage of cast botanical branches and geometric abstract heads mashing together styles, material, process and form. This strategic disorientation is again quite entertaining but ultimately rather dissatisfying. Such critique of commodification is well established but feels contrived and clumsy here.

Most problematic is a meandering film shown on a screen whose rear support becomes a sculptural presence in it’s own right. Made in Svarlbard within the arctic circle, the film follows a solitary hunter with a gun slung over his shoulder heading out into a snowy, wilderness. Sometimes, shots appear of supermarkets and other urban sites. A soundtrack of a narrator’s voice further disrupts integration.

Within this installation masquerading as a group of disconnected art works randomly trapped together in transit to another destination, there is little sense here of a genuine critical position being taken. FOS adopts a witty premise for his exhibition and it is adroitly mounted. However, there is little of theoretical or formal interest to take away from this stage set.