Monday 13 May 2013

'David Bowie Is' at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Once contemptuously described in a BBC news report as a ‘bizarre freak’, David Bowie emerges from this exhibition as one of the most influential individuals in western culture of the past fifty years. Using material borrowed from his personal collection, the curators have constructed a show illustrating Bowie’s dynamic self-invention and his restless curiosity about the world around him. Drawing on a huge range of sources ranging from Weimar cabaret, Stanley Kubrick, J.G.Ballard, Little Richard and Andy Warhol among many others, Bowie is the ultimate assimilator of style and ideas. Paul Robertson’s ‘Periodic Table of David Bowie’ here demonstrates the disparate lustre of Duchamp and  Dietrich in Bowie’s world. The exhibition demonstrates how he has found an identity free from expectation or restraint.

What’s radical about the exhibition is it’s assertive eclecticism. We see a tiny model of Queen Elizabeth’s coronation coach alongside ration books articulating Bowie’s suburban childhood. A huge selection of costumes, album covers, handwritten lyrics, videos and ephemera like a lipstick imprint on a tissue weave together Bowie’s achievement. Hybridity is his enduring passion collecting, quoting and sampling the cultural world around him in support of a determined vision. He ransacks and mashes together the bric-a-brac of human life: history, science fiction, art, film, theatre and fashion. All these inconclusive traces of the man born as ‘David Jones’ confirm that he is an elusive performer of fictions.

The Victoria and Albert Museum is pioneering a new exhibition model here. Objects are piled high and compete for attention. Order is discouraged and sensory overload prevails. Peepholes illustrate models of a painter’s studio stacked above a Buddhist prayer hall alluding to Bowie’s early professional confusion, which he resolved by feeding it back into his work. The audience must navigate clashing disguises and theatrical props. Sound is appropriately important to the design and each visitor listens to an ‘audio-guide’ playing songs and commentary triggered by your movement on the exhibition floor. In a thrilling simulation of a concert, visitors watch Bowie as Ziggy Stardust and Aladdin Sane’s appear on giant screens rising 20 metres high in which costumes are embedded on illuminated shelves.

You leave this exhilarating exhibition genuinely moved and inspired by Bowie’s determination to achieve cultural, sartorial and sexual autonomy. This is an artist looking for that tipping point where he slips free of definitions. ‘David Bowie is’ suggests how ‘we can be heroes, just for one day.’

West End Sculpture: Marcel Duchamp, Sterling Ruby and Alexander Calder.

Marcel Duchamp remains a fascinating and inspirational figure to contemporary artists for the daring way in which he turns the world upside down. Nothing was sacred to him and all established systems open to deconstruction. He plays with language and meaning more deftly than most thinkers. It’s even possible to regard him as a philosopher working in concrete form rather than a more conventional artist who happens to manipulate materials. So it’s a rather inspired idea of Blain/ Southern to curate a show, ‘Tell Me Who You Haunt’ in Hanover Square exhibiting Duchamp alongside artists engaging with his concept of the ‘readymade’, a pre-existing object translated into art through the artist’s selection and translation through the act of exhibiting it as an ‘artwork’. This strategy is now well established and prevalent today. We take the idea on trust and it remains a founding principle of conceptual art. But the exhibition is also exploring how reading a ‘readymade’ may change depending on how it is shown and its relationship to other objects. Therefore a ‘readymade’ is always in flux and never fixed.

Paradoxically, Duchamp’s use of a men’s Urinal to exhibit a work he called ‘Fountain’ at the New York Armoury show in 1917 directly challenged the claims made for an artist’s creative vision and technical mastery. The gesture carried satirical and destabilising assault on traditional values of art, but arguably the power of the act and its audacity has arguably transferred more power and authority to the artist and galleries. However, this exhibition illustrates that today’s ‘readymade’ has become a worn down from conceptual overexposure. Much of the contemporary work exhibited alongside historic Duchamp objects like ‘50cc d’Air de Paris’ do not possess the same potent ambivalence and ironic thrust. Jimmie Durham’s ‘Heaven and Earth shall Pass Away’ has a theatrical impact as a boulder pins an anonymous jacket to the floor. While it is made from two found objects it’s not strictly a ‘readymade’ and neither is Jota Castro’s Leche y Ceniza comprising an infant’s playpen with a mirrored floor. It is an engaging work touching on memory and the troubling sight of seeing your own face returned to as a psychoanalytic jolt.

Perhaps only Nasan Tur’s ‘Fortuna’, a roulette ball from a casino placed archly in a vitrine on a pedestal carries that uncanny presence we expect from a successful ‘readymade’. As you leave, David Batchelor’s balls of monochromatic electrical cord straddle the gap between being pure ‘readymades’ and sculptures that are re-fashioned from pre-existing objects.

Down the road at Hauser and Wirth, Savile Row, Sterling Ruby is enjoying a solo show where he is exhibiting a range of theatrical sculptures employing poured urethane that creates a glossy, gloopy effect over large scale forms that resemble visceral organs and sinews but also double as mechanistic objects like ramped up cars, built in a domestic garage. These enormous, horizontal fleshy things are also inverted vertically so that they resemble stalagmites found in caves from solidifying minerals. There’s a feel of ‘goth-pop’ here, a range of cultural references heightened by a touch of the monstrous. An entire room is indeed dedicated to a vampiric theme when Ruby hangs several soft sculptures form the wall indicating open mouths with two prominent fangs dripping blood. Acting like absurd stags’ heads lined up as trophies of hunting prowess, these sagging mouths quoted from contemporary culture possess an absurd ‘attitude’. Sewing has emasculated Dracula.

Less successful are the large collages of waistbands ripped from branded underwear and fragments of blankets. Following an American tradition of quilting, these large pictorial assemblages imitate the scale of ‘important’ painting but feel lifeless and inconsequential. Even worse are the flattened boxes used to create the urethane sculptures, which are then framed alongside banal labels taken from beer and pharmaceutical packing. These works pay homage to the tradition of Picasso’s Cubist assemblages or Kurt Schwitters’ Merz constructions, but again feel limp and lazy.

After seeing Ruby’s erratic and dizzying assault on contemporary American culture, Alexander Calder’s mobiles, stabiles and standing mobiles are guaranteed to bring a smile to your face. 

Each Calder sculpture, whether floating in free space suspended from the ceiling or sitting deftly in miniature on a plinth and stored in a re-conditioned cigar box, finds an intrinsic co-ordination of colour, line, materials and flow. Their slow, bobbing search for equilibrium is entrancing and satisfying, lulling you into an art-induced reverie.

Thursday 9 May 2013

Francesca DiMattio at the Zabludowicz Collection, London

I conducted this interview with the talented Francesca DiMattio as she was finishing the installation of her exhibition titled ‘Vertical Arrangements’ at the Zabludowicz Collection in London where she was exhibiting  new ceramic sculptures beside her paintings. This was a  group show at the gallery  including work by Albert Oehlen and Matthew Chambers . A resident of  New York and represented by Pippy Houldsworth Gallery in London and Salon 94 in New York, Francesca is a graduate of Cooper Union and Columbia University. Francesca DiMattio has been A resident of  New York and represented by Pippy Houldsworth Gallery in London and Salon 94 in New York, Francesca is a graduate of The Cooper Union and Columbia University.

JW: Why have you placed flowers in the ceramic sculpture, Totem?

FD: It’s really a sculpture inspired by vase structure, form and histories. To house the flowers makes a lot of sense but without flowers totally works too.  All of these ceramic pieces in the show have the ability to be candlesticks and candelabra too in different configurations. ‘Totem’ is really heavy and takes five guys to lift. It’s made of three pieces, which are lifted onto each other for the exhibition. Clay is weird. These are hand-built slabs an inch and a half thick. It involved lots of different techniques being used to produce these effects.

JW: I heard that you had to teach yourself and learn from scratch?

FD: Yes, I had to learn how to make work in clay. I had a great teacher. I taught myself to some extent, but Kurt Weiser, my father-in-law and a ceramicist taught me. He’s really famous in his field in the craft world. He also taught for years, so I had to go out there to study with him in Arizona. I would ask him how do you do that? I learned a lifetime’s ceramics in a month, which was a unique experience. We stayed up until 3 in the morning and sometimes we accidentally broke things.

JW: Your paintings have a dizzying quality of stacked elements incorporating architecture and domestic objects. What are the formal or thematic effects are you trying to achieve?

FD: I am looking for something that is not static so everything is interrupted or interfered with, which creates sense of movement. In finishing one object you’re interrupted and it turns into something else. I don’t want something to stay still. These paintings are really stacked. I think of them as sculptures within in a space to some extent.

JW: What’s your starting point?

FD: To begin, I produce a schematic idea of a space and start building something. Initially I have insane amounts of images that I sift through before starting a work and at that point it’s quite freeing. I’m looking at things formally and I search for difference.  You’re starting with three points pulling in different directions and then from there I react to it, but it’s not a mapped out thing initially. It’s Important to get right in there. Each painting learns from the one before.

 JW:  I read in a previous interview with Amy Sillman that you don’t want to make a picture static. How do you create the right balance and tension within a picture?

FD: I don’t want it to be completely dizzying. Parts happen simultaneously not fifty things at once. Paint used to describe a face is also pulled to describe a house. You get stuck in fused moments so that in new paintings a couple of descriptions are happening at the same time. It’s a tension between being overwhelming and being able to have a slippage, which is something uncomfortable. Flowers may wilt but are not dead.

JW: What are the developments in your new work like the painting ‘Damask’ (2012) on show in the exhibition?

FD: There’s a strong linear quality articulated in the rope described in ‘Damask’. I was thinking about stitching things together like the undulation that happens in sewing, weaving, crocheting and crafts. Through the interlocking drawings of different things, abstractions are made in between so the space is where the lines intersect.

JW: You appear to have a consistent interest in ‘craft’. What draws you to that?

FD: As I get older, the more I have the desire to bridge gaps. I make things and find ways of bring them together. I want to make a candelabra next. I make a lot of things and I do a lot of sewing. It’s not a big leap. There’s a direct relationship between ceramics and paintings. I find it frustrating that there are a thread of adjectives that follow these crafts like ‘small’, ‘girlish’, ‘hippyish’ things. I take the same modes of making but over scale them with a tougher hand.

JW: Why do you quote art and design history such as making references to Delft pottery and ‘chinoisserie’?

FD: It’s about the history of the material whether it’s painting or ceramics. Ceramics are quite hybrid and specific. I’m most interested in different languages and histories but also the various ways of handling materials.

JW: So it’s hybridity of style and material that interests you and the breakdown of those boundaries and histories?

FD: I want them to be non-hierarchical in a kind of dissolve through juxtaposition and proximity of this difference. In some pieces, I used china paint a historically revered gilding technique but also what grandmas do on plates. I’m interested in really expensive antiques and a grandma’s taste in plates, a huge range from tacky to nice. There’s a shift through proximity from something beautiful to something disgusting.

JW: So one of the ceramic works can tip quickly from the respectable to the vulgar?

FD: Yes, there’s a tablecloth in the painting ‘Damask’ that has does a similar thing because it’s looks like both a baroque floral pattern and a cheap tablecloth at the same time.

JW: So there’s an enquiry in your work about traditional notions of fine art and class iconography while at the same time there’s a dialogue around what’s undervalued and disregarded?

FD: Through that instability I’m making it less fixed, so notions of high class or vulgarity are questioned.

JW: That has that been a challenge for other ceramicists working in clay. In the craft tradition there’s been a distinction made between craft and fine art, those who make pots and those who paint. You seem to be interested in that cultural gap.

FD:  I suppose it depends on the pot. So I can’t defend all of them. In terms of the whole craft argument, the gap is more about taste than craft. You can make anything if it’s good out of anything, but I was in part drawn to ceramics for that cloud above it. I was drawn to it for that ambiguity, that it’s separated out more than any medium. Working with ceramics demanded this craft approach and that’s fascinating to me.

JW: You can see that confusion in the way museums distinguish between ‘fine art’ and ‘craft’.

FD: For ‘Totem’ it’s all porcelain and it doesn’t naturally want to behave in this way on such a scale. You wouldn’t choose this kind of clay to make big slabs from.  There also all these fingerprint marks in it and it shows crude handling, behaving more like stoneware with grit in it. I was thinking about the Expressionist potter, Voulkos, when I made it and giving it lots of surface decoration and making it out of porcelain with an almost grotesque pattern and feminine overlay. The figurine would be the kitsch element, but based on an 18th century piece while also looking as if you could find it in a gift shop.

JW: How does your work sit in this curated show? What do you learn from participating in this exhibition alongside other artists with a curator in a public exhibition? Does it put your work in a new light?

FD:  It’s probably too early to ask. I only put in the flowers yesterday. But there’s an interesting connection to the other artists in terms of language such as the shifts in Matthew Chambers’ paintings from piece to piece and how they are installed.  Albert Oehlen leaves mushy fingerprints over a taped-off ‘fade’ in a painting and the space between those gestures and the digital printing too with the expressionist hand over the top. I become more involved in the hanging and arrangement of my work, which is probably related to growing confidence and age.

JW: What you do want to do next? You mentioned making a candelabra out of clay.

FD: I want to make a large, hanging, low chandelier that would comprise clay and metal. It would cover a lot of different references in terms of candlesticks. I want to do my own thing now having digested different style histories. It would possess crude protruding extruding clay and produce lot of different handling techniques.

JW: There’s a balance in your work between collapse and something evolving, asserting form and volume. There’s so much dialogue and quotation, such as the patterned surfaces.  Your interest seems to lie with pushing the possibilities of technique and materials.

FM: Some of this is just piling on the glaze in the ceramic sculptures, as if in the process of learning. It’s harder rendering effects this way. Technically being out of control is actually hard to achieve. The quantities are shocking. The sculptures appear haphazard as if a student had made them but it takes a lot of piling on and I mixed all the crackling glaze myself. You still have to have know the direction you’re taking.

JW: For all its mashed together and jagged appearance, there’s a completion in ‘Totem’ that feels whole.

FD: You could intervene and break Totem after firing but ‘brokenness’ is different from my rugged handling of the material. The finished work is not meant to look ‘archaeological’. It’s really important to me that through all this fracturing that it comes back together to being whole again. Like the paintings, I don’t want to create a dizzying, empty space. I want to build a ‘wholeness’ at the end of the process. Formal connections in the work are what interests me, for example, how the grid in ‘Diptych’ (2008) resembling a ship’s mast relates to the grid of a chair, the inside of an umbrella or holes within a ladder, so that everything has a structural similarity. ‘Diptych’ moves from panel to panel and some of it gets lost. I look at everything as a source. I started with the fade from dark grey to light in house paint that was really a reductive landscape, moving from a Richter-like palette knife effect to oil. I rip up lots of books and have piles of images in my studio. The ‘schlocky’ figures in that painting are from an art history book.

JW: Were you ever conscious of failing when you were making ‘Totem’?

FD: This piece was meant to fail. My father-in-law said there was too much happening to complete it, but I said I was fine making it by myself. I was working in a school environment and not my studio so the works felt vulnerable. It was weird and I didn’t have full control so some work was destroyed and I couldn’t accept it. ‘Totem’ was designed to make up for it. I worked for two weeks on my own when the school was closed over Christmas and it was really depressing. The process is slow and the clay is fragile before firing. Instinctively, I had a better sense of weight and space than I had expected having only painted before.

JW: It’s an example of how you learn by falling back on your own resources and pushing through. I see you are giving a talk to accompany the exhibition. Is it important to find a ‘language’ to discuss your work?

FD No, I really don’t think it is necessary but I’m happy to do it. It can be interesting, but the work stands on its own.

JW: Where is your practice moving now?  You’ve developed a particular language in your paintings and sculptural ceramics. There’s a nice articulation now across media of shared interests and themes. Can you see what you’ll be doing in future?

FD: I will be working for a show at the Blaffer Museum in Houston opening next winter, so I want to make paintings and sculpture using new materials like acqua resin. I will aim to produce greater height in the ceramic sculptures without the weight and fragility because clay can make them super-heavy. There’s no way to fire them in New York and they are very expensive to make. That’s one of the reasons I went out to Arizona to use a special kiln. I need to work in sections. From working with ceramic glazing, the surfaces of my paintings are becoming more articulated. There’s a lot more variety. Having used cake decorating extruder tips for the ceramics, I’m now using them to make paintings.