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Posts tagged ‘Tate Modern’

Ibrahim El-Salahi: A Visionary Modernist

Following hot on the heels of Tate’s superb mini-exhibition of Saloua Raouda Choucair, an artist previously unknown to so many art-buffs in the UK (but whose work completely revolutionised my approach to my work, and got me thinking about how I can use gouache in my paintings) comes another retrospective exhibition of a relative unknown as far as big art names go: Ibrahim El-Salahi, whose significant 7-room solo show has recently opened at Tate Modern in London. And what a success it is.

Coming from Sudan (born 1930), El-Salahi’s retrospective is Tate Modern’s first retrospective dedicated to an African modernist. It will also most likely be the first many visitors to the show will have heard of this Modernist artist. Yet El-Salahi’s work is nothing short of stunning – a visual delight of painting, drawing and calligraphy which comes together in a retrospective which exhibits a level of imaginative expression the likes of which I have not seen since discovering the works of Dali. The complexity of some of his drawn black and white images is nothing short of stunning – a mix of figurative and more expressive forms, but culminating to form a visual assault on the viewer whose eyes simply do not know where to begin in the appreciation of these works.

Reborn Sounds of Childhood Dreams I (1962-3) © Ibrahim El-Salahi

Reborn Sounds of Childhood Dreams I (1962-3) © Ibrahim El-Salahi

Centred on the recent acquisition of Tate Modern, the significant piece entitled Reborn Sounds of Childhood Dreams (1961-5), the exhibition starts off with the artist’s most recent works before delving backing in time to paintings loaded with African earthly brown tones, burnt umbers and yellow ochres representing, as El-Salahi himself says, the African foundations which pervade his work. But asides from the African earthy colours and the occasional tribal mask, El-Salahi’s early work exhibits a complexity of imagery which extends way beyond the continent which has so characterised his work. Islamic imagery, for example, is featured strongly, with Islamic lettering and the crescent moon prominent throughout the show, while perhaps the strongest influence comes from a surprisingly significant immersion in Western culture, an exposure encountered when El-Salahi won a scholarship to London’s Slade School of Art in the 1950s, with particular references to Picasso’s jarred cubist figures showing through from then onwards.

They Always Appear (1966-8) © Ibrahim El-Salahi

They Always Appear (1966-8) © Ibrahim El-Salahi

Al-Kas (1964) © Ibrahim El-Salahi

Al-Kas (1964) © Ibrahim El-Salahi

The Last Sound (1964)  © Ibrahim El-Salahi

The Last Sound (1964) © Ibrahim El-Salahi

Funeral and the Crescent (1963) © Ibrahim El-Salahi

Funeral and the Crescent (1963) © Ibrahim El-Salahi

Vision of the Tomb (1965) © Ibrahim El-Salahi

Vision of the Tomb (1965) © Ibrahim El-Salahi

The exhibition moves to the 1970s, a difficult time for El-Salahi when he was compelled to return from London to Sudan to take up the role of Deputy Undersecretary of Culture at the Sudanese Ministry of Information, under the military dictatorship of General Gaafar Nimeiry. However, his tenure ended abruptly in the mid-70s when, in the aftermath of a failed military coup, El-Salahi was accused of anti-governmental activities and imprisoned for 6 months. The art works which follow are abruptly different from the warm earthy umber works of the previous room. Stripped of colour, these black and white works, generally drawn in ink on paper, appear to reject the warm colours of El-Salahi’s African heritage, but are nevertheless some of the most powerful works in the show, demonstrating incredibly skilled draughtsmanship and imagination which is beyond what most of us are capable of. Apparently El-Salahi would begin these works by drawing a small image, the likes of which would gradually expand outwards as he would add paper to allow the image to spread.

The Inevitable (detail) (1984-4) © Ibrahim El-Salahi

The Inevitable (detail) (1984-4) © Ibrahim El-Salahi

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From Visual Diary of Time-Waste Palace (1996-7) © Ibrahim El-Salahi

From Visual Diary of Time-Waste Palace (1996-7) © Ibrahim El-Salahi

In the 1990s, El Salahi, now in self-imposed exile from Sudan, moved to Oxford, and there, inspired by the verdant British countryside began a series of tree-inspired images. With these, El Salahi injected colour back into his work, and also dappled in more linear, geometric forms. This in turn led to the present, where El Salahi appears to be returning to the earthier browns of his earlier period, but also dapples again in some of the more detailed black and white ink on paper works. But whether brown, black or white, these works, based on a recent trip to Granada in Spain and largely depicting Flamenco (which of course has its routes in Islamic culture, as does Granada itself) are without a doubt the most stunning works of the exhibition. I was held utterly spellbound by one work depicting Granada in those same umbres and ochres, but with a black and white clustered group of flamenco dancers at its centre, their arms thrust upwards in a burst of energy so reminiscent of that point of duende, their figures perfectly arched into the passionate hold of a flamenco dancer in her final crescendoed cry. Dazzling. Spectacular – one of the best works I have ever seen at Tate. Tragically, I can find no image of this work online, which makes it all the more important that you head along to the show to share in these incredible artworks.

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Ibrahim El-Salahi: A Visionary Modernist is on at Tate Modern until 22 September 2013

Saloua Raouda Choucair – Geometric East meets Abstract Expressionist West

I hadn’t heard of Beirut-born artist Saloua Raouda Choucair before I dropped in, unplanned, to a small retrospective of her work at Tate Modern yesterday. In fact, as the literature accompanying the show rather depressingly tells us, “despite ceaselessly producing work for the best part of five decades, Choucair remains relatively little known internationally [and]… has not yet reached her deserved position in art history”. This is undoubtedly the reason then why our paths have not crossed each other before (and, I suppose in part has something to do with the fact that her name does not exactly spring to mind all that easily). Yet the moment I walked into the four room exhibition at Tate, encouraged to do so by the vivid bright colours of her almost fauvist abstract portrait which graces the posters of the show, I was in love.

Choucair poster

I was in love first and foremost with her paintings, largely gouache abstract compositions, with geometric forms criss crossing over each other in a multi layered colour explosion, to her Les Peintres Celebres collection, a wonderful set of group portraits, where the form of the nude has been flattened and abstracted, and the poses reduced to softened linear forms.

Les Peintes Celebres (1948-9) © Saloua Raouda Choucair Foundation

Les Peintes Celebres (1948-9) © Saloua Raouda Choucair Foundation

Untitled (1948-9) © Saloua Raouda Choucair Foundation

Untitled (1948-9) © Saloua Raouda Choucair Foundation

Paris-Beirut (1948) © Saloua Raouda Choucair Foundation

Paris-Beirut (1948) © Saloua Raouda Choucair Foundation

Choucair’s paintings very clearly demonstrate the influential hand of cubist figurative painter Fernand Léger, under whose influence she came in 1940s Paris, and yet as she moves from figure paintings to her abstract composition, you can see equally clear evidence of the extent to which she was inspired by the geometric forms of Islamic art, which had entranced her when she became acquainted with them in Cairo. These “Fractional Modules” as she calls them, were almost certainly my favourite paintings in the show. Simple shapes interwoven and multi-layered resulted in a wonderfully satisfying overall abstract form, an image so complex in its pictorial language (despite the repeated use of a single shape or form) that it reminds me of the same level of aesthetic satisfaction that can be gleaned from those stunning patterned tiles and plaster work in the great Islamic palaces of Southern Spain.

Composition in Blue Module (1947-51) © Saloua Raouda Choucair Foundation

Composition in Blue Module (1947-51) © Saloua Raouda Choucair Foundation

Fractional Module (1947-51) © Saloua Raouda Choucair Foundation

Fractional Module (1947-51) © Saloua Raouda Choucair Foundation

Rhythmical Composition in Yellow (1952-5) © Saloua Raouda Choucair Foundation

Rhythmical Composition in Yellow (1952-5) © Saloua Raouda Choucair Foundation

Composition with Arcs (1962-5) © Saloua Raouda Choucair Foundation

Composition with Arcs (1962-5) © Saloua Raouda Choucair Foundation

However in addition to the paintings, I also loved Choucair’s sculptures, which became her main preoccupation from the 1950s onwards, and into whose multi-dimensional forms the language of abstract expressionism has translated. Her works often reminded me of British greats Moore and Hepworth, particularly her use of strings strung across her metal sculptures to form rounded ephemeral planes. But I loved in particular her “poem” works – like a pile of bricks but each somehow melting under the tender hands of their mother-sculptor, curving into one another in an organic embrace.

Poem (1963-5) © Saloua Raouda Choucair Foundation

Poem (1963-5) © Saloua Raouda Choucair Foundation

Dual (1978-80) © Saloua Raouda Choucair Foundation

Dual (1978-80) © Saloua Raouda Choucair Foundation

The screw (1975-7) © Saloua Raouda Choucair Foundation

The screw (1975-7) © Saloua Raouda Choucair Foundation

But perhaps the most powerful piece in the exhibition is  Two=One (1947-51), one of Choucair’s painted compositions which had been hanging in her Beirut flat when a bombing raid rained down on the city during the Lebanese civil war in the 1980s, resulting in glass from one of her cabinets smashing and piercing the surface of this abstract painting. Thus the painting bears witness not only to that history, but, as Tate puts it, to the “circumstances through which Choucair not only survived, but continued to work with energy and enthusiasm”. Hopefully, with this superb exhibition  hosted at the very heart of the Britain’s art capital, Choucair’s enthusiasm will finally bear fruit as she becomes recognised as an internationally important abstract artist, under whose skilful guise Eastern islamic geometry met with western Expressionism with stunning results.

Two=One (1947-51) (complete with hole at its centre)  © Saloua Raouda Choucair Foundation

Two=One (1947-51) (complete with hole at its centre) © Saloua Raouda Choucair Foundation

Soloua Raouda Choucair is on at Tate Modern until 20th October 2013.

 

Lichtenstein Retrospective: Artist or copyist, it’s a spot-acularly good show

Intrinsically linked with the school of Pop Art are a series of almost inevitable questions: Is a work which borrows from a pre-existing image original? Does it even matter? Can a painting of a can of soup, for example, the likes of which can be found on every supermarket shelf around the world, be described as having any artistic merit? And just how much creativity is required in order to call a representation of an object “art”?

No more so are these questions of relevance than when contemplating the work of American pop art supremo, Roy Lichtenstein (1923-1997), whose retrospective has just opened its doors at London’s Tate Modern gallery. Making it big when, in 1961 he imitated a cartoon of Disney’s Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck, by blowing up a single cartoon frame to life-size proportions and recreating it with oil paint on canvas, Lichtenstein shot to fame as the creator of zany bold paintings which almost exclusively borrowed either from comic books, or images of ordinary life (largely advertisement images in newspapers and magazines). Lichtenstein was unapologetic in taking the work of other cartoon illustrators and, with very few changes except for an increase in size and the occasional simplification of colour, recycling the images as his own (and then selling the canvas for equally increased sums).

Lichtenstein's first pop-art image: Look Mickey (1961)

Lichtenstein’s first pop-art image: Look Mickey (1961)

Inspired by adverts - Step-on can with leg (1961)

Inspired by adverts – Step-on can with leg (1961)

Alka Seltzer (1966)

Alka Seltzer (1966)

And yet to describe Lichtenstein’s process in this way is itself a simplification of the facts. For in transferring print images to the realm of oil on canvas, Lichtenstein does something remarkable – he paints the amplified cartoon or advert so perfectly, including the Ben-Day dots (which was a printing process used to create the effect of colour mixing or dilution) and the black outlines, that he manages to remove almost any indication that this is the work of an artist. Contemporary audiences questioned the merit of doing this. In an age when abstract expressionists like Jackson Pollock had ruled the art world, the absence of any indication of the artist at work, whether through brush strokes or drips of paint, appeared devoid of emotional tangibility or expression. And yet in a way, wasn’t Lichtenstein just doing what had been done centuries before, by the great artists of Renaissance, Baroque and Napoleonic art for example, who painted so perfectly that not a single brush stroke was ever evident in their finished canvases?

Torpedo

To view Lichtenstein’s work as devoid of expression and artistic wit is to misunderstand his accomplishments as an artist. For even in his early works, which do predominantly borrow from comic strips, we see his humour as an artist choosing, and drawing our attention to, the more absurdly worded or amusing cartoons. In amplifying the macho airmen and apparently helpless, romantic and teary blondes of typical american comic books, Lichtenstein is subtly commenting on the stereotypes of the age, if not challenging them then poking fun at the very formulaic trajectory of a modern commercial society, all buying into the same clichés, and tempted by the same products and advertising.

Whaam (1963)

Whaam (1963)

M-Maybe (1965)

M-Maybe (1965)

We rose up slowly (1964)

We rose up slowly (1964)

Masterpiece (1962)

Masterpiece (1962)

Yet there can be no doubting the trajectory of Lichtenstein’s own career as clearly evidenced by the helpfully chronologically curated exhibition. Having found his niche in a new pop art era, and very much made the world of the commercial image an artistic style all of his very own, with all the lines and Ben-Day dots that entailed, we see Lichtenstein go on to develop that style in a number of different contexts, expanding beyond the comic-book and advert to develop his own individual chapter in art history. As the years move on, we see Lichtenstein adopt the simple linear forms and carefully graduating colours of the art deco style, using his dots and lines adeptly to recreate the look and feel of that modernist era. Perhaps most effectively of all, we then see him use his own style to reimagine the work of great artists, like those artists had in turn done with the work of other artists before them. This was definitely my favourite section of the exhibition, as Lichtenstein used his unique  pop-art style to reinvent works by Picasso, Mondrian and Matisse, to paint his own still-lifes including a brilliant cubism still life, and most technically brilliant of all, to pay homage to Monet’s various depictions of Rouen Cathedral, doing so with Ben-Day dots alone.

Frolic (1977)

Frolic (1977)

Frolic

Cubish still life (1974)

Cubish still life (1974)

Rouen Cathedral (after Monet) (1969)

Rouen Cathedral (after Monet) (1969)

Having tackled art history, Lichtenstein next explores the genre of still-life, as well as depictions of an artist’s studio itself, again something which many artists have done before him. He also paints large scale depictions of rooms, with wonderfully simplified furniture, but always including a number a number of visual clues, generally in the paintings hung in the room, as to a deeper, often more personal tale he is attempting to tell.

Still life with goldfish (1972)

Still life with goldfish (1972)

Artist's Studio "The Dance" (1974)

Artist’s Studio “The Dance” (1974)

Interior with Waterlilies (1991)

Interior with Waterlilies (1991)

Reflections on Interior with a Girl Drawing

Reflections on Interior with a Girl Drawing

However perhaps the cleverest use of his lines and dots is when Lichtenstein goes on to paint mirrors and reflections. In his “reflections series” he paints recreations of old masterpieces by the likes of Picasso, but then fragments the image with a series of dot-created breaks or fissures interrupting the base depiction. These are intended to replicate the effect of light bouncing off an image when it is framed behind glass. In this way, Lichtenstein focuses not on the painting itself, but the direct effect of imagined environment upon that painting in its exhibited and glazed form.

Mirror no.1 (1969)

Mirror no.1 (1969)

He takes this one step further by using dots to replicate the effect of a mirror, with the perhaps obvious irony that while we appear to be looking at a mirror, we see only a blank space rather than a reflection of our face staring back. In this respect Lichtenstein makes further reference to the simplified representation of glass and mirrors in the world of illustration rather than in the world of realistic representation.

Having taken the Ben-Day dot from its use as a printing technique and replicated it on canvas to suggest a process, rather than a painting, Lichtenstein then used those same dots to suggest light, reflection and shadow. Consequently when he returns to the depiction of cartoon-styled idealistic blonde women some 30 years after he first depicted them in his cartoon-strip canvases, Lichtenstein uses the dots not to suggest a printed colour process, but makes the dots the focus of the image in themselves, painting them now across the image, rather than within the various black lines of the figures illustrated, so the dots almost form a superficial overlay across the painting.

Torpedo...LOS! (1963)

Torpedo…LOS! (1963)

Nudes with beach ball (1978)

Nudes with beach ball (1978)

Landscape with Philosopher (1996)

Landscape with Philosopher (1996)

The Ben-Day dot was king in Lichtenstein’s work, right up until the end when, in his final years, he used graduating sizes of dots to create the impression of landscapes following traditional chinese depictions. Brilliantly, and through dots alone, he manages to give the impression of mist, of distance, of light, of water. These aren’t his best works by any means, but show just how far Lichtenstein had expanded upon his truly unique style from one end of his career to the other.

So did it matter that Lichtenstein borrowed from the work of illustrators, from supermarket shelves, from art history, from printing processes? Of course not, for in that respect, how was he any different from generations of artists before him? Rather, in seizing upon the depictions of modern life in the rapidly expanding post-war economy of 1960s America, Lichtenstein helped to made pop-culture an artistic phenomenon, while taking what were the incredibly simple artistic ingredients of black lines and benday dots, and making them his own in a career which was experimental, varied, and quite contrary to popular belief, incredibly expressive.

Lichtenstein: A Retrospective, runs at Tate Modern until 27th May 2013.

All images are the © of the Estate of Roy Lictenstein

Rothko vandalism calls into question the accessibility of Britain’s art

Something about Mark Rothko’s famously monotone canvas, Black on Maroon from the Seagram Murals, looked different when London’s Tate Modern closed its doors yesterday: Sprawled across it’s semi-black surface were the freshly applied words of a savage vandal, a sensational act of vandalism on a painting worth millions, whose fresh drip marks bore a pertinent resemblance to blood – a vicious wound imposed upon this vulnerable and historical canvas. Reading “Vladimir Umanets, A Potential Piece of Yellowism”, this is the work of a blatantly narcissistic probably psychopathic criminal, who believes that he did no wrong. In fact, as he audaciously told the press today, he feels that his attack “adds value” to the priceless Rothko piece.

Yesterday’s vandalism

Of course, in truth, the homeless Russian is yearning for attention, and by writing this article, I am really not intending to give it to him. But what his act of violence does show in the stark light of day is 1) how vulnerable some of our most precious works of art truly are and 2) how lax the security is surrounding them. Considering a similar Rothko piece recently sold for £53.8 million at auction, the potential worth of the now vandalised piece would, if it was a gemstone, be accompanied 24/7 by a troop of armed guards. Yet in most of our galleries, the walls are literally dripping with works of similar or greater value, with only one sleepy security guard to protect a whole room.

The Rothko room at Tate – now closed

But I do not intend to criticise the security efforts of Tate Modern and other galleries like it. Rather, I consider the security provided to be appropriate for the proper appreciation of art, without causing the visitor to feel intimidated, or kept at too far a distance to properly enjoy the work. And herein lies my problem. As more and more attacks such as yesterday’s Rothko outrage continue to occur, the tighter security will become, and the more difficult it will be for us, the art loving public, to enjoy these great works.

I have always loved the way one can wander, uninhibited, into the likes of Tate or the National Gallery and access those wonderful artworks with such ease and with such an intimate proximity. Take, by contrast, the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, home to some of the world’s most famous Impressionists works. There you have to queue out in the cold for a good 40 minutes minimum before you can get into the place, such is the stringency of the airport style security required before a visitor can gain access. It’s a horrible hassle, but is this now the future? You don’t hear of this grand acts of vandalism happening at the d’Orsay, nor the Louvre or Orangerie, where other such security measures are implemented.

The slashed Rokeby Venus

By contrast here in London, I have often worried how in the National Gallery, they allow so many tourists to simply wander in, laden with rucksacks and all, baseball caps covering their faces, traipsing around the gallery in such numbers that it must be practically impossible to properly guard the countless priceless masterpieces on show all around them. And this is the place which itself has been the subject of such sensational acts of vandalism before, such as “Slasher Mary”, the suffragette, who in 1914 slashed the naked back of the poor Rokeby Venus by Velazquez, which still bares the scars to this day. Lessons have been far better learnt by the Dutch however, whose The Night Watch by Rembrandt, slashed in 1975, is now heavily guarded, and by the Reina Sofia in Madrid, who now keep Picasso’s Guernica under heavy guard, hoping to prevent a reoccurrence of the horrible defacing inflicted upon it by Tony Shafrazi when, in 1974, he painted “Kill Lies All” in red paint across it.

Rembrandt’s Night Watch, also vandalised in 1975

Red paint across Picasso’s Guernica

Whatever the security, these incidences of senseless, selfish vandalism will undoubtedly continue to occur every so often. But as inevitable as these attacks may be, so too will increase the inevitability that more and more, our most prized works will be locked away, kept behind a safety rope or bullet-proof glass, and visitors made to queue for frustrating lengths of time in order to get anywhere close. And all this just as gallery visits were at their highest figure for years. It seems nothing good can last forever – there will always be some idiot round the corner to ruin it all.

Sunday Supplement: High Perspective (Viewed from 21c)

Having recently been voted the top city to visit in the world (as if we didn’t know it already), after last weekend’s Jubilee spectacular and, of course, with the olympics almost on our doorstep, it seems only appropriate that in this week’s Sunday Supplement, I feature one of my paintings which features the city of London as its central theme.

I moved to London ten years ago this September, when I came to study law at King’s College London. I was thrilled when, full of anticipation at what was to be my first day moving away from home in order to start university, I entered my student digs to find this view before me: a perfect vista over London’s south bank complete with the skyscrapers of the city and the tower of Tate Modern, all framing the iconic “Oxo Tower” at the centre. It was as though this room had been chosen for me as an artist, despite the reason for my studies being the pursuit of law. Over that year, I saw this incredible view change over the seasons, as buildings became blanketed with snow, shrowded in a thick mist, and glimmering with the soft hues of pinky golden sunsets and bright midday sun. At the end of my academic year, when my first year law exams were finally over, I imported a canvas into my room and sat down to paint this representation of my view.

High Perspective (Viewed from 21c) (2003 © Nicholas de Lacy-Brown, acrylic on canvas)

It’s not a straight forward landscape: far from it. Rather I used symbols to represent various landmarks rather than paint them directly as I saw them. The GMTV tower on the left for example was replaced with the stack of CDs which my friends and I were listening to during that year, this being a pertinent representation because the GMTV studios are where so many entertainment shows are filmed. Similarly I replaced the Tate tower with a tube of paint, and one of the large publishing headquarters with a stack of magazines (and a couple of law books to show willing). A predominant theme running through the work is food. This was inspired by the Oxo tower itself, named after the stock cube which, in the days when London’s south bank was a hive of industrial activity, would no doubt have been manufactured at the site. Since these stock cubes are frequently incorporated in soups and stews and casseroles, I started reinterpreting the London skyline as various vegetable ingredients which could then be added to the dish which is being cooked in the bottom right hand corner of the work. Instead of the golden balls on the corners of one south bank building, golden tomatoes take their place; similarly London spires become carrots and Norman Foster’s famous “gherkin” building is painted as just that. Finally, since I could see where the river was, but couldn’t actually see the water itself (owing to buildings blocking the view), I imported the water into the scene with the aid of a very long hose pipe which spirals through the roof tops and chimneys before finally adding much needed liquid into the saucepan on my windowsill.

The view as it really was back in 2002

And covered in snow…

So there you have it, one of my most prominent London works, and actually one of my most valuable painting sales when it was sold at exhibition in Mayfair in 2008. Not to worry though – if you like the work and wish you had the original brightening up your lounge, there are limited edition prints of the work available on my main art website, here.

Have a great Sunday and come back to The Daily Norm this coming week for a load of food and art-based posts including the unveiling of my newest painting!

© Nicholas de Lacy-Brown and The Daily Norm, 2001-2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of the material, whether written work or artwork, included within The Daily Norm without express and written permission from The Daily Norm’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Nicholas de Lacy-Brown and The Daily Norm with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

The Daily Sketch: Norms at the Damien Hirst Exhibition

It’s all very well a gallery playing host to these rotting cow heads and life cycles of flies with their maggots and detritus and moving little black bodies, but what if the little scientific show-in-action managed to escape from the careful confines of its Damien Hirst supervised glass tank? Even when we visited Hirst’s room full of butterflies at Tate Modern last weekend, we managed to walk out of the room with part of the exhibit attached to our backs (a butterfly landed on my partner… and was swiftly rescued by a Tate attendant before we walked off with potentially one of the most valuable butterflies in the word unknowingly upon our person). So what if those pesky flies managed to escape too? Sadly in Norm world, this question was not just posed in theory alone. All that rotting caused a flap of the tank to come open (or perhaps it was sabotage?!) and for one poor Norm who took the insects’ peculiar fancy, he found himself the number one lunch attraction for a very hungry group of flies.

Norms at Tate Modern (2012 © Nicholas de Lacy-Brown, pen on paper)

And just in case you don’t know which Damien Hirst “artwork” I am talking about, herewith, the offending article… I swear that blood must cause havoc for a gallery’s wooden floors…

Damien Hirst, A Thousand Years (1990)

So let this be a lesson to you all ye who dare to enter Tate Modern’s latest Damien Hirst retrospective. It’s all well enough to stop and stare, but those ghastly flies are but a pane of glass away from a role reversal whereby you become the attraction! Of course while you’re there, be sure to look out for  the Norm in Formaldehyde, which will surely be the highlight of your experience. Here’s a picture of it (one I made earlier).

The Physical Possibility of a Norm in Formaldehyde (after Damien Hirst) (2011 © Nicholas de Lacy-Brown, pen on paper)

© Nicholas de Lacy-Brown and The Daily Norm, 2001-2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of the material, whether written work or artwork, included within The Daily Norm without express and written permission from The Daily Norm’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Nicholas de Lacy-Brown and The Daily Norm with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Damien Hirst at Tate: Repetitive, super-sensationalised science-show which is strangely enjoyable

The blockbuster show of Tate’s annual exhibition calendar, a retrospective to YBA supremo Damien Hirst, has been long anticipated by London’s art scene as well as the purveyors of trashy gossip magazines and followers of The Only Way is Essex alike. And such is the pull of Damien Hirst – this isn’t highbrow fine art, it’s not oil paintings fastidiously executed or sculptures miraculously carved from marble. This is a highly-commercialised , over-exposed fair ground of cut up creatures and stomach-churning curiosities, highly laminated multi-coloured, multi-formed collected lacquered lustre and sparkling, extravagant and utterly pointless bling. And where there is bling, that twinkle to attract the masses, you don’t need to be erudite and sophisticated to pull in the crowds. This is Tate doing household gloss paint, not oil paint.

Damien Hirst, Lullaby, the Seasons (2002) (detail)

Damien Hirst, Arg-Glu (1994)

To give him is due, Mr Hirst is unapologetically tawdry . He doesn’t at least pretend to be the next Caravaggio. He makes art for a modern generation, a generation which consumes weekly updates on Katie Price’s deflating boobs rather than a good Jane Austen, who are only too aware of drug culture, who over use and abuse pharmacies in their hypochondriacal self-obsession, and are ultimately attracted by the latest trend, sensation or sparkle. No wonder Damien Hirst has been successful. He only had to stick diamonds to the fatalistically familiar skull and reproductions started springing up in homewear stores up and down the country. He took polka dots and made them uber-cool. Yet the Spanish have been celebrating the steadfast spot in their flamenco garb for centuries. Commercially clever Damien Hirst surely is. Super-skilled artist? I have my doubts. Yet without the guise and mystique of art to promote him, wouldn’t all of Damien Hirst’s oeuvre fall into a science museum/ interior design shop/ chemist/ butchers/ fishmongers where it belongs?

Damien Hirst, In and Out of Love (White Paintings and Live Butterflies) (1991) (detail)

There weren’t many surprises in the show. Such has been the success of Hirst’s publicity machine that almost every work is almost instantly recognisable.The dot paintings were predictable, and there were an AWFUL lot of them.  The great shark looms menacingly at the centre of the show. Either side of the shark, the sliced-in-half cow and calf, a few other fluffy sheep and birds (all in formaldehyde) are flanked by those repugnant rotting flies. All around the animal detritus, the repetitive spot motif translates into the pharmacy cabinets with row upon row of pill bottles, and then to the pills themselves, painstakingly laid out on shelf upon shelf, while next door you have fish, all laid out in the same direction, apparently “for the purpose of understanding”. Then you move on to the butterflies – the simpler butterfly pictures were a disappointment – the beautiful creatures had been clumsily placed onto thick gloss paint which messily spilled onto their delicate features.

Damien Hirst, Doorways to the Kingdom of Heaven (2007)

Much more impressive were the complex butterfly collages which were symmetrically placed to form incredible stained-glass window formations, not to mention the room which was full of live butterflies, their chrysalises forming their own kind of natural art as they attached themselves onto the blank canvases hung on the walls. There too were the “spin paintings” (basically paint chucked onto a fast moving canvas) and then, as though to emphasise the repetitive nature of Hirst’s work, a “bling” version of everything – the pill cabinet replaced with crystals, the coloured spots painted on a gold background, a smaller shark floating in a black tank rather than white, and butterflies stuck onto a gold canvas. There was also a superfluous obsession with cigarettes and ashtrays, used in Hirst’s art to make the oh-so novel point that one day we might die. Clever.

Damien Hirst, Judgement Day (2009)

Damien Hirst, The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (1991)

So it was all rather predictable, and very repetitive, but strangely, and I hate to admit this, enjoyable. The insides of a cow are fascinating, not least when you get to walk in between the two halves of a once unified body. Looking down the huge throat of a shark at close quarters, shivering with horror when faced with its ghastly serrated teeth and menacing empty eyes is a unique experience, and the opportunity to appreciate the startling natural beauty of a multi-coloured catalogue of butterflies was a wonder. So too is it fun to look upon row upon row of multi-coloured pills and reflect on how many beautiful colours exists amongst a group of medicines which appear so mundane when viewed in isolation, or to appreciate the great skill of gravity in making such vivid and striking splashes when paint is spun around a canvas.

One of the spin paintings

However one can’t help but conclude, upon later analysis, that all the things you enjoyed at the exhibition were just   examples of the splendour of nature itself – the beauty of butterflies, the complexity of animal organs, the results of a spinning mechanism whose beauty is owed simply to chance. And yet if we had seen these things in a science museum, would we have given them a second glance? The isolation of the mundane within an artistic context certainly gives the objects the mystique and glamour which makes them deserving of our attention. But it is ironic that so much of what is praised of Damien Hirst’s work is what has simply been left to nature, or to chance.

Damien Hirst, No Feelings (1989)

Damien Hirst, For the Love of God (2007)

I cannot overly bemoan Hirst for creating a show which offers the chance to interact with his work, to engage with nature, and to enjoy thinking about what is, and what is not, art. I was also pleased that Tate did not try to swamp the visitor with overtly complex and inevitably meaningless lectures on what the art is supposed to mean and how it should be interpreted. Rather, on the whole the visitor was left to enjoy the show relatively uninterrupted, although Hirst’s titles are quite often unnecessarily convoluted and embarrassingly pretentious, not to mention barely related to the work titled.  But what really does make me feel uneasy is the knowledge that hardly any of the work on show has been made or created by Hirst himself, that there is no indication of any artistic talent, only of clever ideas.

Damien Hirst, The Anatomy of an Angel, 2008 – but who sculpted it??

As an artist myself, the most enjoyable thing about an exhibition for me is the chance to interact with it, to look at the art works and learn from the techniques, to appreciate the variation in skill and representation. In this exhibition that opportunity to interact with the work was lost. There is only so far you can be captivated by a medicine cabinet or a canvas packed with dead flies. In the latter butterflies gallery for example, where butterflies were used like stained glass windows, there was a sculpture of an angel, partially cut open to reveal the anatomy underneath. The sculpture was at first captivating, but the fact that I did not know who sculpted it, and whose skill I was appreciating really left something missing for me. The fact that most of these works are made my some factory process leaves me dead inside, just as I would be if someone asked me to study supermarket shelves for an hour.

For me, much of what is produced under the “Damien Hirst” brand will never be true art. It may be design, it may be the work of some unknown worker in the Hirst factory, or it may just be well preserved science, but it so often lacks the prerequisite skill to be art. Others will fiercely oppose my view, but that’s the great thing about the creative world. It makes us think, and in that respect alone, Damien Hirst is undoubtedly successful.

Damien Hirst, Sympathy in White Major – Absolution II (2006)

Damien Hirst at Tate Modern, London, is on until 9 September 2012.

The Daily Sketch: Norm gets attacked by a serious case of Kusama Polka dots

Is it just me, or is this Norm, and his lounge, and the view through his window, and all of his possessions covered with spots? Norm is thinking the same, hence the general look of concern on his face as he falls victim to a hideous case of the dreaded Kusama Polka dot disease. It spreads fast and wild, and is super contagious, or it was at least in the mind of Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama, whose work is currently the subject of a solo retrospective at Tate Modern (as reviewed in my post, yesterday). Relentless were the dots which covered Kusama’s world, and persistent too are the little spotty blighters as they invade the home of Norm. I’d seek to comfort him with the promise of an antidote for this contagion. The problem is, Kusama’s work doesn’t show any signs of becoming spot free, ergo Norm may need to get used to his new look. At least the new Kusama Louis Vuitton collection will fit in well…

A serious case of Kusama Polka-dots (2012, © Nicholas de Lacy-Brown, pen on paper)

© Nicholas de Lacy-Brown and The Daily Norm, 2005-2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of the material, whether written work or artwork, included within The Daily Norm without express and written permission from The Daily Norm’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Nicholas de Lacy-Brown and The Daily Norm with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Yayoi Kusama at Tate Modern – neon-spotted walk through a lady’s troubled mind

Tate Modern has gone all polka dot – and I’m not talking about the impending arrival of Damien Hirst. No, no, another artist, similarly best-selling and awfully contemporary, but perhaps less readymade, and stemming all the way from Japan claims that she made polka dots her artistic trademark long before Hirst made the colourful dots his personal emblem with LSD . And she’s probably right, because for Yayoi Kusama, the eccentric, self-admitted mental-institution resident and world famous artist who is the subject of Tate Modern’s latest retrospective exhibition, the polka dot was not just emblematic of her early and continuing artistic career, but represented the hallucinations looming inside her troubled head.

Welcome to Kusama world, a world where an artist’s output is not the product of imagination, but mental torture. Famous for her immersive installations, phallic representation, neon-bright colours and those all-embracing polka dots, Kusama is acutely successful in being able to welcome the viewer of her art into her slightly disturbed, turbulent world. This is, of course, aided by “immersive” installations, such as her work Aggregation: One thousand boats show, where the viewer becomes participant in the work as we are able to walk into a room covered floor to ceiling with the same repeated image of the phallus-filled boat before us. The effect is the same in I’m here but nothing, where an everyday sitting room is covered, all over, with neon polka dots, and, in the rather striking climax of the show, Infinity Mirrored Room – Filled with the brilliance of life, one walks through a room covered with mirrors and filled with a colour show of different LED filled lights – the effect is an infinity of light which is stunning for the senses. Nevertheless, it does feel more fairground than art gallery, as beautiful as it may be.

Yayoi Kusama, Aggregation: One thousand boats show (1953)

Yayoi Kusama, Infinity Mirrored Room - Filled with the brilliance of life.

Yayoi Kusama, Self-Obliteration by Dots (detail), 1968, performance, documented with black-and-white photographs by Hal Reif.

Allegedly, all of this dottiness (both in mind and matter) began when Kusama was a young girl, when the image of a flower began to repeat itself before her eyes. Yayoi Kusama said about her 1954 painting titled Flower

One day I was looking at the red flower patterns of the tablecloth on a table, and when I looked up I saw the same pattern covering the ceiling, the windows and the walls, and finally all over the room, my body and the universe. I felt as if I had begun to self-obliterate, to revolve in the infinity of endless time and the absoluteness of space, and be reduced to nothingness. As I realized it was actually happening and not just in my imagination, I was frightened. I knew I had to run away lest I should be deprived of my life by the spell of the red flowers. I ran desperately up the stairs. The steps below me began to fall apart and I fell down the stairs straining my ankle.

From this point onwards, Kusama started to cover everything with polka dots: walls, ceilings, floors, furniture, household objects, naked models, and herself, all representing the world as she sees it through repetitive and persistent hallucinations.

Even when the exhibits do not give you cause to “immerse” yourself within Kusama’s way of thinking, the art work on show betrays the extent of her troubled mind. Another installation of household objects, Accumulation sculptures, are presented bursting all over with an eruption of phallic protrusions. I found these works to be quite sickening – the textural surface of the resulting objects made me feel rather queasy, much like I would feel if I was looking at the surface of skin erupting with blisters. It was also possible to feel the magnitude of her repressive repetitiveness in her famous “infinity net” paintings – vast monotone canvases painted repeatedly with a single arc pattern, representing the loops of a net. These works are rather intrustive in their scale and claustrophobic in their illusion to an unrelenting and obsessive mental torture.

Yayoi Kusama, Accumulation sculptures (1950)

Yayoi Kusama, Flame (1992)

Personally my favourite works of the exhibition were probably her early paintings, in a variety of mediums from watercolour and gouache to charcoal and oils. Her 1949 work Lingering Dreams betrays the same sense of traumatic perturbation pervading all of her work, but is nonetheless beautifully painted – like an acutely depressed Van Gogh sunflower, the life and vitality strained and stretched out of it. I also rather enjoyed Kusama’s latest works, large multicoloured acrylic canvases, painted in a studio adjacent to her resident mental institution. The works appear to reflect a period of comparative contentment in Kasama’s latter career, although they continue to betray an element of obsessiveness and their bright colours are frequently harsh and discordant.

Yayoi Kusama, Lingering Dreams (1949)

I left Kusama’s show feeling a little tired. In immersing yourself into Kusama’s mind, you tread a mental journey which is not always comfortable, and often overly stimulating on all the senses. It did not impress upon me in the way that a greatly skilled figurative artist has the power to do. Instead it caused me to reflect upon the cognitive expressions of a high-wired eccentric lady. There is much reason to argue that some of this work, particularly the light installations, are not really art at all – but I’m not going to get into that today. For me, the greatest disappointment came upon entering the Tate shop and discovering no crazy polka dot embellished Louis Vuitton bags for sale – this was, after all, a Vuitton-sponsored exhibition. Having said this, my disappointment may not last long. As I write, I learn that Kusama and Vuitton are joining forces for a collection due out in Summer 2012… so it looks like the madness will continue, even into the finest echelons of Paris couture. Vive le polkadot!

Looking a bit like a snake surrounded by her creations... Yayoi Kusama in the installation Yellow Tree Furniture (2010). Photo : Y.Kusama Studio/Half Reiff

 

Brit Art is the main focus of the UK’s 2012 exhibition diary

It’s 2012, year of the London Olympics, and to celebrate the fact that this year, the UK will be the focus of the world (hopefully for all good reasons) London entered the New Year with a spectacular firework display like none other. But as the country gears up towards its greatest sporting event for generations, the UK’s major art galleries are embarking on a cultural olympiad all of their own. This is my brief guide of what’s on in the UK’s art diary in 2012.

From the Damien Hirst 2007 butterflies collection

Patriotism is at an all time high in the UK, what with the Royal Wedding last year and the Diamond Jubilee this year, a sense that we should fling ourselves unceremoniously out of the EU and of course those all important Olympics. And it’s a state of national pride which is being more than represented in 2012 by the UK art galleries. Having spent 2011 promoting some of the world’s best artists (Catalan Miró at Tate Modern, Mexican Kahlo and Rivera at Pallant House, Parisian patriarch Degas at the Royal Academy, and of course the Italian master himself, Da Vinci, at the National Gallery), in 2012, the UK is promoting some of its biggest British artistic stars of past and present.

LSD by Damien Hirst

Damien Hirst - LSD - Image via Wikipedia

For sure one of the biggest exhibition events of 2012 will be the Damien Hirst retrospective at Tate Modern from 4 April to 9 September 2012. Love him or loathe him (I tend towards the latter, but not always), he is one of the big stars of our generation, and his works do at least show some longevity, unlike many of his unsavoury, untalented counterparts (unmade bed anyone?). In particular I love some of the butterfly works of his recent oeuvre, but who knows whether they will be included in this show. For sure Mr Hirst’s 1991 Shark in Formaldehyde (“The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living”) is bound to feature prominently” – has it not rotted yet?) as well as his pharmaceutical cabinet (“Pharmacy” 1992). Expect big crowds, and a slightly stinking smell of putrefaction lingering in the air at this show.

The Physical Possibility of a Norm in Formaldehyde (after Damien Hirst) (2011, pen on paper © Nicholas de Lacy-Brown)

One of Hockney's ipad works

The second contemporary Brit art blockbuster must be the Royal Academy‘s David Hockney RA: The Bigger Picture solo exhibition from 21 January – 9 April 2012. This is an exhibition of new large scale landscapes rather than a complete retrospective. While it may therefore lack the naked golden-skinned boys jumping into Los Angeles pools of Hockney’s earlier career, his bigger landscapes look to be every bit as colourful and vivacious, as well as… well, massive. Having said that, the exhibition is set to include landscapes spanning his whole career, and will, interestingly, feature some of his new iPad creations for which he is famously enthusiastic. His ipad works have already been exhibited to some acclaim at the Pierre Bergé-Yves Saint Laurent Foundation in Paris in an exhibition appropriately entitled: “Fleurs Fraîches” so I will be intrigued to see how the works are displayed in this London show. There is no doubt about it, the ipad has made for a revolutionary new canvas for Hockney’s works. Just a shame about the financial side of things…

David Hockney, Winter Timber (2009)

Picasso's Weeping Woman (1937)

Meanwhile, at Tate Britain, a new exhibition running from 15 February – 15 July 2012 will explore how Picasso influenced generations of British artists: Picasso and Modern British Art. The British art on show will include some 90 art works by Duncan Grant, Wyndham Lewis, Ben Nicholson, Henry Moore, Francis Bacon, Graham Sutherland and, once again, good old Hockney. However, I’m frankly more excited by the 60 Picasso’s on show, and hope that the works will extend beyond Tate’s own collection of his works. Although having said that, I could spend hours in front of Picasso’s Weeping Woman (1937) - the first ever Picasso I saw and the one I fell in love with.

Ben Nicholson, 1937

 

 

Ben Nicholson, the tumultuous ex husband of other British favourite, Barbara Hepworth, will also feature prominently in a forthcoming exhibition held at the Courtauld Institute between 16 February – 20 May 2012, Mondrian || Nicholason: In Parallel. The show will aim to explore the largely untold relationship between Nicholson and Piet Mondrian during the 1930s when both artists were leading forces in abstract art in Europe. Promising to reveal how each artist was driven by a profound belief in the potential of abstract to create new forms of beauty and visual power, it’s something of a diversion from the collection-based norm of the Courtauld’s temporary exhibitions and should be a good one to look out for.

Claude Monet, Poplars on the Epte (1891)

Next, that old British master, Turner, will be given the kind of exposure which Britain does so well when bringing out it’s most celebrated artist for admiration. Both the National Gallery and Tate Liverpool will be paying homage to Turner in 2012, the National Gallery hosting a new show comparing Turner with Claude Gellée with Turner Inspired: In the Light of Claude  from 14 March – 5 June 2012, while at Tate Britain, an ambitious exhibition from 22 June – 28 October 2012 will bring together works by Turner Monet Twombly and explore the similarities between them in style, subject and artistic motivation. It is well known that Monet was suitably inspired by Turner’s superb handling of light and fog, storms and mist when he came to London during the Franco-Prussian war. How Twombly fits in remains to be seen – but I’m always open to suggestion.

Reflection (Self-portrait), 1985 © Lucian Freud

Finally, who better to complete the set of British artist masters than the artist who we sadly lost last year – Lucien Freud. In memory of this great artist, and taking a look back at what he did best – portraiture – the National Portrait Gallery will be taking a closer, comprehensive look at some of his greatest portraits from 9 February – 27 May 2012 in Lucien Freud: Portraits. It’s an exhibition which is sure to be a hit, as Freud paints his sitters with uncompromising honesty and intensity with virtuosity and exceptional skill. The exhibition features over 100 works from museums and private collections, so this will be an opportunity not to be missed.

So there you have it, a selection of the biggest and best shows coming our way in 2012. It’s going to be a busy year! Also worth a quick mention is a Pre-Raphaelites exhibition which will come to Tate Britain at the end of the year and the return of Edvard Munch to the UK – in fact to Tate Modern. It is I believe the same show I have just seen at Paris’ Pompidou Centre. If so, it’s a rather depressing retrospective, and won’t stand up overly well next to the superb retrospectives earlier on in the year.

Talking of Paris, I can’t end this post without mentioning one forthcoming show over in the City of Light which has caused me a great deal of excitement – the Edward Hopper retrospective – at the Grand Palais from 8 October 2012 – 20 January 2013. I cannot wait for this opportunity to see so many of this artist’s soulful, introspective works up close. Yes, it’s not exactly Brit art, but then we can’t expect Paris to promote the spirit of the London 2012 olympics… they were the losers after all.

Hopper, Early Sunday Morning 1930 Whitney Museum of American Art, New York

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