Pre-History: Artnet Articles from the 1990s on Bruce Pearson, Ivor Abrahams and Damien Hirst
David Cohen, publisher and editor of artcritical.com, was an early contributor to Walter Robinson’s pioneering online magazine, Artnet, which ceased publication this week. Cohen’s earliest contribution was a review of Paula Rego’s new pastels at Marlborough Gallery in 1996 in Artnet’s launch year. Dispatches from Cohen’s native London followed with reviews of shows by, among others, Chantal Joffe, Dawn Mellor, Merlin James, David Hockney, Philip King, Maurice Cockrill, Ivor Abrahams, Bridget Riley, Chuck Close and the notorious Sensation show of YBAs from the Saatchi Collection, which would be travel to the Brooklyn Museum, cause a stir with Mayor Giuliani and occasion the great Robinsonian headline, “Rudy and the Doody.” On visits to New York, his future home, Cohen published Artnet posts on Ena Swansea, her first review, and Bruce Pearson. As artcritical’s tribute to Walter Robinson and sixteen years of Artnet magazine we post here Cohen’s pieces on Abrahams, Pearson, and an extract from a Letter from London with a visit to Damien Hirst’s Pharmacy.
Joyfully Precarious: Ivor Abrahams (Posted June 7, 1999)
Ivor Abrahams is a sculptor of protean creativity, a pioneer since the 1960s of the use of wacky materials, a prolific and inventive printmaker. A distinctive presence on the British scene, his closest peer among Americans would probably be Jim Dine: they have both played in a Pop kind of way with Greco-Roman statuary. Abrahams has a much more idiosyncratic touch, though, which is fiddly, playful, at his best quite goofy. He is a grand master of the tacky sublime.
Another American who springs to mind, just to establish bearings, is Richard Artschwager: they share a career trajectory from artisan to fine artist, timed in each case to coincide with the emergence of Pop. Abrahams originally followed his father into the window dresser’s trade, and there is often an elegant wit to his proscenium-framed improvisations, but he is equally the scion of a high academic tradition.
He studied with German classicist Carel Vogel at the Camberwell School, London, and was apprenticed at the Fiorini bronze foundry. An energetic tension between artifice and finesse and a dichotomy of nonchalance and composure both point to this mixed background, this transgressing of boundaries between high and low.
In the late 1960s and ’70s he got hooked on the theme of gardens, making sculptures, installations and prints in resins, latex and — his favorite exquisitely gruesome material — flock. With humor and poignancy, these works explore the British obsession with gardens, especially as it manifests lower down on the class ladder. His art reveled in the contradictions of the proletarian backyard, in the way a once aristocratic language of ornamentation got mangled in the social transition. His vision, however, never has the harshness of social satire; it’s exercised by a sense of bathos, more than critique or ridicule. This gives the work an aura of mystery, of participation in the ambivalence and artifice it explores.
Personal circumstances led him away from his earlier explorations and back to the figure — real figures, that is, not the mere statuary he had been involved with. Teaching life drawing to a patron activated a fascination with the figure in motion, while chronic asthma forced him to banish flock and resins from the studio. He was highly successful with his bronze nymphs and naiads, which weren’t offered tongue-in-cheek as earlier admirers would have expected.
That was in the ’80s. With some startling results, he now seems to be synthesizing his earlier preoccupation with space, texture and ornamentation with what he has learned of the body.
Abrahams’ newest works are cutouts in laminated card, which show the artist at his awkward, quirky, inventive best. In the “Head of the Stairs” series, the card is montaged with his own vertiginous photos of stairwells. The card is then carved and constructed into vaguely anthropomorphic shapes, mostly heads and shoulders. The viewer’s gaze is sucked into a receding vortex of the images, while the juxtaposition of planes pushes the gaze back again. There is something joyfully precarious about these pieces, poised as they are between the ephemeral and the monumental.
Abrahams has been the subject recently of three simultaneous exhibitions in London. A small print retrospective at the Royal Academy of Arts is nicely timed (with its garden theme) to coincide with their Monet blockbuster. The Mayor Gallery presented a packed display of new sculptures and maquettes, and Ian Mackenzie is showing Abrahams’ giclé Isis prints.
Eye Vibes: Bruce Pearson (Posted June 8, 1998)
The view from the sixth floor exercise studio where I work out at Broadway at 72nd Street is filled to the bursting with Beaux-Arts sumptuousness. Excluding sky and ground and receding at an angle to the ubiquitous city grid, this fabulous tableau is a gaudy, dense overload of brick, masonry, ironwork, statuary. To the gymnastic viewer, suspended upside down in some Francis Bacon-like frame contraption (the studio follows the Pilates system) and gyrating back and forth, the architectural details mush together, disengaged from any established decorative order, forming an abstracted all-overness. Nestled between two apartment buildings, however, is an advertising slogan, interjecting bright, crystalline meaning to this jungle of effects: “Depression is a flaw of chemistry not character,” it announces, giving a phone number with the implicit offer of pharmaceutical release.
This strange mixture of facade and relief, decoration and semiotics, the inversion of order, is all good preparation for the work of Bruce Pearson, who is included in the current group show in the Projects Room at the Museum of Modern Art. I thought of my private “ready-made” landscape when I first saw Pearson’s weird psychedelic reliefs in his Williamsburg studio back in the fall. His pieces actually use wacky lines and slogans appropriated from the mass media which in turn serve as his titles, but my little “flaw of chemistry” number is unlikely to cut much of a figure to a man who goes in for the likes of “Something that seems to symbolize in quotes reality” and “Another nail in the coffin of objectivity,” not to mention “Violence and profanity supernatural strangeness and graphically rendered sexual situations.” These are all titles of pieces in the MoMA show. Curated by Lilian Tone and Anne Umland, this cogent and sexy little exhibition also includes Karin Davie, Udomsak Krisanamis and Fred Tomaselli.
Unlike the ad in my West Side cityscape, the semiotic in a Pearson is organically wedded to its defining form. One has to be told it, but his compositions are made from fantastically contorted renderings of a given phrase. The letters are stretched beyond legibility and — in some works — the sentences are mirrored vertically and horizontally like a folded cut-out paper doily. Text is then given texture when the linguistic motif is carved into Styrofoam. Actually, what I observed on my studio visit is a mind-bogglingly meticulous process whereby each letter is separately cut (with a hot wire) and built up in layers like the strata of a geologist’s contour model. The final stage of production is the painting, as fiddly and concentrated, it would seem, as the plotting and carving had been in their turn. It was appropriate that the Projects Room show partially overlapped with the Chuck Close retrospective at the same museum for Pearson’s enterprise is close to Closean in its mind-numbing labor intensity.
For “Closean” it was tempting to have said “Sisyphean,” only in Pearson’s case (if not Close’s) that would be too judgmental. Nonetheless, skill — as in dexterity concentrated in time and degree — is a problem for contemporary art appreciation. It has taken us a long painful century to get used to the idea that economy counts for more than effort, that dash takes priority over muscle, to believe, sincerely, that less is indeed more. What are we supposed to do, then, when an artist presents us with the fruit of his or her own, personal, persnickety, craftsy fingerwork? Frankly, we shudder with a certain embarrassment. For our delectation an artist — no less — has done all THIS? It’s as if an honored dinner guest has washed the dishes.
There is a difference, however, between the skill quotient in Pearson and Close. In Close, the photographically derived image is immediate and omnipotent; the fiddly handmade fact of its facture is only gradually realized, and once established merely a cause for prying wonderment. In Pearson, by contrast, the facture meets with some correspondence of slowed-down effort on the part of the viewer. The surfaces, gooey and gaudy though they are, offer the prospect of reward for leisurely regard. Which is a longwinded way of saying that Pearsons might actually be beautiful as well as interesting.
Actually, the first association a Pearson triggered in my mind was with the kind of mindless modernist wall relief that was popular in the 1950s and 1960s, usually knocked out in concrete by the architect rather than any named artist, to lend warmth (as — modernist taboo — an afterthought) to an otherwise soulless entrance way or public interior. But then I began to discern some semblance of hierarchy; it wasn’t gratuitous texture, there was method in the madness. Before I was told about the texts I began trying to “read” the images, but I saw them rather as maps, as circuit boards, even, with fanciful empathy, as the aerial view of some futuristic organic city. It was then that crescents and H-blocks started to make sense as letters, and I was on the way to Pearson literacy. Funnily enough, during my pre-signifiers phase, when I was still enjoying form for form’s sake, I was reminded of Torres-Garcia and early Adolph Gottlieb and their primitive tabulations of pictographs.
Once I was initiated into the secret of Pearson’s encoded messages I quickly regressed. I didn’t see the point in straining my eyes to decode banal sentences which were there for me, anyway, with a friendly word from the artist (or, at the Modern, from the label). But this didn’t — and doesn’t — inhibit my pleasure in his work. I was able to go back to my primitive fantasies, in some ways actually enriching those fantasies with my new knowledge. The experience of willfully not-reading while, in my own way, reading, of picking up the vibes of meaning without the meaning per se, can be compared to looking at an image from some culture whose iconography is a closed book to me — say Tibetan — without bothering to read long and bewildering explanations or wading through a gazetteer of deities.
A lot of contemporary art has a complicated story behind its facture. The way things are made, and the reason they are made that way, are integral to the work, and the supposed experience of it. There is a “get it” factor. A click in the brain and you move on. Much rarer, and of course more satisfying, is when the conceptual element doesn’t circumvent the visual experience but instead conditions it. Of course, the link between facture and effect has to be manifest, otherwise how and why the artist went about making the work is of no more relevance than what he had for breakfast. There is a great moment in Balzac’s story, The Unknown Masterpiece, in which the master extols the final stroke which brings an image to life. “No one will thank us for what is underneath,” Frenhofer tells the young Poussin as he corrects the work of their mutual friend, Porbus.
In our postmodern culture that hardly pertains; where everything is at once surface and symbol — and remember, Wilde warned us, its equally perilous to remain on the surface as it is to penetrate it — art is equally what you get and the manifest evidence of how it arrived. Of course, as an art form painted relief is a wonderful tease, sending the eye into oscillation between surface and depth, neither of which yields. Pearson surely knows this. It is with similar acuteness that he sets up oscillations between detail and whole, legibility and texture, image and idea. His art is a kind of simultaneous equation in which the tension between process and result on his part forms an equivalent to these forced oscillations on the viewer’s. He keeps the eye busy.
“Projects 63: Karin Davie, Udomsak Krisanamis, Bruce Pearson, Fred Tomaselli,” May 14-June 30, 1998, at the Museum of Modern Art, 11 West 53rd Street, New York, N.Y. 10019.
Bruce Pearson is also included in “Wall Paper,” June 2-July 2, 1998, an exhibition of works on paper curated by Lisa Jacobs at the Nicholas Davies Gallery, 23 Commerce Street, New York, N.Y. 10014.
Letter from London (Posted September 21, 1998)
Damien Hirst’s infatuation with the medical profession is as unceasing as the journalistic profession’s is with him. Hardly a day goes by that there isn’t some press reference to the master of the specimen-in-formaldehyde, the medicine cabinet, the pill-like colored spot.
This summer the medics became interested in him as well. The artist-entrepreneur’s designer eatery in trendy Notting Hill Gate came under the scrutiny of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society. The group objected to the name — Pharmacy — on the grounds that the public could be misled. Imagine rushing in with a Prozac prescription to find a crowded bar with waiters milling around in surgical aprons, and floor-to-ceiling cabinets of decorative, but empty, packets of drugs.
At Hirst’s Pharmacy there are plenty of alcohol solutions and tonics available, but not the kind that doctor had in mind. Upstairs, in the dining room, exquisite wallpaper sports a pill motif, Hirst’s fin-de-siecle answer to William Morris, while the canvases on the wall are his ultra-stylish arrangements of dead butterflies on monochrome grounds.
While we’re on the furnishings and fittings, the masterpiece here — and probably the best Hirst I’ve seen anywhere — is an Arman-inspired men’s-room vitrine including heaps of used medical detritus behind a wall of thick glass.
The Royal Society’s objections were of course ridiculous, and were probably as much a gambit to advertise itself in the national media as anything else. To oblige, Pharmacy rearranged the letters on its minimal white exterior into the anagram “achy ramp,” although the restaurant employees still say “Pharmacy” if you phone for a reservation, which you need to do weeks in advance if you want a table at a civilized hour. The food’s rather good, as it happens, less oppressively carnivore than Hirst’s other “joint,” the revamped Quo Vadis in (London’s) Soho, where the upstairs bar is decked with pickled relatives of that which is on the menu.
It’s funny that Hirst’s sculptures, unpalatable in art galleries, look so at home in chic eateries. A contrast with Rothko’s Seagram murals, which were bequeathed to the Tate Gallery in 1969 when the artist decided they were just too god-damned spiritual for a restaurant.