Painting as Signal Box: Merlin James in Berlin

Report from… Berlin

Merlin James. Signal Box at Kunste-Werle, Berlin
July 19 to November 10, 2013

“Outside the charmed circle of the painter’s admirers,” Julian Bell wrote fourteen years ago, “the mark left by the creative action becomes as indefinite in meaning as a stone . . . . it simply is.” (What is Painting? Representation and Modern Art )  Bell expresses the much-discussed contemporary consensus: the act of painting has become problematic. Ambitious painting employing figurative references has become self-consciously skeptical about the very process of meaningful representation making. Whether artists create pastiches of prior pictures, allude to photography, or set their representations within brackets: in any case, they acknowledge this concern. Certainly Merlin James does. Originally train signaling was done mechanically, requiring that the signalman walk to set the switches in the required position for each train that passed. To identify James’s paintings as signal boxes is to employ a suggestive metaphor: Just as a signal on the railway switches trains from one track to another, so, I suppose each James painting, playing with the constituent elements of this art form, switches the viewer from one manner of visual thinking to another. That, at least, is one way to parse his metaphor.

 Merlin James?, Signal Box, 2009. ?Acrylic and mixed media, ?53 x 57 cm. ?Courtesy the artist

Merlin James?, Signal Box, 2009. ?Acrylic and mixed media, ?53 x 57 cm. ?Courtesy the artist

Merlin James is a painterly artist who can depict almost everything. Indeed, one painting, the magnificent Signal Box (2005) depicts a signal box. He paints banal subjects from the countryside- Bird, Branch, House (2010), Sheep (2007), A Sail Boat (2005). He does very close up erotic scenes – Sex (White) (2004) is one. He shows people at the movies in Cinema  (2005/13). He even has one painting with an old master source, After Poussin  (1995). Most of his paintings are almost small enough to fit in your carry on luggage. But occasionally he works on a larger scale; Building on a Cliff (2011) is almost a meter wide. Some of his subjects are frankly mysterious- so far as I can tell Undated (undated) is an abstraction. But the more straightforward Figure on the Shore (undated), shows a man on a horse on the beach; Red Buildings (2002/07) is an abstracted image of red buildings; and a number of recent paintings, Screen (2012) is an example, show the back of picture frames. James doesn’t paint everything. He paints nature (including man-made structures), animals and bodies viewed close up. But he doesn’t show street scenes, Impressionist-style cityscapes, or the industrial products beloved by Pop painters. Just from looking at their subjects, it would be hard to date his paintings.

One good way to understand James is to compare him to another masterful artist who also works small, Thomas Nozkowski. Where Nozkowski’s paintings, always untitled, have their starting point in nature, they function visually as abstractions, because their sources have become indeterminate. James, by contrast, presses towards abstraction but usually the figurative references of his pictures, which mostly are titled, are identifiable. And where Nozkowski often employs flat areas of bright color, James tends to use a dark palette, with intense color. John Ruskin has a theory to the effect that painters should respect nature, because nothing they could invent, so he says, could possibly be as interesting. (He is defending Turner.)  In their very different ways, Nozkowski and James both validate this theory. “As unitary practice, as institution, as internal coherence,” Bell says, “painting has for the time being played itself out.” True enough—but James’ art shows how much is possible in this difficult situation.

Hard But Used: Gender, Sexuality and Drawing

Report from…London

Keep Your Timber Limber (Works on Paper) was at the Institute of Contemporary Art, June 19 to September 8, 2013.

Installation shot of the exhibition under review, with Judith Bernstein’s Fucked By Number (1967/2013) foreground.  Photo: Mark Blower. Courtesy of ICA, London

Installation shot of the exhibition under review, with Judith Bernstein’s Fucked By Number (1967/2013) foreground. Photo: Mark Blower. Courtesy of ICA, London

This show could have been curated with my own tastes and interests in mind, and yet it suffers from a problem that often plagues ICA exhibitions: painful over-ambition. According to the ‘blurb’, it “explores how artists since the 1940s have used drawing to address ideas critical and current to their time, ranging from the politics of gender and sexuality to feminist issues, war, censorship and race”. An epic survey, except that it’s eight artists in three and a half rooms! But still, there’s much to enjoy.

Reimagining her classic mural-sized anti-Vietnam War drawings of the early 1970s, Judith Bernstein comments on US involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan in a powerful, timely and fitting introduction both to the show and her own work. Although the use of the erect penis as a metaphor for male aggression is rather heavy handed, it remains as potent today as when these works were made. Here they are intelligently juxtaposed with Margaret Harrison’s exquisite gender-bending watercolours of cross-dressing superheroes, introducing the exhibition’s central preoccupations: the ambiguities and contradictions implicit in social constructions of gender and sexuality.

Cary Kwok, Blind Date Buffet, 2008. Ballpoint on paper. Courtesy of the Artist

Cary Kwok, Blind Date Buffet, 2008. Ballpoint on paper. Courtesy of the Artist

Cary Kwok works in ballpoint, limiting his palette to the most readily available ballpoint pen colours: blue, black and red. Cum to Father (2010), depicts an ejaculating curate with disconcertingly delicate penmanship. The central totem-like figure in Blind Date Buffet (2008) is immaculate and inaccessible in the way it is rendered with photographic precision; suggesting, perhaps, a critique of photography. Self-absorption in the sexual act is perfectly conveyed in this bind-folded figure; as he floats in white space, wrists and ankles manacled, he ejaculates in response to some unseen stimulation. Yet this inaccessibility and lack of connection is complicated by the relationship which develops between the work and the viewer as he becomes the voyeuristic object of our consumption. His body epitomises the contradictions of a particular contemporary gay ideal: hard but used, healthy yet tattooed, self-absorbed and individualistic yet seeking connection (and representation).

I can take or leave Mike Kuchar’s mightily-endowed barbarians; despite having grown up lusting after Schwarzenegger’s Conan I think I’m simply prejudiced against ‘fantasy art’. Although the works delight in naivety and perhaps comment on ‘primitivism’ I find it hard to see them as anything more than the crude teenage fantasies that they (perhaps) hope to comment on. Perhaps they made more sense in 1970s counter-cultural San Francisco than they do today.

Another artist who struggles to make the leap from subculture to gallery is Antonio Lopez. It’s not his fault. His fabulous fashion-inspired and fashion-industry-serving work was never intended to be consumed in the gallery in quite this way. Where are the magazines and books in which his works appeared? We needed as context some reference to the hedonistic parties which inspired and were doubtless influenced by his (then) outrageous costumes ideas.

Also unconvincing is the shoehorning of Georg Grosz into the exhibition with a single work, Stickmen meeting members of the bourgeoisie (1946). The circumstances of the work’s creation are so distant from most other works in the exhibition that it takes us back to the problem of grandiose scope.

The literal ‘poster boy’ for the exhibition is Tom of Finland and he doesn’t disappoint. Original paintings and drawings are representative of his career, ranging from whimsical (although still homo-erotically explicit) 1950s paintings to the now iconic ‘70s biker images, but the aesthetically driven hang doesn’t make their chronology clear. The hang is aesthetic rather than chronological and although visually it works well, it misses a valuable opportunity for the student of visual culture who will want to trace the development of the representation of the gay male in his work. Tom’s work begs the question: was he instrumental in creating the image of the gay man as a powerful, sexy, independent sexual consumer, or was he merely reflecting a queer (re)presentation of masculinity codified in denim, leather and uniform by the gay male ‘clone’?

Antonio Lopez, Gianni Versace Campaign, 1984.  Copyright the Estate of Antonio Lopez, courtesy The Suzanne Geiss Company

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Beijing: Mengyun Han at the Today Art Museum

Report from… Beijing

Mengyun Han: In Between Islands was at the Today Art Museum (Beijing) July 7 to July 21, 2013

Mengyun Han, Samsara-III, 2012. Oil on canvas, 72 x 72 inches. Courtesy of the Artist

Mengyun Han, Samsara-III, 2012. Oil on canvas, 72 x 72 inches. Courtesy of the Artist

These days the Beijing art world appears to be treading water.  798, the famed art district there, has become heavily commercial, for instance, and the quality of criticism is unfortunately low—due to the custom whereby the artist and not the magazine pays for the article being written, ruining even the pretense of objectivity. These problems, coupled with the burst bubble of high prices associated with the vertiginous peaks of the market in the mid-2000s, have slowed the pace and weakened the creativity associated with robust dealing. The painter Mengyun Han, only in her mid-20s, offered a very strong show of lyric abstraction at the Today Art Museum; yet her accomplishments, strong as they are, must be seen within the constraints of Beijing’s scene—for example, the fact that the space in the Today Art Museum can be rented despite its origins as a public institution (it is now private). In China, the business of art proceeds without too much trouble, but it is impossible to find an independent writer who can rise above its cash-in-the-hand exchanges. Indeed, one of the last things said to me during my recent stay in Beijing was that a writer cannot make a living in the city.

All of this combines to dirty the waters artists, curators, and writers swim in. Apropos of which, a disclosure before I comment on Han’s paintings: I wrote the catalogue essay for the exhibition. But I can say with assurance that she put up a show remarkable for its sophistication and accomplishment. Han is determined to maintain a mostly Chinese view of things—this despite the fact that she spent four years at Bard College in upstate New York and a semester in graduate school at Rutgers University. Her influences, she maintains, have to do with Taoist philosophy and traditional ink painting, although, perhaps inevitably, one also sees the work as being inspired by mid-20th century abstract expressionists, whose influence still is felt among painters in New York. But, to be fair, she made it clear in conversation that her esthetic is based upon a measured view of both Western and Asian cultures—an outlook that adds to her unusual complexity as an artist. Indeed, she uses both oils and ink in her paintings, not so much as a compromise but rather as an example of dialogue.

Mengyun Han, Wandering Mind, 2012. Oil on canvas, 72 x 72 inches. Courtesy of the Artist

Mengyun Han, Wandering Mind, 2012. Oil on canvas, 72 x 72 inches. Courtesy of the Artist

Letting, (2013) is a fine, densely painted pattern of vertical threads, rather like an abstract tapestry; it is very large (120 by 48 inches) and commands the space by virtue of its subtle patterning, achieved by her coloring certain areas brown and gray. Its composition reads clearly to someone familiar with Western abstraction, but it would also register in the thoughts of someone interested in Asian calligraphy—a merger that is present in much of the art in the show. A much smaller painting, Momentum, (2013) is very powerful, even monumental in the thrust of its movement. Composed of ink on paper, the painting consists of two broad bands: a vertical black stripe rising upward, with part of it bleeding into a semi curved, lightly inked horizontal surface. The combination is striking.

Wandering Mind, (2012), an oil on canvas done in black, gray, and white, conveys the noise of the mind when it is not directed toward a single point. Samsara III (2012) is a large, four-panel painting that folds across the corner of two walls; it consists of a white composition with a V-shaped design painted into it, and this is followed by three darker panels—ostensibly the blindness of death coming after a shortly lit period of life (one remembers that samsara is a Buddhist term, referring to the cycle of life and death). It is an ambitious work of art, whose size induces extended contemplation; the viewer feels as if he could walk into the painting. In these paintings, Han shows off ambition of a genuine sort, transcending the very worldly terms surrounding her as a Chinese artist.


Et in Pittsburgh Ego: Figment

Report from… Andy Warhol’s grave in Pittsburgh

Figment: A live feed of Andy Warhol's gravesite.  Collaboration of The Andy Warhol Museum and EarthCam.  Screenshot of on August 22, 2013

Figment: A live feed of Andy Warhol’s gravesite. Collaboration of The Andy Warhol Museum and EarthCam. Screenshot of on August 22, 2013

Andy Warhol had an unusually strong fear of death. His father died suddenly when the artist was young. And of course he himself was nearly murdered in 1968 by Valerie Solanas, who thought, mistakenly, that he had stolen her script for a film. Warhol had such a strong fear of hospitals that he would ask cabs to go around the block to avoid them. It was sadly ironic that, going into the hospital for routine gall bladder surgery, he died  prematurely, in 1987, aged only 58.

Earlier this month the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, his hometown, marked his birthday, August 6, with an installation, which very imaginatively links this fear of death to his fascination with banality.  Figment is a live, streaming webcast from his grave, which is in that city, 24/7. In this creation of The Andy Warhol Museum and EarthCam, you see the quiet cemetery and the flowers left on his grave. There’s nothing much more to see unless somewhat happens to visit the grave. He had wanted, Warhol once said, that his  “own tombstone . . . be blank. No epitaph and no name. Well, actually, I’d like it to say ‘figment’.” He didn’t quite get his wish- tombstone gives his name and dates of birth and death. “We believe,” the Warhol museum director Eric Shiner said,  “that this will give Warhol the pleasure of knowing that he is still plugged in and turned on over 25 years after his death.

Joyce Burstein, The Epitaph Project, Lake View Cemetery, Cleveland, Ohio, 2001

Joyce Burstein, The Epitaph Project, Lake View Cemetery, Cleveland, Ohio, 2001

During his lifetime, Warhol inspired violent animosity. When he was called “a weird cooley little faggot with his impossible wig and his jeans,” or described as “an auntie. The family he documents is one which adopted him rather than giving him birth,” then you see how deep hostility ran. Has he finally become a canonical figure? It is too soon, I believe, to answer that question.  Myself, I am fascinated with the way that this installation extends a long tradition of visual art employing cemeteries. Nicolas Poussin’s Arcadian Shepherds (1637) shows a Latin inscription, “Et in Arcadia ego” which is the subject of highly subtle, much discussed analysis by Erwin Panofsky, for it can mean either, ‘there is death even in Arcadia’ or, rather, ‘I, the person in this tomb, once lived in Arcadia’. As befits a pop artist, the more straightforward inscription on Warhol’s tomb gives just his name and dates.

A little over a decade ago, when I was teaching art history in Cleveland, Ohio I met Joyce Burstein, a gifted artist whose the epitaph project was installed in the Lake View Cemetery, which is near to the Cleveland Museum of Art. Burstein set a slate tombstone atop an empty grave and invited passersby to write epitaphs in chalk, which she photographed.

It took a little searching in the cemetery to find her site, and by the time you arrived there, you had seen many more conventional monuments, and so had time to reflect about death. On Burstein’s slate, some people joked, some wrote poetry, and some responded seriously to the theme.

In his catalog essay for the epitaph project Peter Lamborn Wilson observed that “A society that deals with the presence of the Dead simply by ignoring them (“cutting them dead”) seems difficult to imagine. If the Dead are not in some place then they will not rest in peace.”

I hope that Warhol rests in peace.



Quotations: Calvin Butt, Between You and Me: Queer Disclosures in the New York Art World, 1948-1963 (Duke University Press, 2005); Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe, Beyond Piety: Critical Essays on the Visual Arts, 1986-1993 (Cambridge University Press, 1995).

Figment: A collaboration of The Andy Warhol Museum and EarthCam, can be viewed at

Sacred and Profane Machines: Michael Landy at the National Gallery, London

Report from London

Michael Landy: Saints Alive 

May 23 to November 24, 2013
The National Gallery, London
Trafalgar Square, WC2N 5DN
London, United Kingdom, +44 20 7747 2885

Michael Landy, Installation of Saints Alive at the National Gallery, 2013. © Michael Landy, courtesy of the Thomas Dane Gallery, London / Photo: The National Gallery, London

Michael Landy, Installation of Saints Alive at the National Gallery, 2013. © Michael Landy, courtesy of the Thomas Dane Gallery, London / Photo: The National Gallery, London

The Associate Artist program at The National Gallery gives a distinguished artist a studio in the museum and asks him or her to produce an exhibition responding to the collection. Paula Rego and Ken Kiff were obvious choices for this program, for their art builds on the visual concerns of the museum’s old master collection. Michael Landy, appointed eighth Associate Artist in 2010, was a more surprising choice, for this Young British Artist, who came of age in the late 1980s had never done figurative painting or sculpture. Indeed when he was an art student in London, he never even visited the National Gallery. Inspired by Jean Tinguely’s kinetic sculptures, reading stories about saints and, of course, by the Gallery’s collection which has many images of saints, Landy has created a marvelous array of saint-machines for his exhibition Saints Alive. Step on the petal and Saint Jerome (2012) smites his chest with a rock. Put your foot on its petal and Doubting Thomas (2013) bangs his hand on his torso. Put some money in Donation Box  (2013) and Saint Francis beats his head with a crucifix. In the three-meter diameter Spin the Saint Catherine Wheel and Win the Crown of Martyrdom (2013),  spinning the wheel of fortune reveals your fate. And Landy has made exquisite photographic-and-paint images on paper of his machines, “kinetic Renaissance sculpture” as he nicely describes them.

Michael Landy, Spin the Saint Catherine Wheel and Win the Crown of Martyrdom, 2013, mixed media, 371 x 440 x 84 cm. © Michael Landy, courtesy of the Thomas Dane Gallery, London / Photo: The National Gallery, London.

Michael Landy, Spin the Saint Catherine Wheel and Win the Crown of Martyrdom, 2013, mixed media, 371 x 440 x 84 cm. © Michael Landy, courtesy of the Thomas Dane Gallery, London / Photo: The National Gallery, London.

Not surprisingly, Saints Alive was very popular with children, who loved setting these noisy machines in motion. Me, I am in awe of Landy’s imaginative response to the Gallery’s art, which effectively brings the suffering saints into our contemporary world. I admired his show both for its own sake and for what it taught about the collection. Too often we take an aesthetic distance from old master paintings, seeing beautiful scenes of martyrs without engaging our emotions. (In a related project called “Acts of Kindness” (2010-2011), Landy asked people to recount their stories of acts of random kindness witnessed on the London Underground; see Not much contemporary art deals with humor — and few artists deal seriously with Christianity. To deal sensitively and originally with these two subjects is a feat in itself. Landy has said, “I don’t quite know what to do with humor because I always kind of think if it’s humorous it means it’s insignificant, so it’s a difficult line to treat. But I am going for the populist vote.” He certainly won my vote with his hybrid sculpture-machines that one might expect to find in an old fashioned amusement park arcade. With this work Landy, not himself a believer, makes a funny but  also deadly serious statement about art and religion.

Michael Landy, Saint Jerome, 2012, mixed media, 310 x 245 x 106 cm. Duerckheim Collection. © Michael Landy, courtesy of the Thomas Dane Gallery, London / Photo: The National Gallery, London.

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Michael Landy, Multi-Saint 2, 2012, ink on paper, 84 x 59.4 cm. © Michael Landy, courtesy of the Thomas Dane Gallery, London.

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Sea, Land, Sky: Alex Katz in England

Report from… London and Margate

Installation shot, Alex Katz, Timothy Taylor Gallery, London, September 5 to October 5, 2012

Installation shot, Alex Katz, Timothy Taylor Gallery, London, September 5 to October 5, 2012

In keeping with Dave Hickey’s idea of art writing being commensurate with playing air guitar – “flurries of silent sympathetic gestures with nothing in their heart but the memory of the music” – then the appropriate motions for Alex Katz’s paintings would be a poetic finger-snapping ring-a-zing zing or lyric hip-wiggling. The words that could accompany Katz’s paintings include “lyrical,” “cool,” “chilled” and “rhythmic”: all modes that are equally used to describe music, and perhaps even being by the sea – the theme to one of his two shows on these shores. Recent paintings at the Timothy Taylor Gallery in London followed by a compact collection in Margate’s Turner Contemporary provide a clearer view of the artist’s elegance.

At Turner Contemporary a corridor of small paintings is sandwiched by two big galleries with generally larger and more recent works. Flowers, landscapes, night themes and portraits in the corridor, spanning a forty-year period, offer a gemlike walk though various ideas in the artist’s career. This small grouping, in fact, becomes a retrospective within the exhibition demonstrating the breath of his themes but also the consistency of his vision through the years. A small early collage Sea Land Sky (1959) provides a glimpse of Katz’s reductive thinking early on. Essentially just three bands of color: a gray rectangle, a cool blue middle band, flat at the top edge and undulating at the lower edge, with a blue green bottom third implying the land. It evokes the simple, contemplative seascape that one imagines. Sea Land Sky is a good example of how Katz is able to use the bare minimum, color, line and edge in this case, to evoke place and mood.

During a talk at the gallery, Katz described the ethos of his work as having grown out of a response to the existential nature of Abstract Expressionism. In that regard, his light touch offers a strong counter solace to the action painter’s angst. Pleasure and ease, his painting seems to suggest is just as important a quality of life as the raw meditation on existence; and what better balm for raw existence than languishing by the beach. Give Me Tomorrow, a collaboration between Tate St. Ives and Margate Contemporary, two venues in English seaside towns, brings together predominantly large images of ocean themed paintings. In the large galleries at Margate, Katz’s subjects play, swim, sail, sit on the beach; they are entirely languid in their presentness, probably being caressed by a warm sea breeze. The most compelling piece actually offers very little in terms of image, or, for that matter, human beings. Beige Ocean (1999) is a painting of surf or waves. Composed of whites, creams, faint yellows, and a few diagonal brushes of paint to evoke the bubble and spray of surf and ocean motion. Here it is the faint gestures and close color tones that bring about the sense of fluid motion but also the emotional calm of the sea. This creamy painting is like a Chinese scroll offering nature for contemplation, and from that point of view, the Katz offers its viewer a foothold to being present.

Alex Katz, Sea, Land, Sky, 1959.  Cut and pasted paper, 8-5/8 x 11 inches. © Alex Katz/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY Digital Image

Alex Katz, Sea, Land, Sky, 1959. Cut and pasted paper, 8-5/8 x 11 inches. © Alex Katz/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY Digital Image

Representing a place or time is not uncommon in figurative painting. But that impulse, when combined with the nature of Katz’s schematic approach (flat color, cool gesture), seems a world away from the plein air nature of, say, Impressionist painting. It is well known that his work is created through a methodical system, which involves a preparatory sketch, then a drawing, and a cartoon that helps to plan the painting. The actual painted act comes about rapidly with some improvisation, perhaps comparable to jazz where structure and improvisation work together. A twist of the hand, a moment in time, determine the tone of Katz’s efforts. His painted world though should be considered more than just luxe, calme et volupté, that hallmark of Matisse. It seems to me that the success and impact of a Katz painting depends on just this moment of presentness, what the artists himself calls painting in the “present tense.” Hence, being present, but one that is at ease, would seem to be his counter point to mere existential existence. His is a cool modernity.

Coda. The latest paintings, on view at Timothy Taylor’s in London, of flowers and portraits offers a new point of view for the octogenarian: a double portrait of the same person in a single frame. Take note that this is no Warholian repetition, rather the same model is depicted at close up and from distance, as well as from different angles. For example, a portrait of Ada, is a close-up of her glancing over her shoulder on the left, while there is a three quarter length view of her back on the right, or Chris, (2012), presents his subject nude on the left and her head painted on the right. Although apparently simple as an idea, given his conception of painting in the present tense, it subtly implies that two moments of time are presented in a singe frame. At least for this moment.

Give Me Tomorrow was at Tate St Ives, May 19 to September 23, 2012 and Turner Contemporary, Margate, October 6, 2012 to January 13, 2013.  Katz’s exhibition at Timothy Taylor Gallery, London, was September 5 to October 5, 2012.

Alex Katz, Round Hill,  1977, Oil on Linen. Los Angeles County Museum of Art © Alex Katz/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY Digital Image © 2012 Museum Associates / LACMA

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Maximum Gross-Out, Model Form: Sarah Lucas and Antony Gormley

Report from… London

Sarah Lucas: Situation Classic Pervery at Sadie Coles HQ Off Site, December 1, 2012 through March 2013

Antony Gormley: Model at White Cube Bermondsey, November 28, 2012 to  February 19, 2013

Installation view, Sarah Lucas: Situation Classic Pervery at Sadie Coles HQ Off Site, London, December 1, 2012 through March 2013

Installation view, Sarah Lucas: Situation Classic Pervery at Sadie Coles HQ Off Site, London, December 1, 2012 through March 2013

In Terry Southern’s 1969 cult classic “The Magic Christian,” eccentric billionaire Sir Guy Grand (Peter Sellers) explains to his adopted son, Youngman (Ringo Starr), “sometimes it’s not enough merely to teach, one has to punish as well.”  Two exhibitions currently on view in London teach and punish as well: Antony Gormley’s Model at White Cube and Sarah Lucas‘s Situation Classic Pervery at Sadie Coles each follow the artists’ working process in a way that is less pedantic and more gritty.  And it’s important to remember that Seller’s Guy Grand is a classic pervert anyway: punishment as a “Fifty Shades of Grey” pleasurable episode of paddling and pinching.

Situation Classic Pervery is another installation in a series of Lucas projects (Situation Franz West, Situation Rose Bush, Situation Make Love, etc.) to inhabit the second floor of the gallery.  In each she chooses a basic theme and creates an environment populated with an occasional finished piece, but more often strewn with odd bits and pieces that are seminal parts of Lucas’ artistic vocabulary.  Toilets stand about, sometimes piled in the corner, but also outfitted with dainty cushions. A witty and seductive Untitled (tit chair) (2012) re-purposes as cushioning a multitude of yummy-looking artificial tits made from stuffed hose, a classic Lucas statement of both feminist defiance and self-abnegation in line with her Human Toilet Revisited (1998, not on display).

But the process of creation is not always pretty.  She toys with disturbing undercurrents, regardless of whether the viewer can stomach the results.  The freedom that lurks in this room is of a different variety than the perhaps more utilitarian frame of mind of an artist preparing for a staid museum exhibition. Soup is an entrancing wall mural of penis tips emerging from their foreskins, dotted over a background of bean soup—with a gleam and consistency chosen for maximum gross-out potential.  A similarly double edged work is an endearing “field-trip” vignette-a projection across the room features Lucas visiting a goat farm.  She seems to be wearing a coat of goat fur and her demeanor is one of cheery amusement as the goats jump and frolic around her and the farmer, but the references to perversity-bestiality, devils, satyrs, and the animals’ eventual fate as food and clothing, are all implicit within the context of the show.  Situation Classic Pervery has an unnerving brilliance as it skips mischieviously between clever DIY aesthetic and a profoundly poetic subtext.

 Antony Gormley, Model, 2012. Weathering steel,  16’6” x 106’9” x 44’6”. Courtesy White Cube

Antony Gormley, Model, 2012. Weathering steel,
16’6” x 106’9” x 44’6”. Courtesy White Cube

Antony Gormley’s Model at the new and imposing White Cube in Bermondsey is just as concerned with the humanity of the artist’s subject, but less with our proclivities and secretions than would be the case in Lucas.  Instead the focus is on formal concerns.  The artist’s model, himself, which features so prominently in earlier projects such as Angel of the North, (1998) and the various Event Horizon  installations (2007-2012) has been reconfigured as a series of rectangular volumes with a pixellating effect.  These stolid, rust-color figures populate the gallery, attempting to negate the eponymous white cube.  One pair, Hinge II (2011) stands in the courtyard in front of the gallery, while others skulk in corners and sprawl across the massive entry hallway that stretches from the front door to the screening rooms at the back.  They have several rooms to themselves and grow progressively larger—striking curious poses that range from Michelangelo’s slaves to Degas’ dancers to Toltec Chacmools.

An entire room devoted to the process of generating Model, (2012) a giant, walk-through funhouse cum sculpture, is as rigorous, meticulous, and repetitive as a first year architecture final review.  Gormley presents every aesthetic step in the formulation of his golem, from a single block to spidery and nimble human form.  Amusingly, the largest rectangle of the composition becomes the knob–on that point both Lucas and Gormley would agree.  Though Gormley has embraced the new age of the 3D printer, a host of materials is on display—delicate bass wood matrices as well as blue foam carvings, for instance.  This army of little creatures has a market stall air about it, tempting the viewer to handle the works, a quality that is all but impossible in his giant steel works.

But tactility may be the new thing for Gormley: one exits The Model Room with a naughty hankering to touch the art, and down the hall, after completing a safety waiver, you climb in the foot of the sleeping giant.  Again the experience is about form: the body as house for living in.  It relates to a claustrophobic feeling we all get once in a while, thinking of ourselves as an even smaller person looking out through the windows of our eyes.  Gormley’s Model has windows too, a little interior stage and dark passageways as well, and is all about feeling one’s way-the steely resonance of the footsteps and the cold smooth metal that has to be touched, simply to avoid banging one’s head in the dark.  Both the Gormley and Lucas exhibitions come to a “head” with a head:  within Gormley’s leviathan you must retrace your steps after clambering from foot to crown, while Lucas’s (pre-Hirst) “skull” (2000) hangs over the well-upholstered tit chair.  Again delving into the perverse, Lucas has decided to give the dead bloke a set of gold teeth.

Sarah Lucas, Untitled (Tit Chair), 2012.  Courtesy of Sadie Coles HQ, London

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What Made Richard Hamilton So Different, So Appealing?

Report from…London

Richard Hamilton: The Late Works was  at the National Gallery, October 10, 2012 to January 13, 2013

Richard Hamilton, The Saensbury Wing, 1999-2000.  Private Collection. © Courtesy of the Estate of Richard Hamilton.

Richard Hamilton, The Saensbury Wing, 1999-2000. Private Collection. © Courtesy of the Estate of Richard Hamilton.

“Richard Hamilton: The Late Works” was conceived while its subject, who died in 2011, was still alive. Now, sadly, realized without the artist’s collaboration, the exhibition at the National Gallery is both different from and smaller than what was first envisioned; as curator Christopher Riopelle writes in the catalogue, “The scope of the exhibition [Hamilton] had hoped to mount could not be realized.” As a result, perhaps, this exhibition shows an artist of smaller compass than one remembers, for instance, from his 2010 show at the Serpentine Gallery, which was not a full retrospective but put the accent on the broadly political dimension of his work throughout his career. By contrast, “The Late Works”—something of a misnomer as several of the nineteen pieces shown date from the 1990s or even the ‘80s, though it’s true most were made from 2004 onward—is a selection oriented mostly toward Hamilton’s responses to the great tradition of European painting. There are specific references to masters ranging from Titian and Cranach to Matisse and (Hamilton’s great inspiration) Duchamp; the theme of the Annunciation is prominent. All this makes sense, of course, in the context of the National Gallery. The Saensbury Wing, 1999-2000, whose title is an excruciating pun, depicts the museum’s own Sainsbury Wing (designed by Venturi and Scott Brown), inhabited by a lone female nude, in a pastiche of the style of the Dutch specialist in church interiors Pieter Saenradem—as seen for instance in the National Gallery’s own Interior of the Grote Kerk at Haarlem, 1636-37; deep in the distance one spies hanging on a far wall one of Hamilton’s own greatest works, The Citizen, 1981-83, the depiction of an IRA prisoner at Maze Prison in Northern Ireland.

The inadvertent effect of the exhibition, however, is to show just how far Hamilton could slip from the moral and aesthetic intensity of a painting like The Citizen. Instead, what comes into view here is a rather academic artist preoccupied with a kind of commentary on the achievements of his predecessors rather than on anything like an urgent and unforeseeable synthesis. Nor does Hamilton’s fascination with combining painting with contemporary digital technology save the day; it only adds to the blandness of facture that casts a pall over some of these pieces. And like so many academic painters, Hamilton seems to use the female nude’s status as a culturally blameless motif—if it’s a reference to Titian, then there can’t be anything prurient about it, can there?—as a way to indulge a personal delectation while pretending to a high-minded disinterestedness; it’s not the indulgence that rankles, but the pretense. All the worse, the three final paintings on view, Balzac  [a] + [b] + [c], 2011 (printed 2012), the authorized remnants of an unfinished project based on Balzac’s story “The Unknown Masterpiece,” are far from the “profound meditation on art, beauty and desire” that Riopelle pronounces them. They are merely the most naked of the exhibition’s pastiches. In each three versions of the same image, citations of self-portraits by Poussin, Courbet, and Titian are shown as if earnestly discoursing on the seductively recumbent girl with dreamily closed eyes who stretches out so sensually in the foreground; she too is a quotation, from a photograph in the Bibliotheque nationale de France. Academicism says that if you combine great parts, you will make a great whole; but here is one more proof that the result can be much less than the heavy-handed sum of the all-too-obvious parts. What made Hamilton so different, so appealing, was anything but this.

Richard Hamilton, 'Hotel du Rhône', 2005.  Private Collection. © Courtesy of the Estate of Richard Hamilton.

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“…That Women Tend To Make”: The Female Gaze at the Pennsylvania Academy

Report from…Philadelphia

The Female Gaze: Women Artists Making their World  at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, November 17, 2012 to April 7, 2013.

Ann Agee, Birthing Class, 2001. Porcelain, china paint and gold luster, 15 x 15 x 24 inches. Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.

Ann Agee, Birthing Class, 2001. Porcelain, china paint and gold luster, 15 x 15 x 24 inches. Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.

In his now notorious remarks in the New York Times,  Ken Johnson invited anyone with a theory about the kind of art “women tend to make” to test it out by visiting the exhibition, The Female Gaze, at the Pennsylvania Academy.  My 13-year-old daughter, who has attended many contemporary exhibitions, revealed her theory when she quipped, “Dad, are there going to be a lot of vagina paintings in this show?”

In fact, the sole match for her particular view of women’s art was an untitled test plate from Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party (1976).  The works in the show might fit any description or label that has been applied to art: abstract, representational, conceptual; personal and political; militant and conventional; academic and outsider. Anyone who attends this show with theories—or better put, stereotypes—of women’s art in mind is bound to be disappointed.

The Female Gaze celebrates an inspired addition to the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts’ venerable holdings. Collector, philanthropist, and artist Alter Linda Lee Alter has donated over 500 works in every style and medium imaginable. In the same gallery one finds Daisy Youngblood’s gorilla sculpture; Barbara Takenaga’s swirling, jewel-like abstract painting; Catherine Murphy’s hyper-real painting of a gun target stapled to a tree; Kara Walker’s silhouettes of antebellum figures; and an enameled metal sign by Jenny Holzer.

The bequest is all the more important when understood side-by-side with the Academy’s existing collection, enshrined next door in its landmark Furness building.  Despite efforts to tout a 200-year history of friendliness toward women, the Academy’s past accessions are rather one-sided, and might just as aptly be called the Male Gaze.

During an interview, Alter explained to me that most of the institutions on the short list for this bequest were male-dominated. She believed, however, that her gift to the Academy would be transformative. The size of the existing collection meant that the donated works would be visible, and the bequest came with a commitment by the staff to take care of them and display them alongside existing art.

While Female Gaze reveals no clear tendency among women artists, it does evince the collector’s preferences. The persistence of painting, and especially figure painting, is deeply felt in this selection of work. Greeting us very directly at the entrance are Diane Edison’s painted Self-Portrait (1996) and pastel Nude Self-Portrait (1995). In this second piece the artist gazes down haughtily at the viewer from between her pendulous breasts.  The African American artist is known for her intense portraiture, and in this case gives us a rich expanse of brown hues rarely seen in museum nudes. Alice Neel’s palette is quite different in Claudia Bach Pregnant (1975), with contrasting pinks and greens representing flesh and fabric. The painter keeps the eye busy with a lively cadence of curved lines and culminating black tresses falling over the sitter’s shoulder.

Diane Edison, Nude Self Portrait, 1995. Pastel on black paper, 44-1/4 x 30 inches. Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, courtesy of George Adams Gallery, New York.

Diane Edison, Nude Self Portrait, 1995. Pastel on black paper, 44-1/4 x 30 inches. Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, courtesy of George Adams Gallery, New York.

There is also a strong interest in art which turn old idioms to new uses. Judith Schaechter’s stained glass works, for example, project nightmares of the contemporary urban world through the colors and graphic styles of this medieval medium. Like a cathedral window image of the baby Jesus, Child and Toy (1989) is organized according to the decorative geometry of its frame, with figures in the central space and a chain of symbolic elements on the periphery. The artist uses brilliant red and yellow glass to depict a doll-like child menaced by toys: candy and stuffed animals on the one hand, and the more adult amusements, money, drugs and guns on the other. Looking at an entirely different reality, Ann Agee uses the style of the ceramic tabletop knick-knack to commemorate a middle-class ritual in Birthing Class (2001). Colorfully dressed pregnant women listen to a demonstration by a nurse while their hipster-ish husbands look on with excessively cheerful smiles. Glints of light on the glazed surface underscore the overwrought optimism of the scene.

With the emphasis on representational work, the exhibition shows a clear bias toward the retinal and away from the conceptual. There are the occasional objects, however, that raise questions about the boundaries between art and life, image and representation. One is the 1993 painting Target by Catherine Murphy. Easily mistaken for a photograph, this bullet-ridden image brings an object into the gallery that, particularly amidst current debate over gun control, we would rather not see. It also offers a connection to the Academy’s nineteenth century collections, which include a section of tromp l’oeil painting, and a focus on the science of collecting and categorizing lived experience.

Finding other points of connection to the Academy’s historic collection will determine whether Women Artists Making their World is indeed transformative.  If the displays in the old gallery had a subtitle, it would be “Male Artists Making the World”—for the artists there, like Benjamin West, Gilbert Stuart, George Inness, John Singer Sargent and Thomas Eakins, have taught us how to see. The question for me, then, is not how women artists create their own world, but how they complete our picture of what the world looks like.

One indication of how this might be done is in Female Gaze’s inclusion of works from the Chicago art milieu of the late 1960s and 1970s. This radical scene saw the participation of men and women in collectives like the Hairy Who, and spawned the careers of artists such as Nancy Spero, Christina Ramberg and Suellen Rocca, alongside of men like Roger Brown, Ed Paschke, and Jim Nutt.  Ramberg’s painting Hereditary Uncertainty (1977), exhibited in Female Gaze, contains the jagged shapes and colors found in work by Roger Brown. Yet Ramberg’s subject, the straightjacketing of women’s bodies through clothing, is distinctly feminist. Significantly, this painting was also included in a 2012 Academy exhibit on the influence of famed Art Institute of Chicago teacher Ray Yoshida. It was displayed in the historic Furness building, only footsteps away from Thomas Eakins’ monumental surgical scene, The Gross Clinic. On that occasion, the female gaze revealed to us a way of hacking up a body that Eakins overlooked.

Alice Neel, Claudia Bach Pregnant, 1975. Oil on canvas, 32 x 45-7/8 inches. Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, courtesy of David Zwirner, New York.

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Ellen Lanyon, Hat, Pin & Scarf, 1999. Acrylic on canvas, 22 x 22 inches. Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.

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Each To His Own Tahiti: Peter Doig and Luc Tuymans in London

Report from…London

Peter Doig at Michael Werner London, 22 Upper Brook Street, September 27 to December 22, 2012
Luc Tuymans at David Zwirner Gallery, 24 Grafton Street, October 5 to November 17, 2012

Installation shot of works by Peter Doig at Michael Werner Gallery, Mayfair, London

Installation shot of works by Peter Doig at Michael Werner Gallery, Mayfair, London

A confluence of events made London the place to see art this October, with the opening of three New York galleries in Mayfair at the same time as Frieze Art Fair. News headlines like “The Americans are coming” and “US art dealers invade London with massive new galleries” sounded almost nervous.

Why it makes market sense for international art dealers to come to London now, and why elegant properties in prime areas are suddenly affordable is easily explained by things like the world economy and where new rich buyers want to live. More interesting is the ascendancy of painting at all these venues.

David Zwirner opened in a five–storey Georgian townhouse with a show of paintings by Luc Tuymans; Michael Werner opened around the corner from the Dorchester with paintings by Peter Doig; and Pace has taken over what was once the Museum of Mankind – behind the Royal Academy – and opened with the late black and grey paintings of Mark Rothko juxtaposed with stark, dark photographs of water by Hiroshi Sugimoto. The juxtaposition took the edge off both artists, and the general mood was altogether too black.

Peter Doig’s exhibition, on the other hand, was filled with strong, perhaps Caribbean, color (the Scottish-Canadian artist left London for Trinidad ten years ago.) As a longtime admirer of Doig, I have to report that the show was a disappointment. Whether the huge price tags on his work have become an inhibition – White Canoe, a fabulous painting from 1990, was sold at auction in 2007 for an extraordinary $11.3 million – or whether Trinidad is not stimulating him, something is missing.

Peter Doig, Figure by a Pool, 2008-2012. Oil and distemper on linen, 98-1/2 x 78-3/4 inches. Courtesy Michael Werner Gallery, New York and London

Peter Doig, Figure by a Pool, 2008-2012. Oil and distemper on linen, 98-1/2 x 78-3/4 inches. Courtesy Michael Werner Gallery, New York and London

In place of the old vigor, with the visceral use of paint and hint of menace in the subject matter, the work now seems passionless and thin. Poolscapes, colonial cricket pitches, a naked, long-haired figure riding through the sea on horseback, a boat floating past a cave – these may be a real part of Doig’s daily life on the island, but within his paintings these are still in the realm of romantic ideas that don’t seem visually or culturally digested. If– as they seem to be – the figures are self-portraits, there is something too comfortable and too easy about them. In the past, Doig’s palette has been awkward in a good way, as if referring to artificially created color, but the liberal areas of bright orange and yellow in the new paintings just feel fake and noisy.

A delightful, quirky exception is the small canvas, Lion in the Sand (2012). It could be a tricolor flag with aquamarine sea above the humanized, prancing lion and burning red below. Although I was later told that the drawings in the upstairs gallery were not supposed to be part of the exhibition, I was happy to find small, untamed works on paper, some of them sketches for the canvases below, which suggest the old vitality is not entirely lost. (The horseback rider in the sea, however, should have been scotched in both forms.)

There is an odd interaction between the exhibitions of Doig and Luc Tuymans, whose new series of paintings, Allo!, casts an ironic eye on colonialism and the much romanticized story of the painter who went to live on an island. Doig, who has been accused of doing a Gauguin, says he remains an outsider on the island and that his work would be much more romantic and myth-based if he were Trinidadian.

Luc Tuymans arrived late, bleary-eyed and grumpy for his press preview at Zwirmer, and used the occasion to slag off the “fucking Brits” for being “half-hearted Europeans”. He seemed reluctant to talk about his art that day: the quotes that follow were taken from his interview at Frieze Art Fair a week later. But the Belgian painter is viewed with such respect that he can get away with crass behaviour – and he certainly knows how to silence an audience. When questions were invited at the end of the Frieze talk he interjected: “Only intelligent questions please.”

The paintings in the first gallery are a preface to Allo! (a quote from the parrot which inhabited Tuymans’ local bar): washed out and distanced from the viewer as if seen through a fuzz of talcum powder or on a dim TV screen. Quiet as they are, they grab the attention. Peaches (all works 2012), for instance – a pyramid of bleached, sickly green spheres, which look a bit like cabbages and a bit like scoops of ice cream caught under a fluorescent light. Or Technicolor – a bouquet of flowers seen from above, aglow in a murky haze.

The Allo! paintings are based on stills from a 1942 Hollywood film – which is based on Somerset Maugham’s book, “The Moon and Sixpence.” The story of a middle-aged English stockbroker who abandons his wife and children to become an artist in Tahiti, it is in turn a romanticized version of Gauguin’s life. In the closing sequence, the film moves into Technicolor, showing fake, kitschy “Gauguins”, and this becomes the source of Tuymans’ paintings.

With thin washes of scarlet and blue, hints of yellow, smeared edges and areas of canvas left bare as if overexposed, there are a lot more luminous grays in these paintings than color. They are more about the crude technology of early Technicolor, broken down further by being screened on television, photographed and enlarged. The result is paintings that are complex and subtle.

Luc Tuymans, Peaches, 2012.  Oil on canvas, 68-1/2 x 46-1/2 inches. Courtesy David Zwirner, New York/London

Luc Tuymans, Peaches, 2012. Oil on canvas, 68-1/2 x 46-1/2 inches. Courtesy David Zwirner, New York/London

Tuymans photographed the film stills from the screen with his iPhone, catching reflected images of himself at the same time – which add a lurking element of autobiography. A lot, indeed, lurks in these strange, sinister paintings. The nostalgic beauty of floating female figures and Tahitian fabrics; the lonely prowling figure of a man in a hat who watches, cut off from the action; suggestions of a violent interface between primitive and colonial, and the violence in each.

Transparent as these works are – the pencil drawing is left visible and there is no feeling of change or cover up, just loose, light, searching brushstrokes – Tuymans says that for him the first few hours of a painting are an agonizing struggle. He also says that painting is all about time and precision, that a good painting is never finished and that it remains a one-to-one experience. He is a hard act to follow.

Peter Doig, Lion in Sand, 2012. Oil and gesso on linen, 15 x 18-1/4 inches.  Courtesy Michael Werner Gallery, New York and London

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Luc Tuymans, Allo! IV, 2012. Oil on canvas, 50-3/8 x 71-5/8 inches. Courtesy David Zwirner, New York/London

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