Let us now…

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Vito’s infamous Seedbed piece from 1982

praise famous men (and women)…back in the 1970’s when I worked at the major regional gallery our Director, the amazingly independent creative thinker Hugh Stoddart, hatched an ambitious plan.  We would show, over a year or so, three seminal figures in the USA’s then nascent Conceptual/Performance Art scene – Dennis Oppenheim, Chris Burden & Vito Acconci.  Hugh sadly departed the Gallery (to concentrate on his own creative career as a screenwriter) before we could carry out the full plan.  We did manage to invite Chris Burden to make a piece – Diamonds Are Forever – and he arrived in Birmingham replete with a diamond (alledgedly purchased en route at Covent Garden) that formed the centrepiece of an installation that comprised the diamond twinkling in the velvet blackness of the entire basement gallery (quite a large space) [see here p.21 for an illuminating if partial account of the event.  And sometime later, just after I departed Ikon for the East Midlands, Denis Oppenheim arrived to install his Vibrating Forest.

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Dennis Oppenheim, Vibrating Forest (From the Fireworks Series) (1982). Installation, Ikon Gallery, 2014 – reinstalled for Ikon in the 80’s show (Photo:Stuart Phipps)

But sadly the trail then went cold…for what reason I don’t know…and Vito never made it to the gallery.  He recently died and this touching tribute to him seemed to me to sum up what we missed all those years ago. With Dennis & Chris having shuffled off stage a while back a generation of amazingly inventive and revolutionary artists is slipping away.

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When I Slept Under Lanyon…

A friend tweeted a picture recently of her admiring ‘Soaring Flight’ by the incomparable Peter Lanyon.  It got me to thinking back to a show I was closely involved in some 37 years back when I worked at Birmingham’s Ikon Gallery. It was titled ‘Peter Lanyon: Later Works and here’s how it came about… I’d been working at the gallery for just over a year when Hugh Stoddart was appointed Director and in our early conversations either he or I raised our joint interest and enthusiasm for Lanyon. Hugh had been working in the South West as Visual Arts Officer for the region and had, in some way, been fortunate to have met Sheila Lanyon (the artist’s wife) and have the opportunity to view a portfolio or two of drawings, particularly late drawings made on his last trip to the USA.  Between us (at his suggestion) the idea of a show emerged. It was a hallmark of Hugh’s unbounded energy and ambition for the gallery that a museum style show (for which we had virtually no resources or funding) might even be contemplated. It was furthermore a measure of his unbounded generosity that he encouraged me (a complete rookie) to take a substantial role in creating such a show – I owe him a lot.

Looking back at the Lanyon materials I have, it might seem I’m making all this up as curiously the show has been omitted from the history…the listings of Ikon exhibitions in both of its survey shows of its history make no reference to it and I know of no recent listings of exhibitions that carry a record of it. And yet it did happen!  I have a poster for it here.

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As mentioned the gallery operated on a shoestring and often ran a deficit (we several times had to get bail outs from the Arts Council over the four years I was there) hence the plain cheap poster and sadly no publication of any kind. As we were planning it the Whitworth in Manchester was in the latter stages of planning a large show that toured to several venues ending its run a few days before our show opened (I’m fairly sure nobody pointed this out to us and I cannot at this distance quite work out the chronology…as we certainly showed quite a lot of the works also on the tour..?).  Nonetheless we were able to put together a good deal of material.  Somehow Hugh persuaded Birmingham Museum to let us borrow Offshore and we had a long time supporter of Ikon in the person of Paul Aston (of top quality framers Gales) who lent us his Lanyon, a real beauty – Loe Bar.  Lanyon’s dealers Gimpel’s released a fair few works including Silent Coast and key late paintings including Clevedon Bandstand, Clevedon Night and Clevedon Lake.  But the real deal was the agreement to let us have access to the drawings.  I was deputed to go down to St. Ives over the summer and select from the portfolios a number of previously unseen drawings. My recollections this many years later are briefer by far than I might wish.  I do remember being particularly struck by a frottaged work of a Texan car numberplate and thinking it rather ‘pop’ and of others of manmade objects.  All distinctly ‘unlanyonish’ as I’d previously known them.  Whether these works have been widely seen elsewhere over the past four decades I don’t know…whether they were ever intended to be ‘published’ is perhaps a question too.  After all its not at all clear that Lanyon ever intended his constructions to be exhibited but they are a regular feature of more recent surveys of his work.  I do recall Sheila Lanyon being a generous host to the rather gauche young man who came to stay.  She made me a hearty meal in the kitchen at Little Wheal Owles on Carbis Bay (a place that really ought to have been acquired for the nation given its seminal place in the St. Ives story) where I sat admiring the largest Alfred Wallis painting I’d ever seen (up to and including this very day!) on a table sized piece of timber and then showed me to my overnight room.  At the head of the bed was a large Lanyon canvas…again I’m struggling to bring it properly into view but it was whites and very pale greens and as daring compositionally as Silent Coast or more so.  Whether it was a completed work or not I do not know, it certainly looked so to me, but I’m pretty certain its not appeared in any of the Lanyon shows I’ve seen.  At the time I knew I was extremely privileged to have had the opportunity to examine Lanyon’s work at such close quarters and over the years it has repaid me as a painter many many times over.

The Cold from Hell…

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has been keeping me from here for very nearly a week…  I had hoped to post a considered reflection on the current Ikon Gallery exhibition As Exciting As We Can Make It, Ikon in the 80’s that in a very modest way I made a contribution to but it seems now that the moment has gone.  However as a tiny contribution to the celebration the picture above is the only image I have of the major Sean Scully show we mounted in 1980/1 – just a pity that it is so murky.  The catalogue for the show has quite a number of my pictures taken at the time and full credit to their team for cleaning them up to make them acceptable for publication!  The current show was quite a nostalgic occasion, meeting old friends and colleagues and being re-acquainted with work I hadn’t seen since back then.  Some pieces stood up remarkably well – a sculpture by Shelagh Cluett and a beautiful drawing by Ron Haselden flanked by a huge Terry Shave canvas; a lovely Bert Irvin (who turned up at the event still a sprightly 92!): the imposing Dennis Oppenheim piece that dominated the large rear gallery on the top floor.  Overall it’s well worth a visit – and I say so not simply because I was a very small cog in the machine from 1977 to 1981.

Glue On The Floor

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Stephen MacInnis reports on his children’s use of glue…and how quite a bit of it ends up on the floor.  It reminded me of (and gave me an excuse for) further visual reminisces of my earlier life as Gallery Assistant at Birmingham’s Ikon Gallery back in the 70’s.  This is one of Mick Moon’s huge loose canvas pieces constructed from imprints made in the studio on the floors and other surfaces using PVA glue to transfer the form onto the canvas.  Moon (the brother of the late great Jeremy...who tragically died far too young) was really onto something with these pieces though I don’t think he pursued the idea for very long or took them to where they might have gone had he done so.  In any event I loved them (and so did the John Moores Painting Competition judges for one of them won first prize at the 1980 exhibition) and wish he’d experimented further with the idea.  Let’s see if Stephen’s children pick up the trail!

Canadian Connections

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My last entry referred to my friend Robert Luzar, Robert hails from Toronto by way of Slovenia (where he was born and lived until the age of seven) but has been resident in the UK studying for the past twelve years (he has just completed his PhD at Central St. Martins). Whilst Robert and his wife Natalie were staying with us I had a ping back on my Jack Bush post from Dr. Sarah Stanners who is currently working on a Bush Catalogue Raisonne to coincide with a major show in Canada.  This coincidence got me thinking about other Canadian connections one of which was the appearance of the painter David Craven in a show at the Ikon back in 1980 of five artists from that country.  At the time his paintings seemed quite cutting edge…literally so as he combined shaped canvases with ingenious construction into corners of spaces (see above and below).

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I was much taken with these although also a little irritated!  As about six or nine months earlier I’d abandoned my huge paper with reinforced glass fibre support pieces to start making plywood constructed corner pieces (see below) and had yet to exhibit any of them.  I naturally became convinced that everyone I knew locally would think I’d ripped off the idea from Craven.

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And moving along…

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Here’s one from my archive…this is a composite piece from 1972.  It was approximately 11 ft high and around sixteen long.  The central section was comprised of perspex panels mounted onto the wall slightly away from it to lie flush with the canvases.  They were monochromes, made with designers gouache (in industrial quantities!) suspended in acrylic copolymer emulsion – I know the colours were very fugitive but the piece was destroyed donkey’s years ago anyway…  The forms were derived from a part of a floor plan of one of the major buildings in Florence.  I was describing this piece to my friend Robert Luzar who is participating in the current HMS exhibition ‘The Mark’ and spent a pleasant couple days with us to be at the opening of the show.  It was in the context of what we see now of the past…what seems to be the currency of the past is the ‘avant garde’ of that moment rather than the majority of works that actually dominated the period.  So although conceptual art might be thought of as the dominant mode in 72 it was actually still relatively little exposed or visible in the places one could see work and discuss it.  That of course led onto thoughts about how the advent of instant information has transformed the way in which we source, discuss and, perhaps, dispose of cultural ‘product’ nowadays?

Reflecting on the discussion made me thing of several things…firstly how privileged my generation of students were.  I reckon each of the canvases required somewhere between six and a dozen tubes of gouache…along with a goodly dollop of the emulsion…n0t to mention the canvas and the perspex. Goodness knows how much it would have cost to make had I had to fork out for it.  But of course it was all free to me…as was the educational opportunity itself.

Secondly the freedom of the course structure allowed me both the time and space and most importantly the intellectual freedom to make something on such an ambitious scale unchallenged.  Actually it hadn’t been entirely so…a few months earlier my first foray into this area of working had resulted in this…

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I’d sweated blood over the dark claret perspex strips that sat behind the smoked perspex and which all sat atop the canvas underneath (the piece was around five feet high), debating how and what intervals would be ‘right’ for it.  It was sitting in my space in the studio the day that the painter Ian Stephenson arrived to do crits.  He came into my space, took one look at it, and said “the canvas is fine but get rid of that f******g perspex!”  It was acerbic criticism at its finest!  Stephenson sadly no longer with us was a fine painter – check out his work, which I suspect rarely sees the light of day in our major museums.

 

Finally I have been wondering what and whether is the protocols around the remaking of work from the past?  I’m pretty sure for example that some quite well known figures have gone in for a bit of what might euphemistically be called “revisionism” over the years.  But equally it seems to me a faithful reconstruction of a work of one’s own ought to be nobody’s business other than the artist her/himself?  This came up just the other day at Birmingham’s Ikon Gallery where the French painter Francois Morellet was showing pieces that did just that…albeit scaled up (4:1) to be even bigger than he had originally made them.

Now if I could just double up that piece at the head of this blog…

 

A missive from the antipodes to the seventies…

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Paul mails me from Australia to say “have you got a picture of Ron Haselden‘s paper roll machine from his exhibition at the Ikon Gallery in the late 70’s” and of course I have!  In fact I’ve four of these…though sadly I’ve none of the drawings that accompanied it – and that were rather beautiful.  Ron’s idea – like many good ones – was rather simple…could he make a machine that would make a paper cone (similar to something you might roll by hand) and how far might the scaled up roll project?  Of course scaling up isn’t so easy – it’s the paper thickness thats the problem.  We used newsprint first and that just didn’t cut the mustard.  A heavier cartridge worked better…but still not that well though we had the excitement of the moment of collapse as it faltered and toppled.  So then the idea was arrived at to coat the paper as it rolled out with a varnish…  In all honesty the enterprise was rather a noble failure (it did project but never in the way you can make a small cone do so in your hand – you can see there was quite a bit of spare gallery space going!). But it was great fun and the image shot down the roll is – to my mind – exceptionally beautiful.

Oddly enough I was reminded of this project only a couple days ago when I saw an article about Anish Kapoor installing a huge show of his in Berlin.  It included a new machine that shoots his now trademark red wax across the gallery…a machine that reminded me of Ron’s…

Ron now lives and works in France…and mostly seems to show there.  He’s one of our unsung heroes of UK contemporary art in my view…much more worthy of a major celebration at Tate than some of the YBA’s or the latest ‘sensation’ from abroad culled in a lazy stroll around the Venice Biennale or some such!