Generational differences..?

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Though its a while back now and sadly one of the two is about to close I wanted to write a little about two shows recently viewed. Both of them feature painters hereabouts – serious practices that intrigue and occasionally slightly baffle me, mostly I suspect, because of the thirty plus year generational differences between them and me.

Tristram Aver‘s display in the Angear space at Nottingham’s Lakeside entitled ‘There is a pleasure in the pathless woods’ is deliberately difficult to read, both in terms of content but also in the form. These oval pictures (for the most part) have an intense LED neon light band that acts as frame and visual tease obscuring the painting content through the relative darkness that these garish glows create around the imagery within. It’s a novel way of using neon…I saw something similar a few years back in a late show of work by the renowned COBRA artist Karel Appel where pornographic images were disrupted by shards of neon over them. In Appel’s works however the disruption was blatant, a way of posting a disjoint from the potentially shocking and offensive imagery deployed. [They must be quite controversial still as the above link is the only reference or image I could find on the web!]  Aver seems more subtle, aiming I guess to draw you into the gloom the better to explore the imagery within.  I’m (probably wrongly) detecting a trend developing with the neon…the current painting show at MOMA in NYC features works by Mary Weatherford that have it splashed over the surfaces of her atmospheric and gauzy abstractions. But with many (most) painters nowadays drawing on the legacy of screen based digital imagery perhaps its not surprising they want to get a glow going on in the finished work too?  As for Tristram’s imagery there’s a heck of a lot of deliberate elision at work…so that field sports of the 1800’s sit cheek by jowl with riot cops and cheerleaders, baying hounds trade blows with logo explosions and much more besides. Maybe for my taste a little too much though the resulting melange is unified in part through pattern imposed here and there in largish doses.  One worth seeing and still time to do so…though accessing the venue is no mean feat whilst the Tram works continue!

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Also on show (though you’ll have to be damn quick unfortunately) is another worth a viewing.  In ‘Harlequin’ at Gallery No.1 in Repton, South Derbyshire another painter –Louisa Chambers– is flirting with patterns. But here they take centre stage unencumbered by overt references to imagery obviously from the ‘real’ world mediated through a plundering of the internet. Though thats maybe a little wide of the mark too…given that two of the core sources of ideas in these paintings are modernist architecture and the history of non-representational paintings and that its likely? that the origin of these in the main might be the internet. Wherever the sources (and one suspects there are a host of others from the vast world of pattern, both as ‘art’ and as decoration) the resulting works are oddities…there’s a wonky and deliberately handmade aesthetic here with elements either juxtaposed in clanky and curious ways or left suspended in space as in the digitally printed work, a large blow up of a small work on paper, Harlequin that forms the exhibition’s centrepiece.  Is there another trend at work here…earlier in the year we chanced across Jeff Elrod’s solo show ‘Rabbit Ears’ at Luhring Augustine where he too was blowing up small sketches, doodles and very provisional collages.  I like the notion of these pictures being oddities – too much of the smaller scale contemporary abstraction by those under forty is either tasteful or deliberately ‘zombie’ in idea and execution.  Chambers, in her best pictures treads a fine line twixt these two polarities.  Louisa gets about a bit…we’ve actually shown in four mixed shows together this year…so even if you’ve missed this one no doubt there will be a chance to see her work again soon.

Both shows use aspects of contemporary painting practice in many ways not so dissimilar to my own…but I think if there is a significant difference it has to be buried in the context from which we emerged.  I’ve done my fair share of digital exploration (see my Extracting Digits for a summary) but I come at it from a foreign land, I am, as Lauren Laverne suggested recently an immigrant, whilst Tristram & Louisa were born and brought up in this place.

So two artists, within a few miles of here both pushing hard at careers as painters with a proper practice…heartening at a time when a lot of current activity is flim flam bricolage more often than not produced only to state subsidised command…but enough of my mardy prejudice it’s Xmas…a time of good will to all so I’m off to savour Sarah’s tastefully decorated trio of trees…

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Merry Christmas one and all!

A Few Nights Away…

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‘feelin groovy’ the 59th Street (Queensboro) bridge…

Where to start to describe a first visit to New York?  Hard to avoid the cliches…the Empire State, Staten Island Ferry, Central Park…the Met, Moma and Chelsea. This last reached by the High Line from the upper part of Greenwich Village…a walk worth taking.  Oh and standing on the very spot that Dylan and Sara were photographed for the ‘Freewheelin’ album cover on Jones St. Just a block or so from our hotel.

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So cliches (but what cliches) apart then what else? The art then.  Les Demoiselles so much more than even those pictures of it…the textures and the audacity of the handling especially.  The Red Studio almost matching it for audaciousness but with a velvety elegance to match.  And Moma was so crowded at five on a Friday afternoon during the weekly four hour free slot…that strangely made the experience all the more exciting.

Our first stop in Chelsea had been Hauser & Wirth, a huge splendid, almost Museum like venue that housed a show from an exceptional private collection.  On entering the first space I encounter a first class Clyfford Still, a massive blue picture that is amongst his very best.  It is flanked on one side by an even bigger Morris Louis Veil and on the other by Ariel, the big Barney Newman picture on the cover of a Tate publication I’ve cherished for thirty years or more.  Somehow these paintings seem immediately to throw down a substantial challenge…so much abstraction now is conducted on a polite drawing room scale and whilst that’s fine as regards certain aspects of the engagement with painting now there are still some big questions about materiality on the large-scale.  This comes up a few blocks on where Ross Bleckner is showing new work for the first time in five years.  I’m really pleased to have dropped on for this one…after all Bleckner has substantially mined some subject matter I’ve been interested in of late and I am an admirer of long standing.  These new canvases reprise a number of his themes over the years and do so with considerable panache and a deal of painterly craft.

The show sits pretty much next door to a show by Jeff Elrod.  Elrod has pushed hard up against the advent of the digital, and he has been down another track that I’ve dabbled with.  In a number of works a digitized image of a doodle and/ or collage (of indeterminate size) has been stretched up and a very modest painterly intervention offered up.  In the pieces I made I was interested in playing off the reiterative processing of the marks and the juxtaposition of photographic material with paint, real and reproduced.  Elrod was doing something of the same although his interventions were very sketchy and provisional…hesitant and ill considered perhaps, if one were being cruel.

I’m skirting around much of what we saw, especially the work that sits outside painting.  A good deal of it (especially by established big hitters) seemed overblown and over produced, a kind of toys for Russian oligarchs really.  It is also increasingly clear that the contemporary art market is now utterly captivated by commercial considerations…I’m not naively saying this (I wrote my undergraduate thesis on the topic forty years back looking back on five hundred years of the same)  but its a matter of degree.  And I can’t help feeling that a dealer like Sonnabend (currently being honoured with a retrospective at Moma) really wouldn’t dare follow her instincts in the way she did back in the 60’s and 70’s nor make much of a living if she did.

One of the highlights of the trip, artwise, was the utterly extraordinary The Rufusal of Time by William Kentridge that is on display at the Met.  To be a standout feature of the Met is in itself a tall order, after all the place is exhausingly crammed with the most exceptional artefacts…far more than we could deal with in a single visit. But Kentridge continues to delight, in this work with a tableaux that seems effortless but obviously took a great deal of conceptual genius and no mean co-ordination as well as his trademark graphic excellence.  However the event that stands out above all others is the simply stunning display of four small devotional paintings by Piero Della Francesca that sit embedded in the centre of the European galleries.  The focus of this jewel of a show is a restored picture – Saint Jerome and A Supplicant.    The careful and painstaking restoration reveals much of the sublety of the work that must have been evident at the time the artist painted it and the ensemble of works in the room repay much looking…and the publication is a good indicator of the value of the enterprise.  There was more one could talk about but for now I’m still a little jet lagged and having to pinch myself that I was ever there at all!

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farewell Manhattan…courtesy of the Staten Island Ferry