We were out and about again earlier this week on the ‘Playground of the Midlands’ project – I’m just ordering the canvases to get the paintings underway soon. But looking at the landscape as the first buds of spring got me thinking about the way in which creative activity is beginning to turn as more and more of us are, thankfully, living a good deal longer and the opportunity has been given to those of us of the post war generation through good pension provisions at a younger age to carry on making work into old age. It has come to the fore with the news that Phyllida Barlow will represent the UK at the Venice Biennale next summer – and how good it is to have the pavilion given over to an artist over 70 who is enjoying a substantial ‘late flowering’ in reputation.
She’s not the only one who, having had some initial success as a youngster, rather faded from view over the years when earning a living through other work, but has come storming back of late. I’m a great admirer of Sam Gilliam, who I knew from magazine illustrations as a student but who then seemed to disappear (at least here in the UK) until I was surprised a couple years back at Tate Liverpool to see an early work of his in the flesh for the first time. This was followed shortly after when he featured in a room of colourfield painters at the Met in NYC on a visit there. And just now here’s a feature in Hyperallergic…good to see Sam looking very sprightly in his ninth decade!
Of course there are many others…Carmen Herrera immediately comes to mind…so as I approach my ‘old age’ – I’m a pensioner in a few months – there’s plenty of good reason to be cheerful and to get in the studio as often as possible!
We’ve been gadding about again. Only four or so weeks after the summer trip to Italy we just got back from around 66 hours in Venice. Not nearly enough one might think but you can pack quite a bit into that time if you use it well. The central focus was supposed to be the Biennale but as I get older my desire to ‘do’ these big set piece events in their entirety is waining. So this time we decided to go into the city itself on the Saturday. Interspersing visits to ancillary shows with a mini ‘giro d’ombre’ and as a consequence traversing the byways of parts of Dorsoduro, San Marco and San Polo. It proved to be one of the best days I’ve ever spent in the city in all my visits to the Biennale (and we are wondering now why we’ve never just gone to Venice for itself, rather than always the art event). We did see some very interesting contemporary work…and a fair bit of it painting.
What a space! It just shows what virtually unlimited resources can lead to. The show was quite a stylish affair, with a really light touch across the rooms that make up this extraordinary space. Danh Vo’s work is dotted around with contributions from a range of the great and the good of the current scene with several younger figures I was less familiar with. Work by Hubert Duprat and Henrik Olesen caught my eye. Duprat is best known now for bejewelled bugs but I especially liked the pieces Volus and Tribulum that spoke a taut, sparce, simpler sculptural language. Olesen’s diverse output included stuff I couldn’t get on with like his Portrait Of My Mother, two pieces of used pine timber, but his Companion Species eschewed super cool for a more intense negotiation between digital and material engagement and images with content that allows interpretation.
Perhaps the strongest, and in some ways the simplest, work on offer, that subtly critiqued the whole shebang, was Elmgreen & Dragset’s Powerless Structure Fig. 13 – it suggested that the outside was much the more important than the interior despite the cultural power contained within. Not only that but it was so exquisitely fabricated and installed. So a show that delighted and in places infuriated pretty much in equal measure.
Onwards we went, pausing only to admire the interior, and especially the floor, of the Basilica di Santa Maria della Salute towards the Peter Doig exhibition at the Palazzetto Tito. Nothing to do with the official biennale of course and a cynic might say not surprising given the sumptuousness of these paintings that positively delight in the act and the metier of the medium.
And the imagery is even more expansive than before…including overt reference to the city of Venice itself. But its the fierceness of the painterly intelligence at work that really steals the show. There is economy, but never less than necessary to get the job properly done. Then there is the bravado of the obvious (especially in some of the colour combinations) but done with such panache and offset by equally surprising and complex choices that they just make you smile. Its a show on a scale and in a space that feels absolutely right. A top job that says painting is alive and kicking in amongst all the multi media and the ‘stuff’.
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!
As a kind of coda to my recent posts I wanted to put something up online about the stunning Shaun Gladwell show at the De La Warr Pavilion. Let me put my cards on the table I’m pretty sceptical about a great deal of video art. There are some artists whose work in the medium almost always excites me – Bill Viola, Sherin Neshat, Anri Sala and the truly marvellous David Claerbout can usually be relied upon to say interesting things and occasionally move me profoundly – but there’s a lot that doesn’t. However Gladwell’s work in Bexhill is really interesting and as a show it comes up trumps. In his work the mix of source material really comes alive and like all great work it relies on simple conjunctions of imagery and ideas marvellously executed so that nothing gets in the way of the viewer making her or his own connections to bring out the poetry. The celebration of an artist whose output is pretty much always connected to aspects of youth culture in a venue that I suspect is often frequented primarily by the ‘blue rinse’ brigade (and in saying this I acknowledge that I may be doing both venue and audience a crass disservice) is also something both amusing and uplifting. Each of the main works on show also owed something to the locale…
My favourite was this piece – Jack in the Green (Lambretta-AGS 195 to Triumph-GVL2MXD). In this work he combined his long term passion for motorbikes with local legend and celebration and a nod towards the Mods & Rockers confrontations in the 60’s along the south coast all shot on location in Winchelsea, just along the coast from Bexhill. In places it powerfully reminded me of his piece in the Australian Pavilion at the 2009 Venice Biennale…which it you haven’t seen it I urge you to!