Thursday, 31 May 2012

Restoring My Faith in Art

Walter Sickert The rue Notre-Dame des Champs, Paris: the entrance to Sargent's studio 

Yesterday I managed to visit a few shows and saw quite a lot of stuff that was really good. This made me remember that painting and Art in general really is a worthwhile thing and I'm glad to be involved in it.

I was in Oxford for the morning, and managed to get half an hour in the Ashmolean, which has a very nice selection of Walter Sickert paintings. I've always liked Sickert but for me these are some of his best. Small, un-ostentatious murky paintings, describing the full range of greys, browns, mauves and mournful yellows that he is known for. The subjects are also typical - a non-descript street in Paris, an old woman drinking tea. He is a sort of Philip Larkin of painting - subdued, a bit depressive, but somehow wonderfully inspiring.
Adam Dix and Tim Phillips installation view at Summaria Lunn

Getting back to London I called in at Sumarria Lunn's space on South Molton Lane to see the 2 man show featuring painter Adam Dix and Sculptor Tim Phillips in a collaboration that works excellently.
Dix makes retro future paintings featuring scenes that could almost be out of illustrated sci-fi comics of the 1950s, were it not for the recurrence of incongruous elements that suggest something stranger and more interesting than the cliches that such subject matter can initially invoke. Elements of Communist mass parades and mystical secret societies mingle in this strange world, subtly described through paired-down, almost monochromatic skeins of thin paint and glaze, giving the resulting works a beautiful ethereal quality.

Tim Phillips skilfully constructs geometric sculpture from various woods, veneers, metals and other elements. These are part modernist religious icons and altar pieces, part 1970s office furniture from a parallel dimension. Harmonious triangular forms are carefully balanced with props and illustrative panels.

The arrangement of these works together in the subterranean, dimly lit gallery space has the feel of a shrine from some strange alien religion. Curation and lighting are used strongly to exaggerate these connotations.

Shannon Finley at Bischoff/Weiss
My final call of the day was at Bischoff/Weiss on Hay Hill, a short walk away in Mayfair. I hadn't been to this space before, and was pleased to stumble across an exhibition by Canadian painter Shannon Finley.
Finley paints small geometric abstracts whose forms are not dissonant with those of Phillips.
Once again a Modernist minimalism is invoked, this time through multi-layered translucent acrylic paint, offset by razor sharp edges - it is this attention to quality of construction that makes these works successful, and raises it above the rank and file of this well populated genre of contemporary painting.

Wednesday, 2 May 2012

There is a Kingdom

Damien Hirst Doorways to the Kingdom of Heaven 2007 Butterflies and Household Gloss on Canvas

Plenty is being written about the Tate Modern's current Damien Hirst show so I don't particularly want to dwell on it here, but having looked around it a couple of times now I do keep coming back to these pieces particularly because of their connection to still life painting.
If the tradition of still life is to do with the isolation or collection of mundane objects (that is, things of the everyday) as a way of discussing larger themes in a rhopographic way, then these pieces would seem to do this very literally by actually bringing the object (in this case dead butterflies) onto the canvas, and trapping them there in a way that puts us in mind of the taxonomic displays of the pre-Modernist collector of specimens. Indeed, much of Hirst's oeuvre draws heavily on the history of the wunderkammer and associations of categorisation and classification.
Granted, Hirst is a long way from being the first to do this - there are plenty of Modern examples such as Picasso, Duchamp and Rauschenberg.
What is interesting here however is that the butterflies are employed precisely not as specimens of nature but rather as specimens of colour. Each brilliant wing becomes a coloured piece in the mosaic whole.
Whilst the obvious stained glass window motif is strongly apparent, there is a crucial difference in that these are very contemporary stained glass windows. Saints and narratives are replaced with geometric abstraction more reminiscent of eastern traditions. Form and colour replace any direct storytelling with mathematical repetition.
Franz Francken II Kunst und Raritatenkammer 1636

Detail of Doorways to the Kingdom of Heaven

For me there is a natural connection between these repetitive patterns and the decorative armour and shields I have been researching for my current paintings. These masterfully wrought objects contain their own worlds of narrative or abstraction, and were designed not as functioning armour at all but rather for display, giving them at once a magnificence and a futility - they will never perform the functions which their shapes evoke. 

Philip Rundell Shield of Achilles 1821 The Royal Collection

Using such objects in paintings increases this frustration of function; paintings of objects designed for display are even further removed from any sense of real action. Norman Bryson discusses this effect in relation to Willem Kalf's paintings of armour in his essay Abundance (Reaktion Books, 1990):

Divorced from use, things revert to absurdity; anticipating nothing from human attention, they seem to have dispensed with human attention, whose purpose and even existence they come to challenge.

Armour for Field and Tournament 1527 Royal Workshops Greenwich - Collection of Metropolitan Museum New York

Such objects, with their associations of power, privilege and cultural dominance make for rather formidable subjects for painting. They do not include but rather isolate the viewer, keeping them at a distance and warning them against any attempt at interaction. The associative, communal space of the still life table is replaced by the cold, impregnable, even unreal space of the museum display cabinet. And this metaphor is reinforced by the form of the objects; armour by definition is designed to keep others out.