Anish Kapoor the MCA

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Anish Kapoor puts the medium in-your-face.

Large fun-hall mirrors. What are they doing in a ‘high-art’ context? At first I couldn’t grasp it, and I certainly couldn’t smell it. I had to think. Portraits. Distortion. Object vs subject. The necessary reciprocity of relativity and objectivity in perception. Sort of.

The watcher watching the watcher being watched…”That’s me!”….or” Is it art?”…. or”Who am ‘I’ anyway?”.

Enter pigment. Sumptuous lashings of the stuff. Again no smell. As someone who once saved up my tips to afford a 37ml tube of series 1 violet, I cringe at the opulence. Cadmiums, cobalts, titaniums. A poetry of pigments. A truck-load of buttery red-ochre earth-like mudbath squishy ancient sun-dial with mechanical arm ‘reinventing’ the composition gradually, evoking erosion. Earth time, earth space. The colour of it all.

More pigment, released from it’s bindings, dragging our eyes around. Red, yellow, white, no blue. Yves Klein has appropriated blue forever. Perfect primary colours singing in perfect pitch, dis-harmonised by strange little off-key shapes and piles.

Someone had to recreate those voids, artists (beginning with Mark Rothko) have been painting them forever. Now we can see the real thing. A void. Man on the brink of it. Contemplating it. Pitting ourselves against it. In the end he really is showing us ourselves, empty within and without, wandering round the MCA. Wondering what it’s all about.

 

Francis Bacon AGNSW

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If you thought FB was a tortured artist you were right. Everything you ever heard or dreamed of the suffering of the creative soul is here in spades and more, served up on canvas like a plate of live insects. The only thing is, he paints so well that he gets in first and makes a mockery of the stereotypes before the stereotypes can make a mockery of him.

The 1950s canvases are just the right size to walk into. If so inclined, you can enter the cage with the master and taste a little unmitigated bestial agony, body for body, head for head, mouth for throat. The figures will lodge themselves into your chest region for days and sit there undigested, a desperately writhing and simmering mass that never detonates or achieves crescendo. Eventually you will beg for mercy, which will not be granted until you admit that you are living a bourgeois fantasy-life devoid of meaning, and that the only thing in your pathetic excuse for a mind is dinner tonight and whether this skirt looks ok with the boots I pulled out this morning. At which point you will be released from it’s grip back into your tiny existence. Apologise quietly under your breath and back away slowly.

Suddenly there is a technical leap into the 1970s (god only knows what happened in the 60s. One shudders to think). He keeps us with him, creating little indexes so we can track the technical progress alongside him. Clearly more teacher than psychologist (despite the Freudian banquet that is the content of his work) he shows the way, exposing the process for those who are interested. This kind of generosity is rare, and so humanely beautiful.

By room three I’ve reached my sweet spot. I trust the artist and know I’m in good hands. He can do anything he wants with me now. The boxes in the early works have morphed into field. And he gives good field. Field and field of field. Surprisingly gentle, playful field. Orange and lavender field. Fuck Brett Whitely. I mean, really, how dared he. The increasing, unmitigated horror of the figures continues, the machine behind them stamping out pain with objective cruelty, however those fields never fail us. They hold the experience and ground us back to sanity. Which is, after all, where we belong and wish to dwell.

Portrait of Spain

The Veil of St Veronica, El Greco, 1586-95

I didn’t think I’d ever get to see a Velazquez or an El Greco without leaving Australia. Neither did the lady in the line next to me.

Apparently European galleries are willing and even keen to lend us their masterpieces due to the enormous audiences we attract to our galleries in Australia (3.6 million, more than a quarter of the population visited an art gallery last year [ABS]).

Could there be two more different cultures than Spain and Australia? Maybe, but I can’t see it. Mariano Rojoy, Prime Minister of Spain, tries to make a case in the catalogue for us both being ‘frontier lands’ – whatever that means.

Yet all of us with European heritage share a common ancestral terror, deep in our DNA. Hundreds of tribes battling for peace and a patch of country to call our own, roiling around Europe for a couple of centuries after the collapse and withdrawal of Rome in 410AD. For the sake of our lives and families, we clustered behind the strongest and most dominant males who offered some protection and leadership. These became our first Kings. Their majesty guaranteed our security.

In Spain it was the tribe called Visigoth that primarily settled the Iberian peninsula, and their tradition of kingship underwent many permutations before culminating in the Hapsburg line by the time we meet them in this exhibition, Portrait of Spain, Masterpieces from the Prado, which spans the late Renaissance and Baroque periods, until the 19C.

These paintings are characterised by the gloom of power coveted, and tradition enslaved to the service of man. In the hands of a master like Velazquez this is lifted into the realm of the universal. We can see ourselves in his Phillips and Isabellas – a phenomenon not lost on the show’s designers, as we are offered the opportunity to digitally superimpose our own faces into the works and email ourselves the results.

The main artistic influences in this era of Spanish art are the Venetian tradition as personified by Titian. This means robust colour palettes across the entire spectrum, and paint applied directly to canvas with no under-painting, which translates into an emotionality well-liked by the Catholic Baroque tradition. At this time the church is attempting to turn back the work of the Reformation and re-capture hearts and souls in a period also known as the counter-reformation. The Council of Trent laid down specific guidelines to be followed in religious art, beginning in 1545.

El Greco (the Greek) did not conform to these precepts and was rejected by Phillip IV as a religious painter. Consequently his work has a range far beyond that of the other painters in the show. For me, ironically, a connection to god and the holy is most evident in his dark, intense and yet reverent paintings. Even when he gets it wrong he gets it very, very right. The face of Christ looks fearful in Salgado, doubtful in Cano, slightly resentful in Titian, dead in Escalante, yet transcendent in El Greco’s shroud.

A gorgeous exhibition, well worth the trip. Even the catalogue is a lively read, for those who like such things.

Scott Marr, New Pallette

If you are entranced and delighted by marks-made-well by the human hand, don’t miss Scott Marr at the Lost Bear Gallery in Leura, NSW, Australia, the World.

The sheer commitment Scott has to his work is astounding – and makes him worth keeping an eye on if you are interested in watched the emergence of creative output. The only place Scott is going is up.

I forgot my glasses tonight, which was a serious bummer, as you will understand when you see the works. Tiny obsessive detail inside large compositions, rendered using pyrography (he burns the image into paper and wooden surfaces). Not just any pyrography however. Scott uses the burning tool like a fine etching implement making a unique media reminiscent of a common one. Think Albrecht Durer and other Northern Renaissance masters of the cross-hatch extruded through the filters of a modern mind-warp.

The subjects in the works range from animals (sheep, dingoes, birds, Tim Storrier dogs), a tea-pot (my personal favourite), a Volkswagen. I wondered if there was a connection between the subjects and Scott raved for a moment about cells in bodies and people in cars, but then said they were randomly chosen. In an art world full of ‘signs’ and ‘signifiers’ I enjoyed the random and diverse selection of subject matter very much. It felt very authentic, unpretentious and somehow interesting, like a camera on top of the artist’s head giving us a glimpse into his patterns of attention.

Each work is like a little cyborg character, some friendly, some not. Like us. Combinations of antique and modern technology, mechanical and organic, nature and culture. Also like us. The media references prehistoric burning and pigment smudging, the detail pure renaissance, the content a little bit steam-punk. Sophisticated steam-punk. Although Scott reckons Dr. Suess.

The sheer diversity of the content and works in the room left me feeling a little chaotic, like I had not had the chance to focus properly and be nurtured and fed by the work. This took away a little from the intimacy and connection I look for in a gallery experience. However if the only problem I can see is too much scope in the range of works, well, I would call this a quality problem.

Biennale of Sydney

The 18th Biennale of Sydney (all our relations) is open till the 16th September, 2012. Last week’s visit was to Cockatoo Island, one of the five venues hosting the Biennale this year. The Cockatoo Island exhibition is labelled Stories, Senses and Spheres (not lower-case like the overall title).

To create a context for my review, I will begin with a few points about contemporary art, and how to read it.

  • Contemporary art strives to be in dialogue with other artworks, both historical and contemporary. This is to challenge the notion that culture can make statements independently from the historical and cultural context in which it finds itself embedded. A way to read a contemporary work is to look for influences, precursors and appropriations that reference and engage with other cultural material.
  • For much of western art history, one point perspective was the viewpoint of most artists. This viewpoint was rationalist and objective, meaning the artist (and consumer) of the artwork were removed from the subject, observing from a distance. Western perspective, an innovation of the European renaissance era, is the best example of this, with subjects disappearing towards a vanishing point. Contemporary art strives to contradict this.
  • Everything in the work has meaning and serves the ultimate purpose of communication. Medium is not a utilitarian device subjugated in service to the message. The medium should be read as part of the message in and of itself, in other words as a language. Look at the materials. What language does styrofoam speak, as opposed to concrete? fabric? sand?
  • The use of repetition and multiples is often a reference to industrialism and consumer culture and our unprecedented ability to mass produce culture at all levels.
  • Romantic notions of art (such as ‘the artist as genius’ or ‘the golden ages’) are to be questioned. These are seen as mystifying art to increase it’s value and to elevate certain practices and ideas. Contemporary art seeks to demystify art for a secular society that has no truck with the super-natural.
  • Modernism can be roughly defined as the period between the beginning of the industrial revolution (1750) to around the Vietnam war. The dominant feature of this era was progress, moving forward in a linear structure. Post-modernism asserts that progress is a hierarchical concept that preferences some achievements over others, and strives to contradict this.
  • When viewing contemporary art, look for the messages about power versus relationship, the public sphere versus the private, inner and outer lives, subject and object, sacred and profane, valued and devalued objects, the ordinary versus the extraordinary.
  • If you want to know more, read some of the 20th century French philosophers that are still influential (Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Jean Baudrillard).

Now we are armed, let us proceed to the Island of Cockatoos (we’ve all seen one or two) on the free and regular ferry / river-cat service provided by our maternal city council, on a sunny winter’s day, harbour glittering before us.

Cockatoo Island has served Sydney and surrounds as a penal facility, a quarry and a shipyards. It is itself a reference to Australia’s convict history, industrial achievements, and a metaphor for disconnection from the home-country, something all non-aboriginal Australians engage with periodically. The enormous sheds containing massive cranes and other heavy metal machinery are heritage listed, and therefore aging almost uninterrupted by restoration. The beauty of this aging process and the stories it tells are monumental and breathtaking. As a venue, artworks have to compete with it’s imposing and authentic beauty, not an easy feat.

A number of the works appeared to engage with the site using strategies such as size and volume, and contrasting materials (soft, delicate, perishable and impermanent). Large spaces filled with textiles creating a womb-like space inside an industrial complex constituted several pieces, such as Cal Lane’s Sand Lace, Reinier Rietveld and Craigie Horsfield’s Confusion, Peter Robinson’s Snow Ball Blind Time, Ed Pien with Tanya Tagaq’s Source, Philip Beesley’s Hylozoic Series, Khadija Baker’s Coffin-Nest, even Li Hongbo’s Ocean of Flowers (for which we lined up for 45 minutes) plus about five more in this vein. By the time I got to Cecilia Vicuna’s Quipu Austral, (Nina en el fuego) I was over it in a big way. I felt like one feels when the same point has been made twelve times.

Although these works all invited us, physically, into their space, encouraging participation, as opposed to an objective voyeuristic experience, I felt excluded. Maybe it was the lack of intimacy in the works. They seemed to position me squarely as what I am – one of half a million people lined up for edu-tainment. This experience, though authentic, is not particularly interesting or unique. For me, the only work that was successful at engaging credibly with the large spaces was Confusion. The sound artists created a backdrop of complex sound conjuring decades of people working and living in the turbine hall, ghostly, beautiful and poetic.

Jonathan Jones, untitled (oysters and tea cups), showed us a midden of oyster relics (read indigenous Sydney) heaped together with teacups (read colonial Britain). I enjoyed the simplicity and materiality of this statement. I had the urge to roll around in the work, inviting a visceral cringe as I remembered the feel of oyster shell on skin. If the cups had been shattered into shards the masochistic fantasy would have been complete.

My first love is, and always will be, the hand-drawn image. From hand to eye to heart to soul is the sequence that rocks my boat. Therefore the 18th Biennale of Sydney, Cockatoo Island experience was rescued for me by the works of Imran Qureshi They Shimmer Still, Nadia Myre’s The Scar Project (I could have lived without the backstory) and Everlyn Nicodemus’s Bystander on Probation No. 14. . But only just.