There are some days you think might never come. Frankly, recently, I was beginning to think that the day I got back to regular blogging might be one of them but I started today with a new determination. Then I got distracted and by the time I sat down to write I quite foray onto the interwebs provided me with both further distraction in the form of the the news that Margaret Thatcher is finally dead (for real this time, not just yet another Twitter rumour). To mark the occasion – and after the havoc she wreaked through my late teens and twenties, it does need to be marked (and yes, I’d be dusting off my copy of Spike: the Beloved Entertainer if only I had a record deck that worked) – it seems pertinent to write about Marcus Harvey’s Maggie.
Marcus Harvey is undoubtedly best known for another controversial portrait: Myra, a picture of Myra Hindley made using children’s handprints (well, prints from plaster cast hands), caused untold furore when it was shown at the Royal Academy in the Sensation exhibition. His painting Maggie, made nearly a decade and a half later, is rather less well known but equally striking. In my head at least, they are companion pieces: both large scale, black and white paintings made from images widely reproduced in the press and both – arguably, and here I concede there is a difference – portraits of, well, if not actually evil, then of women whose lives one would wish had followed a different path.
Bob and Roberta Smith knows how to make a point. In the exhibition The Art Party USA Comes to the UK at Hales Gallery at the moment (okay, not for much longer but there’s still a chance to catch the show if you’re quick), he’s in full-on soap box mode – he’s even made his own soap boxes for the occasion – in a bid to entice us to join the Art Party of the USA. The starting point for the Art Party was Bob and Roberta Smith’s May 2011 letter to Michael Gove, which he published to encourage others to write in to emphasise the importance of art in the school curriculum. Not a political party in any traditional sense, according to the website in order to join one simply needs to “make some art and encourage others to do so!”
The relationship between painting and photography is has also been explored by Wolfgang Tillmans in work made over the last decade or so. For Tillmans the work starts and ends with photographic process, but in making the images the fundamental notion of photography as drawing with light is used to make images that feel much closer to painting than photography. These are large-scale, painterly abstract pictures are made without a camera; the photographic paper simply records the light Tillmans directs at it.
The relationship between painting and photography lies at the heart of Gerhard Richter’s practice, from paintings made from found photographs to photographs of paintings made from, yes, photographs, this is territory Richter has explored more thoroughly and from more directions than perhaps any other artist. The Detail paintings, started in 1970, explore the nature of painting and the way in which we so often experience the complexity of the painted surface rendered smooth as a photographic surface. In these paintings, Richter has taken small details from paintings made with a heavy impasto and reproduced these, massively enlarged, as smooth painted surfaces. In Detail (Red-blue) a small area of heavily textured paint is represented as a three metre wide painting.
The end of summer is in sight and everything is starting afresh. It might sound odd, but Autumn always feels like the start of something new to me. Certainly, it’s the time of year when my thoughts turn to what to show a new intake of students. Some things don’t change much of course, but there are always works I’ve come across recently (many of them probably written about here already) or things I know well but now want to talk about differently. I’ll need to get my art history hat on pretty soon but before that I get to show a random selection of art to help get some ideas going and, with luck, defy a few expectations and destroy some preconceptions. All of which means that in a way I’m quite surprised to find myself trawling through Gerhard Richter’s Overpainted Photographs, but it’s a body of work that somehow always seems relevant.
George Shaw, Scenes from the Passion: The Swing, 2002-3
The landscapes in George Shaw’s paintings all conceal stories but in this case the narratives are Shaw’s own childhood memories. For the series Scenes from the Passion, Shaw worked from photographs taken within a half mile radius of the house he grew up in. The area is unremarkable and, in Shaw’s paintings, unpopulated. There is a bleakness here but also perhaps a sense of anticipation. Though the area is very specifically the territory of Shaw’s childhood in a way it feels like the paintings depict a kind of everytown. There are certainly scenes here that I can match against my own suburban London upbringing.
After I came back from a trip to New York with students in the spring I wrote a lot here about the art I saw in galleries there. One thing that I didn’t write about at the time was a small painting I saw at the Metropolitan Museum; the relevant page on the Met’s website has been open in a browser tab on my laptop ever since I think, but it was seeing Mel Brimfield’s Clement Greenberg – Lee Krasner = Jackson Pollock that brought Lee Krasner’s painting back to mind. Though Krasner’s career was played out in the shadow of that of her husband Jackson Pollock, her contribution to twentieth century American modernism, and to abstract expressionist painting in particular, was considerable. Unlike Pollock’s action paintings, this work is modest in scale 76.2 x 63.5 cm to Autumn Rhythm‘s 266.7 x 525.8cm and the painting seems to me to be much more about the outcome than the performance of making it.
Mel Brimfield, Vincent (Portrait with Fur Hat and Bandaged Ear), 2012
Mel Brimfield makes art about art in a very different way to others that I’ve written about here before (the reworkings of Hogarth’s A Rake’s Progress by David Hockney and Yinka Shonibare or Gregory Crewdson’s remained Edward Hopper picture, for instance). As with Shonibare’s Diary of a Victorian Dandy, Brimfield’s work is performative but there’s a humour in the work that feels more connected to Nina Katchadourian’s Self-portrait as Sir Ernest Shackleton though in Brimfield’s work the performances are collaborations between artist and performer. The resulting works – photographs, videos and sculpture – reference not only the artists Brimfield is looking at but also our ideas about art and the way the artists have been represented in films. Brimfield’s exhibition Between Genius and Desire at Ceri Hand Gallery Project Space – the gallery’s first show in London – gave me a lot to both think and smile about.
Eugenio Dittborn, The 11th History of the Human Face (500 years) (Airmail painting no.91), 1990
For as long as there’s been an art world, art has travelled. In an increasingly international, multi-centre art world that’s truer than ever and artists working at an international level might have exhibitions in several countries at any one time. For some artists though getting their work out isn’t easy. For Eugenio Dittborn the question of how to get the work out has determined the nature of the work itself. Based in Santiago de Chile, for Dittborn the issue is not just about distance but about the problem of making art while living under a repressive regime and in 1984, with Chile governed by the military, he started to make what he calls Airmail Paintings. Collage-based works, these are made of lightweight, foldable materials and are posted to the galleries that exhibit them – often in segments to be assembled on arrival – with the envelopes becoming part of the work.
Tracey Emin, I didn’t say I couldn’t love you, 2011
I’ll start by owning up to the fact that I wouldn’t have gone to see She Lay Down Deep Beneath the Sea, Tracey Emin’s exhibition at Turner Contemporary in Margate, if there hadn’t been a couple of other things on show outside the gallery that I particularly wanted to see. Over the years, Emin has made quite a lot of work I really like but most of it has been video and, with a few exceptions, I’m not crazy about her drawings, prints and paintings. But I was there so it would have been foolhardy not to take a look. I’ve seen enough of Emin’s work to know that at its best it can be genuinely affecting and that sometimes even the small, almost throw-away, drawings can be funny and occasionally hit a nerve or tell some sort of universal truth.