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 idea of presenting an existing document as art – the essence of Keith Arnatt’s Notes from Jo – is something used in a very different way by Maurizio Cattelan. In this case the actual document is presented rather than a photograph; given that the document in question is a police report this seems like an important element of the work. This is a work that is all about the narrative it represents: in 1991, faced with not having produced the work for a forthcoming exhibition, Cattelan went to the police and reported the theft of an invisible artwork. He then presented the police report in the exhibition.
Keith Arnatt, Untitled from the series Notes from Jo, 1990-94
Curiosity about others is probably something we all share in one way or another. Whether it’s people-watching at a cafe window or trying to work out what the connection is between those people sitting over there on the bus, it’s hard not to wonder about other people. And the thing we never really know is how other people are at home. Keith Arnatt’s series of photographs Notes from Jo offers a kind of portrait of a marriage. These are notes left by Arnatt’s wife during the early 1990s and documented by him to become a series of photographs. The notes are usually funny, often bossy, sometimes exasperated, occasionally angry; seen together they offer what seems like a hugely affectionate portrait of a marriage with a real sense of two people who care about each one another muddling along together from day to day.
In the series Western Graveyards, Nancy Holt is again recording individual elements from an existing sign system and representing them as an artwork. Here the playfulness of the California Sun Signs is replaced by a poignancy that comes from our encounter with people we never knew through a series of photographs of their last resting places and the way the lives have been memorialised. For me, the series is fascinating in several ways. Firstly, for a Londoner, especially in this summer of rain, the unfamiliarity of graves within a desert landscape is striking; the desolation of the location and the dilapidation of the graves seems at odds with the bright sunlight.
The idea of representing existing text as art intrigues me and is something that can work in very different ways. It’s essentially the basis of Nancy Holt’s 1972 work California Sun Signs but this is a body of work driven by the inclusion of text in the image but in which the text is only a small part of the piece. Presented in a somewhat random but broadly circular arrangement on the wall, the individual images that make up California Sun Signs each show a sign found in the Californian landscape, which in each case includes the word sun.
Louise Bourgeois and Tracey Emin, Deep inside my heart, 2009-10
Artists collaborating is hardly unusual. And, as the last few posts have shown, artists copy what’s gone before on a regular basis. And occasionally they go so far as to take someone else’s work and change it, like the Chapman brothers did when making Insult to Injury or like Robert Rauschenberg did, albeit with Willem de Kooning’s permission, when he rubbed out a drawing to make Erased de Kooning (1953). When Tracey Emin worked on top of a series of paintings by Louise Bouregois, she did so at Bourgeois’s behest, the two artists having met some years earlier and been in regular contact since; though Bourgeois wasn’t generally interested in collaborations, the two artists had shared preoccupations giving the idea of a joint work a certain appeal. As a collaboration what perhaps made this unusual was that Emin had the paintings for more than a year before deciding how to proceed. Do Not Abandon Me, the series of prints made from these images, was to be one of Bourgeois’s last works; although Bourgeois saw Emin’s additions – and was delighted with them – the work was not shown until after her death.
I like David Shrigley’s work. It makes me laugh. Why then did I approach his Hayward Gallery exhibition with a sense of dread? Well now, let’s see. Firstly, the strength of Shrigley’s work lies in its simplicity and that’s something that can get wearing when seen en masse. Secondly, the Hayward Gallery is a very big space even allowing for the fact that Shrigley is sharing it with Jeremy Deller’s Joy in People (which warrants a post of its own at the very least). Thirdly – and this one’s the big one – I’ve yet to see a Shrigley solo show I properly liked. Despite that tinge of dread I tried to stay hopeful. With my expectations low, surely a pleasant surprise was in order? Well, yes. And, more importantly, no…
Alighiero Boetti, Mettere Al Mondo Il Mondo (Bringing the World into the World), 1975
There are three paying exhibitions at Tate Modern at the moment. The Damien Hirst exhibition is being widely advertised and has been the subject of a lot of media attention. Of the other two, the Yayoi Kusama seems to have generated the most discussion. Hirst is of course a household name and Kusama was already firmly in the consciousness of Londoners with an interest in contemporary art following Walking in my Mind at the Hayward Gallery in 2009 which was heavily centred on her work, indeed her polka dot wrapping of the trees along the South Bank ensured that her work also reached a signifcant non-art audience. The Hirst and Kusama exhibitions are also the ones making the most – visual – noise in the gallery, and while the Hirst was proved mercifully quieter than I had expected when I visited, they do seem to be attracting the bigger crowds.
There were things I liked about the Hirst – it was good to see those early works again and entertaining to stare in horror at the worst excesses of his more recent output – and I really liked the Kusama exhibition (at some stage I may well write about both) but it’s the other show – Alighiero Boetti: Game Plan – that I found by far the most inspiring.
Mary Kelly, Post-Partum Document (detail: vests, from Introduction), 1973-79
Like Susan Hiller, Mary Kelly documented her pregnant belly as art but it is the work she made after the birth of her childfor which she is better known. Post-Partum Document made between 1973 and ’79, the first years of her son’s life, is an extensive document of the mother and child relationship and of the nature of motherhood. The work is in six sections and contains over a hundred items of documentation from the vests shown above to diary notes, graphs and other data and artefacts such as stained nappy liners. The work is driven by the process of making it and clearly parts of that process aren’t pleasant.
To an extent the work of both Jenny Saville and Judy Chicago is seen as feminist in part because it reclaims the female nude for women artists. So far so good, but why then do I take issue with Chicago’s approach – or at any rate to The Dinner Party – while finding Saville’s work challenging and relevant? In part of course it’s to do with the earnest nature, and perhaps hippy thinking, of 1970s feminism. So do I have the same response to other work from that era? Well, yes and no.
Susan Hiller’s Ten Months takes the artist’s pregnancy as it’s subject matter. Hiller photographed her growing belly throughout and arranged the photographs in 10 grids, read from left to right and stepping down the wall, each one corresponding to a lunar month. So far, so hippy. Along with the images, each grid has a text taken from Hiller’s journal. The text for each month is brief and the editing process brings the work back on track for me.