Simplifying the iconic

Johannes Vermeer, The Girl with a Pearl Earring, 1665

There are some images that stick in the mind. Johannes Vermeer’s The Girl with a Pearl Earring is surely one such. There is something haunting about the way the girl looks out at the viewer; it’s mostly about the eyes, but the slightly open mouth adds to the mood of the piece. The girl is caught in the moment rather than formally posing for a portrait. Though the girl is painted with beautiful detail, the painting as a whole is quite simple. The background is dark and lacking in detail, so it’s all about the girl and that earring that catches the light.

It’s perhaps unsurprising that a painting that has inspired first a novel and then a film should also have become the subject for another painting.

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Remaking history

Jeff Wall, A Sudden Gust of Wind (After Hokusai), 1993

Although referencing other artworks is perhaps most closely associated with the post-modern practices of the 1970s – think Sherrie Levine and Richard Prince in particular – it’s  a practice widely used in contemporary art. Jeff Wall’s large-scale photographic tableaux, many made in the 1980s and ’90s, could perhaps be seen as a kind of bridge between work that uses appropriation as a way to explore ideas about authorship – a key concern in post-modernism – and work that draws on art history and reworks it, perhaps in an attempt to understand the present by looking at the past. These works – shown as large light-boxes, a form that references advertising but also feels related as closely to cinema as to still photography without actually taking on the expected form of any of these – are both visually stunning and fascinating to look at; the detail is extraordinary and the scale – A Sudden Gust of Wind is roughly 2.5m by 4x – makes it possible to examine even the tiniest details. Though Wall continues to make engaging work, in my view his more recent work – which was one of the first things I wrote about here – isn’t as interesting as the earlier tableaux.

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Suburban stories: the borrowers

Gregory Crewdson, Untitled (Woman at Vanity), 2004 (from the series Beneath the Roses)

Although Gregory Crewdson’s strongest influences seem to come from Hollywood cinema, and his works are easy to read as film stills, in some of his pictures there are also clear art historical references. Untitled (Woman at Vanity) could easily be a still from a film or and American television series. I find myself wondering about the open curtains – especially given that this is a ground floor bedroom – and worrying about the slightly open patio door. The couple seem sad, but this is not a shared state; each looks lost in their own thoughts and their own private disappointment. The setting and the relationship between the couple might scream Crewdson but coupled with a hint of Edward Hopper.

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Portraits and problems

Urs Fischer, Problem Painting, 2012

After two consecutive posts about a body of work that – while not, in fact, devoid of laughs – is best described as thought-provoking and challenging and which raises questions about the worst aspects of twentieth century history, it seemed like time for a bit of light relief. It was thinking about seeing Yael Bartana’s work at the Venice Biennale that brought Urs Fischer to mind and though the Problem Paintings weren’t what I was initially planning to write about, they make me smile in just the right way so the work by Fischer I saw in Venice will just have to wait.

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Painting by numbers

Damien Hirst, Two Parrots, 2010

After so much discussion recently about Damien Hirst’s spot paintings and his non-involvement in the actual painting process, I decided to face up to the challenge and go and take a look at the paintings he makes himself. Hirst’s exhibition Two Weeks One Summer at White Cube Bermondsey includes a series of 35 paintings Hirst made at his Devon home in 2010 along with an installation, The Battle Between Good and Evil (2007). I missed No Love Lost Hirst’s Blue Paintings at the Wallace Collection in 2009-10 and though I remember the poor reviews that show received I went to this one with an open mind and a determination to write about the work fairly. So here goes…

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Mastering the system

Jamie Shovlin, Derrida from Various Arrangements, 2011-12

For many people, the Fontana Modern Masters series provided an introduction to philosophy, critical theory and assorted other aspects of twentieth century thinking. The books, first published in the 1970s sand early 1980s were portable and cheap and the colourful geometric designs on the covers made them easy to spot. I know a trawl of my bookshelves would yield a few; certainly Bryan Magee’s Popper helped me through philosophy of science one of the few bits of my physics degree I properly enjoyed (yes, that’s right, physics; and no, I have no idea what I was thinking either).

So, why am I writing about some book covers from several decades ago now? Well, I’m not really, expect as a bit of background on the matter in hand: Jamie Shovlin’s Various Arrangements which I caught recently – somewhat by accident and on the last day – at Haunch of Venison.

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A blank canvas

Yves Klein, Immaterieller Raum (Immaterial Space), Museum Haus Lange, Krefeld, 1961 (restored 2009)

Over the last few posts I realise I have been dealing with increasingly immaterial art. Though the work is visible it’s ultimately mostly made of nothingness. So, with Invisible soon to open at the Hayward Gallery, now seems like as good a time as any to think about work that really is made of nothing. The void as art. Well we’ve been here before in a way with Yves Klein’s Leap into the Void, but that was an actual photograph and art can get much more insubstantial than that…

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Mirror, mirror

Gerhard Richter, Six Grey Mirrors, 2003

Of all Gerhard Richter’s work – and his practice is unusually varied – it’s probably his exploration of the relationship between painting and photography that interests me most. But I’d struggle to come up with a body of work by Richter that I don’t like, though I guess the 1980s’ squeegee paintings would probably be on the list if I tried – the colours just don’t work for me – though I love the later squeegee paintings. I’m often unsure quite where I stand when it comes to Richter’s work with mirrors and glass. I like the work, but the paintings are so amazing that the other works can seem irrelevant by comparison. But, like most art, it depends on the context.

Dia:Beacon is an extraordinary place. A former factory converted to display the Dia Art Foundation‘s collection of works from the last half century or so in appropriate surroundings, the industrial architecture is put to good use to provide some unusual and unusually large spaces to show the work. Many of the works housed here can’t easily be accommodated elsewhere. The collection – much of which was acquired in the 1970s and ’80s – contains work by many key late twentieth century artists – primarily but not exclusively American – with industrial scale sculpture particularly well represented; since the 1990s works by other artists of broadly the same generation have been added to the collection including Gerhard Richter’s Six Grey Mirrors.

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This solid flesh

Jenny Saville, Shift, 1996-97

It was the chicken in Ron Mueck’s show at Hauser and Wirth that made me think of Jenny Saville. I realise that probably sounds crazy but the chicken skin put me in mind of Saville’s Shift, a vast painting (something like 3.3m x 3.3m, so able to dominate the space even in a sizeable gallery) showing a row of women squashed up against each other. It’s a painting I haven’t seen in many years but of all Saville’s work – and she’s a painter I like a lot – it’s the piece that’s always had the strongest hold over me. It’s partly that Jenny Saville paints flesh really well and partly that I like the way she makes me think about body image and the way we’re conditioned to see ourselves. These aren’t the idealised figures of art history or women’s magazines; they are women as women are. It turns out that painting the female nude and feminism aren’t mutually exclusive – however much a trip to almost any major art museum might make it seem that way – which is good to know.

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Curious children

Nicky Hoberman, Spectre, 1998

The strange world of childhood is central to Nicky Hoberman’s painting. Like those in Loretta Lux’s photographs, there is something not quite right about these children and the space they inhabit. Here though the children are isolated completely from the context of the world outside and shown against plain coloured backgrounds that offer no clue as to their situation. Though the facial features in Spectre are only slightly out of proportion – there is something especially disturbing about the eye that should be furthest from us being larger than the one we’re closer to – it’s the relationship of the girl’s head to her body that confuses me more. The body – smaller than it should be – lacks detail to the extent that I can’t quite decide whether her head’s even facing the right way.

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