Never boring: A brief history of John Baldessari

A Brief History of John Baldessari - screen shot - title screen

A Brief History of John Baldessari, 2012 – title screen

In a way it’s just a short leap from Tips for Artists Who Want to Sell to the three things John Baldessari believes every young artist should know, though rather than painting these he chose to impart them to Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, the directors of the short – very short, we’re talking six minutes here – documentary A short History of John Baldessari. It turns out it’s possible to find out quite a lot about Baldessari in six minutes, though I suspect knowing a certain amount about the man and his work before hand does help.

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Posing pooches

Wegman Dog Walker 1990

William Wegman, Dog Walker, 1990

As explorations of the similarity between dog and owner go, Arnatt’s Walking the Dogs is all well and good but the definitive answer is offered, not even a little bit seriously, by some of William Wegman’s pictures. Of all Wegman’s dog pictures – and there are many and they involve some serious posing by the dogs who are both photogenic and apparently very amenable to a bit of dressing up and acting – I think it’s the dog walker ones that make me laugh the most; this is a simple idea, faultlessly realised.

Wegman Dog Walker 1990

The beauty of Wegman’s work is that it feels like a collaborative practice with his dogs – first Man Ray, then Fay Ray and her off-spring – as partners in picture-making.

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Shaggy dog stories

Erwitt USA NYC 1946

Elliott Erwitt, New York City, New York, 1946

Philip-Lorca diCorcia’s The Hamptons has made me start to think about other photographs of dogs and about how they often make me smile. Even the most cursory glance about the place reveals the internet to be all about kittens, but when it comes to actual photographs in actual galleries then I think dogs win out. So in part to get me out of the rut of writing about art I saw last year, here’s some art I saw even longer ago. Admittedly as steps forward go, this may not be a very impressive one but in mitigation, there are some really great art dogs out there and what better way to cheer up this rather rainy January than by looking at pictures one can’t help but find cheering? And what better way to start than with Elliott Erwitt?

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Watching intently

Philip-Lorca diCorcia, The Hamptons, 2008

Philip-Lorcia diCorcia, The Hamptons, 2008

Philip-Lorca diCorcia is one of those people whose work I may not always like – although I often – but will always make the time to go and see. If I’m honest though, the press release for East of Eden, which I saw at David Zwirner in Mayfair in the summer, didn’t really excite me. DiCorcia was quoted as saying that the series, started in 2008 as the sub-prime mortgage crisis caused the economy to fail, was “provoked by the collapse of everything, which seems to me a loss of innocence. People thought they could have anything. And then it just blew up in their faces. I’m using the Book of Genesis as a start.”

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Filing systems

Singh File Room 1

Dayanita Singh, Untitled from File Room, 2011

Thinking about presentation is all well and good, but what about the pictures? Dayanita Singh’s work always fascinates and the museums work for me as much for what is hidden as for what is shown with tantalising hints of pictures stashed behind pictures. Of all the museums, the pictures I was most familiar with before the Hayward show were the File Room series which I also saw in the German Pavilion in Venice. The pictures, as far as I’m aware made almost by accident with Singh drawn to photographing the files in the places she visited without initially realising it, show the file rooms of various institutions in India – courts, state archives, local government offices and the like – documenting the extraordinary paper-based bureaucracy that supports a nation with a population in excess of a billion. Over time, of course, digitisation will eliminate the vast accumulation of paper. But in the meanwhile, in archive after archive and office after office, the paper piles up.

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Ways of showing

Dayanita Singh, File Museum, Hayward Gallery, 2013

Dayanita Singh, Museum Bhavan installed in Go Away Closer

As well as Sarah Lucas at the Whitechapel Gallery, my December exhibition catch-up included a visit to the Hayward Gallery* to see exhibitions by Ana Mendieta (of which more in a later post, I think) and Dayanita Singh. Clearly December was women’s art month in my schedule. As with Lucas at the Whitechapel, there was an overlap with things I’d seen in Venice in the Biennale.**

Dayanita Singh is best known for making books and the books are much in evidence in Go Away Closer, the Hayward Gallery show. As a way of getting art photography to a wide audience this is a strategy with much to recommend it – and it’s certainly one a lot of people are working with right now – but for me it’s no substitute for seeing a great print. And, in the case of Singh’s work, it’s another display strategy that interests me more: her portable museums, displayed here as a group as Museum Bhavan.

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Looking back

Tate St Ives Summer 2013

Linder, Joining Valley, 2013

There’s a lot to enjoy in the summer exhibition at Tate St Ives, some of which I’ll quite likely write about later, but the work that really made me smile was one of Linder’s collages. I was already enjoying looking at this work and at the way the series of small collages shared a space with sculptures by Barbara Hepworth, but my enjoyment of Joining Valley wasn’t really about the work at all. It was one of those moments when something you haven’t thought about in years is suddenly brought back to mind by a chance encounter with an image on a gallery wall.

For me, Joining Valley is all about the kettle.

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