Spending a week in New York is a great way to see a lot of art. There’s all the stuff you expect to see of course – great exhibitions at MoMA, the Met, the Guggenheim etc – and there are the big name commercial galleries that are always worth a visit and then there are the galleries you just wander into because something catches your eye. By the end of this visit, I felt – as usual, I suppose – that there was so much I’d wanted to see but hadn’t managed to get to. I could happily spend a week wandering round Chelsea and probably the same again elsewhere.
Aware of how little I’d seen I snuck a last quick visit to Chelsea into my final morning, in the main wandeing at random, and just as I really needed to start thinking about getting back to the hostel – oh, this glamorous life! – I spotted Alan Rath’s work in Bryce Wolkowitz and had to take a look.
Yinka Shonibare MBE, Addio del Passato at James Cohan Gallery
The key characteristic of Yinka Shonibare’s work is his use of Dutch wax fabric. Based on Indonesian batik fabrics but manufactured in Europe by the Dutch, who then exported it to West Africa when it failed to catch on in the Netherlands, and bought by Shonibare from Brixton market in London, the fabric has connotations of colonialism, post-colonialism and the movement of cultures thereby engendered and of the multi-culturalism of contemporary London. Thus it neatly connects the different aspects Shonibare’s own background as a British-born, Nigerian-raised Londoner and has allowed him to build a practice that is simultaneously coherent and diverse and both serious and playful. These complexities and contradictions are reinforced by Shonibare’s adoption of the letters MBE after his name when he was given the honour in 2005: an artist whose work could be seen as commenting on empire accepted and uses an honour that makes him a Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire.
It’s not surprising then the work in Shonibare’s exhibition Addio del Passato at James Cohan Gallery is by turns beautiful and fascinating and very, very funny. Equally unsurprising perhaps is that the work I especially want to write about is all of these things. And also really rather rude…
When we think of moving image art it’s usually film and video works that spring to mind first, but artists like to play and there’s more than one way to make an image move. One of the works I’ve enjoyed the most in recent years is Juan Fontanive’s Quicknesse, a simple flipbook device which traps a hummingbird in a loop of hovering. The sound of the work conjures a sense of agitation and urgency; the bird is beautiful, trapped in our gaze.
There is something extraordinary about this work. Whether it’s the simplicity of the device or the touching beauty of the image, in which the bird is isolated from its surroundings (the background of the image is painted out in white so that the bird floats), I’m not sure, but it has stayed with me since the first time I saw it. Effectively this is stop motion animation as sculpture. Juan Fontanive has another London show opening at Riflemaker Gallery next month. Can’t wait.
Steven Pippin, Self-Portrait Made Using a House Converted into a Pinhole Camera, 1986
There are quicker and easier ways to take pictures. It’s not as though cameras aren’t readily available in shops. For Steven Pippin though, the process of making a picture usually starts with the process of making a camera. In itself that’s not so unusual. There are probably countless art teachers out there who have encouraged students to make pinhole cameras. Usually such undertakings begin with a box of some sort, often a biscuit tin. But that would be way too easy for Pippin.
Plenty of people think contemporary art is shit. And of course, some of it probably is. And sometimes when I’m talking to students about their work I’ll use the word crap, but I always mean it to be a positive (for example “this has a pleasingly crap aestheic”). But one, unusually bonkers (and I mean that in a good way too) work, Cloaca by the Belgian artist Wim Delvoye, is shit in a much more literal sense. Don’t read on if you’re squeamish (or about to have lunch)…
The relationship between art and technology is a long and complex one and not something I want to explore in any depth today. In these works the means of production is there for all to see so I’ll use the simplicity of the work as a space for contemplation of the possibilities offered by low technology, in this case the humble overhead projector.