This exhibition does not do you justice

David Shrigley, Untitled, 2011

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…

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Without words

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.

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Motherhood as art

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.

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Counting the days

Susan Hiller, Ten Months, 1977-79

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.

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Gathering, listing and smashing

Michael Landy, Break Down, 2001

If I’m honest, I’m a bit of a hoarder. I know I really need to start throwing things out, but somehow I don’t get round to it. And being an artist gives me an extra excuse, or so I tell myself. I have all kinds of junk squirreled away as stuff I might sometime use to make work. Yeah, right. But however much I know I need a clear out and however much I like art that is driven by obsession – a lot, on both counts – I know I could never have made Break Down. The extremity of Michael Landy’s project fascinates and terrifies me in equal measure.

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The trouble with language

Fiona Banner, Every Word Unmade, 2007

Before moving on from text and language – at least temporarily, there’s more I want to write about at some point – it seems like a good idea to go back to the basic building blocks of text: letters and punctuation.  Typography is more usually the domain of designers but given that lots of artists have concerned themselves with language as a sign system, it’s no great surprise that some have also worked with its constituent parts.

In Every Word Unmade, Fiona Banner presents the alphabet as an opportunity for communication; the basic letterforms have the potential to become words.

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A breed apart

Hans Haacke, from the series A Breed Apart, 1978

Although this work has been in the back of my mind for a while, it isn’t the Hans Haacke piece I expected to write about first but somehow it seems like an appropriate way to follow on from Krzysztof Wodiczko‘s projection onto South Africa House and earlier posts about art, text and advertising.

Hans Haacke’s work most often critiques the power relationships within the art world – specifically the symbiotic relationship between museums and their corporate sponsors – but wider issues around institutional systems and corporate responsibility are also regularly subject to his critical gaze. Haacke’s commitment to exposing corruption and other dubious corporate practices is absolute and as a result his work is uncompromising even though he operates from within the art world he seeks to demystify.

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Truth and the power of words

Jenny Holzer, Truisms, 1977-9 displayed at Times Square, 1982

For Jenny Holzer the work lies in the words rather than the particular way in which they are disseminated. So her Truisms have been projected in public spaces, worn as T-shirts, placed on gallery walls, plaques, stickers and postcards and more. The art lies in getting the words out there. Of course there are aesthetic and conceptual decisions about how and where they appear but it is the text and the way the audience encounters it that drives these.

Among the means of display Holzer employs, several involve sites or approaches more usually associated with advertising automatically colouring our response to the messages. Holzer’s slogans often challenge the political status quo in some way, making this appropriation of public display mechanisms all the more interesting.

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Selling a message

Barbara Kruger, Untitled (It’s a small world), 1990

If art reflects and comments on the world around us then it’s not surprising that it also has the potential to change minds. There are lots of artists whose work engages with political issues with the aim of helping bring about social change. And while I’m on a text theme it makes sense to think about some of those who use text directly to get their message across.

Barbara Kruger’s work draws on her own background in design and particularly in the magazine business. In her work, Kruger combines black and white photographs – often from magazines that promote the lifestyle she critiques – combined with text on a red ground. It’s a simple formula but it’s also a powerful one.

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Sign systems

Bob and Roberta Smith, Make Art Not War, 1997

There is of course a very long tradition of text painting. It’s just that it’s not an art tradition but a commercial one: signwriting. Though shop signs are seldom painted now it’s still a form we recognise. This is an approach to painting that is about immediate communication of a message. And it’s an approach Bob and Roberta Smith uses very effectively as art.

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