Hairy tales

Kiki Smith, Untitled (Hair), 1990

Though the degree to which hair can disgust is undoubtedly lessened by being mediated through photography or print, it nonetheless has a certain hold for me at least. I think it’s the connection with fairy tales and a sense that it’s in some way magical. I know nothing of spells at all apart from the opening lines of Macbeth but there’s hair right there, as far as I recall, so my mind makes that connection whether or not it would be borne out by, you know, actually looking stuff up. And of course, hair can stand in for the body. And in this lithograph by Kiki Smith, I think I’d argue that it stands in for both the artist and the process of recording in that the hair becomes a kind of drawing. Indeed, in this image the hair is Smith’s; the print is one of a folio of work in which Smith used imprints and photocopies of parts of her hair, face and neck as the basis for making prints.

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Drawing with light

Wolfgang Tillmans, Freischwimmer 26, 2003

The relationship between painting and photography is has also been explored by Wolfgang Tillmans in work made over the last decade or so. For Tillmans the work starts and ends with photographic process, but in making the images the fundamental notion of photography as drawing with light is used to make images that feel much closer to painting than photography. These are large-scale, painterly abstract pictures are made without a camera; the photographic paper simply records the light Tillmans directs at it.

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Ironing out the details

Gerhard Richter, Detail (Red-blue), 1970

The relationship between painting and photography lies at the heart of Gerhard Richter’s practice, from paintings made from found photographs to photographs of paintings made from, yes, photographs, this is territory Richter has explored more thoroughly and from more directions than perhaps any other artist. The Detail paintings, started in 1970, explore the nature of painting and the way in which we so often experience the complexity of the painted surface rendered smooth as a photographic surface. In these paintings, Richter has taken small details from paintings made with a heavy impasto and reproduced these, massively enlarged, as smooth painted surfaces. In Detail (Red-blue) a small area of heavily textured paint is represented as a three metre wide painting.

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Veils of abstraction

Untitled (1 July 1994)

Gerhard Richter, Untitled (1 July 1994), 1994

The end of summer is in sight and everything is starting afresh. It might sound odd, but Autumn always feels like the start of something new to me. Certainly, it’s the time of year when my thoughts turn to what to show a new intake of students. Some things don’t change much of course, but there are always works I’ve come across recently (many of them probably written about here already) or things I know well but now want to talk about differently. I’ll need to get my art history hat on pretty soon but before that I get to show a random selection of art to help get some ideas going and, with luck, defy a few expectations and destroy some preconceptions. All of which means that in a way I’m quite surprised to find myself trawling through Gerhard Richter’s Overpainted Photographs, but it’s a body of work that somehow always seems relevant.

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Matching pairs

Gabriel Orozco, Until You Find Another Yellow Schwalbe, 1995

While I’m in on a bit of a ‘means of transport as art’ theme I really can’t ignore Gabriel Orozco’s Until You Find Another Yellow Schwalbe. Living in Berlin while on a DAAD residency in 1995, Orozco got around the city using a yellow Schwalbe scooter. These scooters, made in the former East Germany, were cheap and quite a common sight on the streets of Berlin. Whenever he saw a scooter like his parked, Orozco would pull up next to it and photograph the pair of scooters. He left a note on each of the scooters inviting the owner to bring it to a gathering outside the Neue Nationalgalerie on the anniversary of the reunification of Germany.

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Every picture hides a story

Mats Bergsmeden, from the series Border Line, 2004–12

The pictures in Mats Bergsmeden’s series Border Line are very beautiful landscape photographs. Most seem like idyllic places, indeed my immediate thought was of the pastoral idyll of landscape painting and this seems to be Bergsmeden’s intention, with the specific reference of the landscape tradition in European painting during the Age of Enlightenment. Some of the pictures are of places where man’s intervention is limited to controlling nature but in some there are signs of the built environment and industry. Though all the images are unpopulated, in some we seem to be approaching signs of human activity; there is a sense that we are on the outside looking in. It would be possible to appreciate these as beautiful landscape photographs without reading anything more into them, but that would be to completely miss the point.

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Signs of death

Nancy Holt, from Western Graveyards, 1968

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.

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Signs of life

Nancy Holt, from California Sun Signs, 1972

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.

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They do things differently there

Eve Arnold, One of four girls who shares a flat in Knightsbridge, 1961

The premise of Tate Britain’s exhibition Another London: International Photographers Capture City Life 1930–1980 is an interesting one. How does London look to those who arrive here from elsewhere? These are pictures made by people who were either visitors to London or who had adopted it as their home. The answer is that it looks both familiar and strange but, in the main, I think perhaps the strangeness comes less from the viewpoint being that of a non-Londoner than from the pictures coming from the foreign country that is the past.

The earlier pictures are interesting as history pieces – it’s always fascinating to see that mix of familiar places playing host to people from a different time and there is something great about London fog on film – but it’s the images from the 1960s and ’70s that interested me more. This is the London in was born in and the city of my childhood making the pictures are a stark reminder of quite how much life has changed, and not just in London. In places it feels like the exhibition might just as well be called Another Planet.

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London on display

The World in London (Park House, Oxford Street), 2012

The World in London, which I wrote about in the previous post, is unusually in that the exhibition is being shown at the same time in two venues in the same city (although the Oxford Street installation will stay on display after the Olympics close on 12 August). Although the design of the two installations is recognisably the same in terms of its graphic identity – which is kept very simple, and although my preference would generally be to see images on white the black background does work reasonably well here – the way the work is shown is rather different and offers two different readings of the collection of photographs.

On Oxford Street, the images are displayed as a grid, albeit an uneven one with some images larger than others, in part because of the range of formats used by the photographers but occasionally determined by the architectural grid of the building. Exhibiting photographs in a grid is a strategy used by Bernd and Hilla Becher who grouped their pictures of industrial buildings together by type and it’s hard not to read grids of photographs as typologies.

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