Monday, 12 January 2015

Sweetness and Light

At last I found myself in Cardiff with a couple of hours spare to visit the 2014 Artes Mundi (‘Art of the World’) exhibition at the Amgueddfa Genedlaethol. To be honest I was prepared to be unimpressed, after seeing the lacklustre offerings at Chapter Arts Centre.

However, the National Museum exhibition hit you in the face with a visual and acoustic maelstrom as soon as you step through the gallery doors. Chicago artist Theaster Gates presents you with three engaging installations of ‘found objects’, spotlit in a darkened room to the backing incantations of “Amazing Grace”. There are strong religious overtones everywhere. Art should engage and this definitely engaged me. Theaster Gates has an interesting background, setting up a project in Chicago selling artworks to finance the refurbishment of buildings using salvaged materials. I guess his section of slate roofing at Artes Mundi has some allusion to his interest in buildings and construction, though on closer inspection it is put together in a crude manner so flatters to deceive!

There is an architectural element in the next exhibition space, an epic one, which divides the room in three using two impressive, full height walls made from corrugated cardboard and packing tape. Contrary to its name, Carlos Bunga’s “Exodus” certainly didn’t make me leave immediately. It relates directly to the human scale and to the generous Edwardian exhibition space of the Amgueddfa. This site-specific aspect I admire. But at the same time it puts in mind those corporate team building exercises where you build a tower using balloons, straws and sellotape. Bunga’s walls are sturdy and the idea might be cute, but it seems to be put together without any love. An architect would say, like Gates’ roof, it is let down by the detailling. The artworks in the newly created white spaces are easily missed and forgettable.

Upstairs the exhibition takes a completely different turn. Renzo Martens’ chocolate sculptures have caught the imagination of the reviewers. Beyond the heady smell of cocoa, this is a presentation that raises the question of authorship as well as global issues of poverty, capitalism and exploitation. I love it!!! Beyond the tactile and sensuous nature of the chocolate self-portraits, there lies the story of an ambitious project in Central Africa. Martens (et al?) set up the grandly titled Institute of Human Activities on an ex-Unilever cocoa plantation in the Democratic Republic of Congo. This was a collective project which engaged the local population in creating art, ostensibly keeping the money and accolade for their art within Africa. But very much to the chagrine of the capitalist landowners, it seems. In 2013 Feronica (successor of Unilever) kicked them out and they had to relocate to a more clandestine location.

Collapsible pseudo paste-tables leave me cold. I passed quickly through Renata Lucas’s installation space (the hinged boards around the edge of the room were kept conveniently flat) and found myself unexpectedly at the cinema, a darkened room showing a 40 minute film in German. Video art normally does nothing for me, though this piece by Omer Fast was extremely professional indeed. If only I’d had 40 minutes spare (and a box of popcorn). Steve McQueen watch your back!

According to the visitor e-comments, cardboard walls have won the day. But Gates and Martens tick all my boxes, with their thoughtful, layered and socially engaged practise. If Gates or Martens win the 2014 Artes Mundi it will be very well deserved and I’ll be very happy. Martens in particular meets all the criteria of ‘Art of the World’ and he gets my vote. I only hope, if he wins, the award will be collected by the combined forces of the Congolese Plantation Workers Art League!!

Artes Mundi 6 exhibition continues till 22 February at the National Museum, Cardiff, Chapter Arts Centre and Ffotogallery, Penarth (winners announced on 22 January)

Tuesday, 30 December 2014

Love Is Quite Enough

This weekend my curiosity drew me to Middle England, to see the “Love Is Enough” exhibition at Modern Art Oxford. The show, curated by leftie Turner Prize winner Jeremy Deller, juxtaposes the work of local Arts & Crafts designer William Morris and late 20th-century American Pop Artist, Andy Warhol. Deller makes the claim that the two have a lot in common.

Okay, so I read the online review by The Torygraph before I left to catch my train. My natural default reaction is to immediately disagree with every value espoused by The Torygraph. In this case the review was absolutely scathing and claimed the only good thing about the exhibition was its lack of an entry fee. On the surface of things I couldn’t help but agree that Morris and Warhol seem absolute opposites and I arrived at the multicoloured doors of MOA fervently hoping Deller had identified something we’d all missed!!

The upper galleries of MOA displayed an extremely interesting mixture of key works by Morris and Warhol, a rare and special chance indeed to see this work in the same place. Morris & Co.’s epic and mythical “Attainment” tapestry faced-off against Warhol’s …erm …woven version of Marilyn Monroe. Around the next corner were his paintings and screenprints of East Russian missile sites, Chairman Mao and two of his Electric Chair series. Morris’s famous wallpaper patterns were exhibited extensively in a third room  alongside Warhol’s decorative ‘Camouflage’ paintings. The superficial similarities were often obvious, but somewhat forced and occasionally bizarre. Most stupidly, Warhol’s 1973 series of Chairman Mao prints were displayed above a cabinet of Morris’s socialist manifestos, pamphlets and membership cards. Mao’s image was ubiquitous during the 1970s and I somehow doubt Warhol’s fascination meant he had signed up to the Chinese Communist Party or become remotely as left-leaning as Morris, the campaigning socialist activist!!

True, Morris and Warhol each strove to make art and design more widely available in everyday life (at one point Warhol described his pop art as “Commonism”). They were both propagandists of some sort. Morris and Warhol both became inextricably associated with their personal ‘brand’. Both Morris and Warhol had a fascination with a mythical ideal – for Morris this was the fabled heroes of myth and legend, while Warhol obsessed about modern celebrity pop culture.

Unfortunately, I’m still not entirely convinced this exhibition does justice to either Morris, Warhol, or Deller for that matter. Sure, it creates an attention grabbing juxtaposition and an excuse to fly-in some great art from around the Western world to a backstreet of Oxford. But superficial similarities in artists’ output rarely if ever have a direct correlatation with their motives, beliefs or manifestos. All major artists share a certain commonality of ambition, but another curator could have easily constructed an argument here that the two artists’ oeuvres were actually completely different. However, I’ll agree with Deller that even Warhol, the most overt exponent of the commercial American dream, was confronted with the contradictions and alternative images of the day which reflected an experience that was not out-and-out capitalist, black and white, or comfortable. To the Torygraph’s chagrine they can’t claim him as one of their own either!

Exhibition continues at Modern Art Oxford until 8 March 2015.

Wednesday, 17 December 2014

In Post

Well, here I am helping to pay my winter fuel bills by sorting Christmas mail for the Post Office. Fringe benefits include getting covered with glitter and living on a diet of reasonably priced fried breakfasts served at ridiculous o'clock in the morning.

To my delight I've found I'm working next to several creative types, a Photography graduate and someone with a PhD in Art Theory (you know who you are if you're reading this - great to meet you). Maybe we've been specially recruited because we're nimble with our fingers, but more likely the truth is there are a great deal of art and design professionals who find it difficult to make a full time living from their work, so take what they can to pay the bills.

I perversely enjoy the reality check (as well as walking to work in the moonlight, scrambled egg on tap, more red envelopes that you can shake a stick at, finishing work at 2pm etc). It's a healthy reminder (aside from greasy breakfasts) that most people have unfortunately had creativity extracted from their lives and jobs, with little choice in when and how we do work, or get paid. It's part of modern life, something artist's need to relate to and not ignore from behind their individual bohemian solutions.

Mind you, I don't think I'm giving away any secrets when I say we could do a better job of the mural in the Royal Mail training room.

Nadolig Llawen/Merry Christmas from CF11!!

Thursday, 20 November 2014

Landschaften von Kiefer

The BBC broadcast an exhilarating late night programme this week about the German artist Anselm Kiefer. He is an artist with an overabundance of energy, passion and resources which have led to the creation of a 200 acre sculpture park in the south of France which staggers my artistic and architectural sensibilities! Passion and drive are attractive qualities in artists and Kiefer combines these with the good fortune of being born at the very beginning of the German post-Nazi, post-war period, exploring the biggest human and political issues with disarming self-certainty.

Early in October I treated myself to a trip to London and, in preference to the dry video-based offerings of the Turner Prize nominees, I visited the newly opened Anselm Kiefer exhibition at the Royal Academy. I had made absolutely the right decision and thoroughly enjoyed my two hours inside the galleries (particularly because it was chucking down with rain outside).

Kiefer is the very opposite of everything I normally stand for - I prefer tiny canvases in vibrant colour, touching on specific people and issues. And I'm proudly an artistic nobody, I have often wondered whether the size of an artist's canvases have a direct correlation to the size of their ego, reputation, workplace and bank balance. Kiefer's 200-acre French estate, hangar-sized studio and collosal artworks suggest he is some sort of art world Bond villian with an ego the size of a large planet, though unfortunately for my theory he comes across in the BBC documentary as thoroughly charming and genuine.

The Royal Academy exhibition consisted of a continuous feast of canvases, generally vast planes of encrusted paint, straw, wire, tar, mud and clay. Enormous sculptural sunflowers came to represent life (maybe mankind reaching to god) while the clay, mud and brickdust represented death and renewal ('dust to dust'). Many works contained sheets of maleable grey lead, no doubt a by-product of Kiefer acquiring all of the lead from the roof of Cologne Cathedral sometime in the 1980s! The physicality of his paintings impressed me most, not only in size but in texture, tangible objects rather than 2-dimensional studies on a flat plane. The centrepiece of the exhibition was a site-specific sculpture combining all of the elements of his paintings and, sublimely self referential, recycling used canvases as the main ingredient of the recipe.

Watch the BBC "Imagine" programme if you can. He's a difficult artist to ignore ...and apparently for the right reasons!

Friday, 24 October 2014

Cardiff Octoberfest

Cardiff's annual "Made in Roath" event, dominating the east side of the city, drew to a close this evening but it is only one of a plethora of major art events happening around the city this month. Coincidence or out-and-out competition, I'm not quite sure. "Cardiff Contemporary", is popping up all over the city till 9 November and has certainly stolen the limelight from MiR. Bigger still is the prestigious "Artes Mundi", attracting an international audience to the National Museum from 24 October onwards. Meanwhile "Empty Walls" gathers over 20 national and international street artists to decorate Cardiff's grey buildings with vibrant murals. On the weekend of 25/26 October Cardiff Open Studios throws the doors open on the remainder of the city's artists. In Cardiff Bay, the Butetown History and Art Centre launches Wales' first exhibition of 'Outsider Art', running until 16th November.

I had to spend several days scurrying back and forth across town because several pieces of my work were on display. My "United Colours of Madiba" painting got its first airing at Roath's SHO Gallery. My photograph of the Howard Gardens Art College campus was used prominently for the publicity and display at G39. In BHAC my "Portrait of a Diary as a Young Idea" fits well into the impressive array of paintings and sculpture on the 'Outsider Art' theme.

Fun though this may be, it is bewildering even for someone like myself who thought they were getting to grips with the artist personalities and groups in Cardiff. One would have thought, with 11 other months to choose from, there would be scope to spread these events out a bit! My heart tells me I should engage with the Made in Roath event, even though (said very quietly) I no longer live in ...erm ...Roath (and now the Roath Independence referendum has voted an overwhelming "YES" I may need a passport and visa to go to work). Made in Roath continues to be ultra popular, community based, democratic and encouraging mass participation and pride in the local area. In contrast "Cardiff Contemporary" goes down the more traditional route of professional artists presenting their work to the public in galleries, pop-ups and (occasionally) street corners. Exhibitions are selective and chosen from within the city's art scene. My head tells me I need to aim to engage with this event and, well, entering "Artes Mundi" is a distant pipe dream!!

Fortunately I can head for one of October's beer based "Octoberfest" events, hopefully numbing my brain to all this choice and confusion!!

http://madeinroath.com/
http://www.cardiffcontemporary.co.uk/
http://www.bhac.org/

Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Wilson up close and personal

Last week I had to run an errand across town and, on my way back, decided to drop into the National Museum of Wales, Cardiff. I’m alarmed at how infrequently I visit this place, packed as it is with world class exhibits and a marvellous array of international art. And it's free to enter!

Prize exhibit at the moment is a £23 million painting of Salisbury Cathedral by John Constable, an awe inspiring work, vast in size and as crisply coloured as the day it was first painted. Photographs don’t do it justice. Three teenage schoolgirls sat in front of it for the ten minutes I was there, not saying anything, not even moving but, like me, enjoying the artwork.

In the adjacent galleries an exhibition of paintings and drawings by Wales’ most illustrious painter, Richard Wilson, was taking place. I’m glad I caught it. Wilson (1714-1782) travelled widely, redefining landscape painting and changing the very definition of beauty. Instead of the stylised and symbolic works of his contemporaries, he painted what was in front of him, actual landscapes and genuine settings (with only the occasional compositional device thrown in). Country house owners rushed to have their actual estates painted in all their glory. Meanwhile his bleak unadorned portrayals of Welsh mountain peaks were shocking to traditional eyes because of their stark simplicity.

Fascinating to me were Wilson’s delightfully witty portrayal of people. It’s not something you would notice unless you could stand a few feet in front of these big canvases. Sparingly placed at the edges of his landscapes are people going about their everyday business, walking, fishing, washing clothes, swimming. His painting of the town of Pembroke has a small child climbing a tree while, at the bottom of the cliff, his father tries to beckon him down. In the background there are skinny dippers discarding their clothes and swimming in the river. Even more remarkably for the time, Wilson portrays a woman breastfeeding her baby overlooking the River Arno, Italy, while her husband lies beside her tending his fishing rod (that’s not a euphemism by the way). The woman stares out of the canvas, challenging you to contemplate the intimate moment you’ve stumbled upon.

Wilson inspired John Constable and this exhibition is heralded as a once-in-a-generation gathering together of his paintings (a once-in-300-years tercentennial celebration of his birth). A marvellous opportunity. Paintings (well, the best ones) always reveal new and interesting qualities when they’re viewed ‘live’ and close up.

Richard Wilson and the Transformation of European Landscape Painting until 26 October 2014
www.museumwales.ac.uk/cardiff

Saturday, 21 June 2014

Part of the Wallpaper

While renovating my tiny kitchen in my Victorian terraced house I came across a patch of 1960s wallpaper behind a panel. It was a boldly coloured floral pattern in acidic shades of blue. I liked it and kept it, framed behind a sheet of perspex. I’m surrounded by remnants of old hearths and chimney breasts that no longer serve a purpose. My living room proudly retains a lead-based paint encrusted sash window.

Therefore I can relate strongly in many ways to Shani Rhys James installation, Florilingua, which was opened to the public this weekend inside the Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff. I enjoy paintings which take on another dimension. Shani Rhys James is one of Wales’ best known painters, recognised for her giant canvases which often take her own image as the subject.  But Florilingua expands to take on three dimensions and a sensory explosion of colour, sound and smell. Ostensibly it purports to speak about the domesticity of the lives of Victorian women. A bold floral ‘wallpaper’ pattern, painted by the artist, covers the interior walls of a bunker-like room constructed in the WMC concourse. From the ceiling hangs a small and suitably sombre black chandelier (bejewelled with rich red crystals) which illuminates the room. Poetry in English and Welsh can be heard, while the female poet’s lips mouth the words from a tiny screen in the middle of the far wall.

Even the solid construction of Shani’s bunker speak about the strength of Victorian domestic architecture. Contrary to Britain’s 19th century vision of male dominance and female subservience, nay invisibility, Florilingua resonates with a strength and depth. The rich yellows and reds are not restrained in any way, while the heady smell of fresh oil paint could render a small child unconscious! Maybe this installation is a physical respresentation of Shani’s multi-facted and opinionated persona (which belies her diminutive stature). I heard more than one person exiting the room commenting that they felt they had just experienced what it was like to walk into the middle of one of Shani’s paintings.

There is something quite incongruous about this unassuming white plywood box on the edge of the vast WMC concourse, but it’s a great setting which emphasises the extremes going on here. If anyone is heading down to Cardiff Bay then go search it out!