Sunday, June 29, 2008

The Worst Paintings in London

For as long as I can remember I have had a very physical response to art, and I sometimes feel overwhelming excitement in front of something truly thrilling. Take me to the Van Gogh room in the Musee d'Orsay for example and I'm wide-eyed with wonder and brimming with tears, with a fluttering of butterflies in my stomach and a breathlessness in my chest. Sometimes I have to steal myself: I get overwhelming urges to run around or shout, like a sort of artistic tourettes. If this wasn't bad enough, my face screws up looking at pictures, and I squint terribly, as though straining to read or connect (this is of course exactly what is happening), and sometimes rock to and fro, or hunch up and dance slightly. All of this makes me look mad and can occasionally mean security takes an interest.

Oh, and I get very impatient with crowds: I really hate those shuffing packs of tourists with their rucksacks and sound-guides, whose only experience of art is through the receiving end of a handycam lens. In fact, thinking about viewing really great art, I would go as far as to say that I can think of no other experience in life that can make my heart sing with joy but also turns me into a murderous fascist at the same time. But for me that's the signal of good art: my emotional alarms go off and the work affects me. The overriding feeling is the enjoyment of sharing in the thing that another person has created. The work has added something to my understanding of myself and the world. It's a joyful feeling and I feel richer for it.

Unfortunately I felt no such enrichment at the BP Portrait Award yesterday. I've been to loads of them now and they're always pretty dire, but this year's is car-crash awful. I should know not to go. It's almost like a little private torture I put myself through every year. Luckily i went thirty minutes before closing-time, so the exposure was shortlived, but it was enough to have me reeling round the room in a stupor of disgust.

Pretty much the first picture I was confronted with was a boring portrait of an artist in his studio, surrounded by motifs symbolic of the various stages of his artistic development. An idea so obvious it could have come off a GCSE syllabus. I began to spit blood... Then row after row of rather flat likenesses, dead-looking models and subjects wistfully gazing into the middle distance out of badly over-varnished canvases with too-big signatures (signatures!). All sort of flat, and bored and grey. One silly old fuck had even continued the painting onto the sides of the canvas for God's sake like something off the fence at Green Park (mind you in this show that's pushing the envelope). If you saw most of this crap in a provincial gallery in Godalming or Tunbridge Wells you wouldn't give it a second glance. The crowd seemed pleased, but 'the crowd' aways needs a collective shake. Cooing and Ahhing as they were over photographic copies, most even bearing the carefully studied sheen of the Snappy Snaps lab and, in one painting (Gabrielle Groves' 'Manuel'), the horrid glow of a photo taken under florescent light without a flash. Why paint something that mimics a photograph? To show how skillfully one can copy flat colour? Oh, and my stomach lurched when confronted with the double horror of Benjamin Sulllivan's triptych together with Lucie Cookson's 'Her Name is Rio': They are tributes to the sitters, but they do not remind us what it means to be alive. That, surely, has to be the point of art.

But it's not all bad. Well, actually it is, but there IS one picture worth seeing: It's by Arth Daniels and called 'WordtoMother'. It's a portrait of Arth's college friend Tom Park aka graffiti artist 'WordtoMother'. Tom has an intense, direct gaze; he is wearing a basball cap, with his jutting chin propped on a tattooed hand, gritting his teeth playfully at the viewer. He's set against a sketchy suggestive landscape painted in a stained oil that throws Tom's features forward. It's a very immediate piece. It also has a more interesting handling of paint than many of the other participants. Rather than being still and flat, or smooth and blurry and suffocating under varnish (see Craig Wylie's awful winning pink cardigan), the paint of Tom's face has a liveliness to it. It's probably the only alive face in a room full of dead ones.

But back to the dross, I just do not see the point of an art that seeks to recreate the quality of a photograph. Perhaps the museum should consider changing the show to 'The Realist Prize' or 'Annual Copyist Award'? Tellingly, in this month's Art Review, the sponsors BP have bylined their full-page ad with something like 'Snap up a Portrait', or 'Make it Snappy' or somesuch, which suggests to me that the overbaring photo bias has at long last seeped into the the PR's creative spins. 'The Annual Photo Painters' here we come!... Time was however when the Portrait Award banned the use of photography and you had to paint from life. The show was better in those days.

This show is so bad I was seriously considering leafleting it but the gallery has redeemed itself by opening Wyndham Lewis: Portraits. So if you want to see meaningful views of others go to that instead. But go and see Arth Daniels' picture. It's the only good thing there.

Sunday, June 08, 2008

Tomma Abts in New York

Tomma Abts
Lübbe, 2005
Acrylic & oil on canvas
48cm x 38cm

'The final painting is a concentrate of the many paintings underneath'.
Tomma Abts, in interview with Peter Doig

The Museum of Contemporary Art, formerly in Chelsea, has reopened in its new incarnation as the New Museum of Contemporary Art. It's now on the Bowery in a great new building pleasingly at odds with the surroundings: it looks like three steel boxes of varying size piled on top of each other. I knew that whatever was on would be interesting and felt a quiet pang of artful joy when I read in the New York Times that the museum was showing Tomma Abts' paintings.

Tomma is German and lives and works in London. She won the Turner Prize in 2006, and had the strongest room in that year's Turner show (bolstered in no small way by Rebecca Thomas' hamfisted clay sculptures in the room next door). Tomma's paintings are complex compositions with circles, lines and geometrics, all bisecting each other in throbbing dark reds and poisonous greens. Imagine a detail of Wyndham Lewis' 'Workshop' reduced down to a low voltage and remade in muted colours.

Like the Turner show there is plenty of space around the work, and I love the small uniform size. I'm sick to death of large paintings where it's easy to create an impact with so-so content, but brilliantly all Tomma's pictures are only 48 x 38cm. This gives the show a very together feel and the paintings feed off each other almost as though they are wired up behind the scenes. As the work is so human in scale you get up close, noticing the faint underpainting and raised patterning of several painstaking reworkings sitting underneath the finished work. They have titles, like 'Eppe', 'Meko', 'Keke' and so on, which are apparently regional German first names chosen at random from a dictionary Tomma keeps in her studio, and probably a code of convenience rather than an attempt to provide a further key into the work, but I wondered how a German viewer might see them.

Also showing is a joint show by Daniel Guzman and Steven Shearer called 'Double Album': ambitious self-portraiture investigating adolescence and male identity using pop icons and teen-subculture. As is this wasn't enough there is also Paul Chan's '7 Lights' - a darkened room filled with flickering projections and animations in silhouette of the natural world, moving trees and developing landscape. The projections are about the 7-days of creation, most using obsolete technology giving the projections a shakey handmade feel like moving fuzzy felts around on an overhead projector.

The building also has a very cool shop attached, where you can buy artist's multiples, badges, books on Throbbing Gristle and, marvellously, Black Flag canvas tote bags (just the thing for the George and Dragon). As so many things in New York are bigger and better than it's London counterparts you can imagine the 'New Museum' is a sort of ICA times ten.

'Tomma Abts' is on until 29th June 2008.

New Museum of Contemporary Art
235 Bowery between Prince and Spring streets

Monday, June 02, 2008

Some New Work

I had no idea it's been over two months since my last post!... I was suitably admonished in our local over the weekend by her Royal Redness Dawn Right Nasty and threatened with expulsion from the Nasty list of links should no posts be immediately forthcoming...

So here I am getting my house in order. In fact I'll go one better:- I hereby pledge to post something, anything, once a week. Promise. Even if it's just a photo. Anyway, we are just back from New York City so I shall formulate some thoughts and in the meantime here's a small selection of the new work I am currently absorbed by.

The project is called 'Heartland'- a group of small pictures, a film and some drawings about the landscape I grew up in. The paintings are small oils, most no larger than A4, either painted outside or based on drawings made in direct response to the landscape itself and the important memories provoked.

I've been enjoying using oils again, after the flatness of the Doctor Who acrylics. In a recent interview Maggi Hambling described oil paint as having 'organic' human qualities. I feel as though I knew this once but somewhere along the way forgot how sensitive the stuff can be. I don't think I could have made these pictures in acrylics. They are not emotionally responsive enough. The scale of the pictures too feels fitting. They're not big gallery pictures. It's small, contemplative work that will need space around it.

Many of the views are of places I have not been too since I was a child (or, ahem, in the case of 'Sex Alley' since my mid-teens...).

SEX ALLEY (2008)