Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The Decade of Bad Art

There was a lot that was bad about the 1980s. Bad hair, bad clothes, bad TV; some very bad mainstream music. What people forget however, and what this small display demonstrates, was that was also some very bad painting. UBS Openings: Paintings from the 1980s comprises a scant survey of the resurgent figurative movement that was happening largely in New York City but also semi-spontaneously in Italy and Germany in that bad-taste decade.

Let's examine the big three C's:- Chia, Clemente and Cucchi. Sandro Chia's Three Boys on a Raft has the colour and texture of a wet woolly jumper on a drizzly day in Llandudno and frankly I had better colour sense when I was 8. Francesco Clemente's Self-Portrait is lazily executed with no discernible impetus or excitement for the personality, it is flat and unsearching and not what one could call the result of emotional inquiry. Enzo Cucchi's supposedly Homeric odyssey is horribly, clumsily painted and actually rather silly in a serious art context: like bad prison art, or something from an art therapy class in a home for the mentally ill on the outskirts of Basingstoke. The only difference is size: but making it big does not a work of art make.

Then there is the king-pin of the New York darlings, Julian Schnabel. Apparently Humanity Asleep (above), one of his awful smashed crockery pictures (which needless to say, like everything in the show is about ten-foot wide), was influenced by William Blake. Stop right there. This is exactly the sort of padding-out I detest when it comes to this tribe of pretenders, and Julian Schnabel is, to my mind, a talentless individual who happened to be in the right loft with the right size painting in the right market conditions at the right time. Will anyone talk about him in 200 years? Will they buggery.

And I'm not going to start on David Salle; I will however remark in passing that My Subjectivity is singularly awful, and the right-hand panel of the young girl in sickly green downright creepy. It looks like it was painted by someone who spends a good deal of their time in restaurants heavy-breathing over a waitress young enough to be their Granddaughter.

So what's good? Well, I very much enjoyed the early Basquiat who, in thankful contrast to the aforementioned, was driven and angry and made works filled with personal meaning. He also unleashed blistering comment on both historical and contemporary America, and Tobacco vs Red Chief is no exception. It is a picture of a wooden North American Indian Chief figure, a commonplace advertising device that used to be found outside US Tobacco shops, but placed in his demarked space of teepees and sprayed with blood his fistful of cigars becomes the currency received for relinquishing the lands he stands on. Basquiat shined at opening up uncomfortable subjects but he also made pictures that looked great; they followed all the painterly laws of balancing weight, space, texture, emphasis, milli-second calculations all over that built up an instinctively realised and considered whole. He knew what to leave out, which is more important then what you put in, and he knew when to stop. There is not a bad mark.

I also enjoyed seeing Bazelitz's Adieu from 1982, two human figures pinned like butterflies in a case, characteristically upside down, writhing on a chequer-board of jaundiced yellow, with such a freeness to the paint I was reminded I must put a bomb under these little landscapes I am doing, so tight and close-knit is the paint becoming.

So how did Schnabel and the Three C's who, it seems to me, have little or no natural painterly sense or ability, become so celebrated? I believe the paintings were so vacuously bad you could say whatever you like about them, thereby providing raw material on which curators' could hang their hyperbole in a time when dollars were burning holes in pockets. Furthermore, they produced work of impressive size with which it is easy to bombard the viewer. They often included mysterious imagery and referencing that somehow enabled a sense of them being intellectual outsiders (but paradoxically within the safe confines of the New York party set), which somehow married up to people's expectations of the mythic idea of the artist. With the exception of Jean-Michel Basquiat, these are not blazing lights who remind us what it means to be alive: they are as dull and as straight as your average financial adviser. But perhaps this was how America liked it's artists for a time, with Basquiat cannily added to the mix to show fair-play.

UBS Openings: Paintings from the 1980s
at Tate Modern until 13th April 2009

Tate Modern

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Landscapes of Loss

Alfred Sisley was born in France but to English parents, who sent the young Sisley to London to study business. This sounds like a cruel fate but his parents did him a great service because instead of studying hard to become a banker Sisley kept bunking off to hang out in the National Gallery, entranced by what he found there. Sisley returned to Paris four years later determined to become a painter, and undertook an apprenticeship in the studio of Charles Gleyre, who also taught Renoir and Monet. The rest, as they say, is history, as Sisley, along with his classmates, rapidly captured the imagination of the cultural public with their experimental plein air painting (and as Frank Auerbach once said "artists often come in gangs"…).

Sisley in England and Wales is a small show of two distinct groups of pictures Sisley painted over two visits to England. The first, in 1874, shows the bustling Thames (now ghostly quiet), and sun-filled Regattas at Molesley and Hampton Court palace. The pictures are light-hearted but Sisley was a dab-hand at finding a challenging view and the paintings are filled with interesting perspectives and spatial explorations such as the gently curving Road from Hampton Court to Molesley and Under the Bridge at Hampton Court. The paintings also include hints of industrial progress: water plumping stations, wiers and dams, as though Sisley wanted to show the beauty of the countryside but wanted also to present the viewer with a modern view. However whereas these paintings seem light and carefree the paintings resulting from his second visit, which was at the very end of his life, choke the throat.

Sisley’s parents disapproved of his relationship with his partner Eugenie and cut him from their will. In 1897 the couple headed to England to marry in secret docking first at Southampton and travelling to Cornwall, before tying the knot in lonely circumstances at Cardiff Registry Office, settling at Langland Bay for a time so that Sisley could get to artistic grips with the ragged peninsula at Gower.

In stark contrast to the paintings of 1874 these later works were made at a time of great emotional strain and personal difficulty. Not only were the couple effectively outcast, they were both dying; Alfred had throat cancer and Eugenie cancer of the tongue. Given the circumstances it is hardly a cause for surprise that the Welsh landscapes are made of sterner stuff that the Molesley Regattas of some 20-years earlier. In Sisley's hands, Welsh Coast (Penarth) and Cliff at Penarth are places of futile contemplation, imbued with Sisley's heavy heart, and Storr's Rock at Rotherslade Bay becomes a summing-up of the violence of life, an immoveable, tangible mass of tumultuous emotion. This work is Sisley's emotional life laid bare, shipwrecking itself on lonely coves and violent outcrops, and that these paintings are his final reckoning of the world only strengthens that palpable, plummeting sense of loss.

It's free to get in, and the brilliant catalogue is only 6.95, but you might need to take a hanky.

Sisley in England and Wales
at The National Gallery until 15th February 2009
and at National Museum Wales, Cardiff 7th March to 14th June 2009

The National Gallery