Wednesday, 29 June 2022

Elvis in his Spiritual Form


A bit of a departure for me on this blog. I want to share my first written thoughts on Baz Luhrmann's new movie, which I now realise I saw the day after its UK general release, and which I wrote the day after that. Thanks to Anna and Sophie for an excellent Father's Day present and to Nicky for coming with me.

It has sunk in deeply; left me mildly depressed. Elvis was my first hero, from quite early in childhood (the first album I ever bought was Separate Ways, from Doncaster indoor market). So, although, I sometimes go for years without much thinking about him, it’s impossible to just watch a film about Elvis.

Although it was one of those ‘drama-based-on-a-true story’ type things, the single most poignant moment for me came in a piece of actual documentary footage very near the end. Shot in Las Vegas a few weeks before his death. An unsteady Elvis is helped to a piano and sits, with difficulty, like an old, infirm man. His face is bloated almost beyond recognition, yet the hands are slim and delicate; almost feminine. He sings ‘Unchained Melody’ like the angel he is soon to become. There is a moment early on in the footage when the camera catches his eyes. They are bloodshot and sunken, yet out of their depths comes the most imploring, desperately sad glance. Just for a second the universe is in those eyes; a bereft universe, filled with damage and pain. Those eyes are begging for the strength to complete the song and for some kind of more general help and redemption. All of this in literally a moment. If only the director could have constructed this, somehow, in the dramatic body of the movie. What an ending that would have been.

I wanted to write some thoughts while my experience of the film was still new and fresh, and before I have read any reviews or heard the thoughts of others. The film is well made, although it loses its way a little later on (a bit like Elvis did, I suppose, although I don’t imagine that was an intentional ploy on the part of the director). It seems, overall, a story about a martyrdom. Elvis is here depicted as insistently human, especially in his frailties, yet also somehow transcendent; burning with a spiritual fire instilled at birth with a miraculous merging of souls between him and his still-born twin brother (there are several references in the film by various characters to Elvis seeming almost like two men) and a clandestine childhood experience in a Black church, when the Spirit enters him.

The movie is insistently revisionist in terms of Elvis’ early life and career, painting him as someone who spent most of his leisure time in the company of African Americans. Beale Street in Memphis is his regular haunt, for example, and B. B. King his closest friend. This aspect is probably a tad over-determined, but  a refreshingly different take on the story nevertheless. On the other hand, Elvis’ mother comes out of it badly. Usually depicted as a supportive and tragic figure, here she is an over-bearing, maudlin alcoholic who never got over the death of Elvis’ twin and was so scared of losing the living child that it consumed her and ultimately destroyed her. Vernon remains close to type; in the movie, as in everything I’ve learnt about him over the years, he is a near vacuum, useful mainly to the manipulations of Colonel Parker.

Beautifully played by a heavily made up and almost unrecognisable Tom Hanks, Parker is the most intriguing character in the film, which tells its story primarily through his eyes. This is a clever move. Parker is usually cast as chief villain of the piece, whilst remaining almost a cipher as a person. In the film we are able to feel Parker’s remonstrations and his reasoning away of his motives and actions as though from the man himself. Whether intentionally or otherwise, Parker still doesn’t emerge as any kind of hero. His achievement was, here, his key role in the construction of the mythical, almost godlike, Elvis figure; without, of course, the least care for the man’s human needs, other than that he must be kept alive and, as far as possible compliant. Elvis is alternatively ‘my boy’ or ‘Mr Presley’ to Parker, but in either case he is merely commodity or product. Austin Butler, the actor chosen to pay Elvis was excellent as the young EP (although his face kept reminding me of the Grease era John Travolta, which was a bit distracting). He was too young, good-looking and slim to be really believable as ‘old’ Elvis, though; and the filmmakers made almost no attempt to effect the kind of transformative make up that turned Hanks into Parker. But then, perhaps the implied thesis of Elvis as mythical hero or god, burning with a cosmic fire had to be maintained in later stages by presenting him in his spiritual, rather than earthly form?

Elvis, dir. Baz Luhrmann, 159 mins. Warner Bros. Pictures. Released 24 June 2022 in the UK

Thursday, 17 February 2022

Fernanda Lago 10 Out of Almost 3

From Fire to Fire and into the Future

Brazilian artist Fernanda Lago has just completed an impressive show, '10 Out of Almost Three',  at sp.armazém, an alternative space owned by Clara Moraes and Tom Chambel, located in a thriving district of São Paulo, surrounded by galleries, restaurants, bars, coffee shops and stylish retail. I wrote a text to accompany the exhibition, which I reproduce here, together with photographs taken in the space during the run.

Fernanda Lago, Smiles, photographs mounted on wood, 100 x 7 x 2 cm

Journeys are usually conceived as something fixed, whether in time or place. They can denote a physical movement from one place to another, or a metaphorical one constructed through emotional experience. They have a beginning and an end. In reality, the journey exists before its putative start and continues afterwards, leaving the questions, when did we become aware of something beginning, and when did we decide that it had ended? In 10 Out of Almost 3 Fernanda Lago presents the journey of a relationship, at once experiential, psychological and temporal. It is, in its primary sense, the personal story of a period in her life that is still raw in its affect. Because she is an artist, and so the journey is presented through art, the work also speaks to universal experiences and feelings that will find echoes and recognition in the responses of all viewers. In that sense, 10 Out of Almost 3 represents something cyclical. A journey whose timings and specificities are constantly redefined, but whose general mythos already existed and continues without end.

Fernanda Lago, Fire, painted wood, lamp and vinyl, 30 x 20 x 12 cm

    The exhibition consists of an installation that is complete in itself, but which also has clearly defined elements signifying different stages in the journey of the artist’s life that could also arguably be viewed as distinct works. The first elements viewers encounter speak to powerful emotions that are positive and, significantly unquestioning. Smiles consists of a series of six close-up photographs of the artist’s mouth that track the unfolding of an expression familiar to us all. The smile, of course, denotes happiness. Yet even here, because viewers are unable to see any other facial features, there are perhaps seeds of a less positive denouement – is that a broad smile in the final image, or a tearful grimace? Fire is, if anything, even more equivocal in its signification. We commonly talk of the ‘fire of love’, meaning that period at the beginning of a relationship when each protagonist gives themselves to the other unquestioningly and without judgement, and when the rest of the world seems far away and unimportant. Fires, of course, inevitably cool and the material from which they drew their power is irrevocably consumed and altered. Similarly, the metaphor of fire, when describing first love, contains within it always already the sense of an end. Consisting of a small black box containing a lamp that mimics flames, and a dictionary description of fire – ‘A phenomenon consisting in the release of heat and light produced by the combustion of a body’ – Fire is conceptual art memory of a particular moment and state that is no longer accessible directly and can only be alluded to.

Fernanda Lago, (left) Impression of a Being, acrylic print, 30 x 30 cm, (right) Description of a Being, painted wood and fabric printing, 30 x 30 x 4 cm

    The appearance of a third party in the relationship in the form of a child is one common strand in relationship narratives. In this instance the child looms large as a loved being, symbolised through two works, Impression of a Being and Description of a Being, which emphasise the reality of this new entity born of the relationship between the couple, in turn as incipient and manifest personhood.

Fernanda Lago, Labyrinth #1 and #2, painted wood, vinyl transparency, photograph, 27 x 36 x 5 cm

That the pregnancy was not without its challenges, however, is powerfully communicated in two self-portrait photographs overlaid with drawing. The geometric drawn shapes, in turn a large spiral and a teetering spinning top, contrast with the still solidity of the human figure. In this way inner and outer states are suggested, speaking to the dizziness and inner ear problems that were a feature of the pregnancy.

Fernanda Lago, Origin, umbilical chord, resin, jewellery box, metal, perspex

A third element in this suite, Origin consists of an umbilical cord contained in a box within a box. This can be read as the symbolic giver of life and the thing that connects mother and son forever. The cord’s separation from both mother and child occurs at the moment of separation of the two and the true individuation of the child. In that sense Origin is suggestive of some precious reliquary containing a once-powerful object now put away for safekeeping.

Fernanda Lago, No Empathy, No Love, print acrylic, 53 x 14 cm

    If the birth of a child might be characterized as part of the ascent of the relationship, the subsequent three works belong to its descent. No Empathy, No Love is a rebus offering an elementary sum that adds up to nothing. It is heartbreaking in its simplicity and emotional emptiness – the very image of psychological withdrawal.

Fernanda Lago, Remains of an End, Five framed photographs, each 21 x 15 x 3 cm

Blank existential confusion is the dominant feel of Lost in my Had, which speaks in the language of the sketch and thus suggests something unfinished, and perhaps something that will never be (satisfactorily) concluded. In contrast, the five photographs consisting Remains of an End already indicate a state of reflection. Utilising a cool vernacular documentary style, reminiscent of the lost Polaroids to which they allude, each image contains an object whose traditional symbolism has been undermined or inverted. In that sense Remains of an End is at once a song of innocence and experience.

Fernanda Lago, Resurrection of the Phoenix, watercolour and fabric, 150 x 220 cm

    Reflection can result in a destructive spiralling inward and down, or in a release of sorts. The final element in the installation, Resurrection of the Phoenix is the most unformed image. Derived from a watercolour painting the colour of a half-cleaned, dried bloodstain, and placed behind a veil, this work nevertheless speaks to a suggestive optimism. The thrust of this simple form is upwards and outwards. It somehow contains hope for the future.

Fernanda Lago, installation view of 10 Out of Almost 3

    If this short description speaks to the intentional narrative direction of 10 Out of Almost 3, it is worth remembering that as viewers each of us is at liberty to engage in whichever order we desire. In any case, each journey within the gallery space will be differently constructed. The only things for sure are that we will enter Fernanda Lago’s world of 10 Out of Almost 3 and, at some moment, we will leave it. I would like to think that this ‘final’ act of leaving the gallery constitutes the last conceptual element in the installation, since it always already signifies the existence of the future and the multiple possibilities of the journey continuing.

10 Out of Almost 3 was at sp.armazém, Rua Alvaro Anes 154, Pinheiros, São Paulo, Brazil, 26 January - 13 February 2022

All photos courtesy Estudio EmObra

Monday, 10 January 2022

An Artist in Touch with the Unconscious

Black and White Drawings by Alan Doyle

My article on the Irish artist Alan Doyle was just published in French as 'Alan Doyle un artiste en contacte avec l'inconsient' in Création Franche, no.55, December 2021 - available at Musée de la Création Franche 

I reproduce an English version here for anglophone readers.

Alan Doyle's recent black and white drawings seem to emanate from a primal realm. His figures and creatures are autochthons revealed for twenty-first century eyes. They are very much of the earth. They belong absolutely to the landscapes they occupy and from which they seemingly arise. The artist achieves all this with a striking economy of means – sometimes even pictorial clues to the places his figures inhabit are absent, and yet the viewer is led to believe, somehow, in their existence in an activated space that forever hovers at the ill-defined boundary between the mundane visual world and unformed realm of eternal form-making.

Each drawing characteristically contains only a limited number of participants, ranging from human and animal figures to hybrid creatures, that only intensify the sense of an ancient psychic elsewhere.

Doyle was born in 1984 in County Meath, Ireland, an area well known for its prehistoric monuments. The third of four children, he grew up mostly in County Wicklow, south of Dublin, which he still calls home today. His schooling was disrupted at times because of ill-health, and he was unable to fully participate in the kinds of physical play in which most children engage. These solitary periods actually fed his early discovery of drawing and making things. Time spent in artistic pursuits gave form and structure to the passing hours and enabled him to engage in acts of constant creation and recreation of imaginative worlds that reflected his developing personal vision.

Although he applied to study art, his disrupted schooling had left him without the qualifications deemed necessary for his preferred course. He enrolled on another, but soon dropped out when he realised it would not deliver the things he wanted from artmaking. Disheartened by it all, for a few years he concentrated instead on a regular job. But the call to make art and music was irresistible. He gave up the security of paid employment and from that time on devoted himself full time to the creative vocation.

Doyle says of his artistic journey, “I used to paint a lot when I was teenager and up until my early twenties.” At around the age of twenty-five or twenty-six he moved into a flat with his then partner. It was very small, so he didn’t have space to paint. Instead, he says:

I made small collages and I started drawing with pen and ink. The drawings took hold, and I would work on them all the time. They were mostly done with fine line pens with obsessive detail. These were the first things I showed. I organised a little exhibition in the basement of a metal record store in Dublin, where myself and some friends played some noise music to accompany the show. I sold a few works, which was great.

Subsequently, he experimented with wax crayons and ink wash, occasionally returning to painting. More recently, he has been using charcoal.

“I like the feel of charcoal,” he explains, “I like charcoal sticks, but I mainly use charcoal pencils and I go through them pretty quickly.” Besides enjoying the feel of the charcoal medium, Doyle’s decision to stop making pen and ink work was also partly due to problems he has been experiencing with his dominant left arm, which, he says, “gets painful when I draw or paint and has stopped me playing guitar almost completely.”

Doyle’s subjects are enigmatic, arising as they do directly from his unconscious. He tends to be surprised by the way they reveal themselves to him through the process of making. But then, as he says, “I never have a defined or finished idea of what I want to see; more a vague feeling.” Thinking about the constant revisions evident in charcoal drawings by artists such as Matisse and their apparent absence in his own work, I asked Doyle whether he makes a lot of changes in a drawing, or whether the image tends to flow out onto the paper first time. With characteristic pragmatism he answered, “I usually start and just try to keep going until the piece is finished. If I don’t like the first few lines I put down, I usually discard it and move onto another one. I try to do at least one drawing a day. Sometimes I might do a few, and something or nothing comes out. I’m always trying.”

The mystery in Doyle’s drawings is reinforced by his reluctance to give them titles. This is not a result of any desire on his part to obfuscate, but rather to allow individual viewers scope to interrogate and interpret images in the ways in which they might speak as directly to them as they do him. “I’ve always been apprehensive about leading the viewer too much,” he tells us, “I like to leave room for interpretation and for people to bring their own ideas to the work.” There is, to be sure, a certain organicist belief here in the communicative power of his drawings: “I love words and poetry,” he says, “And I read and write. But I like the images to speak for themselves.”

The drawings contain a number of recurring motifs, which have the aura of arcane symbols. These include: an elongated human figure with tiny black head and one leg extended in a long curve; black dogs and doglike human hybrids, again with small black heads; and wooden branches and wands that as often as not seem to pierce, or protrude from, characters in the drawings. Sometimes a house appears; schematic, dark and imposing. Characteristically there is a door, a chimney, and a single small window, either at the top of the facade or in the pitched roof. The overwhelming feeling for this viewer is that the house contains a single occupant, sequestered in the crepuscular dreamscape. Characters appear fluid, caught in the process of metamorphosis, and often seeping easily in and out of each other. In one drawing a viscous black shape pours out of the torso of a human figure, metamorphosing into a black dog as it streams into the picture space. In another, a doglike hybrid protrudes literally through the back and belly of a human figure. Yet the atmosphere of the drawing is utterly still and placid. Four tiny white eyes stare unblinking out at the viewer, as if these are wild animals, startled and suddenly motionless, trying to discern whether they have been discovered.

Doyle explains that he is trying to achieve a certain universality in his motifs: “I want the figures in the work to be symbols of all people, all genders and races. I want the places to be all places and no place at the same time.” Of the interchangeability of human and animal he says, “I think the animal is the human and vice versa. The marks that you make when you’re drawing or painting are vehicles to get you into an image, into a space, on the page or in your head. At the moment these human animals are guides.” He continues: “Some figures are armless or have objects or figures coming out of them or going into them. I see it as them being affected by place, surroundings, or other people. Maybe it’s just certain feelings I have about being in the world.” He explains characteristic tonal contrasts as being formal decisions led by his medium: “Whether the figure is white, and the animal is black, or vice versa, makes no difference. This is just because of the materials I’m using and the way the drawing is made. I don’t see these things as being good or bad, everyone is a little damaged, and we carry it around with us. It shapes the way we see or are seen by others. The human/animal in art has always been there. One seeps out of the other, around and around.”

Many of the drawings are quite stark, with little or no clue to any specific setting. Although in every case there is a sense of the physicality and near-tangibility of the very air surrounding them. In pieces that are worked on across the whole sheet, including shading, the atmosphere is similarly dense, and the pictorial space quite claustrophobic. As a result, the images often conjure up a feeling of being strangely simultaneously indoors and outdoors. When I suggest this to the artist, he replies, “Is the imagination inside or outside. When we look at an image, the image enters us: through the eyes, inside the head.” When viewed en masse Alan Doyle’s recent drawings suggest a strong sense that we are witness to some unfolding narrative. They are distinctly mythic in nature and construction. Though visual, rather than verbal, like all mythological cycles they assume life and relevance through being told, as it were, and their order is infinitely interchangeable. Here there is a saga, and stories, to be sure. But there is neither beginning nor end.

Note. All drawings are untitled, charcoal on paper. All quotations by the artist are from a conversation with the author on 6 October 2021

Tuesday, 23 March 2021

Memorial to a Friend

Memorial to a Friend

Picasso's Reading at a Table, 1934 at the Tate Gallery

In 1960 a major retrospective of Picasso paintings opened at the Tate Gallery. Organised by the Arts Council of Great Britain and curated by Picasso's friend and biographer, Roland Penrose. One of the works included was listed as Girl Writing, from 1934 (cat.136), now known as Reading at a Table.

Pablo Picasso, Reading at a Table, 1934, oil on canvas, 162.2 x 130.5 cm. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Bequest of Florene M. Schoenborn, in honour of William S. Lieberman, 1995

    Whilst Reading at a Table is quite an important painting from this stage of Picasso's career, the centrepiece of Penrose's 1960 show was Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, 1907 (Cat.34), a large canvas that had already acquired almost legendary status in the history of modern art. Owned by the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), New York since December 1937, this was only the second - and up to now, the last - time it was shown in London. 

    Such was Penrose's influence that he also managed to borrow ten important paintings, made between 1900 and 1909, from Hermitage Museum, Leningrad and the Pushkin Museum, Moscow, at a time when relations between the USSR and the West were notably frosty. This said, I believe that the inclusion of Reading at a Table was, in many ways, just as important for Penrose.

    The painting had also been included in the landmark retrospective, "Picasso: 40 Years of his Art" at MoMA (15 November 1939 - 7 January 1940), where it was given the title Girl Reading. It was not illustrated in the accompanying book-length catalogue, although a photograph of it in situ in the exhibition exists in the MoMA archives.

Installation view of the exhibition, "Picasso: 40 Years of his Art", showing Girl Reading, 1934. Photographic Archive. The Museum of Modern Art Archives. IN91.14C

    Girl Reading had been lent by the wealthy English collector and supporter of the arts, Peter Watson who had bought it, through Penrose, directly from the artist. Along with Penrose, Watson was one of the few Europeans prepared to allow significant work from their collections to make the treacherous journey to New York in the first months of the Second World War. The painting remained in storage at MoMA until 1945, when it was collected by Watson's sometime partner, Denham Fouts, who was at the time engaged in a characteristically tempestuous affair with the writer Christopher Isherwood. In September of that year Fouts made a written bequest, promising the painting to Isherwood in lieu of payment of financial debts he owed. As it was, Fouts sold it to a couple he met in Chicago, Samuel and Florene Marx in November. It remained in Florene's hands until she bequeathed it to its current owner, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in 1995 (see J. Dronfield and A. Clark: Queer Saint - the cultured life of Peter Watson, London, 2015).

    Penrose and Watson were close friends for many years. Along with Anton Zwemmer, they were  Directors (and the main financial backers) of the London Gallery until it was wound up in 1950. More importantly, they were founding members of the London Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA). Both worked passionately in the cause of establishing the new organisation, and both supported it with substantial injections of their own money. When Watson died in mysterious circumstances in 1956 he left quite a hole in the London art world, not least among a number of individual artists, including Francis Bacon and John Craxton, who had grown used to relying on his patronage.

    By 1960, Reading at a Table was, of course, in the collection of Samuel and Florene Marx, whose ownership is credited in the catalogue. However, I believe that Penrose's decision to include this particular work, rather than any of the other twenty or so variations of this theme painted at that time, was to honour his late friend. Indeed, it is surely a sign that its inclusion was a kind of memorial to Peter Watson, private to Penrose, that it is one of only two images reproduced in colour in the catalogue accompanying the show (The Arts Council of Great Britain: Picasso, London: Lund Humphires, 1960). The other one is Les Demoiselles d'Avignon.

Friday, 8 January 2021

Joe Minter's 'African Village in America'


Fig. 1 Joe Minter, The Price to Vote, The Price to be Human (The Selma March), 1995
Photo: C. Rhodes 15 May 2014

Joe Minter's African Village in America

This article was published in French as "L'African Village in America de Joe Minter", in Création Franche, no.53 (December 2020), pp.34-42, available at musee-creationfranche
I publish a version of my article in English here for anglophone readers.

In the late 1980s Joe Minter discovered there were plans to build a Civil Rights Museum in his hometown of Birmingham, Alabama. Although he welcomed this development in a part of the United States with a particularly dark history in respect of its treatment of Black Americans, he quickly realised that the stories it would tell would privilege those of the leaders of the Civil Rights movement. As he put it, "The main characters were left out of the history," namely the "foot soldiers", the thousands of ordinary people who participated in the emancipatory struggle, and without whom the changes made would not have been achieved.* In response to this, Minter resolved to create an outdoor sculpture park or environment. It would tell that other story, beginning with the arrival of Africans in America in the 16th Century. He credits the inspiration and prosecution of his creative mission to Divine forces working through him: "God gave me the mission of art, to link that 400-year journey to the Africans in America ... and I decided to name what I create The African Village in America. It explained the story of the life and struggle we have undergone here in America." Situated on a plot of land next to his home at the edge of the city, and backing on to the New Grace Hill Cemetery, Minter's sprawling creation is at once history, memorial and sacred art.

Fig. 2 Joe Minter, View of the African Village in America, including African Huts, Warriors and 'The price to Vote'.
Photo: C. Rhodes, 15 May 2014

Minter was born in 1943. He was the eighth of ten children. His father had served in the US Army in the First World War. But on his return to Birmingham he had been unable to find a job using his skills as an engineer. Instead, he spent his life working as a caretaker. Minter and his brothers also served in the military, returning to be treated as second class citizens: "We have joined a long line of Africans that have put their lives on the line to come back to America and be treated as less than a human being." After his discharge in 1967, Minter worked for more than a decade in jobs requiring skills with metalwork. This was to prove useful later on when he began to make art. Minter received his calling after ill-health forced him to retire. "I knew I had to regroup," he says, "find a way to continue my life and make the best of it." He tried to figure out a way in which he could tell the story of the African American experience and somehow perform an act of social and spiritual healing: "I was living in a place that looked upon Africans as less than human beings," he says, "My ancestors helped build America on the sweat of their backs, in their own blood, in their life, free slave labor, and the way out was death." In spite of having no training or background in art, Minter tells us, "I realised the only way I could preserve this history to hand down to the other generations was through art. Art is a universal thing. My idea was to make the art and put a message with it so that it could heal wounds everywhere. I wanted to send the world a message of God's love and peace for all mankind. I then took on the name, 'Peacemaker'." This was to be an art whose function would be not only expressive, but also curative.

Fig. 3 Joe Minter, Entrance Sign to the African Village in America
Photo: C. Rhodes, 6 April 2012

Beginning in 1989, Minter created the African Village in America, a complex matrix of sculpture, tableaux, and text, that reveals the African American experience since the arrival of the first slave ships and memorialises key moments and events in that history. The environment consists essentially of two sections. The rear part borders the cemetery. It is devoted to African history and what Laura Bickford describes as, "the values of Black Americans that Minter understands as governing factors in African life in America and African American values." (Bickford 2014: 53) It performs a spatial and cultural continuity between the African past and American present, divided by the traumatic and life-giving medium of water, connecting the old and new homelands. This is symbolised in the park by a sculptural element, Slave Ship Africa, which joins together the two sections. Charles H. Long has noted, "For the Africans forced into slavery, their African culture was dissolved and resurrected in the Atlantic passage. The Atlantic was a cataclysm and a source of renewal of African forms. The Atlantic Ocean simultaneously constitutes a continuity and a discontinuity for the African American." (Long 2001: 466) Elements in the rear section of the park include 'African' huts, as envisioned by Minter, fashioned from found wood and metal, and painted in bright geometric patterns. There are also figures representing warriors, chiefs, and other African types (Fig.4). Symbolically 'African' colours of red, black, green and yellow predominate.

Fig. 4 Joe Minter, Africans. Photo: C. Rhodes, 6 April 2012

The front of the yard consists of assemblages memorialising specific events and themes, intermingled with hand-painted signs that are heavy with Biblical quotation and didactic text. The memorial pieces include some of the most poignant and powerful events in the Civil Rights struggle of the 1960s, most of which were played out broadly in the triangle between Birmingham, Atlanta and Montgomery. For example, there are assemblages dedicated to the Freedom Riders and the Bus Boycott, the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church by so-called White Supremacists in 1963, in which four small girls were murdered (Fig.5), the brutal Bloody Sunday attack on peaceful protestors by police on Edmund Pettus Bridge in 1965 (Fig.1), and an evocation of the Birmingham Jail, in which Martin Luther King Jr and countless other activists were detained, and from which Dr King famously wrote his "Letter from the Birmingham City Jail" in 1963 (Fig.7). More recent events include the destruction of the New York World Trade Center in 2001, in which a disproportionate number of Black and members of other American communities of colour lost their lives, and the cataclysmic floods in New Orleans caused by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Fig. 5 Joe Minter, Memorial to those murdered in the 16th Street Baptist Church, Birmingham
Photo: C. Rhodes, 6 April 2012

There are also memorials to the all-too-common occasions of ordinary people killed in acts of racist violence or through systemic racist neglect: The Murder of Dallo, 2000 ("Male unarmed. Killed by 19 police bullets") and The Death of Jasmine Moore, who died just age 4 in 1999. Thematic assemblages include a tribute to the "Unknown African Soldier" - a figure that Minter regards as a universal for all African Americans who have served. Another text-heavy piece (Fig.6) recalls "the lynching of all our African American ancestors in the USA 1555-1997." Note the tied rope around the neck of the central figure, which functions both as noose and physical connector holding the head in place. Minter's text adds ominously, "America repent, for we are in the last days."

Fig. 6 Joe Minter, Memorial to African American Lynchings 1555-1997. Photo: C. Rhodes, 6 April 2012

There is an Apocalyptic quality to much of the African Village in America. it is a warning to all. The Healing that Minter wishes to effect is played out through an encounter between the living viewer and the dead, extending from the symbolic realm in the park into the literal one in the coextensive burial ground. The figure of the artist is here simultaneously revelator, judge and guide. Minter is clear about this: "My prayer as an African artist and for all African artists all over your Earth our Lord thy God is that all artists come together these last days as brothers and sisters in the name of Jesus as one to bring the whole Earth together in the form of love for humanity to clean up the Earth which we have just about destroyed."

Fig. 7 Joe Minter, Birmingham Jailhouse, 2000. Photo: C.Rhodes, 15 May 2014

One of the distinctive features of Minter's environment is its construction. He eschews the usual materials of fine art and instead uses only recycled ones. This is important for two reasons. It speaks to the enormous expressive potential in the most ordinary used-up objects, when transformed by the ingenuity and creative insight of the artist. And it is a kind of political act of resistance. This relies on the notion common in African American culture in the South that this discarded stuff is in some way a repository of life force. As Minter puts it: "A spirit of all the people that have touched and felt that material has remained in that same material." There is also a connection here between the commodification of the object and people. Long reminds us that, "the Africans who were brought across the Atlantic as slaves constituted the first human beings as commodities in the modern world." (Long 2001: 468) Minter points out that this identification continued to be played out systemically long after the abolition of slavery in the United States, after the passing of the 13th Amendment in 1865. We must therefore see Minter's specific choice of materials as being driven by much more than metaphorical intentions. He writes: "The whole idea ... is to use that which has been discarded, just as we as a people have been discarded, and make it visible. All that was invisible, or thrown away, could be made into something that everyone could understand. I want the African Village in America to demonstrate that even what gets thrown away has a spirit and could survive and continue to grow."

Fig. 8 Joe Minter, African Village in America - view from the street. Photo: C. Rhodes, 6 April 2012

The last year has been one of great anxiety and turmoil. Nowhere was this more so than the in laying bare once again of the deep divisions and inequalities in US culture sparked by the murder of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis. Joe Minter has been telling this story through the lens of ordinary African Americans in his African Village in America for 30 years. Perhaps the time is near when the healing he seeks to achieve through the agency of his art might begin in earnest.

Fig. 9 Joe Minter. Photo: C. Rhodes, 15 May 2014

* All Joe Minter quotations here are from his self-pubIished book, To You Through Me: The Beginning of a Link of a Journey of 400 Years, written between 1979 and 2005, and available for sale only from his home. I have visited the African Village in America twice, in April 2012 and May 2014. On both days the weather was wet and grey. In some ways these conditions seemed to deepen the intensity and poignancy of the experience. On the first visit only Minter's wife, Hilda was at home. The artist was in Birmingham participating in a labor protest. In 2014 Minter was home. Despite the inclement weather he came out to speak about the environment and the route he intended visitors to take through its labyrinthine paths.

Other sources

Laura Bickford, "A Self-Taught Knowledge System: Joe Minter's 'African Village in America' as a Syncretic Epistomology." Elsewhere, no.2, 2014
Charles H. Long, "The Gods that Bind: Artworks of African American Artists of the Birmingham Area." In W. Arnett, ed., Souls Grown Deep (Vol. 2). Atlanta: Tinwood Books, 2001

Sunday, 27 September 2020

Where are the Dadaists When You Need Them?

Thoughts on current museum culture

What a difference a decade and a half makes. An article published in today's Guardian online (1) couldn't be further away in approach and focus than another from 2004 ostensibly on the same subject, in the same newspaper. (2) The subject of both is Canadian American artist, Philip Guston (1913-1980). Titled, "An Everyday Genius", the earlier piece, by Sean O'Hagan, reviews the retrospective held at the Royal Academy of Arts, London 16 years ago. Today's article, by Edward Helmore, "Sense or censorship? Row over Klan images in Tate's postponed show", covers the announcement that a projected "major retrospective" of Guston's work, planned by four major international art museums has been postponed until at least 2024.

    O'Hagan's 2004 review focuses on Guston's artistic journey, providing context through the times in which he lived and his personal relationships. Crucially, and probably unsurprisingly, both the choice of illustration for O'Hagan's piece - Guston's famous self-portrait, The Studio (1969) - and his opening gambit focus on the celebrated abstractionist's return to figurative painting at the end of the 1960s: "In the Thirties, he had been a politically aware mural painter," O'Hagan tells us, "and now, 40 years later, he felt the need to respond once again to an America that was wearied by a long unwinnable war abroad and simmering social discontent at home; a country that was in the grip of a new conservatism." Sound familiar? Ironic, then, that backlash from the very people who are currently engaging in political struggle against the dominant (conservative and populist) ideology appears to be what the museums fear most.

    Those new paintings by Guston commonly included hooded figures that can be read as Ku Klux Klansmen. Or, says O'Hagan (and, I'd be more tempted to say), "something more personally emblematic: the masks that artists, like all of us, hide behind; the disguises we don to face or shy away from the world; the evil, banal and faceless, that lurks within us all." In other words, Guston's late paintings are richly complex and densely layered: in terms of their manifest and latent content (their intellectual content, if you will); and from the perspective of the way they operate as painting (their status as manufactured objects of visual culture). They are intensely political, but do not reveal their 'message' in crisp one-liners. Like all good poetry, Guston's figurative painting is allusive and multivalent; it demands the active (contemplative) attention of the viewer.

    This is something that the National Gallery of Art in Washington, the Boston and Houston Museums of Fine Art, and Tate Modern that have now announced the postponement of their planned "major retrospective" of Guston's work would agree with. The problem, it would appear, lies with the show's likely public reception. Thus, the "everyday genius" of O'Hagan's article is now rendered a dangerous commodity. Today's article is well-balanced and thoughtful but focuses (necessarily) not so much on the art as on museum politics and funding. It is a sad inditement of where things stand in the state of contemporary museum culture in the West. 

    Guston's work, in this is instance, is caught in the crossfire, so to speak; like so much other interesting and important art seems to be these days. At the centre of all of the bruhaha is an implicit presumption by the museums themselves that their audiences are incapable of contemplating art in thoughtful and sophisticated ways: Helmore quotes National Gallery of Art source, “There is a risk that [Guston's paintings] may be misinterpreted and the resulting response overshadow the totality of his work and legacy."  Moreover, this hypothesised audience is further infantilised by a perceived need to protect it from harm: "the museum wanted to avoid 'painful' experiences the imagery could cause for viewers." Dangerous work indeed!

    The museological impulse to 'inform' viewers about the ideas behind exhibitions and the works they contain really, through wall texts and audio guides, begins in earnest with the emergence of a 'new museology' in the 1970s and '80s, and a desire to better help inform and assist audiences in their apprehension and enjoyment of the museum experience. What was to be provided was interpretation; the impulse was neither to 'protect' sensibilities nor to appease particular, or multiple, entrenched viewpoints. Yet, it can sometimes seem like we have arrived at a point at which full-time, institutional curators believe that they are capable of producing didactic truths in their contextual texts and audio, drawn from a generally shared pool of theory and socio-historical belief that has ossified as dogma. 

    Realistically, there is an assumption among museum administrators and their curators that even those people who will not visit the museum have to be listened to. This is in no small part because public museums have come to be seen as symbolically important politically (not least because they have been increasingly forced to become a constitutive part of the 'leisure industry').  Thus, there is a nexus of groups that is interested in the symbolic identity of the museum and its function which, by means of their public behaviours and interactivities, either threaten or vouchsafe the museum's continued existence. Public museums rely on public money (tax dollars) and government patronage for their financial viability. In the US especially (though not exclusively), they also rely on the continued support (political and financial) of boards of trustees. Sponsorship by business is particularly important (nowadays often essential) for the realisation of special projects and individual exhibitions. And they rely on additional direct public funding, through ticket admissions and the sale of museum products. The withdrawal of any of these sources of patronage would endanger the continued viability of the institution. There is much at stake. And with the museum as political symbol having become, it seems, a legitimate target for political attack from all sides, with little evidence (at least if current mass media reports are anything to go by) of any side using it in a fundamentally supportive way, there is a real sense that the institution is endangered. To complicate things further, much current museum curatorial received wisdom is also inherently (and publicly) antagonistic to the institutions it serves - a political positioning that is at the very least double-edged. Little wonder that museum administrators tasked with maintaining financial viability and, put bluntly, political neutrality, find themselves in a truly divisive and unenviable position.

    To be fair, Helmore notes that Mark Godfrey, Tate Modern's Senior Curator of International Art, has said that the decision regarding the Guston retrospective "is actually extremely patronising to viewers, who are assumed not to be able to appreciate the nuance and politics of Guston’s works”. However, I suspect the issue at the heart of all this is the effect wrought by the mishmash of political fighting, both ideological and in the realm of realpolitik, that converge on the museum, its collections and exhibition practice. Competing groups outside the museum appear to be saying that its purpose is to tell us all what to think; 'goodthink', perhaps, to quote Orwell. The problem, of course, is that there is disagreement on exactly what that is. And the public museum's multiple stakeholder groups (that is, whether directly or indirectly, its funders) represent every one of these competing ideologies.

    Although it is perhaps understandable that much of the wider political battle is being waged with slogans and the blunt instrument of the dialectic, 'bumper sticker' criticism is surely not appropriate in the museum? And most especially in the case of works of art, which are, by their nature multivalent. A work of art cannot be reduced its definitive essence (or explained away, for that matter). This has been the common mistake of much academic art history and criticism (unlike literary criticism), which habitually looks past the work to engage with issues of intentionality, psychology, and the conditions of its production. Too often the work itself is rendered mute. But then, works of art don't 'speak' in simple phrases, and their valency is altered according to the time and place in which they are viewed, and by the subjectivity of each new viewer. As O'Hagan says, "Sinister, but oddly humorous too. Put simply, Guston's late paintings confuse and confound, disturb and dismay in equal measure; they are often vulgarly funny and utterly ominous." I'm not convinced that any amount of framing by “additional perspectives and voices” will neutralise the disturbing beauty of this particular body of work. What then?

    Faced with a far less accommodating dominant culture than currently prevails in the West, the Berlin Dada group used art as a weapon. They staged their own exhibitions, fully expecting the authorities to close them down. And, in due course, their revolt was appropriated and assimilated into the museum. Rather than watching an unedifying spectacle of public museums tying themselves in knots worrying whether they can possibly appease everyone with a stone to throw, it would be nice to think that new art was being utilised in the fights of today, created without public funding, and presented outside institutional contexts, and invading the dominant culture. Where are the Dadaists when you need them?

(1) Edward Helmore, "Sense or censorship? Row over Klan images in Tate's postponed show." The Guardian, 27 September 2020

(2) Sean O'Hagan, "An everyday genius." The Observer, 11 January, 2004

Tuesday, 8 September 2020

Four Artists in Rotterdam

In and Out of the Frame

Galerie Atelier Herenplaats, Schietbaanstraat 1, Rotterdam, The Netherlands

Colin Rhodes

Last Friday saw the opening of In and Out of the Frame at Rotterdam's Galerie Atelier Herenplaats. Including more than 60 works by four artists, Anuja Hoogstad, Tim Soekkha, Richard Bennaars and myself. It was the first exhibition opening at the gallery since the beginning of the covid pandemic in The Netherlands, giving the event an added poignancy. It was great to see people turning out on the night to see the art and to mix with real people, as opposed to the eternal computer screen meetings we have all had to become used to (why do they call them 'virtual'? I see only necessity, not virtue). Of course, art that is made by hand and exists in physical form must be seen in real time and space. So, it was doubly pleasing for me to see the work of all four of us together in the gallery and viewers interacting with it. Online exhibitions are in no way a replacement for this; they are shadows, mere approximations that are not to be mistaken for the real thing. The online exhibition alone belongs in the dystopian descriptions of Debord and Baudrillard.

Anuja Hoogstad

In any case, these are all intimate works. Every artist here has poured themselves into the process of making and the resulting works are revelations of the psychologies and moods of each. In opening up in this way, they are trusting viewers to engage not objectively, by empathetically. This is as true of the sometimes dense, sometime tentative abstract mark-making of Richard Bennaars' paintings as it is of the precise, cool pen work of Anuja Hoogstrad, which operates through symbolic juxtaposition and gentle pareidolia. Tim Soekkha's drawings arise directly out of the experience of the way 2020 has thrown everyone back into an interior of sorts. They embody a crashing together of real experience and absurd encounter. I'll leave others to describe my work, except to say that everything here arises out of the cognitive process that only exists when mind, senses and physical movement trust to the demands of the materials of visual art.

Richard Bennaars and Colin Rhodes

The gallery card announcing the show can be seen in my previous post from 28 August, including information about artists and the concept

Here are some installation photographs I made in the gallery, showing work by all of us. The exhibition can be seen until 14 November

Anuja Hoogstad

Tim Soekkha

Richard Bennaars

Colin Rhodes