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