Americon Gothicon

I suspect I first saw American Gothic after seeing the cover of the British paperback of Philip K. Dick’s The Man Whose Teeth Were All Exactly Alike and then watching (or rewatching) The Rocky Horror Picture Show, which has a copy on the wall in one scene and I think has two characters dress up as the people in the painting. It was only then that I discovered who Grant Wood was (although I forget how) and the myriad parodies his masterpiece has inspired.

I don’t suppose I ever thought that it was on display somewhere, or that I would see it, but I once heard that it would be the centrepiece of an American painting in the 1930s exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts I knew it would by my chance to see it in the flesh. Although, it was with some trepidation – would it stand up to the hype?

So we have two people, a young going on middle-aged woman on the left, an older man on the right, a white board house behind them and a red building over his left shoulder. It’s not clear whether they are wife and husband or daughter and father, but he is in front, holding a three-pronged pitchfork. Their clothing echoes each other and the setting: her dress or apron seems to the blinds in the church-like window behind them, her collar and neck broach answers the button on his collar less shirt and his glasses. The curve of her neckline echoes the curve of his dungarees and the pitchfork. Meanwhile, the vertical tines parallel the lines on his shirt, the dungaree seams and the boards and pillars of the house and red building. The vertical leads to a lightning conductor, not quite above the tine and, what is presumably a spire in the distance.

He looks deadly serious, has a high prominent forehead and John Lennon specs, and grasps the tool of his work firmly, even as he may be wearing his Sunday best jacket, possibly his only jacket. If we take the picture to be contemporary with its painting, 1930, there is perhaps an old fashionedness about it, although I assume we still heft hay about. He’s not quite looking at us, he’s perhaps looking at the artist, or over his shoulder.

She isn’t looking at us or the artist – her head is turned, her eyes elsewhere as perhaps she wants to be? Her blonde hair is tied back, severe, and yet a lock has escaped, dangling down.

And behind her, the stoop, with cactus — mother-in-law’s tongue, a three-pronged echo of the pitchfork and a begonia. Cacti are prickly, not exactly welcoming, but are hardy and survive in the heat. There’s a window behind that, with green blinds, looking a bit battered.

The house frames the two heads – her eyes just above the guttering of the roof, his lips in line, the roof meeting the wall of the upper storey in line with his ear lobes.

Of course, what you never see in reproductions of the painting, is the frame. It’s a rather thick, grey wood, unvarnished, pitted with holes like it has wood worm. (I don’t know what that looks like, to be honest, but it’s how I’d imagine that.) It’s practical and not at all showy – the broach, the jacket, the plants, they’re showy.

There’s an echo of Northern Renaissance paintings – something like the Arnofini portrair but reversed and the couple here are closer together. There’s a cold, undead, touch to the skin. The enigma of their exact looks makes me think of this as the American Mona Lisa.

And so anyhow, it turns out that she is Wood’s sister, Nan Wood Graham, and he is their dentist, Dr. Byron McKeeby, and they are envisaged as daughter and father. The apron was mail order, I think from Sears. The house is the Dibble House, in Eldon, Iowa, apparently built in the Carpenter Gothic style in 1881-82.

And yes, the painting is remarkable in real life too – worth the price of the ticket alone.

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More than a Load of Pollocks

Abstract Expressionism (Royal Academy of Arts, September 2016—2 January 2017)

There’s a story that in the late 1940s, the CIA funded Abstract Expressionism. It was an exercise of soft power, from the people who funnelled money into the animated Animal Farm and exploding cigars. The Soviets were busy with their Socialist Realism, whilst the Americans were channelling the chap with the lily pads with bigger brushes. The AES paint big, really big, and it takes a lot to transport all those canvases around the world. In one version the Tate wasn’t able to afford a huge exhibition and an benefactor gave the money. The story is the money came from the CIA.

If Abstract Expressionism didn’t bring down the Berlin Wall, then at least it came up with pretty cool murals.

It’s the sort of thing that can leave you cold, but if you surrender to it it’s pretty amazing.

Just like capitalism.

The cavernous spaces of the Royal Academy seem appropriate, although they’ve never quite got the walk through right. These are huge, abstract paintings, determinedly non-representation, yet in theory expressing an inner emotion. Of course, we don’t always know what that emotion is, but you can always supply your own.

The first room was a kind of overture, showing paintings from many of the big names prior to the glory days. Some of these are portraits, few of them are great, but you can see the roots in Barnett Newman’s green stripes on dark red. There’s a curious Mark Rothko, Gethsemane (1944), presumably alluding to the night of Christ’s betrayal, and sort of cruciform, but it might be an eagle with an American football. And a weird cloud flag.

Clyfford’s Still’s PH-726 (1936) has wobbly male and female bodies inscribed within a block — a two dimensional version of what Moore and Epstein were carving at about the same time. A new name to me, I confess, but one I will return to later.

And so the various stars come out — and the rooms which focused on one or two artists were stronger than those which offered dubious thematic arrangements. That being said, I don’t get on with Arshile Gorky, having bounced off his Tate Modern show a few years ago. A numbers of them look like oddly painted figures in a room — say Diary of a Seducer (1947) — and I see I’ve made the note to myself, “bad photoshop”.

Jackson Pollock, on the other hand, is truly sublime. I never quite wrote up all my notes from Liverpool, but the late, black pour, works feel like the figurative abstracted. Like Rorschach tests, you can find the sail boat if you squint right. He gives in to the chaos of the drip, somewhere between randomness, automatic painting and the unconscious at work. There’s a huge mural, designed for Peggy Guggenheim’s New York apartment, with “a prancing, bestial presence” which maybe you wouldn’t want to live with. You don’t get a lot of help from the titles — even Summertime (1948) isn’t that helpful, with its wide, short overlapping of colours and drizzles. The trajectories of flies on a summer’s evening? There’s his Blue Poles (1952), with its striking, vertical totems, daring you to distinguish figure from ground. There are other colours, of course, (black grey white) but it’s striking how often he returns to red, blue and yellow, as if he’s unravelled a Piet Mondrian.

[and there, tucked on one wall, is Lee Krasner, not quite the token woman — though it does have to be said that AE is a very blokey genre with its SIZE DOES MATTER statements in oil — who takes four years to come to terms with Pollock’s stupid death in a car crash, who only then can “wrestle” with his ghost to produce The Eye is the First Circle (1960), which inevitably has to be read as homage and imitation rather than the work of an artist in her own right. Later, we’ll come across Helen Frankenthaler, whose exhibition I missed at the Turner, with Europa (1957) although I saw no bull.]

Mark Rothko is glorious, as always, and the room of his work at Tate Modern can reduce me to tears. As always the paintings seem to ride the walls, rather than be hung on the them, the layers, the laminates of colour lumess and dammit that is a word. You are surrounded by them in an octagonalroom, dwarfed, and I was annoyed to see people taking selfies against them — not because of any objection to such narcissism, but because my instinct is to disappear into these canvas rather than superimpose myself upon them. There are exquisite vertigo.

I don’t think I’ve come across Clyfford Still’s work before, but I’ve put his museum in Denver on my long term to do list (when the US is more sensible about the TSA…). These are vast canvases, representing vast landscapes, abstracted into colours. My favourite was PH247 (1951), also known as Big Blue, a luminous canvas of many blues, interrupted by dark brown and orangish vertical strokes. This, too, is a room to get lost in.

Less successful is Willem de Kooning’s work, here dominated by his paintings of women, of which he wrote “I wanted them to be funny … so I made them satiric and monstrous, like sibyls”. Gee, thanks. These are women as landscapes, rather than in, to my eyes deeply misogynistic. His other landscapes, notably Dark Pond (1948), which I misread as and viewed as Duck Pond, are better, but I don’t feel inclined to follow him up.

The shared rooms were on the whole less successful, with less of a chance to get to know the range of the artists’ work. A few women sneak in here — Joan Mitchell, Helen Frankenthaler, Janet Sobel — and I suspect the only Black artist, Norman Lewis. I wanted to know much more about his work. A room of drawings, books, prints and photographs got a little unruly, as the labels and pictures were not always as clear as they might be in the crowds. The final room gives space to Joan Mitchell’s four huge canvases of Salut Tom, echoing Postimpressionism as much as Abstract Expressionism, and represents late work of some of the big names — although of course Pollock was long since dead.

One final room to draw attention to is the one of Barnett Newman and Ad Rheinhardt, who interrupt swathes of colour with zipped colours or focal zones. Rheinhardt retreated into the Malevich black square for fourteen years — 60″ x 60″ canvases painted all back. The spartan austerity is striking. But Newman was the revelation, and I wonder if he was the inspiration for the Abstract Expressionist Rabo Karabekian’s The Temptation of Saint Anthony in Kurt Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions (1973). Eve (1950) is a mostly red canvas with a dark red stripe on the right hand side and its twin Adam (1951-52) is brown with three red stripes of different widths. I have know idea if they connect, but he somehow feeds into Bridget Riley‘s stripes. Newman writes “only those who understand the meta can understand the metaphysical and his paintings are as much their paint as anything else — the rich blues and reds.

Of course, these artists went through a whole range of political experiences from Pearl Harbor to Watergate, and I guess they mark the point when the art world shifts from Paris to New York, with Rauschenberg and Warhol waiting in the wings (and O’Keeffe‘s rather different abstracts predate, postdate and overlap with their heyday). They are, of course, always on the edge of being the emperor’s new clothes, just paint on canvas, randomness. But in the vast spaces of the Royal Academy most of the work transcends that caveat.

Beyond the Lady Gardens

Georgia O’Keeffe (Tate Modern 6 July-30 October 2016)

“you hung all your own associations with my flowers on my flowers and you write about my flowers as I think and see what you think and see of the flowers and I don’t”

“Miss O’Keeffe’s drawings … were of intense interest from a psycho-analytical point of view” Camera Work MDCCCCXII

Joanna Russ’s How to Suppress Women’s Writing is a blistering anatomy of the ways in which critics dismiss female authors. I suspect the same is true in the way we treat female artists. So many of them are just plain ignored, not part of the history, whereas others get related to more famous (artist) husbands. The recent Barbara Hepworth exhibition at Tate Britain is a case in point — the juxtaposition of her work with Ben Nicholson’s (much as I like him), risks privileging the influence in one way.

The muse is female. Continue reading →

Take A Chance On Me

Take a Chance on Me

Risk (Turner Contemporary, 10 October 2015-17 January 2016)

The Anthea Turner — a gallery whose Chipperfield design works better in Wakefield — is committed to always showing some J. M. S. Turner and contemporary art, for which read the past one year’s except when it suits them. They’ve had some great solo shows (Mondrian and Colour was frankly more interesting than the Liverpool Tate show), which are interspersed with themed shows. The second exhibition, about Youth, was amazing, Curiosity had some good items but wasn’t more than the sum of its parts and the Self left me a little cold.

So, Risk. Art which puts the artist at risk or may offend against dominant values?

Well, yes, Ruth Proctor films herself falling off a scaffold onto cardboard boxes (here is the scaffold, here are the boxes), Bas Jan Ader documents the start of his transAtlantic voyage that was never completed, Ai Weiwei gives various landmarks the finger. Meanwhile we have surgery footage of Orlan’s cosmetic surgery, Gregor Schneider’s faintly uncanny film of two neighbouring houses redecorated to be identical, Martha Abramovic leaning back from a bow and arrow pointed at her heart.

But then it’s extended to chance and fate. Gerard Richter scrapes back at his paint with a squeegee, post Minimalists let their art hang according to gravity, Marcel Duchamp drops string and Chris Burden drops steel beams into wet concrete.

And then, brace yourself, Turner experiments to see how different paints dry or soak into paper.

Careful now.

There’s a print of an old life jacket and a reconstruction of an ancient Chinese earthquake detector.

What there isn’t is any Jackson Pollock who also allowed chance into his aesthetic through pouring and dripping or Helen Frankenthaler with her too-wet paint or Frank Bowling’s dribbles. One might object that being open to chance is an abandonment of craft, but presumably there’s a selection process. There’s a film (whose makers I forget) which is a kind of mouse trap sequence, where rolling ball sets off a chain reaction. We don’t see however many versions didn’t work. And we don’t see what Duchamp did with the templates he made from the string.

There wasn’t any art that has been banned or challenged (Mapplethorpe’s photos, Magritte’s nudes might have been interesting, some of the vandalised art show at Tate Britain a couple of years back).

The biggest risk here, of course, is that there is such a show in a multimillion pound gallery in one of the more deprived corners of England — Margate was a Portas town, its twin industries of TB recovery and funfair being undermined by progress. Like Gateshead’s BALTIC, another venue which is curated rather than collected, it could simply do crowd pleasers (such as Grayson Perry), but instead challenges its clientele. It has to risk failure.

With a few exceptions, alas, in this it was a success.

Meanwhile, a ten minute walk, a megabaguette, a thirty minute bus ride and another ten minute walk away there is the UpDown Gallery, which specialises mainly in limited edition prints. ive not caught every show there, but those I have I’ve liked.

Upstairs, ending really soon, is the work of Loukas Morley, a ready-made artist in the tradition of Beauys with the colour sense of Hodgkin. Painting on various types of wood, either circular or rectangular or squaregular, clearly on the flat, he builds up layers of paint and resin, abstract yet active, usually allowing the ghost of the grain below. There are also witty sculptures – a board rubber, plastic lids from spray paints, crumpled metal á la John Chamberlain, a lemon as still life. He has been curated by Cedric Christie in the past and I suspect a cross-influence.

Meanwhile, downstairs, ending really soon, is Martin Grover and his (to be honest, annoyingly titled) The Peoples Limousine. It would be unfair to call Grover (like Magritte) a one-joke artist, even if it is a funny joke. He specialises in fake bus stop signs, wring out variants on the symbols, possible stops and kinds of route. One refer to Talking Heads songs, another to British movies set in London (Going Places: The London Nobody Knows/Meantime & High Hopes/Seven Days to Noon/The Fallen Idol/The Bells Go Down). Yes, it’s arbitrary, but it’s done with wit and charm.

There are also lists of lists, masquerading as compilation albums, depictions of famous musicians (Barry White, Marvyn Gaye) wandering around London or past CarpetRight. And then my favourites: The South London Procrastination Club (Established: not just yet). There’s a hint of the thirties railway destination poster about his more straight forward prints, but any of them should put a smile on your face.

It’s too late for this show — unless you go on Sunday — but keep an eye out.

Manifest Pollocks

Blind Spots: Jackson Pollock (Tate Liverpool, 1 July 2015-17 October 2015)

Jackson Pollock was born in 1912 in Cody, Wyoming, but grew up in Arizona and California. Having gone to art school (and been expelled), he became an artist for the Federal Work Program. His big stylistic breakthrough was the all-over drip painting, although pouring might be a better word. The whole canvas is covered by oil or thinned enamel paint dripped from brushes or syringes; in most cases the paint over lies and is overlain with other paint, in some cases the canvas is visible.

Pollock was slotted into the abstract expressionism category — abstract because it wasn’t figurative, expressionist because he was expressing his feelings and emotions on the canvas. This wasn’t necessarily a term he liked and I will come back to it. Pollock was an alcoholic and went through Jungian psychoanalysis to attempt to cure this — the assumption is that his art can be understood in Jungian terms, presumably expressing a nonindividuated ego and archetypes. Early paintings had Greek mythic titles and he is also assumed to be drawing in an interest in Native American art.

I hope to return to this but I’m troubled — action painting gives access to the unconscious and more primitive stares of mind, such as that of the Native American.

Koffs.

Really?

In 1951, after a less successful exhibition of the kind of paintings we know Pollock for, he took a change in direction: the black paintings. These were largely blank canvases with thinned black enamel dribbled on them — sometimes calligraphy, sometimes faces, sometimes scribbles — and it is this set of paintings that becomes central to Blind Spots, the current exhibition. Whilst they’ve never been entirely ignored, they have been downplayed.

Pollock wasn’t the first to paint in black — Malevich’s black squares have been seen at at least two British shows in the last year, at Tate Modern and the Whitechapel. Willem de Kooning had a black and white painting, coincidentally also in the Tate at the moment. But Pollock painted just in black.

I was worried — I prefer twentieth to pre-twentieth-century art, but I don’t like all abstract art. I was worried that I’d be wasting my time seeing this, even though I prepared by reading three or four books on Pollock. Pollock is the epitome of the “My six year old can paint like that” school of art criticism; it’s said of Picasso, too. And bollocks. But I wasn’t sure I’d get it.

I don’t pretend this to be profound, but it struck me that there is an opposition between figurative and abstract, figure and ground, paint and canvas and so on. Paint is applied in layers — in three dimensions, however trivially, as new paint obscures old.

If abstract expressionism gives us access to the unconscious, how do we know it’s the artist’s unconscious rather than our own? Does that matter?

Of course, schooled in deconstruction, you’d expect me to pick away at the oppositions.

There are specks rather than spots in this exhibition — but blind spots are the part of your eye where the nerve and exits and lacks rods and cones, there the bit that wing mirrors can’t pick out (Pollock died in a car crash) and blind spots are the things critucs overlook. But there was for me a misprison — I thought of Paul de Man’s Blindness and Insight, the blind spot of a text or of the critic’s reading of it.

Hmmm.

At the start of the exhibition is a found collotype of a mother and child, mostly obscured in black ink.

Obscure vs. reveal. Mask vs. unmask.

The mother and child is a key trope — archetype of — of the history of art. The Madonna and Child. This is clearly a pop art version, but we need to keep an eye out for this in the exhibition. Pollock’s mother and Pollock? Maybe. Is the black ink covering them up or revealing them? It certainly draws attention — you look harder.

The idea of looking is set up for us in the first picture of the show. It is the keynote.

(To be continued…)