Halfterm Hockney Hideously Heaving

Hockney puts the queue in queer.

David Hockney (Tate Britain, 9 February-29 May 2017)

Several years ago, I travelled back to Nottingham for the opening of Nottingham Contemporary for an exhibition of Hockney’s early work; when I arrived on the Friday the queue was around the block. I never saw the RAA iPod exhibition as all the tickets sold out. I did see the prints at Dulwich Picture Gallery — and that was heaving. The portraits at the RAA were crowded, but I think I booked in advance.

So it was hardly surprising see that there were substantial queues for the Tate Britain exhibition — it had only just opened and it was half term. But if you want to go, book first. Use the cloak room. It’ll get hot in the exhibition.

It is sobering and instructive to realise that aside from a few pictures in the first and second rooms, you could have an entirely different retrospective of Hockney’s sixty years of work: there are the Rake’s Progress pictures; illustrations to Grimm; his prints; the bigger picture of the Yorkshire trees; the chair portraits recently shown at the RAA…

This is not to say that Hockney is a repetitive artist, indeed he is the opposite, constantly reinventing himself, but perhaps as a consequence he seems a difficult artist to pin down.

Which Hockney is on display?

I confess I found the crowd overwhelming — you see the art watchers not the work — and I went around rather quickly. I was a little surprised as to the size of the exhibition — the special exhibition space on the ground floor is normally four large rooms, much smaller than the spaces at Modern. But here we have a dozen rooms, I presume expanded into the final part of the walk through of British art. I will have to go back — maybe in members’ hours.

The first room is a little odd in its mix of periods, and you do wonder whether chronology is to be abandoned. Certainly interpretation is not there for you — each room is named, but the labels for each work are limited to names and dates. When we reach portraits, there is no biography, when we see the famous painting with the misnamed cat, Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy, you’re not going to find the real name, although some details are in the gallery guide.

The second room sees him on the edge of pop art — with canvas often visible around the paint, as if the paintings are unfinished, There are almost cartoonish figures, graffiti, obscenities, gay themes. We Two Boys Together Clinging is an obvious example, a nod to Whitman; was this the painting in Nottingham which was connected to Hockney’s obsession with the headline “TWO BOYS CLING TO CLIFF ALL NIGHT”, next to the royal insignia painting CR (for Cliff Richard)? We get the first signs of the obsession with America, which will turn into studies of swimming pools and sunbathers and boys lying on beds. Sometimes he is leaning in the direction of the abstract, sometimes a mix of the photographic (but curiously flat) and sometimes there’s a nod or two to Seurat and pointillism.

And then to photography itself, with pictures assembled from Polaroids and then 35mm, multiple viewpoints of the same topic, with a nod to Picasso perhaps.

This feeds back into paintings made on several canvases, landscapes that don’t quite connect, whether Yorkshire or way out west. Eventually this would lead to the Yorkshire trees that filled one wall at an RAA summer exhibition — but shown here only in preparatory paintings. Years later he would drive a landrover along a country road in each of the four seasons, constructing the landscape from several screens. On the one hand there are black and white charcoal drawings, on the other highly coloured landscapes that owe something to Vincent Van Gogh. It is as if he overdoses on colour and then revivifies himself with monochrome shapes and vice versa.

And in conclusion the iPad pictures, animated constructions, but from first sight not as interesting in completion as in execution. Somewhere we break from painting as time fixed on a plane from a single point of view to a reality constructed from multiple perspectives that foregrounds the time factor. Somewhere this ties back to his use of photocopiers and faxes and multiple layered prints (sometimes involving layer Perspex), none of which is on show here. His painting of space or the elimination of space.

And so, somehow, for all his apparent radicalism, Hockney like Alan Bennett has become a national treasure, packing us in. Somehow I need to penetrate his apparent shallowness — the depth of depthlessness. But it will take at least one more visit.

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Modern Art = Modern Arse?

Turner Prize 2016 (Tate Britain, 27 September-2 January 2017)

One of the benefits of having Tate Membership is that you can go to the Turner Prize show and not feel you’ve wasted money on it.

Unless George Shaw is shortlisted, when it’s worth it.

Of course, the winner has been announced, but I didn’t get my ass in gear before that to post any commentary. I’d probably been to a couple of other exhibitions first, so I might have been arted-out.

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This year there were four artists nominated, beginning with Helen Marten who had also won the inaugural Hepworth Prize for Sculpture and rather sweetly divided the prize between everyone on the shortlist. [Wouldn’t it be fun if a painter like Frank Auerbach won for sculpting so much paint onto a canvas?] I guess her work is a series of ready mades, sculptures put together from found objects, a mad set of Airfix kits put together with the wrong pieces but the right instructions. I’m kind of meh with this, distinctly underwhelmed, and was ready to move onto …
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Anthea Hamilton, who is channelling Antonin Artaud and his theatrical images and the Theatre of Cruelty. We have fake bricks on the wall in half of the room — Tate does Colouroll? — and the blue but cloudy London sky in the other. A large golden arse divides the room — Project for a Door (After Gaetano Pesce) — and then a series of pant shapes hanging, like washing, on chains from the roof. There’s a suit of brick coloured material. It’s funny, it’s cheeky (did you see what I did there?), it rips off René Magritte and it deserves to win.

img_0146Josephine Pryde is also fun — creating photos from kitchen worktops using chemicals and camera-less exposure. On the other walls are photos, often involving hands or slogans, or phones, a kind of anti-fashion shoot, Hands “Fur Mich”, which were clearly worth a peruse. In the centre of the room is a Class 66 diesel train scale model, The New Media Express in a Temporary Siding (Baby Wants to Ride), which indeed could be ridden in other versions of the show and here couldn’t even be sat on. I think she’s the one who should win.

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Finally, Michael Dean, the token man, whose room is dominated by (United Kingdom poverty line for two adults and children: twenty thousand four hundred and thirty six pounds sterling as published on 1st September 2016), a pile of pennies equivalent to the amount the government believes a family of four can live on, minus a penny. Shades of Mr McCawber. This was the most evidently political piece, but in a classic case of more is less, the surrounding sculptures of surreal body parts and faked shipping posters just get in the way. Meh.

And the winner was — Marten, who again split the prize. As I’ve said, not my choice of winner, and not the piece I felt was the best art, but there you go.

Next year, the Prize will be in Hull. I can’t wait. And no, that isn’t snark.

Art vs Empire

Artist and Empire (Tate Britain, 25 November 2015–10 April 2016)
The initial question was, which artist, which empire?

Well, of course, this is Tate Britain, so the British Empire, but you don’t want to ignore the French, the Spanish, the Portuguese, the Belgian, the Ottoman, the Viking, the Roman … And that is to limit ourselves to a Eurocentric model. African and Asian empires… My history knowledge is insufficient. Is there a league table of evil empires?

Am I assuming the British Empire is evil from the get go?

And here, of course, we are in the heart of the Tate, a space built on the profits of the sugar trade:

The Tate Gallery Liverpool is based in the Albert Dock complex, on the north bank of the river Mersey. In order for the dock to be opened in 1846, a public house, several houses and a previous dock had to be demolished. One of its major commodities was sugar, and Henry Tate was one of those who used the docks to import the sugar needed for his business. The sugar initially came from cane cut by slaves on the plantations of the Caribbean, though formal slavery was gradually abolished throughout the nineteenth century. In 1889, Tate donated a collection of 65 contemporary paintings to the nation, together with a substantial bequest for a gallery to show them, and 1897, the National Gallery of British Art opened in Millbank, London, on the north bank of the river Thames.

As far as I can tell — and the exhibition is silent on this — Tate’s business was built in the second half of the nineteenth century and thus after the slave trade as such. It is in the era of indentured labour and apprentices, better than pure slavery but clearly in an infrastructure that was first built with slavery in mind. There are few depictions of slavery that I recall from the exhibition — perhaps only part of one landscape and in the margins of Walter Crane’s supposedly radical map. I don’t think there are any depictions of sugar or tea or cocoa or tobacco or even bananas — the cash crops of empire.

The first room, “Mapping and Marking”, shows the various charts that filled in the blank parts of the world for the British explorer, the unveiling of Australia, the breadth of the pink parts of the world and views of exotic climes. In applying cartography, a western politician convenience is imposed upon existing indigenous models of land use and land ownership, existing names are subsumed under British toponyms. There is a nod to Ireland, too, perhaps the first British colony, if Wales is excluded…

(And Scotland? Are we Trainspotting‘s bunch of effete wankers or did the invitation to James VI mean the Scots colonised us? In any case, the early part of exploration was an English-and-Welsh-colony. Oh, but what about the chunks of France we had?)

There are African flags, relics of colonising, but their creators are speechless.

In “Trophies of Empire” we see the purpose of empire — to find objects to fill zoos and museums and botanical gardens, public spaces and entertainments sometimes aside asylums, sometimes in the cause of temperance. The spoils of empire here are not sugar or tea or cocoa or tobacco or even bananas, but plants and animals; the dingo, the Tasmanian tiger, the crane, flowers… There are also the carvings and niknaks of anonymous tribes people, rarely ascribed to an actual maker. I recall looking around the Brenchley collection in Maidstone Art Gallery and Museum and wondered how much of it was plundering and how much the Victorian equivalent of “They went to the Pacific Northwest and All They Got Me Was This Lousy Headdress”. The objects are literally from all over the world, but without the rigour of the Pitt-Rivers Museum classification by function. It is not at this point clear what the sorting narrative of the exhibition is — but there’s a broad chronologucal approach.

The third room, “Imperial Heroics”, is a space for eighteenth and nineteenth century history painting, with accounts of massacres and last stands and slaughtered colonists. Little of it, frankly, is any good and the answer to the question not quite posed by the exhibition’s title is that we were not good at looking at empire. The best that can be said is the art undercuts its own messages — the symbolism of Queen Victoria giving a bible to a native leader (Thomas Jones Barker (c. 1863)) or Britannia slaughtering a tiger (Edward Armitage’s Retribution (1858)) cries out for critique. Are some of these paintings depictions of people rightfully defending themselves from invasion?

One representation that clearly requires further head scratching is William Blake’s The Spiritual Form of Nelson Guiding Leviathan (c.1805–9), which I don’t think I’ve seen before and perhaps needs to be located in his cosmic history of the world that links Biblical to British history. Nelson for him would be current affairs — Blake does do satire too — but odd to see Nelson as a Hindu god and a mannacled slave ready to be rescued.

The fourth room, “Power Dressing”, has depictions of colonists in nature dress and natives dressed in colonial dress. Inevitably there’s going to be issues of appropriation, patronisation, various levels of Orientalism, and again there’s a low quality threshold. I suspect the colonialist cannot win, as it were, in terms of ethics. I wonder also if there’s a problem with using the term “power dressing” — which I associate with women trying to be successful in the workplace in the 1980s — in the curation and the term “cross-dressing”, with its gender connotations, in the booklet.

The penultimate room, “Face to Face”, is a series of portraits, some by westerners of the indigenous, some by the colonised of the coloniser. I don’t recall if there were any self-portraits of the natives. There are also figurines or statuettes, but again there’s uneasiness from the anonymity of the artists (a legacy of the looter or the commissioner or the purchaser) and the geographical spread of the objects. Australasia melts into India melts into Africa. It’s all the same empire.

The final room is divided in two, “Out of Empire” and “Legacies of Empire”, I suspect the smallest space of the six. This covers the century of decolonisation and independence, a period when colonial artefacts had reached western museums and influenced (read: were appropriated by) western artists. Henry Moore springs to mind, but he isn’t here. Artists came to Britain from the colonies having studied art or to study art — a Sidney Nolan I don’t recall seeing before springs to mind as an exemplar. A handful of artists get to represent the Commonwealth artists’ commentary on empire — centrally Donald Locke’s Trophies of Empire, an open cabinet of curiosities of jars and pots and objects almost shaped like sex toys, with shackles and handcuffs. This is one of the few representations of slavery in the exhibition. There are also photos by Locke’s son Hew Locke, statues of colonial figures, Edmund Burke and Edward Colston, overlaid with bling.

I don’t think in the end that the artists here really faced up to empire – the “postimperial” ones, maybe, but I think the exhibituon needs a lot more contextualisation than the casual observer who hasn’t bought the catalogue can give it. In the bookshop, you can buy Franz Fanon or read about King Leopold’s slave, but that kind of discourse isn’t in the show.

Because You’re Hepworth It

Barbara Hepworth: Sculpture for a Modern World (Tate Britain, 24 June-25 October 2015)

I’ve already written a rather grumpy account of this exhibition, which has a few things that annoyed me. I should also add that the plinths bearing the sculptures could do with a second label describing the work, since sod’s law meant that on almost every occasion I would look at the other three sides first. Sometimes, of course, the label turns out to be on the wall. Grr.

I was fairly sure, however, that the work would transcend my caveats — and so, having read the catalogue, I went back for a second look.

WakefieldMeanwhile, up in Wakefield, the Hepworth is showing a film of the 1968 Tate Hepworth retrospective made by Bruce Beresford. What strikes me immediately about this is how many of the works of art are freely visible and not behind glass. I guess that she was still alive then and could have repaired anything that got broken — the insurance is presumably much higher now. It is so frustrating though. We’re told (she tells us? — and I get the sense from this film of Hepworth speaking unlike the bloody awful Dudley Ashton Shaw Sculpture in a Landscape documentary where a highly theatrical Cecil Day-Lewis intones Jacquetta Hawkes’s poetry in an odd example of barking despite having a dog of your own) that she is interested in the oval, the vertical and the human. From my notes — maybe from the film — I’ve written

inner and outer form, nut in shell, child in womb, shell/crystal, puritanical and geometric spiritual

And then I’ve added (and this is me): modern or romantic (and that is a ponder for another post).

So we’ll walk through the rooms again — beginning with the maze of vitrines. This is her early handcarvings, broadly speaking figurative, realist, mimetic. There are animals, torsos, seated figures and a baby. These works are direct carved on various kinds of wood and marble, and the missing name here is Leon Underwood, who seems to have been the master of the technique.

Hepworth’s shown here among her contemporaries, largely — husband John Skeaping, Henry Moore, Jacob Epstein and I noted two women, Ursula Edgcumbe and Elsie Henderson for future reference. The cynical side of me wonders if this downplays her — she was not unique. Skeaping’s Buffalo (1930) in lapis lazuli is beautiful and I think her side by side doves (1927) are better than Epstein’s one on top of the other (1914-15), but frankly you want your Picasso for doves and Epstein’s strengths lie elsewhere. The positive side is that she can hold her own in a wider community of sculptors between the wars. Infant (1929) is perhaps the most striking, the narrow Torso (1932), made from African blackwood and more like a totem, is the most Hepworthian.

By this point, of course, she had been born in Wakefield in 1903 and studied art in Leeds (meeting that Henry Moore chappy), moving to London where it was as cheap and as easy to get to Paris and Europe than back to Yorkshire. (There’s your north/south divide in a nutshell.) She was runner up to a prize that took her to Italy and which was to inspire her work and led her to marry the actual winner, John Skeaping.

She split from Skeaping in 1933 — the catalogue suggests in part that he was not sympathetic to her Christian Science — and had already met Ben Nicholson who at that point (1931) was married to the artist Winifred Nicholson. The two became lovers and moved in together. So in the second room we have the fruits of their lives together, with artists of different ages inspiring each other. The cynical reading is he helped her, the radical reading is she helped her. I write as a fan of Ben Nicholson — who triangulated romantic landscape, still life, abstraction and the faux naïf. His landscapes flatten into abstraction, and through the 1920s and 1930s the shapes became simplified into squares and rectangles — in time he met with Mondrian, although I think the link was more through Winifred. In time he removed colour, to produce a kind of white, almost flat, sculpture. His art seems to be an exploration of how much can be removed from an image and remain something you can see.

It has to be said that the influence of Hepworth on Nicholson is more obvious than the reverse — I’d be clearer in seeing her as a muse to him than vice versa. Throughout his pictures there are a series of double faces in profile, reduced to lines, intersecting, overlapping, Mr and Mrs. We see this motif in her self portrait in sonogram, and perhaps in one of the sculptures where the face appears to be two intersecting faces. It wasn’t immediately clear what else aesthetically she was getting out of the deal, beyond shifting to a point when she gave more abstract descriptive names for her work. Perhaps he gave her a scratchier sensibility. He was apparently more sympathetic to her religious beliefs than Skeaping had been.

With Nicholson she travelled again in mainland Europe, meeting Hans Arp, Pablo Picasso and Piet Mondrian. She contributed photos of her work to art journals such as Circle and Abstraction-Création (which included Marlow Moss, I see, and had odd ideas about alphabetical order). Mondrian was later to live downstairs from them in London, before his final move to New York. A lot of her pieces of the later 1930s seem to be two smooth pieces — often discs, placed together on a plinth. Apparently both pieces weren’t necessarily fixed, so a degree of adjustment could then be made. Among these pieces were works called Mother and Child — the Madonna and Child trope being oddly missing from the first room — although apparently she broke from tradition by having these as distinct rather than single pieces.


In 1943, she seems to have started adding string to her work. I seem to recall Moore did something similar, but I don’t know who got there first. Sculpture and Colour (Oval Form) Pale Blue and Red (see what I mean about those titles?) is white, almost eye shaped, but hollowed out with two holes. In one you can see the blue interior, and red strings from the edge of the hole to a single, vanishing, point. It is as if goes to infinity. Through the other, side, hole, you can see the strings from a different angle.

By the fourth room we’re up to the Second World War. One side has some of the drawings and paintings she did in a hospital of various operations, after her daughter was ill, apparently intrigued by the similarities between doctors’ and artists’ hands — and I think I saw more of these at Mascalls Gallery once. You need a strong nerve. Another wall has more abstract pieces — the exegetical text tells us she didn’t have time or space for more during the war, but the Hepworth in Wakefield notes the way that she used two dimensional work as a way into sculpture as well as on its own merits. But central to the room are four pieces of carved wood, Pendour (1947), Pelagos (1946), Wave (1943-44) and Oval Sculpture (1943), some plane, some elm, all but hollowed out and curled. They perhaps have the look of hazelnuts nibbled by squirrels, but are beautiful and the best pieces in the exhibition.


By the fifth room time begins to trip over itself. At some point she’s moved to St Ives and has a studio where she lives with a garden space and has rented the Palais de Danse as a second studio. She has become more ambitious, wanting to make bigger pieces; the catalogue notes her wish to crack America. Around three walls we see photos of some of her works in the studio and in situ, her big pieces for Mullard electronics (1956), John Lewis (1963) and the United Nations (1961-64), and we also see her montages imagining sculpture in rural or modernist locations. This is also the room with the ropey documentary.

Behind it, the exhibition redeems itself — four pieces made from a heavy African wood called guarer. The catalogue explains there is a mystery as to who got the wood for her and who paid for it, and what happened to the parts left over. They are larger cousins to the wooden pieces in the previous room; they seem to be experiments in how much you can take away from a form and still have some form.

Ah, you can look, but you mustn’t touch…

Finally, there’s the recreation of the Rietveld Pavilion (1956); concrete air bricks for a wall, partly filled in, some kind of wooden roof, and (here) an end wall purporting to be forest. Hepworth’s work was shown here in 1965 and since. It doesn’t fool us we’re outside, but there are five or so bronze pieces. Some have forms within forms, are twisted, some might be weathered anvils. These are clearly not mimetic, but nor do they feel organic — they are their own thing. Their sublime beauty is enough to make you forget that it’s not until 1975 that Hepworth died, in a fire.

 

 

 

 

 

 

But Hepworth is at her best in St Ives and Wakefield and the Yorkshire Sculpture Park and Edinburgh Botanical Gardens and at the front of Tate Britain and in a garden on Attebury Street.