Andre Wallace

Monday, November 26, 2012

Christo, Mastaba and Art from Russia

Today 25th November we learn from the Observer that Christo intends to build a mastaba larger (150 metres high) than the great pyramid of Gisa in Abu Dhabi. The real question is why so big? Christo answers the question with this: "When the sun rises above the desert, the vertical wall of the mastaba will become almost full of gold." Hubris, - from the most famous environmental wrapper of all time. The structure will be made from 410,000 oil barrels, so that's all right then - the referent obviously being oil money, although Christo denies that using oil barrels is any comment upon the regions oil. He has done it before though, on a much smaller scale.  Meaning and explanations, he doesn't do; " We only create works of joy and beauty."
The Mastaba will be accompanied by an art campus, luxury hotel and restaurant as they expect 2 million visitors a year. This being entirely dependent upon political, religious and economic stability as well as cultural confidence. Another contemporary artist who doesn't do self doubt or self-questioning - the size may make for some technical problems as using no-nails simply won't be enough. He does have form but he has no working knowledge of making sculptural form, just wrapping and curtaining. Large scale window dressing in essence.

Charles Darwent in the Independent on Sunday is upset by Tate curators.
"Tracing the century" at the Liverpool Tate, he says, is more evidence that there is a trend among curators of trying to force imagined connections between totally unconnected art works and genres. This sounds much more like the usual ill-informed laziness and idleness, like presentation rather than thought out curation. Much like the stupid premise the exhibition is built on, namely that drawing was the catalyst for change in the art of the past 100 years. This is a bone idle intellectual conceit that to any working artist, obviously betrays no practical knowledge of either drawing or of making painting or sculpture. Drawing is the most traditional preparation, it comes first and it has done for over 1000 years despite the impoverished intellectual pretentions of the conceptual Duchamp mafia's world view. When you don't know this from practise and obviously you cannot do it yourself, then you make the bone-headed Oxbridge assumption that the blindingly obvious has to be of real curatorial significance. Darwent explains that he is still scratching his head over the connections between Andy Warhol and Marlene Dumas with the word intimacy. That is because there isn't any connection outside the curator's imagination, it would be hard to find two less intimate artists anywhere.

Laura Cummings in the Observer writes effusively and enthusiastically about Contemporary Russian art at the Saatchi Gallery. This is all up to the minute stuff we are informed, as if the fact is significant - which it isn't. Except that contemporary Russian art under communism was singularly dire. What is significant is that the artists have something to kick hard against, which is usually good and encourages bold, brash over-egging the pudding. Janis Avotins painting seems to genuinely interesting and have some particular merit, but most of the rest we have seen again and again done by other artists. That said as Brian Sewell argues, we wouldn't be seeing this art without Charles Saatchi making it available to the British public and the market.  Is the bad man rebranding himself as a public servant?
Times change, so the question is - has a usual suspect lost his lustre?  Georgina Adam (editor of the Art Newspaper) has recently been reported to have said: I think Hirst was a very good artist at the beginning, but he has been a fabricator of luxury goods for a long time now.

Friday, November 23, 2012

William Turnbull - RIP

William Turnbull a scottish sculptor of similar stature to Henry Moore has died aged 90. His work was groundbreaking in the 60's and although it was far more  abstract than Moore's it was still firmly rooted in mimesis.

William Turnbull was an exceptional artist, - "unusually gifted both as a painter and a sculptor," said Sir Nicholas Serota, the director of Tate. He was influenced by Giacometti and Brancusi, although like Henry Moore he remained resolutely humanist in outlook.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Ben Sullivan - Triptych

It's not often in these stretched times that an artist achieves a commission of medieval size and stature but that is exactly what Ben Sullivan has done for All Souls College Oxford. This is an artist who not only knows how to look, but can make accurate and truthful marks that translate very precisely the experience of seeing and feeling with real depth and understanding. The work took over four years to complete and was commissioned in 2003. The painting is a modern masterpiece equal in stature to any produced in the past 500 years but it is exactly the wrong kind of contemporary art. It is representational, it is the kind of art that is persistently marginalised by the state art establishment because it celebrates real life and it isn't emotionally challenging. It is also accessible to anyone and everyone. Suspect that it will be around for a lot longer than most of the usual suspects production.
Sullivan says he was influenced by Stanley Spencer's paintings at Sandham memorial chapel at Burghclere. He wanted to give some account of people's everyday activities and dignify their working lives. He has more than succeeded. He has managed to convey with an almost religious intensity their real existence as human beings and has succeeded in conveying their true dignity. A very, very rare phenomena in the art world of today.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Cultural imperialism? - the Tate in Africa

The Sunday Times has an article today, 18th November concerning Sir Nicholas Serota's plans for expansion of the Tate into Africa. Seems that there can be little in contemporary British art worthy of further Tate modern consideration. According to James Gillespie the latest acquisition is 12 rooms entitled "The museum of contemporary African art 1997-2002" . There are also performances at the Tate tanks featuring Otobang Wkanga, Nastia Mosquito and next summer a big exhibition by Ibrahim El-Salahi. This interest in Africa will be furthered by the arts 13 festival in March.
Sir Nicholas is reported to have said, "There is no one single center for for modern and contemporary art and it certainly isn't London or New York" and we are informed that the tate now has six separate acquisition committees dedicated to building a truly international collection.

Critics include Waldemar Januszczak who argues that the intention is not new understanding but a new cultural Imperialism. Western contemporary art language is being exported wider around the world. Waldemar also argues that a lot of middle-eastern art is western except in content and the artists live in New York. What a depressing prospect! David Lee also has been quick to condemn the Tate's African adventures in political correctness, arguing that there is a generation of British artists that are being systematically neglected and why should tax-payers cash be spent upon the careers of foreign artists at the expense of our own? The report ends with Stephen Ongpin insisting that people will have to get used to it, as art history is being re-written by the Tate. If only? If only there was some way of guaranteeing artistic quality other than six self-appointed acquisition committees?

Charles Darwent (Independent on Sunday), Laura Cummings (Observer) and Waldemar (Sunday Times) all tackle the Tate modern show "A Bigger Splash-painting after performance" in their weekend criticism. They are all unimpressed, Laura says when you have seen one orgiastic ritual lubricated with oil paint you have seen them all - have to agree with that.  Darwent argues that the show gets its priorities reversed telling of performance after painting and not vice versa. He says performance art is tedious, the only artist he rates being Marina Abramovic who isn't in this exhibition. He calls the show sixth form philosophy acted out instead of written down and there is too much of it. Waldemar is more measured in his assessment, asking whether there were really all this many artists willing to strip off and wallow in prehistoric trauma smearing themselves with blood and paint? His judgement is that the show is all over the place with plenty to be annoyed about as well as enjoy. Such are the vagaries of expressionist fashion when viewed through the distorting lens of time.

As a side issue on the start the week program this monday morning 19th November Christopher Frayling reported that China now has 1200 art and design colleges backing up its industrial might, whilst here in the UK the art and design education system is in decline at every level. Excluded from the Ebacc, politically marginalised and our creative industries are as a result under serious threat despite the media bragging about the UK being a world leader in soft power. This lack of political will and vision is incredibly short-sighted, and will hasten the UK's decline economically and culturally. What we desperately need is another Prince Albert to get people making and inventing again.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Brain Sewell - Naked Emperors

Brain Sewell's recent book Naked Emperors is an excellent but very depressing read if you care deeply about the status of fine art. Whether you agree with him or not he is informative and entertaining and has seen more contemporary art than practically any other critic out there. He says the rational conversation never takes place because others in the art world regularly dismiss him as a reactionary with the remark; "Oh, but you would say that wouldn't you!" 
In particular he takes pains to progress the criticism, so we have reviews of the usual suspects as he has written about them over the years and you can compare the changes in the way that they have been perceived. He also argues that there is now so much hard cash invested in living artists, (when a Peter Doig goes for £6,000,000) that the art world cannot possibly let any of them fail. So a shake out of all of that collected and curated weak stuff won't happen any time soon!
He is particularly good at charting the progress of Sir Nicholas Serota and Maurice Saatchi, but he lets the latter off lightly, expressing the truth that much contemporary British art could never have seen the light of day if it had not been for Charles Saatchi. Whilst this may be very true, the fact is that he was always working to an ad man agenda that had little to do with the values of a connoisseur.
The last chapter of the book, the Coda is fairly harsh but true, and he acknowledges the fact that Duchamp's malign influence has seriously damaged his long term reputation. The coda sums up all that is wrong with the current state of contemporary art, which he terms a circus run by circus barkers. Indeed there are many current artefacts that would not be out of place in a circus, offering mere amusement and entertainment and no artistic or aesthetic experience.

Interesting exhibition, little of it contemporary art though and well worth a visit if you have the stomach for death at the Welcome collection "Death - A self portrait".

Monday, November 12, 2012

Art schools - fit for purpose?

The Independent on Sunday has an article by the redoubtable Michael Craig-Martin complaining about the very sad state of the UK's art schools. Have to agree with him, for once. Echoing this blog post he complains that they can no longer produce any artists of the caliber of Damien Hirst. He could have chosen a more apt example, than he, but Hirst was of course his own creation.
Among his comments are these: "Since Margaret Thatcher decided every higher education institution should be a university, art schools have wrongly been lumped in with them, leading to an obsession with regulations. It does raise the standard at the bottom, but it also lowers the standards at the top." and this which doesn't help his argument : "All the artists that I taught who became successful, and who benefited so much from their art education, they don't teach now, because it's not attractive to teach. Whereas in Germany, every famous artist today teaches."
As anyone who has taught art will know, the most precious gift any institution can bestow upon art education is both academic freedom and a healthy non-paranoid environment. Niether of these exist in the business based art education system where students are consumers, consequently undermining the reciprocal learning function of an art school. The existence of these factors is not helped, by the kind of irresponsible practise that is now commonly taught by over stretched and over extended teachers. To quote Craig Martin:"They are doing a fantastic job in spite of the many obstacles that we didn't have to deal with."

Real problems which he doesn't mention are:

The deplorable content of visual art education courses, which now routinely ignore visual art. The fact that students regularly complain of huge student groups and only two or three contact teaching sessions a year. The gallery system, the market, the museums and galleries all ultimately rely upon art education for their business. Unless that is, they are now cynical enough to rely on solely China and the third world for all their contemporary artefacts. Whilst it may be true that no-one owes anyone a living, it is singularly short sighted of our universities to preside over the decline and ultimate failure of one of the most significant educational sectors that sustain the creative economy. Art schools should be removed from the universities where they never really belonged and completely re-invented, something they that would have no trouble in achieving. This would happen in Germany but here in the UK it won't happen anytime soon, because there isn't a political awareness of the problem or the will, least of all among art teachers themselves.

Friday, November 09, 2012

Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth

There has been a wordy fracas over the proposed sale of a Henry Moore bronze by Tower Hamlets Council to help pay down its deficit.  This is all well and good, but Henry Moore sold the work at well below its market price for £6000. He was someone who believed in the positive power of art to improve all peoples lives. This may be a sad and unfashionable belief today, when any borough of Tower Hamlets street (indeed most streets in the land) are no longer a safe place for his sculpture but his wishes should continue to be respected. As if the threat posed by metal thieves isn't enough, the cynical opportunism for cash displayed by the council is sickening. We persist in putting up public sculpture that doesn't merit a place in dog kennel, yet we cannot openly exhibit decent public sculture in public without the protection of cctv and guard rails. One of Moores important bronzes has already been stolen and melted down, another has been removed from outside Castleford Civic centre for fear of thieves, if this persists there will be none of his work on public display. For which read free. In these straightened times we can expect to see more cynical councillors, selling off the family silver by raiding their borough's charitable gifts of art assets. Another sculpture under threat is this Paolozzi. A recent development has been the argument that Tower Hamlets ownership of the sculpture is disputed and they are therefore unable to sell it

Barbara Hepworth was a brilliant draughts-woman, which causes Charles Darwent some discussion issues in the Independent on Sunday. He writes; " The first surprising thing is that it is a drawing and we think of Hepworth as a sculptor. More she was an abstract sculptor and this is a figurative drawing." Quite so, but he obviously doesn't realise that for her generation you didn't make abstract work without first having a very secure grounding in figurative art. You had to be able to depict reality before you could even consider playing with the rules. Artists are no longer trained like this, it's too far much trouble, they attempt anything without any visual knowledge or understanding which is exactly why they produce so much poor stuff unfounded in reality and experience.

Passing over in silence A A Gill's hype for the RCA alumni in the Sunday Times, we find Waldemar Januszczak at loggerheads with Laura Cummings in discussion of the National galleries photographic exhibition.  Waldemar makes much the same points as this blog did several weeks ago, for once agree with him. Namely that the show is a curatorial mess, he adds: "Somewhere in this mess,  tribute is being paid to the pioneering role played in the history of photography by Elizabeth Rigby, wife of the National Gallery's first director Charles Eastlake. The show approaches her so obliquely we can hardly make her out...............But the surrounding event detours too often into off the peg, right on agendas - a feminist agenda, an identity agenda, an antipatriarchal agenda, whilst failing to come to the most important agenda of all; to come to some worthwhile conclusions about the relationship between photography and art." Brain Sewell in the evening standard is similarly critical, particularly concerning the conceited assumption that photography is an art form equal to painting.

Laura Cummings in the Observer, is carried away with her own critical insight, rambling with enthusiasm from exhibit to exhibit she writes; "The english photographer Roger Fenton is the star of this show. Look at his beautiful image of a boy on a river bank from 1859. It is composed contre-jour (against the light) " and so pretentiously on. Explaining that Fenton makes a narrative in the same way as a painter does - really though, is this news, don't all photographers do that, consciously or unconsciously? Have they not always done so, and particularly did they not do so early in the history of photography, because they knew nothing else? Visual composition is visual composition, without it any image photograph or painting is unreadable.

Liz Baldwin a design student at the redoubtable Goldsmiths was pulled up by police for drawing a chalk line in the street and threatened with charges for criminal damage. She was attempting an unbroken mile-long chalk line but was told to stop from drawing 50yards from the finish. She is quoted as saying "I had a bit of a cry, but I got a first for my project so I was pretty chuffed!" The only comment this provokes is the question; why was this considered a suitable activity for a BA design course student? What conceivable educational value has this stupid project except time wasting.
Surely this activity belongs to a nursery class, not a university design department!!!!

Monday, November 05, 2012

Art and the Ebacc

Today's news brings news of protests from the President for life and others e.g. Grayson Perry in respect of the non-inclusion of art in the new UK Ebacc. The arts are way too important to be left to the patronage of individual head-teachers who by definition are limited in their own curriculum background and particularly in inner city schools can often be downright hostile to the arts. It is true that the exclusion of art will be a national failure, but as art has not been taught well in secondary schools or universities for at least twenty years, it is also problematic. Art education is way too expensive, difficult to teach, manage and institutionally messy for some state schools and academies, much more so than playing with second hand experience of the world on a computer screen because unlike Photoshop it involves action in the real world.
It is also true, that the exclusion of the arts from the Ebacc will be singularly short sighted, particularly as the creative economy is a large part of what's left of the tatters of the UK economy. They did things far better in 1851 when Prince Albert, worried about the UK manufacturing and design base successfully instituted the Great exhibition to improve UK design and manufacturing. The cultural Olympics were a perfectly risible demonstration that no-one, yet no-one in the UK arts establishment has a clue as to the actual economic significance of visual art. When GB lost its empire like 4th century BC Greece it gained the arts, but that only lasted for a pathetic twenty years from 1955-1975 and it has been running on empty since.
Of course the harsh truth is that youth is often lazy, ignorant and intolerant of it's elders and betters and whilst it is in economic control in the current harsh work place it will not tolerate dissent, this goes as much for the state of art education (teachers and students) as for the wider economy. You only have to watch a repeat of Robert Hughes Shock of the New to see that current presenters such as the Alastair Sooke talk down to everyone and insult one's intelligence. Youth is fundamentally ignorant, lazy and self seeking. The mushroom growth of art education has ensured it has completely dumbed down. The false idol "inclusion" has much to answer for, the arts are inherently difficult and require brain, eyes, insight and knowledge. In short there is little that anyone can do to halt the decline in the teaching of the visual arts. It is way too far gone, too many skills have been lost, teachers with a conceptual art training have no chance of teaching the real hard subject of drawing when they cannot actually draw themselves. Witness the professor of drawing at the RA. So they substituted contextual studies and stupid essays.  The evidence of this is on any secondary school website you care to look at.
Most of the items discussed in this blog are a mute witness to the way our Museums, galleries and arts quangos have served only to hasten that cultural decline. Artists themselves are not guilt free, university level art education has become a complete dog's dinner with their unquestioning complicity, where nothing is seen as good or bad, where values are dumped out with the bathwater and there no longer exists anyone in power capable of restoring them. Neither is there any will to return to concepts such as excellence which are at the heart of what constitutes art. 

A letter from Richard Saunders in this week's Jackdaw illustrates this - Mr Saunders has been brave enough to return to art college after a gap of some 47 years having done a DipAD in the halcyon years of the 1960's when art mattered and was actually taught to students with real art talent and practical ability. His experiences then and now make for startling reading, he comments: "The inclusion and importance of the learned dissertation as basic necessity for passing the course has given us the ironic situation that the student of mediocre artistic ability who can write a good essay can achieve a higher pass than a talented artist with few literary skills.  ..........  The question is not whether art colleges are fit for purpose, but what their purpose is." It is this mish-mash of indefensible and confused priorities that has done for art and art education, and created the dogs dinner of education provision which our arts leaders are so keen to defend. Again and again one reads excuses in the form that art cannot be taught. What is desperately required is a firestorm and re-invention, but that won't happen any time soon because no-one cares enough, least of all those who have made the most money from producing kitsch posturing as art.
The DFE have said of the Ebacc that; " We have been clear that pupils should take the GCSE subjects that are right for them," but that clearly is to assume that a schools senior management team will not insist on pupils doing those subjects that will secure the school's rank in the league tables. In the past this has often meant pupil's selected art themselves against advice.