Richard Tuttle / My Birthday Puzzle @ Modern Art / March 31 – May 13, 2017

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Richard Tuttle, Releasing: Biologically Poor Endings, IX, 2016, quarter-inch birch plywood, canvas, crayon, acrylic, graphite, acrylic gesso, nails, 68.6 x 66 x 3.5 cm, 27 1/8 x 26 x 1 3/8 ins, courtesy Stuart Shave/Modern Art, London

There was a time when Richard Tuttle’s understated assemblages were considered by some commentators to be so insubstantial as to be an affront even to minimalism. Better to be made of nothing at all than to be made of almost nothing, they might have said. It might have been the almost-there fragility of his assemblages to which they took exception, cobbled together as they seemed to be, out of the most commonplace craft materials such as string, glue, fabric, scraps of timber, and acrylic paint. At a time when minimalist art was predominantly the slick, machine-made product of an extended process of intellectual refinement, Tuttle’s unkempt art school project rejects seemed outrageously unsophisticated and unfinished.

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Richard Tuttle, Releasing: Biologically Poor Endings, VI, 2016, quarter-inch birch plywood, aluminum flashing, canvas, graphite, acrylic, spray paint, nails, 86.4 x 86.4 x 15.9 cm, 34 1/8 x 34 1/8 x 6 1/4 ins, courtesy Stuart Shave/Modern Art, London

But Tuttle’s work has outlasted the exhausting exaggerations of the greater portion of minimalist and conceptual art, with their shared requirement that we place our very human instinct towards sensuality, visual stimulus, and the imperfect edge on hold in the service of a cold idea. And yet I reflexively use the word minimal to describe the economy with which Tuttle uses his very mundane materials. His work is sometimes shockingly reduced in its construction; barely applied paint marks on unprepared offcuts of timber, fabric, and paper, balancing against panel pins or dangling from a length of twine. Tuttle’s minimalism is difficult to pull off, relying as it does on the ability to exploit that energy which is produced at the very beginning of the process of making something. Where most artists would keep adding layer upon layer, reworking and transforming, Tuttle appears to say – That’s enough – repeatedly with each component he adds to his constructions.

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Richard Tuttle, My Birthday Puzzle, exhibition view, Modern Art, 31 March – 13 May
courtesy Stuart Shave/Modern Art, London

It can be slightly confusing to talk about Tuttle’s work in relation to, or indeed in opposition to, either minimalism or conceptual art. This reflex of association arises from the fact that Tuttle emerged onto the art scene while these two movements were in full swing. When looking at the assemblages the artist has been producing consistently for decades, it is more useful to go further back in time to find an aesthetic with which Tuttle might share artistic territory. The delicate collages of Olga Rozanova from around 1916, or Kurt Schwitters’ assemblages of the same period, demonstrate equally well what can be done with so little. The work in Tuttle’s recent show at Modern Art in London was visually denser than much of the artist’s previous work, with more emphatic marks and busier surfaces, but still with his trademark lyrical economy.

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Richard Tuttle, Pressing: Hole in the Head, VII, 2015-2016, styrofoam, metal, colored felt, heat-sensitive quilting backing, fabric paint, white glue, bond paper, enamel paint, acid-free museum mount board, metallic paper, acrylic, day-glo gouache, nails, 64.8 x 92.1 x 5.1 cm, 25 1/2 x 36 1/4 x 2 1/8 ins
courtesy Stuart Shave/Modern Art, London

Lyricism in language and the economy of poetry, have also been of importance to Tuttle’s art. Married to the poet Mei-mei Berssenbrugge, Tuttle has collaborated with writers and other visual artists in the past on text-based works – but strangely, he sees the processes of writing and making artwork as two entirely distinct, even incompatible disciplines. The thought processes involved in producing one would be of limited use in the service of the other, according to the artist. What is common to both a certain type of poetry and Tuttle’s constructions however, is economy of expression. Poetry lends itself to this kind of reduction – the careful arrangement of words, with an allowance for their power to imply or to signify multiple things in the world, resonating with our memories and experiences. To speak about poetry in this way may be to risk a claim of something intangible in language. And to claim a lyricism running through both art forms can threaten to send us into the nebulous category of spiritualism. But when an artwork is so reduced, it is understandable that we start to draw on our reserves of memory and association.

Tuttle’s constructions are disarming in their simplicity; like a throw-away remark that has long-lasting consequences. And their lyricism is undeniable. They are beautiful statements in paint, paper, and fabric, with all the intangible associations an artist might care to risk.

Richard Tuttle at Modern Art

200 words #17 / Richard Tuttle

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The Critical Edge I, 2015 fabric, wood, nails, hand-sewn brown thread, graphite; four black MDF panels and four fabric elements 36″ x 12′ 1″ x 3″ (91.4 cm x 368.3 cm x 7.6 cm) © Richard Tuttle, courtesy The Pace Gallery

I use the word minimal when I talk about Richard Tuttle’s work. But this is just a lazy reflex of mine to nominate an artwork according to the quantity of materials used, or evident labour involved in its making. Tuttle’s work deals in poetic economy, commanding the space around it with very little. His assemblages of lo-fi craft materials such as scraps of paper and fabric, string and nails, are sometimes loud agglomerations of unstraight lines and rough edges; not minimal at all but rather concentrated.

Fabric has never been an incidental medium in Tuttle’s work. However, in the current exhibition at Pace London, the artist presents fabric less as a component amongst others, as has been its function in much of Tuttle’s assemblage, but more directly, as the sole component. It celebrates fabric as a medium in itself through subtle detailing, in folds, stitching, and frills. What look like razor sharp seams when seen from a distance reveal the same handmade quality of the artist’s other work.

Tuttle’s fabrics, theatrically presented on black panels, are allowed their natural tendency to fall or fold in certain ways. They acknowledge, through lush detailing and colour combinations, fabric’s rich heritage as clothing.

Richard Tuttle at Pace London

(The next feature article to appear on the website, following an interview with the artist Sean Penlington, will be about Richard Tuttle’s current show at Modern Art, London.)

Richard Tuttle at Modern Art, London

Lucio Fontana @ M&L Fine Art / March 7 – May 12, 2017

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Lucio Fontana, Battaglia, 1947, polychrome glazed ceramic 57/8 x 111/4 x 85/8 (15 x 28.s x 22cm.)

To ponder the question of whether Lucio Fontana was primarily a painter, a sculptor or a ceramicist might have seemed to the artist himself to be beside the point. His was an art in which concepts and gestures were of far greater importance than the medium through which they were articulated. Perhaps for this reason, Lucio Fontana adopted different media with ease, and jumped back and forth between them without missing a beat throughout his career – making it tricky to map the artist’s work into neat stages.

Fontana may nowadays most commonly be thought of as a painter – of sorts; the one who punctured his canvases with holes (Buchi) and slashes (Tagli). However, Fontana’s oeuvre was immensely varied. From his initial artistic training in Italy he focused on sculpture, returning to Argentina to work in his father’s studio in the early 20s, following a period of study at the Fine Arts Academy in Milan. In the mid-1920s he produced his first ceramics, and continued to work in that medium at various stages throughout his life, all the while executing sculptural commissions, creating immersive installations, and producing series of paintings.

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Lucio Fontana, Testina, 1950 – 55, ceramic (painted), height 12cm

Fontana saw any attempt to push the possibilities of a medium such as paint, clay, or marble as an effort in the wrong direction. To spend one’s career finicking over the arrangement of the painted surface, no matter how revolutionary it might seem was for Fontana, to miss a greater opportunity. As Yve-Alain Bois has noted; “…testing the respective limits of sculpture and painting…was the least of Fontana’s concerns.” (1.) In the 1950s, Fontana was of the opinion that Jackson Pollock was too tied to his investigations into the painted surface, and had really wanted, but failed, to go beyond. What Fontana had in mind was the space beyond the surface of the canvas, in front of and behind the two-dimensional surface; everything which was not in fact the object itself.

Fontana’s dismissal of medium does not imply irreverence towards it – (He was a highly accomplished sculptor, and had spent years in Italy producing public sculptural works in a triumphalist idiom). Neither was it his desire to upturn artistic convention – (not even those forms such as Cubism, which were themselves becoming conventional). Fontana’s dismissal of medium came from a perceived redundancy. “We are living in a mechanical age, in which plaster and paint on canvas are no longer meaningful.” (2.) He was a close observer of the technological developments of the twentieth century, especially developments in quantum mechanics and space travel.

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Lucio Fontana, Natura morta, 1939, painted and glazed ceramic, diameter 32 cm

 

Fontana’s distaste for the practice of foregrounding the medium and its attributes and possibilities – a kind of artistic navel-gazing – also meant that the artist had a surprisingly liberal attitude to the idea of decoration. For him, once an idea had been arrived at and was ready for execution in canvas or clay, any formal choices such as colour and shape could be made as easily as choosing a swatch of fabric. “All the rest, the various colours, the arrangement of the slashes or the holes are variations for the public.” (3.) It is an aspect of Fontana’s art which has been taken up as kitsch by some, and which doubtless has added to the popular image of the artist’s work in painting as slick, and a precursor to Pop Art. Fontana’s slashed and punctured canvases, whilst they were often sharp and sometimes gaudily coloured, were not intended to act on a decorative level alone. The decorative could be taken care of in a single decision – by covering the canvas in bright pink for example. The intellectual weight of the work, for Fontana, rested on a single gesture, which was very effectively emphasised by colour. “My discovery, it’s the hole…that’s all; it would be all the same to me if I had died after this discovery.” (4.)

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Lucio Fontana, Concetto Spaziale, 1967, rame laccato con taglio, giallo senape + base, 20 x 40cm, edition of 36 not numbered

As much as Fontana could deploy decorative flourishes to counterpoint the intellectual heft of his canvases, he engaged in the traditionally craft medium of ceramics with the categoric refusal to produce anything functional, stating “I have never made a plate…and I have never painted a vase.” (5.) Looking at the range of ceramic pieces on show at M&L Fine Art, this anti-utilitarian brief is evident. The work spans two decades, from the semi-abstract formlessness of Battaglia from 1947 to the rich, machine-produced slickness of Concetto Spaziale from 1967. The most interesting pieces in this show are arguably those in which we can see evidence of the artist’s physical manipulation of the medium. Fontana’s signature works may rest in the memory on those singular gestures of the cut (Tagli) or the hole (Buchi); gestures which the artist intended as self-contained concepts beyond both time and space, and beyond the limiting terrestrial concerns of the medium and its base processes. But there is no doubting the sensual reward from looking at these beaten and complex ceramics with their lightning dashes of glaze and motif.

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Lucio Fontana, Concetto Spaziale il pane, 1951, holes and groove on clay, 28 x 35 cm

It is impossible that Fontana was indifferent to the effects of the medium of clay in all its variety. Some of the pieces on show are highly worked and dripping in luminous glaze, while others, such as Concetto Spaziale il pane from 1951 are untreated and sullen – an appropriate treatment which allows the puncture holes to retain their immediacy. In these ceramics we see concentrations of the various contradictory aesthetics that Fontana employed with ease in his larger oeuvre. We can also see, in some of these works, signs of Fontana’s interest in the baroque. Fontana was drawn to the baroque for its grandeur, both spatial and decorative. It appealed to his concept of spatialism for the reason that “The figures appeared to leap out of the flat surface.” (6.) In fact, it should not seem unreasonable for someone who looked so much to the future of science and technology also to be propelled by a keen sense of the past. Fontana had also, from the earliest stages of his career, sought to raise his work above both functionality and the material demands of the medium. It seems natural that he should be drawn to such an aristocratic form as the baroque with all its gilded ebullience. And it is this aristocratic strain that Fontana saw in the medium of ceramics, and which, for him, raised it above the level of craft. In his art Fontana always announced what Briony Fer has termed his futurity through the lens of the past.

Lucio Fontana at M&L Fine Art

 

(1.) Yve-Alain Bois on Fontana in L’informe mode d’emploi, 1996

(2.) Manifesto Blanco, 1946

(3.) Lucio Fontana in conversation

(4.) Lucio Fontana in conversation with Carla Lonzi

(5.) Lucio Fontana in conversation

(6.) Manifesto Blanco, 1946

 

200 words #16 / Patricia Treib

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Patricia Treib, Hem, 2015, oil on canvas, 167.5 x 127 cm. Courtesy of the artist and Kate MacGarry, London.

Speaking about the difficulties involved in producing a painting, Georges Braque said “I don’t do what I wish, I do what I can.” It seems a starkly pragmatic observation from a painter commonly known for having co-authored the wildly inventive language of Cubism. The reality behind Cubism’s apparently haywire grammar however, was one of hard analysis, careful observation of the physical world, and patient construction on canvas.

The idea of constructing a painting out of fragments of reality arguably reached its apotheosis in Cubism, but is taken in a sharp new direction in the canvases of Patricia Treib. I like to think of Treib’s work as sumptuous minimalism. Many of her canvases are built on a simple conceit linking painted gestures and abstract motifs to the process of assembling a garment. It is one of those enviously concise ideas which make other painters wish they had come up with it first. In Treib’s hands the paintwork manages to be lush but not overwhelming. The compositions are as fresh as cut grass, but never facile. These abstract arrangements appear to have been executed quickly. And yet they evidence a process of analysis by the artist which is undeniably paced and reflective.

Antoni Tàpies: Revulsion and Desire @ Timothy Taylor / 16 February – 18 March 2017

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Capgirat, 2005; Mixed media and collage on wood, 224.9 x 200 x 4 cm
© Comissió Tàpies / VEGAP, Courtesy Timothy Taylor

Photo: Sylvain Deleu / Image Courtesy Timothy Taylor

Watching footage of the Catalan artist Antoni Tàpies (1923–2012) at work, patrolling the limits of his large wooden panels laid flat on the studio floor before making occasional decisive lunges with brush or paint pot, we witness that very twentieth century model of an artist – one commanded by intuitive mark making, and as much led by their medium as leading it. The idea of the artist as an agent of aesthetic forces remains an intoxicating one today, but also one in which it is now harder for an artist to actively indulge. For painters working today, the marks they make and the placement of those marks on a surface are contingent on an acknowledgement that they may already have been enacted elsewhere with the same intent, and as a consequence, may never be viewed as unique. In short, a painter working today will often find themselves pausing to look over their shoulder.

There was no such equivocation in Tàpies’ mind. His style, like that of so many of his contemporaries, took shape in a highly intuitive way through a series of straight choices the artist made around colour, medium, motif, and scale. Tàpies’ self-professed – contempt for everything pretentious, grandiloquent – not only informed his stark approach to subject matter and iconography, but is also supported by the evidence of his roughed-up surfaces of varnish, paint, marble dust, and other bas relief accretions. It is easy to imagine Tàpies thrashing out ideas directly onto the final surface of plywood or canvas with minimal reverence for his medium, and enlisting into his repertoire of marks and motifs, for perpetuity, all the results that pleased him.

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Antoni Tàpies, Matèria sinuosa, 2010, Mixed media on wood, 160 x 160 x 4.4 cm, © Comissió Tàpies / VEGAP, Courtesy Timothy Taylor

Much is made of the uncompromising directness of Tàpies’ motifs, especially the brutal frankness of his treatment of the human figure, often splayed across the naked plywood surface like a pair of wet tights. Of all the explorations of base materialism* which many artists engaged in throughout the twentieth century, Tàpies’ is by no means the most shocking. The power of the painted human form to surprise us has diminished and we are more likely to register as beautiful the way in which Tàpies marries the chunky inelegance of his impasto figures with the equivalent rawness of untreated plywood. Some of the most striking of the artist’s figures sit, squat, or recline against a sparse plywood background with the minimum of extraneous motifs to draw the attention away. Body parts seem to float on the dull surfaces without spatial reference points; the muted pinks and light ochres of the artist’s reduced palette broken here and there by a splash of white or a scrawled black inscription.

Amongst the range of influences on the artist, the graffiti Tàpies saw as he walked through Barcelona’s Gothic Quarter had a lasting effect on his work in both the use of text itself and, perhaps more significantly, on the nature of his painted marks and the way he handled his medium. As with graffiti, the marks in Tàpies’ paintings are simultaneously reduced and excessive gestures. A large syrupy splash of resin and paint becomes analogous to a human thigh with the same economy as that with which a raw flourish of graffiti might articulate a complex message.

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Antoni Tàpies, Cames i diari, 2005, Mixed media and collage on wood, 54 x 64.9 x 7.9 cm, © Comissió Tàpies / VEGAP, Courtesy Timothy Taylor

In a way, it is more rewarding to view Tàpies’ work – particularly the later paintings – without the requirement that we be shocked before the brutality of the surfaces. For the larger part of Tàpies’ career, his disgust at the events of the Spanish Civil War, combined with an anarchic impulse – an attempt even to elicit from us the revulsion of the current exhibition’s title – were significant influences on the artist’s choices of materials and ultimately on the look of the paintings. Yet there is a more slow-burning aspect to this mature work. The restraint with which Tàpies fills these later panels shows great discipline with his medium and economy with his message; more reduction, less excess.

*This is a reference to the idea of base materialism as presented by Yve-Alain Bois & Rosalind E. Krauss in the 1996 exhibition and book – L’Informe: mode d’emploi (Formless: A User’s Guide), (which takes as its starting point Georges Bataille’s Critical Dictionary). I am not suggesting that Tàpies would have considered himself an active participant in the scenario Bois and Krauss sketch out in their book, but more that much of Tàpies’ work does appear to share characteristics with a strand of activity that they identify in much twentieth century art. 

Follow this link to the current show – Antoni Tàpies at Timothy Taylor Gallery

For an interesting insight into Tàpies’ working methods and his wide range of interests and influences watch-  Antoni Tàpies documentary on YouTube

200 words #11 / Dale Chihuly

Spanish Orange Black Macchia with Sable Lip Wrap, 2006, 19 x 36 x 25″

“The Macchia series began with my waking up one day wanting to use all 300 of the colours in the hot shop.” Dale Chihuly describes the origins of one of his most iconic series of blown glass objects in characteristically down to earth terms. Chihuly always speaks about his work with reference to the processes involved in its production. The instability of blown glass, and the technical requirements involved in controlling it in its molten form, dictate the final product to a far greater extent than most other media.

Even though the Macchia have the appearance of vessels, they are in no way functional. With an undulating lip marking the aperture between a vibrantly coloured mottled outer surface and a raw, almost organic interior, they could also be seen as tropical coral vividly imagined in glass. The tendency for blown glass to create billowing, rounded shapes reminiscent of some naturally occurring forms is an almost unavoidable result of the way it is produced, and the Macchia series is perhaps the most uninhibited expression of this. Like Jackson Pollock exploiting the viscosity of enamel paint straight from the pot, Chihuly allows the inherent organicism of his medium to dictate the results.

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Clip from Chihuly over Venice on Vimeo

Takuro Kuwata @ Alison Jacques Gallery / October 6 to November 5, 2016.

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Installation view of Takro Kuwata at Alison Jacques Gallery, Photo: Andy Keate

A “disturbing, frozen organicism” is one of the qualities Briony Fer attributed to the ceramics of Lucio Fontana, especially those he produced from around the late 1940s onwards. Fer, writing in the November 2014 Artforum, spoke of Fontanas’ ceramics as “…a riff on the dissolution of proper form…”, and took as the cue for her interpretation of this work, the concept of the Formless (L’Informe). The idea of L’Informe, developed through the 1996 exhibition (and book of the same title, at the Centre Georges Pompidou, curated by Yves-Alain Bois and Rosalind E. Krauss) held a sub-category which the authors termed base materialism. The characteristic of base materialism could be seen, it was argued, as one of “…de-classing matter, of extracting it from the clutches of classical materialism,..”

The kind of work the authors had in mind, and which Fer offers by way of example in the form of Fontanas’ ceramics, could be seen as the polar opposite of almost anything which had been sculpted or crafted with an ideal form in mind. “The formless matter that base materialism claims for itself resembles nothing” (Bois / Krauss), whereas the crafted object resembles everything and anything which the artist might hold up, and to which the viewer might look up, as the embodiment or representation of idealism.

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Installation view of Takro Kuwata at Alison Jacques Gallery, Photo: Andy Keate

Of course Fontanas’ ceramics were crafted, and highly crafted at that. What the authors of L’Informe identified was a strand running through modern art of wilful base materialism; a tendency towards making work which looks formless, lumpen, difficult to take in visually, and almost impossible to imagine on a pedestal. That this kind of work should also look organic should come as no surprise. Nature spews, defecates and produces all manner of forms, some of which subsequently transform into something which we might designate as acceptable, ideal even.

Whilst not quite constituting a movement, the kind of artwork which could be categorised as formless is commonplace nowadays, often constituting one strand of an artist’s practice. The use of traditionally craft media such as ceramics is also routine, with some artists devoting their entire careers to working methods which were once seen as artisanal. Of course the old artistic hierarchies persist. The success of a medium such as ceramics in a gallery depends on either a lifelong dedication to the medium, or on an artist skilfully utilising it in the service of their overall vision, a relationship for which the material will have relinquished its once utilitarian function.

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Takuro Kuwata, Untitled, 2016, Porcelain, stone, glaze, pigment, gold, lacquer, 58 x 70 x 70 cm, 22 7/8 x 27 1/2 x 27 1/2 ins. Copyright the artist, courtesy of Alison Jacques Gallery, London. Photo: Michael Brzezinski

Takuro Kuwata may not have the concept of formless in mind specifically when he produces his sometimes gargantuan ceramics. The term organic however, with the emphasis on the more amorphous, globular forms which might result from some natural event such as a volcanic discharge as opposed to the symmetry of a leaf, certainly does apply here. In this way these pieces are formless. The techniques used by the artist produce a form of course, but one which is difficult to grasp and which is also suggestive of base physicality. The principle element of these ceramics, the bulk of each individual piece, is produced using a Japanese technique called ishi-haze, traditionally intended for making tea ceramics, small cups and bowls. In ishi-haze stones gathered from the mountainous terrain of Kuwata’s home town of Toki City are allowed to overheat in a kiln to the point where they rupture. Kuwata however, uses oversized stones to distort his forms as they melt or explode. The cracked surface of these forms is achieved by employing another Japanese technique called Kairagi, which fractures the glaze and forces it to the point where it threatens to fall away completely from the surface, sometimes peeling away in impressive nodules. The high shine of the glaze, which is applied liberally but never forms a full coating on the primary form, gives each piece a troubling aliveness, as though they were still in the process of growing, unpredictably. Of course this organicism is ‘frozen’ in just the same way that Briony Fer observed of that of Fontana.

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Takuro Kuwata ,Untitled, 2016, Porcelain, glaze, pigment, platinum, 10.9 x 16.8 x 14.8 cm, 4 1/4 x 6 5/8 x 5 7/8 ins. Copyright the artist, courtesy of Alison Jacques Gallery, London. Photo: Michael Brzezinski

The gift of ceramics as a medium is in its power to evoke and invoke not just the organic, but that aspect of the organic which resonates most powerfully with our awareness of our own physicality. The fascination with the apparently formless objects which nature routinely produces and for which ceramics is supremely suited to represent, is a fascination with that which is both other and somehow intimately connected to us. Our impulse to apprehend amorphous, organic form is perhaps equal but not necessarily opposite to our tendency to also fashion objects in other, more idealised forms.

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Portrait of the artist in his studio, 2016

Takuro Kuwata is at Alison Jacques Gallery until November 5, 2016.