Mary Heilmann – Looking at Pictures @ Whitechapel Gallery, London, June 8 – August 21, 2016

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Mary Heilmann, Cup Drawing, 1983, Oil on ceramic, 30.48 x 48.90 x 4.45 cm.
©Mary Heilmann
Photo credit: Pat Hearn Gallery
Courtesy of the artist, 303 Gallery, New York, and Hauser & Wirth

Lucio Fontana thought of ceramic as the most aristocratic of sculptural materials. And it is likely that at about the time he began to work with ceramics at the Manufattura Mazzotti in the 1930s, the medium was still held in some degree of reverence for the delicate craft it often demanded. Fontana was one of the first of several modern artists to appropriate ceramics as part of their wider body of work, to stand alongside paintings even. In turning their attentions to it however, they also tended to drift far from the aristocratic.

Mary Heilmann has also built up a body of work which incorporates ceramics and painting, but one in which the presumed appropriation of the traditionally ‘craft’ medium belies a more intimate relation between the two components in the artist’s work. Heilmann studied ceramics and sculpture at the University of California at Berkeley from 1963 to 1967, before moving to New York in 1968, where she took up painting. It is easy to see ceramics as an adjunct to the artist’s painting, especially given the scale of some of the early paintings we encounter as we walk into the first room of the Whitechapel Gallery. But it would be negligent to assume that this formative period spent working with such a raw and pliable medium did not have a sustained influence on Heilmann’s painting.

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Mary Heilmann, The Thief of Baghdad, 1983, Oil on canvas, 152.4 x 106.68 cm.
©Mary Heilmann
Photo credit: Pat Hearn Gallery
Courtesy of the artist, 303 Gallery, New York, and Hauser & Wirth

The exhibition opens with some canvasses in which the impact of the male-dominated New York painting scene is tangible. There are some large and loose colour field works which seem to riff off the experiments of Joseph Albers or Mark Rothko. While the scale is substantial and the effect from a distance is one of a solid, carefully built up surface, these paintings are surprisingly unkempt. The slightly wobbling edge of an area of painted surface indicates hurried execution, as do the splashes and drips which enliven the chunky sides of the canvas. There are experiments with the square; often blocked in with thick satin interlocking strips of black acrylic over candy striped washes which bleed into each other like distinct river currents. These are nominally investigations into the kind of optics which occupied Albers over the course of a lifetime. With the newly arrived Heilmann however, we see a bold and almost irreverent hunger to work through what was current or recent in American painting. Continue reading “Mary Heilmann – Looking at Pictures @ Whitechapel Gallery, London, June 8 – August 21, 2016”

PICPUS – Summer 2016 edition featuring an article from theglazelondon.

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Image: Front cover PICPUS Summer 2016.

I am delighted to see the very first article from theglazelondon appear in the latest edition from PICPUS press. PICPUS is a free quarterly broadsheet featuring writing on a wide range of topics, mainly within the arts. It is edited by Charles Asprey & Simon Grant, and is available in various galleries, museums and bookshops, including the Camden Arts Centre. Keep an eye out for it!

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Tomma Abts @ greengrassi, London, April 28 – June 18, 2016.

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Installation view, Tomma Abts, Greengrassi, London, 2016.

Photo: Marcus Leith. Courtesy of greengrassi, London.

Painters tend to approach the work of other painters in a matter of fact way. When they walk around a show they might go straight to the side of a canvas to scrutinize how the artist dealt with the edges, or perhaps contort themselves into unnatural positions to verify whether the surface reflects the gallery spotlights, or instead resists their potentially cheapening glare. More often than not, painters will point to the craft of a painting, how it was put together, rather than what it is trying to say or how it makes them feel. It’s a bit like the art world version of kicking the tyres at a car show.

With Tomma Abts’ work one could talk about craft, and how the paintings were produced, for longer than most people might listen, before ever getting around to subjective responses. There is so much to discuss regarding the physicality of Abts’ work, despite the fact that in reproduction it comes across as unremittingly graphic. This work has to be seen in the flesh, as it is only when the viewer is face to face with it that it truly discloses.

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Lya, 2015
acrylic & oil on canvas
48 x 38 cm (18 7/8″ x 14 1/2″)

Photo: Marcus Leith. Courtesy of greengrassi, London.

For some reason, whenever I think of Tomma Abts’ work I get the sensation that I am looking at work which is minimal. Perhaps it is the cumulative effect of so many sharp edges, and the general predominance of a single colour in more or less each painting, and the overall equivalence of tone within canvases that have several colours, that leaves the single abiding sensation of having seen something exceptionally understated. This is not the case however. There is a great amount of general activity going on in each of these paintings. Up close, there is a rawness to the masked out edges of straight lines, which betrays the handmade reality of these paintings. There is relative discord too in the colour schemes; no more so than in the piece entitled ‘Oeje’. Then there is the support itself; a slight plumpness in the folds of the canvas around the corners of the stretcher interrupts what, from a distance, looked more like a machine cut panel. This added level of physicality becomes even more apparent on such small canvases than it would on much larger ones, and might threaten to become an irksome feature in itself were it something that the artist had simply overlooked. But it is inconceivable of course that Abts had not considered the consequences of using a material of such thickness. It is the evidence of the handmade that arguably makes this work even more interesting than reproduction might suggest. Continue reading “Tomma Abts @ greengrassi, London, April 28 – June 18, 2016.”

Ryan Sullivan @ Sadie Coles HQ, Davies St. London, April 26 – June 04, 2016.

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Installation view, Ryan Sullivan, ~ / – ,Sadie Coles HQ, London, 26 April – 04 June 2016

Copyright the artist, courtesy Sadie Coles HQ, London

In the late 1990s, in the painting department of the art college I was studying at in Dublin, there was a small group of painters for whom a kind of process painting was the most logical way forward. It was a time when we were being urged from some corners to abandon painting altogether, at least temporarily, and to ‘interrogate’ our preconceptions or to ‘collapse’ our assumptions of what painting could do. It was the language of wartime and it made the task of thinking about art and reflecting on one’s work sound more like a national emergency. To throw ourselves into the unselfconscious application of the medium allowed us to switch off from the agony of second guessing.  

One way of looking at process art tells us that chance results, obtained through the application of a medium within a set of pre-decided material and procedural parameters, are themselves the aims of the artwork. The medium, and the way it responds to a variety of physical, temporal and chemical stages of intervention, is the message. On paper this definition of process in painting reads just like any kind of painting one cares to imagine. In the Renaissance workshop there were arguably far more complex processes being carried out at every stage of an artwork’s production than can be seen in the contemporary artists’ pouring from a pot or squeezing from a tube. So it could be that the term process painting is a misnomer.

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Installation view, Ryan Sullivan, ~ / – ,Sadie Coles HQ, London, 26 April – 04 June 2016

Copyright the artist, courtesy Sadie Coles HQ, London

In virtually all process art, from the pouring and staining technique of Morris Louis to the fluid choreography of Bernard Frizes’ patterns, there is a single or at most a small number of very evident stages involving the application of the medium, which give the work its most apparent characteristics. We could call this a signature conceit. In process painting the conceit on which the work rests is most often presented on a large scale if it is not to risk appearing finicky, like a detail from a larger image. This signature, or the result of the processes involved in making the work, are so evident that each successive viewer asks themselves the same single question; How is it done? Continue reading “Ryan Sullivan @ Sadie Coles HQ, Davies St. London, April 26 – June 04, 2016.”

Paulo Nimer Pjota @ Maureen Paley, April 28 to May 29, 2016.

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Paulo Nimer Pjota, exhibition view, ground floor, Maureen Paley, London, 2016.

©Paulo Nimer Pjota, courtesy Maureen Paley, London.

At certain times of the year in London, when the sun is shining at a certain angle, a brightly coloured wall might give off more reflected heat and light than is reasonable for this part of the world, or a taxi might surprise you with the warmth of its wake as it passes. At that moment you are transported by memory to cities where it is gloriously hot more often than not, if not always.

At Paulo Nimer Pjota’s show at Maureen Paley in London, I felt transported in just this way. If artworks often take on the aesthetic ingredients of their surroundings, whether intentionally or not, then it is hard to imagine these paintings having been done in anything but a hot climate. They breathe hot colour and swarm with casual, effortless marks. In some ways they are hardly straightforward paintings. Pjota himself admits that he is not really concerned with the idea of being labelled specifically a painter at all. And this refreshing nonchalance translates well into the finished artworks he creates.

The show, entitled Synthesis of Contradictory Ideas, and the Plurality of the Object as Image Part 2, consists of unstretched canvas and sheet metal pinned adjacent to each other like constructed paintings on the wall. Close by, on the floor beneath these paintings, are unglazed ceramic vessels and resin casts of bottles, a bust and some garlic. Some of the ceramic receptacles appear in more elaborate painted form, at roughly the same scale, in the paintings.

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South landscape with gold and my memory about Northeast

acrylic, spray paint, brick pigment, pencil and pen on canvas and iron plate, with ceramic objects from Portugal, Bahia and São Paulo, 218 x 288 cm – 85 7/8 x 113 3/8 in, 2016.                                                          

©Paulo Nimer Pjota, courtesy Maureen Paley, London.

Pjota speaks of the legacies of colonialism and social and political issues in Brazil being key concerns for him when he approaches making his work. But the final effect is mercifully short on historical critique or explicit social commentary. These elements, in so far as they appear to any recognisable degree, take equal prominence amongst what initially appear to be incidental marks, scratches, doodles, text, fridge magnets and painted imagery. The juxtapositions; a smiley face next to a traditional hand-painted pot, or carved tribal statuary next to Darth Vader’s mask, might seem to suggest the emergence of a fully formed critique. The associations however, are left hovering in the abstracted space of the painted, or marked, surface. Continue reading “Paulo Nimer Pjota @ Maureen Paley, April 28 to May 29, 2016.”

Jules de Balincourt | Stumbling Pioneers @ Victoria Miro, 15 April – 14 May 2016.

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California Native, 2016 Oil and acrylic on panel 111.8 x 121.9 cm 44 x 48 in.

Courtesy the artist and Victoria Miro, London

© Jules de Balincourt

When Donald Fagen and Walter Becker, the musicians behind Steely Dan, moved out to LA from the east coast in 1971, they found the visual equivalent of their slick and expansive music in the heat haze and palm-lined avenues of the Pacific metropolis. Or is it more likely that their music started to open up in response to the grand, languid and unwalkable vistas of the west coast?  Landscapes can engender complex responses; mythologies, iconography and aesthetics which, more often than not, leave the real thing struggling to fulfil expectations. The various mythologies of the American West, being among the most ubiquitous in modern culture, also make it difficult to view almost any artwork which takes them as its subject with fresh eyes, such is the power of the iconography which has already accumulated around the subject.

In each of the paintings in Jules de Balincourt’s current show at Victoria Miro, ‘Stumbling Pioneers’, we encounter many of the visual triggers we might expect on the subject: empty swimming pools, a truck stop, a molten sunset, a freeway winding through the edgelands of the city. It is almost surprising to see each motif dealt with so concisely in individual panels. The initial impression is of an outsider’s perspective; an attempt to document the city and its surroundings in a series of illustrative vignettes, executed by someone who is seeing them for the first time perhaps. De Balincourt is in fact painting these works after a period of 20 years spent outside LA. So after such a long absence one could be forgiven for feeling, at least partly, like an outsider.

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Night Moves, 2016 Oil on panel 121.9 x 101.6 cm 48 x 40 in.

Courtesy the artist and Victoria Miro, London

© Jules de Balincourt

The works are of various dimensions, painted on wooden panels which float about an inch or so off the wall on recessed wooden supports. The hidden supports are each treated with the predominant colour of the image itself. Some of these colours are almost fluorescent, and the effect from a distance is of a subtle coloured backlight to each panel. Most of them are painted in oil, but some use both oil and acrylic. The application of these two very different types of paint on the same panel is executed so well as to make them almost indistinguishable. Continue reading “Jules de Balincourt | Stumbling Pioneers @ Victoria Miro, 15 April – 14 May 2016.”

Kurt Schwitters @ The Armitt.

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Untitled (Cal), Collage, paper, carton and wallpaper, 1947. ©Private collection (courtesy of the Armitt Trust).

Last week I returned to London after a two week residency at the Kurt Schwitters Merzbarn site in Elterwater, Cumbria. I say site because, in a number of ways it is more appropriate to think of it as the site of an event than as a place to visit and see an artist’s work in the flesh, or in stone and plaster as might be the case. The original wall on which Schwitters worked between March and July 1947 was removed and placed on permanent display in the Hatton Gallery in Newcastle in 1965. All that physically remains of the construction, which the artist hoped would develop into a new and perhaps more significant Merzbau than his Hanover original, is a section of plasterwork resembling an arm reaching across the upper left hand corner of one of the remaining walls. Even this was in fact added to Schwitters’ original by Harry Pierce,  the owner of Cylinders estate, after the artist’s death. The original Merzbarn construction had not developed beyond the limits of the western wall of the building by the time Schwitters suffered a haemorrhage in July 1947. He died on the 10th of January, 1948.

Schwitters is not an easy artist to love. When I first became aware of his original Merzbau, which was destroyed in an allied bombing raid, I was more confused by my attraction to this obscure installation than I was definitively impressed by it. Long before I became aware of its influence on artists and architecture students and its implications for immersive installation art, I found myself wondering why I should be so engrossed in its seemingly measured randomness. The fact that only a few black and white photographs of the Merzbau were in circulation meant that I couldn’t even contrive a sense of having understood it through gazing at it; in the way a hermit might attempt to understand the wilderness through time spent getting lost in it. Now it only existed in the imagination.

As frustrating as it was as a teenager to find my access to the Hanover Merzbau blocked by the opacity of an old photograph, it strikes me as in keeping with the mythology of Kurt Schwitters to arrive at Cylinders Estate to find the Merzbarn wall long gone and stories and photographs in its place. In a further twist, the woods surrounding the Merzbarn itself, in which visitors’ children play hide and seek and in which adult visitors wish they could, were not there in 1948. Sitting outside the Merzbarn, Schwitters would have had a wider vista than is afforded to the visitor today. As a visiting artist trying to make sense of the site, I found myself disappearing into the woods around the Merzbarn, and further afield, with a sketchbook, easel and paints, much as Schwitters himself did in various locations around the Lake District. Perhaps, I thought, the most appropriate testament to a person for whom a particular place was important, was to try to see it as they did. The sense one gets at Cylinders estate is of the echo of events past and current, all of which become small against the backdrop of the unchanging and indifferent mountains.

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Smithy Brow, oil on wood, 1945/1947, ©Courtesy of the Armitt Trust.

Added to this sense of ephemerality, the difficulty implicit in forming an unmitigated appraisal of Schwitters’ trajectory as an artist, is exacerbated by the very real disruption to the artist’s life in the 1940s.  Elizabeth Burns Gamard, in her book about the Merzbau, reminds us that “…the war and subsequent exile from Germany left (Schwitters) destitute and disoriented in the most literal sense.” (1). Schwitters moved to London following a period of internment in detention camps around the north of England. After an unsuccessful period in the capital he subsequently found himself staying on in the Lake District as the result of an extended holiday. To sustain himself there he produced a large number of landscape paintings and drawings of local scenes, such as the Bridge House in Ambleside, and portraits of local personalities and acquaintances such as Charles Simpson, Dr. George Ainslie Johnston, and Harry and Ida Pierce. Harry Pierce, the owner of Cylinders Estate and the building which was to become the Merzbarn, was a retired landscape architect for whom Schwitters had great respect. “(Pierce is)…a genius…he lets the weeds grow, yet by means of slight touches he transforms them into a composition as I create art out of my rubbish.”  (2).

Schwitters continued to produce collages in England right up to the end of his life. Some of these are amongst the best he ever produced, and formed a major part of a large survey exhibition at Tate Britain in 2013. And it is true to say that, in part due to the difficult circumstances of the artist’s arrival and subsequent life in the UK, the landscapes and portraits Schwitters produced in Cumbria are commonly seen as a negligible aspect of his oeuvre. It is difficult to evaluate the impact his change in circumstances had on Schwitters’ confidence as an artist. The mythology, as it is taken up with his departure from Germany, reads variously as the story of an artist whose unshakeable vision led him to abandon a country which had abandoned sanity, or of a once important, cosmopolitan, European artist who had been left with no choice but to run to wherever he would be accepted.

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View from Blue Hill, Ambleside towards High Pike, oil on board, 1945/1947, ©Courtesy of the Armitt Trust.

It hardly seems important now, to pick through the minutiae of Schwitters’ career path from Germany to Norway, and finally to England. By trying to build a picture of the artist’s life in two sections; pre-displacement by war and post-displacement, we risk forfeiting the appreciable continuity in Schwitters’ work and in his thinking. Between 1909 and 1914, Schwitters received an academic training in art at the Dresden Kunstakademie. He continued to draw and paint throughout his life, not just in the Lake District, but also in Norway, and not just to earn a living, but also in response to the considerable effect the landscape had on him. He also paid close attention to what was happening in painting in particular, “(working) through the development of modern painting on his own…(and) these self-described phases of development were not successive, one replacing the other, but rather incorporative.” (3).

It is this ‘incorporative’ strategy which forms perhaps the most defining characteristic of his life’s work. I refer to it as a strategy because Schwitters was, in all likelihood, fully aware of what he was doing as he jumped from genre to genre. In this way, Schwitters could be seen as the archetype of what we now see as a common model of a contemporary artist; one who, at best, moves between media and genres in a sophisticated yet apparently effortless way. Through his experiments in different genres, Schwitters also settled on what Burns-Gamard calls a ‘grandiosity of…vision’ (4). Throughout her book on the Merzbau, she puts considerable emphasis on Schwitters ‘transhistorical’ vision. Contrary to popular perception, the artist emerges as more indebted to German Romanticism than political or social revolution. Doubtless the reality of Schwitters’ life and work in Germany is far more complex than any reductive designation that can be applied to him retrospectively. And this is also true of the artist’s life in England.

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Untitled (Wood on Wood), Relief, oil and wood on wood, nailed, 1946, ©Courtesy of the Armitt Trust.

What we can say about his work in the Lake District is that he was in every way continuing along the path which he had established before he was displaced. The landscapes and portraits Schwitters produced in Cumbria can seem troubled and hard-won when we gaze into their brushwork, but his lines in these landscapes are equal to those he produced in Norway. And given Schwitters’ close reading of painting’s history and forms, combined with his heavy involvement with modern art movements in Europe, it should come as no surprise that he could switch so easily from genre to genre. The fact that Schwitters used found material from wherever he happened to be living, whether it be Hanover, London or the Fells around Ambleside, demonstrates that his eyes were wide open to those locations as potential artistic source material. For anyone interested in Schwitters, Cumbria is a particularly rewarding location in which to reflect on the artist’s life and work. Unlike in London, both the living and the dead have room to exist and tell their stories.

Whilst I am averse to pilgrimages of all sorts, in the Lake District I did find myself continuously returning to comparisons of Schwitters’ life there in the 40s and my passing through there now. This was the effect of place over preconception. Having had a long-standing interest in Kurt Schwitters, I had had plenty of time to imagine the urban artist’s rural life in England. The longer I spent there however, the more the locations themselves took over. Of all the wonderful encounters I managed to squeeze into two weeks, two things served to give form to a life I had only imagined from looking at reproductions. The Ambleside Flower Show, in which Schwitters won 1st, 2nd and 3rd prizes in 1946 was being advertised on banners in the street while I was there, and The Armitt Gallery unveiled their newly enlarged collection of Kurt Schwitters works, making it the largest permanent collection of the artist’s work on display in the UK.

Visit the Armitt Museum website for more on Kurt Schwitters: Armitt Museum

Visit the Cylinders Estate Merzbarn website: Merzbarn in Cylinders Estate, Langdale

Visit the Hatton Gallery in Newcastle: Hatton Gallery, Newcastle

Visit the Merzbarn Residency blog of artists Robbie O’Halloran and Hamish McLain: merzbarn16

 

References:

  1. Elizabeth Burns Gamard. (2000). Kurt Schwitters’ Merzbau. New York; Princeton Architectural Press.
  2. Kurt Schwitters quoted in: Barbara Crossley. (2005). The Triumph of Kurt Schwitters. Armitt Trust.
  3. Elizabeth Burns Gamard. (2000). Kurt Schwitters’ Merzbau. New York; Princeton Architectural Press.
  4. Ibid.