200 words #18 / Ernest Mancoba

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Ernest Mancoba, Untitled (3), 1957, Oil on canvas, 16.5 x 13 in., Image courtesy of Aicon Gallery and the Estate of Ernest Mancoba

Ernest Mancoba (1904 – 2002) was born in South Africa, but spent the greater part of his life in Europe, moving to Paris in 1938, and to Denmark after the war, where he was a founding member of the COBRA movement. In Johannesburg Mancoba first trained in wood carving. One of his early sculptures depicted the Virgin Mary as a black woman. Despite the controversy this generated, Mancoba managed to remain above any limiting debate, always holding firm to “the belief in a universal bond of sharing that connects all humanity”.

Mancoba carried with him to Europe a very African treatment of figuration, which comes across in the decorative fragmentation of the totemic figure which is central to his work, and which reappears in multiple subtle variations. Mancoba’s training in wood carving too seems to have informed the very application of the paint itself to the canvas; often a series of discrete all-over marks applied to the canvas with the patience of a sculptor chipping away at a wooden panel. The painted surface acts more like a solid block of undifferentiated marks, from which the central figure slowly emerges, and back into which it can just as easily seem to recede.

Ernest Mancoba at Aicon Gallery New York

Anne Ryan / Collages @ DAVIS & LANGDALE COMPANY INC. / New York / January 31 – May 20, 2017

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Untitled (no. 327), Collage, 7 1/2 x 6 3/4 inches, Executed between 1948 – 1954, Image courtesy of Davis & Langdale Company, NY.

For 37 years Henri Matisse owned a small canvas, The Three Bathers, by Paul Cezanne, regularly drawing from it intellectual strength and vindication for his own experiments with the painted surface. “If Cezanne was right, then I am right.” He observed, in acknowledgement of the lessons he had learnt from this small painting, before he finally donated it to the City of Paris. Matisse’s gift was a characteristically generous gesture, and a good example of his belief in the formative importance of research in an artist’s development. Matisse had by no means reached an end point with Cezanne, but simply wanted to share with others the source of so much of his artistic conviction.

Occasionally, an artist’s introduction to the work of another can have such a profound effect that it can shape their work from that moment on; very much like discovering a vocation. And if a vocation is founded as much on an intangible sense of compulsion as it is on compatibility, then the attraction one artist can feel to the work of another is driven by a combination of equally mysterious forces. Continue reading “Anne Ryan / Collages @ DAVIS & LANGDALE COMPANY INC. / New York / January 31 – May 20, 2017”

200 words #7 / Jessica Stockholder

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Installation view of Jessica Stockholder: The Guests All Crowded Into the Dining Room at Mitchell-Innes & Nash, NY. © Jessica Stockholder; Courtesy of the artist and Mitchell-Innes & Nash, NY. 

When certain critics asked Jackson Pollock why his paintings stopped short of the edges of the canvas, as though the looping paintwork was turning back on itself, they were exposing a fictional boundary between painting and the world beyond the canvas. In asking the question they seemed to be willing the paint across the edge, perhaps to see what would happen and what it would mean.

When I first saw Jessica Stockholder’s work about 20 years ago, reproduced in a generously illustrated large format Phaidon monograph, I realised what it meant to take the challenges faced by painters every day in front of their canvases and to thrash them out in three dimensions. The issues of painting are portable I discovered, and could just as well be investigated without easel or paintbrush.

Using the most commonplace of items such as plastic laundry baskets, refrigerator doors, lightbulbs, fans, mirrors, and shower curtains, Jessica Stockholder creates irresistibly lush environments. Where she uses paint, it is to consolidate disparate objects under the same colour. In other places similarly coloured, unpainted objects seem to mimic the painted surface. Her immersive installations, sometimes resembling a latter day merzbau, are cerebral and poetic in equal measure.

JESSICA STOCKHOLDER / THE GUESTS ALL CROWDED INTO THE DINING ROOM
is at Mitchell-Innes & Nash, New York until October 1, 2016.

Roberto Burle Marx – Brazilian Modernist @The Jewish Museum, New York, May 6 – September 18, 2016.

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Avenida Atlântica, Copacabana, Rio de Janeiro, pavement designed by Roberto Burle Marx, 1970. © Burle Marx Landscape Design Studio, Rio de Janeiro. Reproduced with permission. All rights reserved.

Amongst the multitude of artefacts in the architect Sir John Soane’s house on London’s Lincoln’s Inn Fields, a bust representing Soane has been positioned above those of both Raphael and Michelangelo. It is said that Soane chose this symbolic arrangement to suggest that the greatest of achievements in either painting or sculpture were lesser than those of architecture, albeit the type of architecture which was based on classical principles.

Nowadays, in the absence of such guiding principles, it would seem a redundant exercise to choose sides according to which art form one believed best expressed the same ideas or best achieved the same end. Better perhaps to accept what each art form does best. The practice of jumping between disciplines, if it is done well, and the resulting cross-pollination, is today considered a sign of sophistication in an artist.  It is arguably because of the divisions and differences between practices, rather than in spite of them, that it has become so attractive to be able to switch from one discipline to another with ease.

Yet the impulse towards a hierarchy of the arts persists. A ceramicist for example will only be brought into the context of a contemporary art gallery once the larger portion of functionality in the object has been relinquished. As a subject for painters, a garden, or a chosen vista onto a pastoral landscape, has long allowed artists to say at least as much about paint itself as about the landscape being painted. The notion of the primacy of paint (above a great many other mediums) is deep-rooted. Claude Monet might not be as celebrated as he is had he not come to his enthusiasm for cultivating gardens through the medium of paint with its immanent philosophical potential. Continue reading “Roberto Burle Marx – Brazilian Modernist @The Jewish Museum, New York, May 6 – September 18, 2016.”

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”

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.”