by Jack Mottram, a freelance writer based in Glasgow · About · Contact · Feed

February 2007 Archives

Juergen Teller is a slippery customer. In the early 1990s, his work for the style magazines turned fashion photography on its head. Reflecting the haute couture set's adoption of grunge by focussing not on clothes, but on the model, snapping away with a point-and-shoot camera, Teller exchanged the artifice of the high gloss pose for a no less artificial aesthetic of studied nonchalance. Then, effortlessly, the commercial photographer became a fine artist, changing the context in which his work is shown, and his subjects, but not, importantly, his methods.

The result, spread over four rooms of Inverleith House, is no less slippery. Awailable is a survey of sorts, six year's worth of work selected by Teller, it seems, to show the breadth of his practice, which takes in portraits of artists, models, designers and actresses, shots of his children and family, and, in the Nürnberg series, a pseudo-documentary look at the environs of his family home in Bavaria.

Vivienne Westwood appears twice, both images playfully subverting her public image. In Vivienne At Home, the designer appears as the wild-eyed bag lady of tabloid opprobrium, in Boadicea Vivienne, she is the done up as a punk warrior. Similarly, Gisele Bündchen is shown in two lights, first writhing in faux-ecstasy at a fashion shoot, then, in Gisele In My Bath, she undermines any sense of vulnerability with a steely gaze. Along with the wit, there's a good dollop of sentimentality, but again, one suspects Teller is winking as he opens the shutter. Cherub sees Teller's son Ed striking an angelic attitude, Tante Elfriede shows his aunt and her poodle at home, in a style that seems to wilfully misunderstand the legacy of Martin Parr.

There's no question about the status of this work as art (it's in a gallery after all), nor does the photographer's commercial past taint it in any way. Instead, it seems that Teller is self-consciously addressing these uncertainties. His fashion work is like informal portraiture, and his informal portraits seem to be schilling a product, from happy family life to effortless glamour to snowfall in the countryside. Thanks to Westwood's presence, it is hard not to remember Johnny Rotten's ambiguous question at the fag end of the Sex Pistols' career: 'Did you ever get the feeling you've been cheated?'. Just as Rotten was asking himself the same question as his audience, so Teller's work is about his own role, as fashion world rebel or art scene interloper. That awkward status is not as troublesome as Teller might hope, but it is what makes his work if not powerful, then at least intriguing.

It's tempting to attempt a neat segue from Teller's exhibit to the work of Andrew Miller, which fills the lower floors of Inverleith House - they both delight in subverting modes of representation, engage in reconfiguring reality, and force awkward questions on their audience - but, really, they have little in common.

Sixes And Sevens is a set of new works, all completed in the last year. The first, Mirrored Pavilion is a meticulous recreation of a shack Miller spotted while working in Trinidad. It is a mysterious structure - it could be a small dwelling, a store house, even a signal box for some long-abandoned railway - and years of decay have further obscured its purpose. Miller has recreated it twice over, too. First, in Room 1, then again, as a perfect mirror image, in Room 3, an act that, in creating an imagined twin, simultaneously completes the building and raises further questions about its nature, heightened by the addition of mirrors to its frame.

Between these two halves sits another structure, titled Station, again of unknown purpose. Built from the memory of a fleeting encounter, this time in the lane behind Miller's studio, the object might be a desk, or a fixture from a hairdresser's salon, or something that could be put to more sinister ends. Miller also reminds us that he is a sculptor - the Station bears more mirrors, is lacquered in deep black, unlike the original object, and is awkwardly propped up on concrete block.

Outside the gallery, in a Secret Garden boxed in with high hedges, sits another reconstruction, Frame. It is the skeleton of a municipal playground swing, carefully aged with painted streaks of rust.

This last piece is, perhaps, the key to understanding Miller's work. It is immediately evocative, a musing on time and place, but also undeniably sculptural, a formal piece with nods to Modernism.

Miller is not turning the real into art, or revealing the beauty in overlooked objects, he is questioning the nature of reality and of art, dissolving the distinction between the two and, with his careful alterations - the mirrors on Mirrored Pavilion, the lacquer on Station - turning acts of remembering, his and ours, into a series of aesthetic choices.

This review was first published in The Herald on February 23rd, 2007.

A human take on nature's wonders

Two shows opened at Aberdeen Art Gallery last night, and both are concerned with the natural world and our relationship to it.

First come Dalziel + Scullion, with a long, engrossing video work, Some Distance From The Sun, that traces the evolution of plant life over the millennia, from the primitive seaweeds to complex flowers. Botanical samples float across the screen against a stark white background, shot in close up, so that any sense of scale slips away, turning the tiniest lichens into a forest of trees. The soundtrack, by Glasgow musician Mark Vernon, gurgles, burbles and hums, an attempt to recreate the sounds of growth, of life itself.

Movement is key here. The slowly panning camera suggests both inexorable evolutionary progression and the physical movement of plants, as fern fronds unfurl and seed pods pop. It's a simple piece, but one that it is easy to become lost in, absorbed by this careful presentation of natural forms, which Dalziel + Scullion have not only documented, but transformed, allowing the plants to tell the story of their own development.

In the next room is Unknown Pines, a suite of six prints, showing, in hyper-real detail, a short section of tree trunk. They are, technically, superb images - every last knot and crack stands out, a weeping ooze of sap glistens and the tiniest crenellation on a scrap of surface bark demands attention.

There is, if not quite a polemical edge to these works, then a political one. Dalziel + Scullion are explicitly attempting to alter the way their audience engages with the natural world.

Each of the pines is labelled with its common name and its Latin classification, but in lavishing attention of their subjects, Dalziel + Scullion look past the colloquial naming, the hierarchical scientific ordering, the imposition of human ownership through naming, and focus on the trees themselves. In effect, these works are portraits, and Dalziel + Scullion are - though I suspect they might take issue with the word - humanising the pines.

At this point, though, the duo are hoist by their own petard. Their aim is to do away with the casual, dismissive human view of nature and replace it with a closer, more personal appreciation, but, in this near-fetishistic presentation of natural forms, the pair have replaced scientific objectification with objectification of another type. If human attitudes to nature are colonial, then Unknown Pines is a failed attempt to foster a post-colonial approach, ultimately casting the pines as noble savages - it is impossible, of course, to patronise a tree, but these works almost manage it.

In the second gallery, David Blyth, mounting his first, long-overdue solo show, also displays a fascination with nature and its processes. His Knockturne is a complex, multi-faceted installation - one that fizzes with symbolism, subtly suggesting possible interpretations, only to counter them thanks to a slippery internal logic.

That logic rests on a seemingly illogical fusion of themes - the life of cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova, and Blyth's stint working with a farmer during lambing season, a project that coincided with the birth of his first child. At the centre of the room is an ejector seat. It is being dragged along by 31 lambs, still-borns granted a new life of sorts, mounted and stuffed by Blyth. Corralling this flock is a fence bearing spinning wheels bound up with telephone cords, and, on washing lines woven from twigs, sheepskin Babygros - or spacesuits? - are hung out to dry.

Outsize balls of wool are peppered with needles, like organic Sputniks. On the wall, a silk parachute serves as the screen for a projected montage of footage from Tereshkova's flight, inter-cut with shots of a spinning wheel, a nod to the cosmonaut's unlikely career path, which began in a textile mill and ended in space.

Taken together, this is an almost overwhelming array of allusion and reference. Birth and rebirth are central, and there is a whiff of sympathetic magic, as if the installation is the apparatus for some arcane ritual to breathe life into the lambs and give Tereshkova a second chance to fly. But the temptation to read Blyth's work as religious, with space flight analogous to communion with the heavens, is tempered by a bathetic descent into the domestic and quotidian - it is a work about lives lived on the farm, in the mills and at home. There is, too, a harder, pseudo- scientific edge to the piece, in the matching of life cycles to cyclical orbits, and the fusion of high technology with low.

This confusion is Knockturne's great strength. Standing before it, one can never quite grasp the whole, nor can one resolve the connections between its disparate elements, but there remains a strong sense that resolution is possible, and that, given enough time, this is a work that will reveal itself.

This review was first published in The Herald on February 16th, 2007.

The work of Trenton Doyle Hancock is underpinned by a vast and complex mythology, Homeric in scope and Biblical in tone.

The Mounds are good. The Vegans, deformed through inbreeding, are evil. Except for St. Sesom, that is. The visionary mystic, inspired by dreams in technicolour, and his followers - a gang that includes the conjoined twins Baby Curt and Shy Jerry, Bow-Headed Lou and Betto Watchhow - have long been waging a campaign to convert their fellow Vegans into loving the Mounds, instead of murdering them, and eating the pink moundmeat that oozes from them raw, instead of converting it into tofu, as is their current practice. This change in diet will, St. Sesom says, allow the Vegans to find 'spectral happiness', correcting a mutation in their makeup that makes them see in black and white. But - wait! -all is not well in Sesom's camp, his merry band are riven with factional infighting, caused in part by the saint's inflated ego, and a terrorist group, Black Brain, are causing trouble. It is also worth noting that, at some point in the distant past, the Mounds came into being when an ape-man, Homerbactus, ejaculated into a field of flowers, and the Vegans are descendants of Homerbactus too, the fruits of an incestuous relationship between Brouthescam and Cromalyna, his children.

At least, I think that's what's going on. Hancock's tales are spun out in text daubed on the gallery wall, as well as paintings, drawings and sculpture; the narrative flowing between different media, the canonical version of the story impossible to glean without being fully immersed inside the installation.

'The narrative exists as a grid,' Hancock explains, 'I had been creating characters for several years, making portraits of characters - really self-portraits of different aspects of myself - and I had no real intention of turning it into a mythology. But after graduate school, I was looking for a voice. I had made all these characters that existed on their own, and I needed a way to tie them all together, I invented the narrative to develop a dialogue between these paintings, these characters, and, actually, between modes of operation - performance, sculpture, painting, drawing.'

This last point is key. For, though the tales of St. Sesom & Co. may appear to be, well, a wee bit silly, they are the glue that binds together a sophisticated, densely layered practice. At its heart is an alchemical mingling of languages, textual and visual. Hancock's writing does not describe his images, nor do his images illustrate his texts, instead, there is a fluid interplay between the two.

'It goes in both directions,' he says, 'with everything meeting up in the middle somewhere. I never know when I'm going to have to amend the story to fit something in from a painting, or whether there's going to be some sort of organic offshoot that is out of my directorial control. Sometimes I just have to follow.'

This admixture of the linguistic and visual is matched by a jackdaw approach to influences. A typical Hancock painting, if there is such a thing, draws on comic and fantasy art, borrows from Surrealism, Cubism, Modernism--pretty much every -ism you can think of, in fact--and matches scatological humour with high theory.

'I'm definitely very conscious of "the filter",' Hancock says, 'of how I bring in low art or comics, when I'm constantly thinking about the history of painting. I try make sense of it all, to make it all coexist.'

Looking at Hancock's installation, which fills both floors of the Fruitmarket to bursting point, it does not make sense according to the usual meaning of the term. The heavily worked canvases clash obsessive, meticulous detailing against broad brush strokes and clumsily applied felt and bottle tops, depicting tangles of bony arms, or hideous great globs peppered with gaping orifices, all shot through with queasy Pepto Bismol pink, the colour of moundmeat. The allusions are dizzying, too - here Dali struggles against Robert Crumb, there a patch of Cubist abstraction snuggles up against a child-like doodle.

But, hidden in this all-engulfing flood of images and ideas are hints of order. Hands point and pinch, fists are raised, daggers clasped, suggesting an underlying code. Words and phrases are repeated in the text scrawled across the gallery walls, swimming into sharp focus. Works play off each other, with shapes recurring and shifting across the paintings and drawings, underscoring the surface narrative with a sort of formally expressed unconscious.

Slowly but surely, it is possible to enter Hancock's world, to find darker subtleties in his apparently obvious allegory of tolerance, and to unearth the deep links between text and image.

So, is Hancock worried that his first solo show in Europe might overwhelm his audience? 'Well,' he says, deadpan, 'they will have to make several trips.'

This preview was first published in The Herald on February 9th, 2007.

Before causing a sensation at Sensation, the 1997 Royal Academy exhibition that showcased Charles Saatchi's collection of work by YBAs, Ron Mueck was a puppet-maker, his career including a long stint at Jim Henson's workshop, home of the Muppets.

Looking at A Girl, a vast sculpture of a newborn baby, traces of his past career remain. For all the meticulous attention to detail - every vein is delineated, wisps of hair are matted to the child's head - Mueck does not simply toy with scale, his realist work is touched with the unreal. This holds true of all his giants. There are cartoon-like exaggerated overbites, elongated limbs, enlarged heads and outsized hands everywhere. It is not always clear whether this is a function of enlarging the human form, a trick of the eye that needs to be countered by a sculptor to better represent reality, or a stylistic decision on Mueck's part. Either way, Mueck does not, as it first appears, simply play with scale; he plays with proportion, giving his figures slight symptoms of dwarfism and gigantism, as well as making them small or large.

In the contemporary tradition of realistic representation of the human form, this puts Mueck closer to the mutant, multi-limbed teens of Jake & Dinos Chapman than the late Duane Hanson's fastidious vignettes. And, while the brothers Chapman seek to shock and Hanson sought to present American everymen and women for examination, Mueck can at times appear to offer little to the viewer but an opportunity to admire his skill in recreating flesh in silicone and fibreglass. This is true of A Girl, and of Mask III, an outsize study of a woman's face. But when Mueck introduces a hint of narrative, the uncomfortable feeling that there is nothing to see but his technical mastery fades.

Wild Man rears back in fear, gripping the chair that supports his vast frame. He is, it seems, terrified by the judgement of the Lilliputian viewers that surround him, just as a gallery-goer would flee from one of Mueck's little people if it sat up and smiled (a possibility that does not seem all that far-fetched when faced with some of the pieces here). Ghost, too, invites us to furnish an object with a back-story. A lanky adolescent - identified as female by a wall-label but of indeterminate gender - leans against the wall, at two metres only just a giant. Wearing a swimming costume and a trace of a sneer or smirk, this gawky creature must, it seems, have been drowned by someone, someone about to be haunted. In Bed, the largest and most arresting sculpture on show, sees a woman with knees hunched beneath her duvet, one hand resting lightly against her face, her gaze watery, and fixed in the middle distance. And it is impossible not to look into those eyes, the body part Mueck always sculpts last, and momentarily feel a connection. This is some feat on Mueck's part - this deathly still, Brobdignagian construction does not only elicit an emotional response, it allows, again only momentarily, the illusion of communication. Uncanny stuff.


Photo by chdot

More uncanny still are the miniatures. Spooning Couple, a half-dressed pair beside each other but barely touching, draws out an involuntary shudder. The male figure is so fully realised that it is difficult to inspect him - one tends to inspect, rather than simply look at Mueck's work - and his partner. Man in a Boat is slower to reveal itself. The man in question, cast adrift, looks quizzically into the distance, interested in his fate, but not overly concerned by it. Though this work is a rare piece of overt symbolism for Mueck, the little existentialist's mood is infectious, leaving little room for consideration of that which his plight represents.

And this is where Mueck's work becomes problematic. On the one hand, Mueck blinds us with his skill. Awe is the only appropriate response to these sculptures - which they are, Mueck does not take casts from real people, unlike Hanson - with their individually drilled pores, sewn hairs and glued eyelashes. On the other hand, he uses his skill to extract an emotional response. However, the latter is a fleeting feeling, and the former is a hollow one. They are powerful reactions, for sure, but they do not last: an hour after seeing one of Mueck's half-real, half-fantastic creatures, one is left only with the sense of having been duped. This might, of course, be seen as a strength rather than a weakness. These are sculptures that must be experienced, not seen reproduced in print, on the simple level of their distorted scale, and on the complex level of the response they call forth. That they fade so quickly from the mind does, though, speak of an emptiness at the heart of Mueck's practice.

This review was first published in The Herald in August, 2006.

Jamie Shovlin is as much an archivist as he is an artist. The show that brought his work to widespread attention was an exhibit of drawings by a teenager, Naomi V. Jelish, presented alongside mementoes and newspaper cuttings detailing the mysterious disappearance of the girl and her family. The work that earned him a nomination for the Beck’s Futures award was a eulogy to the cult post-punk German group Lust/Faust, gathering fan letters, advertisements and excerpts of unreleased songs.

The fact that both Jelish and Lust/Faust are figments of Shovlin’s imagination has earned him a reputation as a hoaxer, but his meticulously crafted invented histories are not simply elaborate gags, they are meditations on objective and subjective truth, subtly investigating the way in which the collection, presentation and categorisation of information impacts on its status.

Aggregate, as the title hints, sees Shovlin turning his archivist’s eye on himself, gathering four independent but deeply linked sets of work together.

The first of the four, Origin of Species, consists of multiple copies of Darwin’s great work. Two museum-like vitrines dominate the dimly-lit lower gallery of the Talbot Rice in a temporal echo of sorts: when Darwin abandoned his medical studies at the University of Edinburgh, he turned to this room, then part of the institution’s Natural History Museum. In the first vitrine, four copies of On The Origin Of Species lie open, each annotated by past readers, one bearing a solicitor’s compliments slip as a bookmark. In the next, more editions of the book are laid out, ranging from battered 1970s paperbacks to dusty tomes from the turn of the last century. On the walls around the two cabinets, Shovlin has mounted pages from the books, each brutally edited, so that all that remains are passages readers have underlined, highlighted or annotated, the rest redacted with a black marker. This new version of On The Origin Of Species is written by readers. Some are skeptical - a note reads ‘evidence of the creator??’ - others approach the text with a narrow focus, underlining the names of particular organisms. In the simple act of hiding words, Shovlin reveals a set of questions about the nature of his chosen text, any text, and the space between facts and their interpretation.

The Birds In Her Garden is the first of two works inspired by Shovlin’s mother, who, we are told, spent much of her free time completing jigsaws while observing the natural aviary outside her window. This is another museological display, with a stuffed bird in its case, a bookshelf, and multiple ornithological drawings ringed with cuttings from bird-watching guides and handwritten notes. The drawings carry rather unscientific captions - here is Mr. Blackie The Blackbird, there is Evil Bastard The Magpie - but the cuttings are meticulously ordered, each cross-referenced with its source text on the shelf, which are in turn ordered, not by subject, author or date, but, arbitrarily, by size. Where Origin of Species is a dry look at the subjective interpretation of fact by laymen, The Birds In Her Garden cheekily elevates amateur botany to the status of Darwin’s investigations and again underlines the value of personal taxonomies.

Upstairs, after slides and video from Mrs. Shovlin’s back garden, comes a trio of works dubbed In Search Of Perfect Harmony. First, a dazzlingly complex diagram, which explains the concept of complimentary colours, matching 12 wax crayons into four coloured tetrads which each correspond to elements of the next work, three batches of rubbings taken from jigsaws. The perfect harmony in question is a uniform grey that, in theory, should result in the combinations of colour used to make each jigsaw frottage. This is an obsessional, failed attempt to bring order to the chaos of an unfinished jigsaw, and, frankly, a jaw-droppingly pointless exercise, applying the rigours of the scientific method to an absurd experiment. Then, in a small photographic portrait, we see what at first appears to be Shovlin’s moving tribute to his mother, the woman who, through her twin hobbies, inspired his love of categorisation and ordering.

But - hang on a minute - this is Jamie Shovlin, arch fibber, and teller of exquisite lies. Is this woman the artist’s mother, or no more real than his anagrammatic avatar, Naomi V. Jelish, and Lust/Faust, the band so hip they never existed? This is the question around which Aggregate revolves, and ultimately, Shovlin’s point seems to be that the answer is as irrelevant or relevant as Darwin’s readers’ reduction of the text before them to a series of subjectively chosen gobbets. Facts are judged not by their truth or falsity, but by the way in which they are presented, and the manner in which they are categorised.

After this, Landrangers forms a fitting coda. The work is collection of maps, each with a detailed catalogue card, accompanied by a map of maps, dividing the British Isles into the arbitrary squares chosen by cartographers. It is a simple representation of a set of categories, but one that elicits a personal response, to the euphony of place names and the memories they inspire. On my visit, a retired couple stood before the Landrangers on the wall, and, like Darwin’s readers and Shovlin’s mother, reordered the collection, according to past holidays and country walks.

This review was first published in The Herald on February 2nd, 2007.