Work

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

May 2007 Archives

No Fixed Points is a curious exhibition.

First, John Cage and Merce Cunningham are not well known as visual artists, but as the preeminent composer and choreographer of their generation.

Second, this is not quite an exhibition in the usual sense, but a shifting series of shows, flowing from one dominated by Cage, to one dominated by Cunningham.

As the show progresses, Cage’s paintings will be replaced by Cunningham’s drawings, the timing and sequence of replacement determined by chance - Cunningham rolled dice in response to questions put to him by the staff of Inverleith House, with the numbers rolled corresponding to different works.

This is an eloquent curatorial gambit, one that effectively turns the exhibition into a work in and of itself, and, too, an essay on the closely linked practices of the two artists.

The show’s title is taken from Albert Einstein’s maxim that ‘there are no fixed points in space’, a phrase which inspired Cunningham to revolutionise his practice as a choreographer, first developing a number of dance phrases, then using tossed coins and cast dice to determine their ordering, the number of repetitions and the placement of dancers on the stage. The technique was refined over time in collaboration with Cage, whose own compositional methods rested on his adaptation of the I Ching, the hugely complex ancient Chinese text that seeks to find order in chance events, offering a set of predictions arranged in a matrix of sixty-four groupings of six horizontal lines, divined by casting sticks or tossing coins.

It is, too a problematic approach to displaying work. For one thing, Cunningham is no match for Cage as a visual artist - as he would no doubt admit - so that visitors in late June might find themselves disappointed. For another, the appealing conceptual underpinnings of the exhibit threaten to overwhelm the work it contains, forcing interpretations on works that might not stand elsewhere.

And what of that work? At the time of writing Cage is firmly to the fore, with just two pieces by Cunningham present in the galleries.

Like much of his music, the two sets of paintings by Cage on show were made according to chance outcomes guided by the I Ching applied to a set of predetermined choices - the colours, the composition, the brushes used. Further removing himself as an artist from the act of creation, Cage also prepared his paper with smoke, and used river rocks as a guide for his brushes. The results, while recognisably variations on a theme, are not the cold, automated, repetitive paintings one might expect. River Rocks and Smoke No. 13 is adorned with just two shapes, a yellow square-ish form and a dull brown half circle, placed low, almost apologetically, on the paper. New River Watercolour Series I, No. 3 sees a great horizontal swathe of purple reminiscent of a stave, which looks to have been applied with a housepainters brush barely troubled with paint, overlayed with a confusion of dull red circles. A trio of paintings from New River Watercolour, Series III - perhaps the best works on show - share a vertiginous downward plummet of dry strokes interrupted by circular forms, in one dead centre, in two escaping at the papers’ edge. To borrow from the etymology of the characters than form the I Ching’s title, these are works that balance simplicity, variability and persistency. They are, too, inherently musical, both visually reminiscent of a graphic score and taut with an internal rhythm.

Cunningham’s main contribution at this point in the show’s ebb and flow is Blue Studio: Five Segments. At points, it underlines the relationship between painting composer and drawing choreographer - in one segment, Cunningham dances a duet with his own outline, in another he performs against a blue screen which slowly fills with shifting white noise, a match for the horizontal washes in Cage’s watercolours, in a third, a set of precise hand gestures call to mind a conductor coralling his orchestra.

The single Cunningham drawing present on the day of my visit, Tiger, 5/3/97, is a vibrant little thing - the titular animal has a thick leering tongue and winking eyes, its fur and whiskers a flurry of scratchy marks. And, once again, it is impossible to avoid seeking out traces of the artist’s primary practice in his drawings, seeing in those hasty marks traces of Cunningham’s choreography, of the flickering fingers glimpsed in Blue Studio.

This, then, is a show that is greater than the sum of its parts, one that, arguably, works better as a conceptual piece in its own right than as an exhibition of works. It is too, at the risk of sounding sentimental, a moving experience - Cage and Cunningham’s long creative association and long partnership continues here, even after the former’s death in 1992. In the end, No Fixed Points is an intriguing glimpse at the parallel artistic endeavours of two great artists in other media, and a tribute to the pair’s wider, interlocking practice.

This review was first published in The Herald on May 25th, 2007.

Talbot Rice Gallery used to be a stuffy space, oddly claustrophobic despite its size, with grey Edinburgh skies always looming over the works on show from skylights above. Now, thanks to a wall of restored windows, the lower galleries are flooded with light, which, fittingly, is the main ingredient of David Batchelor’s work.

Best known for his softly glowing illuminated sculptures, for this set of new pieces Batchelor has, borrowing a title from MTV’s series of acoustic gigs, unplugged his work, trading artificial light for artificial colour. First come the Parapillars, great higgeldy-piggeldy totem poles made of goods purchased at pound shops in London, Glasgow and Edinburgh. Arranged around Meccano-like metal structures, each of these heady sculptures has its own focus: one consists of pliers and screwdrivers in manly orange and black, another is all combs and mirrors in eye-searing neon hues, yet another piles up children’s toys and knick-knacks. The overall effect is overwhelming, like a bad dream in Blackpool, and darkly comic too, as Batchelor holds up his tacky and cheap finds for respectful examination.

There is, of course, nothing new about elevating the status of everyday objets trouvĂ© by shifting their context away from the high street and into the gallery, and the prints and drawings that line the walls of Talbot Rice’s mezzanine show that Batchelor might well have used other objects to craft his towers: he is interested in their status, for sure, but he is far more interested in their colour. Where you might expect lists and diagrams, Batchelor’s preparatory drawings and installation guides for this and past exhibitions (some date back a decade) are pure, celebratory bursts of sprayed paint on graph paper, sometimes connected with scraps of gaffer tape, as if the artist is engaged in an ongoing set of tests, half methodical, half maniacal, matching one colour with another just for the pleasure of seeing them together.

Finally, as a sort of coda, the small rotunda gallery is given over to Anatomy Lesson (Part 1). Based on a discarded stuffed toy, this disembodied dog’s head is covered in sparkling gold sequins, and, suspended from the ceiling by its right ear, spins slowly, inexorably, its sad cartoon eyes casting a resigned, accepting glance over the gallery walls. There is something terribly gloomy about this gilded piece of tat. It calls to mind the endless optimism of a disco glitter ball, but denies it, too - no one in their right mind would want to dance in a nightclub under the gaze of a dead dog in shiny drag. And so, being much more explicit than Batchelor’s other sculptural works, this anatomy lesson forces us to think again about the happy towers of colour downstairs, lending the Parapillars a grim, gloomy and obsessional cast, which sits uncomfortably with their apparent celebration of the pound shop aesthetic. And that seems to be the key to understanding Batchelor’s work, which rests on a series of contrasting dualities, pitting the serious and pseudo-scientific against the unthinking joy to be found in experiencing colour for its own sake.

This review was first published in The Herald in August, 2007.

William Eggleston earned the epithet ‘the father of colour photography’ thanks to his groundbreaking 1976 show at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. It dragged colour photography away from the commercial and advertising worlds and into the gallery, and Eggleston did more than any photographer before him to excise any doubts about the format’s status in a fine art context.

Three decades on, such doubts seem rather absurd, but it only takes a few moments in the company of his images to understand why they had such an impact.

Step into the light-filled galleries at Inverlieth House, and these never-before-seen prints offer an immediate, sometimes shocking blast of pure colour - the hot, flat blue skies of Eggleston’s native Southern States, and the lurid palette of mid-70s fashion - and a wealth of subtler tones, especially of his subjects’ skin, from sallow off-whites to deep browns.

Step closer, and there’s another shock to be found in quality of the prints, and in Eggleston’s skill with the camera. Every pore on a face is visible, as is every strand of hair on a head, and, thanks in part to subtle tricks with depth of focus, some portraits give a distinctly three-dimensional impression - the image of young black woman in a purple dress, for example, seems about to rise up from the blurred backdrop behind her.

This takes some getting used to. At first, the temptation is to examine every detail, to wonder at the mysteries of technique. But, before long, it becomes clear that Eggleston’s work is profoundly human, above all about everyday people and the places they inhabit.

Once the barrier put in place by the quality of the photographs has been overcome, it is impossible to avoid conjuring up a romantic back-story for Eggleston’s subjects. The faded beauty gazing off into the distance has surely loved and lost, the Johnny Cash-a-like with dandruff in his quiff might well have shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die, and the piggy-eyed president of the Tex Ritter fan-club must be the product of a union between first cousins.

It is more tempting still to wonder about the precise, decisive moment at which Eggleston released the shutter. Thanks to the unwieldy nature of his bulky 5 x 7 camera, a type more usually confined to the photographic studio, Eggleston did not have the luxury of firing off shot after shot to capture these perfect portraits: more often than not his images are the result of a single exposure. And so the half-smile that plays across the face of the girl with too much make-up on, or the defiant stare of the kid, proudly cradling a transistor radio must have been, at least in part, Eggleston’s doing, making these works both portraits and records of a relationship, however brief.

In the end, while this exhibit might lack the blockbusting appeal of Warhol at the National Galleries, or the exhaustive survey of Picasso at the Dean Gallery, it stands alongside those shows as the best the Edinburgh Art Festival has to offer.

This review was first published in The Herald in August, 2007.

Black Marks is Alex Pollard’s first major outing in Scotland since he represented Scotland at the 2005 Venice Biennale. Then, Pollard’s work focussed firmly on his own practice and on the making of art in general, with explicit references to art-historical movements. In Wall Drawing, he crafted hands from rulers which made marks on the gallery wall, occasionally erasing their mistakes. For Figures, he borrowed from Futurist collage and painting, sculpting fighting figures from perfect copies of Staedtler pencils. His Beasts were dinosaurs with more rulers for limbs, presented on parodies of museum display tables.

At first glance, Pollard’s new work at Talbot Rice looks to be an about face, with its references to clowns and clowning, the Pierrot clown of the Commedia dell’Arte, David Bowie’s early ’80s adoption of that costume, and the New Romantic movement’s intergendered poses. As the exhibition reveals itself, though, it seems that Pollard, while he has looked beyond the studio for inspiration, is up to his old tricks.

Nightscape is an obvious reprise of Wall Drawing, but where his earlier piece saw art making itself, Pollard now has the gallery putting its face on, ready for a night on the town. Eyebrow pencils are elongated, undulating across the walls like eyebrows, culminating in mucky smudges. Black lipsticks are studded about the walls, as are convex make-up mirrors which lend visitors leaning in for a closer look a reflected touch of glamour. And, just as a mask of make-up is wiped away after a night on the town or on the stage, so Nightscape will be painted over at the exhibition’s close.

Those mirrors also provide a preview in miniature of Clown Medallions, a set of metre-wide commemorative bronzes that feature the faces of clowns, some happy, some sad. The monumental heft of these sculptures is undermined by their scrappy, unfinished surfaces - the clowns look to have been cast from hasty attempts to form faces from squishy globs of broken lipstick, their expressions impossible to read.

Next, a series of portraits titled Romos Getting Ready sees shattered pencils stuck to grubby boards, ephemeral studies of temporary identities made from both the tools of Pollard’s trade, and the Romo’s too.

The New Romantics are a good match for Pollard’s practice, which always mingles winking humour with rigourous examination. With hindsight they may appear as daft as the bricklayers in drag of Glam Rock, but the movement’s underground beginnings were genuinely transgressive, inspired by politicised ‘genderfuck’ drag acts and reacting against the decidedly masculine aggression of late punk by putting on a show. The nightclubs namechecked in Neil Mulholland’s introduction to the exhibition - St. Moritz, Le Kilt, Le Beetroot - are, too, a reminder that the first New Romantics were a distinctly self-aware, silly-serious bunch, eager to undermine their apparently po-faced theatricality. Bowie’s clowning on the cover of Ashes to Ashes is another perfect fit for Pollard’s looping game of reference and counter-reference: he borrowed his look from the New Romantics, who had borrowed their look from him.

In the upstairs gallery, Pollard brings on the clowns again with a set of dim, monochrome paintings, a series of fades to grey. Clown is a Pierrot’s body with a thick pencil for a head, Profile is a Medusa-like figure, its snaking hair made up of distorted, twisting pencils, its body the jumbled contents of a make-up bag.

At this point, it becomes clear that Pollard’s new set of influences rest on an interest in transformation, with the transformation of a face with make-up allied to the transformation of materials into works of art. The metamorphosing, half-finished figures in Pollard’s paintings also point to his interest in artifice - he doesn’t just use artist’s materials in his work, he crafts immaculate copies of artist’s materials - and his incessant questioning of the status of objects, an implicit challenge to the viewer still uncomfortable with Duchamp’s legacy. The clown is also an ambiguous figure, entertaining and inspiring fear in equal measure, thanks to the grinning or maudlin mask that makes it impossible to guage true emotion. In looking to the clown, Pollard sheds light on his own insistence on making ambiguous work with his eyebrow permanently raised, hinting that the wit inherent in his sculptures, paintings and drawings is intended to reinforce, not undermine his investigations into his own practice.

Black Marks is a subtle, multi-layered body of work, then. It might lack the immediacy and instant gratification of Pollard’s previous work, but this is no bad thing - by stepping out of his studio and into the nightclubs of the 1980s, the circus and the theatre, he has made a body of work that is richer, more contemplative and, ultimately, more rewarding.

This review was first published in The Herald on 11th May, 2007.

Airworld

· ·

Airworld opens with a lengthy quote from Andy Warhol extolling the virtues of air travel, from the food service to the security checks, which ends by identifying the key theme of the exhibition. ‘Airplanes and airports have,’ Warhol says, ‘the best optimism.’

This almost giddy, gleeful aspect to the design of aircraft, airports and the ephemera of flying is apparent from the industry’s birth.

Sometimes, this optimism is utopian in scope - in 1925, Henri Defrasse, seeking a solution to the limited range of contemporary boat planes, dreamt up his Ile Flottant, a mid-Atlantic oasis of calm, part fuelling station, part resort. Taking a different tack, the mock-ups for Colani’s Megalodon ‘plane promise the democratisation of intercontinental travel in a style that is half sci-fi, half Soviet. At other times, it is the sort of fingers-crossed optimism that superstitious flyers turn to at the moment of take-off, as seen in the earliest designs for aircraft seating, woven wicker affairs that turn potentially perilous flight into an outdoorsy diversion before lunch at the country house.

Indeed, for all its sleek futurism, aviation design seems rooted in reassurance, taking forms that either distract the passenger or coddle him.

Joe Colombo’s tableware designs from the early 1970s are revealing. A porcelain set for the 1st class cabin makes no concessions to its environment, beside a vaguely modern aspect, yet his designs for second class are innovative stackable trays in which components interlock - besides the economic factors behind these twin designs, the first uses familiar materials and forms to suggest normality, the second are almost ostentatiously ‘designed’ in order to hint at rigourous efficiency. Fast-forward to the imminent future, and the concept model for the Skysleeper Solo, a seat intended for first class flyers on Japan Airlines is a double-wide parody of comfort, complete with an instrument panel to select entertainment options more complex than the pilot’s console in a DC-10 - more than luxurious excess, this is an attempt to place control in the hands of the passenger.

These two optimisms also filter down to promotional materials, and show a shift over time. Early posters focus on the aircraft, to an almost military degree: in one advertisment for BEA, a stylised ‘plane is shown banking sharply, as if lining up to strafe an enemy airfield. By the launch of Boeing’s 747, the focus has shifted to the interior, with passengers shown, as they are today, deep in relaxation, or working uninterrupted. Early ticket’s and boarding passes are indistinguishable from those issued for travel on land or see, but before long airline Braniff International is presenting passengers with colour coordinated cards with stark typography under the slogan ‘The end of the plain plane’, exchanging an image of stolid safety for one of forward-looking glamour. At the same time, branded matchbooks and a packet of cigarettes bearing the BEA logo show the give and take between the need for an illusion of invulnerability and passenger protection.

The uniforms of airline staff are more revealing still. The earliest designs for stewardesses uniforms are starched and soldierly, before morphing, in accordance with mid-century stereotypes, into glamorous, mini-skirted, almost fetishistic designerwear, only to return to a sober, practical and professional look by the 1980s. Again, this is design led by a need to distract or reassure.

On the architectural front there is a slightly different divide. A display of maquettes pitches Foster & Partners work on London Stanstead against Eero Saarinen’s TWA Terminal at JFK. The former is simply functional, the latter an architectural statement that gives no clue to its function, seemingly designed as a vast advertisement to be viewed from above.

This is an often fascinating tour through a specific design history, then, but it’s also hard work. Sure, there are witty touches to the exhibit - some displays feature viewing platforms modelled after aeroplane staircases - and, thankfully, no information is hidden away inside the interactive touch-screen kiosks that mar many a design show. But Airworld errs in the other direction, opting for a cool, dry, museum-like presentation that seems unlikely to engage anyone without a keen interest in design. There are omissions too. Little mention is made of the boom in cut-price air travel and its impact on design - the enforced jollity of Easyjet’s day-glo orange livery, say - and nothing on the environmental impact of that boom, a problem which must in part be solved by improved aircraft design. The wall texts fall short too, sometimes foregrounding the social role of design, sometimes drifting too far into technicalities, and too often presenting objects without much in the way of context. In other words, Airworld falls between two stools, failing the design fan with its overly ambitious attempt to cover every aspect of aviation design, and failing the novice by assuming existing knowledge.

This review was first published in The Herald on May 4th, 2007.