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

December 2007 Archives

Carol Rhodes at SNGOMA

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The first thing you notice about Carol Rhodes’ work is not what she paints, but where she paints from. The overwhelming majority of pieces in this show, a career survey that gathers together paintings from the past 15 years of Rhodes’ practice, are painted from an impossibly vertiginous veiwpoint. There are few horizon lines to be found in these landscapes, and they are almost always presented from an awkwardly steep angle, prompting a queasy, dizzying sensation close to vertigo or air-sickness.

And then there’s Rhodes’ taste for the mundane. The world that she creates, combining elements from aerial photographs to craft realistic, but never quite real scenes, is free of glorious natural formations, glamorous urban architecture or the twee pleasures of a rural village. Instead, Rhodes turns her eyes toward the unprepossesing margins, the factories and outbuildings and minor airports that populate those unnamed spaces beyond the suburbs, the not-quite-countryside places where buildings rise up as and when they are needed, with little planning and no high-falutin’ architects bent on making a statement.

This combination of a helicopter’s eye view and dull architecture and infrastructure has one immediate effect: it is impossible to stand before one of Rhodes’ small paintings without seeking to populate them. Who works in this factory? Who lives on that barren moor? Who on earth would spend an idle afternoon at this picnic area? And, most of all, why are they being watched, silently, from above?

Rhodes is careful not to provide any answers. A human figure never appears to offer a clue to the purpose of a given structure or environment, and works carry the lightest of titles, simply identifying a key element, or two, of the composition, a trick that only serves to heighten the viewer’s curiosity before shrugging it off. It might, in fact, be wise to ignore the temptation to pad out Rhodes’ paintings with an invented backstory. There are hints, certainly, that something is not quite right in these places, and that we might not like the answers to the questions these works quietly insist that we ask.

Not everything is uncanny in Rhodes’ world. There is something pleasingly non-committal in her brushwork, particularly in those expanses of emptiness that are a constant in her work, as if none of these paintings will ever be truly finished, just as the scenes surveyed are haphazard, higgeldy-piggeldy, unplanned and incomplete. These marks are not careless - Rhodes is a distinctly deliberate painter, one who produces just a few works each year - and serve to emphasise that these are paintings, a quiet reminder that viewers should not get too caught up in the unusual viewpoint and the scenes shown, but keep a close eye on the skew-whiff compositions, flat and muted palette and carefully marked surfaces that Rhodes lays out before them. There is also something almost tender about the way Rhodes puts down paint, as if she has found herself growing deeply fond of the rather unlovely places she amalgamates, not going so far as to celebrate the scenes surveyed, but according them a level of respect, and passing that respect on to the viewer.

This show will not, I imagine, have viewers flocking to the edges of cities and featureless moors, filled with a newfound affection for drinking in landscapes that inspire not awe but uneasy boredom. It does, though, offer a challenge to preconceived notions about the places we pass by or through with blinkers on. It might be a bit of a stretch to dub Rhodes the Ballard of the brownfield site, but just as that writer thrills to the ultramodernity of motorways and the sexual possibilities of multi-story car parks, so this painter offers a curiously warm reappraisal of urban outskirts and unedifying edifices, for all that she seems keen to point out and heighten the essential oddness and discomfort to be found in such non-places.

The most satisfying aspect of what is, arguably, an overdue survey of one of Scotland’s best painters, is the realisation that Rhodes’ practice, though it is tightly focussed and returns again and again to the same themes and concerns, is broad and deep, with much more to offer than one might expect from a painter who has settled so firmly on a style and subject. There is, too, a sense that that Rhodes might just be on the cusp of something new. The latest works on show see her falling to the earth, so to speak, and preparing to hit the ground running, exchanging the high altitude overviews for a much closer look. Perhaps, in some future exhibition, covering the next fifteen years, we will find Rhodes stepping inside the structures she has thus far examined on high, revealing some of their mysteries, or, better yet, providing more unsettling ambiguities. An unlikely prospect, maybe, but a tempting one.

This review was first published in The Herald on December 28th, 2007.

Scotland And Venice

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Scotland And Venice 2007 is a rather bland title for this, the homecoming show of the six artists chosen to represent Scotland at the Venice Biennale, hiding the fact that it’s a tightly-curated group show that links fantastic and oblique looks at the world with meticulous processes.

The show opens with Lucy Skaer’s The Big Wave, a three-panel reworking in pencil and marker pen of Hokusai’s The Great Wave that distorts the original’s scale (Skaer’s big version is huge compared to Hokusai’s great work) and obliterates detail, the finicky curls of the source painting rendered in repeated sworls trapped inside grids of varying sizes. Using the same method, Leonora depicts a partial whale skeleton, this time taken from a small photograph - again, Skaer is playing with scale, converting miniature depictions to a size closer to the truth. Between the drawings, there’s an oak table which Skaer has inlaid with mother-of-pearl, set out in indistinct, blobby shapes. There’s nothing final about Skaer’s work: the large drawings are literally unfinished, edged with grids waiting to be filled, but more than that, this is an artist who takes points from the past, already recorded - Hisoku’s painting, the found table - and intervenes, dragging them into her present.

Rosalind Nashashibi shares Skaer’s investigative outlook, but her focus is on social groups, the rituals that bind them and contexts which define them. In a new film work, Bachelor Machines Part 1, the crew of an Italian cargo ship are under study. Long, lingering shots of the vessel, in contrast with the brief bursts of human action, hint that Nashashibi means to cast this ship as her protagonist, showing that the men on board are commanded by their ocean-going home as much as they are by their captain. No real conclusions are drawn, though, with Nashashibi preferring to hint. This strategy works well on film, but the diptychs and triptychs of photographs shown alongside Bachelor Machines suffer for it. Gumbi, Passolini, Cicciolina matches an African secret society with Passolini’s Oedipus Rex and a news clipping about La Cicciolina, ex-wife of artist Jeff Koons, one-time porn actress and politician. Intended as ‘visual poems’, I suspect that Nashashibi herself is the only person who can read them.

Charles Avery presents work from his Islanders series, about a fictional land with its own indigenous people, the If’en, and a complex mythology, including a vast array of gods. The August Snakes have long beards, like Chinese villains in silent films, while another god, Dha is shaped like the number two, shown in a drawing providing support for smooching lovers, and again in monumental form. Avery’s drawings of his islanders are glorious, matching wild imagination with impeccable draughtsmanship, showing the If’en philosophising in their local pub and at a crowded marketplace, where they hawk pickled eggs and pornography. It might sound a bit silly on paper, but there’s something about Avery’s apparent, though probably feigned, conviction that makes it easy to take this invented world very seriously.

Henry Coombes shares Avery’s humour, presenting a series of rather charming small paintings and collage works that, on closer inspection, are distinctly disturbing meditations on sexuality and class politics, full of impossible creatures and drawing heavily on the work of Landseer. The centrepiece of his installation is a truly remarkable short film, in which a submissive human-stag hybrid is gutted by a gamekeeper, its entrails exposed to feed an eagle.

Tony Swain is another maker of worlds. Working on newspaper, Swain allows his medium to suggest images, which he supplements with more collaged clippings. The results are impossibly dense, and rebuff any attempts to make sense of them, and this makes them hugely appealing, as the eye is led on a wild chase around each web of images. You can see where Swain is coming from, even if it’s hard to say where he ends up. This is work that takes on Dada and Surrealism, and undertakes an ambiguous inquiry of Modernist practice, which would be an awfully dry business if Swain’s unfettered approach didn’t reap such rich results, compelling and confounding in equal measure.

In amongst all this, Louise Hopkins’ work is something of a let down. Hopkins, like Swain or Skaer, makes work that rests on extant materials, painting on patterned fabric and maps. Hopkins rarely strays too far from her sources, though, ending up with patterned fabric with its pattern painted on top, or distinctly mappish map works, and there is not enough in the process to make up for this empty prettiness.

Hopkins does, though, fit in neatly with her peers, in what is a surprisingly neat show. Curator Philip Long has gathered together six very different artists linked both by strong themes - the recurrance of imagined worlds, or attempts to make sense of the one we have - and artistic tactics, in particular the use and reuse of extant material, from the day’s paper to Japanese art. This is more than a survey of current practice in Scotland, then, it’s a true group show, one that sheds new light on the work of the selected artists.

This review was first published in The Herald on December 21st, 2007.

Jerwood Drawing Prize 2007

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You never quite know what to expect from the Jerwood Drawing Prize show. One year, the changing committee of judges will stick hard and fast to artists who make drawings in the usual sense - marks on paper, that sort of thing - the next year, the show will be overwhelmed with work that, however far you widen the definition of the drawn, falls into other categories, from sculpture to new media and all points in-between.

This time, the selection panel, faced with the unenviable task of whittling down nigh on 3,000 anonymously submitted entries into the shortlist of eighty-seven pieces that make up this show, have managed to strike a balance between the two extremes, including artists that push hard at the boundaries of the form, and work that lies firmly within the drawing tradition. The judges - Paul Bonaventura of the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art, art historian Catherine de Zegher and artist Avis Newman - have also quietly teased out themes in contemporary drawing practice, placing like artists with like, with the result that the exhibit takes on the feel of a conversation about the state of drawing today between the artists who practice it.

The first striking piece on show comes from two artists who have put down their pencils and picked up a computer, Sean O’Keefe and Steve Bullock. How to Draw a Cowboy, is a pseudo-scientific, vaguely retro digital display that sees points, labelled ‘gun’ or ‘spur’ track, leaving coloured trails, until the just-recognisable cowboy dissolves away. It’s a game attempt to draw the passage of time. The best of the animators took prizes. Student Prize-winner Daisy Richardson’s Sublime Climes is a delightfully amateurish stop-motion collage, that transforms images torn from magazines into a concise geological history of an imagined world. Melanie Jackson’s A Global Positioning System, which won First Prize, has a similar ecologically-aware edge. It opens with a man ordering a GPS unit from a down-market gadget mag, then tracks the product from assembly line to delivery by courier. Wittily political, and rendered in a light, naive cartoon style, Jackson’s piece is good, but visitors could be forgiven for raising an eyebrow at a digital animation scooping the top honours.

Still within the fold of drawing, but adopting innovative approaches, are the artists who have turned to new processes. Second Prize-winner Brighid Lowe has filled a large sheet of paper with dense horizontal lines for Rain Drawing (1) before, as the title suggests, letting a downpour finish her piece with damp dots and spots. Tim Knowles made his Tree Drawing by affixing a pen to the branch of Scots Pine, abdicating artistic responsibility to the wind, which made a series of finicky marks.

There seems, too, to be something of a fad for infographics. Sophie Horton’s Studio Environment is an embroidered chart, with coloured threads tracking the noises the artist heard in her studio, while Susie Parfitt crafts a complex, incomprehensible graph of decisions taken according to unnamed ‘policy options’. John Holden provides a minimal counterpoint, his Grid 2 a precise set of vertical lines and nodes, a soft suggestion of ordered information.

On the sculptural front, Luke Drodz has drilled through a Pelican Books paperback, Art In England, stuffing the off-cut discs into a frame beside the desecrated text. More subtly, Mitsuko Hoshino’s Air (Lotus Pond) has leaves sketched on folded paper, simulating ripples in water.

Last but not least: the drawings. Minho Kwon stands out with My Brand New Camera Phone, in which a giant cherub enclosed in a neoclassical aircraft topped with coffee-cup chimneys prods at sprites buffeted by smoke from an oil well fire, and the Student Prize-winning Koreas_Mansoodea Shopping Centre, a strange hint of the Korean peninsula unified by commerce, brand names plastered over the architectural plans for the South side of the mall, a Dear Leader dominating the North.

Her technical drawing style is matched by Patrick Gilmartin, whose pencil work on mylar seems to be the plans for a product of unknown purpose. Ross Jones’ Refuge, meanwhile, sees an encampment of tents set in a tundra of white paper, each one different to the next, making for a truly engrossing work. Tone Holmen provides another imagined world in Coastlines, with coastal features haphazardly overlaid to form an impossible fjord-filled geography. And then there’s Paul Westcombe. His display of used coffee cups, their exteriors covered completely in tiny murals, at first look like idle doodles, but lean closer, and you’re faced with a beautifully drawn, deeply perverse world in microcosm, full of fevered psycho-sexual imaginings, some that will shock even the most jaded gallery-goer.

There is some chaff in amongst all this wheat, sure, but overall, this is a valuable survey of current drawing practice, and a show that not only presents the best of contemporary drawing, but questions the nature of the art form.

This review was first published in The Herald on December 14th, 2007.

Anya Gallaccio

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For some artists a commission to craft Christmas lights might be taken as an opportunity to have a bit of fun, adding a dose of kitsch to their catalogue raisonné, or attempting an unsubtly subversive satire of the commercially-driven season.

Not so Anya Gallaccio. When the Paisley-born Turner Prize nominee was asked to provide festive lighting for The Hayward gallery, she took to the project like any other show or commission, coming up with an installation that fits in with her past practice, and rests on themes that have run through her work since she rose to fame in the late 90s alongside the Young British Artists launched at the now-infamous Freeze exhibition curated by Damien Hirst.

‘I did struggle,’ Gallaccio admits, ‘And it was quite hard to come up with something that took the same approach as I would for any project. The thing that took a long time to get over was the idea that Christmas lights are usually very graphic - a snowman, a star, a flower - and I didn’t want to make images like that. I ended up trying to think more about the process, about light itself and what you can do with it, and about colour.’

The result, a set of lights at the South Bank switched on last night by model-cum-author Sophie Dahl, consists of hundreds of coloured lightbulbs festooned on two sides of the Thames-side building.

‘I’ve made a big grid of green lights on the right hand side of the building,’ Gallaccio explains, ‘We hand-dipped about a thousand different light bulbs in different shades of green, using French enamel varnish, to make a sort of colour field. Then, on the other side of the building, there’s a smaller version made up of about 900 red bulbs.’

Aside from their Christmassy connotations, those colours are familiar from one of Gallaccio’s best known installations, Red on Green, which saw ten thousand rose heads laid out on a bed of their stalks, and left to slowly rot away. Lightbulbs do not, of course, decay, but Gallaccio has come up with novel way of incorporating her long-standing interest in transformations over time.

‘Each bulb in the piece has a computer chip,’ she says, ‘so that I can have each one to turn on and off when I want it to, and we’ve programmed the festoons of lights with Christmas carols and songs - Frosty The Snowman, White Christmas, that sort of thing - in Morse code. You can’t read the Morse code, but I needed a way of determining how the lights would come on and off without involving an image. If you think back to the roses, there were ten thousand flowers, all a similar red, but there was an optic effect down to the nature of the pigment in the blooms which changed as they aged. For this piece, I decided to hand-dip the bulbs in colours that range from yellowy-green to very dark shade, so there’s this slightly intuitive, organic element to it.’

Another key aspect of Gallaccio’s practice is her reluctance to show her hand, so to speak, preferring impermanent installations that are left to their own devices, from rotting flower heads to chocolate smeared on gallery walls or the vast block of ice she left to melt away in a disused Wapping pumping station. More recently, the artist has reclaimed the rather naff art of macramé, laboriously knotting great swathes of netting that are then hung and draped to undermined their rigid grid-like structure.

Again, Gallaccio’s festive lights have been made with her wider practice in mind, taking advantage of The Hayward’s plans for their annual lightshow. ‘The idea of the programme is that it will become an accumulative project,’ she says, ‘This year, they’re installing the lights David Batchelor made last year again, and next year there’ll be somebody else and my lights will go up again - after a while the building will end up looking like a family Christmas tree, with a great jumble of stuff built up over the years!’

‘So, I’ve left open lots of possibilities to do different things with the piece. Next year, the bulbs could be placed more closely together, which would make the colours more intense, or it could be hung in a completely different formation. I’m looking forward to seeing what different things those colours do in different places and on different scales around the South Bank in the coming years.’

Gallaccio’s contribution to London’s seasonal cityscape is not alone: over at Tate Britain, Fiona Banner has installed a 30-foot Nordic tree, and decorated it with models of the world’s fighter aircraft shorn of their national markings, ironically dubbing the tree Peace On Earth. With The Hayward’s commitment to future lighting projects, this looks like the start of a trend, one that other cities would do well to follow, tempering those gaudy municipal rigs with contributions from artists. There’s even an obvious slogan: ‘Tis the season to be arty.

This interview was first published in The Herald in December, 2007.