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

January 2008 Archives

In the early days of the Modern Institute, the gallery was often accused of favouring a certain aesthetic or style. It wasn’t true - sure, some of the Institute’s fellows had in common a liking for tropes borrowed from Modernist design - but the real ties between represented artists were, and are, less clear, centering on a shared tendency towards a rather rigorous, distinctly serious mode of practice, with elements, be they art-historical references or specific techniques, examined and revised, methodically turned over and held up to the light.

Spencer Sweeney doesn’t fit that Modern Institute mould. For one thing, it’s nigh on impossible to get a handle on his practice, which takes in your usual art stuff, like painting and sculpture, but has also seen the artist dabble in rock ‘n’ roll, with his band Actress, release dance music under the punning alias Housing Projects and run a Manhattan nightclub called, wonderfully, Santa’s Party House, attempting to tie the whole lot together under the self-publicising, self-conscious persona of a self-proclaimed enfant terrible. (He’s not the first to do this, of course: the spirit of the late Martin Kippenberger, and his hugely influential scattershot approach to artistic reinvention, haunts Sweeney’s modus operandi.)

And then there’s the art stuff gathered in the Modern Institute’s main gallery space, a set of untitled paintings and a single sculpture that have a basis as broad as Sweeney’s polymath approach to art-making. They’re a riot, to boot. A matched pair hanging on the rear wall are thick with paint, strips of masking tape and plastic costume jewels, with snatches of barely-legible text further obscured by great swathes of colour, both Day-Glo and dismal. And, just when you think Sweeney is attacking his canvases with unfettered abandon, finicky little details swim into focus; a paint dribble resolves into a pair of reaching hands, the sticker from an organic apple is carefully affixed to a surface, great care is taken to delineate one letter in a roughly-sketched word. Elsewhere, a deftly-rendered figurative work is obliterated by fields of flat black, leaving only a glimpse of stockinged feet, and geometric colour blocks on a monochrome ground are ruined by gestural scribbles in queasy deep purple.

All these faked palimpsests suggest an ongoing, unending and anarchic bid to invoke the graffiti-drenched walls of some unsavoury pre-Guilliani New York alleyway - Sweeney wouldn’t mind terribly if a city centre scally snuck into the gallery and added his own tag to one of these canvases, I imagine - and a one-man attempt to match the invention of multiple authors working in unplanned, unthinking collaboration, covering and recovering surfaces with temporary art for its own sake.

In the midst of all this frenetic activity sits a relatively pristine sculptural work, a vast ornate white teacup bearing crudely rendered traces of lipstick on its hexagonal rim. Rising from the surface of the black solid that fills it is a perfect pyramid, also jet black. Unlike the paintings, it seems complete. Painted lipstick aside, Sweeney has, for once, resisted the urge to muddy the waters, presenting a complete, finished object that rests rather smugly, looking down, it seems, on the surrounding chaos.

What is this incongruous piece doing here? The answer lies next door in the gallery’s second space, home to a set of twenty-five drawings, all made during Sweeney’s three-day visit to Glasgow. The seemingly solid object next door is as ephemeral as these dashed-off doodles, hastily sketched out and passed on to a fabricator to be made flesh, it’s genesis glimpsed in the first drawing here. In other words, the apparently monumental sculpture is monumentally trivial, one image among many, lifted from a drawn diary of personal preoccupations, passing fancies and impotent symbols. The sketch for the teacup sculpture is set alongside a cartooned head, half Elvis, half Easter Island statue, and a glob of something that might be an intestine. This sets the tone, with the following drawings depicting a tree and a teapot observed by a pipe-smoking detective, some vaguely pornographic scenes in which transvestites prostrate themselves, a teen idol sucks her fingers and a grouping of leonine chaps bearing swords loiter in a homoerotic huddle, a smattering of Egyptian iconography (the Eye of Ra, a grumpy sphinx, some pyramids) and, for variety, a few glib abstracts.

The overall impression is of Sweeney dropping pages from the Big Book of Popular Culture into a shredder until he has a room full of scraps, then stripping off and gamboling happily through the resulting mess to find out what sticks, and where. This enthusiasm is infectious. Any effort to pin down Sweeney, to work out what he’s up to, are rebuffed by the work on show, but it doesn’t matter: he’s having fun, and the best thing to do is drop your critical guard and join in.

This review was first published in The Herald on January 24th, 2008.

Nicola Atkinson Does Fly

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Last night, at Abbeyview Community Centre, Dunfermline, artist Nicola Atkinson Does Fly, Abbeyview Artist, chanelled the spirit of ballerina Moira Shearer, tapping out a rhythm her feet to accompany viola-player Aby Vulliamy, performing her score based on Shearer’s finest hour, playing Vicky in the Powell & Pressburger masterpiece, The Red Shoes. The evening also saw attendees biting into oranges, and a slideshow by ‘cultural broker’ Ben Spencer, who presented his ideas of What Is Beautiful?, the title of this installment of an ongoing series of public art gatherings dubbed Clock People.

Not, you might think, typical entertainments on a rainy Thursday in Fife, but almost run-of-the-mill for the residents of Abbeyview, who, since last March, have been working with Nicola Atkinson Does Fly (a nom de guerre Atkinson adopted after making a video about a fly, a creature chosen because it is ‘irritating and essential’) and a brace of invited artists.

‘I almost see it as like working in a band of musicians,’ Atkinson says, explaining her collaborations with artists and community alike, ‘We all have our instruments - our artistic forms - and were working together as a collective, but still distinct.’

It’s this sort of approach that marks Nicola Atkinson Does Fly out as a sensitive, engaged practitioner of public art, a mode of working that all too often sees an artist descending on a community with a set project in mind.

‘My approach is always very gentle,’ she agrees, ‘There might be a lot of work going on, but I’m not interested in just parachuting in. For a piece called dwellings, I had the idea of making little cardboard houses, based on the houses that are going to be knocked down in Abbeyview. I presented them to the school so the students could put them together, and maybe sign them. But they did everything you could imagine with them, and I ended up with hundreds of different crazy houses. That was interesting: I’d presented them with something that was complete to me, this really beautiful aesthetic piece, and they really matched that. Another example would be [Belle & Sebastian guitarist] Stevie Jackson’s songs - he wrote two inspired by Abbeyview - and the school music department said, “Oh, we can do this song”, so they took it away, worked on it, and presented it back to him’

Such easy interactions are matched by the use of happy coincidences and a free-wheeling approach to fresh ideas, tactics which Nicola Atkinson Does Fly has developed under the banner of Random And Dynamic Art Risks, or RADAR. ‘The RADAR project is about doing something slightly mad, about taking risks’, she says, ‘When you’re doing public art, there’s an unpredictable aspect, and that’s exciting. This is going to sound terrible, but you really get into a zone, and begin to have an intuitive trust in what you’re doing.’

That intuition binds the wide array of events at Abbeyview. Clock People earned its title when a clock was suggested as a useful piece of public art, and Atkinson joked that residents should just ask other people for the time. That simple concept - of people as the focus of public art - now informs the regular gatherings, which seek to define the future of public art in the area by discussing allied ideas, from last night’s meditation on beauty, to November’s edition, The Importance of Time. Nicola Atkinson Does Fly’s performance in the guise of Shearer grew in a similarly organic fashion. ‘I was researching Moira Shearer for another piece,’ Atkinson says, ‘I knew that she was born in Dunfermline, but suddenly saw that the What Is Beautiful? event was planned for her birthday. So I had to do something involving her. Those sort of serendipitous things just seem to happen.’

And they keep happening, spreading Abbeyview art around the world: a project that saw Atkinson drawing the stock of a local hardware store, selling her efforts for the price of the goods drawn, was mirrored in New York by artist Sophia Pankenier, and Stevie Jackson performed his Abbeyview songs earlier this month at the Walt Disney Concert Hall, Los Angeles. ‘Things can reside here and start here,’ Atkinson says, ‘but I the work has to have a life outwith the place - I like the idea of it being a worldwide thing, but an intimate worldwide thing.’

Abbeyview is making a quiet mark on the wider art world, then, and looks set to continue to do so, with Nicola Atkinson Does Fly’s light hand on the tiller, generating oblique strategies and working towards, ultimately, a public sculpture in the area. Before the Abbeyview Artist enterprise draws to a close in March, though, there is much to be done. Artist Luke Fowler is preparing a film for a Clock People event titled Permanent vs. Temporary, a Cabinet of Curiosities is touring the country, and, it seems safe to say, a public art scene in Abbeyview will remain in rude health, long after Nicola Atkinson Does Fly flies on to her next project.

This review was first published in The Herald on January 18th, 2008.

Every winter, Sorcha Dallas steps out of the usual round of showcases for represented artists and presents a group show, lightly curated around a theme suggested by the work of one artist on the gallery’s roster. This time, it is Sophie Macpherson’s sculptural forms that inspire Re-Make/Re-Model, and the tie that binds the artists gathered here, albeit loosely, is performance.

Macpherson’s work tackles the idea of performance at a tangent. Her White Screen dominates the small gallery space in which it is housed, a zig-zag wooden construction, whitewashed on its front side, the rear distinctly unfinished, with a surface marked by a repeated diamond motif. Next door, Untitled Set-Up suggests a temporary outdoor theatre. Two black wooden walls are set upon a white disc, the interior of the barely-sketched room facing a grubby curtain tacked to a roughly-hewn strut on the wall. A third, untitled, sculpture is more ambiguous. Again set on a plinth, this painted concrete structure might be an uncomfortable, restrictive piece of Brutalist costume jewelry, an architectural maquette for a theatre building, or another hinted set.

This is either set design for a play that has not yet been performed (but might be) or the remnants of an imagined production. A fanciful idea on paper, perhaps, but Macpherson’s slightly slapdash methods of making lend her work a genuinely evocative air - the unfinished reverse side of White Screen suggests that there was no need to complete a face that would never be seen by an audience, while the scale of Untitled Set-Up quickly indicate that it is taking a further step back from the stage, offering a model of a set that will never be built. Taken together, the works here suggest performances somewhere between the am-dram and the avant-garde, and one can easily imagine the nonexistent body of work for which Macpherson is playing set designer.

Macpherson’s work also sets the stage for a pair of real performances, or, rather, a pair of recorded performances, both of which tackle the usual problems of performance art, questioning the status of the performance itself, its documentation and later presentation.

Babette Magnolte’s 1978 film Water Motor is a record of a dance solo by Trisha Brown, filmed twice over and projected first in real time, then again at half speed, the two sections divided by slow fades to black, like the curtains drawn at intermission. Mangolte explicitly sets up her camera as a proxy for a rapt viewer - one is barely aware of Magnolte’s cinematography, which has the camera follow Brown’s movements closely but unobtrusively, without cutting - as if, in the first, real-time episode, she aims to present a ‘true’ record of Brown’s dance. This truth is quickly undermined by that distinctly theatrical fade and the re-presentation of the piece in slo-mo: if the opening section is true, the closing one is a faded memory, recasting Brown’s jerky, half-formed, high-speed gestures and sudden springs into a languid, graceful, more traditionally balletic form.

The idea of recording artist as proxy audience member recurs in the DVD presentation of a pair of performances by Linder, Nothing for Ray Johnson, filmed on the exhibition’s opening night. The anonymous videographer has made an unsatisfactory record of Linder’s improvised combining of music and gesture, but it is meaningfully unsatisfactory. We see the artist, backed by guitarist and double bass player, her face obscured by a mask that bears a crude drawing of a rictus grin, make considered gestures and wild vocalisations to match the howl of feedback and tuneless textures produced by her accompanists. But the viewer’s view is never clear, with the original focus of the performance shifted to the obscuring arm of the bassman, or, uncomfortably, to the engrossed faces of the original audience. The silent attention of the primary audience ends up serving as a barrier, like the roving camera itself, to experience: it is clear that, on the night, this was a powerful performance, but here, the secondary audience in the gallery is left struggling to appreciate it, more voyeurs than viewers. As a record of a performance, Nothing for Ray Johnson is a failure, but in failing it anchors Re-Make/Re-Model, firming up the deliberately noncommittal presentation of disparate artists linked by a loose theme.

And, with these ideas bouncing off the gallery walls, the notion of performance begins to infect the other works on show, to the point that it is hard to tell whether looking at the works here with performance in mind is a useful route to understanding, or a gloss enforced by the context that, elsewhere, might well be irrelevant.

Martin Soto Climent’s humorous little arrangements - Detained Chain, a pair of lime-green knickers stretched between two beer bottles, and Parachute, a pair of mucky high heels suspended from a plastic bag - here become artifacts of performance, potential and past. The beer bottles threaten to break into a high-kicking burlesque, the suspended heels look knackered after their daredevil jump, while their assembly, and the hunt for junk, adds a further nod to the performed.

Alongside her performed and recorded piece, Linder is showing a brace of new collage works in the tradition of what remains her best-known work, the sleeve for Buzzcock’s 1977 Orgasm Addict single. That image, a naked woman with an iron for a head and mouths for nipples, was an explicit attack on the representation of women in contemporary media, these latest pieces are subtler, more ambiguous, and, here at least, take on the air of the remains of a performance. Charming Maid sees a soft-focus 1970s album cover with a woman’s torso burnt out to reveal that she is stuffed with flowers. The Luminous Flux obscures twin images torn from a 1960s magazine. In one panel, Nureyev’s loins are girded with a garland, and John F. Kennedy’s face is partially obscured by more flowers, but in this context, thoughts of feminism and feminity fade, replaced by a need to reconstruct Linder’s actions in making these works, the cutting and placing that make up the performance of collage.

Like Magnolte’s slow motion reprise of Brown’s dance, the interpretation forced on these works by the show around them is, if not exactly false, then questionable. And that’s where Re-Make/Re-Model reveals its strengths and weaknesses. On the one hand, in tying together Macpherson’s suggestive sets, Magnolte’s eloquent film and Linder’s performance and its presentation, the show is a taught one, a deep look at performance and the performed.

On the other, it is almost overbearing, the curatorial conceit leading viewers down blind alleys, nudging them towards considering collage and sculpture, first and foremost, as recorded actions.

Either way, this is a show worth seeing, whether you end up infected by its premise or not.

This review was first published in The Herald on January 11th, 2008.

Moves at CCA

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Moves brings together three pieces by OpenEnded Group, a trio of artists - Marc Downie, Shelley Eshkar and Paul Kaiser - who use advanced multimedia techniques to explore dance, human movement and the environment.

The first work on show, Pedestrian, is unobtrusively projected onto the floor of the CCA’s foyer, a small, ever-changing arial view of an unnamed city populated by tiny characters who run, dance and generally mill about.

The action, such as it is, proceeds slowly, in fits and starts. Occassionally, a phalanx of uniformed characters will process across the frame in formation, like majorettes on parade or soldiers off to war. Slinking burglars steal sealed crates by torchlight. When the clouds break, the citizens of the Pedestrian projection unfurl their brollies as one, and, for a split second, it looks as though they might just launch into a high-kicking Busby Berkley production number, but they never do, preferring to amble along in loose formation.

These occasional bursts of drama only serve to underline its real appeal, which is to be found in the tiniest of gestures, the slightest of sight gags, the overwhelming impression that something - probably something unpleasant - is about to happen.

Some of these small moments are truly pedestrian: a girl listlessly kicks a beer can, a scuffle breaks out between joggers in the park, a couple remonstrate with each other. Others are downright odd. A man on the pavement of a city centre street is engaged in a vigorous bout of shadow boxing, ignored by passers by until his combinations open automatic doors. Nearby, a woman repeats more cryptic movements, as if warding off evil, or privately rehearsing for those big set pieces that never come. Others still simply interrupt a calm scene of walkers with a roll of their shoulders, or by breaking into a restless jog.

There is a sense of disconnection, too, between the actors and their stage. It may be a limitation of the (F)ield software which the OpenEnded Group have used to craft all the works here, or it may be a deliberate tactic, but the people that populate the Pedestrian world have that bouncing weightlessness familiar from Pixar animations or Second Life avatars. This is in stark contrast to their surroundings, which, in the dappled shade under a tree, or the ripples in reflecting glass, can be unnervingly realistic. The result matches the ambiguous title for the exhibition - the human movements which have been captured, altered and replayed, and the moves of a game, as if the Pedestrian environment is some impossibly complex urban chess board goverened by unknown rules, with the people cast as pieces guided by unseen hands, according to arcane rules.

What follows fails to match up to this early promise.

In the first gallery proper, Point A-B, a new commission, is projected onto twin screens. The work is an exploration of parkour, or free running, the urban sport that sees participants traversing cityscapes in a series of leaps, bounds and stunts, scrambling up the sides of buildings, backflipping over obstacles and jumping unscathed from dangerous heights. Openended Group have abstracted the graceful actions of free runners and set them in a sketch city, full of wire-frame models viewed from impossible angles and boiling masses of faint lines that only occassionally suggest some windowsill or piece of street furniture. The idea, presumably, is to give the viewer some sense of the nebulous and fast-flowing view of the city revealed by parkour ‘traceurs’ as they negotiate a newly fluid relationship with uninspiring surroundings. The endless gyrations of skeletal figures spinning in vaguely suggested space fails, though, becoming nothing more than an onslaught of ill-defined forms. Where Pedestrian offers an unsettling, mysterious world of moving figures without motive, Point A-B is downright confusing, a pretty blur of actions without consequences.

Forest takes on the abstraction of movement in space with more success. On five circular screens, children scamper around, playing hide and seek, or clambering up into the lower branches of trees. They only hove into view occassionally, though, obscured for the most part by the actions of algorithms that control the lighting, the camera position, the colour, even the apparent grain of the digital film, each element of the image on a screen suggested by another. It is even possible to see the piece thinking, so to speak, as a quick change on one screen is copied by its neighbour, until all five are, however briefly, in sync.

All this is pleasant enough to watch, and the self-generating, ever-changing nature of the piece makes it easy to spend a good while in its company, but, ultimately, it is, like Point A-B, merely technically impressive, simply pretty.

Openended Group are at their best, then, when they take full control of the digital environments they design - the slip and slide of Forest or the confused blur of Point A-B are no match for the meticulous choreography and cinematic verve of Pedestrian.

This review was first published in The Herald on January 4th, 2008.