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April 2008 Archives

This is the first of two traveling exhibits granting the public access to the Royal Collection’s stash of Italian works. The Baroque show arrives next year, but first we are treated to a look at the Queen’s Renaissance paintings and drawings, the majority gathered by Charles I, a keen collector, and Charles II.

The room devoted to painting is rather flat. There are good works here, sure, but few that are great, and, interestingly, it is the unfinished and unconventional pieces, many by lesser-known artists, that really draw the eye, with the more plodding portraits and religious scenes fading into the background.

Giulio Romano’s Portrait of Margherita Paleologo is the first of them. Ms. Paleologo was not, it seems fair to say, much of a looker, and made up for it with her frocks. Here she is wearing a loopy confection of an overdress, its interlocking ‘knot-fantasies’ riddled with gold thread, half-hiding a crimson gown. Romano, a pupil of Raphael, is not content with his masterly handling of these folds of fabric, adding a narrative element to the dimly lit scene: two less fashionably dressed women and a nun are peering through the doorway. One can’t help but imagine that the three have come for an audience with the dress, not the lady inside it.

Dosso Dossi’s The Holy Family is something of a revelation. The work is downright odd, with a feverish, almost hallucinatory quality, as if painted from a symbol-laden vision. Mary, rendered, unusually, as a decidedly plain young woman, bears a searing white corona - her mum, dad and boyfriend have to make do with dowdy metallic discs for their halos - and adopts a stylised pose, pointing, rather superfluously, at her son. The baby is clutching a cockerel like a favourite security blanket - preternaturally drawn to the bird as a symbol of the new dawn he’s set to usher in. The sky above the group sees a rather glum grouping of cherubim conjuring themselves into the grey clouds, parting them to light up a jeweled city on the plains behind. Then, up in the dim upper left corner of the painting, we see St. Jerome. He’s ignoring the cryptic business that surrounds him, and Dossi has captured a disarmingly real display of grandfatherly pride.

This unexpected flash of the ordinary in an extraordinary painting ties Dossi’s work to other decidedly domestic religious scenes on show. Across the room, Andrea del Sarto’s The Virgin And Child sees Mary checking Jesus’ mouth for signs of his first milk teeth - fully finished, the scene might end up on the wrong side of kitsch to modern eyes, but the chubby Christ is roughly sketched, retaining a tender quality. Falling between Dossi and del Sarto is another Virgin And Child, this one attributed to Pontormo, with Joseph, pausing on his way out the door to snack on a cherry offered by a boy, probably St. John the Baptist: domesticity and symbolism combined.

Titian tackles takes on the Virgin and Child, too. Or, rather, his workshop does. The Virgin and Child with Tobias and the Angel is clearly the work of many hands, and bears none of the compositional verve of the Venetian. Titian may have had a hand in it - the familiar deep pink and lapus lazuli blue are present and correct - but it doesn’t feel like a Titian. Nor does Boy With A Pipe, this time only attributed to Titian. The one work undoubtedly by Titian is a disappointment, too. The portrait of the humanist poet Jacapo Sannazarro is a staid little thing, one of many works executed early in the painters career, and only serves as a reminder of later, greater works. There are none of those here, sadly, only echoes in the work of followers like Vecchio and Bassano.

Thank goodness, then, for the second section of the show, devoted to drawings. It opens with a remarkable, scrappy little preparatory sketch by da Vinci, one of 600-odd in Charles II’s collection. Neptune sees da Vinci, with palpable frustration, drawing and redrawing the legs of rearing horses, until they look, of all things, like Muybridge’s photographic sequences. There are many such glimpses of the creative process, and almost all are more satisfying than the finished works next door. Some, like da Vinci’s, are quick, with loose markings made to set down a fleeting idea. Del Sarto’s The Head of St. Sebastian deftly captures motion, Polidoro da Caravaggio somehow manages, with a few concise strokes, to evoke the wonder in St. Thomas’ eyes as his doubt vanish before Christ’s wounds. Others are precise. A cartoon in metalpoint by Raphael showing The Conversion of the Proconsul - that odd episode in Acts where Paul blinds a man to convince him to convince his boss of Jesus’ power - is rich with both architectural detail and a lavish attention on every face in the crowded scene.

The most striking work here, though, is A Children’s Bacchanal by Michaelangleo. A delightfully perverse piece in red chalk, the level of finish is absolutely breath-taking, every inch of the paper a masterwork in miniature. And these kids are not the little angels of our post-Victorian imagination, but horrid, base creatures, devoid of reason. At the centre of the scene a gang of loutish toddlers lug a dead horse towards a cauldron. In the upper right corner, one lad appears to be vomiting into a wine butt, ignoring his pal, who is pissing into a drinking bowl, while down and to the left, a third suckles at the withered breast of a female satyr. That all this unpleasantness is rendered so perfectly, makes for a work that is little short of sublime.

This wonderful work flags up the fact that this is a rather patchy show, rescued by the gallery of drawings. Without them, it would be distinctly underwhelming, but their presence - and the presence of Michaelangelo’s little masterpiece alone - makes it a must-see.

This review was first published in The Herald on April 25th, 2008

Art of Italy in the Royal Collection: The Renaissance is at the Queen’s Gallery, Edinburgh until 26 October.

In it’s first year as a grown-up biennial, Glasgow international has lost none of the energy of its original incarnation as the underground upstart off-shoot of the staid annual Art Fair. This is mostly thanks to the glut of off-site projects, shows that have escaped the confines of the city’s galleries and set up shop in unusual venues, from the hushed halls of the Mitchell Library to private homes and near-derelict abandoned buildings.

The fun begins in the West End, at Douglas Gordon’s townhouse on Woodlands Terrace, which plays host to a series of video works by Adel Abdessemed. At first glance, Abdessemed’s documented actions can seem a little slight, but the best of them offer arresting images that linger in the memory. Also Sprach Allah sees the artist engaged in a peculiar ritual, hurled repeatedly into the air from a blanket, gamely attempting to write the titular phrase on a carpet nailed to the ceiling. In Helikoptère, Abdessemed employs an even more extreme barrier to creation, trying to draw while suspended by his ankles from a helicopter in flight.

Down the hill at the Mitchell, Calum Stirling’s use of video couldn’t be more different. His complex, engrossing installation Rostra Plaza consist of a huge canopy sheltering a screen which shows slowly shifting scenes in extreme close-up. The source of this surveillance footage is a set of five curious little dioramas mounted on rotating platforms, spied on by miniature cameras which turn their attention to particular scenes, seemingly at random. The vignettes range from arrangements of modernist architectural models to dinky maquettes of artworks, and the result is distinctly Ballardian, with Stirling creating an urban landscape in miniature in order to observe its mysteries.


Rostra Plaza (Detail)

Just off Sauchiehall Street, the basement of the State Bar plays host to group show A Stranger Home. Rather than using the room to mount an exhibit, the eight young artists here, working under the guidance of curator Alhena Katsof, have carefully insinuated their work into the fabric of the space. Stina Wirfelt’s brass plaque demands that visitors watch the pub telly, and consider whatever programme they might see a work of art. Baldvin Ringsted has coated various objects - a chair, a bottle of whisky, some books - in glamorous aluminium. Grier Edmonson’s quietly altered photographs line the walls, with subtle etching and painting on the glass of their frames. Best of all is Kevin Pollock’s lovingly hand-crafted, fully functional urinal, carved from MDF and burnished to a high sheen. It’s a neat, witty tribute to Duchamp’s upended Fountain, this, a complete reversal of the readymade, and - thanks to its position in the gent’s loo - one of the best evocations of the Gi’s loose ‘public/private’ theme to be found in the city.

Across town, there’s a cluster of shows between Trongate and the Saltmarket.

On Osbourne Street, Wilhelm Sasnal has taken over a dusty, claustrophobic shop basement to screen his specially commissioned short film, a decidedly bleak piece in which Polish band 19 Wiosen perform The Other Church, a hymn to the memory of murdered student Angelika Kluk. The group are joined by a naked woman who mouths the song’s lyrics, at times defiantly, but for the most part she is huddled in the corner of a dilapidated room, very much like the one in which the film is screened. That might sound exploitative, but this powerful piece of cinema is nothing of the sort, offering a moving tribute to Kluk, underpinned with barely repressed anger at her fate.

Around the corner, the proposed installation at the Bath House by Turner Prize-winner Simon Starling has run into some trouble. At the final stages, Starling’s attempt to fashion sculptural forms from the surface of silver gelatin photographic prints, using hi-tech 3-D imaging techniques, was beset by technical difficulties, but will make it’s delayed debut before the festival ends. In the meantime, the artist is showing Autoxylopyrocycloboros, a slideshow documenting his voyage across Loch Long in a wooden steamboat, its engine fuelled with wood cut from the boat’s hull as it sailed, an oddly elegiac reworking of slapstick cartoon violence that nods to the tension between the loch-side peace camp and the nuclear naval base at Faslane.


A slide from Autoxylopyrocycloboros

On the Saltmarket, Dani Marti and Katri Walker have risen to the challenge of effectively presenting video work, cramming a disused shop with their films, with work projected on big screens, hidden away in cupboards and stuffed into box rooms. The result is a little overwhelming, as pieces compete for attention, flickering away in peripheral vision, but allow your gaze to settle and you’re rewarded with thoughtful, innovative video portraits from both artists. Marti’s David casts an unflinching eye on a young homeless man, slipping in and out of consciousness, and hanging on to his begging cup for dear life. Walker’s Señor Celestino on the Edge of Heaven is another highlight, offering a glimpse into the world of the 80-year-old Celestino and the open air church he has carved into the rocks near his home.

Kalup Linzy’s video work at Washington Garcia’s temporary space in a retail unit on the Trongate is less satisfying. The New York artist is a low budget auteur, writing, directing and starring in scrappy little films that pastiche the high melodrama of daytime soap operas and telenovellas, poking fun at the art world in the process, and, too, examining harder issues, from race to queer identity. Linzy is a gifted comic - his turn, in thrift shop drag, as a struggling, dimwitted artist is laugh-out-loud funny - but as these films unfold, they edge perilously close to becoming that which they parody.

Add to all this activity events like The Secret Agent, Raydale Dower and Judd Brucke’s mixture of street performance and psychogeographic dérive, or the stramash of art, music and conversation at The Local, a temporary artist-designed pub at the SWG3 Studios in Finnieston, and Glasgow international begins to look less like a festival in the ordinary sense, and more like a new thread woven into the city’s cultural fabric. It’s a shame we have to wait two years until the next one.

The off-site shows of Glasgow international run until 27 April, 2008.

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

It’s been three years since Jim Lambie made an appearance in Glasgow, and it’s fitting that Forever Changes, his return to home ground, is at the heart of the Glasgow international festival of visual art. It was Lambie, alongside his fellow graduates of the Glasgow School of Art, who revitalised the city’s scene, and granted Glasgow an ongoing international reputation as a hub for contemporary art in Europe. Without that crop of artists and their work, dubbed ‘the Glasgow miracle’ by prominent curator Hans Ulrich Obrist, it seems safe to say that a festival on the scale of the Gi would not exist.

Typically, Lambie has chosen to kick off the festival with a blast. His first, arguably belated, show at the Gallery of Modern Art opens with Get Back, a brick wall placed, confrontationally, a few short feet from the entrance to the exhibition space. As an introduction to the exhibit, it works well, slapping visitors in the face with a burst of Lambie’s trademark charity shop psychedelia. The bricks are formed by fabrics torn from old dresses, with garish floral patterns clashing with outsize houndstooth checks, eye-popping geometrics and plain fields of itchy polyester colour. As if that wasn’t a sufficient shock to the visual cortex, the grouting between the bricks is particularly queasy shade of DayGlo pink, and the wall has landed on two pairs of patent leather training shoes.

It’s a defiantly ugly piece of work, and one that conjures up a skew-whiff retelling of The Wizard of Oz, with Lambie dismissing the Yellow Brick Road as overly monochrome and too-obviously horizontal, and recasting the Wicked Witch of the East and her ruby slippers as a Glasgow scally, out on the town on a Friday night. While I doubt Lambie had Oz in mind as he gathered together the familiar detritus he utilises in his sculptural work, it also fits the underlying theme of the show, which hints at travel to unknown lands, and the navigation of treacherous seas.

This unlikely leitmotif is set in motion by The Strokes, a new vinyl tape floor work in the long-running Zobop series. Unlike the best known incarnations of the Lambie’s floors, which see brightly coloured lines of tape tracing the contours of the room in which they are installed, this one is made of interlocking curves in black and white. This is good old fashioned Op art, with the integrity and stability of the floor upset by a curious visual effect, a strobing ebb and flow that flickers in peripheral vision, an illusion of waves in motion.

Bobbing in the black and white sea are eight cubes of concrete. Inside each block is a collection of long players, plucked at random from the bargain bins of charity shops. But, before they can float onto the shores of some imagined South Sea island and spark a new Cargo Cult, the fossilised discs will have to make it past what is arguably the best work on show here, Seven And Seven Is or Sunshine Bathed the Golden Glow.

In the form of a cresting wave, this teetering sculptural assembly is made of wooden chairs, the sort you’d find around the average pub table, each one precisely bisected, painted in high-gloss pastels, and then bolted together willy-nilly. The structure is festooned with cheap handbags, their faux-leather surfaces obscured by shards of smashed mirror, which reflect the striped floor below, and the sickly shades of the chair parts from which they hang.

This is what you might call classic Lambie: everyday objects of little value have been transformed into something garish, glorious, and gloriously meaningless, an act of transformation made with an absolute certainty, with objects snatched from the artist’s surroundings and used as pure sculptural material.

So far, so good, but at the edges of the room, this show starts to unravel. Head Shadow is pleasing enough. The squat little construction calls to mind the off-shore interzone of the Principality of Sealand, and is made of a cheap holdall resting on a dartboard, resting in turn on a set of spray cans, which disgorged their loads of paint across the floor at the moment Lambie completed the sculpture - a none-too-subtle reminder that he is no studio-bound conceptualist, but an active sculptor who works in the spaces given over to him.

Next comes The Spell, a forgettable wall-mounted cube fashioned from gilded sections of standard door panels, then, on the other side of the space, Warm Leatherette, which sees a bowling ball hidden inside ten leather jacket sleeves, sewn together to form, following the seafaring theme, something akin to a deep sea polyp, or unexploded mine. Both are completely overshadowed by Seven and Seven Is…, and feel forced, as if Lambie is filling space, adding unnecessary adjuncts to the main business that fills the central strip of the GoMA’s main hall.

Between these two, propped against a pillar, rests A-side Forever Changes B-side The Gate. The lengthy title is a rather weak joke. The B-side, facing out into the room, shows a redacted image of three men - presumably members of Love, Arthur Lee’s psyche rock outfit, whose song titles Lambie has lifted for various pieces in this show, and for the show title itself - framed with cutout flowers. The B-side is, well, a gate, of the garden variety, painted bright red. Aside from the over-literal gag, the work falls flat thanks to the overly explicit musical reference. Lambie has been pegged as a latter-day Kandinsky by some, a sort of sculptor of music, but has always argued, convincingly, that, just as his use of easily-recognised materials is largely incidental to the finished work, so the co-opting of titles from the hip end of the pop canon signifies nothing more than the fact that he is surrounded by music, and naturally looks to familiar texts to fashion the textual elements of his works. By reconfiguring the 7” single, complete with carefully constructed A-side and an afterthought of a B-side, Lambie’s claims begin to look a little disingenuous, and, more importantly, this work is stripped of the impenetrable mystery of its betters.

Forever Changes is an awkward, off-kilter show. The loose, suggestive nautical theme provides a context that binds the best work together, supported by the shifting floor work that Lambie uses to mark his territory, and the best pieces - the ugly wall, the wave of chairs, the concrete blocks - sit well together, engaged in a bright, chaotic conversation. It is a shame that Lambie felt the need to go further, lessening the impact of the pieces at the heart of his show with the second-tier efforts that surround them.

Jim Lambie: Forever Changes is at GoMA, Glasgow until September 29th.

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