Work

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

July 2008 Archives

Kenny Hunter is probably Glasgow’s best known sculptor. Since it was unveiled in 2001, thousands have paused before his Citizen Firefighter, and thousands more pass Girl With a Rucksack in the Gorbals. Hunter is, though, as much a gallery artist as he is a maker of public works, and A Shout In The Street offers a chance to see how the two strands of his practice complement each other, as well as offering hints that the artist is striking out in new directions.

The first of these hints line the walls of Tramway 5, in the form of a series prints. In the same way that Hunter’s sculptural work is, more often than not, about sculpture, his series of prints show a keen awareness of the medium. Uncomfortable with the tendency of artists to make printed works that shadow their main practice, Hunter has embraced the two-dimensional simplicity of the screen print, restricting himself to stark white texts set on a coloured background. The results, which have the look of nightclub posters and album adverts that coat city walls, are pasted directly on to the gallery wall, and, in the spirit of subverting the monumental nature of public art works that informs his sculpture, Hunter has been busy, sneaking about fly-posting his prints in out-of-the-way spots around Glasgow.

Quite what passers-by will make of Hunter’s texts is open to question. He has borrowed lines from the likes of Rousseau, Baudelaire and Marx, eliding and adding to phrases to create rather cryptic slogans. One reads “Everlasting Agitation”, a term lifted from The Communist Manifesto. Another bears the phrase “Things fall apart all over again”, a line adapted from Yeats’ poem The Second Coming, an apocalyptic work dense with religious imagery that pits the loss of innocence sired by the first world war against unfettered technological progress. Hunter added that ‘all over again’, wryly commenting on the constant doom-mongering of prophets, highlighting humanity’s constant brinksmanship - “There’s always something,” he says, “whether it’s the Cold War, or the threat of terrorism” - and, too, finding something positive in a gloomy subject by setting his text on a green ground, a hint that destruction is inevitably followed by renewal.

This is dense stuff, and the sculptures on show here, like the prints, hide a complex set of concerns beneath their simple, smooth surfaces. Hunter’s theme is those strange places found at the edges of every city that serve no real purpose. It was on the daily bike commute to his Anniesland studio, a route which takes him along the towpath of the Forth & Clyde canal, that Hunter found inspiration. “These places are free-er than parks,” he explains, “You have couples going for a stroll, people fishing, gangs meeting up at night to drink cider.” What caught his eye, though, was not the humans using the part-urban, part-rural route, but the animals.

In one sculpture a pigeon perches on an oil drum set into a car tyre. Elsewhere, a lazy, nonchalant fox sits atop an asymmetric arrangement of shelving units, a cat stands guard over a block made of a fridge and a microwave. More pigeons roost on a neat pile of televisions, and another is about to take flight, setting off from an abandoned table propped up by a telly.

There’s something comic about these arrangements. The heaps of junk clearly echo the forms of traditional plinths, and Hunter might well be the first artist to utilise what he calls “the architectonic systems of monumental sculpture” to memorialise the pigeon, but the humour of seeing scrappy city fauna given a treatment usually reserved for the great and good makes a serious point. Hunter seems to be asking his audience to consider the ownership of the in-between spaces that have inspired him: we humans might have created them, but they belong, at least in part, to the animals that have colonised them, making good use of our abandoned consumer electronics. Tellingly, the most human work here is a precise cast of a burst bin bag, spilling fag packets and coffee cups onto the gallery floor. These ideas look likely to inform Hunter’s practice for some time to come. Intrigued by the gangs of lads who made the headlines last year for hunting down the newly-urbanised roe deer, Hunter has plans to work on deer sculpture addressing, no doubt with his usual ambiguity, questions that surround the story of animals adapting to a new environment, and humans adapting to hunt them with dogs, mirroring the practices of rural humans of a different class.

In another departure from his usual practice, Hunter adds a layer to his new works by incorporating found objects - the fridge, for example, is real, but the microwave beside it is a cast - offering a sort of internal critique of his own work. “Putting an abject beside a copy, a cast works as an irritant, or a trap,” he says, “It asks questions about the value of the art, and the authorship - is it in the casting of an object, or in the finding of an object?”

Such theoretical questions apply more directly still to a set of sculptures in which Hunter turns away from his usual figurative work, looking instead to the modular Minimalism of Carl Andre or Donald Judd’s regular, repeated forms. Needless to say, Hunter subverts the work of his predecessors with a bit of a wink, undermining this cool aesthetic by stacking up casts of pizza boxes to suggest Modernist tower blocks or neatly arranging casts of cardboard boxes on slatted wooden palettes. It remains to be seen whether these more obviously experimental works will inspire future public sculptures, but Hunter clearly relishes the opportunity to cut loose in a gallery as much as he responds to the strictures of mounting work on the city streets. “If I had to rely on one or the other,” he jokes, “I’d become very bitter.”

Thankfully, he is just the opposite, and this show shows it - there’s something generous about the work on show here, towards the animal subjects and their overlooked environment, and towards the viewer too, thanks to Hunter’s apparently effortless ability to make accessible works shot through with complex, ambiguous ideas about the role of art in society, and explicitly political, but never didactic, thought-provoking where a lesser artist might stoop to propaganda.

A Shout In The Street is at Tramway from July 13 until August 24.

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

When Conde Nast and his editor Frank Crownshield launched the first incarnation of Vanity Fair in 1913 - the year that the American public were introduced to “modern art” by the groundbreaking Armory Show - the idea of celebrity was in a state of flux, and it shows in the early photographs on show at the National Portrait Gallery.

There are actors, actresses and dancers aplenty, and even a few characters mostly famous for being famous, but politicians are absent, while authors and artists, even the most avant garde, are set on a level with the more frivolous famous. Virginia Woolf looks decidedly Victorian in a three-quarter-length portrait, Aldous Huxley glowers intellectually into the frame, George Bernard Shaw flashes jauntily the lining of his suit jacket with an eyebrow raised, James Joyce thinks deep thoughts behind his specs and eyepatch, and the beautiful Frida Kahlo poses proudly with fellow artist and husband Diego Rivera.

These simple, straightforward, almost documentary shots are set against rather more hammy fare - Isodara Duncan in robes at the Parthenon, a moody Augustus John clutching a paintbrush - and, in establishing these two modes of celebrity portraiture, the pioneers at Vanity Fair established the standards followed to this day.

Indeed, when the magazine was resurrected in 1981, the tics and tactics of the celebrity photographer had been set in stone, and, aside from a willingness on the part of celebs and publishers alike to show some skin, there is next to no difference between the images of the 1900s and those from the 1980s and beyond. The merely famous are given a veneer of gravitas by the solemn, full-face portrait in black and white, now out of choice rather than necessity, shown to be real people, relaxing at home (not their own, more often than not, but one rented for the occasion), mugging with props suited to their profession, or arranged in “classical” poses, as if the photograph were a good old-fashioned painting.

The exception to this rule is Annie Liebowitz, and on the evidence here, her reinvention of the celebrity photograph is not entirely positive, with innovations resting on ham-fisted symbolism, arty pretensions and a tendency to show the not particularly great and good as they imagine themselves, or glibly to remind the viewer of how they found their fame. Lance Armstrong’s battle with cancer is explored by depicting the champion cyclist naked on his bike, riding through driving rain. Kate Winslet is dunked in a tank of water in a diaphanous dress, just in case anyone flicking through the magazine was unaware of her role in Titanic. At times, one almost suspects Liebowitz of puncturing her subjects’ vanity, or adding a satirical edge to her work, but it seems safe to say that this is in the eye of the beholder.

A shot of Arnold Schwarzenegger, gazing into the middle distance, his biceps straining against the T-shirt he’s chosen to wear, oddly, while skiing, is hilarious and sinister, the right-wing actor-politician as ├╝bermensch, with uncomfortable echoes of Leni Riefenstahl. The less said about the preposterous image of Mr and Mrs Tom Cruise cuddling their new baby on top of a mountain, the better. Jack Nicholson celebrates his bad-boyhood by smoking a fag and driving golf balls off a Hollywood rooftop. Both men look silly, and the photographer’s collaborative approach - read sycophancy - is at least in part to blame. Then there’s the pull-out covers, a much-copied Vanity Fair trademark, featuring a galaxy of stars, shot on separate occasions in separate time zones, assembled by a skilful, uncredited Photoshop expert, who doubtless removes blemishes and slims paunches along the way - these are wonderful in their way, because the idea of a gathering of the ultra-famous in one place is titillating - was there bitching on set, did so-and-so blank the one from that film? - but beyond that, Liebowitz does little but arrange actresses in flattering poses.

Interestingly, when Liebowitz plays it straight, the results are rather wonderful. A snap of three generations of the Redgrave acting dynasty is full of warmth. Martin Scorsese and George Lucas are caught in a moment of friendly banter, as Steven Spielberg and Francis Ford Coppola look on. Rupert Murdoch is cast as a friendly old duffer, messing about on his boat.

Thanks to Liebowitz’s showboating, and the strength of her simpler work, the plainest portraits and more candid shots stand out. Daffyd Jones’s shot of Mick Jagger, looking tired and rather bored on a banquette beside Tony Curtis and Madonna at one of Vanity Fair’s Oscars parties portrays three people as people, however feted they may be. Herb Ritts lets Clint Eastwood’s craggy old mug shine in an unforgiving close-up, and captures a telling moment, part public, part private when he shoots Sylvester Stallone and Brigitte Neilson from above, snogging before cheering crowds. Helmut Newton, unable to fashion one of his studied tableaux due to time constraints, shows Mrs Thatcher, cast-iron barnet intact, but tired and sad about the eyes.

Rather more twinkly is Harry Benson’s shot of Ronald and Nancy Reagan engaged in a spot of impromptu ballroom dancing. And there’s plenty more of Benson’s generous approach to his subjects at the Kelvingrove.

In fact, perhaps due to the rather fawning captions he provides, Benson seems too generous at times - the photograph of the Reagans is in both shows, accompanied in Glasgow by a sickly soft-focus image of the Clintons, a cheery Nixon on the campaign trail, and a portrait of George W Bush, then governor of Texas, smirking and playing golf.

Benson is much better when engaged in reportage. His documentary work on the Glasgow of the early 1970s is powerful stuff, and the coverage of the assassination of Robert Kennedy is little short of breathtaking, from Ethel Kennedy in a panic, pushing the photographer away from her husband’s body to the simple image of a straw-boater floating in the senator’s blood.

On the lighter, celebrity side, Benson’s unposed snaps beat his posed set-pieces hands down. The Queen is caught looking terribly jolly on a 1957 trip to a coal mine; Bob Guccione is shown sleazily touching up a model, who casts a withering glance in the Penthouse publisher’s direction; and Judy Garland looks lost and alone as an assistant lights her cigarette. For the most part, though, Benson’s work falls flat. It remains of interest thanks to his subjects - at times it feels as if he’s shot every single star of the past half-century - but not thanks to his photography.

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