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November 2008 Archives

Spencer Finch

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On a blustery, grey day on the banks of the River Tay, it’s tempting to see the work of Spencer Finch as akin to those therapy lamps that simulate the sunrise, resetting the body clock, and allowing those of us depressed by the late dawn to leap out of bed, full of the joys of summer.

I don’t mean to compare Finch’s large-scale sculptural installations, delicate paintings and subtle interventions to a fancy alarm clock, but the work on show at Dundee Contemporary Arts does provide a sensory kick up the backside and, often using the simplest of means, transports the viewer to different times, places and climes, from a cloudy summer afternoon in Massachusetts to the clear skies of a winter morning in New Zealand.

The Massachusetts afternoon comes first, in the form of a light, airy installation that labours under one of Finch’s trademark descriptive titles, Sunlight In An Empty Room (Passing Cloud for Emily Dickinson, Amherst, MA, August 28, 2004).

Finch spent this day in the late poet’s backyard logging the shade cast by the clouds overhead, later converting his readings into a huge cloud-shaped mess of blue, grey and purple colour filters of the sort used by photographers. These cellophane sheets are held in place with wooden clothes pegs, and suspended from the ceiling before a blindingly bright array of fluorescent striplights of varying colour temperatures, in an attempt to recreate the quality of the New England sun. As weather simulations go, Sunlight In An Empty Room isn’t much cop, a cobbled-together, jerry-built experiment that would raise eyebrows at a school science fair. But, as the plastic cloud shifts slightly in the breeze of the building’s air-conditioning, and the yellowish lights cast soft blue shadows on the walls, it’s clear that Finch is trying to capture the simple pleasure of observing a cloud making its way across the sky - and in this he succeeds.

Next door in the large gallery, Night Sky (Over the Painted Desert, Arizona, January 11, 2004) is a constellation of softly twinkling lights hung from the ceiling. At first, it looks like a crude attempt to plot the stars, but the regular, modular construction of the light fittings and precise arrangement of differently-sized incandescent bulbs suggest the coloured balls and black sticks of chemistry lab models, a clue to the artist’s method. Finch made his skyscape by combining paints to match the black of the night, then - using a process I won’t pretend to understand - established the molecular ratio of each pigment in his mixture, and modelled the molecular structure of each pigment, with each of the 401 bulbs in the final installation representing a single atom. The sculpture is beautiful as it is, but when Finch’s process is revealed, it becomes more so, a rigorously scientific act of poetic transubstantiation, an encoded study of a single colour.

A new work, Sky (Over Franz Josef Glacier, April 8, 2008, 10:40AM) works in a similar way, but it’s leavened with a healthy dose of humour. A perfectly square pool of water, dyed bright blue to match the sky Finch observed back in April, feeds into a huge ice-making machine, which sporadically drops a load of ice-cubes on to a slipway, where they slowly melt and drip into the water below, and the process begins again. On one level, this closed system is as full of science and poetry as Night Sky, a tiny simulation of cracking glaciers matched to a minimalist liquid painting, but it’s also wonderfully silly, a great juddering Heath- Robinson contraption that wheezes into life - making visitors lost in contemplation of the deep blue pool at its base jump out of their skin.

On the wall opposite, another new piece sees Finch inspired by his first major show in Scotland to tackle a long-standing fascination with the Scottish Enlightenment. The piece 8456 Shades of Blue (After Hume) converts a thought experiment in David Hume’s 1748 paper An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding into a rough, real world demonstration, in which Finch dripped 28 colours of blue paint on to paper, dipping his brush in water after each drop, making each mark a shade lighter than the one before.

The final installation housed in two small rooms at the far end of the main gallery is an even subtler investigation of perception. In one room, five fluorescent lamps are wrapped in blue filters, in the other, the walls are clad in white paint mixed with Prussian blue pigment and lit with unfiltered lamps. In both rooms, the blue is barely there, little more than a slight cooling of the light, but, no matter how hard you strain to see a difference, Finch’s two methods produce identical results.

While 8456 Shades of Blue might have been conceived to match it’s debut showing in Scotland, all the pieces here seem very much at home in the austere rooms of the DCA. Even the sheen of the highly-polished floors - a flaw in the gallery’s design that tends to distract from the works - serve Finch well, offering a diffused reflection of Night Sky that tempers its hard, scientific edges, and allowing the faintest tint of blue light to leak out of the blue rooms at the rear.

In Glasgow, The Common Guild have mounted a companion show in Douglas Gordon’s townhouse on the edge of Kelvingrove Park dedicated to works on paper by Finch, and the pieces gathered here also suit their surroundings to a T. Finch is still concerned with colour and light, but, instead of looking outward, seeking to make new sense of the world and the way in which we perceive it, he turns his attention to intimate interior spaces. A sequence of watercolours sees Finch document the colours of light that passed before his eyes during a day spent at his studio. Another set of studies, pastels this time, capture the colour of the ceiling in Sigmund Freud’s consulting room.

A set of inkblots that wend their way up the stairwell is known as 102 Colours From My Dreams. Each one was made by Finch at the moment of waking, and together they form a diary of colours he saw in his dreams. There’s no need to interpret these self-made Rorschach tests, though, as Finch helpfully provides titles that build up into an absurd, comic monologue, a jolly litany of disordered memories and strange fictions of the artist’s sleeping life, which match each colour.

These two shows demonstrate two sides of Finch, and the separation of his work does him a favour. Had Finch’s first major solo outing in the UK been a single-gallery affair, the large-scale pieces of the Dundee exhibition would likely have overwhelmed the more delicate material of the Glasgow display, and the more intimate works on paper might well have acted as distractions from the self-contained investigations of the grand installations.

By focusing on two distinct, if allied, strands of Finch’s practice, DCA and The Common Guild in total paint a better picture of the artist’s practice than they could have done alone.

This review was first published in The Herald on Friday 21st November, 2008.

Gerhard Richter

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The work of many artists can, at least in retrospect, be divided up into distinct periods, with shifts or gradual moves towards new subject matter, novel techniques or fresh artistic preoccupations taken up, revised and abandoned. That progression from one mode to the next does not apply to Gerhard Richter. Pick almost any span of time in the past 40-odd years, and you might find Richter making eerily photorealistic work, Pop appropriations of found imagery, minimalist monochromes, vibrant abstract Impressionist pieces on a massive scale, delicate landscape studies or elegiac, intimate portraits.

At first, this makes for a bewildering experience - it is often hard to believe the works gathered here are the product of one hand - but for all the inconsistency on the surface, one thing is constant: Richter is in the business of painting; a long, rigorous investigation of the possibilities of his chosen medium, from the ways in which paint might be applied to a canvas, to the nature of things in the world recreated by a painter.

The earliest works look like Pop Art, but, while Richter followed Warhol or Lichtenstein in taking imagery from popular culture, he’s not interested in elevating and celebrating the Coke bottle or the cartoon, instead exploring what a painter can do with an appropriated image. Cow is drawn from a children’s book, the animal and its name precisely copied; Dead shows a partial newspaper headline above a photograph of a man crushed by a huge block of ice; Mustang Squadron and XL 513 see fighter jets reproduced from magazine illustrations.

Family at the Sea is taken from a snapshot of Richter’s then wife as a child, while Motor Boat (1st Version) sees a jolly gang of friends speeding across a bay. All these works are paintings of photographs or illustrations. Richter paints the white border of Family at the Sea and makes sure we can see the guidelines he drew when copying his Cow, but each of them bears distinct traces of Richter the painter, from the Futurist-inspired speed lines that trail the aeroplanes to the blur applied to the surface of the speedboat crew, a tactic that fast becomes a Richter trademark, present in works from the 1960s to the 2000s.

Next come the abstracts of the 1980s, huge works full of eye-popping colour, with paint spread in dense layers only to be removed, revealing the progression from blank canvas to completed work. These are not just abstract paintings, but a commentary on abstract painting. Richter has no time for the boozy heroics of Jackson Pollock; instead, he has developed a series of actions and processes to produce abstract images emphasised by his layering and removal of paint.

There are layers of satire, too, with Richter undermining the anarchic, intense stereotypes of abstract expressionism with his precise manipulation of surfaces, and pointing wryly to the blurring of his paintings from photographs each time he scrapes his squeegee across a canvas to form a hard-edged line.

Richter’s interest in handling paint is more clearly stated in his grey paintings. A series from the 1970s are all a dim, dark grey, and seen from across the room appear identical. Up close, one is delicately stippled; another has been painted with bold strokes with a big housepainter’s brush; a third is patchy, with silky areas contrasted with thick globs of paint; and a 2003 reprise bears a suggestion of a grid.

These powerful monochromes are matched to studies of colour. Red-Blue-Yellow (Reddish) and Red-Blue-Yellow (Greenish) are the result of primary colours applied in orderly swirls until they blend together. Untitled (Green) sees the experiment repeated, with shades of one colour.

Similar manoeuvres are employed in representational works, too. Buhler Heights is a progression of four paintings, beginning with a misty, bucolic landscape and ending with horizontal lines of colour that suggest the same scene. Another grouping takes identical prints of a multiple exposure photographic self-portrait, adding increasing amounts of red paint until Richter and his studio are obliterated.

For all his experimentation, Richter is a traditionalist. Farm, a small work from 1999, bears the surface blur, but is composed according to a grid. Candle, from 1982, is a breathtaking study, a display of skill that in its subject matter owes a debt to the Golden Age of Dutch painting. Small Bather matches the blur technique with a pose borrowed from Ingres, while Seascape, an impossible scene based on a composite photograph, takes on Turner at his own game. In lesser hands, these would be acts of hubris, heroic failures at best, but Richter pulls it off, thanks to some sublime draughtsmanship.

Ultimately, though, there is something terribly cool and rigid about the Richter project, a fact reflected in his Werkverzeichnis, an exhaustive register of works last updated in 2005, each one reproduced at the same scale, ordered and numbered in sequence, and the Atlas, a vast compendium of source materials collected over the years, grouped together thematically on more than 700 panels. It is impossible to avoid Richter’s pseudo-scientific approach to his own oeuvre in this exhibition, and it threatens to overwhelm the individual works. A given painting might make the hairs stand up on the back of your neck as you stand before it, but that immediate feeling is easily flattened by Richter’s careful, studious, almost relentlessly systematic approach, his ongoing formal inquiry into the nature of his craft.

The result is that, though there is no doubt Richter is a great painter, this retrospective ends up being less than the sum of its parts, with the paintings gathered here struggling under their own collective weight, each one a paragraph in a long essay on painting. Visitors will likely leave the National Gallery enlightened and educated, but unmoved.

This review was first published in The Herald on Friday 14th November, 2008.

At first glance, Richard Forster’s small drawings of the seashore look to be, well, a bit boring. Seen from the entrance to the gallery, the 40-odd works, all 5in x 7in, are arranged at regular intervals around the walls, and each shows the same dimly-lit grey scene, a sliver of sand, an expanse of sea, a stripe of sky.

Up close, though, they take the breath away. Forster is a remarkable draughtsman, capturing each spackle of foam on a cresting wave, the interlocking filigree pattern on the surface of the water as it is sucked away from the shore, and the sheen of wet sand as the wave finally recedes with a photorealistic intensity. In fact, it is sometimes hard to shake the impression that these aren’t drawings at all, but photographic prints, old daguerreotypes or calotypes perhaps, rescued from a forgotten Edwardian album.

This is not just down to Forster’s skill: these are not drawings of the sea and the shore, but drawings of photographs of the sea and the shore, meticulously made reproductions of throwaway, ephemeral snapshots. There is something determined, obsessive, even masochistic about this process. Forster worked at full tilt for four months to produce these drawings, and each gasp at the artist’s skill is matched with a shake of the head at this strange, zealous quest to make perfect copies of his photographic source material. advertisement

The time taken to make these works is more than a simple fact about their making, though: it is a clue that Forster’s subject is not just the shoreline, but time itself. These new works look old, the single, static viewpoint is undermined by the ever-shifting waters, the fast, instantaneous nature of contemporary photography is reconfigured by Forster’s slow transcription, and the slow process of examining his finished works, one by one. The sea is, too, inextricably linked to time, from the repeated crashing waves that mark minutes to the cyclic forces of the tides that mark the seasons.

Something like a narrative, the ordered passing of time, unfolds as these superficially similar works reveal their differences. There’s the ebb and flow of the waves on the shore, of course, but more than that Forster (who you might accuse of absenting himself as an artist in his all-consuming act of copying) makes himself known, the protagonist in a slow drama. For the most part, he sticks to the plan, relentlessly taking shot after shot of his patch of beach, with the same horizon line and measly strip of sky, but mistakes are made, and patterns form. On one short wall, three drawings offer more in the way of sky, with clouds lit from within by the moon or sun. In another triptych hidden inside the series, Forster traces the progress of a single wave, having taken three shots in quick succession (interestingly, in the publication that accompanies the show, these three alone are laid out together on a fold-out sheet).

One drawing stands out from its peers, because the horizon line is at an angle, a tiny difference that in this context seems nothing short of shocking. Perhaps Forster lost his footing, or nudged his tripod. The thirteenth and fourteenth drawings are, unlike the others, verging on the abstract, with soft white bands against a grey background, as if Forster, fingers feeling the chill after standing for so long on the same spot, shifted the focus of his camera a little to far, and pressed the shutter release a couple of times before he had a chance to correct the error.

Then, as the long series of drawings draws to a close with a run of drawings made from clear, crisp images, the last one looks to have been taken carelessly, with the camera pointing down. It would be a stretch to call these drawings a new sort of self-portrait, but Forster is doing more than presenting a dispassionate survey of the changing sea, he is present in these drawings, sharing two intimate experiences: the brief, immediate act of taking photographs out in the world, and the long hard slog in the studio, transcribing them. This might, though, be an illusion.

It’s easy to assume the drawings are arranged as the photographs were taken, but it is possible that Forster’s project is even more deliberate: it could be that he spent as long at the beach as he did wielding a pencil, selecting and ordering his photographic prints before making his drawings, like a film director in the edit suite, with a plan to manipulate his audience, purposely crafting the hint of narrative structure that appears as they pace the gallery.

This is rewarding work. Forster’s deceptively simple, apparently repetitive set of drawings offers a display of virtuoso draughtsmanship backed with a rich meditation on place, time and the nature of photography and drawing.

Outside, the latest instalment in Ingleby’s Billboard for Edinburgh public art project, Rachel Whiteread has taken over an advertising hoarding high on the wall of the gallery building. Instead of blowing up one of her collaged works on paper, Whiteread has picked a photograph of her installation Place (Village). The village in question is made up of vintage doll’s houses, some home-made, which Whiteread has been collecting for 20 years, each one empty, and lit from within.

In installation form, Place (Village), which has been shown in different configurations in Boston, London and Naples, is sad and a little spooky, like a ghost town in miniature. Here, on a grey wall, under grey Edinburgh skies, after Forster’s incessant monochromes, the red roofs, and backlit windows form a jolly, twinkly, positively Christmassy scene. After Mark Wallinger’s plain, dry offering - he presented a simple slogan text, “Mark Wallinger is innocent” - the billboard project has found its feet, showing the potential of the innovative format to transform an artist’s work.

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

The first piece in the show at Edinburgh’s Fruitmarket Gallery, Close-Up, looks like an illuminated wall painting, an abstract made up of circles and dots. It is, though, not a work of art at all, but a lantern slide from the collection of Victorian horticulturalist and gardener Ellen Willmott showing the structure of Volvox globator, a type of algae.

Willmott’s slide serves as a manifesto in miniature for this exhibition. It trains its lens on the experimental microphotography of early naturalists, its adoption by educators seeking to inform art and design with natural patterns, the use of magnification as a means of disorienting and disturbing audiences by Dadaists and Surrealists, and their fascination with the human body that endures in the work of contemporary artists. It’s a warning, too, that things, when seen in close-up, are not what they seem.

The marriage of art and science, or the possibility that art and science can be the same thing, is made explicit in the images taken from Laure Albin-Guillot’s 1931 book Decorative Micrography, where cross- sections of seeds and cells are rendered in layers of charcoal and metallic pigment, and in the plates culled from Karl Blossfeldt’s Art Forms in Nature, which see budding twigs transformed into totemic sculptures and a seed pod metamorphosed into a mosque’s minaret. Stan Brakhage’s 1963 film Mothlight, in which insects, leaves and twigs flash onscreen as abstract forms, is, in this context, an echo of William Henry Olley’s scientific studies of a bee’s sting, a fly’s cornea and the scales of a butterfly’s wing.

The capacity of photography to reveal the obscure is taken up in the next room by the Surrealists, in two senses: psychological and physical. I’m not sure if Man Ray’s photograms count as close-ups - they are made without a lens, by placing objects on photographic paper and exposing it to light - but they are pseudoscientific investigations of objects, and, thanks to the Surrealist strategy of juxtaposition, reveal hidden meanings in everyday materials.

Strangeness is to the fore in Brassao’s “involuntary sculptures”, made with Salvador Dali. Small things - smeared toothpaste, rolled-up paper, a torn matchbox - are transformed by chance gestures in a sort of sculptural take on automatic writing, then transformed again by magnification into monumental works.

The power of the close-up to transform is applied repeatedly to the body. Jaques-Andri Boiffard’s untitled photograph shows a pair of eyes peering, terrified and terrifying, out from behind a dense tangle of hair, and his deliberately unpleasant portraits of ugly big toes illustrate a George Bataille essay, captioned as medical specimens. In the infamous opening scene of Buquel’s Un chien andalou, a woman’s eye appears to be slit with a straight razor, ants scurry from a hole in a man’s hand, and, in a merger of nature photography and the Surrealist’s body obsession, the camera lingers on a death’s head hawk moth. These, the most disturbing images, are shot in unflinching close-up.

Simon Starling is no Surrealist, but he shares space with them here, and bridges the gap between the artists and the scientists, the past and the present. His 2006 work Inventar-Nr 8573 (Man Ray) 4m-400nm is a slideshow which opens with a shot of Ray’s photograph Geological Fold, then relentlessly refocuses, ending on images of cloud-like forms, the magnified molecular structure of silver gelatine used in the photographic printing process.

Upstairs, things take a dramatic turn, away from the Surrealists and toward the conceptual artists of the 1970s. Where the avant garde of the 1920s and 1930s used the close-up to fetishise things, making them strange, mysterious or horrifying, their descendants opt for politically-motivated demystification.

Giusseppe Penone’s Svolgere la propria pelle (To Display One’s Own Skin) is a pseudoscientific survey of the artist’s own body; hundreds of photographs that show Penone placing a microscope slide over every square inch of his epidermis. Carolee Schneemann uses similar tactics, isolating and cataloguing male and female body parts. These works are a reversal of Boiffard’s toes, in which a body part is shown in isolation to reveal its uncanniness. Penone and Schneemann present multiple body parts to normalise them, explicitly rejecting the idea that particular parts should be viewed with shame or disgust.

Kate Craig takes an even closer look at her own body in Delicate Issue. A camera, operated by Craig’s husband, skims over her body, set to the rhythm of the artist’s heartbeat and breathing. Craig’s aims are clear, but, just in case anyone misses the point, she interrupts the reverie with a voiceover that poses pointed questions, asking: “What is the dividing line between public and private?” While Delicate Issue must be placed in the context of the feminist, conceptual art-making of the 1970s, the piece signals a return to the surrealism of the body in close-up - folds of Craig’s skin look like desert landscapes, wrinkles offer abstract imagery - taken up by the contemporary artists that follow, who add humour.

Mona Hatoum’s short film loop, projected on the gallery wall in a small circle, again turns the body into a landscape, a strange, shifting alien one. This time, the mesmerising subject is scrotal skin, moving in response to changes in temperature. A private part made public, and made almost unrecognisable in close-up, Hatoum’s piece has much in common with both the surreal images in the lower galleries and the politicised bodies that surround it.

Next, Wim Delvoye, who is best known for Cloaca, a biomechanical digestion machine which ingests food and excretes the obvious, turns again to the body’s waste products in Sybille II. The film shows people squeezing blackheads on their noses in extreme close-up, to the sort of wishy-washy soundtrack used in nature documentaries, reinforcing the impression that these towers of sebum oozing from pores are kin to strange sea creatures, or growing insect larvae.

I am not the squeamish type, but I left the screening room feeling decidedly queasy. It’s a reaction that would have made the Surrealists proud, and Sybille indeed brings us full circle. Dali, the artist who haunts this exhibition, though he appears here only in collaboration with Brassao and Buquel, wrote in the 1934 essay which inspired Delvoye that squeezed blackheads are “alien bodies in space”.

This sort of neat, light touch by curators Dawn Ades and Simon Baker is what makes Close-Up an enormously satisfying show, and reveals their deep, broad understanding of the subject at hand, which is matched with a willingness to let visitors draw their own conclusions.

Coralling a century and a half of scientific investigation and avant-garde art, revealing surprising connections between very different movements in art history, and deftly crafting a narrative around an apparently simple artistic tactic, Ades and Baker have mounted one of the best shows seen at Fruitmarket—or, for that matter, in Scotland—for years.

This review was first published in The Herald on Friday 31st October, 2008.