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

December 2008 Archives

The work of Henry Moore’s is fixed in the public imagination as a world of reclining figures and abstract forms with hollow spaces, cast in bronze on a monumental scale. When calling Moore to mind few people, it seems safe to say, think of dainty headscarves, jazzy curtains and comfy bedspreads.

The new exhibit at Dovecote Studio, the first to show Moore’s textile designs outside his home at Perry Grove, and featuring sketches and notebooks that remained undiscovered until 2006, could change all that.

Stepping across the threshold, it is, at first, very hard to believe that Henry Moore is the man behind the eye-popping designs arrayed on the studio wall. It’s not just the medium - though to see Moore working in silk and rayon rather than stone and bronze is a bit of a shock - it’s the colours. The clashing palette is unmistakably that of the optimistic, forward-looking, atomic 1950s, replete with jolly pinks, acidic lime greens and searing oranges.

Look closer, though, and there is much that is familiar. Family Group, a 1946 design, is familiar, with the extruded, softened forms of the father, mother and child a match for Moore’s monumental carvings of the time, but here, printed on a tiny scale, in seven colours, the scene is domestic, loving, bordering on the cutesy. There are little clues, too, which illuminate Moore’s better known work. The maze-like geometric patterns he sketched for headscarves have a distinctly Mesoamerican look to them, an echo, perhaps, of the Mayan reclining figures that informed Moore’s sculpture. The supposedly primitive pops up again in Heads - which Moore used for his own curtains at home - is an array of animal-like tribal masks.

Elsewhere, another side to Moore emerges, hinting at a rather wicked sense of humour. Tasked with producing designs for luxury fashion items, he picks thoroughly down to earth motifs, undercutting the glamour of silk (and the cod glamour of parachute nylon) by crafting patterns from the most mundane objects, from watering cans and caterpillars to piano keys and safety pins, all doodled with a lightness of touch. There’s even a striking design based on lines of barbed wire that, to modern eyes, looks positively punky.

Moore’s brief, parallel career as a textile designer is largely down to the efforts of Zika Ascher who, having fled Prague in 1939, turned in the post-war years toward artists for his designs, including Henri Matisse and Graham Sutherland. While these artists were happy to puncture the elitist pretensions of fine art in providing designs for mass produced items, they never quite blurred the boundaries between their main artistic practice and forays into the applied arts. In the lower galleries of the Dovecote, which play host to the Jerwood Contemporary Makers group show, it’s hard to draw a line between contemporary, conceptual art and what used to be called applied arts, or, more prosaically, crafts. The Jerwood are obviously aware of this - the foundation used to award an Applied Arts Prize, which, as of 2008, has been replaced by a shared grant for the Contemporary Makers gathered here - and the catalogue essays, while largely sticking to the appellation ‘makers’, uses the language of art criticism to discuss the work on show. This might not matter - the only useful, if tautological, way to define art today is as things presented by artists - if it weren’t for the fact that many of these makers seem to be positioning themselves in the perceived gap between ‘high’ art and ‘low’ craft. And most of them are making art, too, the only clue to a different status coming in their choice of materials, their training, and, ultimately, their inclusion in a show with the word ‘makers’ in its title.

Lin Cheung, ostensibly a jeweller, opens the show with an installation about jewellery, complete with a library of books - all in matching pristine white dust jackets - with titles like The Joy of Jewellrey, The Complete Idiots Guide to Jewellry and Zen and the Art of Jewellrey Making. In a matching all-white reading room, Cheung presents her made artefacts in chairs topped with glass seats. In other words, Cheung obscures here skill at making in a dud art installation.

Nicholas Rena’s series of vessels, The Ecstasy of St. Teresa, offer much more. They are huge, deliberately unusable jugs and pots on an almost architectural scale which match pleasingly rounded forms with sharp lines, bearing a surface sheen that comes close to glowing. Tellingly, they are one-offs, not multiples, and yet Rena clearly revels in the crafting of them, generating that sheen by applying layers of acrylic paint before finishing them with wax. The result is pleasingly ambiguous, with superficially useful objects presented for examination and enjoyment, not use.

Diedre Nelson, a graduate of Glasgow School of Art, approaches textile design with a twinkle in her eye. Her Emotionally Embroiderd Shirts, a trio of plain, mass-produced, machine-made garments bear beautiful, pristinely hand-stitched flowers, tucked below their collars. It’s a simple evocation of the subtle feelings we attach to our clothes as we wear them out, and an acknowledgement that those associations, built up over the years, are private - if one of Nelson’s shirts were worn, her work on them would be hidden from view, tickling the nape of the wearer’s neck. Nelson has made more flowers, more delicate still, and mounted them on the sort of foam earplugs handed out at noisy gigs. Again, a mass-produced object is suffused with the suggestion of memories, this time musical.

Memory is to the fore in Clare Twomey’s piece, too, which consists of a rough stripe across one wall of the gallery, with a history of grafitti scratched into its surface. There’s a crudely rendered bunny rabbit, a skull and crossbones, and a rough approximation of the ‘I love NY’ logo. It’s hard to resist the temptation to scratch the surface with a thumbnail, and I doubt Twomey would mind if visitors did: her best known installation featured a floor of fragile tiles, designed to be crushed under foot.

This review was first published in The Herald on Friday 19th December , 2008.

The annual group show at Sorcha Dallas this year is themed around the idea of repeated words, images and motifs. Dubbed r e p ’ e . t ’ t i o n - the unconventional spacing and punctuation is a nod to the eccentric orthography of EE Cummings - the exhibit blends new work by young, Glasgow-based artists with more established international figures and big names from the Op and Pop art canons, arranged together in two tightly-grouped installations.

The first, in the smaller of the two gallery spaces, is overbearing and claustrophobic thanks to Claudia Wieser’s wallpaper installation.

Pasting black-and-white photocopies directly on to the gallery walls, Wieser builds up fan-like motifs, parallel lines and dense geometric blocks. These serve as a backdrop for Sue Tompkins’s typed works on paper. These texts might be poems or song lyrics - Tompkins was frontwoman of the pop group Life Without Buildings, and her practice still includes musical performance - or snatches of overheard conversation. Whatever the source, each one takes a phrase and repeats it, sometimes with slight variations, until even the most innocuous term takes on a sinister air. There’s something dark about Fiona Jardine’s untitled collage, too, which sees images of hands and limbs arranged in a repeating, circular pattern.

In the second gallery, its windows covered in gauzy white fabric, the atmosphere is lighter and cooler, bordering on the antiseptic. The works here are arranged around a seating area, which features two chairs by Franz West, their seats and backs woven into Aztec patterns of brightly- coloured industrial strapping, and, on a little plinth bearing a vase of cut flowers and volumes of EE Cummings’s poetry. The domestic feel is furthered by Eva Berende’s hinged screen, each of its four panels bearing meticulously dyed strands of wool that trace out a pattern of interlocking oblongs and diamonds.

Up on the walls surrounding this odd little salon are works by Bridget Riley and John Wesley. Undressing, a diptych by Wesley, shows a woman taking off her stockings and knickers, but any trace of the salacious is removed by the Californian Pop surrealist’s flat, spare technique, as if the female body is nothing more than a pattern to be transcribed. Wesley’s Untitled (Mickey & Minnie) further flattens the already two-dimensional, repeating the familiar three circles of Mickey Mouse and his wife in flesh pink against a minimal landscape reduced to stripes of green and blue. The pair of Riley prints here lack the dizzying, disorienting power of her best-known monochrome Op Art works.

Instead, Riley offers studies in false tessellation, aligning leaf-like abstractions in orange, blue and deep green for Sylvan, revisiting the pattern for Berlin Wall Drawing (Print), this time opting for pale pastel tones.

For a show examining repetition, there’s a good deal of variety here, but thanks to some careful curation, connections are drawn between the disparate bunch of artists gathered here, sometimes simply - Wesley and Riley share a similar palette, Berendes and West both make furniture but present it as art - sometimes subtly, with Wieser’s wallpaper providing a busy visual soundtrack for Tompkins’s silent songs.

Around the corner on King Street, 15 artists from the Sorcha Dallas roster have taken over the Glasgow Print Studio. The group show, To Bring Forth and Give, is the result of a collaboration between the gallery and the studio designed to introduce artists to the possibilities of printmaking.

While most of the 15 have opted for the traditional approach, producing editions, some have taken a more radical, experimental tack.

Clare Stephenson’s piece Ornament and Boredom is more sculpture than print. The towering effigy - it’s a good 8ft tall - is equal parts haughty drag queen, classical statue and winged angel, its component parts apparently cobbled together from fashion magazine clippings and antique illustrations.

Michael Stumpf has made a screenprint of a photograph of a screenprint. His sweatshirt, emblazoned with a jumbled, purple, red and orange logo that reads “silenzio”, each letter rendered in different type, ranging from a simple sans serif to a hand-drawn gothic face, is suspended from the gallery ceiling on a hanger.

The partner print shows the same sweatshirt, roughly scrunched and crumpled on a jet black floor. On either side of the curtained doorway that leads to the print studio, Fiona Jardine has plastered the walls with screenprinted rolls of wallpaper, dotted with eyes, lashes and brows. One panel of the pristine paper has been defaced with smudges of slurry-brown paint, and Jardine has pasted a few more eyes, this time collaged from magazines, over the top.

Craig Mulholland’s contribution is a continuation of his sprawling solo show, Grandes et Petits Machines, which filled the two spaces at Sorcha Dallas and the Glasgow School of Art’s Mackintosh Gallery earlier this year, before transferring in expanded form to Spike Island. Mulholland is at home in any medium - that solo show included everything from delicate sculptures to paintings made of metal to an animated film with an operatic score - and his four prints here are assured, crisp new renderings of his past work using pegboard, obscure patterns that suggest programs written in obsolete computer code, or dangerously decayed electrical circuits.

The artists who have opted to make more conventional prints are not overshadowed by the sculptural and installation work. In fact, the more delicate, quiet pieces stand out. Alex Pollard’s Jack Sheppard is a photo etching that distorts a portrait of the eighteenth- century thief like a fairground mirror, as if Pollard has dragged his source image this way and that during the printing process. Couple, by Raphael Danke, is a surreal juxtaposition of an outsize lipstick and a radiator, rendered in grainy monochrome. A pair of digital prints, Drawing Study, offers a diary of Kate Davis’s recent practice, with a self-reflexive text reading: “It has taken me a month and a half to complete one drawing recently. That fact is part of the image now.”

Alasdair Gray must have made his first print before some of his peers here were born, and it’s easy to see that this isn’t an artist feeling his way in a new medium, but a master at work. His Corruption - “the Roman Whore”, according to the print’s hand-written caption, “for whom hangmen and politicians play the pimp” - is a woman with a death’s head rictus grin, impossibly pregnant with an embracing Adam and Eve, who are in turn surrounded by a strange bestiary of eagles, squid and bloated fish.

To Bring Forth and Give is more of a showcase than a group show proper, but it hangs together thanks to the palpable sense that most of these artists are eagerly experimenting with, and embracing, a new direction in their practices. It is, too, a sign that printmaking, all too often seen as a poor cousin to painting, is in rude health.

This review was first published in The Herald on Friday 12th December , 2008.

Langlands & Bell

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The Talbot Rice Gallery’s exhibition of films and animations by Langlands & Bell - an artistic duo who, when they’re not making sculptural work, have been at the vanguard of new media since the late 1970s - serves well, among other things, as a history of the technology of film, from Super 8’s flickering black and white to the polygons and textures of computer simulation.

The show opens with Ooh La La Les Legumes!, a doomy, Godard-influenced piece made in 1979 when the duo were still students. The loosely structured narrative sees Langlands and Bell drifting through Dijon’s markets and cafes, as the camera plays doomily across gravestones and follows cows being herded into an abattoir. A later student work, Pseudo, borrows both the soundtrack from Hitchcock’s Psycho and the director’s techniques, to craft a silent noir in which a woman, engrossed in a thriller on TV, finds herself under attack.

These early pieces are gripping, and sophisticated in their exploration of film technique, but it is only when Langlands & Bell develop their own cinematic language, and turn their cameras on the real world, that they hit their stride.

Borough Market, filmed in 1986, is a tightly focused portrait of a place, and the people in it. Close-up shots of market traders and their punters mugging for the camera are intercut with death masks and cheap statuary, an auctioneer takes bids at breakneck speed, banging his gavel, a stiffly formal equivalent to the vendors shouting prices outside. These frenetic scenes are set against shots of city workers flowing along pavements on their way home. The shots build to form a dense study of the market and its surroundings, contrasting the forward-looking city boys with the tradition-bound stall-holders.

The most recent film here, Folkestone - Boulogne: A Blind Date, applies the same techniques to two towns, and the journey between them. In a nod to their earlier work, Langlands & Bell let their camera rove over more stalls of fruit and veg, and record a fisherman complaining about the decline of his industry. Shots of the red cabins of Folkestone’s funicular railway give way to scenes of a cross-Channel ferry chugging into Boulogne harbour, a simple juxtaposition of two transport systems kept running by the tourist trade.

Shots of elderly folk dancers in traditional costume jigging to accordion music are matched to sequences of gangs of kids clad in the international uniform of hooded tops and tracksuit bottoms. These two groups couldn’t be more different, you might think, but the teenagers are dancing too, performing “jumpstyle” moves. By cutting between the two, Langlands & Bell reduce the apparent distance between the two cultural activities, highlighting the fact that, while the folk dancers are preserving local customs in the face of globalisation, their children, despite the American streetwear on their backs, are busy creating new folk dances.

These pieces are, above all, about people, but when Langlands & Bell remove the human component from their work, they falter. The Artists Studio is a 2002 interactive computer animation that recreates the interior of the Old Library Hallway at Petworth House in Sussex, where JMW Turner kept a studio, contrasted with a virtual version of Langlands & Bell’s own studio space in London. I found it an exercise in frustration, spending five minutes desperately trying to escape an upstairs landing, and the rest of my time interacting with the virtual space by banging my virtual head against the pixelated purple flock wallpaper of a Petworth corridor. I can’t blame Langlands & Bell for my lack of coordination and unfamiliarity with the computer games that inspire the work, but even if I had been able to glide smoothly from Turner’s old haunt to the slickly designed spaces of their HQ, I doubt I would’ve learned as much as I did soaking up the atmosphere of Boulogne, Folkestone, Borough Market or Dijon.

In the upstairs gallery, The House of Osama Bin Laden, a work which earned Langlands & Bell their 2004 Turner Prize nomination, is another interactive simulation, this time set in the al Qaeda figurehead’s one- time base in Afghanistan. The stills reproduced in the catalogue show someone exploring the bombed-out building, finding a rocket launcher propped in a corner, and storage spaces full of moth-eaten rugs. On their field trip to Afghanistan, Langlands & Bell risked life and limb, only realising when reviewing their research photos of the hide-out that they had been snapping away just inches from unexploded land mines. There’s no sense of danger or immediacy to be found in the finished work, though. This could be a commentary on the media hysteria that led up to the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, but it seems more likely to be an unfortunate side-effect of Langlands & Bell’s embracing of new technology and bloodless focus on physical space, a combination that alienates the viewer as much as their film work achieves the opposite.

There’s another problem with these simulated spaces. Langlands & Bell may have been prescient in making work in line with games such as Grand Theft Auto, which allows players to explore cityscapes, or the alternative reality of Second Life, where users potter about their second homes, but the inexorable pace of technological progress leaves these pieces, state-of-the-art five years ago, looking a little dated. This is not true of even the earliest film works, which - despite the fashion of their time, and revealing the technology behind them in the grain of Super 8 or the crispness of DV - show the world, rather than attempt to recreate it.

This is a divided show, then, evenly split between disappointing, anaemic interactive animations and warm, lyrical filmworks, but those films make it a must-see: nobody can beat Langlands & Bell at portraits of people, places and the ties that bind them together.

This review was first published in The Herald on Friday 5th December, 2008.

Unreliable Witness

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Unreliable Witness gathers together art that explores truth and fiction, the telling of stories and the creation of myths.

Michael Fullerton opens the show with five huge posters that glitter under spotlights. They bear a press shot of a.c. acoustics, a now-defunct Glasgow group whose biography reads like the template for a cult indie outfit, complete with critical acclaim, modest sales, devoted fans in more famous bands, a handful of Peel sessions and high profile support slots that hinted at the possibility of mainstream success. Fullerton’s memorial offers a glimpse of an alternate history, where ac acoustics, despite their defiantly unambitious lower case name, were pop idols, gracing the cover of Smash Hits instead of languishing on the middle pages of the Melody Maker, headlining all the big festivals and mounting bloated international stadium tours. It’s a good joke, if you’ve heard of ac acoustics, which, as Fullerton is well aware, most people haven’t.

Fullerton’s Colour Study of the Painting ‘Elizabeth Foster’ by Sir Joshua Reynolds 1787 (Leon Trotsky) is a more complex investigation into propaganda, possible histories and the politics of aesthetics. Lady Elizabeth Foster led an interesting life, living in a menage a trois with the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire for a quarter century, while, rumour has it, merrily conducting affairs with a string of Earls, Counts and, for variety, a cardinal. There’s no hint of this in Reynolds’ portrait, of course, which casts the Lady as a rosy-cheeked innocent in virginal white lace. Fullerton takes this act of revisionism and applies it to another, borrowing the colour scheme used by Reynolds to paint a version of an anti-Bolshevik poster which showed Trotsky as a slavering maniac, his features twisted into an anti-Semitic stereotype. It’s an intriguing synthesis, matching Reynolds’ subtle propaganda, which promotes an image of a powerful elite as morally upright, to the decidedly unsubtle casting of Trotsky as an unhinged monster, in a bid to secure the position of another powerful elite.

For Knowledge Will Break The Chains of Slavery (Alexei Radakov) turns again to Russian history, borrowing its title from an early Soviet poster extolling the virtues of education, but this time instead of rewriting history or merging two narratives together, Fullerton obscures it, presenting a thick strip of audio broadcast tape, unlistenable behind glass.

Gabriela Vanga takes a more whimsical approach to possible histories with George. Installed on a low table are fragments of a portrait of the titular George, and a text which tells of its making. At thirteen, Vanga didn’t have a boyfriend, so she invented one, telling her school pals new tales about him every day. Years later, after confessing to the deception, Vanga described George to a police artist without revealing that his subject was a figment of her imagination. The text then instructs the viewer to mentally reconstruct George’s face from the fragments, following Vanga’s own process in remembering the details of her teenage fiction. It’s a rather twee piece, unless you entertain the notion that Vanga has made the whole thing up, from the fibs at school to the police artist to her wish to share the experience.

There’s no sign of whimsy in Peter Friedl’s harrowing video loop, Liberty City, which shows a gang brutally beating a defenceless man. The shaky, grainy amateurish footage looks absolutely genuine, but it is in fact a short drama, based on a 1979 riot in Miami, sparked by the fatal beating of a black insurance salesman, Arthur McDuffie, at the hands of white policemen. Friedl’s fiction is, in effect, a reversal of these events - in his film, the gang is black, and their victim is a white police officer - but, thanks to its chilling realism, does more than make a simplistic point about race relations in the US, questioning the illusion of objective truth created by the shaky camerawork and grainy quality of documentary footage.

Similar questions are posed by Nedko Solakov’s installation The Truth (The Earth is Plane, The World is Flat). This collection of paintings, drawings, newspaper cuttings, wall texts, handwritten notes, snapshots and a convincingly realised documentary film presents ‘evidence’ that the world is not a globe, but a thin disk. Centred on physicist Dr. Haraldar Gustalsan and the cosmonaut Vitaly R., the overwhelming barrage of made up facts, crank theories and conspiracies are arranged like an eccentric child’s science project, building to a wonderfully silly conclusion. Solakov’s point is, though, deadly serious, his sharp sense of humour masking an angry indictment of the former government and media of his native Bulgaria. The work was made in the early 1990s, in the wake of Bulgaria’s first free elections after decades of Communist rule, and the implication is clear: if a totalitarian government tells its citizens that the earth is flat, it might as well be.

After this, Andrea Fraser’s satire of art world foibles might seem to be aiming at an easy target, but her filmed performance Official Welcome is a sophisticated critique of, well, sophisticated critiques. The piece opens with Fraser, as herself, welcoming visitors to a mid-career retrospective of her work, before adopting a series of personae, acting out introductary speeches by jaded artists, obsequious curators and blethering critics. It’s a blistering attack on the indulgences of the art system, but one that is itself indulgent, allowing the subjects of Fraser’s satire to laugh at themselves.

Susan Hiller is interested in the underlying systems of the art world and the making of art, too, but her installation feels more like a celebration of curation and presentation. From the Freud Museum (Unique Prototype) is a vitrine housing custom-made boxes which in turn house small collections of objects, inspired by Freud’s own collection of artifacts, including soil samples from Ireland, various representations of hands, a ouija board with instructions and small vials of holy water. The result is a sort of commentary on cultural history, archeology and archiving, expressed as an archive.

Hiller’s work is concise, coherent and carefully put together, but the same can’t be said of Unreliable Witness. It’s a fine collection of works, but, while each of the artists here is, at root, making work about crafting narratives, whether they contain profound truths or outrageous fibs, the show itself fails to match up to the work it contains, presenting artists and their practices individually, without telling a convincing story about them.

This review was first published in The Herald on Friday 28th November, 2008.