This was an intense three days! We took in the following galleries/museums, with multiple exhibition visits in some cases (not all of which are going to be blogged here – but it will be a long post anyway!):
ICA – Juergen Teller – ‘Woo’
National Portrait Gallery – Man Ray – ‘Portraits’ (+ some other bits and pieces)
British Museum – ‘Ice Age Art’
Somerset House – ‘The Wool House’
Somerset House – ‘Landmark: Fields of Photography’
Somerset House – The Courtauld Gallery
Photographers’ Gallery – Laura Letinsky – ‘Ill Form and Void Full’
Photographers’ Gallery – ‘Perspectives on Collage’
Photographers’ Gallery – Geraldo De Barros – ‘What Remains’
As if that wasn’t enough, on our way to the ICA on the first afternoon, as we passed through Admiralty Arch onto the Mall, we were followed:
It was St Patrick’s Day & I shudder to think what the hundreds of Irish revellers in nearby Trafalgar Square, some of whom were already well into their bottles of Bushmills, made of this character. We escaped into the nearby ICA to be confronted by three enormous images of Vivienne Westwood without clothes! It was a tough decision, but we stayed where we were, ‘safe’ with Juergen Teller!
1. Juergen Teller – ‘Woo’
Juergen Teller is not normally my ‘thing’; but it was the last day of this exhibition and I decided it was a good opportunity to at least have a closer look at his work. Overall, I found it surprisingly interesting at all sorts of levels (which probably reflects the diversity of his work). Info about the exhibition is here.
· First up, are the three enormous nude portraits of Vivienne Westwood (albeit flanked by Kurt Cabain and guitar to the right and a fluffy kitten to the left!). The colours are vivid, mainly from her hair and the cushions/throws. The poses reflect so many other portraits from the classical painting to the ‘lads mag’ – but there is something you can’t help enjoying/respecting/admiring about this representation of a confident and, seemingly, comfortable woman in her seventies as the subject. I did not, to be honest, seek to ‘read’ these images. It would be possible analyse them in all sorts of ways, but I’m not convinced that this was the intention of the creator, the subject, or the gallery. They are probably best appreciated as ‘sensational’ i.e. designed to produce a strong reaction. Close examination suggested that they had been, perhaps, ‘blown up’ a touch further than was desirable – I’m talking about print size here! But they are probably intended to be viewed from a walkway on the other side of the room,
· Opposite, on that walkway/balcony, and in complete contrast to the Vivienne Westwood portraits, was a series of smaller prints, combined with text, about his mother in the woods – ‘Irene Im Wald’. Actually, the accompanying text, which appears sporadically at the bottom of some of the images, begins by telling the story of an early experience he had when he first came to London, before moving on to open up some hints about his family’s history, some tale about his mother, father and uncle. In common with much of the exhibition, the presentation style is not of the highest standard – personal and ‘snapshot-like’, bleached out prints, that have a sense of something aged and fading, from the past. It works in this series, which I enjoyed, but less so in other areas, I would say (more later).
· Then to another contrasting style of presentation in the ‘Reading Room’, where the walls are plastered with images, reminiscent of a teenager’s bedroom. It’s an intimate space, with a table in the middle with copies of his books, to browse. There are dozens of images on the walls, ‘carelessly’ arranged, mixing subjects, genres, styles. Referring back to where I started this note about him I don’t much enjoy a lot of what Teller does, but this was an effective way to present his cross-genre, open-ended, and (I think!) honest approach to what he does. I had been distinctly suspicious of his tendency to photograph his own nakedness; but I’m less sure now that it is pretentious or shocking. Maybe it’s just something he does?
· And then upstairs, ere two rooms with ‘gallery’ prints. The first had a mix of, mainly, portraits e.g. Kate Moss in a wheelbarrow, Bjork and her son in a steamy Icelandic pool, Juergen’s backside on a grand piano, being played (the piano!) by a naked Charlotte Rampling, and so on. Most puzzling for me in this room (and it was also true of the ‘Irene Im Wald’ prints) was why so many of them were printed in a kind of band across the middle of the paper – white borders top and bottom, but full bleed to the edge left and right. They were then simply stuck to a board backing (and beginning to bubble in one or two cases) and presented in plain white (cheap-looking) frames. This was clearly deliberate, but the result looked a bit like the output of an amateur photographer who was struggling to get the printer to co-operate (Me! A couple of years ago!). For me, the effect was to downgrade what was being presented – and one is drawn to the conclusion that this was the intention. Teller could have his images printed to the very highest quality, should he wish, so he must have made this choice. I can reflect, and have reflected, but I’m not sure I know why.
· Probably the best of all, for me, was a monumental portrait of Marc Jacobs, maybe three metres high and taking up more or less the whole of one wall in the final room. In contrast to some of the other work, it was beautifully composed, printed and framed. One of three large portraits in the room, it certainly had an ‘iconic’ quality about it, reminiscent of a classical portrait of Christ. The others, of similar size, were of an elderly mad in bed, with balloons, and a young man in his underpants apparently covered in soil (but I might have got that wrong).
Overall, I came away with a positive impression of Teller’s versatility and creativity, but still with a lot of reservations. I’m glad I saw the work, but there is an awful lot of it that leaves me un-moved. But then I don’t think he’s someone who would want to be pigeon-holed, so he’s likely to have that mixed impact on most people. Getting to where he is involves as much drive and personality as it does talent and skill (as much not necessarily more); for which he deserves respect, even if one doesn’t like his work. He puzzles me and niggles me – but that probably means he’s getting the result he wants!
2. Man Ray – ‘Portraits’ – National Portrait Gallery
There are, in this exhibition, over 150 original prints on display – from the early 20th century to the 1960s, but mainly from the 20s and 30s. Described s “... the first major museum retrospective of this ... artist’s photographic portraits ...” (in exhibition literature and at the link above), the exhibition brings together work that usually resides all over the world e.g. the Pompidou Centre in Paris, MOMA in New York, and Elton John’s personal collection (wherever that resides), to name just three sources. In that respect, it could be regarded as a significant global cultural event, worthy of attention.
There are lots of well-known Man Ray portraits – Lee Miller, Kiki, etc – original prints made by Man Ray. It is also good to have the chance to examine original copies of the famous ‘VU’ magazine.
For some reason, the exhibition led me to reflect on the photograph as ‘object’ – presumably because that is exactly what we were viewing. What did these photographs record? What is their significance? For example, we have several portraits of Lee Miller – a beautiful woman; a fine and influential photographer; an experimental collaborator with Man Ray. What do the portraits actually tell us about her? Or even about Man Ray, for that matter? Perhaps I was ‘just that way out’, but I found myself wondering what it was all about!
Certainly, though, it was a fascinating and unique opportunity to see these original prints all together in one place. It was also ver busy – hundreds of people at £12 a ticket. If nothing else, it demonstrated the power and popularity of photography. Why, though, did all these people want to go and see his portraits on a Sunday afternoon?
For me, it’s the fact that he is seen as such a different and influential 20th century artist, placed right at the centre of that Dada/Surrealist ‘turmoil’, which was itself concurrent with so much drama in the 3rd and 4th decades of the 20th Century. But, in this particular case, what did we all get from viewing these original prints? That we had seen them? Just that? These photographs are regarded as significant ‘objects’, icons brought together for us to pass by and pay homage, but do they tell us much about the subjects, the artist, the times, ourselves? What is their value, besides rarity? I’m not going to try and answer that, but the exhibition made me ask the question.
3. Landmark: Fields of Photography – Somerset House
This is a big (literally) exhibition, comprising between 150 & 200 (often big) prints of images by c70-80 artists. It is put on by the Positive View Foundation, who also did the recent 'Cartier Bresson: A Question of Colour' exhibition here. It is, on the whole, well-presented, with some reservation about lighting large prints hung over high fireplaces in this impressive, but occasionally quirky, location. You do need the map to find your way around, if you’re going to do it logically, since the exhibition is spread out amongst 17/18 interconnecting rooms and arranged into 10 different themes. It’s a good, sound survey of current activity in landscape photography, and includes plenty of contemporary work. Despite the comments about lighting and quirkiness, the location itself has a fascination; the prints are excellent; and the curation is good.
I was a bit wary of the thematic approach. The ten themes are Sublime; Pastoral; Witness; Landmark; Scar; Datum; Control; Delusion; Hallucination; and Reverie. And there is a definition of each, supplied in the accompanying leaflet. To be fair, Landscape is a difficult genre to pin down (if pinning down is a worthwhile objective) as some of our OCA Forum discussions have demonstrated, and this approach deserves credit for a novel but reasonably effective structuring of its ‘Fields’, as referred to in the exhibition sub-title.
Presenting work by such a wide range of artists is always going to be a challenge, too. Since so much contemporary photographic work is produced in series but there are, at most, 2-3 examples of most people’s work, they are, inevitably, out of their context. That doesn’t mean they can’t work, but the casual visitor here, seeing one image from Robert Adams, say, or Joan Fontcuberta, is hardly likely to get much appreciation of who they are and what their work is about. But, on the whole, the presence of contemporary photographers such as Mark Power, Ed Burtinsky, Nadav Kander, Simon Roberts, Simon Norfolk ... and several others ... does produce a degree on consistency of approach. Burtinsky, though, is a good example of the limitations of a big, multi-artist exhibition. I happily spent close on two hours viewing his 'Oil' show at the Photographers’ Gallery, last year, with much consider and reflect on. Here there is just a pair of prints, one of which is used in the publicity. I must say that I did enjoy seeing some examples of Mark Power’s work, in full exhibition context for the first time.
The very last room was, I would say, most stimulating for me, and probably the most ‘current’. There was a massive installation of 4x6 prints of Flickr 'Sunsets' by Penelope Umbrico, for example – mor about the contemporary photographic image than about landscape, perhaps, but good to have seen it. I also liked Pierre Radisic’s 'Man Who Fell to Earth' (Click his name at this link, where several of the images from the exhibition are viewable) – apparently a brand new work, I learn via his Facebook page.
So, this was another worthwhile visit with some good things to take away, even if there are a few reservations about the premise.
4. Laura Letinsky – ‘Ill Form & Void Full’ – Photographers’ Gallery
Laura Letinsky’s still life work is probably going to feature in my Assignment Four Essay, so a) it was good to have the chance to see this exhibition and b) I shall probably get into more detailed analysis at that stage. This is her most recent work, produced 2010-11, comprising large scale images of ‘constructions’ created in her studio, from images of foodstuffs, cutlery, glassware, cut from magazines, plus elements of her own earlier images, and cut/torn paper. It is the way that her work has moved forward, since 2009, from ‘actual’ still life images. All her work, since photographing couples in their homes at intimate (not necessarily sexually intimate) momnts in the 1990s, demonstrates a very interesting and intelligible progression – but anyone coming ‘cold’ to these images might, perhaps, regard them as hard to appreciate – beyond their immediate aesthetic appeal, that is.
Let’s start there, in recording my own reflections on this exhibition specifically. Quality, exceptional quality, is where I would begin. Beautifully executed, large-scale prints, a soft matte finish on them, and unglazed, so there is a genuine opportunity to interact (not touch, of course, though it’s tempting!) with the surface of the work – important, I think, in fully appreciating it. They are all simply framed in white and, in the excellent atmosphere of the ‘Barbara Lloyd Gallery’ on the fourth floor of the Photographers’ Gallery, the effect, for me, was quite magical (not a word I use often!). Even the casual viewers I saw wander in, glance round quickly, and then leave (and I can understand that) cannot have failed to sense that this work is ‘serious’, ‘important’, something of beauty, something created with deep thought and care.
Then, in total contrast to the quality of the presentation, we move to the subject matter – essentially, scraps of paper! Some are cut from magazines, some roughly torn or folded, many taped together with (still visible!) invisible sticky-tape, some with hints of ambiguous smears or stains. And where the cut-out images are of food, it is often half-eaten, or showing signs of age and deterioration. Essentially, what is pictured is insignificant. But it has been assembled with purpose, clearly, and is rendered significant by the very quality of the presentation – if in no other way.
As with her earlier still-life images of ‘post-meal’ tables, to which these obviously relate, there is always a sense of something over and passed. We are looking at what remains; human presence was there, very clearly – chiefly, in this case, the presence of the artist. She has selected, cut, assembled, taped, and left clear signs of all that activity. And so we’re led to the conclusion that these are images about images.
Alongside the ‘careless’ (apparent and intentional, not literal) assembly of the subject matter is the ‘careless’ (same qualification) perspective, framing and balance. There is always something uneasy and unnerving about the formal qualities – angles of view, composition, etc – giving the viewer a slightly uncomfortable feeling, but also encouraging engagement. Frequently, I found myself trying to ‘dis-assemble- what she had put together – in my mind – and work out just what was going on with angles and relationships within the image.
Colour is worth a mention, too. It is rich, saturated and consistent – but only in parts of the composition. Much is monochromatic, in an even (mostly) and natural-feeling light. The evenness of the light is certainly part of the project, though it doesn’t often impose itself on the image. As with subject and composition, the colour also reflects back to her earlier still-lifes.
One might reflect on just what these are – collages, perhaps, maybe even sculptural structures, maybe still-lifes. She mentions somewhere (I’ve read various articles – might have been in BJP) that there are three levels of ‘image’ present in this work – the original image(s) themselves; what she made in the studio; and then the physical phenomenon that we are looking at in the gallery. And they are very different – she even points out that, in her studio, you would never actually observe what her camera actually sees.
So - complex, confounding and compelling – I have really enjoyed beginning to delve into her work and it is very fortunate that this exhibition coincided. There is much to reflect on; much to puzzle over; much to research and read. I enjoyed it – as is probably clear!
5. Perspectives on Collage – Photographers’ Gallery
Eight artists are represented in this exhibition – all using photographically-based collage. I don’t propose to go into detail on any, but to mention a few, those works that particularly struck a chord.
Firs up is German artist Nicole Wermers – a nice link to Letinsky, because she ‘appropriates’ material from magazines and catalogues – but this time, they are from interiors, design catalogues etc, often furniture. The original material seems, in this case, to have been of high quality, glossy prints etc, and she cuts and rearranges them into what the exhibition leaflet describes as ‘semi-modernist abstractions’. Certainly, there seem to be echoes of Bauhaus. There is a beautiful and seductive element to the work, and I think this issues of seduction by design and image is at the heart of the work.
“Anna Parkina’s work defies categorisation”, so says Aesthetica Magazine in this article. Described as a Russian avant-garde artists, she works in sculpture, painting and performance, as well as photography. In this display of her work, we saw a series of collages, assembled from her own images, with a filmic quality about them – shades of the 1960’s avant-garde; mackintoshes and architecture. They worked well and would, I’m sure, be worthy of more in-depth investigation when I have the time.
Of the others, I responded positively to Canadian artist, Roy Arden, who I might also investigate further, but was not especially keen on Peggy Frank’s arrangement of books on the gallery floor, or Clunie Reid’s combination of appropriated internet images, stickers, crudely-drawn marker-pen figures and shapes – but I have to admit that I haven’t spent a great deal of time trying to investigate further.
6. Geraldo De Barros – ‘What Remains’ – Photographers’ Gallery
The third exhibition at the Photographers’ Gallery featured Brazilian artist/designer Geraldo De Barros, who apparently engaged with photography at different points in his career. What is particularly interesting was the way he went beyond the simple photographic image and used multiple exposures, camera rotations, over-painting, scratching, cutting-out, and layering (physically) to create abstractions. His second and much later engagement with photography came about as he used his old negatives and prints to create new collages. Again – interesting to have seen his work – further confirmation of the potential in moving beyond the actual image, going past the simple notion of recording, moving to expression through construction.
So – a marathon trip to London – but a highly rewarding one, rich in stimulation, inspiration and thought provocation.