Category Archives: Art

Art in the City: Piercing the Veil, Simmons & Simmons

Above the door to this City law firm’s auditorium hangs a pink neon sign: ‘Trust Me’. It’s far from your average bit of corporate art; it’s a Tracey Emin piece bought by Simmons & Simmons several years ago. Emin is nothing if not autobiographical, and ‘Trust Me’ evokes not only her own damaged background but it hangs within a place in which trust is – or should be – at the centre of a transaction. There’s a legend that goes that some asset managers arriving at Simmons for a meeting were spooked by the sign and wanted it removed, but the Emin remains in place. The clash of artistic and City cultures is most evident at Simmons’ regular exhibitions, when the lower lobby is filled with people who look nothing like your average Moorgate suit. The Simmons collection is immense – the firm was an early buyer of the YBAs – but there’s no white cube; this is a working floor of meeting rooms. The evening I went there were still posters around for a seminar that day on legal trends in the mining sector. You wouldn’t get that at the Saatchi Gallery.

Jenny Holzer, I Am Arrested

Jenny Holzer, I Am Arrested

Piercing the Veil is a cute title that meshes the art and legal worlds. It refers to a well-known principle when assessing liability, the ‘corporate veil’ being the concept that separates the legal identity of a company from its shareholders and directors. It’s also an allegory for the artistic process: how much should you be made to work to read a painting, and to what extent should a painting resist reading?

Conforming to the theme of obscuration, these works invite you to look, and then look again. Some, like the Dangerous Minds Practice, put that veil centre of the painting and indeed the title. Veiled Threat shows two AK47s lit by neon behind a screen print on perforated steel, a Pop version of a global weapon brand. James William Collins’ Brandy arranges grids of tiny high-gloss teardrops with black squares in varying states of decomposition. It hangs next to Jenny Holzer’s I Am Arrested, which is part of a series in which she reproduces declassified US government documents from the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. Malevich’s black square is no longer a method of artistic liberation but becomes a deeply authoritarian act of redaction.

Azadeh Nia, Untitled

Azadeh Nia, Untitled

There’s some real beauty too. Maybe I’ve been looking at too much Dutch art recently, but I enjoyed two sets of interiors in particular: Azadeh Nia’s two untitled works represent imagined rooms, offering a jumble of perspectives and speckled with miniature delicacy. Meanwhile, In Parting, Parting Again and Edge, Eleanor Watson presents dark-wooded interiors that suggest a pregnancy within the stillness, something deliberately withheld rather than absent.

In the panel discussion, chaired by Jon Sharples, a Simmons lawyer who is a skilled curator, we got an insight into the practices of some of the artists. Justin Mortimer spoke powerfully about the slow burn of the image: we read long novels, we listen to complex music, he argued, and yet there is no equivalent cultural acceptance of long contemplation of the image. Saul Rohr spoke of the battle to escape his training in illustration, which teaches you above all to communicate instantly. In a world that is saturated with images, the challenge for artists is to cloud the obvious.

Justin Mortimer, Djinn II

Justin Mortimer, Djinn II

Justin Mortimer’s Djinn II is based on a World War One photograph of dreadful wounds that he said were too graphic and too explicit to reproduce. To evoke that horror, Mortimer uses instead one of his signature motifs of the balloon, whose skin-like texture is both childlike and uncanny. It’s an anti-documentary approach that unearths throbs of old nightmares within the viewer, and it’s also way of veiling the original.

It was an unusual experience within the auditorium of a City law firm auditorium to hear passionate declamations against too much clarity, too much definition. The practice of law is a mixture of fluidity and rigidity, and the best lawyers negotiate the grey areas; but art wants to leave the most important things unsaid.

 

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This is Illyria, lady: shipwrecks and a black horizon

Just off the Dubrovnik coast is an installation called Your Black Horizon by Olafur Eliasson that first made its appearance in 2005 at the Venice Biennale and now finds a permanent home on the island of Lopud. Set back several hundred metres from the harbour and behind some straggly botanical gardens, it’s a windowless pavilion designed by David Adjaye. Inside in the blackness is a thin, dazzling horizontal line of light that burns on to the retina. Unknown The idea, I think, is to renegotiate landscape art in that you leave the work with that image in your eye and reproject it onto the real horizon. We’d spent the day on boats, swimming in the Adriatic, so it wasn’t quite part of the script, and in fact we came across the installation entirely by accident. It’s not necessarily comfortable being in pitch blackness with just one dazzling line – no sense of the size of the space which disappears. Groping for the exit you feel lost, like a pre-modern traveller with no maps.images-1

Early modern representations of Croatia, whether as Illyria in Twelfth Night or the Dalmatian coast in travellers’ tales, inevitably revolved around seafaring. Across the Croatian coastline, even now, there are traces of shipwrecks in touristed areas. On the island of Hvar, just off the coast from Split, there’s a lovely little Franciscan monastery that was founded in the 1460s after a captain survived a storm at sea. John Locke’s account of his journey down the Adriatic coast in 1553 on his perilous way to Jerusalem, reported in Hakluyt’s Principal Navigations (STC 12626a), makes clear that the going was treacherous. His party tried to ‘beare in againe to Ragusa, for to know the newes of the Turkes armie, but the winde blew so hard and contrary, that we could not.’

Lopud island was a sixteenth-century centre of shipbuilding that supplied the city-state of Ragusa – modern-day Dubrovnik – which equipped Spain with ships for the Armada. The early modern name of the city was corrupted into the word ‘raguesee’ and thence ‘argosy’. Like Venice, it was a mercantile republic; no Orsino here. Jean Bodin’s 1576 Les Six Livres de la République (translated into English in 1606 by Richard Knolles) is approving:

“But sudden and complete change is dangerous, and in order to avoid replacing all the officers of the realm at the same time, to the interrupting of public business, it is best that colleges of magistrates should be renewed by succession of persons, one at a time. This is done in the Republic of Ragusa, where the Senate is perpetual, but the senators, who form the sovereign judicial body, only hold office for one year at a time, but do not all go out of office together, but successively, so that the change is hardly noticeable. After a certain period they may serve again.”

Ragusa’s stability even more striking given its delicate position of being a client state of the Ottoman empire, the bridge between the Venetian and Turkish spheres of influence.

“This citie of Ragusa paieth tribute to the Turke yerely fourteene thousand Sechinos,” noted John Locke, “and euery Sechino is of venetian money eight liuers and two soldes, besides other presents which they giue to the Turkes Bassas when they come thither.”

A hundred years later, James Howell was marvelling at the diversity of the inhabitants. ‘In these Territories which the Turk hath ‘twixt the Danube and the sea, and ‘twixt Ragusa, and Buda, Christians are intermixt with Mahometans’ (Epistolae Ho-elianae 1650).

But Howell’s account of Ragusa’s economic and civil prosperity was shortlived. New merchant routes to the Atlantic were being opened up, and in 1667 an earthquake devastated Ragusa and its islands. An Illyrian golden age was over.

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Henri Scissorhands: Matisse and the ghost of Louis Aragon

Jazz: Pierrot's Funeral

Jazz: Pierrot’s Funeral

Dancers, bees, swallows, sharks, sword-swallowers, mermaids, stars: even first thing on a Sunday morning, the Matisse exhibition at Tate Modern felt like a live show. Jazz (1947) was his first venture into cutouts, or ‘drawing with scissors’, as he put it. It features assemblages of dancers, elephants, clowns, pierrots, knife-throwers and most famously, Icarus – and is accompanied by Matisse’s swooping handwriting on the nature of his work. The process of creation is foregrounded throughout. Tate runs films on a loop of Matisse cutting into paper, and the speed and the dexterity with which he wielded the huge tailor’s scissors are remarkable. The famous blue nudes, too, are presented as if on a loop, staged on different walls around the room, allowing the viewer to circle from I to IV, and assess their variations.

Découpage is about the rough edges. It bears the marks of its construction. This performative element is signalled in this exhibition, which also features Matisse’s designs for ballet and the chapel in Vence. When he was commissioned to design the chapel he didn’t just stop at the stained-glass windows; his work extended to the chasuble worn by the priest, an adroit linking of man and place – or in the Catholic terms that the atheist Matisse would not have acknowledged, the linking of the human with the sacred space, which sees the priest as vessel.

Chasuble for the Vence chapel

Chasuble for the Vence chapel

Tate presents the work in clear biographical terms. Shadowed behind these visions of light and colour and memories of the South Seas is the enclosed space of the artist’s, one of which you occasionally catch a glimpse through Matisse’s figurative inclusion of a door or window to the garden beyond his room.

Ah, yes. The suffering artist in his room, the poignancy of his frailty, the picture of the door leading to a world that was denied to him. It’s all a bit close to the familiar trope of the tubercular/syphilitic artist (Van Gogh, Maupassant, et al) that riddles French cultural history. The pathos is a plangent counterpoint to the vibrancy of the colour, but I’m not sure we should be too hung up on Matisse’s immobility, since his cloister midwived a radical reinvention of his art.

Matisse’s friend, the avant-garde communist poet Louis Aragon, who is referenced numerous times in the Tate commentary, would have had none of this mimsy biographical approach. Aragon came to visit Matisse in the 1950s. In Henri Matisse, Roman, Aragon’s lengthy compilation of his memories of the artist – itself a bit of a découpage, by all accounts – he meditates on the relationship between painting and writing and argues for the work, not the man, to be considered. It all sounds suspiciously formalist for an intellectual who was so high up in the French communist party; his uncoupling of the art from the artist doesn’t entirely fit in with a Marxist aesthetic in which literature and art cannot be understood independently of its material production. But then, Aragon’s socialist realism never quite held fast. His collected essays on art written between the 1920s and 1960s and called – yes – Collages (1965) show him incessantly wrestling with the political and aesthetic problems of art and representation.

Anyway, Tate’s nod to Aragon’s dialogue with Matisse is an important reminder of the milieu in which Matisse operated prior to the Second World War and after his Fauvist period. Paris in the 1920s and 1930s was a laboratory of modernism; jazz was arriving, Russian, American and German emigrés thronged the Left Bank and the Surrealists had changed the game in art and poetry. You get a sense in the Tate exhibition of this creative explosion with Matisse’s scenery and costume design for the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo’s Rouge et Noir, choreographed by Léonide Massine to Shostakovich’s first symphony, but it doesn’t go near to expressing the ferment of ideas that was taking place at the time.

What really connects Matisse and Aragon is their interest in the relationship between art and poetry, and also a shared fascination with collage. Aragon’s early poetry conspicuously used collage techniques before his conversion to communism. Both men were trying to invent a new language, and in Aragon’s terms this went hand in hand with a political project (although like so many intellectuals he became disillusioned with orthodox communism after the invasion of Hungary in 1956.)

Just as Aragon mused on art in his essays, Matisse – who read poetry every morning before he worked – put out engraved illustrations of poetry that run the gamut of French literary history: medieval (Charles d’Orléans), Renaissance (Pierre de Ronsard) and nineteenth-century Symbolism (Stéphane Mallarmé). The backstory of the Matisse exhibition, then, is a sense of joint artistic enterprise and ardent experimentation in the mid-twentieth century Paris. It sure puts the Bloomsbury Group in the shade.

 

 

 

 

 

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Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk, Barbican Centre

You arrive at the first room of the Gaultier installation in a room full of mannequins under blue light. They’re grouped into visual themes that echo the key motifs in his work: the sailor stripe, the mermaid, the Virgin Mary. Seeing the detail of the designs, is mesmerising enough – but then you realise the faces of the mannequins are moving, their lips are pursing, and their eyes are darting. That strange siren soundtrack? It’s being mimed by the collection of Virgin Marys on the left. Centre among them is a mannequin of Gaultier himself, riffing in English and then French about his work. It’s unearthly and entirely hypnotic. (I uploaded a ten-second video here. I don’t want to sound like Upworthy, but you won’t believe she isn’t real.)

Jean Paul Gaultier grew up in a dingy Parisian suburb, but the sea looms large in his creative vocabulary. Well, not the sea per se – he’s not exactly big on boats or starfishes – but the liminality of those associated with it, since the sea has always allowed for reinvention of identity. Gaultier’s sailor stripe is inspired by Fassbinder’s Querelle of Brest, itself based on Jean Genet’s novel, a celebration of an aesthetic of homosexuality and criminality, in which ports are full of outcasts and improvisers. The mermaid is half-woman, half-fish, and Mary, star of the sea, is both mother and virgin.

The Barbican exhibition, which features photography and video as well as 140 designs, is a theatrical staging that underlines the extent of his collaboration with unconventional models and muses and how how street fashion has informed his couture. You’re reminded of his creative partnerships with Peter Greenaway, Pedro Almodovar and Luc Besson; there are works by Cindy Sherman and Richard Avedon. In this context, Madonna is merely a bit player. Gaultier has always acknowledged his debt to London street fashion, but the parade of mannequins in tartan bondage don’t, I think, represent the best of his work; it feels more like tourism. Neither, I think, do his raiding of ethnic motifs.

Jean Paul Gaultier’s celebrity, via appearances on Eurotrash or as a prepackaged caricature on Absolutely Fabulous , can obscure the extent of his influence. But his alliances with Madonna, or Marilyn Manson, or Kylie Minogue, with their global distribution, have changed our visual language. As an enduring image, the conical bra takes some beating, though the exhibition quietly points out that Madonna wasn’t the first to wear his cone design. That prize goes to Catherine Ringer, the lead singer of left-field French band Les Rita Mitsouko, who wore a Gaultier cone dress in the video of Marcia Baila, easily my favourite French song of the 1980s – not that there’s a whole lot of competition (click here  for the song and video: it’s insanely catchy, and Ringer looks fabulous).

Stephen Jones for Jean Paul Gaultier

Stephen Jones for Jean Paul Gaultier

 

But Gaultier’s more than a dressmaker to pop stars. His mantra is simple, but challenging: “Les vêtements n’ont pas de sexe.” It’s hard to credit this happened, but when he first showed the man skirt in the 1980s, the Vogue team got up and walked out of his collection.

Over the years, Gaultier has always been pushing gender boundaries, but there are other instances where the playful meshes with the uncanny. His work with milliner Stephen Jones on reinventing a fez is particularly arresting, taking an etiolated Western cliché of the other into something genuinely disturbing by using fetish imagery. Those fez tails pouring out of eyeholes inevitably remind you of Stephen Jones’s Blitz club mate Leigh Bowery and underline Gaultier’s affinity not with punk but with the gender and performance experimentations of David Bowie and his New Romantic descendants.

Most striking throughout the Barbican installation is his rethinking of the dress back into its basic principles. This stunning version below looks like an abstract, a sketch, the bare bones of a design.

Jean Paul Gaultier: deconstructing the dress

Jean Paul Gaultier: deconstructing the dress

It is a red-carpet evening dress reduced to its constituent parts, a dress made not of yielding silk but consisting of rods and joists. Like a skeleton, it’s a dress that has to be filled with flesh to be worn, but it also nods towards the industrial construction of the crinoline, a structure that simultaneously constricted women but which also gave them physical heft to dominate a male-centred space. It’s a contradiction that Gaultier revels in.

 

 

 

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