Reviews

Yinka Shonibare in conversation with Tim Barringer: Byam Shaw centenary event

What links two turn of the century artists, steeped in the imperialism of their day, with a contemporary artist exploring notions of identity and veracity? This is the question which Tim Barringer, Paul Mellon professor of Art History at Yale University, sought to answer in his talk on Monday 22nd November 2010 at the Cochrane Theatre.

In conjunction with the exhibition ‘Before and After Modernism: Byam Shaw, Rex Vicat Cole, Yinka Shonibare MBE’, held in the Lethaby Gallery, CSM and Byam Shaw hosted a conversation between Barringer and Byam Shavian Yinka Shonibare MBE. In his introduction, Barringer talked about the lives and works of the school’s founders, John Byam Liston Shaw and Rex Vicat Cole. Referring to pieces both in the exhibition and elsewhere, he contextualised the work of these two men who, by embracing 19th century traditions of British art and society, found themselves lost amidst the new wave of Modernist art which first hit London in the ‘art-quake’ of 1910 (the year of the school’s founding). Despite this displacement by a new aesthetic which ran so contrary to their own ideas of beauty (see Shaw’s cartoon The New Art – Alas! Poor Beauty, 1912), Shaw and Cole’s vision of pedagogy, and their enlightened attitude to teaching both men and women at their new school, proved strong enough to withstand the turbulence of the contemporary art scene.

It seems perhaps unlikely that there would be any links between these two artists and Yinka Shonibare MBE, but Barringer drew on his considerable knowledge of the works of all three, as well as of the history of twentieth century art, to draw some interesting parallels. Perhaps the clearest of these is the aesthetic which is present in so much of Shonibare’s work, especiallyDiary of a Victorian Dandy (1998), a ravishing faux-historical tableau which could almost be mistaken for a still from one of the more overblown BBC costume dramas: Shonibare adopts the style and setting of turn of the century society, and manages with wit and lightness of touch to both celebrate and critique it. This readiness to engage with the politics of empire and colonialism can also be seen in his decision not only to accept an MBE, but to incorporate the title into his name by deed poll. When questioned by Barringer, Shonibare was quite ready to admit to having revelled in the sumptuous scenes he created for Victorian Dandy, and said of its implied criticism of Victorian mores, that he likes to ‘provoke’ viewers of his art, to make them consider their own values and ideas.

This provocation is certainly evident in the new work presented in the Lethaby Gallery. Egg Fight (2010) was commissioned by Dublin City Gallery, and takes as its inspiration a passage from Gulliver’s Travels which details the battle between those Liliputians who eat their eggs pointy end up, and the ‘bigendians’ who oppose them, and are persecuted as a result. Although the piece is imbued with Shonibare’s characteristic wit, it clearly addresses the issue of conflict with its depiction of two well-dressed (if headless) gentlemen firing blunderbuses at each other, through a wall of shattering eggs. To make such a piece in response to a commission from a gallery in Dublin, capital city of a country which has seen more than its fair share of belief-driven conflict, is a bold choice.

In conclusion, this interview was an interesting consideration of the question of recurrence in art, the appropriation and adaptation of cultural memes, and of how two painters – one almost pre-Raphaelite in his celebration of beauty and colour, and one a staunch chronicler of the English countryside – can be reconsidered in the context of post-modernism, now that the ravages of Modernism are past.

Nigel Cooke: Night Crossing

Modern Art Gallery London 30 April to 29 May


In his fourth exhibition at the Modern Art Gallery, Nigel Cooke demonstrates his continuing preoccupation with themes of entropy and dereliction, and the difficulties of an artist trying to assess his own relation to the work he creates.

As you enter the cool, urbane gallery space, Cooke’s forbidding triptych Departure, 2009-10, whose three 220 x 195-cm panels dominate the wall opposite the gallery entrance, has an instantaneous effect, plunging the viewer into a tempestuous world of angst-ridden psychic turbulence: in contrast to the businesslike setting, this dark and desperate piece seems at once overwhelming and overdone. Its dark tones, dramatic brushstrokes and (post-)apocalyptic imagery are at once affecting and so charged with emotion that it is hard to know how to engage with the strange protagonists, stranded in desperate isolation at the start of their journey. Should we empathise with their sense of isolation from the world, or see only images of the clichéd artist-martyr struggling against forces he alone can see? The title and form of the piece are taken from a Max Beckmann painting of 1932-33, whose delivery is more straightforwardly deadpan, coming from the artist’s struggle to react to the contemporary upheavals of the burgeoning Nazi state. Yet our current society is not one which treats such ingenuous statements kindly; the gallery’s own press release suggests that we should admire the mindless valour of these creative spirits.

Empathy is perhaps easier in the second room, where the paintings have the vibrant yet menacing feel of a manic rave where people try to find a moment of ecstasy or clarity; thus In Da Club – Rapture (2010) has the woozy atmosphere of that joyous moment minutes before you stumble out and spatter your shoes in the alley behind the club, while In Da Club – Volume One (2010), with its bright daubs of light, suggests the multiple nerve janglings of the committed party animal. In this room, Cooke’s philosophers seek to revel in their isolation and seize the moment in a bid for cosmic understanding, and this search for something better (or at least more fun) is more comprehensible perhaps than the wild wonderings of the hermit-like figures in the first room. The violent swirlings of the outside are here internalised, in the ambiguous stance of the man in Volume One: he is no longer sure whether to fight the world or embrace it – is he hurling the stone, or dancing with it?

Cooke’s characteristic blending of technical mastery with base themes and materials is in evidence throughout the thirteen canvases on display. One is constantly reminded of his painterly background and his fascination with the themes of painting’s history: in the delicate brushwork of the bottle in Rapture, reminiscent of a Flemish still life; or the grand themes which permeate the works. At the same time, the neon spray paint, comically reddened noses, and the recurring character, who Cooke describes as an ‘avuncular, paternal, fluffy, bearded old guy’ deflate these soaring aspirations of the past.

On leaving the show, the last painting by the doorway is Chef on Dung Mountain (2010), which, despite the man’s slumped posture, seems to draw in the breeze which ruffles his luxuriant beard from the window beside it, blowing away a little of the rank entropic influence of the other canvases, and as you step into the street, these impressions of sinister separation and desperate collapse begin to fade, leaving behind only the impression of a knowing artist pricking the inflated dreams of the past.

Melanie Jackson: The Urpflanze

image courtesy of The Drawing Room

The Drawing Room London 29 April – 20 June 2010

Melanie Jackson has spent the last year getting to know plants. By which I mean really getting to know them: not only has she photographed every plant she has encountered in that time, but she has conducted research into plant genetics, biomimicry and genome sequencing, weird and wonderful tales of space pumpkins and fluorescent undersea pumpkins, and the myriad ways in which humans interact with the flora of our planet. She has conducted interviews with biogeneticists and natural historians, and explored the many disparate writings on plant life and the natural world, from UN manuals of plant productivity to Filipino novels of revolt featuring exploding, bejewelled pomegranates.

This wealth of knowledge has provided fertile ground for the production of a fascinating exhibition at the Drawing Room. Infused with, and enthused by, the passion, circumspection, and fascination with which plants are and have been regarded by scientists and artists throughout history, Jackson has produced a vivid display of arcane facts and aesthetic delights which examine and celebrate the plant, from grey and disquieting sculptures of grotesquely engorged pumpkins to tiny golden replicas of the smallest particles of pollen.

The exhibition takes its title from a work by Goethe, Die metamorphose der Pflanzen (The metamorphosis of plants), in which he posits the existence of a primal plant, the Urpflanze, which, containing within its leaves the archetype of ‘plantness’, and therefore the potential form of every possible plant, extant or not, provides the template by which we understand the notion of what a plant is. In a time before the sequencing of plant genomes, before scientists were able to take living things apart at the molecular level to see what characteristics were shared between species and individuals, Goethe was synthesising his observational knowledge of plants and their forms with an intuitive understanding that all plants and their components were somehow linked, and that something provided them with the characteristics which enable us to look at them and know them as plants.

At the entrance to the gallery, there is a stack of a newspaper-like publication, also entitled The Urpflanze, which contains writings by Jackson and her collaborator, Esther Leslie. Both artefact and document, it describes, illustrates, and engages with the various historical, technological, and artistic theories of plant use and production which have informed the work on display. Once in the exhibition space, the eye is immediately drawn to a video piece projected on a large screen near the entrance. Here are all the plants of Jackson’s year, coming thick and fast and accompanied by strange clicks and whirrs, a sound such as evolution itself might make as it searches through different forms, new adaptations, trying to find the best possible expression of its intent. Or perhaps it is the sound of science, searching among the known for a clue to how to make new and better species, historically inspired and technologically altered to fit our needs. We see plants arranged by colour, complexity, or type; a fruit sequenced from germination to decay on the bough of a tree; cactus-like forms repeating in a sequence which grows more and more complex and frenetic until it catches its own tail and snaps to something new.

Beyond this vivid display is a space that is dim, lit in places by monitors, and punctuated with microscopic particles re-presented in forms a thousand times that of the original: it feels as though you are inside a microscope slide, observing the minute workings of unknown lifeforms. These are papier-mâché models of pollen particles, the germinal orbs of new generations of plant life, blown up to a thousand times their true size and resting atop industrial structures of bare wood and cable ties. They are the natural building blocks of plants, contrasting with a tiny gilded sphere, lit as if in a jewellers by halogen bulbs, which takes the form of a natural particulate but references the use of gold in genetic modification machinery to transport DNA and RNA from one organism to another.

Beyond these spiky, complex forms lie three larger papier-mâché forms, very different from the compact vitality of the pollens: here are three enormous squashes, or pumpkins, reclining on pallets or set on the floor, their bases sagging under their unnatural weight. Seemingly another fantastic distortion of scale, these sculptures are in fact based on the enormous pumpkins grown for competition in the U.S. (the largest on record weighed in at 1,235 lbs). These lumpen, organic forms are set in contrast to a CAD animation showing on a monitor above them, where an unnaturally smooth vegetal shape slowly rotates, before we are given a glimpse into a phosphorescent green interior of dancing cells, to an eerie soundtrack of indeterminate, wavelike sounds. Nearby stands a small television showing videos of plants at a genetics lab, while through the headphones you can hear the artist discussing plant history and possible futures with the scientists there.

This show is a fascinating exposition of man’s interaction with plants, from the primordial (both known and postulated) to the yet-to-be-created, the nutritious to the purposeless. In her combination of tangibly handmade aesthetics with slick technology, Jackson echoes the odd conjunction of highly-developed technologies and plants which produce life from dirt, and her painstaking recreations of minuscule forms and gargantuan monstrosities show her passion ofr the various ways in which people and plants form and inform each other; the catalogue talks of plant science becoming ‘an art of morphology and mutation’ akin to the process of drawing, and Melanie Jackson has vividly, engagingly and eruditely conveyed these ideas in an intriguing exhibition of man’s complex relationship with the animate but silent vegetal world.

The vaults at The Foundry London 29 – 31 April 2010

Deep underground, in a disused bank vault beneath the crowded Foundry pub, something uncanny lurks. In this cramped, cold space which once housed the solid reality of stashed wealth, Alison Thomson, Anna Louise Hale and Alex Clifton have created a dreamlike space of mutable interpretations. In the first room we encounter a bedroom in a seeming state of suspended animation – suspended literally in the case of the mattress, books and bedding – where a dim bedside lamp provides an oppressive light, thrown back by the low ceiling. Littered cigarette butts on the floor scent the room with an evocative miasma, but as with so much of this work, it is unclear exactly what is being evoked: are these the remains of a party, or evidence of someone locked alone in their room, smoking and staring out of the window while time slips by unused? On the far wall a time-lapse video of a view through an urban window projects on a loop, cycling monotonously through from night to day and back to darkness again.

From the next room comes a rhythmic thudding sound, the beat of a human heart, and in this second space is an atmosphere even more enclosed than than in the first: a womb-like feeling, and at the same time oppressively restricted. The light here is even more dim, coming only from the dilapidated bath in the corner, where the projection of a naked man lies in the water, moving from time to time more like a sleeper who dreams of bathing than someone actively cleaning himself. The scent of stale cigarettes has given way to the powerful odour of TCP, from the open bottle propped on the washbasin amongst empty beer glasses and dirty towels. All around are broken tiles and exposed plaster, but again the viewer is left to decide for themselves whether this is a bathroom in the process of construction or disintegration; the tenuous bather offers no explanation, caught in his cycle of tentative ablutions. Is he the tenant of the frozen, tempestuous room next door? Are these rooms connected within the narrative of this underground world, or are we stepping from one idea, one set of emotions, to a different notion entirely, perhaps a reconstructed memory of earliest childhood, now strangely inflected by the influences of of adult life?

The influences of Freud’s Interpretation of dreams are manifest in this quietly disquieting installation, and perhaps what is shown most clearly is the way in which dreams take hold entirely of the dreamer: Immersion refers not only to the man in his bath, but also to the experience of the viewer in this space which presses in on the senses. Just as in a dream, this overwhelming sense of connectedness makes it seem at first that there must be a narrative which will make sense of these visual events, and the waking mind struggles to form coherent connections, just as the viewer speculates about the history of the first room, and its relation to the incorporeal inhabitant of the second. And yet we cannot be sure that there is a story here, or perhaps the only certain thing is that, allowing ourselves to be drawn into this murky, allusive environment, our own interpretations and story-weaving provide the reality here.

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