"Nonstop imagery is our surround, but when it comes to remembering, the photograph has the deeper bite....
In an era of information overload, the photograph..is like a quotation, or a maxim or proverb."
(Susan Sontag: Regarding the Pain of Others 2003)

29 July, 2008

ArtLondon #5 Asia House/Afghanistan

This image - copyright Seamus Murphy
The late, great Philip Jones Griffiths (1936-2008) called Seamus Murphy “a poet with a camera” – yes, of course, a clichéd epithet - but, like any cliché worth its salt, it contains more than a kernel of truth. If you want to see some excellent examples of Murphy’s visual verse, you have until September 13th to wend your way to Asia House, an extraordinary and relatively new venue, still practically hidden on London's super-posh New Cavendish Street, nestled between all the plastic surgeons, orthodontists and top-of-the-range shrinks plying their various trades in W1.

Murphy’s exhibition of images from his latest project: A Darkness Visible: Afghanistan remain on show in the main Asia House Gallery. Check out:


Afghanistan and continued British involvement in this fascinating, strange and remote country remain an enigma to me. In a bid to better understand why we are still involved there, and to what end, I went last week to an Asia House event where my erstwhile & esteemed colleague, “Vitamin Murders” writer James Fergusson, was talking about his latest book: A Million Bullets: The Real Story of the British Army in Afghanistan. I left elucidated but nevertheless depressed to have my own instincts confirmed: that military intervention – let alone that of a former imperial power – had no chance whatever to effect any possible good for the future of the Afghan people – the same people so nobly portrayed in Seamus Murphy’s photographs. If you can’t make the show, do check out the book at:

James Fergusson’s considered and beautifully written analysis can be perused further at:

24 July, 2008

ArtLondon #4: Puppies win Prizes? Jeff Koons & the RA's Wollaston Prize

Jeff Koons 'Puppy' outside Frank Gehry's Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain
Art prizes seem designed to create controversy. What would the Turner be without the annual kerfuffle about the calibre of the nominees and the eccentricity of the eventual selection? Martin Creed, one of my own heroes & Turner winner in 2001, springs immediately to mind. This year the Royal Academy’s prestigious £25,000 Charles Wollaston award went to American artist Jeff Koons (b.1955). In the Spectator magazine, critic Andrew Lambirth has registered his own protest – suggesting that Koons’ piece, the high chromium stainless steel ‘Cracked Egg (Blue) 1994-2006’ was far from being the most distinguished work in the Summer Exhibition. I find myself increasingly irritated with the flashier, "life-style" Spectator, but the lucid writing of contributors such as Lambirth keeps me from cancelling my subscription. (My other Spectator must-reads include: Simon Hoggart, Charles Moore, James Delingpole, Marcus Berkmann, Charles Spencer, Matthew Parris and Robin Oakley).

On the RA award, I fully agree with Andrew Lambirth that Koons’ cheeky sculpture - brashly displayed in the middle of the magnificent octagonal central hall - cannot by any criterion be called the most distinguished piece in the exhibition – & I do wonder what Lambirth’s own choice would be? However, I can’t help but cherish a quiet personal fondness for Koons’ triumphantly kitsch celebration of the banal – a skewed but utterly hilarious, tongue in cheek aesthetic, exemplified by pieces such as 1988’s ceramic sculpture of Michael Jackson and Bubbles.

I don’t seem to be the only one reluctantly seduced by Koons’ humour and vision. His sculpture Hanging Heart (also 1994-2006) set a new record for a living artist at auction when it reached $23.6 million at Sotheby’s in New York in November 2007. His 12m high topiary terrier ‘Puppy’ has become very much a city symbol in Bilbao, as loved and as lauded as Frank Gehry’s iconic Guggenheim Museum outside which the giant floral West Highland Terrier sits obediently to attention.

Back to the Summer Exhibition, I was relieved and heartened to see that the work of a handful of much younger photographers and painters whom I’ve had the luck to spot already had made it through the tortuous submission and selection process. They include Ed Kevill-Davies and Eleanor Lindsay-Fynn and I will be writing about them in their own post soon.

19 July, 2008

ArtLondon #3 - RA Summer Exhibition & the Genius of David Mach

David Mach: Chairman Mao, 2004. Collage. Image Courtesy - The Red Mansion Foundation

There are still four weeks left in which to experience another annual highlight of the London art carousel: the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition – “the largest open contemporary art exhibition in the world, drawing together new work by both established and unknown artists. Now in its 240th year, the exhibition includes 1,200 works, the majority of which are for sale”.

Another confession: I haven’t even bothered to go to the Summer Exhibition for the last year or two – I've been content instead to watch the hang on some worthy cable arts programme and pick up on any controversy via the popular prints. However, I found myself in Piccadilly recently with an hour to kill and I decided to give the RA one more chance, making a note to spare myself the mental and visual anguish invariably provoked by the over-busy hang of generally poor amateur efforts which yearly fight for attention on the walls of the Weston rooms.

The RA blurb insists that highlights of the show include a memorial gallery dedicated to the late Ron Kitaj (1932-2007) but after passing attentively through it, I was no less perplexed by his huge reputation. Gallery VIII, curated by recently elected Academician, "our" Tracey Emin, also failed to move me; it was, however, full of sniggering schoolboys – perhaps attracted by the “over-18s only – shocking works on display” warning.

The perceptive and always readable Andrew Lambirth has complained in the Spectator Magazine about the award of the RA’s prestigious Wollaston Prize to American Kaiser of Kitsch, Jeff Koons. I will add my own guinea’s worth of comment on the subject in a later post.

For me, the stand-out works of the show were the huge-scale collages, constructed from thousands of identical postcards, by David Mach (b.1956) currently RA Professor of Sculpture – & in particular, the haunting, veiled image ‘Visitor’ and its gallery partner ‘Golden Delicious II’.
I dream of one day owning one of these incisive and accomplished comments on 21st century society but I was sadly unable to persuade Mach himself, a genial leather-jacketed Scot, to let me have one at a discount when we met him at his 2006 solo exhibition at Jill George Gallery in Soho. Click on this link to marvel at the images then on show: http://www.jillgeorgegallery.co.uk/artists/mach/mach_exhibition2006.htm

My particular favourite is the one of Bart Simpson – a two metre square collage of Tao-Te-Ching cards which so faithfully reproduces almost everyone’s favourite prodigal cartoon son. Photo-collage began as a tool for Mach to describe and layout his large scale installations and public sculptures but they have now emphatically transcended this preliminary phase to become fully-realised works of art in themselves.

16 July, 2008

ArtLondon #2 - Prince's New Clothes at the Serpentine Gallery

This image - Untitled (cowboy) 1989 - copyright Richard Prince

London’s green & verdant Hyde Park - what better place to be on a balmy June evening? The rather chic crowd, milling outside the Serpentine Gallery is brazen testament to director Julia Peyton-Jones drive, energy and extraordinary networking prowess. The annual temporary pavilion is now a cultural landmark and talking point by any measure, while the Serpentine Summer Party is now a Society and Season landmark – considered - in certain circles - as right up there, alongside Ascot, Wimbledon and Henley Royal Regatta. And yet, and yet..…I can’t help wondering whether somehow the art itself is getting increasingly sidelined, as the Gallery itself and its profile goes from strength to strength?

I was so depressed by the last Serpentine exhibition – a collection of dismal and utterly distinction free abstract paintings by Viennese feminist artist Maria Lassnig (b.1919) that I was unable to even contemplate writing about it. It seems that the latest show has also split the critics. “Continuation” is hailed as the first major British public exhibition of the work of American appropriation master Richard Prince (b.1949). The show was chosen and curated by Prince himself, who has somehow squeezed London in, neatly between last year’s “Spiritual America” retrospective at the Guggenheim in New York and another solo show, entitled “Four Blue Cowboys” which opened (in the same week as "Continuation") at Gagosian’s newish Rome headquarters.

My heart sank as I entered the gallery’s sunny white rooms on “Special Private View” night, to read that the show was: “presented by the Serpentine Gallery in collaboration with Louis Vuitton”. Prince is one of the latest artists to design a line of new handbags for the luxury brand. The work itself, both older and more familiar pieces - such as the cannibalized Marlboro Man above: “Untitled (cowboy)" (1989) - and the newer “Nurse” series, left me personally rather cold but the show has been reviewed rather more comprehensively by, among others, Joanna Pitman in the Times – you can read her intelligent and measured conclusions by following this link.
In the Sunday Times, her colleague Waldemar Januszczak took a rather more benign view:
Elsewhere, in the Guardian, writer and broadcaster "Bidisha" vented some moral outrage in a blog post which attracted so many controversial comments that the thread was finally closed down by the free speech monitors of Farringdon Road.

The Richard Prince retrospective continues until 7th September. In the meantime, I do look forward to the opening next week of the latest Pavilion, the first built work in this country by pioneering American architect Frank Gehry, working for the first time in collaboration with his son, Sam. When last glimpsed, half finished outside the Prince show, it looked utterly intriguing. Watch this space for a considered opinion on the finished construction.

09 July, 2008

ArtLondon #1 - Plensa's Monument to Fallen Journalists

(Breathing 2003-2006: Copyright Channel4) In London recently, I caught for the first time a glimpse of Jaume Plensa's new art work which glows above the BBC in Portland Place, as a memorial to journalists & crew who have died upholding freedom of speech. Entitled 'Breathing', the site specific, glass and steel sculpture which was unveiled in June is engraved with a meditation upon silence, life & death. Veteran hack Robert Fox has written movingly about the dedication service for the memorial, which he suggests is highly timely - given that, despite every advance in technology, news gathering around the world continues to be a highly dangerous business. You can read the full article here: http://www.thefrontlineclub.com/club_articles.php?id=412

"Breathing" is certainly both elegant and thought-provoking. To date, I had not taken Catalan artist Plensa (b.1955) terribly seriously, dismissing him as a Turrell wannabe and his huge outdoor installations such as Gateshead's "Blake" (1996) the laser beam outside the Baltic and Chicago's mirrored "Crown Fountain" (2004) as rather gimmicky. This new work has made me think again and I look forward to finding out more about the artist's latest public sculpture for this country. A model of the landmark, entitled "Dream", was first seen in May. Commissioned by St.Helens Council as part of The Big Art Project, an ambitious public art initiative from Channel 4, supported by Arts Council England & The ArtFund, the 20 metre high sculpture will sit on top of the former Sutton Manor Colliery, overlooking the M62 main east-west arterial motorway which effectively bisects England.
For the unveiling of "Breathing", the BBC also commissioned a new poem from former war reporter and foreign correspondent James Fenton (b.1949). It is elegiac and apposite. You can read the text here:
For a slightly more accessible but equally beautiful memorial to fallen journalists, I can highly recommend the simple side altar at St Bride's Church in Fleet Street upon which tributes to those reporters, cameramen, photographers and fixers who have all paid the ultimate price still appear with depressing frequency.

07 July, 2008

It's a Lacroix, Darling - Rencontres d'Arles

Photography Festivals are a bit like blogs: now ubiquitous, of wildly varying quality, often highly political, if sometimes irrelevant and currently springing up all over the globe. However, one of the oldest and justly popular is the annual Rencontres d'Arles in the southern French city which this year celebrates its 39th edition, with an official launch tomorrow July 8th at various venues across Arles until mid-September. If I manage to make it across the Channel, perhaps I might manage to understand a little more about fashion photography and where it fits into the canon of 21st century imagery?

This year's guest curator is one of Arles' favourite sons - the fashion historian and couturier Christian Lacroix (b.1951 or 1956 - some confusion between the designer's own website and every other source...). Among his guest exhibitors are many of the usual suspects: Peter Lindbergh, Paolo Roversi and Brit star of the moment, Tim Walker; the latter has his own retrospective at the Design Museum in London until 28 September. On show in Arles for the first time outside the U.S. is a series from 1995 by doyen Richard Avedon (1923-2004). Entitled "In Memory of the Late Mr and Mrs Comfort: a Fable" - the images feature a series of increasingly macabre tableaux of model Nadja Auermann, engaged in an extremely intimate relationship with a skeleton - albeit one which is often fully-clothed - in itself, a puzzling image which continues to disturb long after one has turned the page or moved on.

Cintra Wilson, the "Critical Shopper" recently lambasted Lacroix's latest design confections in the New York Times, calling them "regressive" and suggesting that the designer was "boxing the dusk in the twilight of life" and concluding that he had reached "inevitable self-parody".

Yet only last week, Suzy Menkes in the IHT lauded Lacroix's very latest Paris collection. At a chic birthday lunch in the Netherlands last week, my table companion correctly identified my Wedgewood blue brocade coat as a Lacroix; I didn't trouble him with the detail that it was only from the relatively affordable Bazar diffusion line and that it was at least a decade old....

If you feel like a trip to Provence to consider Lacroix's curatorial eye, check out: http://www.rencontres-arles.com/ARL/C.aspx?VP3=Renderer_VPage&ID=ARLP144