Primordial Soup (black and white)

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Primordial Soup 17 (2016) oil on paper 38 x 48cm

When I first started painting, at the beginning of 2016, I used only black and white paint. This was because I thought that my CVD would prohibit me from working effectively with colour (more on that here and here).

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Primordial Soup 6 (2016) oil on paper 38 x 48cm

I was unfamiliar with painting in oil, and was surprised by how differently the paint behaves compared to acrylic or watercolour. For the first few months I’d cover sheets of paper with paint, experimenting with different ways of mixing and applying it. I call these “Primordial Soup”, because I hope that these paintings contain the beginnings from which my later paintings will emerge, rather like the early work of the painters I wrote about in this post.

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Primordial Soup 9 (2016) oil on paper 28.5 x 20cm

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Primordial Soup 14 (2016) oil on paper 20 x 28.5cm

I still look back and refer to these “Primordial Soup” paintings because they’re so exuberant, varied, and full of the pleasure of paint. More recently, I’ve been working on other aspects of picture making: colour, illusionistic pictorial space, larger scale, and a more considered approach to composition and subject matter. In doing so, my painting technique has become far more restrained, but I continue to look at these early paintings and I hope in future I will be able to combine the paint handling of the “Primordial Soup”s with the other skills in picture making that I’m developing now.

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Primordial Soup 16 (2016) oil on paper 48 x 38cm

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Primordial Soup 19 (2016) oil on paper 38 x 48cm

ps. I wrote an earlier post about “Primordial Soup” paintings here, but those paintings are actually later than the black-and-white ones here. In some ways, I think of these ones as the true soup, because they came first and are less coherently formed.

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Exhibition reviews: Rauch, Salle, Currin, Ruscha, Koons, Owens

Notes on current and recent exhibitions of (mostly) new painting in London’s commercial galleries. As usual, I’ll order my notes as follows: Liked; Wasn’t sure about; Disliked.

Neo Rauch Rondo at David Zwirner

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Neo Rauch Rondo at David Zwirner (2016) installation view (L-R) Die Kur (2016) oil on canvas 250 x 200cm; Tief Im Holz (2016) oil on canvas 250 x 200cm; Skulpturengarten (2016) oil on canvas 50 x 40cm.

Liked: seeing so many Rauch paintings in the flesh (there was also a good one at this year’s Frieze, and another in Sotheby’s recent Contemporary sale). I’ve spent a lot of time viewing Rauch’s paintings on a computer screen and in colour reproduction, where they appear like ravishingly sumptuous and complex children’s book illustrations (especially in this gorgeous book). Seen in reality, the paintings have a comparatively dry matt surface and, at full size, the details turn out to be economically rendered – but skilfully so, recalling sign painting or stage backdrops. For me, this lively relationship between original and reproduction, in print and online, relates Rauch’s work to David Joselit’s writing on “networked painting”, although I think Rauch’s paintings are more interesting in themselves than the work cited by Joselit (ie. in Painting Beside Itself from 2009).

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Neo Rauch Reich (2002) oil on canvas 400 x 210cm

Wasn’t sure about: the increasingly dark and historical character of Rauch’s new paintings. This is totally a personal preference, but many of my favourite Rauch paintings come from the brightly coloured more modern looking world that he painted between 2002 – 2003, in particular: Art (2002), Reich (2002) (see above), Waldbahn (2002), Anger (2003), and Konvoi (2003).
Didn’t like: Nothing here I didn’t like.

Cindy Sherman and David Salle History Portraits and Tapestry Paintings at Skarstedt

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Cindy Sherman and David Salle History Portraits and Tapestry Paintings at Skarstedt (2016) installation view (L-R) David Salle Backdrop (1990) oil on canvas; Cindy Sherman Untitled #206 (1989)

Liked: seeing Salle paintings in the flesh for the first time. His postmodern mash-ups were so unfashionable when I was studying art in the 2000’s that I didn’t give them a lot of thought (he was big-in-the-80s). In reality, these paintings work in ways that don’t come across in reproduction and I was impressed by their impact. The canvases set within canvases have a sculptural effect, playing on the illusion of solidity that is so easy to take for granted when viewing stretched canvases (more on that here). Unusual painting techniques give parts of these paintings the appearance of a giant tapestry, which is enjoyably confusing in relation to the real canvas weave. Also, the empty speech bubbles in flat colour with black outline made me think about how much Salle anticipated (and perhaps influenced) anti-painterly collage effects used by later painters, including Rauch (see below).

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Neo Rauch See (2000) oil on canvas 200 x 400cm

Wasn’t sure about: the paint handling. In reproductions I’ve often felt it was too obvious that Salle was using a projector to trace images onto the canvas (I’m guessing), painting with a technique that was a bit workmanlike and mechanical. Seeing the paintings in reality, this continued to niggle me in a few areas. Perhaps that’s “affectlessness”, I’m just not all that into it. *since reading Salle’s chapter on Picabia in his book How to See, I’ve revised my opinion on Salle’s technique. He says he viewed a Picabia painting as “both a compass point and a dare: I bet you can’t make something as discordant and unsettling as this!” and if I view Salle’s paintings with that in mind, they become much more fun.
Didn’t like: Nothing here I didn’t like.

ps. Salle’s book on art, How to See, and it’s a total page-turner. Very accessible style. I recommend it. Brilliant essay on Dana Schutz, among others.

John Currin at Sadie Coles HQ

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John Currin at Sadie Coles HQ (2016) installation view

Liked: Currin’s continued commitment to technique, wilfully wonky anatomy drawing and odd combinations of social and artistic signifiers. I especially enjoyed the gentleman with wild eyes goggling behind thick glasses, and the beautifully rendered white china jugs, balanced improbably as hats. In a way, I still see all of Currin’s pictures as relatives of the smiling lady from Jim Shaw’s Thrift Store Paintings (1991) (see below), and that’s fine with me.

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Jim Shaw (from Thrift Store Paintings) (1991)

Wasn’t sure about: the blank backgrounds. Since at least 2003, Currin has situated most of his figures in fully rendered environments, enriching the pictorial space and broadening the scope of his subject matter. Here he isolates his figures against empty grounds, more like his paintings from the 1990s, and I miss seeing the rooms that they occupy. Also wasn’t sure about Currin re-using the subject of a smiling woman’s face obscured by a silver candelabra, recalling the very similar Anna from 2004. I like both paintings a lot, but why make two?
Didn’t like: Nothing here I didn’t like.

Adrian Searle reviewed this exhibition here.

Ed Ruscha Extremes and In-Betweens at Gagosian

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Ed Ruscha Extremes and In-Betweens installation view (2016)

Liked: seeing a big exhibition of new paintings by a 78 year old. No age barriers in art. Also enjoyed the very odd optical effect of the spray-painting in Bio Biology (2016), giving the surface a trompe-l’oeil effect, something like black non-slip matting. The stencilling and unusual surface effects have interesting resonances with Laura Owen’s new work at Sadie Coles (see further down).

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Ed Ruscha Bio Biology (2016) acrylic on canvas 182.9 x 315cm

Wasn’t sure about: the repeated use of the “extremes and in-betweens” writing formula, ie. REALLY OLD> 1/2 WAY> REALLY NEW. Initially I liked Universe> America>Tampa, Florida>10414 N. Newport Circle>top left dresser drawer, etc., and it reminded me of movies that open with super-wide shots, like Joe Dante’s The ‘Burbs (1989) which begins with a shot of Earth seen from space, moving all the way in to a single street, or Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) which surveys the Phoenix skyline before peeping in to one particular window. However, the macro-to-micro formulation suffers from diminishing returns as Ruscha repurposes it for almost every painting in the show, many of them also very sparse visually.
Didn’t like: the grandiose setting. In a world increasingly destabilised by spiralling inequality, Gagosian’s Grosvenor Hill gallery feels so “big money” that I find it difficult to see the art without thinking about the market and its place in society (the macro-to-micro relations of wealth inequality are not touched on in Ruscha’s “extreme and in-between” texts). This is not a major complaint, it was just something on my mind while I was looking at the pictures.

Jeff Koons at Almine Reich

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Jeff Koons at Almine Rech (2016) installation view (L-R) Gazing Ball (Tintoretto The Origin of the Milky Way) (2016) oil on canvas, glass and aluminium 160 x 179.1 x 37.5cm; Seated Ballerina (2011-15) mirror-polished stainless steel with transparent colour coating 210.8 x 113.5 x 199.8cm; Gazing Ball (Goltzius Hercules and Cacus) (2015) oil on canvas, glass and aluminium 222.9 x 152.4 x 37.5cm

Liked: the scale relationship between the Ballerina‘s small head, large arms and even larger legs. Also, the (coincidental?) sculptural connection between Koons’ shelves that jut out of stretched canvases as if they are solid walls, and David Salle’s 1990 canvases nested into each other like solid blocks (see above).
Wasn’t sure about: the gazing balls with the paintings. For me, the composition and palette of the paintings are thrown out by the saturated blue of the balls (skies drained and dulled, everything else made to look ruddy and brown), and the paintings make the balls look dark and heavy. But maybe that’s the point.
Didn’t like: it generally. I’ve enjoyed Koons paintings in the past (here’s my post on Loopy), but the recent retrospective at Newport Street Gallery left me disappointed, especially by the images / paintings. At the end I felt like I’d walked very slowly around a department store, looking for something that wasn’t there. In 2014, Laura Owens (her own exhibition is reviewed below) spoke on a panel discussion about the “Koons effect” at the Whitney (video below), coinciding with their Koons retrospective. Owens said,

“I thought, okay, I’ll look at the show, I’ll write about this, I’ll get to what it is I’m actually thinking about it. It’s like a process. I feel like I’ve done that with a few artists, but this is the first time where I was literally like: ‘I can’t fucking wait to be done writing about this’. Like, ‘I hate this’. … The other really positive thing I came to was that maybe, since the show is here, it’s like we get to culturally vomit this up – we can do this panel, have this moment, and then the show will end, and we’ll be post-Koons. What about that?”

Laura’s quote comes at 45:55 in the video.

Laura Owens at Sadie Coles HQ

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Laura Owens at Sadie Coles HQ (2016) installation view

Liked: the sprawling sense of experimentation with a wide variety of different formats, techniques, and materials. I especially liked the thickly-ghessoed and smoothly sanded canvases, resulting in a surface something like white vinyl, which took paint and other marks in a completely un-canvas-y way. Also, Owens’ engagement with ugliness and inelegance is reminiscent of Kippenberger and Oehlen, and the mixed results are really refreshing compared to the premeditated serialism of the Koons and Ruscha work. There is also a website created to accompany the exhibition (why11.com). It includes audio clips that give insight into the production process, underlining the role of experimentation (some of the paintings have been sitting around the studio for a long time, one is the result of a forgotten test run).
Wasn’t sure about: the idea that visitors access the website from their smart phones and use them like audio guides. I don’t use a smart phone, and getting rid of my last one is a decision I’m really happy with. Everybody viewing the exhibition seemed plenty interested enough in the paintings without consulting their phones.
Didn’t like: Nothing here I didn’t like.

“Artistic freedom” and political control

An interesting article, by Ned Resnikoff, about the so-called “post-truth” politics of Brexit and Trump. Relevant to this blog is the description of art’s place in this version of society (emphasise in bold are my own):

“Surkov’s philosophy is that there is no real freedom in the world, and that all democracies are managed democracies, so the key to success is to influence people, to give them the illusion that they are free, whereas in fact they are managed,” writes Sakwa. “In his view, the only freedom is ‘artistic freedom.’

This “artistic expression” can be nominally political, insofar as it takes on the guise of political rhetoric. But it is also fundamentally anti-political, both because its primary aim is self-expression, and because it has little effect on political power itself. It is essentially a form of narcissism. And it is harmless to authoritarian despots.

That quote needs to be read in context, and if you have the time then I urge you to read the whole article, especially if you work in the arts.

The reference to narcissism reminds me of Ulrike Groos’ description of the painter in Paul McCarthy’s Painter video. The quote also makes me think of Sebastian Egenhoffer’s 2008 analysis of abstract art as, “closely linked with the domination of social abstraction in the medium of monetary value” (from Figures of Defiguration: Four Theses on Abstraction), although the “artistic expression” that Surkov and Resnikoff refer to obviously includes art in a more general sense.

Thank you to Resnikoff for writing the piece, the brilliant documentary maker Adam Curtis for shining a light on some of the issues discussed, and @SethMacFarlane for posting the link to Resnikoff’s article (and for making Family Guy).

ps. It’s not just artists who decide the role of art in society. Jerry Saltz is senior art critic at New York magazine, and has proposed a boycott of Mnuchin gallery in response to the gallery’s connections with Trump’s team. Will other critics do the same? What about collectors? Few of Mnuchin’s artists are alive, but those who are could certainly afford to take a stand: Koons, Prince, Hirst, Scully, Richter, Ruscha – do they have anything to say on the matter, and do we care?

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Exhibition review: Beyond Caravaggio at National Gallery

These were my two favourite paintings at the Beyond Caravaggio exhibition at London’s National Gallery. Caravaggio’s Taking of Christ (below), and Orazio Gentileschi’s David and Goliath (further below).

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Caravaggio Cattura di Cristo nell’ orto [The Taking of Christ] (c.1602) oil on canvas 133.5 x 169.5cm

The exhibition contains 43 paintings influenced by Caravaggio, but only 6 that are attributed to Caravaggio himself. Those 6 stand out as exceptional, even surrounded by so many paintings that use similar devices: close cropping on figures, realistic figures, dramatic chiaroscuro lighting, etc.

The Taking of Christ usually lives at the National Gallery of Ireland and this is the first time I’ve seen it in the flesh. It’s remarkable.

Hung in the same room is Gentileschi’s David and Goliath. I like the unusual, almost frontal lighting on Goliath’s right leg, casting a sharp dark shadow onto his calf and foot, looking almost like a flash photograph, totally inconsistent with the direction of light in the rest of the picture, and with the light conditions suggested by the sky. I also like the bizarre shifts in scale, between David and Goliath, and between the different parts of Goliath’s body. Typical for painting of this time, foreshortening is not applied in the way it would appear to a camera lens, and in this case Goliath’s legs appear to be enormous compared to his head. This makes the spacial relationship between the two figures pretty confusing, which I like. I also like how unwieldy and oversized the sword looks, and how implausible it is that David would make a successful blow by swinging it at that angle. Huge concessions have been made to achieve this composition, and I enjoy the friction between the realistic and the fantastic.

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Orazio Gentileschi David and Goliath (c.1605-1607) oil on canvas 185.5 x 136cm

I think maybe I’m attracted to the shifts in scale in this painting because I’ve recently been looking closely at the work of Neo Rauch. His compositions often involve jarring collisions of mismatched scale, light, and perspective, and I enjoy them immensely. It’s pretty thrilling to find similar characteristics in David and Goliath, combined with Gentileschi’s incredible technique and Caravaggesque realism.

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Neo Rauch Das Plateau (2008) oil on canvas 210 x 300cm

Oehlen coincidence

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160917b Parents Children (2016) oil on canvas 24 x 28cm

I made this painting in September, working from imagination. Now I’ve found this Oehlen painting from 1985. A small coincidence, and for once I can be sure this is only a coincidence. I’m certain I hadn’t seen this painting before.

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Rotes Haus Albert Oehlen (1985) oil, lacquer and mirror on canvas

Oehlen has attached mirrors to the canvas. Mark Godfrey describes the context of Oehlen’s mirror paintings in his lecture below.