Wednesday, 27 June 2012

The Birds


In a recent article on his favourite Hitchcock film Geoff Dyer implies that the thing that let’s The Birds down is the birds themselves. I guess what he might mean is that their awkwardness in terms of special effects gets in the way of their metaphorical presence. For me the “special” effects are precisely what imbue them with a very real sense of the uncanny. The birds is one of those films I thought I had seen because it’s on so many clip shows and was completely unprepared for its unfiltered delights. I am so glad I recently watched this film having only the merest whiff of Zizek’s "mother love" thesis to affect my perception. I soon forgot Zizek’s interpretation (although I am a fan) and sat exclaiming in wordless wonder all the way through. I couldn’t believe that such a piece of total art had been produced in the name of entertainment. With this in mind the special effects seemed to my now expanding mind to be mind-blowing. Yes there are moments of clunkiness but these add to the visceral thrill of the merging of rational consciousness with a freakishly airborne subterranean psyche that I saw occurring on the screen. “If you find it implausible well there are always novels,” said David Thomson of Vertigo. He could have added “Or films by James Cameron”. I’m not sure if Hitchcock would have gone back and CGI’d the birds a la Lucas but as they are they have the invention of a painter in his prime. It is a lesson in making the most of limited means – and I mean stretching it to the limit. There are real moments of transcendence in the effects where they seem to defy science. I’m sure that a neuroscientist could explain this perception by dint of my predisposed sympathetic stance meaning I filtered out the artifice but it is precisely this flashing between fake and real that makes the special effects so riveting. Boy for such an entertaining filmmaker Hitchcock sure does reveal his process.

 The Birds is not a verbalist movie. That is it is not a linear rational cohesion of “ideas”. What it does is trigger something in the viewer. My mind wandered to the explosion in Fifties America of the utopian dream that was now available to everyone. Tippi Hedren’s character comes from the newly emerged globe trotting media set (her father owns a newspaper) and has neglected her primal self instead seeking the glamour of celebrity. Were she around today she would no doubt have had a well-followed twitter account (pun painfully engineered). She is a sophisticate and inthral to the electronic tools that are beginning to shape us and our identities. In this sense she is harbinger the demonic avian intelligence. Bodega Bay is already apart from the advanced civilisation an hour away down the road but by the end of the film is completely cut off. What is it with movies and severed telephone lines? There was no doubt in my mind that the birds were a manifestation of our neglected subconscious realm. I’m not referring to suppressed desire in a Freudian yawn inducing sense but rather the underworld of Orpheus where ambiguity has free reign. In Jungian terms Hedrin has neglected her shadow self whom she then meets in her humble creative environs surrounded by books on the hill out of the village. Annie Hayworth is a brunette making her shadow role almost painfully explicit but its still delicious.
Ultimately though the film seems to have a moral tone there is no no moral message underpinning it but instead it manifests the need to explore our whole selves lest the demons be forced out through the side. This is kind of summed up by the frantic ultimately futile efforts of Rod “Time Machine” Taylor to seal the house to all possible external threats. He is a reasoned and stoic figure and at the end of the film Hitchcock archly has him manfully scramble the females into the car to head back in the direction of civilisation where dark clouds fill the skies. Will their new acquaintance with their shadow selves equip them with the skills to survive the coming media vortex I asked myself?

Saturday, 23 June 2012

More Trope reflections. or Esher makes me want to weld my eyes shut. The more you look at this the better it gets.


To gee myself up during the installation of Trope I bought a copy of The Doors of Perception. Perhaps it was my porous state of mind but nearly every line felt like a consoling arm around the shoulder with an accompanying voice telling me that a sense of wonderment was a good, albeit out of fashion, thing (I jest the voices were purely metaphorical). 


“At least you aren’t lulled into a sense of false security by some merely human, merely fabricated order” The above is part of Aldus Huxley’s response to a recording of some madrigals by Gesauldo. Admittedly at the time he was “high” on the affects of mescaline recently ingested in the name of experimental science but there is something in these words that speaks to my heart. There are two choices when this revelation strikes you and one is to respond with the anti-energy of the Dadaist and the other is to embrace the cosmic order of the dislocated wonderist for “the totality is present in the broken pieces” as Huxley goes on to say. When I make work this fractured I do get a sense of the danger of disintegration or plain disinterest but hazardousness has its attractions. “Suppose you couldn’t get back out of the chaos…?” stammers Aldus at the end of his madrigal based hallucinogenic encounter.

This sense of artificial order is what puts me off a lot of visual art. The sense that artists and institutions once upon a time began adopting the language of the “verbalists” in order to court a more mainstream acceptance. This is no longer a conscious act and has become the “norm”. See my earlier blog on the Art of the Invisible for a mention of Art and Language’s skewering of this particular reflex. “Verbalists fear the non-verbal” Huxley states further down the road through the doors. This made me think that perhaps something is going on with the phrases in my paintings. The ones that crop up under all the pictures. They are on the cusp of being platitudes but their “not quite” state is what interests me. What I might be exploring is the ridiculous hubris of trying to capture the mystery of existence in a trite phrase. For is this not what all art and entertainment boils down to? The mystery of existence I mean. Of late (the last six hundred years) western art has sought to use death as the prism for viewing life. Art can, I hope, revel in life, which does of course include death but is far more wondrous than the Escher like configuration that Stephen Hawking recently compared it to. Escher's paradoxical mazes are still a conveniently fabricated order no matter how “weird” they appear. I really do THINK that painting is a relevant means of both highlighting and avoiding the pitfalls of the arbitrary order we impose on ourselves through verbalism but I am aware that one cannot force others to feel that way. I mean most people see paint on a canvas and think “uh oh traditional folk hobby past-time activity”. That’s how I used to think about Manet’s Un bar aux Folies Bergère until I dived in and found he was thinking in paint. Really thinking not just creating a schematised analytical symbol of thinking. I don’t want to give up or abstain from words but increasingly I am somewhat baffled by the glamour of them. They mesmerise visitors to exhibitions who instead of staring in reverie cling onto the crampons of grammar scattered around. Words send hooks into our eyes and paintings slide off them. Glaze over. Unless someone recommends we look hard at something it is hard to do so of one’s own free will. My next set of paTropeintings will all be of the words “the more you look at this the better it gets”.

After calling the show Trope I suppose it only right that I should explore the piece called “Trope”. This mobile is an inadvertent anti-trope. A trope relies on visual information that the audience intuitively understands. This is a mobile consisting of a welder’s mask and a miniature statuette of the Statue of David on one arm and a Sky satellite dish with a crudely painted golem face of Rupert Murdoch on the other. With its three suspended elements the subject of this piece is straightforwardly “working out” connections so on that level it does work as a trope. However, what I had overlooked was that the meanings within this are not shared. At least not by one unified present day audience. The satellite dish is a piece of contemporary culture and some people might even recognise Rupert Murdoch’s face with the word Golem. So much so Trope. But the statuette and the welding mask. What of them? My over familiarity with the Statue of David led me to believe that this was a shared emblem. The story of its creation is as mythic as the Goliathan statue itself. The original statue is a true triumph of will resulting in a sublime translucent form hovering between mass and invisibility. It appears effortless whilst revealing the struggle of its creation through sheer awe-inspiring scale. In the mobile it hangs off the ground its weightiness now dissipated. Measuring and scale are a concern of the enlightenment – the drive towards human order. To experience the “all at onceness” of life is to be unconcerned with horizons and vanishing points. I should like to stress, however that there are certain meanings in the statue that are positively unambiguous. Michel Angelo manifests David as rational thinker on the brink of defeating Goliath through intellect. He is thinking about what he will do. Forward planning incarnate. A warning to the enemies of Florence the home of the new objectivity way before der Stijl came on the scene.

On an autobiographical level my family has such a statuette on the mantle piece although after thirty years and a succession of grand children it has been glued back together several times. As a child it was above a bizarre fake-fan-based flame-effect three bar heating devise and it proved a useful subject for drawing when I felt the need to graduate from pictures of chaotic battlefields to some real art. No one can compete with Michel Angelo’s depiction of the male torso. How to make the pencil describe tone invisibly? From another aspect the sculpture also became imbued with a sense of the uncanny. After school my father would drive us past a nearby country pile that had a near life size replica in the garden. How could something of such vast scale exist here in sleepy Sussex? I asked myself. The welding mask is a reference to Richard Shaver who published extensive stories of a subterranean race brought to his attention via conversations channelled to him through the electronic welding apparatus he operated. Satisfyingly the mask seems to evoke the humanoid nature of this species of degenerate robots or Deros as he called them and the welder himself. At the time in  Nineteen Fifties America there was debate as to whether his stories were scientific theories or the deluded imaginings of a deranged artist. I think perhaps he rationalised the “all at onceness” of the creative process as an external force. Jung talked about seeing the psyche as a separate and legitimate entity. There is a school of thought that “delusions” such as Shavers are likely to manifest if this goes unrecognised. When making the images of the welders as both channeler (Shaver) and channelled (Dero) the welding flare quickly became a trope like devise. This we understand as a sign of enlightenment or conversely (more irrationally) even some kind of Saulian flash from which the visors darkened glass provides protection. This brings to mind the pain the slave leaving Plato’s cave experiences as his eyes struggle to adjust to new visions of reality. And so put simply in the Statue of David we have rational forward planning and in the welding mask we have the artist as conduit to the universe. Both of these are balanced against an over-riding invisible yet inescapable environment transmitted to the satellite dish. Weightlessness and dissolving of scale create the dialogue between rational quantification and the glimpse of life’s mystery that the artist seeks to uncover. Even more simply this piece is an emblem of the process of mounting the exhibition itself – the precarious balance of creating enough order to allow a reciprocal dialogue without dissipating the energy of dislocated wonder.

Thursday, 14 June 2012

Invisible - Hayward Gallery

Invisible. Art about the unseen. This show at the Hayward is sublime. It is also by turns maddening and hilarious. It’s like your very own immersion in the joke about trees in the woods making a sound when no ones there to give a shit. Or like you stepped into a film delighting in the extended agony of art pretentiousness. Wear a polar-neck. It’s that good. It's also very like being in a sci-fi lunatic asylum. Right now that’s out of my system I can admit that I did come away thinking I will never make any art again. It’s like the world is too cluttered with culture already. I thought about the words of Salvator Rosa in his stoic self portrait, "Be quiet, unless your speech be better than silence". Despite the fact that this show is literally nothing except explanations on walls about nothing (spoiler alert) the same life/art dialectics resurface again and again. Teresa Margolles is a fully qualified forensic scientist who specialised in autopsies of victims of violent crime. When she became an artist she made an air-conditioned room in which the devises were cooled by the water used to clean the bodies before autopsy. The explanatory note reassures us that the water vapour is harmless. The point being that living in Mexico City often isn’t. Faced with this any art pursuing joy seems trivial. Perhaps this is why Yoko Ono’s typed painting pieces in the show work so well. They are deliberately trivial and yet sublime. Her more recent, less subtle, work on twitter fades into oblivion for a fleeting moment. Some of my friends in David Devant and his Spirit Wife were taught by someone from Art and Language who also created an air-conditioned room n the invisible show. Theirs was much more fun and almost didn’t make me want to stop making art. Their idea was that all art objects are only experienced through a mediated framework of language. It was very funny to walk around this show, which was mainly white trying to find something for your eye/mind/soul to cling onto and find only the almost invisible explanatory notes. It induced a certain giddiness. Any road up A and L posited the written framework outside the air-conditioned room and some of it seemed to talk about how ordinarily we screen out such things as the temperature of the room because it is not relevant – except that it is. They condition the room to give it a neutral normalness. When we view art there is an awful lot of screening and filtering that goes on. Were Art and Language warning us? I certainly don’t think they were trying to establish a template but that is what seems to have happened. This reminds me of a line from Aldus Huxley who was an undeniably literary chap yet still insisted that “In a world where education is predominantly verbal, highly educated people find it all but impossible to pay serious attention to anything but words and notions.” As you leave the exhibition there is an invisible maze which marks a reassuring return to art as amusement with a sprinkling of metaphysics. I found my way out via the vibrating head set and the invigilator had a contented pride in helping visitors to engage with the piece. Jolly good. As I left I began to think about Utopian whiteness and the accompanying feeling of contentment that denies “joy and woe” to quote Blake. It is this that we see in Huxley’s “Brave New World” and also I realised in a painting of nothing I made early this century. I had made a door shaped canvas using joints and chisel techniques my father had recently shown me. For this reason the object itself was a source of no small amount of satisfaction. I found myself thinking that anything I paint on it would ruin it. Miro suggested that the origins of art are within the urge to soil or degrade but I tentatively tried not to change the canvas whilst painting upon it. What emerged was a terrifying view of a Utopian asinine heaven where the vague outline of a man on a beach holding a brick like mobile is visible. In this version of heaven technology is the drug of contentment. No joy or woe. The “painting” has disappeared into the now defunct vaults of a gallery that used to be in Notting Hill and I am left with only the two photos recovered folder of iPhoto to ponder.

The Lost Estate

"Sentimentality is when it doesn't come off – when it does, you get a true expression of life's sorrows." Was Fournier’s response to an accusation of said soppiness from his friend, the critic, Jacques Rivière. When I was painting the footballers from my childhood I was aware of the danger of leaving myself open to perceptions of sentimentality and in many respects this is what drove me on. Not out of sheer contrariness (although that always plays a part) but because I have made a pact with myself to follow hunches in my work. My hunch here is that this deep ache of longing is a real part of being human and not something to be drilled out of one’s system. The way to capture this is not to revel in it but to coax it out into view somehow. In the central room of my exhibition - Trope - there is a triptych I embarked upon about the time I bought the book le Grand Meaulnes. The title of the book has been awkward to translate and the English version is called The Lost Estate. Ah I thought a book with the name residents give to the estate I live on with my family in Dulwich and I snapped it up just in time to flee the shop and jump on the number 37 back to said estate. Later that week I was driving to my studio and Julian Barnes was on the radio discussing the above novel. He clearly found its lack of irony troubling. It was as if he saw this passion as a thing of the past and not a universal thread. Being an historian he saw the relevance of this manner of expression of longing for something lost as stopping at the First World War. The phrases on the bottom of these footballers came from listening to what I felt was his struggle to accept the psyche as an independent entity. “Romanticism is no longer possible” “But then I’m a realist” and then he added later that the writer Fournier was “Half passing through reality” before he went on to be killed in the Great War (mystery still surrounds the circumstances). To follow rational ends would mean that all art is an irrelevance in the face of global suffering but we are not merely rational beings (witness the Jubilee celebrations a surrogate ritual of sentimentality if ever there was one). To see ourselves as such would be akin to seeing the man poking a fire in the living room hearth as a coal miner. My work is not all about this half feeling of longing rather it is, amongst other things, about “how do I accept this longing as part of me in an age that sees it as a thing of the past?”

Sunday, 10 June 2012

Mall galleries and gardens

Yesterday I passed the Mall Gallery outside which was a large poster for a Peter Blake exhibition. The poster was a life size version of his self-portrait in denim. A classic. The exhibition shuts at four I was informed – oh what’s the time? Ten to four. Ten minutes would have been too long to look at the exhibition, which was essentially a collection of ink jet posters of Peter Blake's collage work. I could look at them online. Peter Blake is a lovely man or at least that is the impression I have formed of him from a couple of brief meetings and Beatles documentaries. Here comes the “but”. But before I go on perhaps I need to get over myself after all perhaps he himself doesn’t think of this as art. Leave him alone – it’s not his fault that the world is full of poseurs out to make a quick buck from other people’s desire to somehow seem classily creative in a quirky way. Is that enough of a but already? In my hastily scrawled notes written on the top deck of the 176 I was set to describe this exhibition as a residue – a kind of homeopathic echo of creativity easily tidied away or kept out of sight for when the men gather to smoke cigars and discuss the “world”. Now I recall that Harold of Rosenberg described Kitsch as just such a thing. Well to be more exact he saw it as the overflow of popular culture. But oh the irony. Blake's work is about taking the superfluous ephemera of modern life and imbuing it with a nostalgia for a childhood or wonder but this collection on the Mall was simply Kitsch. Rosenberg’s Kitsch is a kind of insidious middlebrow culture that gives the recipient a righteous sense of tastefulness. Today the show at the Mall feels put in place to make us feel we have not well and truly excommunicated our unreasoned creative selves. It’s an art that can be packed away at the end of the lesson. After a long spell away on business a man returns home to find his garden withered and so he decides that he will fill his home with easier to manage pot plants. After another business trip these too shrink and perish and so he decides that fine silk flowers will provide him with the organic forms he intuitively craves. His business thrives and he becomes accustomed to working in a state of stress. He reflects upon how foolish he would have been to invest the time in gardening that he has spent on expanding his business. He is almost proud of his ability to work at a highly neurotic level of being. One day though he admits to himself that the orders are not coming in as quickly as he needs them too and so he works harder and harder trying to secure more contracts. It is at this point that he thinks “Perhaps I need to walk in my garden to think of new strategies. But of course he has no garden only silk potted plants collected to show visitors he cares about nature. “ I couldn’t possibly attend to the garden now” he thinks to himself ‘what a waste of valuable time and money that would be!” Over time the mans business picks up again and this time the man decides to build (or rather pay someone to build) a beautiful easy to maintain garden with exotic species and water features. He has box hedges sculpted into perfect spheres and even peacocks roaming freely. Locally he is much admired for his sophisticated tastes and success in business. His garden proves so popular that he is able to start charging a fee for people to visit and his reputation as an arbiter of serene style and shrewd business acumen grows day upon day. His garden is celebrated in thick lavish coffee table books with sumptuous photos. Upon the death of the man the people of the town commission a sculpture in his honour for the central courtyard of the garden. The sculpture is nearly complete when the commissioned artist becomes sick with worry and eventually takes his own life. The un-cast sculpture languishes to this very day among the weeds grown tall in the outer edges of a foundry that generates a respectable income from casting man hole covers.