Monthly Archives: February 2007

Colour After Klein, Barbican Gallery

Exhibition held in Spring / Summer 2005

Colour’s an easy choice for a hard-up curator. There’s a lot of it going around in painting, sculpture etc. And even by restricting yourself to a certain period, say, from after Yves Klein, there’s still no shortage of the stuff in installation, video, and performance art. And everyone likes colour. Bright colours, dark colours, shiny colours, scratchy colours. Primary colours. Zig-zag strips of colour dashing from left to right and back again. The kids will like it too.

That’s why I was a bit suspicious of Colour After Klein at the Barbican. Just throw any old stuff together and pretend to make a show of it. An exhibition gathered from whatever could be got on the cheap from other galleries closed for refurbishment or in need of some kudos by exhibiting in London.

But heck no. This worked well, although not in the expected fashion. Most exhibitions work by bringing an artist’s works or a theme together, gradually establishing an overarching narrative for the exhibition a whole. Colour after Klein had no real truck with this method. Instead colour was framed as a technique rather than a theme, something that can be vividly exploited to create myriad effects that jut off at wholly different tangents. On walking through, it was obvious there was no real detailed thesis about colour – the exhibition’s sum conclusion was something like ‘colour is powerful and can induce lots of different effects’. But this didn’t stop each of the works demonstrating how powerful these effects were.

Isolating the works and providing a splendid diversity of media was part of this process. In the central downstairs foyer of the gallery, one saw the juxtaposition of the grey sheen of Richter’s Mirror Painting (Grey) and Bruce Nauman’s kite-shaped pattern of neon lights (White Anger, Red Danger, Yellow Peril, Black Death). One working like a glassy marble coated with a reflective oil, all natural materials giving subtle hints of the spectrum; the other all mechanical and seemingly transparent, until the bubble-gum neon colours burst into light to reveal their seemingly commonplace slogans.

Beyond the materials, the works’ messages don’t have too much in common, Nauman, in this instance, having a much more clear social agenda than the opaque aestheticism of Richter,. But colour vitalises them both; Richter in the way that colour disturbs and enlivens the seemingly grey surface, and Nauman in exploiting of the expectations, messages and pleasures that different colours convey.

Bruce Nauman, White Anger, Red Danger, Yellow Peril, Black Death, 1985

Other contrasts were emphasised via different media; Louise Bourgeois’s claustrophobic installation Red Room (child) used a single colour to hem the viewer in while James Turrell’s Zennish experience allowed a room slowly pulsing with a spectrum of glowing colours to allow the mind to escape.

Most effecting of all was the video (Dammi I Colori) Anri Sala had made of the Albanian capital of Tirana. Sala’s video camera had been hoisted on to a lorry cruising around the night-time streets of the city. With the aid of some truly high-powered spotlights, the camera panned along the facades, walls and roofs of the housing and offices Mayor Edi Rama had, as part of a massive regeneration scheme, painted in joyous slabs and patterns of bright colours. The long strips of fresh colour, juxtaposed against the black of the night and the dirty, scarred roads below, served as a life-affirming statement of how the country is attempting to recover from its Communist past. While the rest of the exhibition focuses on colour as an aesthetic element, here it was elevated to a lofty, if perhaps slightly superficial, social position, an ingenious method of adding a little joy to a city sadly deprived of colour of many years.

I’ll finish at the start. Yves Klein’s set of seven or eight Monochrome paintings greeted the visitor on entering and provided, in what was essentially an exhibition stuffed with conceptual art, a little lesson in painterliness. To the untutored eye, it was not too much – cheap paint slapped on to canvases with no skill but a lot of a cheek. But to the more aesthetically minded, a modernist essay in the application of paint. Seven or eight paintings, of different sizes and textures, with subtle adjustments in tones and hues (despite the promise of monochrome in the titles), using different paints on different surfaces, showed how much can be achieved, and how much the observant eye can be rewarded, even in the absence of narrative and polychrome.


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Filed under Barbican Gallery, Contemporary Art, Modernist Art

Turner Prize 2005, Tate Modern

I’ve wondered for a few years whether the Turner Prize has run its course. Most of its success in the 1990s was based on cunning, calculated and highly successful attempts to goad traditionalists and tabloids with provocative conceptual art; art that was ready made to prick the sensibilities of those who swore in the skill of the craftsman. Let the shouters whip up a storm, sly curators reckoned, and then let the gallery bask in the publicity and subsequent rush of inquisitive visitors. The actual art may have been of variable quality, but there was plenty of legitimate excitement surrounding the event that allowed the flag of contemporary art to be one of the most visible on the cultural landscape.

But this process couldn’t last forever. The clamour and the success of the Turner Prize (and the more general absorption of contemporary art into the cultural mainstream) has abated the fury of the traditionalists, with the result that there is no longer the frisson of excitement surrounding the prize. With less hoo-ha about the “is this art?” question, there is more time for the more pertinent “is this good art?” question. Seen in this light, the Turner Prize’s once-fluttering flag begins to droop more than a little.

The suite of works by Simon Starling, the first nominee, was of no visual interest – a shed, an electric bicycle, a set of five identical prints of a quarry. I later learned from the Tate website that the process behind the creation of his works was supposed to inject them with meaning. The shed, for example, had been dismantled and “turned it into a boat; loaded with the remains of the shed … paddled down the Rhine to a museum in Basel, dismantled and re-made into a shed.” But for the visitor in the Tate, hardly a trace of this process was obvious from the artwork and the whole thing seemed rather pointless. Knowledge of the process that creates a work can be interesting when they enhance the more immediate aspects of an artwork. Yukinori Yanagi’s Pacific, where ants dug into the coloured sand representing a network of flags, is an excellent example of this. But when the process becomes the entire raison d’etre of the work (and also when the process is one of breathtaking mundanity) then I move quickly onwards.

Installation view of Simon Startling's work at Tate Britain

Installation view of Simon Startling’s work at Tate Britain.

Jim Lambie’s set of painted birds was intriguing yet mystifying. The two-foot tall plastic sculptures, coated with household paints, had an immediate visual appeal, as did the shiny diagonal stripes covering the floor. As with Starling (an appropriate name in the context), Lambie raised Duchampian issues relating to the discovery and aesthetic use of banal, everyday objects. But beyond this, I couldn’t quite see what Lambie was getting out of it. There was a mixture of messages at work, as Lambie seemed to revel in high art being swamped by more popular artforms. Jeff Koons tipping paint over Frank Stella perhaps. But how it all tied together I could not quite fathom. Is it really just about the visual potency of the shiny stripes laid on the floor, the black blots on the wall and the pools of seeming coagulated paint? Or is there a larger unifying theme that Lambie wishes to entice us with. From the symbols paraded, I really couldn’t tell.

Installation view of Jim Lambie's work at Tate Britain

Installation view of Jim Lambie’s work at Tate Britain.

In deploying four video screens of varying sizes around a darkened room (If I Had You),
Darren Almond perhaps had an effective means of creating a worthwhile piece of art, but the execution was sentimental, almost kitsch. The subject of two of the four screens was pleasingly elliptic. A neon outline of a Moulin Rouge-type windmill was projected onto one, and a suitable scraping noise could be heard as the mill followed its clockwork path. The other screen, placed at foot-level, showed an everyday garden fountain spouting its water in a never-ending loop. It was interesting to see the glamorous symbol of the Parisian nightclub and a cheap item purchased from B+Q united via the notion of circularity.

But the other two screens were pretty cheesy – slow-motions shots of an old woman, perhaps a deceased grandmother, looked like nothing more than a clichéd Hollywood-style rumination on old age and death. And pseudo-grainy shots of the dancing feet of two ballroom dancers was a too simplistic way of evoking times gone past. Ally this to the worst aspect of the room, a cloying sound track of a nostalgic piano tinkling away and the piece really seemed like some kind of excessive multimedia weeping. It may have been an accessible piece of work, but it conjured up a horrifying future where next-door neighbours lovingly parade, instead of tedious photo albums, never-ending multimedia collections.

Gillian Carnegie’s black paintings of trees and foliage, such asBlack Square, were the highlights of the show, indicating an artistic sensibility that should please both traditionalists and moderns. These large monochrome paintings, built up with heavy dollops of impasto and strategic use of the palette knife, illustrated intimate knowledge of painting as a representational tool and as a means of abstraction, a factor that immediately recalls someone like Frank Auerbach. But in concentrating on trees and nature rather than the city, and yet denying the possibility of any other kind of colour, Carnegie showed herself as to operating at a tangent to Auberach’s urban grittiness.

Her other paintings, of backsides, dancing men in lederhosen and other portraits of trees, were not so impressive. The rather simplistic tree paintings looked like lesser versions of the nature paintings done by Mondrian during his journey towards De Stijl. But one could sense a set of ideas emerging that could bear fruit in the future. In short, Carnegie was the most promising of a pretty poor bunch.

I finish with a coda. Downstairs, past the queues for the Toulouse-Lautrec exhibition, sat a work from one (or rather two) of the previous year’s Turner Prize nominees, Langlands and Bell. We went to see this just after the current exhibition; its content clearly highlighted the deficiencies of the current crop of Turner contenders. It shows a video of the trial, in Afghanistan, of Zardad’s Dog, a Taliban-sponsored bodyguard who had allegedly bitten his victims before killing them. Immediately gripping, with little stylistic decoration or attempt to inject an artistic sensibility, the video manages to engage viewers by, in contrast to the hermetic worlds conjured up by the Turner Prize nominees, providing a seemingly more obvious path to narrative understanding, yet without ever becoming didactic or lapsing into pure documentary.

The video has no subtitles, and there are only brief explanatory panels shown between episodes of the court case. This does not matter. The familiar props of a trial – a courtroom, the oaths, the witnesses, the questions – provide a meaningful context. Then universal traits such as facial expressions, body language and tone of voices provide a further sense of narrative to the trial. So we see the sullen defiance of the accused; the nervous, darting eyes of the court guard, clutching his outsize rifle; the phalanx of journalists pressing tape recorders into speakers’ faces. A vivid family of characters is presented.

However, it’s important to note that one never manages to grasp a complete understand of what is happening. The lack of subtitles block definitive understanding, and so while the familiar settings and gestures provide a frame of reference, the viewer is left to interpret the artwork and inject her own meaning. This seems an approach that has not only artistic merit but speaks volumes about broader cultural issues. How does the western world understand and interact with the Islam world? Can the western world do anything more than observe Muslim life? Langlands and Bell’s simple video encapsulates a range of issues of immense cultural and political importance. It is given further potency by the fact that later news reports that the trial was not conducted in a fair fashion. Is the observer of the video neutral, or weighted down by prejudices that might also have provoked the judge? Like many good artworks, the narrative seems immediately obvious but it begins to become fuzzy once you get close. There is an easy way in, but not easy way out.

Zardad’s Dog is a short piece, maybe around twelve minutes long. And yet still there is plenty in the piece with which the viewer can engage, at both a poetic and a political level. It was this immediate sense of engagement that was almost entirely lacking in the Turner Prize upstairs.

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Filed under Contemporary Art, Tate Britain, Turner Prize

Dan Flavin, Hayward Gallery

Exhibition held in early 2006

Dan Flavin is known for his tubes, but I’d presumed that he had done other work using other types of material, or at least incorporated light into larger installations. But I was pleased to discover that Flavin’s sole source material has been the humble fluorescent tube (if one discounts the early works and the preparatory sketches etc. also laid out in the exhibition). And not only has he restricted himself to this medium, but he has a palette of, I counted, only ten colours (gold, red, pink, green, cyan, ultra-violet and various shades of white) and, for the most, only four sizes of tube (two foot, four foot, six foot and eight foot). If one had told him at the start of his career that his complete oeuvre would almost entirely consist of this vocabulary, I am sure there would have been a genuine sense of disbelief that so much would be possible with so little.

Such an approach of course forms part of a broader minimalist philosophy; discard decoration and strip down to some fundamental basics, embracing a (seeming) lack of complexity and artifice in both original material and final product. But the narrowness of Flavin’s choices trumps the other minimalists. While Carl Andre or Donald Judd experimented with new discoveries, materials and contexts (although still drawn from an industrial / technical world) Flavin stood rigorously by his committement to the tube, and rarely strayed from it.

The success of Flavin as an artist, and the Hayward exhibition, is to indicate how much can be done with such a limited range of materials. The fluorescent tube is an object of insistent mundanity, but through tireless manipulation Flavin continually appeals to, and surprises human perception. It is stunning to see how much intensity of experience can be conveyed via such simple means, and how such a simple vocabulary can be manoeuvred and rearranged to create infinite effects. While Bob Dylan saw god in the eye of a daisy, Dan Flavin sees something special in the glow of a neon tube. The sheer diversity of Flavin’s oeuvre is testament to the power of the artistic imagination; a clear declaration to how much can be extracted from restricted materials.

While it is clear that Flavin shares much with the minimalists, it is, for me, the differences that make him such an interesting artist. His insistence on the importance of colour, light and perception in the audience’s experience of the artwork divide him from the more impassive approaches of other minimalists. He has much in common with Anish Kapoor, in the way that simple, elegant shapes provoke responses at both an intellectual but also a more physical level. They constantly ask not what the spectator thinks about the artwork but what they feel about it too. The level of engagement is much more animated than the detached outlook of other minimalists.

Another way to describe it would be that whereas, Andre, Judd, LeWitt, Stella are all cool and possibly rather mechanical, Flavin is, for want of a better word, hot and, in his immediate engagement with the audience, much more human. This is true at a tactile level (compare the cool metal slates of Andre to the Flavin’s burning fluorescence, hot to touch) as well as artistic level.

(It was interesting to view the make-up of the audience at the gallery; a large queue had formed outside (a master stroke to hold a Flavin exhibition in one of the coldest winters for many years) among which there were many children. Kids react not just to Flavin’s colour but the generous sense of space which the curators have sensible provided the artworks on show.)

The glowing green of Untitled (to you, Heiner, with admiration and affection) attacks the senses even before entering the particular space where it was housed during the exhibition. By affording those in the ticket-buying queue a view of the glowing (a common word in writing on Flavin) green through a frosted window, the curators allowed the audience a mysterious foretaste of what was to follow. On entering the gallery itself the omnipresence of the green (emanating from the fence of green tubes, perhaps 100 feet long, laid out at a slight angle across the floor) is overwhelming. Then strangely, the original colour fades, to be replaced by a faded green-white on the walls, and tubes that have turned almost white. On leaving, and then espying the artwork from another room, everything has returned to its vivid green. The seemingly changing colours are a trick of the human perception that continues to beguile. But it’s more than an optical trick that Flavin is playing; the colour floods and dominates the room in a godly fashion, demanding human participation.

With this heat comes a sense of humour. At times, Flavin seems to be performing of a pastiche of the hard-won concepts of the minimalist family. Flavin announces that he will explore the concepts of minimalism but “I will be doing this (get this!) simply by using coloured office lighting!” Sol LeWitt develops instructions for a repeating rectangles built into a cube; Flavin produced a neon-green fence of rectangles. Andr&eactute; lays down a line of alloy tiles; Flavin lays down a line of white lights. In the way that Liechtenstein reduced Old Masters to pixellated dots, so Flavin reduces his colleagues to fluorescent lights.

flavin grille

Dan Flavin, untitled (in honor of Harold Joachim), The Dia Art Foundation

The upstairs floor, exhibiting work from the 1970s, shows Flavin’s increasing confidence in handling colour – a fact amplified by the excellent installation at the Hayward. I heard the occasional gasp when visitors reaching the gallery’s upper floor turned and confronted the tall block of glowing ingots that form one side of untitled (to Jan and Ron Greenberg), and there was always a flow of visitors to inspect the tiny chink of green light emanating from the side. The tapestry of colours used in untitled (in honor of Harold Joachim) , a work which is enticing because of its colour but threatening because of its grille-like configuration, throws luminous blocks of coloured light on the white walls, again engrossing the curious spectator. Whereas Judd’s boxes are ponderous, or sometimes even brooding presences, Flavin’s tubes demand instant attention. I don’t think any other of the minimalists elicit such a response.

But there’s a flipside to Flavin. A few days after my visit to the Hayward Gallery, my later reflections found it difficult to recall what the exhibition was about, what had so moved me to be generally positive about it. A bunch of lights? What’s so dramatic about that? The sheer abstraction of Flavin’s work does not create an obvious set of themes that the reflecting reviewer can easily hang on to. Sure, in citing Tatlin’s Monument to the Third International, Flavin may be directing the viewer to some of his concerns. But is this really a serious engaged commentary with Communism or simply a passing pastiche of utopia? And he touches on other themes – icons, monuments, barriers. But the brightness of his works overwhelms this. One is dominated by the perceptual concerns, by the basic observation of the coloured poles and their outcrops of light. Flavin himself acknowledged this (and in a sense embraced it), openly stating that you get what you see with his art. There are no hidden tricks, no extra material beyond the glow of the lights. And, to reverse his maxim, once you can’t see it, you don’t get anything. It is almost as if on leaving the gallery the lights are switched off, their power immediately fading.

But then every so often, travelling on a bus and passing a wall of shops, I would catch sight of a blue fluorescent tube and it would remind me of the Flavin show. The tube was no longer just a tube, but it could also be something waiting to be liberated, waiting to become a something less functional, more intense, an agent working on behalf of human perception. And with this, the beauty of Flavin’s shimmering rainbow of colours would return, even if momentarily.


Filed under Contemporary Art, Dan Flavin, Hayward Gallery