Saturday, 30 May 2009

Daniel Richter

Gedion, 2002
Oil and varnish on canvas 306 x 339cm

Saatchi Gallery, London
7th November 2004

Before I first saw this I already knew that there was a reference to Immendorff’s famous Hört auf zu Malen (Stop Painting, 1966); the Expressionist work that called for painting to cease unless it was motivated by political commitment, but I had no idea what the title signified. I have since read in Frieze magazine[1] that the title fuses the Gideon bible (Gideon was the poor farmer who became the saviour of the Israelites through sheer faith in God) with Marvin Gaye’s sensual ‘Let’s Get It On’ (1973) - and with Armageddon.

The canvas is very thick and rough, almost like hessian and the brushwork is very loose and expressionistic. There are some thick lumps of paint contrasting with thin dribbles and splashes.

On this surface Richter establishes his own grid with the patterned wall of a supermarket or shopping centre, its windows and the paved plaza in front. Pedestrians outside this supermarket gaze open-mouthed at the sky, frozen in time as they move towards an unseen vision. A dog is reluctantly dragged forwards, it’s as if he knows better and wants to keep well away. In the background one couple start a fight; another have stripped naked and are painting the windows of the shop with Kandinsky like washes. One little girl stares out at the viewer and a little chap in a Napoleon hat hovers above the crowd.

According to the Frieze article, these two protagonists are ‘direct quotes from works by Vasily Surikow, the 19th-century Russian painter who mixed genre and history painting in an attempt to be understood by ‘ordinary’ people’[2]. I have found the paintings he is quoting from, the latter is from The Morning of the Execution of the Streltsy, 1881 and the girl is from Portrait of the Artist's Daughter, 1888. Her strong colour contrast with the rest of the scenario draws the eye and her returning gaze, the only one towards the viewer, unsettles in a similar way to the non-plussed stare of the Grady sisters in Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining”. However, I am no closer to understanding their significance in the painting, nor why he has injected these realistic quotations into the astonished crowd. Are they placed as commentators or judges on the theatre unfolding on the canvas?

I certainly don’t find the painting as melancholic as some of his later work, but the figures frozen in a shimmering light is unsettling and suggests the nuclear threat that seemed so real in the 1960’s. The fact that this light might be “The End” is reinforced by the title and by the sixth sense of the dog shying away from the blue glow.

[1] Frieze Issue 74 April 2003
[2] Frieze Issue 74 April 2003

©blackdog 2009

Sunday, 24 May 2009

Jenny Saville

Reverse, 2002-3
Oil on canvas 213 x 244 cm

Royal Academy, London
18th June 2004

I saw this large self portrait, head on one side lying on a mirror at the Royal Academy Summer show in 2004. It was hung in a gallery of non-members work such that it could be seen from the central hall framed by the doorways; made the visit worthwhile.

It isn’t a traditional portrait by any means, more of an idea or sensation, perhaps akin to Francis Bacon but not as extreme. "Wants to be the subject/object as well as the artist/looker." The disconcerting gaze seems to be straight out at the viewer, challenging us as we satisfy our curiosity and look. Much larger than life, yet like many of her paintings, the subject almost seems too big for the frame and is cropped at the tip of the shoulder.

She finds working from life intimidating and she normally takes close up photographs of her model and uses these fragments stitched together to make her figure. However, she does use mirrors in the studio both to see her own flesh and to check a work from distance without having to stand back. Saville explains in a 2005 interview with Suzie Mackenzie from The Guardian that she doesn’t see the painting as a self-portrait; "I am not interested in portraits as such. I am not interested in the outward personality. I don't use the anatomy of my face because I like it, not at all. I use it because it brings out something from inside, a neurosis."[1]

She mixes the paint of various colours in large quantities in pots - up to 300 for a large painting. Starts with core tones and then shifts tones as required by adding purer colour. In Reverse there are lots of dark ochres in flesh and ground. A thin under painting gives way to thick layers of paint with lots of different marks. Some very dark (Degas) reds around the lips that make them vie with the eyes for attention. Brushwork with thicker paint looks very loose. Some marks are surprising going against shape of face.

Her work is often compared with Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud but it is the extensive vocabulary of William De Kooning, her “textbook” of marks and Velasquez, a painter’s painter, where the materiality of the paint literally adds another dimension that she cites as references[2]. Like Cezanne she acknowledges that "each mark should have its own perspective"[3].

I would say that the work expresses an internal melancholia and it is possible to read the image as if she is looking at her own reflection in the mirror. This raises the question of whether “the neurosis she is trying to bring out” is Narcissus seeing the shadow of despair in his own reflection. “Depression is the hidden face that is to bear him away into death, but of which he is unaware while he admires himself in a mirage.”[4]


[2] Schwabsky, Barry. “Jenny Saville: Unapologetic” Jenny Saville Macro, 2005. 103-105

[3] Scharma, Simon. “Interview with Jenny Saville” Saville Rizzoli International Publications Inc 2005. 124 - 127

[4] Kristeva, Julia. Black Sun Columbia University Press,1989. 5

Sunday, 17 May 2009

Eberhard Havekost

American Lip Gloss BO6, 2006
Oil on canvas 95 x 150cm

White Cube Hoxton, London
3rd April 2007

This painting was in his exhibition of new work in the White Cube and selected for ‘The Painting of Modern Life’ exhibition at the Hayward later the same year. I don’t care for his technique, but the interesting choice and range of subjects meant the exhibition was better than I expected.

All his work is based on photographs he has taken himself, video stills or found images and as the gallery handout explains; ‘using a computer, Havekost might crop, stretch, skew or tweak the colours of the picture, or leave it almost untouched before making an inkjet print that he uses as the direct source material for the final painting[1].’

A figure in white is slumped in the passenger seat with the seat belt on. The car interior is definitely American with their dreadful taste in seats and trim in almost matching garish colours. The head is obscured as the seat is tilted back. A pair of sunglasses are tucked into the door handle. The situation is ambiguous, the person could have been ravished, involved in an accident or murdered. The title doesn’t help and could be euphemism for the smear of red blood running from the face down the front of the passengers white jacket. I since read in a review for the Hayward Exhibition that the image is based on a widely circulated newspaper photo showing a German visitor to Miami murdered in her hijacked car.[2]

Probably the strongest melancholic notes comes from the subject matter, a holiday in the sun tragically cut short, but I also identify with the way he has rendered the interior of the car. He uses the blur of the brush work to unify his images, treating all images equally, but it really works for this subject. I can believe the nasty velour of the seats and the fake leather panels on the door. For me there is a depressing sadness of this pathetic attempt to make a poor substitute look cheerful and appealing, and that more than anything is American lip gloss. The cheap fake alternative to the ‘real thing’! Interesting to think that it is this interior detail that will fix the image in time and provide a commentary on a period in history. I don’t think the tampering with the perspective of the interior in the car adds to the melancholic aura of the image other than serving as a method for providing distance between the painting and the original image.

[1] From the gallery’s website.

[2] Dorment, Richard Review of ‘The Painting of Modern Life’ Daily Telegraph 2007

©blackdog 2009

Sunday, 10 May 2009

Andy Warhol

Big Electric Chair, 1967
Silkscreen on primed canvas 137 x 185cm

Tate Modern, London
February 2002

In his 1863 essay “The Painter of Modern Life” Charles Baudelaire described such an artist as one who would fuse photography with painting to capture the transience of modern life. The first painter to rise to this challenge was Edouard Manet, and he is often cited as the first Modernist Painter. Those that came afterwards were free to choose what to paint, but Manet was the first to break with the old order of painting that decided what to paint and how it would be painted. Warhol is a true follower of Baudelaire’s ideas. Creating paintings that captured the fast changing landscape of the 1960’s and doing them using a mechanical means, the screenprint.

Seeing a large exhibition of Warhol’s work for the first time at the Tate Modern I was struck by just how varied the apparent subjects of his work were, but then realised that the true subject was life in America. So many of the images were familar to me individually, but collectively they told the story of a period in American history that I only knew through film and television. The consumerism of the Coke bottles and 32 Campbell's Soup Cans of 1962, the trauma and tragedy in the portraits of Jacqueline Kennedy, the fascination with celebrity in the portraits of Elizabeth Taylor and Marylin Monroe, and the darkness of his 1963/4 “Death and Disaster” series. The second half of the show included the hallucinogenically coloured Cow Wallpaper and Flower paintings and cuminated with the skulls and collaborations with Jean-Michel Basquiat.

The painting I have chosen is a 1967 reworking of an image from the “Death and Disaster” series. The original photograph Warhol used is of the empty execution chamber in the Sing Sing state penitentiary where the last executions by electric chair in New York State took place. The early image is a repeated series of fifteen images based on the full photograph. All the details of the photograph are visible in the early images, but the quantity of dark ink increases with the print run, steadily obliterating the sign requesting “silence” perhaps signifying a temporal meditation on death.

Although the later piece crops the setting out, it seems more disconcerting. This might be connected to the introduction of the nauseous colour, but I suspect it is the unwanted intimacy with the subject created by increasing the image size and removing the context. The work was hung low on the wall, making the image seem like an extension of the gallery space, suggesting that not only was the execution room occupied, but also that we might be the next victim.

Clearly Warhol had a fascination with death long before his near fatal shooting at the hands of Valerie Solanas and was reported to be afraid of dying if he went to sleep. However, this depiction of this ugly means of execution goes beyond the issue of unexpected sudden death explored by most of the disater series and involves the viewer in reflecting on the value and meaning of life. In particular, its mode of exhibition, which was dictated by Warhol, makes this confrontation with death not only moralistic, but undeniably melancholic.

©blackdog 2009

Sunday, 3 May 2009

Johann Heinrich Fuseli

Nightmare, 1781
Oil on Canvas 127 x 102cm

Tate Britain, London
April 2006

This iconic painting was centre piece of the Gothic Nightmares exhibition at Tate Britain. The exhibition explored the work of Henry Fuseli, William Blake and their contemporaries in the context of the Gothic, the taste for fantastic and supernatural themes which dominated British culture from around 1770 to 1830. The exhibition was interesting and informative about Gothic’s romantic roots and its influence on Modern Gothic; I certainly enjoyed the screening of Nosferatu.

The exhibition was well laid out, responding to the themes, giving The Nightmare its own red painted room, complete with red curtain to protect the innocent.

Sex and death are inseparable in the Gothic and the Fuseli painting has these ingredients in abundance. Unlike many of his other works at the Tate exhibition this one was well painted and utterly convincing, perhaps because the eye is drawn away from the stylised swooning femme fatale to the grimacing gremlin sat on her chest. The luxurious boudoir appears to be contemporary to Fuseli’s time, and the bottle on the table may contain laudanum, the narcotic drug of “choice” in the eighteenth century. The setting exudes a feeling of decadence. The young woman on the bed has been connected with Anna Landolt[1], the object of Fuseli’s unrequited passion when he was in Zurich in 1779. Her provocative costume and pose suggests a queasy mixture of pain and sensual pleasure. The creature sitting on her on her abdomen while staring at the viewer, may derive from an ancient sculpture of Bacchus, but his features have been taken as resembling Fuseli’s own and the painting has been interpreted as an expression of the painter’s sexual revenge or frustration. The horse is based on a ghostly figure in the background of Salvator Rosa’s Saul and the Witch of Endor (c.1668, Louvre) combined with the sculpture of ‘The Horse Tamers’ on the Piazza Quirinale fountain in Rome.

I have explored ideas of sleep paralysis in my own paintings, influenced by the work of Edgar Allen Poe and others, and lying on one's back, lying on one's left-hand side, a violent oppression of the breast, a loss of voluntary motion were all deemed by early medical theories to cause nightmares. However, Fuseli may have been inspired by folklore relating to the ‘Mara’, spirits who visit in the night, causing bad dreams; or classical stories about ‘incubi’, wicked imps who assault women sexually in their sleep. Although the word ‘nightmare’ derives from ‘mara’ (imp) rather than ‘mare’ (horse), Fuseli may have deliberately mixed the terms up to create a visual pun on the word.

I had gone to the exhibition hoping to find evidence for a link between the visual uncanny and the melancholic. My logic was that if the Gothic aesthetic is essentially a romantic flirtation with the dark side of death then there might be the same sense of suffocating loss that Poe evokes in his writing. Whilst many of the works touch on the link between imagination and madness, I didn’t think that they had stood the test of time in the same way. Perhaps I found it hard to get beyond the visual interpretation, whereas in the written word there is more room for projection and speculation. The Nightmare is certainly an interesting and enigmatic painting and I can appreciate why Freud had a copy on the wall of his consulting room in Vienna, but I didn’t find it melancholic.

[1] On the back of this canvas is an unfinished portrait of a woman, associated by a number of commentators with Anna Landolt.

©blackdog 2009