Saturday, 26 September 2009

William Kentridge

The History of the Main Complaint 1996
Drawings for Projection
Tate Modern, London
12 May 2000

I first came across the work of William Kentridge in 2000 when Tate Modern opened and I saw "The History of the Main Complaint". I recall few details, a shrouded hospital bed, the switches between an echo scan and the eyes seen in a rear view mirror, but do remember the pervading sadness and the subject matter dealing with "White South African" guilt.

The History of the Main Complaint (1996) is the sixth film in the series Drawings for Projection films, which 'star' Soho Eckstein (a wealthy mine owner) and Felix Teitlebaum (a sensitive downtrodden alter-ego to Soho) as their main characters.

The film begins with a scene of Eckstein in a hospital bed - waiting either for recovery, or death. The sound of a heartbeat heightens the tension and the feeling of some imminent doom within the viewer's consciousness.

Every significant image can be interpreted in a metaphorical way. According to Godby(1), Soho Eckstein's body becomes a metaphor for the divided and unreconciled South African state, while the group of doctors attending to the patient cannot reach agreement about the patient's diagnosis. Meanwhile, economic power is metaphorically illustrated by imagery of telephones, sonar machines, and other kinds of office equipment. But all these artefacts hark from period before his birth, evoking melancholic sense of a past era stripping them of their power. The patient remains ill, ailing and isolated. Kentridge uses this metaphor to highlight (by contrast) the importance of the truth and reconciliation process, which was (in one sense at least) a movement away from the imprisoning isolation of personal memory. By creating Soho as a self-portrait, Kentridge makes sure that he himself becomes part of this process that he sees as inevitable for all South Africans of good will.

Kentridge’s technique in producing his animations is to manipulate one image on a single piece of paper, removing and adding charcoal while the drawing progresses. As the moving image consists of 24 frames per second, the process is fluid and energetic. He photographs each drawing before erasing some part of it, and then draws again on the erased section before photographing that for the next frame - and so on. He always leaves traces of the previous drawing before adding the amendment. These remaining traces create an illusion of movement in the film when it is viewed in low light conditions, and are reminiscent of the visual effects created by old black-and-white films. So although there is no painting involved, his process has an element of evolving over time built into it, just like painting. Thus, instead of thousands of different drawings, he makes use of thousands of alterations to one single drawing. Seen as a film it evoked the feeling that it is impossible to remember everything, but it is equally impossible to totally forget. And in order to remember one must be able to forget. By allowing traces of imperfect erasure to remain visible in the images, time is amplified; 'before' and 'now' overlap and subjectivity is experienced as a passage, hovering in a zone between forgetting and remembering. The use of charcoal, the imperfection of the erasure, the shakiness of the camera all produce a film which emphasise the pervasive melancholy and desolation.

(1)Michael Godby, ‘William Kentridge’s History of the Main Complaint: Narrative, Memory, Truth’, in Sarah Nuttal and Carli Coetzee, Negotiating the Past: the Making of Memory in South Africa, Oxford University Press, Cape Town, 1998

©blackdog 2009

Saturday, 19 September 2009

Paul Winstanley

Man Watching TV 2003
Oil on Linen 100 x 121 cm
Frieze Art Fair
15 October 2004

I was lucky to see this work at the Frieze Art Fair in London on the stand of the American Gallery “1031PE”, as it is now in a private collection. He paints very few with figures, usually preferring paintings based on photographs of uninhabited interiors and landscapes. It is unusual in another respect too, his paintings are usually drained of colour and this has a vibrant warm orange contrasting with the blues of the interior.

The title describes the subject of the painting, a man watching television but gives nothing away of the circumstances. However, looking at the painting I make my own associations, and these are of passing time in a waiting room.

The type of chairs, the arrangement around a decorative rug and the lack of a bed suggests a waiting room or a common room in a private hospital rather than a hotel room. We see the man only from the back as we join him in the room and wonder which chair to select. I feel drawn into remembering the times I have experienced this situation myself and the selective blurring and distortion that he has used to develop the image from the original photograph lend it the atmosphere of a memory.

The obvious parallel with his work is with the paintings of Gerhard Richter, but I sense Winstanley is less interested in the reproduction of a photograph than with exaggerating the atmosphere of a memory that is remembered through experience rather than the nostalgia associated with a snapshot.

His uninhabited interiors are usually of non-spaces such as lobbies, offices, corridors and windows with net curtains; places that we pass through without a thought. Whilst they too can have melancholic associations I don’t think they are as strong as those I felt looking at this painting and that is something to do with having to share the space with another.

©blackdog 2009

Sunday, 13 September 2009

Marlene Dumas

Gelijkenis 1 & 2 2002
Oil on Canvas 60 x 230 cm
Punta della Dogana, Venice
17th August 2009

This diptych by Dumas is based on the famous Hans Holbein the Younger painting “The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb”, both of which are now owned by François Pinault and were on display in his new contemporary art space in Venice. They were originally exhibited one above the other, but for some reason his curator has split them onto separate walls. I felt this diminished the concept and made any concept behind the work hard to grasp. Of the two it is the second canvas that is the closest to the Holbein which is in the Basel Kunstmuseum (not seen), and whilst it is only a facsimile or simulacrum, the copy draws a power and melancholic aura from the original.

The painting represents a corpse stretched out on a slab with the loins covered with a white cloth. The painting is life sized and we view the painted emaciated corpse from the side with the right arm in full view with the hand protruding slightly from the slab. The chest shows a blackened wound from the soldier’s spear and the hand the stigmata from the crucifixion. The expression frozen on the face is one of hopeless grief, a man deserted by God without any promise of redemption.

Unusually for a painting for a painting from the 16thC, Holbein leaves the figure alone without the usual coterie of figures immersed in grief but also in the certainty of the resurrection. It is this isolation that endows the painting with its major melancholic burden more so than the limited palette of greys, browns and greens. Perhaps Holbein, himself a humanist on the threshold of atheism, is expressing his religious doubt. There is nothing more dismal than a dead God, and by painting a faithful representation of the dead body of a man taken from a cross with the head thrown back in suffering (rather than with the customary traces of beauty combined with the agony on the cross), Holbein confronts us with that possibility.

So what is Dumas trying to achieve with her copies? As she says “you can’t ‘take’ a painting, you make a painting”[1] and consequently for her it must be a decisive moral act. Perhaps the clue is that the first canvas is also partially based on a tabloid image of Michael Jackson sleeping in his oxygen chamber (in an effort to stave off his own mortality). Clearly the paintings have to be read as a pair and perhaps she is emphasising that we are a culture without the will to seriously examine our own problems. We prefer to be provoked and titillated rather examine our real problems, eschewing issues that are complex contradictory or confusing.

©blackdog 2009

[1] Dumas, Marlene “The Private Versus the Public” Marlene Dumas: Miss Interpreted Van Abbesmuseum 1992. 43

Sunday, 6 September 2009

Diego de Velázquez

Aesop, 1638
Oil on Canvas 180 x 94 cm
Museo Nacional Del Prado
18 April 2009

During my visit to the Prado Museum in Madrid to see Goya’s Black Paintings I took the opportunity to see this portrait by Velázquez. Painted as one of a pair as a test of whether he could outdo Rubens for powers of invention and assert his challenge for the patronage of Philip IV.

Although the philosopher Aesop was a renowned figure of antiquity, he had for many years had to perform menial tasks as a slave. He was also described as ugly with a humped back, a pot belly and large feet. This data taken from an anonymous biography of the author is brought to life by Velázquez in this full length (life-sized) portrait. Under his arm is his book of fables whilst at his feet, a water bucket and rags associated with his household duties.

The figure is thinly painted with broad rapid brushstrokes using a very limited palette. The face is more varied; the highlights on the forehead are thickly applied whereas in the shadows on the cheeks the primed canvas is barely covered. The background colour is pale grey over a red oxide ground. Such is the mastery of the brushwork that he creates the impression of a man prematurely aged with sagging flesh and grey hair. He seems to be standing awkwardly with his weight on one foot, which may just be a trick of the perspective or a deliberate device to make him look ill at ease.

The gaze is directly at the viewer and the eyes are intelligent but sad. In fact the aura of this imaginary portrait is one of dignified wisdom maintained in the face of adversity. A much more sophisticated interpretation than Rubens managed with his pair of paintings for the Torre de la Parada of the laughing and crying philosophers Democritus and Heraclitus.

©blackdog 2009