Sunday, October 22, 2017

Thomas Ruff. Photographs 1979-2017 @ Whitechapel Gallery, London

Thomas Ruff, Machine 1390, 2003 
For the second time in the last few months I have seen an exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery that has refused the ideologically suspect curatorial narrative of chronology. And in the case of the new Thomas Ruff retrospective, this choice is not only innovative but it invites us to see the German photographer’s body of work as it should be seen. Ruff’s photographs are always made in series, both connected through their process of production and presentation, as well as, in their conceptual concerns. Each photograph as a unit unto itself makes no sense. For this reason, it takes a little time to acclimate to the exhibition and its logic, but after the first couple of rooms, I realized how provocative, rich and misunderstood the work would be if seen in any other presentation. 
Thomas Ruff, Nacht/Night 5, 1992

Ruff’s photographs always reproduce not the historical event seen in the image — which we may or may not recognize — but they manipulate and re-present the way that the photograph was used either to record the event itself, or in the historical moment that it took place. Thus, for example, in the series, Nights (1992-96), we see multiple images of the empty streets of Düsseldorf through the same surveillance night vision cameras that were used in the fighting of the Gulf War carried out a year earlier. The photographs of Düsseldorf are beautiful, aesthetically very pleasing to the point where we do not recognize the streets of Düsseldorf in the images, but rather are drawn to their photographic representation. We recognize in them the distinctly hazy outlines produced in very early photographic images, thereby infusing them with nostalgia. Indeed, Ruff reproduces images of a Düsseldorf that we do not recognize. Factories, industrial buildings and structures such as chimneys, storage facilities, empty and silent streets are not those we would associate with northern Germany’s wealthy business hub.

Thomas Ruff, Negative-Artists 01, 2014
In all of Ruff’s photographs, the production process involves not only a series of intricate technical strategies, but the multiple strategies always lead to a transformation. In a particularly powerful example, Ruff’s Negatives, 2014 involve a process in which Ruff scans positive 19th century photographic prints, digitally reverses the tones from sepia to blue, black and white, so the images appear as negatives. Not only do the series of photographs remove the works from their historical narratives, but by inverting the positive/negative photographic print, they also invert the political implications of the images. Thus, in an image that might have been an otherwise benign documentation of a 19th century collector surrounded by his possessions, the image becomes a politically charged commentary on the historical era of the original photograph. The face of the collector becomes that of a colonizer, however, he and the figures of his statues and paintings now have black faces instead of white. In such a photograph, the whole discourse of colonialism that we are reminded of as we see these images is completely reversed through Ruff’s process of production.
Thomas Ruff, Haus Nr. II III, 1990
Ruff is also interested in the interstice between photography and other media. In a recent series, w.g.l.07, 2017, Ruff takes archival images of a 1958 exhibition of Jackson Pollock’s abstract works in the Whitechapel Gallery. Ruff’s photographs of Pollock's paintings are reproduced in black and white with the carpet and the suspended ceiling in brilliant colour. Thus, where Pollock’s paintings caused quite a reaction on the artist’s London debut in 1958, in Ruff’s images, the paintings are black and white decorations of a radical architecture. Ruff’s photograph transforms the architectural space of the gallery into the most interesting aspect of the image. In addition, we find ourselves standing in the very same place in the gallery that appears in the photographs, thus Ruff challenges the line between reality and illusion in the photographic image: photography represents architecture as dwarfing painting, and both in turn are represented as a re-presentation when placed within the gallery in which we stand. However, when we realize the gallery has been changed since its appearance in the 1958 reproduction, we see the space in which we stand as no more than a representation.
Thomas Ruff, Interior 1A, 979
In a series entitled Interiors (1979-83), Ruff raises another set of concerns that will stay with him throughout his career. He photographs the interiors of homes of his friends – corners, the edge of a wall, the taps without the full sink. There is the odd intimate object, but what’s striking is the lack of humanness in these images. They may be the living spaces of his friends, but they are modernist compositions, attendant to the form, framing, color, the vertical and horizontal lines of shelves, cupboards, pictures and wallpaper seams. The significance of the objects is not explored, but their presence nevertheless creates intimacy. The photographs are both intimate and not, nostalgic and not. In addition, like Ruff’s other series, the works may be placed on the same wall, but they are only related to each other through their process of production: the photographs may be taken in different houses, some of them may be taken in the same house, it’s impossible to say. But like all of the series, what’s important is not that we find logical connections and meaning in the content of the images but in the fact that they are placed in a line on the wall.
Thomas Ruff, Photographs 1979-2017
Installation View @ Whitechapel Gallery
Lastly, a word on the curation which I found compelling. The pictures are not placed chronologically and neither are those in one room all the same size, or necessarily all using the same processes of production and transformation. Small c-prints are placed opposite oversized works that are literally ten times their size. Thus, like the logic of the works in their series, they make meaning next to and opposite each other, rather than in any kind of traditional narrative unfolding.

Monday, October 9, 2017

Brice Marden, Gagosian Grosvenor Hill London

Brice Marden, Sennelier (2016-2017) and Holbein, (2016-2017)
Installation view
I can’t remember ever having fallen in love as if for the first time with paintings of an artist whose work I have been looking at for so many years. Everything about the Brice Marden exhibition at Larry Gagosian’s expansive, light drenched new London gallery left me breathless. The paintings are luscious, the space is everything that London architecture is not—open, light, reflective—and the two together make for an exquisite exhibition. I realize that not everyone will find beauty and joy in abstract painting, but I do think visitors to the Grosvenor Hill space will find it mesmerizing.
Brice Marden, Rublev Antica (2016-2017) and Rublev Verona (2016-2017)
Installation View
I have written an entire book on why paintings, even if they claim to be a single color, are never monochrome. Although it’s not an assertion that I make in the book, until yesterday, I was convinced that there was no such thing as monochrome painting. Marden’s new work undoes all expectations about color, about monochrome, about the need for variegation on a surface to ensure that painting makes sense.

The exhibition consists of ten identically sized canvases (244 x 182.9cm), each of which is painted with a terra verde manufactured by a different company. In turn, each painting takes its title from the manufacturer of its particular terra verde. The names and titles themselves already remind us of the long history with which Marden engages: Holbein, Rublev Antica, Vasari Ancienne, Old Holland, and so on. I assume that each canvas is primed in the same white ground, before layer upon layer upon layer of terra verde is applied to create a thick, dense colour field. The surface is then flattened with a palette knife to ensure the removal of the brushstroke. A band of thin color, presumably made by a single layer, fills the bottom of the canvas, creating a transparent, luminescent, field of what looks to the human eye to be an entirely different color. It is in fact the same  terra verde as the top of the canvas, in its “authentic” hue. Unlike the upper portion of the paintings, the surface of these lower bands might be evened out by the palette knife, but the density of the paint is not even. Drips from the application of paint in the upper section fall on these translucent areas to create tears.


The number of levels of meaning and affect in these paintings is almost equal to the number of layers of paint applied to thesurface. The first question that I am still wrestling with is whether or not these works are monochromes. Yes, Marden uses the same paint on a single canvas, but the effect of the paint application and its working over creates two different greens on each painting. Immediately, we are pushed to keep questioning what we know about color. Not only is the vast difference between each of the terra verde in the otherwise repeated canvases suggesting that the names we give to color are inadequate—how can all these different colors be the same color?—but the single color made by one manufacturer is not even singular. It doesn't take long before we realize that the words used to designate color can never be equal to the nuances of that color when it is applied to the canvas. Similarly, language can never really approach what an artist like Marden does with color.
Brice Marden, Rublev Antica (2016-2017) 
The mirror like effect
Marden also intervenes in a narrative on the history of art, a narrative that reaches well beyond Holbein. I remember seeing the terra verde works of Paolo Uccello in the cloisters at Santa Maria Novella in Florence. In the renaissance, artists typically used the iron silicate/clay pigment of terra verde as the base to balance flesh tones. But for Uccello, terra verde was elevated to the entirety of the painting as a way to emphasize the pomp and circumstance of parades on horseback. Vasari claims Uccello uses green to transform painting into the illusion of sculpture, but I am not convinced. For me, the cloister horses are infused with movement through the use of the green pigment. And movement lies at one end of the spectrum of Marden's paintings’ connection to art history. That is, they push paint to do something beyond itself: to represent movement. At the other end, surrounded by the paintings in the vast open space of the Grosvenor Hill gallery, they are unmistakeably landscapes. The green and the innate transparency of the terra verde encourage our minds to wander and conceive of them as deeply connected to the most traditional of genres: landscapes. And yet, they are also inverted. The “sky” is at the bottom, and the dense green fields fill the top of the images.  

Gagosian Grosvenor Hill Brice Marden 1
Brice Marden, Installation View, Gagosian Gallery
Some of the top sections are worked up and over so much that the surface has become a mirror in which we get to see ourselves looking. This is a familiar Marden strategy that  I always think of as a pushing the spectator away to ensure she doesn’t get too close. This is the coldness that encouraged Marden to soften his painted surfaces in the 1980s. But unlike the earlier works, the ten terra verde are also inviting: the bands at the bottom are open, light and filled with an air that we cannot resist. Thus, first is the repetition of terra verde from one painting to the next, a repetition we find is filled with differences. And second, is a repetition within Marden’s oeuvre, a repetition that is, nevertheless, also developed and complicated by difference.

Brice Marden's Studio, Tivoli, NY, June 2017. Photo by Eric Piasecki

In another, more pressing layer of representation, the removal of the trace of the artist through the use of a palette knife transforms the surfaces into one that has the look of the industrially produced. And so, as if it is not enough for these breathtaking works to examine the substance of painting as well as its history, they converse with reproduction in addition to repetition within the world. The endless game of these doubling mechanisms, where one meaning is immediately withdrawn by its opposite, make me want to be with modernist abstract painting always. And when this is done in the vibrant, everchanging greens of Marden’s multiple terra verde, abstract painting is irresistible. 

Saturday, September 30, 2017

Lawrence Carroll, That What Comes, @ Galerie Karsten Greve

Lawrence Carroll, White Oval Painting, 2014-2017
As always, I went to see one exhibition at Karsten Greve and fell in love with another. While the press and social media are raving about the Giorgio Morandi exhibition in the courtyard gallery, I was blown away by the powerful paintings of Lawrence Carroll in the store front. Carroll’s paintings were a very exciting discovery for me, and will be for others.

Lawrence Carroll, Untitled, 2017
The press statement claims that “Lawrence Carroll shares an affinity with Giorgio Morandi in his constant quest for the poetic potential of everyday objects…” But after less than five minutes in the presence of Carroll’s work, viewers will recognize that his major influence is not Morandi, but Cy Twombly. In one of most exquisite pieces on display, three wooden ovals placed on three separate shelves in a vitrine have been touched by paint applied with scrunched up paper or a rag. The resulting flower like patterns that drip with excess paint will be recognizeable from the bleeding red images that covered Twombly’s huge canvases at the end of his life. Carroll’s practice is more intimate, delicate and subtle; afterall, the White Oval Paintings are painted in white on small pieces of wood, not red on oversized canvases. Nevertheless, when I saw the works in the vitrine, my suspicion was confirmed. Carroll has borrowed a lot of Twombly’s visual language, though admittedly, he does something very different with it. In the upstairs gallery, there is also a series of works on paper executed in and presumably influenced by Bolsena, Italy. Twombly lived half of his year in Bolsena, and the lake washes over so much of his abstract work, if only by implication. A picture in the artist book that accompanies the exhibition shows Carroll and Twombly leaving Galerie Karsten Greve together. And so, even those who want to dispute the visual resonance between the two artists’ work, there is no question that Twombly is an enormous influence on Carroll’s painting.

Lawrence Carroll, Grotte Paintings, 2017
 One of the most compelling elements of Carroll’s work is the painting on found wood and cardboard, turning objects that have no market value into sculptures through the use of paint. To be sure Carroll’s sculpture-paintings introduce something new as can be seen in the oval paintings: thanks to their size and shape, we look into, rather than at them, as if in a mirror. Even when the ovals are painted in black as in Black Mirror Paintings, our look turns to a peering into the image. This mode of looking at small round works makes them resemble devotional paintings; we behave as if they are icons on wooden supports. Thus, painting becomes an object—of which there is, however, no likeness, because the image is abstract. Similarly, we are not invited to contemplate because these works are broken and evidently imperfect: the wood has splintered away, and the uneven frame around the wood stops us from contemplation. 

Lawrence Carroll, Black Mirror Paintings, 2014
By contrast, the silverpoint works on paper are delicate and fragile, giving them a sense of something precious. Thoughts are expressed, as the press release tells us, reminding us of Chinese landscape drawings. These are completely opposite to the mirror and oval paintings in the way they are made, the contact with the brush and pen, and the way that we look at them.
Lewis Carroll, Grotte Paintings, 2017
Perhaps most breathtaking of the works on display are the Grotte Paintings in which Carroll paints water. I think back to Hockney’s attempt to paint the movement of water in a swimming pool, and recognize Carroll’s as closer to the sea with its sense of infinity, and its instability. There are no reflections or patterns made on the surface of this water. It is far more autonomous, irreverent to humans, complelely uninviting for us to swim in it. Nevertheless, once again, our eyes don’t lead us to fall into it, but rather, we are amazed at its undulations, its variability and constant green motion across the surface of painting.  

Lewis Carroll, Grotte Paintings, 2017

Most disturbingly, there are holes in the canvas—as if it has been punctured. As a result, the lilting, gently reflective silent surface of water is completely shattered by holes. There is also the implication that Carroll has gouged out these holes with a scalpel or a sharp instrument. The violation of the surface of the canvas is a desecration that shows an anger – coming out of nowhere. This contradiction makes the Grotte Paintings endlessly fascinating and unlike any other representation of water – of which there are many in the history of painting.