Wednesday, October 6, 2021

Anish Kapoor @ Lisson Gallery

Anish Kapoor
Installation @ 27 Bell Street, London

I opened my London season of gallery visits with Anish Kapoor's latest creations at Lisson Gallery. I can't remember the last time I was so inspired by an exhibition. I realize many people reading this will not get to London to see this exhibition, but hopefully, there will be other opportunities to experience the works. As we walk into Lisson's main gallery space, we are met by Anish Kapoor's Sacrifice (2019). A steel structure draped in red resin that immediately brings associations of the innards of a slaughtered being. Whether that being is animal or human is not so important as we are overwhelmed by the mess of blood still dripping out the gutters that have been installed for this very purpose. The bloody entrails of what we imagine to have been a ritualistic killing—whether of the industrial or mythical kind—globbing and bubbling into their disintegration is gut wrenching. Sacrifice is filled with trauma and the slow painful death that we sense viscerally, even if we do not see the murder taking place. The rest of the exhibition offers no escape from the gaping wounds of a world filled with death, destruction and no promise of rebirth.

Anish Kapoor, Inhuman, 2020


The shapes and forms in sculptural and painted works remind us of things as variant as vaginas, bleeding wombs, monsters running rampant through volcanic landscapes, fire and rage of mythical proportions. The body and the natural landscape join forces in agony, screaming for help, watching their own disintegration at the hands of an unrelenting force. It's mindboggling to think that this is what Kapoor produced in lockdown, while we were all on Zoom meetings, avoiding people in the supermarket and getting depressed on our sofas. 

Anish Kapoor, All There Under my Skin III, 2020


The Lisson gallery flyer mentions Kapoor's engagement with the history of art, reminding us that artists from Leonardo all the way to Francis Bacon have been obsessed with raw flesh and meat. Halfway through the exhibition, it becomes clear that Kapoor is not making vague references to his predecessor's concerns, but rather, that he draws specifically on the work of Francis Bacon, if not others. Kapoor followers will remember the Rijksmuseum's coupling of Kapoor's Internal Object in Three Parts (2013-2015) and Rembrandt's Carcass of an Ox. The artist's debt to Rembrandt is well known. And in the works on view at Lisson Gallery, the debt to Bacon is unmistakeable. Even before seeing the three-dimensional frame in the corners of the untitled works on paper, Bacon's gaping mouths, bleeding wounds, distorted and deformed flesh, screaming with pain are so clearly haunting Kapoor's intense and angry abstract compositions. As much as the triptych Diana Blackened Reddened (2021) might be about fertility and hunting, it is also about Francis Bacon's Second Version Triptych 1944. As Tate's website blurb quotes, Bacon's is a work that reflects "the atrocious world into which we have survived." One gets the feeling that Kapoor's triptych is saying something similar. 

Anish Kapoor
Installation @ 27 Bell Street, London



Francis Bacon, Second Version Triptych, 1944 1988

And then, we must not forget that these works are also about painting. Where the raw flesh of a body slaughtered body hangs limp over an unrelenting steel frame, so paint is filled with emotion and rendered alive in the accompanying paintings. But, by extension, paint is as connected to death in these works as Damien Hirst's Cherry Blossoms are to life. It is as though Kapoor were saying something to the effect of painting cannot be separated from flayed bodies, oozing entrails and violently desecrated souls. Painting is about the destruction of our humanness. In turn, if Kapoor is so intent on seeing our bodies slashed and slammed in the abattoir of existence, then he must also be saying something about the modern condition. Certainly, there is not much to look forward to—unless of course, the pleasures of the flesh are also captured in these visceral distortions. Certainly, the proliferation of bleeding orifices and spewing volcanoes would strongly suggest that death and sex are never far apart.

This exhibition is breathtaking from beginning to end.




Sunday, August 29, 2021

Damien Hirst, Cherry Blossoms @ Fondation Cartier pour l'art Contemporain

Damien Hirst, Cherry Blossoms, 2020
Detail

Damien Hirst's Cherry Blossoms are like nothing else shown at the Fondation Cartier in recent years. Likewise, the Cherry Blossom paintings are, at first glance, unlike much of what Hirst has produced over the past decades. This is apparently his first institutional exhibition in France, and that makes the exhibition even more unusual. One would expect to see sharks in formaldehyde, dots and diamond studded skulls in his inaugural exhibition. And yet, the lush, delightful oil paintings seem to find their perfect home in an exhibition set inside the glass house of Jean Nouvel's dynamic building, itself in the lush gardens of the Fondation Cartier. With the light streaming in at the end of the day, glinting on the surface of paint and making the colours sparkle, it's difficult to imagine the Cherry Blossoms anywhere else.


Damien Hirst, Cherry Blossoms, 2020
Installation @ Fondation Cartier

While these luscious and sensuous paintings are quite different from anything we have seen Hirst make over the years, there are obvious similarities to the visual candy and the dot paintings. If the dot paintings are about control and systematization of colour, the uniformity of the application of paint, the formal geometicality of the canvas, the cherry blossom paintings are the very opposite. Thick globules of paint are lovingly applied with fingers, sticks, and brushes, left to coagulate and blister unpredictably over time. The intensity of paint still in the process of drying mimics the ephemerality of the blossoms that will, eventually, wither. And yet, in this, they continue the artist's career-long preoccupation with death, the body, the disintegration that comes with the passing of time — in a dead animal, a promise of renewal in medicine cabinet. 

Damien Hirst, Cherry Blossoms, 2020
Detail

Up close to the paintings, I was reminded me of Cy Twombly's mid-career works in which congealed paint sometimes falling off or moving around the canvas makes visible the presence of the artist's body that was once there. The difference, however, from Twombly's paintings is that the traces of him on the canvas are revellations of the artist thinking, even in the doodlings. Hirst's blobs and globules of paint are intensely physical and emotional. They are the manifestation of an artist at one with the canvas, delighting in the possibilities of his medium. Unlike much of Hirst's other work from the past 35 years, they are the work of a painter playing in his studio, alone with his paints. On these brilliant canvases, we see Hirst free from the demands of the structures, grids, formal principles that overwhelm his work of the past thirty years. It is as though he lets go of all the pressures of being an artist from whom the world has expectations.


Damien Hirst, Cherry Blossoms, 2020
Installation @ Fondation Cartier

It is also refreshing to see how non-masculine these paintings are. They may be huge in size, and placed side by side in his studio, forming one enormous frieze of cherry blossom trees, but they are not big powerful works expressing an overblown male ego. This is not to say that these canvases are delicate, but they are ephemeral. It is as though they capture the lightness of air blowing blossom from the trees and swirling in the air. There is no control to the blobs and daubs, but rather, they appear, like a rainbow in the sky. Indeed, the arbitrariness of their application gives them movement as they blow in the wind. 

Damien Hirst, Cherry Blossoms, 2020
Detail
On display at the Fondation Cartier, the abstraction of the compositions is underlined by the fact that they are placed out of order. That is, they were painted as trees across multiple canvases in the studio, but the panels are separated on display, mixed around so that the figure of the tree is often lost. We are left looking at abstract canvases of colours. Up close we are left to ponder the colours which, surprisingly, are not all pink leaves and brown tree trunks. There are bright oranges and greens, purples, reds, yellows, greens. And every colour comes in a spectrum of shades. The result is that each canvas is a different tone, a different temperature, a different hue, has a different personality. This, of course, is Hirst's lifelong obsession with abstraction, played out in his exploration of colour, scale, application and the tension between technical virtuosity and the aleatory.

Damien Hirst, Cherry Blossoms, 2020
Detail

I overheard one of the guides saying that because the paint is so thick, much of it has still not yet dried. And when it does, the colours will change, they will become dull, like the falling of blossom from the trees as the seasons move from one to the next. The transience of Hirst's paint, the abstraction of the compositions, and the sensuous joy that we experience in their presence fills them with surprise and joy. But, let's not forget, these works are also pervaded by the promise of death. After the sun has stopped shining over fluttering blossom, the only thing for them to do is to die. 

Thursday, August 19, 2021

Damien Hirst, Cathedrals Built on Sand @ Gagosian

 

Damien Hirst, Cathedrals Built on Sand
Installation View @ Gagosian

Popular wisdom would have us believe that Damien Hirst is all sparkle and no substance. It's just visual candy, as one critic put it in 1993 when Hirst burst onto the contemporary art scene. Critics love to tell us that his work is superficial, mass cultural trash. I have never understood this estimation, and always wonder if these same critics have ever been face to face with these conceptually complex and aesthetically gorgeous art works? If ever anyone was in any doubt about the value of Hirst's sculpture, the current exhibition at Gagosian's rue de Ponthieu gallery will surely convince that this is contemporary art at its most sophisticated.

Damien Hirst, Cathedrals Built on Sand
Installation View @ Gagosian

The exhibition features pill cabinets made between 1996 and 2021. Row upon row of candy coloured pills—it's that candy reference yet again—in cabinets with mirrored backs and locked sliding glass cases. As if these objects were precious paintings, they are perfectly framed in shiny, mirrored aluminium. From the start, I couldn't decide if I was being plunged into the pill aisle at Rite Aid or a gallery filled with priceless art works. The mirrored display cabinets, lighting, reflections and all those candy-look alike pills can be found in both contexts. The cabinets also seem to be indicating that as the ultimate consumers, there is nothing more tempting than our own image. We watch ourselves in the mirrored backings, however, our faces and features are blurred. Our figures studded with pills and our vision is made foggy, as if we are under the influence of a mixture of pills.


The pills themselves are mesmerising. We move up close to study them on their shelves, and our perception shifts from looking at an art work to studying pills (many of which are fabricated in Hirst's studio). Then, as we start to recognize some and wonder about others, our salivary glands are activated. They look so delicious that we want to pop them into our mouths, and enjoy their flavour. This is, of course, the problem. The works discourse on the pharmaceutical industry, our dependence on pills, the ease of access, that feeling of gratification when swallowed. All of these thoughts are aroused by looking at the pills on their shelves. And because the lighting is designed to arouse our desire to buy, the works are as much about shopping as they are about popping pills. The title of the exhibition reminds us of the impossibility of filling the emptiness of these desires. Our hope and hunger to escape through pills is sure to remain unsatiated when consuming from these Cathedrals Built on Sand.

Damien Hirst, When the Heart Speaks, 2005

As is the case with Hirst's animals in formaldehyde, the pills on shelves in glass cabinets explore notions of aesthetics. As much as the works are about the pharmaceutical industry, our insatiable desire to be fixed with a pill, they are also about the art industry. The sparkling frame and shining object on the gallery wall makes them gorgeous to look at. They are precisely the eye candy that Hirst has been accused of producing. But they are much more. The cabinets are aesthetically pleasing, addressing us on an intellectual, visual, emotional and physical level as we are pulled towards and away from them, drawn into their spell, to wonder at the meticulous detail of their making and as we try to get a better glimpse of ourselves. Each work asks something different of the viewer: some create intense confusion as we are tempted to find patterns in the layout of the pills on their shelves. Others are best viewed from a distance, like cabinets of curiosity filled with once living beings now dead and stuffed.

The cabinets also engage the ongoing tensions between industrialization of art and culture as opposed to the hand made art work. The stainless steel cabinets are industrially produced, and of course, the pills are supposed to be industrially produced. But many of them are made individually by hand in Hirst's studio - itself a form of the manufacture of art.

Damien Hirst, Cathedrals Built on Sand
Installation View @ Gagosian

In one of the lovely surprises in the show, as we walk around the corner into the office space, we are met by small blue and pink cabinets at eye level. Both are filled with viagra; a blue case for the male, pink for the women. Gender is not usually found in the medicine cabinet, but when it comes to viagra, Hirst makes a his and hers display. When we get upstairs and see the reiteration of the blue and pink cabinets we start to smirk. The perfect blue and pink cabinets downstairs are a reinforcement of the gendering of illness and virility, but upstairs, after several repetitions, we start to realize the hyper articulation of gender in the medicine cabinet. Does anyone really believe in the blue = male and pink = female categorizations today? That said, our response is not straightforward. As we are pulled up very close to the pink and blue cabinets to examine the pills inside we are looking at something quite different from the others. Lo and behold, who has manufactured the pills? Pfizer, the manufacturer's name on everyone's lips in our age. And so, the cultural criticism digs deeper. The same manufacturer saving us all from death and eventual extinction by the virus has organized virility along clear-cut gender lines that are easily coded in blue and pink boxes.