Saturday, September 29, 2012

Cindy Sherman @ Gagosian Gallery, Paris

Cindy Sherman, Untitled (#547), 2010-12
When I was first introduced to Cindy Sherman’s photographs as an art history major at Melbourne University, I was really excited by the Untitled Film Stills, particularly in the originality of their invention of what I would call a historical postmodernism. Ever since, however, I have found her photographs to range from mildly disappointing to outright offensive. I remember seeing an exhibition of recent work in a New York gallery about ten years ago, and being offended by the reek of a colonization of the image of socially less-privileged women. Similarly, I am not fully convinced by the repetition ad infinitum of her self-portrait, a strategy that has become her signature process and aesthetic. It is all that she does.
Cindy Sherman, Untitled (#548), 2010-12

Indeed, the recent photographs on display at Gagosian’s Paris gallery are a long way from the film stills. In this current series of untitled images, Sherman the actress and star of her own photographs is seen posing in Romantic landscapes. She wears outfits courtesy of the Chanel archives, garments that are rich and luxurious in their fabric, ornamentation and form. The discontinuity between the exaggerations of the figure and the depthless landscapes is contrived for maximum collision and incompatibility. The landscapes gesture towards being dreamy, towards an invitation to fall into them. However, they are cold — in color, temperature, and thanks to a digital manipulation process that makes for a harshness. And so, I at least was never tempted into contemplation of the landscapes. On the contrary, Sherman’s figure is so arresting — through its composition, performance, detail — that it is easy to walk around the exhibition taking no notice of the brown, grey and other tonally depressing landscapes. Thus, Sherman reverses the diminished figure in an overwhelming and animated landscape that is the preoccupation of Romantic painting. Similarly, the separation and collision of foreground and background, figure and landscape cracks open the seduction to contemplation that is so typical of Romanticism.
Cindy Sherman, Untitled (#540), 2010-12
Sherman’s critics and commentators are always quick to point out the political importance of her work, an importance that still makes sense within wider discursive contexts on identity. The manipulation and undoing of Romantic yearning is surely the site of these photographic statements about the self, identity, and particularly, women’s social and cultural identity in these images. The foregrounding of the artist as performing self in a landscape to which she has no relevance, a landscape from which she is completely alienated, could logically be interpreted as the photographs’ raison d’être. Because the outfits are inappropriate, to the point of irony, the regard and hand articulations are exaggerated and cold, the foreground-background relations are disproportionate, and so on, the image arrests us, it prevents us from falling into the photograph. We are thus commanded to confront the emptiness of this reality, its drain of emotion, its absurdity even. 

Cindy Sherman, Untitled (#551), 2010-12
While I understand the importance of these claims in Sherman’s photography, I still can’t help thinking that through the engagement with Romanticism, the urgent politics that were so provocative in the Untitled Film Stills are now lost. The early work, and particularly, the Untitled Film Stills were instrumental in the ignition of a discourse on the representation of woman, and the imperative to arrest the ogling of a viewer that had been identified as the most oppressive strategy of Hollywood film. However, I am not convinced that this later work is intervening in public discourse to the same extent. It is true that, rather than having a male wanderer in a powerful overwhelming landscape, Sherman places a lone woman in a landscape that is on the precipice of disappearance, thereby screaming the imperative to stand up and take notice.  However, because the reference of the recent photographs is a Romantic aesthetic, it doesn’t have the currency or the urgency of intervention that was so ground breaking in the earlier works critique of the popular cultural landscape of Hollywood film. 

Cindy Sherman, Untitled (#552), 2012

All Images Courtesy of Gagosian, 2012

The Wind-up Bird Chronicle, Haruki Murakami, 1995

I spent my summer reading one book: Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. And so, I am writing about it here, not because I think it is brilliant, or because I think everyone should read it, but more because so much of my reading life has been spent on the book and I feel as though I need to acknowledge all that time and energy.

The same friend who gave me Murakami’s What I Talk About When I talk about Running: A Memoir, as a great fan of Murakami, has repeatedly encouraged me to read The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle because she thinks Murakami is in line for the Nobel Prize for literature. As Japan continues to live in the shadow of its disasters, given the humanitarian agenda of the Nobel Prize for Literature, together with the vast scope of this particular novel, she may well be right. And as I read The Wind-up Bird Chronicle, the question was always in the back of my mind: would this particular Nobel Prize be one to celebrate or commiserate?

The first thing I have to say is that the problem, or rather, my problem with The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle reminded me of the same issues I have with Orhan Pamuk’s novels, My Name is Red excluded. Namely, that this novel is too self-indulgent, too focused on the middle-aged man facing a sexual and psychodramatic mid-life crisis. And if there is one thing the world doesn’t need, it’s another tale of self-indulgent, middle-class, male navel gazing. This particular strand of the narrative is delivered through the protagonist Toru Okada whose mundane life is turned upside down when the cat runs away, he loses his job, his wife leaves him and he enters into a surreal and magical dream world. This solipsism resonates through all the Murakami novels I have read, and it’s probably what will stop me from reading another one for a while.

However, fortunately, the world into which Toru Okada falls is vast and rich, making for a novel with an extraordinary reach. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is a book in which both the narrative and the protagonist’s life, but not the writing, unravels. It is a book whose story begins with the mundanities of Okada’s daily existence and 600 pages later we have been hauled through a journey made up of dramas, visions, fantasies, Okada’s desires and fears, his deepest rage being worked out in some “other world”, projected onto his politically successful, brother-in-law as nemesis. Murakami moves with a strident belief in the power of his words to transport the narrative from contemporary Tokyo, to Manchukuo in the immediate aftermath of World War II. To the point where the space and time between the Tokyo prefectures of Akasaka and Shinjuku are as distant as the geography and history that separate contemporary Japan and wartime Manchuria.

And as convincingly as worlds are alienated, they are also deftly connected through the writing and the narrative. Initially, there are two characters who connect the historical and the contemporary world: Mr Honda who is something like a psychic and Lieutenant Mamiya, an officer during the Japanese military efforts in Manchukuo. When the latter is taken prisoner by the Russian army, his story becomes the doorway to the compelling historical narrative of wartime Japan. He is an extraordinary man with an extraordinary story who really should not be alive, and in many ways, is already dead. It is as if he is saved primarily to weave together the narratives of past and present, there and then, historical and personal, for us as well as for Toru Okada in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle.

Towards the end of the novel the crossing of worlds is achieved through the introduction of a character who, like a dream, is not the protagonist, but we recognize him as such: we know him by his build, by his dress, his face, but most of all, we know him by the stain on his cheek — not a birthmark — but a stain that marks him when he sits in an empty well in search of himself. The well sits in the yard of a vacated building next door to Okada’s own suburban home. The house is abandoned, abandoned because of the tragic and macabre stories that are said to have taken place there. In turn, these nightmares and the house in which they are played out very slowly become yet another world, but one that is always next door to the real world, in the Tokyo suburbs. The novel also moves in and out of fiction and history, of some kind of textual reality and the illusion of dreams. In the beginning these different worlds are threaded together by the somehow non-exitant sisters, Malta and Creta Cano. And then there is May Kasahara, Nutmeg and Cinammon, each with a story that sends chills through the reader. Nutmeg, for example, had a husband who was brutally slaughtered in a hotel room with, or perhaps it was by, his mistress.  Violent and macabre death is everywhere throughout the novel: one man is skinned by Boris the Manskinner, a Russian soldier, Kumiko, the mild but unfathomable wife of the protagonist has a sister who suicides because their brother commits something like an emotional or sexual abuse. All of these characters and events populate Okada’s other world, a world that nevertheless weighs on this one.

Perhaps most impressive about Murakami’s book is that it is about the trauma of 20th century Japanese history. It is about the crisis of contemporary Japan as much as it is about the individual traumas of the handful of characters who live and breath and sometimes die in The Wind-up Bird Chronicle. My friend Alastair — whose lifelong commitment to modernist literature convinces me to follow his recommendations — thinks that this is a book whose reach “had a touch of the grandeur of something like Les Miserables” the epic tale that successfully follows individuals as vessels of their culture’s ills as well as the human condition in their midst. It’s true Murakami does this in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle: he uses the individual characters to open up a vast literaryscape, and to capture the culture and climate of disaster and trauma of contemporary Japan.

This reach is, of course, typical of Japanese art. I think of the films of Oshima and I am reminded of how every level of the greatest Japanese art works demand more knowledge of the culture, the religion, it’s complicated history than I have at my disposal. Thus, I am willing to admit, for all my reservations about the self-indulgence of the male author, the brilliance of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle may in fact be deeper and more complicated than one reading allows.

Monday, September 24, 2012

And God Cryed. John Blackburn @ Studio 3, University of Kent

John Blackburn, And God Cryed, 2011-12

It was with great delight that I returned to work last week to find the walls of the Jarman building covered from top to bottom like never before with abstract paintings. And moreover, these were paintings that, even if they were not outside my office door, I would want to spend time with them. Because the 88 paintings covering every spare inch of wall space in Jarman move along the spectrum of black to grey to white, they push at the boundary that lies between abstraction and figuration, and in all their variety, they carry the viewer through a whole gamut of viewing possibilities. 

Jarman Building, Ground Floor filled with Blackburn paintings

And God Cryed exhibits the vastness and diversity of paintings made by contemporary British painter, John Blackburn. In a film made to accompany the exhibition, Blackburn adamantly reinforces that Scott (presumably British Abstract painter William Scott) has no influence on his thinking or aesthetic. And what’s unique about the works is that in the very same moment that we see Rothko, Rothko disappears. Of all the Americans, as I walked around the building, I wanted to make the connection to Rauschenberg’s combines, and then in the very next moment I saw Twombly everywhere in the large drips, scribbles and scrawls. And yet, like the gesture towards Rauschenberg or Rothko, Pollock or British artists such as Scott, Twombly is somehow both there and not there on the canvas or wooden support. My temptation to connect the paintings to what I know, and their insistence on eluding that connection is indicative of their innovation. 

Jarman Building, Mezzanine

The very same could be said of the shifting vicissitudes of the paintings themselves. The dense conglomerations that are the black paintings with appropriated texts are all but dark and depressing, that is, just until, up close we trace a thread of red paint as it weaves through a clump of black. Again and again, a thread of color becomes the light and hope that consciously always gets caught up on the surface of Blackburn’s paintings. Things, literal things, find their way onto these paintings and together with the words that striate the surface, like graffiti left on a dilapidated gravestone, the hair, the shoes, pieces of paper, and all manner of things get caught up in the dense, dark coagulations of black paint. These things might make the works physically heavy and gothic, but they also relieve the paint of its darkness. The presence of the everyday on these surfaces simultaneously reveals their familiarity.
John Blackburn, No No, 2012

In the film, Blackburn is unequivocal in his explanation of the bleakness of his paintings. He says they are about life, and that “life itself is terribly dangerous, terribly cruel, terribly rewarding”. He says without blinking “The human condition drives my work. I would be lost … without that.” For all of the density of the paint, the intensity of the buildup on the canvas, there is a precariousness to these paintings. The wires that protrude form Five Forms Imprisoned (2010) echo the chilling pain of incarceration, hiding behind its bars the tenderness of human emotional turmoil. And the drips of Tin Bath, 2005 remind me of tears, shed by the inability to be comforted in a time of trauma.

John Blackburn, Black/White/Grey, 2007
When he describes the gothic black paintings, Blackburn says, again without flinching “The actual reality is that man never learns anything. There is still the same amount of treachery and evil” and here he most obviously refers to the presence of war and agression in the paintings. All of those who died on the battlefield in the world war that began when Blackburn was 7 years old seem to be remembered on the surfaces. As well as the memories, caught in the brushstroke, the burnt paint, distressed surfaces and aged, mangled objects, there is a resounding melancholy. And in this gesture, the works become figurative. They sit on the precipice between aesthetic abstraction, and the emotions tied to memory that lead them into the realm of figuration. They are angry, sad, surprising, moving, holding up mirrors to the breadth of our emotions –

John Blackburn, Black Shoe Trilogy, 2011-12

One of the greatest joys of having the paintings in Jarman comes as I catch one of my colleagues contemplating a painting, having been stopped in his or her tracks on the way to a meeting somewhere else in the building. It’s difficult not to get caught up in the drama and provocation of the work because the paintings are the object of our look no matter where we turn. What I love most about the exhibition is that the paintings are integrated into the day to day life of the building. We hold parties on the mezzanine, teach on the first floor, the gallery spaces host events and talks, drama students are in the habit of lurking through the building making strange noises as they practice their performances, and the students sit around talking throughout the day on the ground floor. Blackburn’s paintings participate in every activity. When I asked Ben Thomas, my colleague and exhibition curator, what was going to happen when pieces of bubble gum found their way into one of the shoes in the Black Shoe Trilogy, he shrugged his shoulders and said “it’s not a problem, I think John is quite happy for that to happen.”


All images courtesy of the Artist 

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Joan Mitchell, Chasse Interdite, 1973

Joan Mitchell, Chasse Interdite, 1973

I am surprised that I don’t write more about Joan Mitchell’s painting, both in my academic work, and here on my blog. Because Mitchell’s canvases display all the elements of art that excite me. Like the great high modernist works, Mitchell’s huge canvases resound with the power and energy of postwar American painting, echoing the virtuosity of Rothko, the sensousness of Twombly, the expanse of Clyfford Still’s landscapes, and I could go on. Mitchell’s work engages with all of the aesthetic concerns of those in her midst to the point where it is as though her paintings bring the otherwise disparate strands of Abstract Expressionism together.
Joan Mitchell, Two Pianos, 1979
When my plans for the evening fell apart last Saturday, I dropped into the Centre Pompidou to be reminded of why I live in this great city. The new hanging of the permanent collection on level 4 is considerably compromised at the moment as they prepare for a coming exhibition. Nevertheless, I was able to spend time with one of the Centre Pompidou's most lyrical and enigmatic pieces. The painting on exhibition, Chasse Interdite (1973) is not typically Mitchell. This vast work stretches across four panels, covered in color blocks, some of which are soft pastels, others verging on black. In addition to the unique formal and aesthetic qualities, Chasse Interdite has different energies, different rhythms and different tones from those typically found on her canvases.

Nicolas de Staël, Snow Marseille, 1954
Moreover, this is a painting that reminds me not only of the canvases of her American fellows, but also, of those of the French made in her midst, most notably Nicolas de Staël. The pastel blue color field paintings that merge sea and sky, their lyrical abstractions, especially of the works de Staël painted in the early 1950s, resonate in Mitchell's painting. Indeed, the light and clarity of the Mediterranean that Mitchell finds in Chasse Interdite might even draw on de Staël.
Cy Twombly, Red Painting, 1961
Beyond the resonance with the work of her contemporaries, something about Chasse Interdite urges me want to see it as something like a series of sketches. And yet, the unfinishedness of the painted forms is deliberate, a very conscious creation of blocks of color, different colors, different viscosities, different thicknesses and phases of color. In this, it is developed far beyond a sketch. The layering is varied, the organization of the paint is inconsistent, to the point where the four canvases together might have the appearance of an artist’s palette. As is familiar from the scrawls and lines, as well as the coagulations of paint that trouble Twombly’s canvases, we can see Mitchell “thinking out loud” on the canvas, as though she is trying something out, something to do with color, but not form. The brushstrokes differ, and she gives varied attention to the paint, across four different sized panels. These elements, like Twombly’s, make Mitchell’s painting troubling: troubling because they break the continuity of the nevertheless vertical composition, troubling because there are four, not three panels, as is customary in painting, or two as is customary for Mitchell.
Mark Rothko, Untitled, 1969
And yet, for all of the sense of Mitchell playing around on the canvas, we also see that as a work, Chasse Interdite is perfectly balanced, between light and dark, between vertical and horizontal, between luminosity or possibility and finite form. The articulation of background and foreground — another compositional aspect that reminds me of Rothko — creates intense vibrations as the shapes float and pulsate in the sea provided alternately by the canvas, and by the huge blue blocks or fields of painted color. Again, in keeping with some of the great abstract expressionist works, most notably de Koonig's, there is an intensity to Chasse Interdit, especially in the thick coagulated splotches of paint, but also, a lightness that is like breath, blowing, invisibly, in the middle of the day.