Monday, May 28, 2018

Tacita Dean, Portrait @ National Portrait Gallery

Tacita Dean, GAETA, 2015
from, Fifty Photographs plus one, 2015

My biggest disappointment with the Tacita Dean triptych at three London galleries was that the first two installations weren’t on for long enough. I sadly missed the Still Life chapter at the National Gallery, and only saw Portrait at the National Portrait Gallery in its final week. Even then, I was disappointed not to see all the films, and only managed the rarely screened portraits of Cy Twombly, Merce Cunningham, Claes Oldenberg and David Hockney.
Tacita Dean, Edwin Parker, 2011
Still from 16mm film
Dean’s portrait films are installed in rooms off a central corridor the walls of which are covered with fifty photographs taken of Twombly’s studio in Gaeta, outside Rome. Dean’s photographs reminded me of Sally Mann’s photographic documentation of Twombly’s Lexington studio in Remembered Light. Dean captures the same spaces, surfaces and everyday objects that are the trace of the painter’s life. However, while Mann is interested in the space and the creation of drama through the fall of light in the studio space, Dean turns her camera to the edges; the post-it notes, a plastic bear sitting between books on a shelf, the roll of paper towel as the unused tool of the painter. Another cheap plastic toy rests at the feet of an exquisite Twombly sculpture. Thus the “everydayness” of the artist is emphasized through its juxtaposition with Twombly’s delicate sculptures both in the image and in our minds.
Tacita Dean, GAETA, 2015
from, Fifty Photographs plus One, 2015
Dean continues her exploration of the scribbles of Twombly’s artistic process in Edwin Parker, 2011. In this film, we see the same cluttered Lexington studio that fascinated Sally Mann. If Mann photographed the loss and created a memory of Twombly through the reflections, refractions and rhythms of light shining into the storefront studio, Dean’s film finds the same in the clutter and simultaneous ethereality of the objects that define the painter.
Tacita Dean, Edwin Parker, 2011
Still from 16mm film
At one point in the film, Twombly, his partner and another man all go to the local diner. People familiar with the few writings on Twombly’s life, will know the local diner as the place where Mann meets and builds her lifelong friendship with the artist. In what might strain the limits of the film medium in another filmmaker’s hands, in Edwin Parker, Dean quietly watches Twombly and his friends through the same reflective camera that sees the slow movement of daily life in the studio. And so, the visit to the diner becomes as integral to the process of creativity as is Twombly sitting in his studio with a book of Keats’s poetry resting on his knee.  Edwin Parker captures Twombly in his everyday life, thinking, touching objects, reading, talking. Dean avoids the difficulty of representing art in a different medium by showing  mundane events as key to the execution of the art. We never see Twombly paint or sculpt, but the small movement of his hand on the cover of Keats’s poetry is as intimate and as essential as the application of paint.

One reviewer writing for The Guardian asks what attracts Dean to Twombly, an old man at the end of his career. To me Edwin Parker leaves little doubt that the two share a passion for collecting. In addition, both artists are inspired by the objects in their collections, finding commonality in objects that might otherwise be seen as worlds apart. Commonality comes in colour, the place of an object on a shelf, their textures, or even their oppositionality.
Tacita Dean, Merce Cunningham Performs STILLNESS, 2008
Still from 16mm Film
Dean’s Merce Cunningham portrait is particularly fascinating, It is an experimental installation in which six screens show Cunningham sitting perfectly still in the centre of his New York dance studio. The multiple images, each lasting 5 minutes, are arranged around the room, requiring the visitor to walk between and around the installation, never able to see all in one glance. The many uses of mirrors in portraits throughout the history of art are of course referenced by the film. Dean takes the references further by fragmenting the image and its reflection, removing all sense of an original, and yet, leaving the body of the dancer whole, if static. Dean has always been interested in the translation of images from one medium to another, and here in Merce Cunningham Performs STILLNESS (2008) she adds the layer of tension between the still image of the man whose art is one of motion—albeit a choreographer who resisted the imperative to have a dancer move—and the cinematic image as single frames put into motion through its projection. For this reason, Dean’s love of and insistence on making and projecting her films in 16mm seems to find its reasoning in the portrait and subsequent installation of Merce Cunningham Performs STILLNESS.
David Hockney filmed in his Los Angeles Studio, 2016
Various reviewers and commentators of this chapter of the exhibition triptych claim that Dean challenges the classical definition of portraiture. I am not convinced of this, particularly as none of these critics elaborate on how she might be doing so. It’s true that the films don’t show each artist in full frontal poses, thereby inviting us to study the physical features as offering a window into the soul of the sitter. However, even the portrait in painting has not done this for over a century. And anyway, there are elements of the classical portrait in all of Dean’s films. The props and location in which the artist is filmed shows us everything to do with his identity. In addition, like so many artists, these aging men are not shown painting, but rather, are reflecting, specifically on the objects that inspire them. Through this reflection, there is a sense in which we do see inside the soul. In addition, the movements, objects, locations and time spent with the artist reveal the personality and intention of his work. Even though this is done in perhaps more modern sense, we see painters and their relationship to their work, not necessarily who they were.

All images courtesy the artist and Frith Street Gallery, London

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