Monday, June 27, 2011

Without Words

Paul Knight’s works in the exhibition Without Words, curated by Kyla McFarlane, at Centre of Contemporary Photography, are photographs of couples embracing in bed. One member of each couple always has one eye open while the other sleeps. The photographs have a deep fold in the middle of the figures that feels like the crisp turned over sheet in a hotel room. This deep and precise fold contrasts the creamy crinkles of sexed up sheets and flesh. The fold has the effect of making the two figures seem anatomically one. The photographs are light and bright with details of wrinkles, hair and skin pores conveying a visceral sense of reality. There is a clear sense it is morning in these photos. These couples will not be able to stay like this for long, as the person with the eye open seems to know. These works depict an intimacy that is tender and familiar. They show a comfortable state of togetherness that will not require any awkward language about the state of their relationship when they wake.

However, the fold in the photo acts as a dark void. It suggests that moments in relationships that no longer have a need for words are as deep and relaxing and as comfortable as sleep.  In John Donne’s Song (circa 1600) a poem about leaving a lover for a time and trying to convince her not to worry about him—he concludes by saying:

But think that we
Are but turned aside to sleep;
They who one another keep
Alive, ne’er parted be.

Donne and Knight both allude to the solitary nature of sleep. Even when we sleep beside someone, we are in a state of internal isolation. The void created by the crease in Knight’s work suggests the depth of the individual’s unconscious that draws the two together in the first place.  It keeps them separate not only in sleep, but as individuals that don’t function as some sort of morphed unit once together. The couple who, as Donne says, ‘one another keep Alive’ must separate from each other in order to function in the world outside the bed. Though awake, they will need each other, be conscious and appreciative of each other in a way that they can’t be in sleep. It seems the member of each couple with their eye open might appreciate this. Though their dry stare to the ceiling or camera tells us they don’t need to like it and are perhaps envious of their partners deep comfort and sleepy solitude.

However, the crease in the photographs is unsettling.  The part we can’t see makes us curious of a “something missing” in this relationship. So while we might say it’s simply the parts that are unknowable of each other, it still doesn’t quell our desire as the viewer to iron it out. Make it more like the album cover for the soundtrack to Franco Zeffirelli's version of Romeo and Juliet. In psychoanalysis, language is used as the “talking cure”; words open up associations and understandings. The crease seems to imply that perhaps the closer and more comfortable these people become, the less they need to speak.  But things that maybe should be said, get lost down the same crevice that binds them. They risk seeing their partner as perhaps an extension of themselves rather than an individual. Freud writes ‘At the height of being in love the boundary between the ego and the object threaten to melt away’. If too much is left unsaid, it falls down the comfort crack. The deep and dark void becomes a form of waking sleep.

The viewer gazes at this scene with a self-conscious fascination of watching a moment that is intensely private. John Donne in The Sun Rising (circa 1600) admonishes the sun as a ‘saucy pedantic wretch’, who wakes up sleeping lovers. Like the sun in the poem, the viewer and photographer are an outside world that see the loving couple and speculate on the creases in their relationship.  The gaze of the viewer objectifies the couple as perhaps generic types; the old couple, the gay couple, the young couple, to differentiate the untitled works in our mind. So we get a sense that they have woken not only into the arms of a lover who they are close, connected but not co-joined; but also in front of a world of people like me who start finding words and categories for them “old”, “young”, “gay”, ”hairy”, “straight”, “male”, “female”. 

The crease, while seemingly menacing, could be about what can remain hidden. Perhaps it is hidden to protect something even more private then this morning moment. It can stay comfortably hidden between couples. It has to stay hidden from the taxonomic tendencies of the viewer. It may even stay hidden to the individual. They will tuck themselves in it at night and iron it out to face the world in the morning.

at CCP


Thursday, June 23, 2011

Catching Trucks

Catching trucks is an a imaginative game played, on road trips, by putting out your hand and pretending to grab trucks that seem as though they could fit in your palm—a comparative size thanks to distance. A players hand frames the trucks between thumb and figures and then squishes it in a tight grip. The exhibition Catching Trucks, curated by Amita Kirpalani, at Gertrude Contemporary, focuses on artworks that block but also frame our vision just like the way a hand can clutch a truck.

Elizabeth Newman’s untitled consists of two large plywood structure made like schematic three dimensional windows and doors. They block the surrounding view but also offer passages; they frame an aspect of the view. They’re awkward and skinny in profile. This skinniness reminded me of Jude Law’s character in I Heart Huckabees, Brad Stand, saying ‘How am I not myself?’ They reference their surroundings but they are artworks that never seem to be themselves. In Catching Trucks there is a dichotomy between screens and passages; blocks and thoroughfares. Liminal spaces are described by their concealment. The translucent screens onto which pleasures are projected lose their opaque significances.

Numerous collages by Sean Bailey render desire and pleasure in small glimpses of images which seduce the eye in ways a complete image cannot. His artworks are collages where blotches of flat opaque pigment are painted over printed photographs which are only visible at the very margins of the image. Nothing of the action of these images can be seen. It is obscured by the blotches leaving only unrecognisable suggestions. Yet an intrigue is sparked by these vague edges. The blotches are a murky dreary colour and an ugly shape. They have a spilt quality which suggests that what was in the printed picture was more interesting to look at. But, of course, the blotch is the picture. It is clear that the buried content is more banal than its suppression requires.

Green Structure (2011) by Richard Maloy, installed in the front gallery, is a lot like the apple in The Listening Room (1952) by René Magritte. It is granny smith green and its brimming proportions fill the space of the gallery. When we first enter the gallery the view is very similar to The Listening Room—we see a square room with the window on the left which is filled with something big and green. There is one important distinction however; Maloy’s room cannot be seen as a full composition—in the same way as Magritte’s painting. Magritte puts the viewer in a pseudo-space in the logic of the painting to enable them to see the view. This view contradicts the emotions of the artwork; the viewer remains in the comfort of space in order for the artwork to render a cramped feeling. However, with Green Structure the viewer is stuffed-in with the artwork and it evokes actual claustrophobia rather than a metaphor. Like the magnitude of a natural disaster, we are only ever able to see parts of this huge object and, like in Bailey’s work; we experience the thrill of the limits of what can be seen.

This exhibition snatches the straightforwardness of reality from before our eyes. Lisa Oppenheim’s slide show The Sun is Always Setting Somewhere (2006) is more like the screen than the projection. A hand holding a photographic print of a sunset extends into each frame which is also of a sunset so that the two images match up. The sun, at the end of the day, gazes back at the viewer from the horizon. A photograph held against the blazing sun would be dark with a radiating light aura beyond its borders but the camera’s limitations condense these tones to the point where the image looks coherent. The sun’s gaze penetrates the photographed photographic image. Likewise, the six films of Ideal Demonstration (1972) by Peter Kennedy use a screen to reveal as well as conceal. In one Kennedy attaches sheets of transparent acetate between his face and the camera, one by one, until his image disappears. In another his body’s bright image burns a trace on the film after he has moved. In a third he opens and closes his eyes. Kennedy’s film reveals a subjective vision which is a product of a state of mind. While the screen can screen our view it is also the media onto which our view is screened. Can it be that we see and also see what we see? We project our fantasies onto our visual field but we censor them from ourselves behind a series of stereotype images.

The hand seen holding up the sunset photographs in The Sun is Always Setting Somewhere is like Green Structure in that it demonstrates our inability to visually assimilate our body. In Oppenheim’s collage the hand poetically belongs to the viewer but it doesn’t meet our arm. While in Maloy’s work the view is felt with the body more strongly than it is seen. The point of view implicitly laid-out in each of these artworks is strangely missing even though it is right under our noses.

At Gertrude Contemporary

Saturday, June 11, 2011

The adventures of an orange vinyl chair

Imagine your primary school teacher’s orange vinyl chair falling through the air. Your teacher is not on it anymore. The chair has been thrown out of a plane by sky divers and they are filming it. It doesn’t twirl around like a crazy out of control object hurling to its doom. It just falls gracefully upright, like someone could still sit on it. This work, Matthew Greaves’ Untitled (Stuff Jump) at tcb gallery, evokes  the fleeting feeling of a fall in a dream.  The orange chair in white fluffy clouds and blue sky reminds us of a Rene Magritte painting.  Like Magritte’s cloud wallpaper with big toiletries, moon in a tree or train coming out of a chimney, there is a gentle curiosity that makes us ponder the hows and whys of how it came to be there.  There is something about the ordinary becoming extraordinary that fills us with hope. 

This chair has probably been sat on, without love or comfort, in portable classrooms watching Behind the News or poster presentations on amphibians. Its life as a chair has been practical and no frills and it has done its job and there’s not much more a chair should expect in this life. But this moment, this moment post function and before destruction; this is the terrifying joy of being completely free and useless.  We don’t see the destruction of the chair.  It fades on down through the clouds. As we anthropomorphise the plain and functional chair, we perhaps find this chair’s end as unimaginable as our own. 

It is sometimes hard to remember that the chair is falling. It seems attached to something. An invisible string attached to the plane,  or perhaps a ceiling of sorts.  Of course we did our poster presentation on the sky and know there is nothing to attach this chair to. No puppeteer or secret string that will pull it up when it gets too close to the ground.  So you start to imagine that the chair is not falling at all. It is flying. 

The work is a fantasy of escape reminiscent of Enid Blyton. In childhood these adventures of flying chairs give the child an opportunity for vicarious heroic adventures.  The primary school teacher’s chair’s escape divulges the secret desires of adults to escape on heroic adventures too. Though as adults, flying may seem too much like falling to risk it.  This flying chair, with its life before and its life after this moment alluded to by its nature and circumstance, is a celestial salute to the present - with all its fear and beauty.

On at tcb gallery until 25th of June


Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Jesús Malverde, Santa Muerte and the Virgin of Guadalupe

Mexicans are tough. The Mi Casa Su Casa exhibition at No Vacancy gallery shows why. It has stencil art of smashed up cars, wrestling masks in orange juice ads, skeletons singing and stigmata bleeding Christ holograms that turn into Pope John Paul. It is tough but it is bright and it is festive and there are doilies and embroidery and colourful cowboy shirts and beer bottles with flowers in them at the altar of the patron saint of narcotics. The smashed up cars are displayed on a sunny roller-brush background. One death skeleton has the virgin of Guadalupe’s crown being placed by angels on his head, while he is surrounded by American eagle body builders and fake tanned pole dancers. We see how Mexican culture not only lets Death in but laughs at the arrogance or absurdity of ever trying to keep him out. 

Oscar Reyes and Watchavato show us the side of Mexico that Octavio Paz describes as ‘the hubbub of a fiesta night our voices explode into brilliant lights, and life and death mingle together’. In his essay The Labyrinth of Solitude, Paz contrasts a North American preoccupation with purity, health and longevity with the Mexican belief in communion and fiesta. Paz puts it that ‘there is no health without contact. Tlazoltetl, the Aztec goddess of filth and fecundity, of earthly and human moods, was also the goddess of steam baths, sexual love and confession’. Paz suggests that the disinfected North Americans live in a perpetual denial of filth that manifests in a ‘sadism underlying all relationships imposed by a doctrine of aseptic moral purity’. Reyes’ collages juxtapose the tropes of North American advertising (that focus on the individuals desire to be “cleansed” or “improved”) with the chaos of communal catharsis in the fiesta.

Throughout the exhibition we see an embrace of destruction as a part of life. The skeleton Santa Muerte (Saint Death) playing on a guitar, is printed on embroidered roses and mounted in a pretty white frame. The image evokes a reverence and humor in response to the inevitability of not just our actual death but also failure, sadness, life’s frequent banality. The embroidery and detail evoke a warm domesticity that makes us even more comfortable with a singing death. We sense the presence of a mother.

When we look to the side, we see her. An altar for the Virgin of Guadalupe with a sculpture of her surrounded by lights, flowers, pictures of her that sparkle and a little diorama of her rose bush miracle in a clear box. It’s beautiful and excessive and we feel how much this image is adored. The dark skinned Virgin of Guadalupe is symbolic of the fusion of Spanish and Aztec cultures that was born from colonial violence. This is the ever loving mother who forgives. Sin is not to be denied but rather confessed. 

Opposite the shrine to the Virgin is the shrine to Jesús Malverde—the patron saint of narcotics. He is prayed to, to help conceal drugs across borders. Watchavato has made wallpaper behind the shrine of Malverde’s image on American style bank notes. This evokes the capitalist conundrum of supply and demand in terms of North American’s participation in this drug trade. Next to this is a work commissioned by a drug lord, including skate boards with Malverde’s image (among others) airbrushed on them. The druglord was killed before he was able to give them to his sons. 

So amongst all the colour and festivity of this show there is a confrontation with destruction. Amongst the flowers, the girls, the cars and the ever loving mothers, you get the feeling that death is avowed and homely.