Tuesday, 6 October 2009

Calm Rain

Is there really any such thing as art, or are there only artists, as Ernst Gombrich said? What makes a great artist – media coverage, popularity, sales success, the lack of competition? Is British art any good? Should I be paying any attention whatsoever to the likes of the Turner Prize?

I have been branded an art critic, after writing silly notes on a couple of shows that made a couple of people smile, but I’m nothing of the sort. I am a writer trying to find something to write about. Nay, I am a person trying to find something to do, and something to look at that reflects my mental images, that are in turn remnants of things I have seen before. For me, adulthood is an exercise in recreating childhood, whilst maintaining my responsibility to the world.

I neither want to be the sort of art critic who tries to explain everything he sees in a painting, thereby ruining its mystique for others, nor the sort who strides through a gallery self-importantly, declaring everything to be shit. I want to look at art and discover something in it for myself that I can then go home and write about. I cannot afford to collect art, but I can own any painting in any museum, mentally and emotionally.

I felt that I myself discovered Marcel Proust, as I read In Search of Lost Time, and that I discovered the object of life, merely to position oneself truly, viewing Auguste Rodin’s The Gates of Hell. The pain with which Joy Division’s music is suffused caused me spontaneously to dance, and Donald Judd’s orderliness has encouraged me to get organised in a way that doesn’t mean I have to tidy my room.

Today I took in Tate Britain, the Haunch of Venison and the ICA, before watching Sin Nombre at Prince Charles Cinema. At Tate Britain I paid £15 to see both Turner and the Masters and the Turner Prize 2009 exhibitions. Turner and the Masters might have been a good name for a future Arctic Monkeys side-project band, but the exhibition itself lives in the past, and seemed relevant only to show up the unfortunate inferiority of Turner next to the masters he hoped to emulate, in particular Rembrandt, Canaletto and Poussin. Turner’s paintings appeared to be deliberately pitted against those of his rough contemporaries, and time and again he came off worst, his misjudged angles, vulgar shapes and muddy colours strikingly at odds with his fabulous reputation as the most esteemed of British painters. By the time the procession moves to Philip James de Loutherbourg’s The Glorious First of June 1794, a truly arresting sight for one’s eyes to fall upon, Turner, the tiring lightweight, is most tenuously on the ropes. De Loutherbourg’s sea is green, like that of the Death Horse of Revelation, and appears to swallow men who are resigned to their fate, or hanging on the edge of hope. The clouds of the foreboding sky and blasting cannons are interchangeable, as if the battle portrayed is being fought in mid-Heaven, the hopes of nations, and worn, torn sails, strung up on a sublime web of black threads that lend a further dimension of jutting, swaying movement and action to the scene. Compare the murky, static Battle of Trafalgar, commissioned as an accompaniment to de Loutherbourg’s masterpiece, and Turner appears finally impotent. His best paintings are to be found elsewhere in the permanent collection, and are grey, abstract fragments that pre-empt Impressionism and Rothko, a departure from the nature and pastoral painting that is scarcely relevant today.

At least I felt involved in this show, unlike that of the Turner Prize, the real reason for my trek to the Tate. Having read so much about Roger Hiorns’ Seizure, I was expecting something remarkable, but met something impenetrable, or worse, uninspiring; perhaps I am being unfair, and the dialogue between moulded brain matter and the dust of an atomised jet engine will whisper in my ear at a later date. Richard Wright’s gold wall painting changed in the light and looked very pretty, but my gold Converse do that too. More interesting was the smell of Lucy Skaer’s sperm whale skull, borrowed from a museum collection, but Enrico David’s homoerotic stage display, with a man in the mind and in the back of the throat, reminded me of the less glamorous aspects of the cruising game, such as gonorrhoea.

I had planned a second visit to the Haunch of Venison to pay more attention to the relationship between the works of Donald Judd and Dan Flavin, two contemporaries and friends (such that Judd named his son Flavin Starbuck), and to buy a book by or on Judd from the gallery bookshop. Judd would often insert coloured Perspex panels into the tops and bottoms of box frames, invariably made of cheap, easily obtained metal, that would allow light to do what it wanted, casting shapes and shades. Dan Flavin used light itself as the subject, creating shrines with a strong sense of divinity. Within the work of both artists is a dedication to symmetry, order and interchangeability, the appropriation of found and ready-made household/industrial objects anticipating our current stresses on sustainability and recycling. It has been said that adept artists use the materials around them to their advantage, and the works of this pair centre at the junction between art, product design and architecture, the main tenet of which is surely the best use of a space for its intended purpose.

How can neither the Haunch of Venison nor the Institute of Contemporary Arts stock a single book between them by or even on Donald Judd, one of the greatest artists of the twentieth century (according to Charles Saatchi)?

1 comment:

  1. I want to see some Judd and Flavin next to each other after reading this!

    For some reason you made me think of a version of all the treasuries along the path up to the temple at the Oracle of Delphi, in which all are designed either by Judd or Flavin, each either emitting dashing and divine neon rays, or absorbing and quietly reflecting certain carefuly chosen colours...

    Im handing in my thesis tomorrow (supposedly), would be great if you had time to meet up next week.