Bad art is good for you…

My God, this cheered me up!

Sad Baby

Introduced yesterday to the Museum of Bad Art (how did I not know about this? It’s a trove of hideous delights), I pissed away most of the afternoon looking at stuff that makes the teeth curl.

But is Sad Baby ‘bad’? Can something that affords me so much pleasure (I can’t stop looking at it) really be classed as worthless? We are, after all, very much accustomed to work presented as ‘bad’, in order to subvert notions of artistic ‘standards’, by ‘good’ artists – Dubuffet’s ‘low art’, Hockney’s early faux-naïveté, Combas’ figuration libre, and so on and so forth – and also to the surprising joys of work we are very happy to class as ‘Naive’, ‘Folk’, ‘Outsider’, i.e. academically untrained, but not ‘bad‘.

I can only think that ‘badness’ (let’s cut the crap: Sad Baby sucks, big-time) arises from a yawning mile-wide chasm between intent and execution. (Admittedly, having no details of its provenance and having only the title to go on, I have to take the painting at face value, unironically; if irony is at play here, the work’s a masterpiece.) Firstly, that is no ‘sad baby’: it’s a 40 year-old bloke having a quiet half down his local inexplicably decked out as Bette Davis in Whatever Happened To Baby Jane. The proportions are utterly wrong: babies and toddlers have relatively big heads; the legs and the torso bear no anatomical relation to each other; the background is what?? Either she’s monstrously, chimerically, tall for a ‘baby’ or the mantlepiece/shelf is about a foot off the ground. And what’s that brown splodge? The contents of her nappy? A ‘dirty protest’? Any expectations of the charm that we usually associate with ‘baby’ portraits are totally confounded.

But what really kills me, and makes me believe that this was an honest, unironic attempt to capture a beloved child is the care taken: look at the impasto used to render the smocking on the dress, the painstaking shading and highlighting of the face and figure. This is the work of someone who earnestly draws what she/he (I’m unjustifiably convinced it’s by a man) thinks she/he sees, not what’s there: of someone who has not learned to look. Someone like me.

And that, in the end, is what makes Sad Baby hilariously, gloriously, ‘bad’ yet appealing in my eyes: my laughter is mixed with empathy. Someone really tried, then failed, epically. Bad? Hell, yes. Worthless? I’d hang it on my wall tomorrow.

(Thanks to Chris at Galerie Pierre who brought MoBA to my attention, and to M.K. Hajdin who confirmed me in my ‘taste’.)

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Museum of Bad Art: http://museumofbadart.org/

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Women Know Your Place

“A man’s presence suggests what he is capable of doing to you or for you. By contrast, a woman’s presence . . . defines what can and cannot be done to her.” ~ John Berger, Ways of Seeing, 1972.

1963…

Hey! Little Girl
Comb your hair, fix your makeup
Soon he will open the door
Don’t think because there’s a ring on your finger
You needn’t try anymore

For wives should always be lovers too
Run to his arms the moment he comes home to you
I’m warning you…

Day after day
There are girls at the office
And men will always be men
Don’t send him off with your hair still in curlers
You may not see him again….

2011…

Just sayin’…

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(With thanks to Jade.)

By the people, for the people: we’re all art critics now

In yesterday’s Guardian Jonathan Jones wrote percipiently about how the status/role of the art critic has changed with the advent of and access to social media: the critic can no longer dispense judgement pope-like from ‘on high’; she/he must be prepared, like the rest of us, to engage in debate and defend her/his position. Just as, with the digital age, the question as to what constitutes ‘art’ continues to become more open, so, inevitably, must the discussion.

Hausmann’s The Art Critic

This is an entirely good thing.

Just this week I was delighted by the discovery of a ‘new’ van Gogh, Still Life with Roses and Field Flowers; I was equally appalled that, on the strength of some numpty’s opinion that it was “uncharacteristically exuberant” (had she/he not read Vincent’s letters? His reactions to the Impressionists on his first trip to Paris in 1886?) it was consigned to the art world equivalent of a broom-cupboard for forty years. Admittedly, it is recent technology that has made it’s attribution possible, but this does not detract from the fact that it never pays to be totally in thrall to so-called ‘experts’.

Still Life with Roses and Field Flowers

Again last week, another ‘expert’, the writer and occasional art critic Mark Hudson, decried the ongoing attempt to uncover Leonardo’s Battle of Anghiari, reasoning that it would “destroy one of the great legends of Renaissance art history”, and the ‘idea’ of the lost work would prove “more potent and inspiring than the actuality”. This is arrant, reactionary nonsense: ‘art history’, like art itself, is no longer ‘arcane’ knowledge possessed by the few and disseminated by them as and when they feel like it to a grateful audience; mysteries, in an age of freedom of information, are there to be solved, and one should not be bowing the knee to some retrograde notion of the Renaissance as somehow sacred. If that is the Battle beneath Vasari’s depressingly mediocre work, then I want to know about it; if it ‘disappoints’, so what? No-one’s perfect, not even Leonardo.

Rubens’ copy.

It has been ‘experts’, after all, who have been so sniffy about Hockney’s show at the Royal Academy, while falling over themselves to eulogise the conveniently dead Freud; it has been the public, people like you and me, who have marvelled at Hockney’s achievement, come away over-joyed, exhilarated, and kept the queues going round the block by reporting their sense of sheer pleasure (a response much under-rated by professional arty types) via Twitter, Facebook and blogs. I think Brian Sewell, who wrote a particularly arsey review of Hockney for the Evening Standard, was nevertheless on to something when he talked about  art critics “writing anxiously for each other”: the game became neither about the art, nor the artist, nor about communicating with the general public; it was about proving to one’s peers that one ‘understood’ the blatantly incomprehensible and had a fine line in the lastest abstruse jargon.

In other words, one great big circle-jerk.

Hockney iPad drawings

That’s not to say, of course, that critics are redundant; it is always worth listening to a well-informed, well considered opinion (especially from one’s doctor); the good critic will, even if we disagree with her/him, at most teach us something, at worst make us think. But the time where any view from someone in ‘authority’ can be taken as gospel is long since gone. The critic may frame the debate but, thanks to the access provided by the internet and people’s readiness to engage with it, she/he no longer has the final word.

Everything has the potential to be regarded as art, everyone can have an opinion and state it. Let’s enjoy the debate on our terms for once.

(None of the above applies to the divine Sister Wendy, who shall forever remain blameless, if only for not bowing to societal pressure and getting those teeth fixed.)

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Jones’ Guardian article: http://www.guardian.co.uk/artanddesign/2012/mar/21/jonathan-jones-internet-art-criticism

Hudson’s Telegraph article: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/art/leonardo-da-vinci/9140336/Leonardo-Da-Vinci-nothing-to-find-but-disappointment.html

Sewell’s Standard review: http://www.thisislondon.co.uk/arts/david-hockney-ra-a-bigger-picture-royal-academy–review-7439570.html

It’s Art, mate: Steve McCurry’s ‘Afghan Girl’

“..the camera is only a tool in the same way that the brush is a tool, and one capable in the hands of an artist of conveying thought, feeling, expressing individuality, and also the usual attributes of art in their degree.” ~ Henry Peach Robinson.

Steve McCurry is known as, and refers to himself, as a ‘photojournalist’; he went to Afghanistan during the Soviet invasion, embedded, dressed as a native, and took photos: that was his job; he was there to document. One day in 1984, in a Pakistan refugee camp, he came across this girl and took her picture. Happy accident? No. Go to his website and look at the other portraits filed, tellingly enough, under ‘Fine Art Prints’. The man may like to see himself as a jobbing snapper, but he knows he’s not. He’s an artist, and he can’t help it.

The image caused a sensation when it appeared on the cover of National Geographic, and its unknown subject (she was not identified as Sharbat Gula until 2002) soon became a poster-girl for Amnesty International and the plight of refugees world-wide. But why this one, one of so many? Apart from an obvious emotional response to what we were told in the accompanying article was an utterly dispossessed young girl ( a far more emotive subject than a boy), our primary response is surely to beauty, to that of the girl herself and of the image as a whole. But the ‘aesthetically pleasing’ does not trump the ‘moral’, it gild’s it. Only art does this. The piece has been compared to Leonardo’s Mona Lisa, but a Raphael, with its vibrant pallette, still grace and clarity, would be more apposite. Conforming in compostion to the ‘rule of thirds’, it is a symphony of jewel-like reds and greens from the back-ground to the dress to the skin-tones to those dazzling blue/yellow-flecked eyes, all thrown into relief by the dark mingling of hair and shadow. Red and green: diametrically opposed on the colour wheel, and used always to bold effect. Compare Raphael’s Portrait of Pope Julius II:

And bold she certainly is, expressing to the full Robinson’s ‘feeling’ and ‘individuality’: the eyes, the firm set of the mouth, all betoken such defiance, such dignity; she’s a tattered Madonna (that girl thing), future mother of proud and, as we in the West remain acutely aware, indomitable warriors. Down she may be, but never out.

All of which is a great deal to hang on the shoulders of a twelve year-old girl, but of course we don’t, we hang it on the image. We invest the image and we invest in it; we respond to it as art, and this, in the end, is what makes it such.

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A very fine photographer, Steve McCurry: http://stevemccurry.com/

Interview with Steve:

(Thanks, Tha Dubdiggah)

Talking Balls: on a response to ‘Mapplethorpe’

The other day I posted an excellent article from Fluster Magazine about Robert Mapplethorpe. Needless to say, it featured a big cock or two.

Someone surprised me by suggesting that his use of the human body as a subject was somehow exploitative, demeaning the owners of said cocks and thus, by implication, us the viewers.

I beg to differ. Strongly.

“I search perfection in form. I do it with portraits, with penises, with flowers. A subject is not different from another. I try to catch what seems sculptural to me.” ~ Robert Mapplethorpe.

“A subject is not different from another.”

There should be no taboos in art, no ‘rights’ or ‘wrongs’: it’s about art, about why and how you make it. It is not to condone the gratuitously offensive; it is merely to state that everything in nature, ie everything,  is open to the (female or male) gaze of the artist, and all has an equally valid claim on her/his attention. Compare this, from Rodin:

“To any artist worthy of the name, all in nature is beautiful, because his eyes, fearlessly accepting all exterior truth, read there, as in an open book, all the inner truth.”

Go down the ‘exploitation’ route and you may as well say that Mapplethorpe exploits calla lilies.

The fact is, all art objectifies.
It takes a thing, an idea, a scene, an emotion, and turns it into something else: the art object. This holds as much for solipsistic, expressionistic abstract art as it does for traditional representation. Good art is transfigurative; it contemplates the subject and then, crucially, says something about it, presents it to the viewer afresh. Mapplethorpe’s classical, clean, sculptural photography does exactly this: never have a cock and balls, or simple flowers, been raised so high. Far from demeaning his subjects, he puts them, often literally, on a pedestal.

All of which is quite a different thing to pornography, which is unquestionably exploitative of both subject and viewer. Porn never has anything new to say; indeed, it relies on repetitive sameness, the pressing of the same buttons, in order to find its market. And it does so by by-passing the intellect entirely and homing straight into one’s pants. This is real commodification.

Mapplethorpe’s art is not only beautiful, it is also, like anything worthwhile, deeply considered, deeply intelligent.
It pays to engage with it on something like the same level.

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Fluster Magazine article :   http://flustermagazine.com/2012/01/31/photography-special-robert-mapplethorpe-flowers-penises-and-portraits/

Where words fail: the art of Emre Can Ercan


I know little about Emre. I know nothing about how he makes or finds his images, nor do I know what they mean to him. Mystery is precious. 

darkness is to space what silence is to sound…

and Jacob called the name of the place Peniel: for I have seen God face to face…

ineffable: inexpressible

ineffable: unutterable

a story is told as much by silence as by speech…

and now there is merely silence, silence, silence, saying all we did not know…

“all art constantly aspires to the condition of music…”

sometimes it succeeds.

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Thanks to Emre for allowing me to use his work. For titles of the above and more images: http://cargocollective.com/emrecanercan

I’ll shut up if you will: ‘Damien Hirst’

Damien Hirst has played a blinder. Make no mistake: he will take his place in the annals of Art History, despite having no discernible artistic talent whatsoever; his show at the Wallace Collection, variously described as ‘risible’ (by me) and ‘juvenile’ (by Adrian Searle), was proof enough of that.

Riding on the coat-tails of Conceptual Art, Hirst has become its apotheosis, and therefore, all being well, the final nail in its coffin. After the banality, the unashamed and ubridled ‘appropriation’ (see below) – what the great Anselm Kiefer termed ‘Anti-art’,- there is surely nowhere left for it to go.

You see, his greatest work, his masterpiece, is Damien Hirst: he has taken the ‘idea’ of himself as an artist, an ex-enfant terrible, and run with it, creating a global brand made spectacularly manifest in the fatuous ego-fest that is the Gagosian exhibitions. This, self-promotion, is his genius.

Where does that leave the work itself?
It leaves it to a large degree irrelevant, a mere prop in the pantomime. It is contingent, tangential; it cannot stand alone, it needs it ‘author’ (ha!) and critics who should know better to speak for it, to give it context, because without Hirst it has neither meaning nor value. This is just about the worst thing I can say about ‘art’ – call me old-fashioned but I believe in autonomy: good art needs no apologetics, it is entire unto itself; it has integrity.

So when I see Hirst banging on that “art is more powerful than money” I wonder why he doesn’t just pull his finger out and make some (art, that is; we all know he’s as rich as Croesus)? Or is it just another disingenuous ‘line’ in the ‘Damien Hirst Show’ that has about as much real heft as “It’s behind you!”?

Go to the Hockney and be ‘exhilarated’; be ‘seduced’ by the Freud. Go to the Hirst(s) and think ‘What the fuck?’

It’s not enough, and never was.

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The Art Damien Hirst Stole: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7Fq4CerVEgQ

Giving a horse’s ass: Carracci vs Caravaggio

Now, if you know me at all you’ll know that I cannot go more than a week without mentioning Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, or this quote:

“There was art before him [Caravaggio] and art after him, and they were not the same.” ~ Robert Hughes.

(I am nothing if not predictable.)

We are, of course, all aware of Caravaggio’s pervasive influence on visual artists from Rubens, Rembrandt and Velasquez through to Scorsese and Mapplethorpe; only this week I was ‘treated’ to an article on a MA graduate who had taken it upon herself to ‘re-imagine’ Caravaggio. (Don’t get me started. Such a cliché.) And anyone who does loves him has, at least to some degree, bought into that most romantic of ‘art’ myths, that of The Rebel (wonderfully sent up in the Tony Hancock film of the same name: my favourite ever art movie.)

Conversion on the Way to Damascus, Caravaggio, 1600-01, 2300mm x 1750mm

Annibale Carracci, on the other hand, has long been consigned to Art History, but it should be remembered that in his time, and for decades after his death, he too was considered an innovator and a paradigm, someone to be admired and learnt from. So when the two artists were awarded the commissions for the decoration of the new Cerasi Chapel in the Santa Maria del Popolo in 1600, it was something of a showdown, a Rumble in Rome, if you will:
“In the Blue corner! Beauty, idealisation, light, academic ‘rationality’, draughtsmanship, preparation, Euclidean! Seconded by Raphael , Michelangelo, Titian !
In the Red! Dirty feet, naturalism, gloom, peasant ‘superstition’, painting ‘alla prima’, fractal! No seconds!”
(Although Tintoretto may have been ringside, cheering him on.)

Assumption of the Virgin Mary, Carracci, 1600-01, 2450mm x 1550mm

Of course, Carracci won on a technicality. The altar-piece, the ‘purse’,’ went to him, the two side panels to Caravaggio.
But it was the latter who really landed the knock-out blow: can it possibly be a coincidence that the Conversion was hung to the right of the Assumption, so that that enormous horsey backside points directly towards it?
Maybe, but I don’t – won’t – think so. I love it too much.

Cerasi Chapel, Santa Maria del Popolo, Rome

Caravaggio: volatile, rambunctious, by all acounts a bit of a nob. Never the greatest painter, but arguably the greatest artist. You gotta love him. How can you not?

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Caravaggio’s other painting in the Chapel is Crucifixion of St Peter:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Crucifixion_of_St._Peter_(Caravaggio)

Anyone with an interest in Caravaggio, or indeed art, should check out Andrew Graham-Dixon’s labour of love: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Caravaggio-A-Life-Sacred-Profane/dp/0241954649/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1331467574&sr=1-1

Finally, very nearly gratuitously and entirely for your entertainment, a clip from the masterpiece that is The Rebelhttp://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0jfM05c3Rqg

Not all ‘blood, guts and pussy’: more thoughts on female artists.

A couple of days ago my esteemed pal at Exiled Stardust wrote about how female artists tend to be ‘overlooked’ and ‘misconstrued’, with special reference to Georgia O’Keeffe and ‘ladybits’. Another problem with our attitude to female artists, it seems to me, is that we rarely allow their work to speak for itself.

Judith Slaying Holofernes, Naples version, Artemesia Gentileschi

What I mean is, we always have to have the ‘baggage’, the ‘story’, something we do not demand of male artists in the same way. With them, personal histories tend to be interesting and informative adjuncts to the work, tangential, if you like; with women the two are inextricably entwined. Think of Artemesia Gentileschi and you’ll think of her ‘defining’ rape at the hands of Agostino Tassi; of reductive critiques that describe her work as ‘revenge’ pieces. They may well be, but I’d rather talk first about the form, the technique, the skill: about the art object; pay her the courtesy of viewing her first as an artist, yes, an Old Master, and then as a woman.

Self-portrait, Mary Beale

All of which is probably why you’ve probably never heard of Mary Beale (1632-1699), the ‘first professional female English painter’ (Wiki), and friend of court painter Peter Lely (whom you surely will have heard of.) You see, there is no ‘story‘; Mary was the daughter of a rector, got married, had children, had a successful career as a portraitist, and died. That’s it. No ‘blood, guts and pussy’, just a woman going about her business.  And a very fine painter who is now largely forgotten.
Call me ‘radical’, but that sucks.

Exiled Stardust: http://exiledstardust.wordpress.com/2012/03/06/old-masters-overlooked-women-artists-and-georgia-okeeffe-misconstrued/

Made in Doncaster: Byron Howard

Bust of Sir John Barbirolli, Manchester’s Bridgewater Hall

Last spring I was lucky enough to see an exhibition of work by renowned local artist Byron Howard, curated by Andrea Bretherton at BrevonArt, Doncaster. Entitled ‘The Figure in Dance and His Other Damn Stuff’, it was something of a mini-retrospective for Byron, focussing on pieces from the 70s.

Byron is a sculptor. Now, when I say ‘sculptor’, I don’t mean someone who knocks together two bits of wood with an artfully placed traffic cone, I mean a sculptor. Think Donatello, think Epstein: Byron is the real deal.

Bust of Nureyev, ht. 340mm approx.

This is evident in his superb life drawings. There is something about a good sculptor’s drawings that tells you immediately that this person’s ‘proper’ work is in three dimensions. I can’t quite put my finger on what that quality is; perhaps it’s the boldness of the line, or the confident use of the space; I don’t know, but it was here in abundance, that ‘thing’ that comes, not of seeing, but of looking ‘around’ the subject and understanding.

Study for ‘Dance Movement’

There were, as I recall, four large female nudes: big girls, it’s fair to say, drawn with a sensitivity and sensuality that is above all celebratory. Byron likes women. The smaller drawings were mainly studies for sculptures,  concerned with capturing the movement, the gestures and attitudes of the dancing form. As a result, some were more ‘finished’ than others, but all were brimming with vitality.

Then there were the stars of the show: the bronzes. Ah, the bronzes. There was a small head of Sir John Barbirolli, the monumental version of which stands on permanent display at Manchester’s Bridgewater Hall; but more moving, to my mind, was a small sculpture of the great conductor’s hands: delicate, graceful, yet imbued with palpable strength.

Nureyev as ‘Lucifer’, ht. 500mm approx.

The stand-out pieces for me, however, were ‘Lucifer’ and ‘Dance Movement’: the skin seems to have been stripped away and every muscle and sinew revealed, so you are made acutely aware of the  sheer physicality and effort of dance, of the stress and tension inflicted on the body in the pursuit of beauty.

Magnificent stuff, and a real treat for those in Doncaster serious enough about art to get off their backsides and go see it.

‘Dance Movement’, ht. 450mm approx.

A little more about Byron here, courtesy of the Turnstone Gallery, Sandsend: http://www.turnstonegallery.net/whitby/sandsend/TASK/ShowPieces/FOLDER/HOWARDBYRON/north/yorkshire/

BrevonArt, Doncaster: http://www.brevonart.com/