Filler by Proxy XXXV: More and more, these people run your world

Monday 3 July 2006

Found via Greg.org: The Online Photographer presents Great Photographers of the Internet:

Edward Steichen
Much too dark exposure and not sharp. I suppose you may say that you tried to make it unsharp but what the hell’s the point in that. I like things sharp. Maybe you should study some other peoples’ photographs here on this forum and get an idea of what a good photograph should look like.

There’s a heap more like this, in the same post and subsequent entries on the Online Photographer’s blog, culminating in some navel-gazing about how everyone feels compelled to point out “mistakes” photographers such as Cartier-Bresson have made by not following “rules” of exposure, framing and focus. Oh, and not using a Nikon. No, a Canon. No! A Nikon!

Taking a photograph in complete ignorance of the “rules” hurts no one, costs nothing, and might even be more fun.

You can read those posts and laugh at the silly nerdboys (there may be a girl or two in there) with their techincal hairsplitting, valuing process over results. But as you do, please spare a thought for those of us who tried to learn music composition at university. I doubt there is any other artform taken so seriously, which is so dependent on the same type of pointless nitpicking as which these internet kibitzers thrive on.
At about the same time as the Online Photographer was making his point, Kyle Gann at PostClassic had finished teaching another semester:

I’ve been becoming aware that, even among the Downtowners, there is a standard academic position regarding electronic music, and am learning how to articulate it. I’ve long known that, though much of my music emanates from computers and loudspeakers, I am not considered an electronic composer by the “real electronic composers.” Why not? I use MIDI and commercial synthesizers and samplers, which are disallowed, and relegate my music to an ontological no-man’s genre. But more and more students have been telling me lately that their music is disallowed by their professors, and some fantastic composers outside academia have been explaining why academia will have nothing to do with them.

Two generations ago, composition professors would promote the careers of unlistenably dull, academic composers who would say approvingly, in all seriousness, that a piece of music was “better than it sounds.” Today, those same fossils are still taking up space in most music schools, but now a whole new exciting branch of electronic music has opened up, so that a fresh batch of careerists can stifle it all over again; and refuse to state whether or not a piece of music they have heard is any good, until they know what technical equipment was used to make it.

Looking at Looking at Art

Tuesday 13 June 2006

I forgot to mention that the main reason I was in Berlin (apart from the cheap hotels in the longueur before the World Cup) was to visit a friend showing at the Sonambiente festival. As it turned out, the Berlin Biennial had been extended for a week, so we took in some of that, too. A brief writeup of my, uh, issues with the show will appear tomorrow, but in the meantime I’ve posted a few photos from the exhibition in the Flickr group, Looking at Looking at Art. You can also see some other pictures of people gawping at Rachel Whiteread’s Embankment.

Man is the measure of all things miserable: a visit to the Pompidou

Thursday 25 May 2006

Update: Most of the links below to artists in the Pompidou’s online catalogue no longer work, thanks to their website’s excessively paranoid cookies. You’ll have to go to the front page and find them yourselves.
The Centre Pompidou will kill you. There are two vast floors of exhibition space: one for the permanent collection and one for the visiting shows. Ten Euros gets you one admission to each floor, there are no passouts and the overpriced cafeteria is three floors below. The place will kill you.
Tate Modern has just completely reopened the rehanging of its permanent collection but I don’t expect to see the top floor this weekend, what with it being a bank holiday and the place jammed with punters last time I visited. It’s almost too popular for its own good. When I visited the Pompidou on my Paris trip the permanent collection was also about to be closed and re-hung. I hope the new layout is better than the one I saw.
Like the Tate Modern’s previous incarnation, the Pomp had its art arranged into themed rooms, only with an even more pedagogical and condescending atmosphere. The low points came early; right in the entrance rooms, in fact, with a mini-exhibition dealing with “the face and the human body”. Sticking someone in a room full of Francis Bacon and Bruce Nauman at the start of a long slog through a museum is just plain cruel.
To add insult, the rest of the rooms were filled with juxtapotions of breathtaking crassness, such as plonking a Giacometti sculpture in front of a set of Warhol silkscreens of Jackie Kennedy to show that – wow! – different artists depict people in different ways. (Beaubourg, you’re blowing my mind here!) The entire installation seemed to have been geared towards a class excursion of dimwitted high school kids. I’ve never experienced a more dispiriting or unwelcoming entry to an art museum.
Things didn’t get any better in the next room, despite it containing some prime examples of Pollock (Number 26A, Black and White) and Johns (Figure 5). I love these paintings, but the Pomp did them a disservice by labelling the room they were in “Chaos and Collapse” or something. It suggested the room had been curated by a particularly regressive tabloid editor, until you remembered that entrance room stuffed with bodies in various degrees of distortion and decay and you realised this whole show has been put together by one of those po-faced Germanic intellectuals who write weighty monographs on the existential terror inherent in the cinematic oeuvre of Fred Astaire.
After this unpromising start the subsequent rooms settled into dull and obvious arrangements by style and genre, which was an improvement. A room full of De Stijl – OK; a room full of white things – maybe; one room each for transparent and reflective artworks – what the hell? I can’t believe the Pompidou’s vaults didn’t contain artworks less deserving of exhibition than some of the clear or shiny gewgaws making up the numbers in their respective rooms.
One aspect of the hanging worked: without additional explanation, Picasso kept turning up in room after room throughout the gallery, fitting into whatever context was provided. A wordless demonstration of why Picasso is such a big deal.
There was a pitiless absence of benches throughout the museum. There was no gallery seating whatsoever in the permanent collection until about halfway through, when some stools and tables with catalogues attached appeared (oh boy, a study break!) Several benches are scattered through the latter stages of the exhibition, so this initial absence may have been contrived to stop punters pegging out too early, little realising how much floor space they still had to traverse. At any rate, it was designed to move bodies through the museum rather than allow the (ahem) more seasoned afficionados seek out and fully appreicate the particular artworks they had come to see. If you wanted to properly contemplate a big or difficult painting, or even watch a 15-minute Gordon Matta-Clark film, you had to do it standing up. Ouch.
The first proper bench appears about two thirds of the way into the collection, and it’s parked in front of an Ugly German Painting. At least they were gracious enough to allow benches for us to admire Matisse’s late, great decoupage La Tristesse du Roi. Even these curators couldn’t resist its charms.
* * *
First apparently perennial aspect of Pomp installations: side galleries stuffed with mounted books and magazines relevant to the artistic movements nearby. These exhibits trigger an initial rush of depression (the show comes with a reading list!), quickly followed by a certain perverse satisfaction, because two randomly-opened pages of Les Mots et Les Choses isn’t going to make any more sense to Francophones than to all the visitors who can’t read it.
Second apparently perennial aspect of Pomp installations: the museum still has a pervasive interest in architecture and urban planning – the old French dream of organising everybody (else’s) lives. A lot of architects’ work was on display, from a Louis Kahn maquette, to Constant’s wacky proto-situationist models, to a zillion or so megalomaniacal plans to Pave the Earth.
I tick another Gaudier-Brzeska off my list: Bird Swallowing a Fish.

That Donald Judd stack is really biffed about: did someone drop it, or did the Pomp get it cheap off the back of a truck?
Heh, a curator’s in-joke about an artist’s in-joke. The room of conceptual artists included works by Lawrence Weiner, Joseph Kosuth, Art and Language, and Martin Creed. Creed was represented by a recording of his rock band Owada playing softly in the corner. If you waited around long enough you’ll hear the song in which Weiner, Kosuth, and AaL accuse each other of ripping off their ideas. WFMU used to have the whole album available for download, but it’s gone! Here are the lyrics for your limited edification.

Abstract Expressionist Sunday, Part II: Even more about Philip Guston

Sunday 7 May 2006

When I first wrote about Philip Guston, I mentioned being first impressed by “one of his big, abstract expressionist canvases from the 1950s, back when I was an impressionable nipper.” It was when a bunch of paintings from the Phillips Collection from Washington D.C. were shown in Adelaide. It was one my primary formative experiences of modern art, and wouldn’t you know it? The Phillips Collection has put its collection of American artists online.
So, for the record, here’s that painting: Native’s Return (1957). The pic below doesn’t do it justice: in real life it’s 65 by 76 inches.

Abstract Expressionist Sunday, Part I: More about the Rothko Room

Sunday 7 May 2006

I mentioned the Rothko room at Tate Modern last week, saying it had been left as before. It turns out this is not exactly true: the entire thing has been reinstalled (I thought they’d just closed off a door), as explained here:
In the dimness the paintings appear at first fuzzy, and move inside themselves in eerie stealth: dark pillars shimmer, apertures seem to slide open, shadowed doorways gape, giving on to depthless interiors. Gradually, as the eye adjusts to the space’s greyish lighting – itself a kind of masterwork – the colours seep up through the canvas like new blood through a bandage in which old blood has already dried.

I had wondered about the title card at the Tate explaining that these paintings were originally commissioned to decorate(!) The Four Seasons restaurant. Rothko couldn’t be serious, could he? The restaurant couldn’t be, could they?
“I accepted this assignment as a challenge, with strictly malicious intentions. I hope to paint something that will ruin the appetite of every son of a bitch who ever eats in that room. If the restaurant would refuse to put up my murals, that would be the ultimate compliment.”

Hang the curators! Then rehang them.

Wednesday 3 May 2006

There were plenty of happy punters in the Tate Modern on Sunday: they had found the Dalìs. Four of them, by my count, and good ones too, made before the kitsch element of his work became overwhelming. (I’m not a Dalì fan, but if I was forced to have one on my wall I’d probably pick Mountain Lake, on display here – or else a really small one.) While in the new surrealism room I heard three people call their mates over to where the Dalìs were hanging.
How does the new surrealism room at the Tate compare to the old one? Tate Modern never had a surrealism room before! Its first and, until now, only hanging of its permanent collection was one of those dreaded “themed” arrangements whose main objective is the career advancement of museum curators. So if you liked surrealism, and a lot of people do, you wandered through room after room – all with titles like “The Body and Society”, or “Nature and Growth”, or anything else that sounds like a high school curriculum’s euphemism for sex ed – hoping you stumbled across the one with the Magritte in it.
(Did anyone pay attention to the putative themes of those galleries? Or did everyone just scuttle from room to room in a game of hunt-the-Dalì? Can anyone, even the curators, remember what the rooms were called?)
Sometimes, that Magritte wasn’t there at all. The arranging of work by ideological themes put the curators in something of a bind. The average art-loving punter stubbornly clings to the old-fashioned expectation that museums are places where you go to look at lots of great art. Put up too much good art, and your precious theme will be diluted to the point of giving the lie to your curatorial pretensions. On the other hand, put up third rate art that supports your thesis and your aesthetic judgement will become suspect. Now that the themes have been abandoned, the first thing everyone’s noticed is that there’s a lot more art up on the walls.
Pablo, baby, we know Three Dancers is a great painting but we’re gonna stick it in storage because you neglected to illustrate our curatorial agenda. If we let people see it they might try, god forbid, to locate it in some artificial historical context. Besides, some of us are still mad at you for starting the first world war.
Sorry I don’t have 100% accurate information on what was hanging where, or how much of it is on loan to the Tate to supplement their own collection. I was there on a bank holiday Sunday and the place was packed, so I didn’t always get the chance to scrutinise the title cards. Besides, the main reason I was there was to accompany the girlfriend’s belated viewing of Embankment. Her verdict: it’s OK.
The most immediately obvious room is the one that squares off their big Monet Water-Lilies opposite a big (well, long) Pollock. Unfortunately it’s the wrong kind of Pollock. Blue Poles would look amazing in this company, but Summertime: Number 9A is a bare canvas soaked with an elegant scrawl of dripped black paint, highlighted with brushed on patches of primary colours. It isn’t a surface or a palette that matches Monet’s at all. Fortunately, a bench runs lengthwise down the room so you can face one painting or the other, with audio guides on hand for punters wanting to know more about either work.
The really clever juxtaposition is a pretty Rothko on the wall adjacent to the Monet, at the head of the long room. Its greeny-golds and pinks, the translucence of its surface, play off against Monet’s water-lilies until the Monet looks like a Rothko and the Rothko a Monet. An ingenious pairing.
The room full of Rothkos has been kept intact, as you would expect. Plenty of bench space so you can spend an entire, melancholy afternoon in there if you like.
Unless my memory is played tricks on me, they left that Joseph Beuys thing where it was. Can’t blame them not wanting to lug that big pile o’crap around any more than absolutely necessary.
The recent British art on display is way lame. Dear Tate: don’t trust Charles Saatchi’s acquisitions advice!

Guardian scoop: Picasso shot Archduke Ferdinand

Tuesday 2 May 2006

I know the lefty press loves a good conspiracy theory but this is a bit of a stretch, even for them:
Who knows what the avant garde would have created if there had been no assassination in Sarajevo and no first world war? Or did the very extremism of cubist art somehow bring about the ensuing chaos?

That’s right Jonathan, World War I was fought over cubism. Actually, judging from his recent articles, it’s surprising he didn’t blame the Americans, for once.
Apart from weird digressions like this, I agree with most of what Jones says about the Tate Modern rehanging of its collection. It’s halfway done now, and I was going to wait until it was all open to the public before writing about it, but given that The Guardian is blabbing about what’s on the fifth floor I may as well say how it looks… soon. I’m too busy right now.
Funnily enough, Picasso was questioned in Paris in relation to the Archduke’s assassination. He told them Braque did it.

More about Guston

Wednesday 22 March 2006

Having gone off about Philip Guston the other day, here’s some more amusement: Guston Interactive! Put together by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art for their Guston retrospective a couple of years ago.
Also, having mentioned Morton Feldman, here’s Guston’s Friend – to M.F., painted in 1978, after their estrangement in 1970.

Feldman also dedicated a piece to Guston – in 1984, four years after Guston’s death. I’d post an MP3 of For Philip Guston: it’s a great piece, but it’s four hours long so I suspect I may not have quite enough space for it.

Looking at Philip Guston

Saturday 18 March 2006

About a year ago, I managed to screw up my application for Right of Abode in the U.K. and had to travel to Canberra to sort it out. The side benefit of the trip was getting to see four Philip Guston paintings, from different periods, in pretty much the same room at the National Gallery of Australia. Yes, I looked at Blue Poles again but it was the Gustons (and a honking great Clyfford Still) that floated my boat that day.

The first Guston I saw was one of his big, abstract expressionist canvases from the 1950s, back when I was an impressionable nipper. I didn’t realise how dramatically his style changed in the late 1960s until I found a book of his drawings, where over the years his abstractions became more and more reduced, sometimes to single lines. Then, out of this void, odd, bemused little hooded heads started peering out of a clumsily drawn, cartoonish world.
Were his arty mates cool with him going all impure, cartoony and representational on them? No, they were not. But today, it’s hard to resist the appeal of someone who turned his back on the artistic orthodoxy of his time and began to paint in a personal style so alien to convention, mainstream or alternative.
Guston was part of a postwar cohort of big, lumbering American men cack-handedly pulling off works of subtle beauty despite themselves, along with Charles Olson in poetry and Morton Feldman in music. Feldman and Guston were friends, but fell out when Guston resumed figurative painting. I love Feldman’s music, so my interest in Guston developed largely out of his relationship with Feldman, who often talked about how painters influenced his music.
What I’m trying to say is that I’m very happy that a gallery in London has been exhibiting 20-odd of G’s paintings and drawings, from the early 50s to the late 70s. First, I get to see a lot of Guston; second, I get a good chance to figure out just how good he is.
I found a useful article online about Guston’s development, although there’s some things in it I’m not sure about. G is hardly unusual among artists in have some early, derivative phases in his life’s work before finding a true, individual style; nor are late bloomers as uncommon as art writers often like to pretend. As for the deficiencies in his abstract painting, I find it particularly appealing how, in the best of them, he does reach transcendent effects through his short, heavy strokes. Like his other klutzy contemporaries, harping on his weaknesses until they become his strengths.
In the Timothy Taylor Gallery show, you can see that the weakest works were those where Guston tried to employ the long, confident lines which are the standard technique of ‘good’ artists. They feel sktchy, or straining for a striking effect. The awkward, lumpen heaviness in his lines and brushstrokes come into their own when creating his weird, cartoonish world. They start off hovering uneasily between whimsical and menacing, but by the latter half of the 70s the imagery has agglomerated into some of the most sinister, cryptic ‘last works’ of any artist.
He comes across as someone who had to keep painting until he struck upon something that worked. Some canvases are formulaic, or show more effort and fixing-up than other painters of his age usually liked to let on: the abstract works are much less forgiving of these failings. There are also some small, minor paintings, which are useful for showing G working up his vocabulary of shoes, books, heads. Often these works are overpainted, but this seems to be more about resuing the surface than second thoughts.
In one of the best, a large, late canvas called Calm Sea, his short, heavy strokes filled with reds and pinks transforms the flat planes of sea and sky into a roiling surface of red, flickering beneath a shimmering blue void.
I wonder now if you can build some sort of analogy between Guston’s return to representational painting to more definitely articulate the conflicted mood of anger and melancholy, and Feldman’s subsequent retreat from experimental graphic scores for his music, to increasingly conventional notation which more clearly presented his own, ambiguous sound world. Maybe not.
(As for where the cartoon influence came from, people keep namedropping Robert Crumb, although Guston’s world looks much more like George Herriman’s Coconino County to me.)
Ubuweb, bless ’em, keeps a stash of Guston’s drawings and poem-drawing collaborations with writers, including the complete series of “Poor Richard” drawings.

Problems again

Thursday 16 March 2006

Blogger seems reluctant to let me post anything bigger than this right now, so I’ll have to wait until tomorrow (or the day after) to post about how much I like the artist of whom Modern Art Notes has said:
“Has there ever been a more overrated painter? The figurative works are among the ugliest, most visually unpleasant canvases you’ll ever see in a major museum.”

“…Someone looks at something (detail)”

Wednesday 1 March 2006

Like every other visitor to the Tate Modern over the past few months, I took some photographs of Rachel Whiteread’s Embankment in the Turbine Hall. You can see plenty of shots on Flickr, just search for “Whiteread”. So here are my contributions: some photos of people looking at people looking at Embankment.

Whiteread is known for making casts of spaces, making otherwise invisible interiors (literally) concrete. Her most famous work, House, cast the interior of an entire terrace house, a few minutes down the road from the Bunker. Her recent, avowedly Public Artworks, such as her inverted plinth in Trafalgar Square, have taken on more of the characteristics of objects in themselves, rather than denoting the significance of the space the object now fills.
Embankment is made of thousands of casts of several old, cardboard boxes. Because the casts are obviously box-like, hollow, translucent, the boxes themselves were evidently empty. Unlike Whiteread’s previous works, these objects refute the idea of an interior life once contained by the cast’s host.
There was a maddening adequacy about the whole thing. People looking at it comment on how it fills the daunting expanse of the Turbine Hall nicely, and that’s about all it does. There are gestures of accessibility for the punters (was this part of the commissioning brief?) but these and other aspects of the installation kept reducing the work to a disappointing level of domesticity, incommensurate with its ambitious dimensions.

At first it’s nice that you can walk amongst it, but then you realise it’s killing the mystery. It feels like a timid sop to populism, like the way that tourists visiting the Big Pineapple (or Uluru for that matter) are granted the opportunity to climb to the top. Part of House‘s impact was that it was impossible to enter: her earlier works were spaces with no insides.

The numerous punters wandering among the piles became part of the work as much as the boxes; the observation deck in the Turbine Hall overlooking the installation encourages this. The groups of people wandering around, apparently in search of something amongst the stacks and piles, looked for all the world like shoppers, and when I walked through it I felt like a shopper. The installation is at the end of the hall, so there can be no through traffic of pedestrians.
The arrangement of boxes – some in neat stacks, others in vast piles – felt decorative, being neither a random dump nor an obsessively regimented collection, so no mood was particularly evoked. It felt like some aesthetic effect was attempted, which was disappointing compared to the inadvertent, disinterested forms of a potential object created without intention, produced by Whiteread’s previous working methods.
Of course, it is forbidden to climb the boxes. Could you sneak off with one? Has anyone tried? Like any major, sort-of-public exhibit these days, there has been much pi-jaw about all the plastic in the boxes being biodegradeable and recycled; but I would preferred another type of degredation to have occurred, with the stock of boxes steadily depleted during the exhibition by people walking off with them. Rather like House, it could be another one of her works laid low by the people’s will.

Great moments in museum curation, part 2

Wednesday 1 February 2006

It can’t be much fun running a museum these days. One day, you lose a 38-ton sculpture. The next, overambitious junkies are lifting your Henry Moores for scrap. And the day after that, just when you wonder what else could possibly go wrong, a visitor trips over his shoelaces.
“It was a most unfortunate and regrettable accident but we are glad that the visitor involved was able to leave the museum unharmed.”

Conservators are now evaluating how much of the ensuing destruction can be repaired.
“They are in very, very small pieces, but we are determined to put them back together.”

Great moments in museum curation

Friday 20 January 2006

Jonathan Miller once observed that it’s hard enough to lose a paper bag full of orange peel even if you’re trying, so some special recognition must be due to the Reina Sofia Museum in Madrid, which has lost one of its sculptures. If you belong to a Neighbourhood Watch scheme and want to keep an eye out for it, it’s by Richard Serra, it’s steel, and it weighs 38 tonnes.
At least there’s a chance the Museum might get it back. Unlike the Saatchi Gallery.

Creepy old man update from my dad

Monday 14 November 2005

Hello. I keep meaning to get more regular updating this thing, but then I get caught up writing something and not finishing it, so you have to make do with more hastily-written rubbish about Jeremy Bentham or something.
Today, I found out someone reads my blog. Thanks dad! He was looking at a picture I posted on Flickr:

This was a mural on the corner of Frome and Rundle Streets in Adelaide, circa 1989 – note the ever-so late-80s chic motif of pink stylised galahs. I mentioned that this picture unfortunately omitted the left side of the mural, which featured an old man – eating? proferring? – an ice cream cone. Yes, the legend at the top of the wall began “When I’m…”
Creepy? Yes. I speculated on whether the mural still exists. My dad, who lives in Adelaide, thoughtfully went down there with his camera.

Bizarrely, the thing has been partly repainted into a scene even more incomprehensible. Girl on bike is now some mystic skykid, in a poorly-rendered minimal landcape overseen by aliens (and floodlights, to show off this masterpiece at night). Somehow, creepy old man with icecream has survived intact, along with the mid-80s yellow hessian schoolbags with aboriginal flag patch. So, now you can recreate the Lolita-type scene in your head.
As for the building itself, late 80s pink has been replaced by late 90s teal. It’s now a camping supplies store, but back at the time the mural first appeared it was bong shop, with a second-hand record store out the back. I once scored from there a copy of John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s Two Virgins LP, which I used to aggravate the other kids in photography class at high school. I can still whistle the opening bit from that album.
We have also learned that homeboys still roam the streets of Adelaide. So, no hurry to go back for a visit.
I just realised the title for this post may be read in the wrong way but then, if it were your dad, you wouldn’t change it either, would you?

Great moments in art criticism: a clarification

Tuesday 1 November 2005

The preceding post may have given the impression that writing about new art is harder than writing about old art. The approach is different, but no less difficult. In a boon for critics, art workers now feel compelled to do the hard work for them, putting a great deal of effort into press releases, curator’s missions and artist’s statements in an effort to justify their existence to the philistines who control the purse strings. Many artists cannot even make their art, let alone exhibit it, without a proposal being approved by commitees appointed to ensure that any art presented with other people’s money is sufficiently worthy, rational, responsible and predictable.
The critic’s task is simply to quote from the press statement and then say whether the work succeeds or fails on these criteria. Again, it is not necessary to look at the artwork. The more expensive exhibition launches can be particularly well catered.