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.”

Liveblogging the BBC radio coverage of the Melbourne Commonwealth Games opening ceremony

Wednesday 15 March 2006

  • Melbourne is so up for this.
  • It’s very famous, I haven’t seen it.
  • This is the precursor to what is going to happen next.
  • It’s a tremdous opportunity to soak up the experience.
  • They are what they are.
  • Melburnians will come to watch any event.
Then, the broadcast suddenly stopped after half an hour and they switched to a phone-in about hosepipe bans.

Fun fact: the Australian national anthem was written by a Scotsman, who was paid 100 pounds by the government. I didn’t know that.

UPDATE: Intersecting Lines gives a first-hand account of the festivities – more details, more accurate.

Have my ears gone insane?

Monday 13 March 2006

No, apparently. I found a review in the paper about that Icebreaker gig last week – remember, the one that screwed up Philip Glass’ Music with Changing Parts in just about every possible way? The Guardian‘s review is more succinct than mine, but neglects to call Icebreaker an incestuous clique. Apart from that, we say pretty much exactly the same things.
One thing about the amplification used at the performance: Glass’ early music is meant to be LOUD, louder than it was at the Icebreaker gig. The problem wasn’t that Icebreaker were amplifying their instruments, but that the amplification was muddy, compounded by sloppy playing and a poor sound mix.
Zappa’s piece, pace Andrew Clements, sounded fine; possibly because Zappa was writing for a rock group and Icebreaker had hired a sound guy used to rock gigs? Just because it’s loud and you think it’s cool, doesn’t mean that a rock dude is the right choice for every type of music.

Filler by Proxy XXXII: She Holds the Allen Key to My Heart

Sunday 12 March 2006

Some time ago I fessed up to my perfectly understandable obsession with Anna the Ikea chatbot, especially the brunette incarnation. Even then I knew I was not the only one vying for Anna’s affections, but still I felt a pang of jealousy to see that Minor Tweaks has made repeated advances to her for the past year. Luckily, he doesn’t seem to have made much progress:
Anna: I am opening a page now which you can use if you wish to contact Customer Services. Thank you very much!
Me:
Trying to get rid of me, eh?
Anna:
I will. Thank you for the encouragement.

Still the sweetest cold-hearted bitch on the planet; no wonder we just can’t keep away. Just don’t let her talk you into buying a cheap futon base.

“What did you do at Oxford?” “I bought a tie.”

Saturday 11 March 2006

By a strange coincidence, “Opium Den/RAF Whores” is my favourite Fall B-side.

Name your ironic, Pavement-type indie band

Saturday 11 March 2006

  • The Licensed Heroes
  • Sex Yacht Wiki

A rare musical event: a bad Philip Glass performance that isn’t Glass’ fault

Thursday 9 March 2006

Icebreaker is a new music ensemble that lacks one of the most basic skills required by musicans in any genre: they can’t count. They listed seven pieces before the interval on their program at the Queen Elizabeth Hall last night, but played only six of them. For some reason the first piece got dropped from the concert.
We don’t know why the piece was dropped because noone, in either of the two awkward announcements to the audience, bothered to even acknowledge there was a change in the program. So, if you don’t usually go to concert halls gigs because you suspect that they’re a private party for incestuous cliques where you don’t belong, Icebreaker are here to prove you right.
The first piece they actually played was an ensemble arrangement of Conlon Nancarrow’s Study for Player Piano No.2b. Not many people applauded it, probably because they’d read the program and were expecting a piece 11 minutes long, and so wondered what had gone wrong when the musicians suddenly broke off after a couple of minutes. Of course, something had gone wrong: it was a bad arrangement, played badly.
I have never understood why people would want to arrange Nancarrow’s player piano music for ensemble, other than to allow musicians to show off at the expense of the music they purport to serve. The result is usually the aural equivalent of a watercolourist attempting to ‘enhance’ an Escher drawing. Nancarrow hand-punched music rolls for the player piano to play dazzlingly quick, complex rhythms with pinpoint accuracy. This wheezy arrangement for clumsily amplified winds and strings reduced all the detail and shape to a flat, muddy mess.
The remaining selection was a forgettable collection of condescending gestures toward accessibility, with all the ambition, depth, and canny grasp of cultural zeitgeist of an advertising jingle. There were two student pieces that sounded studenty: shapeless, limpdick prog-rock academically divested of any vitality.
The band pretty much admitted they were playing this stuff because it flattered them, so I hope at least they had fun playing it while boring the pants off anyone who had to listen to it. Honestly, there were more cheap thrills and a better rapport between musicians and punters at the supposedly egghead Elliott Carter gigs in January.
The second part of the concert was the main reason I went: Icebreaker were playing Philip Glass’ big 1970 opus, Music With Changing Parts. The concert hall was noticeably emptier after the interval: most of the absentees likely students who had dutifully turned out to see their colleagues/teachers in the first half, and felt no need stay a moment longer once their obligation was fulfilled.
Quite possibly, they were also superstitious types and wanted to avoid the curse of exposure to a piece by the ridiculously successful Glass written at a stage of his career when he still had to unblock toilets and drive a cab to make a living.
The derivative bombast which has fuelled the more financially rewarding phase of Glass’ career now obscures the fact that his music from the 1970s remains some of the most exciting and challenging music around. The early stuff doesn’t get played much: Glass restricts circulation of his scores, particularly ensemble pieces like this, written for his own group of dedicated musicians.
Unfortunately, it seemed like Icebreaker didn’t want to play this piece tonight. In the first place, fatigue was visibly setting in amongst the musos during the latter stages of the gig. In the second place, their interpretation of Glass’ piece was trying its damndest to make it sound as much like Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians as possible.
Thirteen musicians (Glass typically made do with 6 to 8), some of them doubling on different instruments, were needed for this performance. Perhaps Glass would have liked to work with a broader instrumental palette when playing this piece in the 1970s, but I doubt he would have done it at the expense of keeping his ensemble tight, or together.
These days, maybe, he might simply hire a couple more mbira players to cover the bald spots, but he would not say to himself, “I’m sure the audience won’t notice when that really loud bass part drops out for two bars every now and then because the keyboard player has to turn pages.” (Pssst, Icebreaker. Rehearsals. Page turners.)
The unvarying pulse essential to Glass’ music was marred by sloppy changes from one figure to the next, poor and irregular intonation of some figures, and just plain disagreement between musicians about what the basic speed should be. Too often, when some kind of momentum was building up, another muso would take over after sitting out for a while and kill the pace. No more than three of the four keyboard players were active at any one time, but this relay-team approach failed to maintain any consistency across the piece.
The sound mixer spent much of his time working on damage control, trying to sort out the imbalance of instrumental sounds that the performers were incapable of resolving. Based on the first half of the concert, I’d say this particular Glass piece appealed to Icebreaker as one of the very few that allows some form of limited improvisation, but their excessive indulgence in these opportunities led to the musical material occasionally being swamped, and frequently chopped and changed so rapidly that the point of the piece was lost.
Pretty much everything Glass has written over the last 20 years has left me cold, so here’s one positive thing I took away from this gig. Given the crummy work he’s turned out over the last decade or so, I often start to doubt that he was ever any good. I still like this piece a lot despite the tone-deaf mangling it got from Icebreaker that night, so he must have been some kind of genius once upon a time.
I almost forgot: the one thing the band got right on the night was their early run-through of Frank Zappa’s brief Möggio, which I attribute to Zappa knowing his instruments and, more importantly, knowing his musicians: “Yes, you are all individuals – now do exactly what I tell you.”
Theatrical highlights: Electronic recorder guy almost getting garrotted when he went for a walk and forgot the lead on his instrument was only so long. One of the excessive number of keyboard dudes manically pattering out Glass’ repeating figures on his thighs when he wasn’t playing. Pity it didn’t help when he was actually touching the keyboard.
Overheard gossip in the foyer: The usual “music student going to see their lecturer get a performance” glad-handing.

Boring Like a Drill Cultural Beer Exchange: See the Xenakis reviews.

Tomorrow: Review of the Icebreaker gig at the IF Festival

Wednesday 8 March 2006

I still haven’t fully recovered from my trip to Riga over the weekend, so the review of the gig I went to last night isn’t finished yet. When it’s posted tomorrow, it will hold this blog’s record for the shortest turnaround from an event actually happening to me getting around to writing about it.
If you can’t wait that long, here’s the summary: it sucked. But how badly did it suck? The juicy details tomorrow.

Advanced East London Infiltration Techniques: Social Engineering

Wednesday 8 March 2006

Scene: The Bunker.
Front door intercom: BLEEEEEEP!!!!!!
Me: GAHH! What the hell was that?
Intercom: BLEEEEEEP!!!!!!
Me: Christ! That door-thingy works after all. Who could be calling at this time of night, I wonder?
(Fumbles with intercom buttons)
Me: Hello?
Master Criminal (on intercom): Uhhh… can I come in?
Me: Who’s this?
Master Criminal (on intercom): Oh, ah… it’s, ahh….
Me: Hello?
Intercom: Click!
Fin.

A brief hiatus

Friday 3 March 2006

I don’t plan on touching a computer until Wednesday. The subject and name indices will be updated for February next week sometime, along with further momentary diversions.

In the back room of a pub in Dalston

Friday 3 March 2006

Ben Watson, a middle-aged adolescent in an op-shop jacket complete with a few stray badges on the lapels, his uncut hair swaying gently from his receding hariline, lightly crept from table to table, reciting glossolalic poetry written earlier in the day. In pauses between verses, his 18 month old daughter stood in her mother’s lap and applauded theatrically. Beside the bar, someone else’s kid wandered up to the piano in the back corner, and gently draped himself across the keyboard in affectations of ennui, accompanying the poetry with dense, plangent chords at irregular intervals.

Book corner: Survey says “Duh!”

Thursday 2 March 2006

The literary world (pretty much like the real world only with worse dress sense) is rocked by the shocking findings of a survey of everybody in the whole wide world, even that really old bloke down the road who never leaves his house and you thought was dead: people feel good about books that make them feel good.

Book readers love a happy ending, according to a survey carried out to mark World Book Day.

“That does it!” vowed one author who asked to remain anonymous. “From now on I’m only going to write books people like.”
The other survey findings include: everyone’s favourite book was that one they saw on TV last month. Other favourites include books that shed unsightly flab from you thighs and abdomen while you read, and books that shower you with a delicious assortment of chocolates whenever you open them (soft centres only).
Men liked books about guns, while women preferred novels with bright pastel covers.
More importantly, the survey confirmed that you should never, ever trust a librarian’s taste in books. It looks like they’ve given up on last year’s attempt to pretend they’re sexy and relevant and have gone back to telling everyone to read To Kill a Mockingbird. Well, at least someone in authority finally had the guts to step up, put their reputation on the line and dare to make approving comments about this book. You VILL enjoy this book! It is Helen Darville’s favourite!
The second most librarian-suggested book is the Bible. I wonder how many of these librarians said that the Bible is the only book they recommend, ever; whether it’s for a punter looking for the rack of Star Trek novels or a kid researching a school project about ants. Where was this survey conducted? Please say Iran.
In unrelated news, TMFTML offers free advice to James Frey on how to revive his career:
May we suggest the concept for your next book? In A Million Supposedly Fun Things I Never Did Before, you go back and actually do all the stuff you said you did in Pieces (i.e., get root canal without novocaine, board a plane covered in puke, drive some girl to suicide, etc.) and then write about it. Trust us, A.J. Jacobs and other purveyors of gimmick lit will have nothing on you. Oprah will once again be eating out of your hand. Assuming you don’t get it cut off in a bar fight.

Also, J.K. Rowling, Dan Brown, and J.R.R. Tolkein. I’m not sure if they have anything to do with the above but apparently you can’t write a book article these days without mentioning them. Hopefully by xmas everyone – well, people with healthy social lives, anyway – will have forgotten about Tolkein again, which will make all our lives just that little bit easier.

“…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 News in The War on Terror

Tuesday 28 February 2006

Back in July when bombers struck London, the custodians of the building I work in swung into immediate action, and by October had stuck signs in the lifts warning us to be careful.
Today, I came in bright and early as is my usual habit, to find that the Islamic-Chicos-cum-Ghostbusters-logo has now been removed, which I guess means that cheap laminated signs have seen off the Islamofascist threat for now.

Well done, everyone! Together, our vigilance and steadfastness has made our world only slightly less dangerous than it was before.