Returning From Exile

‘Where have you been?’ interrupted Arthur, now that his head had finished working out.

‘Around,’ said Ford, ‘around and about.’ He grinned in what he accurately judged to be an infuriating manner. ‘I just took my mind off the hook for a bit. I reckoned that if the world wanted me badly enough it would call back. It did!’

Life, The Universe and Everything, Douglas Adams

So I’m back after taking a three year break from online life (due to numerous reasons which I won’t go into as, if I do, this post will turn into a foaming swivel-eyed rant and most likely lead to me dissolving into a puddle of bile) and art practice (due to an apocalyptic collapse in confidence.)

The world didn’t exactly call me back, but circumstances conspired to make it pretty much impossible to ignore it in the hope that it would just kindly go away and stop bothering me until it had grown up.

Well, a quick glance at 2016 shows that last bit probably isn’t going to happen and if we’re all on a rollercoaster ride to disaster (as seems likely), perhaps it’s better to be in one of the carriages enjoying the ride and waving out of the windows than sitting at the side of the tracks muttering “You’re all doomed.”

That all sounds a bit gloomy, but actually I’m quite chipper. Just had a few pieces in an exhibition in Berlin (courtesy of the rather wonderful Something Dark magazine) resulting in a new found confidence and as a result am shortly to move into a shared studio (with the equally wonderful Heather Power) where I’ll be creating the strange things that have been living in my head since I took my hiatus from art practice, and hopefully I’ll be able and inclined to report on progress here. I may even return to social media (once I’ve worked out a way of putting up a massive wall between my private and public life – hope springs eternal.)

So that’s that. I’m back.

How have you been?

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Collapsing The Distance

Image

Édouard Manet – Olympia (1863)

Looking with 21st Century eyes, it’s difficult to believe that the paintings of Eduard Manet once provoked such an outcry. To contemporary eyes Olympia looks hardly radical or provocative; a reclining nude painted in a realistic fashion. The walls of national collections of Western art the world over are crowded with such paintings. Even at the Salon des Refuses in 1865, at which Olympia was exhibited, the female nude was a perfectly acceptable subject and in previous years works like Alexandre Cabanel’s Birth of Venus had been exhibited without an eyebrow being raised.

Yet when Olympia was first exhibited in Paris, the popular press raged and stormed in a way that would make today’s tabloid hysteria over a priapic golfer seem measured by comparison. The painting, and by implication the artist, was, according to the journalists, both incompetent and immoral. The fury was not just limited to writers and critics, the exhibition visitors were also so enraged that the organisers were forced to put guards on the painting to stop it being torn to shreds.

As far as Manet’s incompetence was concerned, the writers drew attention to the apparent slapdash application of paint; great splodgy sweeps of paint appeared to have been smeared onto the canvas. The brush strokes were visible on the surface rather than being disguised by the repetitive and meticulous painting and under-painting of heavily diluted paint that was prescribed by the state-sponsored Art Academies and studios in which all painters learnt their crafts.

The case for ‘immorality’ is slightly more complex. Unlike Cabenel’s Venus, Olympia wasn’t a mythological fantasy, she was a contemporary woman, but not just a contemporary woman. Her shoes, bangle and choker identified her to the critics as a prostitute probably from the Batignolles suburb of Paris – a well known destination for gentleman of the middle classes looking for entertainment. In fact the model was Victorine Meurent a close friend of Manet’s who went on to become a painter herself, but it’s clear that the critics’ interpretation was what Manet had intended. For the establishment of late 19th Century Paris such a woman was not a suitable subject for a large scale work of art, which were normally reserved for noble themes from mythology, history or the Bible.

The offence of the subject matter was compounded by the fact that the clear source for the composition of Olympia was Titian’s Venus of Urbino. The nude was posed in a similar way and the picture space was divided by a screen. Manet’s alterations to the orginal subject piled offence upon offence in the eyes of the critics, the dog that lies curled up at Venus’s feet, representing loyalty, was replaced by black cat, recognized as a symbol of licentiousness, back arched and hackles raised, staring beadily at the viewer. While Venus’s left hand rests, almost beckoning, on her groin, Olympia’s is taut, protective and entirely in control.

It was this assertion of Olympia’s self determination and control of the depicted situation which caused most problems for the critics. The classical and academic nudes that were a staple of the Salon never made direct eye-contact with the viewers, they stared into the middle distance or looked up coyly through their eyelashes offering their bodies as art objects to be admired in a morally uplifting way. Any suggestion that the enjoyment that might be gained by the frock-coated and top-hatted men who attended the Salon and perused the nudes of Cabanel might have been more sexual than spiritual were easily dismissed by appeals to the noble subject matter at hand. But a modern woman, a prostitute at that, staring directly at the viewer with a questioning expression on her face allowed no room for such ethical dodging. It’s entirely possible that the men who expressed their outrage at Olympia may well have been leaving the Salon to attend an assignation with one of the many barmaids or laundresses of Batignolles a comfortable distance from the high society of Paris and their homes. Olympia collapsed that distance.

Manet had painted a modern woman in a modern way. He’d brought real life into the unreal world of the art gallery, showing up the hypocrisy of the great and good of Paris’s fashionable set and ruling classes in the process. He paved the way for the Impressionists who followed hot on his heels and all of those modern artists who came in their wake. It’s perhaps a bit of stretch to call him the father of Modern Art, there are too many other precedents to take into account, but the father of Modern Art as Outrage? I’m prepared to give him that one.

A Lot of ‘Not Much’

 


Richard Serra, Trip Hammer (1988), Tate London

It may sound like a contradiction in terms, but some Minimalist art is big, really big. It almost as if the artists want to emphasise that there’s not much there by making an awful lot of ‘not much’. Donald Judd’s series of free standing boxes for example are big enough for a few close friends to climb into, Robert Morris, Carl Andre and Tony Smith all made works that left little room for viewers in the gallery, but perhaps the master of minimalist overstatement is Richard Serra.

I’ve alluded in past blogs to the brain-scrambling theoretical debate about the nature of art that raged in the journals of the mid 1960s. It really is too arcane to go into in any great depth here but to simplify one of the central platforms of the minimalist project addressed the issue of Art’s relation to the real world. On one side were the critics and theorists who had supported the first wave of American Abstract Expressionists. Art should, they said, be an end in itself, it should have nothing to do with the real world, the ideal art was concerned only with itself, with colour and form. Such an approach, it was argued, made art a specialised sphere of activity and one that could lift the viewer into a timeless state of being away from the mundane concerns of the world.

Predictably such a dogmatic approach didn’t sit well with the stirrings of political unrest and burgeoning counter-culture of the 1960s, and soon opponents of this isolationist approach argued exactly the opposite, that art should anchor the viewer in their place and time, that it should make people aware of the world, not create a hermetic bubble into which they should escape. A new art was required, one which, in Claes Oldenburg’s words “does something other than sit on its ass in a museum”. A new wave of artists and approaches emerged that brought real life back into the gallery in the form of stuffed goats, comic book art and installations while performances and ‘happenings’ were staged and collaborative sculptures were built as part of protests taking art out into the real world.

For the Minimalists a key aspect of bringing the real world into the gallery involved a conscious rejection of the traditional materials and methods of art. Paint, bronze and marble were replaced by plastic, concrete, steel and aluminium, many of these materials being made, not by the artists themselves, but by industrial manufacturers working to the artists specifications. The artists studio was no longer an ivory tower of contemplation but a noisy factory full of dirt, steam and sparks.

Richard Serra could arguably be seen as the most ‘industrial’ of the Miminalists. From his early work that involved splashing the walls, floors and corners of the gallery with molten lead he progressed to installing increasingly large sheets, slabs and tubes of COR-TEN Steel that were held in place only by their weight and the effects of gravity and balance. As well as being unashamedly industrial, this choice of material connected with the rejection of a ‘timeless’ experience of art by being specifically designed to corrode over time, thus the physical nature of the work itself would change while it was displayed.

The viewers’ experience of the work was also intended to unfold over time, the simple shapes allowing them to comprehend the object in front of them as they walked around it, the absence of such unnecessary complications as intricate shapes or different colours allowing the viewer to explore the relationship between the space the work and themselves. It’s a difficult theoretical argument to get across without lapsing into the kind of talk that graces Private Eye’s Pseud’s Corner, but Serra’s work is, I think, the clearest illustration of this particular aspect of the debate.

Encountering Serra’s Trip Hammer is an unnerving experience. Two great slabs of rusting steel are arranged with no visible means of support in the corner of the gallery, one nine foot high monolith is balanced vertically on it’s smallest edge leading into the corner of the space, the second, slightly smaller slab balanced on top horizontally, its longest edges at 45 degree angles to the converging gallery walls. The familiarity of the material and simplicity of the precarious arrangement gives you a a very real understanding of the hard physical facts of the sculpture, its texture, temperature and most importantly its weight. You can easily imagine the whole thing toppling over and crashing through the wooden floors. Even if it wasn’t for the Health and Safety precautions of a gallery rope that now surrounds the work you really wouldn’t want to get too close. You do become acutely aware of the realities of your physical self in relation to the looming rusted metal in front of you.

Serra’s work has been criticised for it’s authoritarianism, its machismo and for creating a relationship between art and viewer akin to that between a ‘bully and victim’ and given that in 1988 two art handlers were seriously injured by a falling sculpture the ‘victim’ status of people encountering the work can sometimes be applied literally.

Of course there is something unashamedly macho about a form of art that requires foundries and heavy machinery rather than brushes and white gloves to create and install, and yes there is something authoritarian about an art that dominates a space and threatens to crush the viewer like an ant, but I think it needed to be. A seemingly impenetrable barrier had been set up between art and life and the strategies necessary to bring that barrier crashing down weren’t polite, weren’t tasteful and they weren’t quiet, they were noisy, tacky, flashy, flamboyant, exciting, frightening, dirty, rough, big and on occasions dangerous.

Just like life really.

Naked Lunch: The Story Of A Book

Trying to decide what books to take with me on holiday, it dawned on me that I hadn’t had my annual read of William Burroughs’s Naked Lunch. I pulled my copy from the the chaos of our book filing ‘system’ – an efficient method by which we cram books onto shelves based on space available with scant regard for subject matter or size –  and it fell apart in my hands.

I bought that copy when I was 15 with a book token that a well-meaning relative had given me for my birthday. On that Friday afternoon after school, there was a frisson of adolescent rebellion as I headed to the bookshop – I’d heard whispers at school of the ‘most shocking book ever written’, of its non-stop orgy of sex and drug use and yet no-one seemed to have read it or to be able to give any specifics. I remember being surprised at the time that such a devastatingly immoral book could be found in the ‘Contemporary Fiction’ section  – surely it had been misplaced from either the top shelf Adult Section or at a push (if some of the rumours were true) in the horror section next to James Herbert’s lurid descriptions of people being eaten by giant rats mid-coitus.

I pulled the book off the shelf and glancing around to check that no friends of my parents had wandered in to buy the latest Jilly Cooper, I looked down at the literary dynamite in my hands.

The cover didn’t look that shocking – a pastel blue screaming face with jagged teeth that mimicked the expressionist skyline that rose behind. I blinked, confused. Pastel blue wasn’t the colour of dangerous fiction – that was black, with red splatters, or embossed like the copy of Salem’s Lot that I’d sneaked from my brother’s bookshelf when I thought no-one was looking. But I was mindful of the cliché of never judging a book by its colour, so I turned it over in my sweaty paws and read the blurb:

True genius and first mythographer of the mid-twentieth century, William Burroughs is the lineal succesor to James Joyce’ J.G.Ballard

Um. What? As much as I liked Ballard – I’d read The Drowned World and Concrete Island, although at this stage I’d never heard of Crash or The Atrocity Exhibition – this didn’t exactly lead me to believe that the book contained the amoral filth I was hoping for, and wasn’t James Joyce some dusty old Victorian?. I carried on reading:

“A book of great beauty, great difficulty and maniacally exquisite insight” Norman Mailer

Beauty? Difficulty? Insight? These were not words I associated with decadence and degeneracy. Maniacal? Well I’ll give you that one, but who the hell is Norman Mailer?

I was starting to think that I’d somehow been the victim of a practical joke, but I’d been swaggering all week about buying the book to Jon and David, and since they were infinitely more cool than me, I had to go through with it. A failure to be the first in our gang to obtain the apparently forbidden text would be a loss of face I might not recover from.

Still it had ‘Naked’ in the title, so that had to count for something.

Avoiding eye contact with the salesperson I handed over the book and token, quickly jammed my bounty into my schoolbag and headed home. After the usual small talk with Mum about the day I headed up to my room and stuck a record on (I was in my ‘if it’s cheerful it’s probably not worth listening to’ stage so it was probably something with a blurry monochrome sleeve).

I pulled the book out of my bag and, skipping the introduction (Did anyone read those?), began to read:

“I can feel the heat closing in, feel them out there making their moves, setting up their devil doll stool pigeons, crooning over my spoon and dropper I throw away at Washington Square Station, vault a turnstile and two flights down the iron stairs, catch an uptown A-Train…”

After two pages I was hooked. After an hour the needle had lifted off the vinyl and the silence was no longer interupted. After a couple of hours Mum called me down to eat.

I ate in silence, punch drunk on a torrent of new words and ideas.

“You’re very quiet. Are you alright?”

“Yeah. Fine”

She shrugged, at this point in my life my being monosyllabic was not unusual.

I bolted my meal and as soon as middle-class protocol would allow, headed back upstairs.

I met Dr. Benway, conductor of questionable medical procedures, Hassan and AJ hosts of the greatest parties mankind has ever seen and Bradley the Buyer, the narc agent who went native and became a sentient blob of carnivorous slime. I walked the street of New York, Interzone and Anexia. I chortled at the man who taught his asshole how to talk and recoiled from Mugwumps and Giant Centipedes.

I read into the early morning and when I’d finished something inside me had changed forever. While I was on this strange psychedelic, surrealistic journey cogs had been turning in my mind and when, in the early hours of Saturday morning, I finished the last page, something clicked. I had tuned in to the rhythmic disruptions of language, to the strange  narrative structure with its discontinuities, non-sequiters and dizzying shifts between times and places.

I turned the light off and lay awake thinking until the sun came up. That morning everything was different, I couldn’t rationalise it, I couldn’t say how things had changed, but I knew I’d never look at the world in the same way again.

Jon called.

“So are you reading it?”

“Finished it.”

“Must be good. Any juicy bits?”

“Um, some. But it’s not that sort of book.”

“Eh? Well bring it round. Dave’s coming over with the new Cure album.”

“Nah. I’m gonna stay in and read it again.”

“Oh right, suit yerself. See you Monday then.”

“Yeah. Bye”

I read it three more times over that weekend, this time with the introduction and appendices. I read it again several more times in the months that followed and since then, just over 28 years ago, I’ve read it at least once a year. Every time I discover something new in it and every time it sets my synapses crackling with images and ideas.

But now the problem comes. My copy is too well read, too well loved and too well travelled. It’s been a constant companion as I’ve trotted round the globe, it’s seen me through triumphs and disasters, and no matter how many times I’ve moved house it’s one of a handful of objects that I’ve always known instantly where to find.  Flipping (carefully) through the pages now I can see that it bears the marks of those travels and adventures; a beer stain here, a blood stain there, some grains of sand trapped in between paper deep where the page meets the binding, it’s even got a few old bus tickets haunting it – long obsolete bookmarks, their destinations faded.

My rational self tells me that it’s not the object that matters, it’s the text. It’s Uncle Bill’s words that are important, not the bundle of paper fibres, glue and printing ink. Yet even when the ‘restored and expanded’ edition of the text was published in 2001, I couldn’t bring myself to buy it – it would have felt like a betrayal. It wasn’t just Naked Lunch that changed my life and my view of the world, it was the battered and stained copy that I’d bought all those years ago.

Sadly though the time has come for me to take the plunge and get a new copy, my friend with the pastel blue face won’t survive another read without disintegrating. It’s going to hurt, and I know that somehow reading a pristine new copy won’t be the same no matter how much I try to rationalise it. Of course I’ll never throw this copy away. It’ll sit on the bookshelf next to whatever text winds up next to it during the next random clear up. It’ll be with me ’til I die.

Perhaps though, that’s as it should be. After all, it wouldn’t do to be calm and clinical about a book in which William Lee states “Exterminate all rational thought!”

Ohwell, perhaps it’ll survive just one more read for old time’s sake.

 

 

Mistakes and Expectations

Marc Quinn – Stuart Penn (2000)

Art Historians make mistakes. It goes with the territory, paintings like The Massacre of the Innocents get attributed to the wrong artist, new evidence comes to light and completely turns received wisdom about a sculpture on its head; it all part and parcel of dealing with a subject that attempts to knit together a coherent story out of a mass of uncertainties, contradictions and, on occasions, downright lies. (The dates that Kasmir Malevich inscribed on his Black Square paintings being an example of the latter – though to be fair he was as mad as a bag of badgers in a spin dryer.)

Since the discipline took lessons from the likes of Foucault and Barthes and developed doubt into a valid ideological position, negotiating the potholes and chicanes of art history is slightly easier – in the first year of study, the student art historian learns the magic word ‘problematic’, a useful means of tying up the flailing loose ends of a tricky paper. You can even use it as a verb, “This is of course problematicised by…” It’s a cop out really, but a necessary one, without it you’d never finish an essay.

Sometimes the repercussions of these mistakes only affect the rarefied circle of art history itself, tiny ripples in a small pond, a few papers may have to be re-written, some textbooks and monographs may fall out of favour and conferences will be arranged. Other times these ripples can have wider implications changing the direction that art and culture take and influencing the nature of public taste.

For centuries, art historians and theorists held up Classical Sculptures as exemplars or quality and ideal beauty; painters copied figures from them, sculptors worked hard to reproduce their style in their own work and the young men of wealthy families were sent off on Grand Tours to view them to distract them from deflowering the chambermaids for a few months. If the philosophers and politicians of Athens and Rome favoured such sculpture, so should younger societies aiming for a return to the artistic glories of those once great civilisations. Almost subliminally the notion that the very best sculpture was carved from white marble sank into the Western cultural consciousness. And even by the time that Modernists, like Barbara Hepworth were making abstract sculpture, white marble was still seen as a prestige material.

Yet recent scientific investigations of sculptures such as the Parthenon Marbles have revealed traces of pigment and there’s now a consensus that they were extremely brightly painted and adorned with all manner of jewellery and accessories. So it seems that a few hundred years in the development of ideas of what is beautiful, sophisticated and above all tasteful were in a large part based on a whopping great art historical mistake.

We still feel the influence of this mistake today. Take a look at Antonio Canova’s Cupid and Psyche and imagine how different about it you might feel if it was more like Jeff Koons’s Michael Jackson and Bubbles. Even though I know that there’s a great big misunderstanding lurking at the heart of Canova’s aesthetic decisions, I can’t help thinking it would look hideous if it was a gaudy as the Koons. The association of white marble with grace and beauty remains so deeply ingrained that even a few colourful revelations can’t shift it.

Marc Quinn made great use of this association in a series of sculptures he made in 2000. Take a look at Stuart Penn above, it seems at first glance like any other classically influenced sculpture, and when the series were exhibited in the sculpture rooms at the Victoria and Albert museum, they seemed right at home amongst the 16th to 18th century figures, if anything a casual viewer might have been led to believe they were in fact older than Canovas and Bolognas by virtue of the missing limbs.

It’s the missing limbs here that are key. Quinn’s models for the series were sitters who had either been born missing limbs or had lost them due to accident or disease. So used are we to seeing classical sculpture fragmented and damaged that an absent arm or leg is part of our expectations of work like this. We edit out the vacant limbs of the Venus De Milo to look at her beauty, and that’s exactly how we react to Stuart Penn. Among the stone pantheon of gods, athletes and heroes we look past his physiological differences and see his beauty.

Quinn’s marbles are overwhelmingly positive and uplifting. It’s a stunningly clever trick to mobilise the centuries-old prejudices of history and taste to both defeat and draw attention to those of the present and to subtly use our expectations of art to challenge our perceptions of real people.

So here’s raising a glass to the mistakes of art history (no matter how problematic they are).

Zips

Barnett Newman – Onement I (1948)

I’d loved Barnett Newman’s paintings since adolescence, the simplicity and effrontery of painting a stripe of one colour flanked by another and calling it art appealed to the same bloody-minded bit of teenage rebellion in me that worshipped Joy Division, it was sparse and stripped down, making noise by what was left out rather than what was put in.

I’d studied his paintings in reproduction, but apart from three relatively small canvases in the Tate collection, I’d never seen any of his work in the flesh until a major retrospective at Tate Modern in 2002.

The exhibition was arranged chronologically, as you passed from room to room, you passed through the years of the artist’s work, starting at the beginning and ending at the end. This might seem obvious, but since the sixties other ways of arranging exhibitions, or ‘hangs’, have come into fashion. Sometimes a hang may be arranged by subject or medium; it all depends on the story that the curators want to tell. In group shows or retrospectives of art movements, these thematic hangs can set up new and exciting relationships between artworks, it’s something we take for granted, but a good hang can breathe new life in to a work that has almost faded into the background because of its familiarity.

For an abstract artist though, I tend to think the chronological hang works best, particularly for those of the first half of the twentieth century for whom abstract art was a matter of stretching the possibilities of painting. Abstract art is now so ubiquitous in homes, boardrooms, shopping malls and restaurants that it’s hard to imagine a time when it simply wasn’t considered a possibility. Viewing these artists’ works in chronological order helps us reconstruct some idea of just how revolutionary their project was.

For the European pioneers of Abstract Art there’s an excitement in seeing their works slowly creep towards a complete rejection of images from the real world. For example, viewing Piet Mondrian’s series of paintings of trees from the 1910s (Red Tree, Grey Tree,Tree,Apple Tree) is an exciting experience, you see an artist reaching and grasping for the abstract yet still tied by the conventions and culture of his time to the image of a tree. It’s like watching a piece of elastic being stretched and stretched and stretched, you’re just waiting for that connection between painting and the real world to snap.

For the American abstract painters of the 1940s and 50s, the situation is slightly different, the ‘Abstract Expressionists’ as they’re awkwardly named, all developed a ‘signature style’ that anyone with even a passing interest in Modern Art is familiar with. If we see splashes we know it’s a Pollock, if we see monolithic blurry rectangles we know it’s a Rothko and if we see stripes, or ‘zips’ as he called them, it’s a Newman.

The excitement and tension in an exhibition of these artists is seeing their work creeping towards the discovery of this signature style. The first few rooms of the Newman exhibition were filled with intricate organic doodles that recall the ‘automatic drawing’ experiments of the Surrealist Andre Masson. Occasional zips made cameo appearances, but only as background elements. These were followed by a tantalising series of monochrome works in ink where a series of ‘almost’ zips made their first starring roles – sometimes they didn’t quite make their way all the way down the page, sometimes they were subtly angled, like the blade of a stiletto stabbing its way through a mess of ink. Finally in the third room the first true zip made its appearance, in Onement I, a great untidy streak of orange cut across a loosely painted background of maroon.

It’s hard to get across how exciting I found this experience, even as I write now the rational, cynical part of my mind is saying “It’s just a stripe for God’s sake” but it was like seeing a film all the way through for the first time that you’d only previously seen the last five minutes of. You know the hero will defuse the bomb; you just don’t know how he going to do it and as the story unfolds you’re bouncing up and down in your seat screaming “The disarming code’s tattooed on the dog’s ear!” or in this case “Paint a bloody stripe!”

So are Newman’s zips ’just stripes’. On the face of it does seem rather simple. There’s a story that the artist Franz Kline found himself in conversation with an American collector who had just returned from one of Newman’s shows. The work was, the collector complained, empty and repetitive, there was he asserted ‘nothing to see’. Kline asked him to describe the canvases on show, their dimensions, their colours, whether the zips were horizontal or vertical, what colour they were, were they painting over the background colour or next to them, were they darker or lighter than the backgrounds. After a lengthy inquisition during which the collector was made to detail the many variations on the theme, Kline remarked “Well I don’t know, it all sounds darned complicated to me.”

I think that’s what I love about Newman’s work , it’s the single-minded pursuit of a simple idea and exploring its many variations, taking something as simple as a stripe and pushing it as far as it can go. It has something in common with minimalist music, take Sigur Ros’s Samskeyti which repeats a simple piano arpeggio over and over lulling you into familiarity, slowly introducing and building up different background atmospherics that subtly change the nature of the melody, then when you’re least expecting it, the arpeggio leaps up an octave and it’s a surprising and sublime experience hearing it for the first time. Newman’s paintings work like that for me – familiarity with a theme making its variations so surprising.

Anyone can make the simple look complicated, what’s really difficult is making the complicated look simple.

What’s The Story?

Edward Hopper – Automat (1927)

It’s the ‘story’ bit of art history that really fires me up. Happily works of art are surrounded by stories. Stories of how they were made, of who made them, of who has owned them…I could go on (it would be a nice easy way of filling up a blog post), but the point is that art is like an anchor for a whole web of stories that spreads out from it backwards and forwards in time, sometimes parallel, sometimes crossing over and sometimes directly contradicting each other.

Sometimes this web of stories can become so dense and knotted that it’s almost impossible to see through it. Over the years many friends have made the trip to Paris to see the Mona Lisa and their reaction invariably contains the words ‘disappointing’, ‘small’ and ‘brown’. I think the problem is that Leonardo’s painting is just too well known, it has so many stories floating around it, it’s weighed down with myths and legends, it’s been parodied and reproduced, it’s made cameo appearances in films and television series and been printed on T-shirts, mouse mats and shopping bags. In fact, if you can stamp an image on it, the chances are that La Giaconda’s been on it at some point. Because of this fog of stories and ideas that gather around the painting our expectations of it are so high that even if it was a hundred metres tall and made of platinum we’d still find the experience of a face-to-face encounter sadly anticlimactic.

But it’s also the absence of a story that can fascinate us and draw us in, Brozino’s Allegory, intrigues precisely because although the story has been lost it’s so clearly dripping with narrative intent that we have to fill in the blanks.

This natural reaction to fill in the blanks has been used by modern and contemporary artist to great effect – the installations of Mike Nelson and Ilya Kabakov both play with narrative instinct, offering us enough clues to know there’s a story there, but not enough for us to be absolutely certain of the strange characters that once inhabited their strange ghostly spaces and stage sets or the encounters that took place there and it’s then that our own stories, our memories and experiences, come into play, meshing and tangling with the artwork’s as we try to make sense of what’s in front of us.

For me though, the master of the uncertain narrative in art is Edward Hopper. His paintings of modern life in rural and urban America in the first half of the 20th century drip with intrigue. Hopper’s world is one where every figure or building has a secret and where every gas station lies on a road that could lead to adventure or disaster. He gives us enough tantalising detail to draw us in, setting up situations like the first chapter of a book or first scene of a film and letting us run with it wherever our minds take us.

The cinematic quality of Hopper’s work is almost a cliché now but it bears repeating, so strong and familiar is his use of the visual grammar of starkly lit and almost deserted urban spaces that we associate with film noir that it’s the first thing that strikes us when we see his work. It should be noted however that the relationship between Hoppers work and the look of Hollywood films isn’t a one-way street. Hopper influenced as much as he was influenced – Alfred Hitchcock for example used Hopper’s 1925 painting House by the Railroad as the basis for the design of the Bate’s Motel in Psycho, and his paintings continue to make their presence felt in the world of cinema – Terence Malik, Ridley Scott, David Lynch and Sam Mendes have all acknowledged the debt they owe to Hopper.

Automat sets up one of these ‘first scenes’ brilliantly. It’s night, a girl sits alone in an automated fast food restaurant. She’s removed one of her gloves. Outside the street may or may not be deserted, we can’t tell since the reflection of the sterile and brightly lit interior has obliterated our view of the outside world. It’s difficult to tell whether her blank gaze rests on the table in front of her or the empty chair opposite. The restaurant itself seems deserted, and here the title of the work comes into play, by making it clear this is an automat, we know that there are no waiting staff present merely morgue-like rows of mass produced food in glass-fronted, coin-operated pigeonholes. Her only company seems to be the bowl of fruit that sits on the windowsill behind her.

This last detail reminds me of Manet’s Bar at the Folies Bergere – is there an implication that the girl, like Manet’s barmaid, is as much a commodity on display as the fruit bowl? Unlike Manet’s painting however, Hopper leaves us, the viewer, out of the equation, at the Folie begere, we’re clearly meant to identify with the top-hatted dandy we can see in the reflection to the left, but here in the Automat we seem to be absent rather than present – we have no reflection and the girl does not acknowledge us – we’re a ghost, a voyeur, like a film goer we can only watch, we can’t interact.

So what’s the story?

The great thing about Hopper’s work is that the gaps he leaves in the narratives are so flexible that no two people are likely to come up with the same story. Pete, my mum and I all stood in front of Automat when it was shown as part of Hopper’s retrospective at Tate Modern in 2003, and all of us came up with different stories – for me (morose as ever) the girl had been stood up by a blind date, for Pete she was a spy waiting for another agent to arrive so she could hand over the microfilm and for mum she was taking a break from a shopping trip, enjoying a moments quiet away from the busy city outside. Of course none of us were right, but none of us were wrong, we brought our own perspectives to the painting and as a result the encounter probably said more about us than it did about the painting.

So after all that what have learnt? I’m a miserable git, my mum’s a shopaholic and Pete’s a spy. Hmmmm. Must look into that. Might explain why he never lets me drive the car – worried I’d set of the ejector seat probably…