Collapsing The Distance

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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.

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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.

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…

Clutter and Cardigans

Cornelia Parker - Pornographic Drawings (1996)

De-cluttering before moving house with me can be a painful business. Left to his own devices Pete will quite happily clear a drawer in 30 seconds flat leaving nothing but a couple of paperclips and a teaspoon. The ‘left to his own devices’ here is key because if I’m within a mile-radius of him as he goes to throw away a long-dead lighter, some sixth-sense kicks in and I’ll be at his shoulder before his hand’s out of the drawer.

“You can’t throw that away.”

“But it’s a dead lighter.”

“Yes, but look, we bought that in Amsterdam..”

“But it’s a dead lighter.”

“Yes, but we bought it that night we got lost in the rain ‘cos all the canals looked the same.”

“But. It’s. A. Dead. Lighter.”

This continues for some time until I get distracted by something shiny and Pete throws the lighter away anyway.

Objects have memories.

Or rather, to be uncharacteristically rational about it, we attach our memories to objects. Relics of our past become mnemonics for whole events, a dead disposable lighter starts a domino-topple of remembered sensations that leads to a hazy giggly night negotiating canals in the rain.

Such associations and leaps of logic seem hard-wired into us, we don’t even need to have direct personal experience of the object to be affected by a real or imagined history that it might have somehow woven into its fabric. In his book Supersense, Psychologist Bruce Hood describes a neat trick that he uses in his lectures to show that even the most rational skeptic can find themselves in the grip of supernatural belief. Holding up a tatty cardigan, Bruce asks the audience how many would, for a fee of £20 be willing to wear the moth-eaten garment. A few of the audience raise their hands. When however Bruce reveals that the cardigan once belonged to the serial killer Fred West, the potential volunteers invariable lower their hands. The cardigan didn’t belong to Fred West of course, but Bruce’s little prank illustrates the way in which we almost subconsciously imbue objects and materials with meaning beyond their intrinsic properties. In the case of the ‘killer’s cardigan’ it’s an example of what James Frazer defined in The Golden Bough as ‘contagious magic’, by contact with evil, the cardigan itself has become contaminated with evil.

Cornelia Parker works with found objects and through display, transformation or destruction she amplifies, distorts or reverses their contagious memories and meanings, anchoring a web of ambiguous ideas to physical properties. Sometimes these works are minimal, abject objects displayed in vitrines whose significances only become apparent when we look at the label to find out what they’re made of – a pair of dusty earplug are made from fluff gathered from the Whispering Gallery of St Pauls Cathedral, a pile of black plastic fingernail clippings entitled ‘The Negative of Sound” turns out to be the cast off lacquer cut at Abbey Road Studio from the grooves of master disc for a vinyl record, a stain on a handkerchief is the tarnish gathered from the inside of one of Henry VIII’s gauntlets and so on. Other works are monumental, for Cold Dark Matter: An Exploded View the artist filled a garden shed with household objects and toys before getting the British army to blow it up, the resulting debris now hangs orbiting a light bulb casting shadows on the walls of the gallery space, the moment of the explosion frozen in time.

Pornographic Drawings is a favourite of mine, at first glance it seems to be a collection of Rorschach Ink Blot tests, we peer at them looking for images in the abstract splodges, recreating their very purpose. The title leads us to search for erotic imagery and in two it doesn’t take much of a stretch to find phallic and vulval forms. The other two are more perplexing, there’s suggestions of eroticism certainly but but nowhere as obvious as the first two or have we just got one-track minds?

Already the work is questioning the status of the images and our process of looking at them, psychoanalysed by the blobs in front of you, you can’t help wondering if you’re missing something. Given that two of them seem so explicit, are we failing to notice erotic content in the others that the artist has seen, is pornography in the eye of the beholder?

The situation become both clearer and more confused when we discover the materials used to make the images. Working with Customs and Excise, Parker took shredded video tape from confiscated pornographic videos and created an ink from the Ferric Oxide that gave the tape its magnetic and therefore recording properties. The ink was made from the very physical matter of pornography, the images were therefore erotic both by virtue of what we might see in them, but also by virtue of their material. Of course you could argue that the original film images are long gone, if we were to slide the drawings across the head of a VCR we wouldn’t see ‘adult entertainment’ (and we’d probably get chucked out of the Tate) but the point is that’s it’s our memory that’s at work here. Once we know the origin of the ink, we can’t forget it and our view of the images is irrevocably changed. Somewhere in our minds that contagious magic is at work, as if the very molecules of Ferric Oxide are ‘contaminated’ with the images they once carried, in the same way that the work’s title and our knowledge of the use of Rorschach blots contaminated our first encounter.

It’s a cliché that good art should change the way you look at the world. For me Cornelia Parkers’s work does exactly that. After visiting one of her shows the most ordinary of objects become fascinating artefacts bursting with meaning, memories and stories.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I can hear Pete rummaging in a drawer, he might be about to throw away one of those stories.

(Note: This is reposted from my old blogspot site, largely since a friend pointed out to me how much Cornelia Parker’s work had influenced my short story The Curator. He was right, and though I wasn’t consciously thinking of it at the time the bat-fur earplugs mentioned in the story are a clear steal from the Whispering Gallery earplugs mentioned above. It’s funny how influences creep under your radar without you noticing.)