The Painting of Modern Life

Various artists, including: Richard Artschwager, Vija Celmins, Peter Doig, Marlene Dumas, Richard Hamilton, Eberhard Havekost, David Hockney, Johannes Kahr, Malcolm Morley, Gerhard Richter, Luc Tuymans, Andy Warhol and Liu Xiaodong, Curated by Ralph Rugoff Hayward Gallery, London

When photography first came to prominence in the 19th century, it allegedly led narrative painter Paul Delaroche to proclaim, “from today, painting is dead.” From that moment onwards, painting has been sentenced to a thousand deaths, only to find itself resurrected and thriving within contemporary art practice. Had Delaroche foreseen the Hayward Gallery’s current show, The Painting of Modern Life, he might have declared instead that painting can no longer exist without photography.

This timely exhibition surveys how contemporary figurative painting has engaged with painting from photographs. Curated by the gallery’s recently appointed director Ralph Rugoff, it brings together over 100 works by 22 painters. Among the artists included are Gerhard Richter, Peter Doig, Liu Xiaodong and Marlene Dumas.

The title of the show is inspired by a famous essay written by Baudelaire, in which the poet called upon 19th-century painters to reject the exalted ideals of painting history and instead embrace the gritty realness of the world around them. Fast-forward about 100 years: according to the show’s introduction, the 60s generated a need for artists to revisit Baudelaire’s concerns, when abstraction established itself as the reigning new art form.

This show traces the vast possibilities of the camera and provokes the question: has the painting from photo become the essence of contemporary culture, or is it nothing more than a filter that mediates our perceptions of reality? The types of photography deployed are far-reaching, and range from newspaper front pages, advertisements and paparazzi shots to film stills, found images and amateur family portraits. The most compelling works on display here are by the artists Luc Tuymans and Gerhard Richter, who use the painted image to destabilize the authority of the camera by revealing its limits as a subject and as a mode of seeing.

The show begins with an exhilarating introductory room that showcases a group of key painters who grappled with the emerging power of mass media during the early 60s. The discerning combination of Andy Warhol, Gerhard Richter, Vija Celmins, Richard Artschwager and Malcolm Morley gives substance to the show’s thesis immediately. Richter’s Woman with Umbrella (1964) is by far the most poignant work. By using a wet brush to blur the painting’s finish, the artist enshrouds his female figure in a haunting mist that accentuates the anonymity implied by the title. Only after looking beyond the seductively ethereal surface of the canvas does one recognize the subject as Jacqueline Kennedy, grieving for her assassinated husband. After a rousing first room of pioneering artists, the exhibition begins to weaken under the weight of the uninspired thematic sections that divide the layout. Those well-known artworks are reproduced and selling to the world market by art reproduction company. They include “History and Politics,” “Leisure and Everyday Life,” “Work,” “Social Space,” “Modern Individuals” and “Family and Friends.” The decision to use the commonplace subjects of modern life as an organizing structure is disappointing, and these categories leave the viewer with a handful of banal terms that seem completely meaningless.

Yet by freeing the exhibition from the restraints of chronology, the more iconic works can be seen from a fresh perspective. The flail power of Warhol’s silkscreened lavender and green Big Electric Chair (1967) becomes apparent when hung in the same room as Marlene Dumas, Vija Clemins and Richard Hamilton. And Malcolm Morley’s photorealistic paintings, dating from the 60s, reassert his relevance to current art practice. His most alluring work is On Deck (1966), a scathing portrayal of passengers on a cruise ship basking in middle-class pleasures. The subject is taken from a travel brochure that he meticulously grids up, which brings a sense of the epic to the cliched aspirations depicted.

To a degree, this exhibition touches upon the changing face of photography over the decades. Nowhere is that more striking than in the work of Eberhard Havekost, who deploys the artifice of digital technology to give a grisly murder shot of a tourist’s body in a red sports car the high-octane finish of a glossy fashion magazine. For the most part, though, this show neglects to give an account of how photography has evolved, and whether this sets up new parameters for these artists to work within.

There are also instances when the curatorial decision to cover half a century of representational painting seems too ambitious in scope. The show overlays pop, photorealist, expressionist and conceptual works, and, as a result, one is confronted with a mishmash of incompatible stylistic tendencies that lose their potency when divorced from their context. It is the contemporary works that suffer here, as they tend to feel outdated: because they are not yet easily recognizable within a definitive art historical movement, the viewer relates them back to the early works they are hung alongside.

The most memorable of the contemporary pieces is Luc Tuymans’ Passenger (2001). Situated in one of the last rooms, it depicts a desolate, bleached-out everyman who seems consumed by the existential malaise of everyday living. However, the impact of this work is undercut by its inclusion in a conceptually rambling section called “Modern Individuals.” Within this grouping, one finds David Hockney’s 60s pop-inspired homoerotic shower scenes and, not too far off, Johannes Kahr’s 93’09” (1997), a hyper-realistic yet contrived translation of a still image taken from the film Taxi Driver (1976). These three paintings have little in common, and their choices of subject, as well as their approaches to painting, could not be more frustratingly disparate. Criticisms aside, The Painting of Modern Life offers an intellectually rigorous journey and attempts bravely to reposition a strand of painting within art history.

Workshops, courses & talks

* Brighton Museum And Art Gallery Church St 0273 603005 “Women Surrealists: Transcending The Male Fantasy” lecture by art historian Alex Sutherland 5 Nov 13.05hrs “Impressionist Women” lecture by artist Flick Allen 12 Nov 13.05hrs Angelica Kauffman: the muse of painting” Dr Wendy Nelson-Cave 10 Dec 13.05hrs “Women’s Art Workshop” One day workshop led by artist Flick Allen: participants will be encouraged to explore through different media a range of themes including ones related to issues of gender 7 Dec 10.30-15.30hrs

* Brighton Royal Pavilion William IV Room Church St 0273 603005 “Why No Place Fox” Women in The Academy?” lecture by Nigel Llewelyn 26 Nov 13.05hrs “Visions in The Studio: Women Pre-Raphaelite Painters and Their Work” lecture by art historian Nicola Jackson 19 Nov 13.05hrs

* University of Brighton Sallis Benney Theatre Grand Parade Brighton 0273 603005 “Women And The Art Market In The Eighteenth Century” One day conference part of the programme of events to support the exhibition of Angelica Kauffman at Brighton Museum 14 Nov 10-17.30hrs

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* Tate Gallery Millbank London 071 821 1313 “Augustus And Gwen John” Patrons of British Art Inaugural Annual lecture given by biographer Micheal Holroyd 11 Nov 18.30hrs in Auditorium “Barbara Hepworth: Beauty as Absolute Equity” lecture by Sarah O’Brien 3 Dec in Room 27 13.00hrs

* Masbro Centre Gallery 87 Masbro Rd W14 081 603 1293 Israeli printmaker artist Rivka Sinclair 5 Nov slide talk 19-21hrs

* Pimlico Arts & Media St James the less Moreton St London SW1 071 976 6133 Women returners media course contact Jane Placca/Meena Julien

* Rear Window 58 Lambs Conduit St WC1 071 831 8196 Open gallery seminar with Simon Watney, Hermione Wiltshire & curator Peter Cross 15 Nov 17.00hrs

Women Photographers: whose world?

“Photography by women is a loaded subject, replete with every issue that has plagued or glorified the sex, from its sacrifices and confusions, to its sensing powers and sense of destiny.” So the introductory essay to this new volume begins. A lavish and costly hardback, it is the second book of this title to be published by Virago. The first, ‘Women Photographers’, subtitled ‘The Other Observers 1900 to the Present’, produced in 1986 and written by Val Williams, was about British photography. The new book, with images selected by Constance Sullivan, who compiles and edits photographic books in America, has an essay by Eugenia Parry Janis, an American art historian.

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Yet the two could not be more dissimilar. The new book is a cornucopia of visual gems. However, the supporting material is not sufficiently contextual. The text of Val Williams’ book, though superbly enlightening, has limited images; they are disappointing in their choice, reproduction and absence of colour. The new book purports to be world-wide in scope, yet has an obtrusive North American bias in selection, text and sources which is bound to worry many readers.

Here are 200 large images, with 35 in colour and 165 in tritone reproduced from original cyanotypes, albumen, silver, platinum, palladium and colour prints. Arranged chronologically and sequenced visually between 1850 and 1989, there are some 73 photographers represented. Of these there are: one Italian, one Canadian, two Mexican, three French, four German, six British, and 56 American.

America has dominated the photography scene since the 1920’s. There are many reasons for this, including a strong photographic tradition, healthy art market, consistently brilliant light, a truly surreal environment, comparatively greater wealth and education. But the conclusion of the book reveals a contemporary scene–the last decade–entirely composed of 28 American photographers and no-one else.

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Women Photographers begins with the usual (British) pioneers: Anna Atkins, Lady Filmer, Lady Hawarden and Julia Margaret Cameron, with the addition of the little-known Lucy Fleming, active in the 1860’s. It opens with a hand-coloured daguerreotype of 1850 by the French photographer Maria Chambefort. The equally little-known American, Louise Deshong Woodbridge, who worked in the 1890’s, is introduced.

One of the chief difficulties in a book of this kind is selecting prints by major celebrities, where it is necessary to show their genius without their most hackneyed images. Those of Gertrude Kasebier and Julia Margaret Cameron do this well. There are some of Anne Brigman’s mysterious works from the 1920’s, two very boring prints by Frances Benjamin Johnston, Jessie Tarbox Beal’s New York tenements of uncertain date, Doris Ulmann’s people in the Deep South (including a lake baptism where the water’s stillness is other-worldly), Laura Gilpin’s landscapes and Margaret Watkins’ domestic still-lives.

The noted Imogen Cunningham is represented by six nude studies, one of her calla lillies and ‘Snake in Bucket’. A Dorothea Lange nude is followed by the work of Tina Modotti and then a breathtaking Consuelo Kanaga close-up face of a black girl sniffing a white flower in bright sunlight which is heavy with mood and texture. Then come Alma Lavenson’s fragments, Margaret Bourke-White’s industrial work, the European cityscapes of Ilse Bing, Marjorie Content’s aerial shots, Florence Henri’s portraits and photomontages, ‘The Smoker’ by ‘Studio Ringl and Pit’ (of whom we are told nothing) and the art and documentary work of Lee Miller.

Lotte Jacobi’s portraits are followed by two of the best by Madame Yevonde: the Goddess Medusa and the sultry Flo Lambert. Margrethe Mather, Berenice Abbott and Lucia Moholy’s revealing portraits from the 1930’s, Wanda Wultz’s stunning cat/self portrait, the photomontages of Hannah Hoch and Alice Lex-Nerlinger are followed by Lotte Beese’s Bauhaus work and an Ellen Auerbach interior. Aenne Biermann’s elegant montage ‘Portrait mit Champs Elysees’ of 1929 also makes a propitious book cover, with a woman’s face on top of an inverted shot of the Champs Elysees.

Berenice Abbott’s New York shots appear with Germaine Krull’s cityscapes and nudes and Eudora Welty’s scenes from the South. Marion Post Wolcott, Dorothea Lange and Margaret Bourke-White’s images of the desolation during the slump years are followed by more New York scenes by Helen Levitt and Lisette Model from the ’40’s and ’50’s. Then come Diane Arbus’s shots of freaky people and the Mexican photographer, Graciela Iturbide’s equally bizarre and incongrous shots of women and monsters.

The final section comprises what Constance Sullivan describes as “important and emerging photographers”, the 28 Americans. Of their images, some are stunning, such as the still-lives by Jan Groover, the portraits by Annie Leibovitz and Maude Schuyler Clay (especially that of William Eggleston with a gun), Debbie Fleming Caffery’s haunting images, Sally Mann’s suburban life of the ’80’s, Ruth Thorne Thomsen’s ‘Expeditions’, Laurie Simmons’ underwater stills, Lois Conner’s shots in China and Linda Connor’s in India and Cindy Sherman’s latest self-portrait. And although the remainder contains such notables as Nan Goldin and Sandy Skoglund, with her ubiquitious ‘Radioactive Cats’, they do not add greatly to the collection.

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“This book (a fiction of sorts),” states Sullivan in the Preface, “attempts to explore the questions, concerns and considerations raised in looking at a selection of photographs by women.” “A single quality”, she continues later, persistently asserts itself in these compelling images. The arresting gaze and ardent contact with which each photographer captures her subjects imbues the pictures with a sensation of intimacy. While reflecting a personal point of view I hope my selection conveys the power of that vision.” I believe that while the selection does convey the power of that vision it does not sufficiently “explore the questions”. Perhaps the problem is simply that, with such an important subject as women’s photography, it is hard to accept one person’s “personal point of view”. We prefer such decision-making from a consensus, despite a collective’s tendency to produce a less cohesive whole.

The accompanying essay, ‘Her Geometry’, has some useful insights but it is chiefly refined reflection lacking solid facts. It does little to illuminate the uncomfortable mix of fantasy-art-image with death-in-full-colour reportage; the important documentary work of Susan Meiselas and Mary Ellen Mark especially needs a context. Instead, the author infuriatingly refers to photographs not reproduced and discusses one image for two out of the seventeen pages of the essay, whilst most images are ignored.

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Whilst it is especially pleasing to see the status awarded to Madame Yevonde, her equally innovative contemporary portraitist, Dorothy Wilding, is not included. Then neither are Louise Dahl-Wolfe, Sarah Moon, Alice Springs, Gisele Freund, Olivia Parker, Rosamund Wolff Purcell, Deborah Turbeville, Inge Morath, Toni Frissell, Alice Boughton, Joan Lyons, Ruth Orkin, Lillian Bassman, Genevieve Naylor, Diane Keaton, Sheila Metzner, Ruth Bernard, Fay Godwin, or any of the Farm Security Administration pictures.

Despite its palpable bias and conspicuous omissions, Women Photographers is still a very valuable source book for artists. The concerned reproduction quality enhances the images and the selection reveals no disparity in subject matter between male and female practitioners, despite the confines of the latter. It also conveys a sense of continuity from vintage prints to contemporary colour work, possibly compensating for some neglected and obscured careers along the way.

Afro-Asian artists in post-war Britain

The Hayward Gallery will be presenting the work of twenty-four artists of Afro-Caribbean-Asian origin in November. It is one of the first major exhibitions of Black/Asian artists in Britain to be hosted by so prestigious a gallery. The event is bound to attract a great deal of attention due almost more to the status of the gallery itself than to the eminence of the assembled artists who number amongst the most distinguished of this century.

It is an opportunity to make visible work that has for decades been overshadowed by the dominance of white artists. Categories that have for some years served to contain and, by extension, constrain the work of Black practitioners, such as Black Art (with its implications of political radicalism) or Ethnic Art (associated with the conservative, the retrospective), have been rejected in favour of more dynamic structures which embody the sense of process that has so long been denied the Black artist. These have, perhaps of necessity, been set within the Eurocentric framework of modernism and post-modernism. The retrospective thus ‘starts’ with the work of Ronald Moody (1920s) and charts the changes through to the late 1980s.

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It is inevitable that, faced with a major exhibition of this nature, these works will constitute the definitive, monolithic category of ‘Black British Art’ for some years to come. Catalogues, press reviews and other documentation that span time and space ensure that these works will survive the exhibition on more than a purely personal level.

To embark upon a project of this nature is a fearsome task. One inescapably faces the wrath of individuals or communities who may feel that, as a result of the necessarily ruthless selection process, their work has not been sufficiently represented. It is also inevitable that one will face accusations of collaborating with and participating within an elitist structure (‘fine art’ and all that it entails). Indeed, as the project centres around living artists, the issue of selection will almost instinctively become charged with emotion.

Nevertheless, with reliance on sound judgement, a consciousness of the objectives of the project and the implications of selection, it is hoped that as many sections representative of a diverse body of people will be duly presented in a fashion to give credit to the whole wealth of black creativity, and this gesture is thus, in essence, political.

The avant-garde artist, Rasheed Araeen, who conceived of and initiated this project, has been one of the most powerful voices in the Black avant-garde in this country. He researched his material for a number of years and submitted the original proposal to the Arts Council in 1978. It took two more app roaches to the ACGB (interspersed with two unsuccessful submissions to the GLC) and eight more years eventually to secure the funds and support.

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In the postscript to the catalogue, Araeen states:

“My selection of the artists was based on multiple factors: historical, ideological, aesthetic, as well as personal. My main consideration has been that the work must engage with the idea of modernity (or post-modernity), with its historical formations as well as its socio-cultural constraints and contradictions.”

What is initially surprising, given the political convictions of Rasheed Araeen who has been a stalwart of the radical movements of the 70s, is that there is so little representation for women in the show. Out of twenty-four artists, only four women. These are Mona Hatoum, Lubaina Himid, Sonia Boyce and Kumiko Shimizu.

As practitioners, they represent some of the finest artists of the decade. Mona Hatoum is one of the foremost avant-garde artists in Britain, well known for her performance art, installations and experimental videos. Kumiko Shimizu, although perhaps less well known, has also worked within the avant-garde for a number of years and has been specially commissioned to create some work for the exterior of the gallery. Lubaina Himid and Sonia Boyce, both featured at the ICA exhibition State of the Art, have gradually built up formidable reputations for their work which explores the realms of female experience and cultural identity.

This indeed a good selection but not necessarily representative of the wide range of work that black women artists have created in the 80s. Some artists, such as Kim Lim and Veronica Ryan, declined to participate in this show, perhaps not wishing their work to be identified purely in terms of their ethnic origin or having their position threatened by the dangerous tag of ‘political’ or ‘exotic.’ However, the exclusion of women such as Sokari Douglas Camp, Sutapa Biswas, Rita Keegan, among others, suggests that the criteria for selection was not as strictly trussed to women’s contribution to modernism and post-modernism as the organisers imply.

Araeen is keenly aware and particularly sensitive about the issue of representation:

“The issue of gender representation remains unresolved here. We have included only four women artists, which is regrettable. But this must be understood in terms of sociohistorical factors, rather than through a continually repeated rhetoric of mythical ‘blackwomen artists’ who have been ignored. It seems that ‘black’ women artists in the 50s and 60s who came here from Africa, Asia or the Caribbean, returned home after they finished their education, unlike men artists who have stayed on. On the other hand, Black women artists who have recently emerged were either born or brought up here in Britain, and they had nowhere else to go but assert their presence here. They are an important part of our Story.”

Given the framework around which the show is constructed, these assumptions may indeed be correct, although, despite Araeen’s protestations to the contrary, this has never been conclusively proven. (I would also argue that long before the 50s, women from Africa, the Caribbean and Asia exerted continued presence in this country.)

Is the solution then to accept those boundaries and reinforce the notion of Black women as lacking in creativity, only breaking out of this limbo through the benevolent patronage of institutions which had so far served a limited selection of (white) men. Or is the solution to break down barriers that deny a proper consideration of the contribution of Black women to cultural history?

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In order to investigate the claim that women’s contribution to mainstream art effectively began in the 80s, I think it is necessary to consider the process by which the works are identified and to examine the criteria for selection.

The show was set up to challenge the notion of the absence of the Black artist from mainstream cultural history, to question values by which art is judged and to counter the ‘fascination with the exotic’ that Black art still holds.

“Racism is en-trenched in ideas and attitudes towards other cultures–no matter how fascinated they (Westerners) are with the work, it is considered outside history.” (Araeen)

The format of the exhibition itself will no doubt contribute to locating this work ‘inside’ history. It shows a progression of concerns (from early works exploring style and representation, through to the radicalism of the 70s, the directly confrontational work of the 80s and the later concern with reclaiming identity) which proposes an intellectual and cultural development which may force the viewer into reassessing any static or exotic view of Black art.

Araeen relies on the assumption that at any given time there are a number of art centres which dominate art production and, in this era, these are inescapably identified by Western art practice. Thus the notion of difference within Black art practices is explored superficially. The focus of the exhibition is on those artists working within those restricted parameters defined by the West and thus excludes ‘indigenous art’, ‘craft’ (even photography) which involves, (not exclusively), women’s work and the work of the black nations and communities.

Modernism and post-modernism are not universals–they are artificial constructs that many use to categorise their ideas and undermine the validity of other types of practice. These categories and their meanings can be broken down by the assimilation of other work/ideas.

Araeen states:

“… if prevailing artistic criteria are based on the sensibilities of a white society–which is no longer exclusively white but multi-racial, then these criteria must be challenged and changed.”

However, rather than directly challenging the legitimacy of the press, the art market and other institutions which formulate criteria, Araeen endorses an elitist view of art practice; not explicitly (he acknowledges the value of indigenous art and ‘craft’)–but implicitly, by exclusion. Indeed, Araeen endorses a whole range of strategies which legitimate and reinforce not only the status of his own art practice, but the hierarchy which embodies it.

Undoubtably, the project has been frustrated by the fact that parameters have already been defined. Rejecting them is a long and sometimes unsuccessful process. One can choose whether to work within or outside them. Major exhibitions are, however, not only based on personal choice but a consideration of potential sponsorship, audience, press coverage and so on. Araeen is an artist of considerable intelligence, integrity and vision and, for his purposes, his choice of strategy is valid. His means of justifying his exclusion of women is, however, not.

It may not be possible to ascertain through the traditional avenues of research which Black women artists existed and the extent of their work. The notion of ‘professionalism’ might have had to undergo reconsideration, linking it less to career and the market than to commitment or skill.

Nevertheless, there is a basic contradiction faced by all those who delve into these areas.

Through the channels of written, aural and visual information (press, catalogues, slides or films, recordings, interviews) the researcher can paste together an idea of the history of a period or of the work of an artist. These are the channels to which blacks have traditionally been little access. Consequently, the search for ‘famous’ Black artists can be very frustrating. Some would argue that the artists who do surface through this method of research conform to the stereotypical view of Black artists. And yet, some do not.

The problems encountered in the search for prominent Black artists are magnified in the case of women.

Firstly, one is confronted with the “socio-historical” factors to which Araeen make reference ie. access to institutions such as art academies, art galleries, the press–traditionally elitist, conservative, proscriptive. This is coupled with the familiar problems which all women face in the employment arena.

Secondly, it rests on the assumption that, having gained access to exhibition space, the interest of the press will be aroused. An exhibition of seventeen Black women artists in Brixton Gallery in 1985 received three reviews.

If Black women exhibit together, it seems like a political statement of the most radical kind–people shun the exhibition as divisive and separatist. If Black women exhibit with whites, their work is seen as naturally inferior. They have had less access to the institutions in which they would serve their apprenticeship, less sense of the cultural baggage of British art. They are disadvantaged on both accounts.

If Araeen’s purpose is to challenge the “supremacy of the Western/ white male artist in the paradigm of modernism”, only half of the equation will have been served. It is an area of such hot debate that Birkbeck College (University of London) will be hosting a conference devoted almost exclusively to this issue in the light of the Hayward exhibition.

On the other hand, Araeen has much to be proud of. The amount of effort and enthusiasm that he has devoted to the project is considerable and cannot be overlooked. There is absolutely no doubt that his show will be one of the most stunning of the decade. It is a visually exciting, ambitious exhibition which will excite those both familiar and unfamiliar with the work.