Archives for posts with tag: Visual Art

July 11, 2012

The Timothy Taylor Gallery in London is currently hosting an exhibition of 32 of Diane Arbus’s photographs, many of which have never been seen in the UK before. The title, Affinities, alludes to Arbus’s continual exploration throughout her life and through her work of what it is that people share, or do not, and what may or may not connect them.

Diane Arbus was born in New York City in 1923, and rarely left her home city throughout her relatively short life. Whenever she did, she yearned to return. She discovered photography in the 1940s, which became her all-consuming passion. She believed that photography was ‘born perfect’ (Patricia Bosworth, Diane Arbus: A Biography, London: Vintage, 2005, p.189), and she was tenacious, and often reckless, in her pursuit of the ultimate image. Everything she saw, and captured through her lens, was extraordinary to her. Photographs allowed choices, and an exploration of aspects of life, and lives, that were usually considered taboo, forbidden, distasteful: ‘I want to photograph what is evil.’ (Bosworth, p.130). Reprimanded as a child for staring at those who were different, ‘freaks’, as an artist she chose to unscrupulously focus on those on the periphery of society, demanding in turn that we also bear witness.

Arbus too was on the periphery, continually feeling alone and separate, and terrified by an unshakeable sense of aloneness. She suffered from recurring bouts of depression, as did her mother and brother. She committed suicide in 1971, at the age of 48. A year after her death, her work was selected for the Venice Biennale, the first American photographer to have been so honoured.

I have seen Arbus’s work before, but this current exhibition encapsulates an intriguing thematic approach to a significant body of her work. The accompanying notes quote Arbus:

‘…Every difference is a likeness too.’

Thus, affinities here means not just what is shared or similar, but also that which differentiates.

Take for example, Triplets in their bedroom, N.J. (1963), which shows identical sisters sitting in a row. At first glance, they look ‘the same’, but on closer viewing, the photograph subtly differentiates the girls, so that the image we see challenges the notion of identical. Arbus herself described this image as both ‘flat and extraordinary’, the sisters reminding her of her own adolescence – daughter, sister and bad girl (Bosworth, p.217).

Arbus’s great skill was that of creating something real in her photographic representations. Of A blind couple in their bedroom, Queens, N.Y . (1971), Arbus spoke of the relative ease when photographing the blind – there is no mask (Bosworth, p.164). Many of her photographs, not just that of the blind couple, do seem to unmask the subject, to present an image of something authentic. This was not an accident.  Arbus was known for her dogged persistence, her perfectionism when it came to her art, as she relentlessly and tirelessly pursued and froze each image just as it really was.

The exhibition includes photographs of ‘look-alikes’, for example Winston Churchill and Elizabeth Taylor, two girls in matching bathing suits, two girls in identical raincoats…we are told that they are look-alikes, yet the photographs leave you with the sense that the same can also be very different.

The exhibition also includes Russian midget friends in a living room on 100th Street, N.Y.C. (1963), part of her ‘freaks’ series, which was much inspired by Tod Browning’s film of the same name.

There are moments of sublime tenderness, as portrayed in Girl sitting in bed with her boyfriend, N.Y.C. (1966). The series of photographs where Arbus captured her subjects through their mirror reflections are also very moving. I have wondered since why this is. Perhaps, as I looked at the subject looking at the subject, it felt as if Arbus had somehow positioned me where she had been, so that I had an acute sense of her original perspective being frozen in time.

In Arbus’s own personal life, there was an extraordinary symbiotic closeness, and affinity, between the artist and her husband Allan, who she met as a teenager. The couple were often described as resembling a sister and brother, even twins, even in physical appearance: ‘same mournful, watchful expression.’ (Bosworth, p.158). For Allan, the connection did not last, and although they continued to be friends throughout her life, Arbus never appeared to recover from the failure of the marriage and its consequent loneliness.

This exhibition coincides with a major touring exhibition of Arbus’s work, which has been in Paris, is currently in Berlin, and will end in Amsterdam in the autumn, where I hope to see it. I will report back…

Diane Arbus: Affinities

Timothy Taylor Gallery

15 Carlos Place

London W1K 2EX

26 June – 17 August 2012

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

I first came across Jo Spence’s work a few years ago, while researching visual depictions of the suffering of illness.

Jo Spence (1934-92) was a key British photographer, particularly of the 1970s, a socialist and feminist, whose work has been central to issues and controversies in representation and photography. Later, self-portraits of her experience of illness, breast cancer initially followed by leukaemia from which she died, which were personal representations of a fight both against the onslaught of bodily illness and the medical system, in particular created a powerful record and legacy of her unflinching ability to shock and to provoke through her art.

Currently, the SPACE gallery and Studio Voltaire, London, on the twentieth anniversary of her death, are celebrating Spence’s life and work, with the latter exhibition (Part 11) focusing on her experience of illness. It is a comprehensive display, and deserves much time to dwell and to absorb, and includes photographs, collages, news clipping, video recordings, as well as many books by Spence, that require time to sit and to read, not merely to flick through. I gained most from seeing Jo Spence on the screen, softly spoken and thoughtful, and to some extent I was unprepared for this, as much of the surrounding images and self-portraits speak of anger and of outrage.

Spence was critical of the medical profession from the moment of her diagnosis, of the ‘young-coated doctor’, who, without introduction, inked the flesh of her left breast, preparing, without asking, for its removal. Spence returns again and again to the imbalance of power in the doctor/patient relationship, and how the medical profession infantilises the sufferer. Spence chose not to go down the mastectomy route, instead opting for a lumpectomy and alternative health strategies. She felt that she needed to regain control of herself, of her body, which became vulnerable and fragile and ‘other’ from the moment of diagnosis. Her photographs portray this, ‘property of Jo Spence’ vs. ‘Hospital property’, as she seeks to re-possess and regain control of her bodily self.

The alternative route that Spence chose included an exploration of veganism, iridology, TCM, and photo therapy, all of which helped her address her identity, namely that of a person with cancer, rather than one defined and labeled by a diagnosis and by illness.

In one frame she asks ‘How do I begin to take responsibility for my body?’ I am not sure we ever truly do. Our bodies are mostly silent, and ignored, until something goes wrong. The bodily breakdown that often accompanies illness is hard to ignore, and it must be even harder, I imagine, to ignore and to deny offers of medical treatment that might ‘restore’ the body to something more familiar. Spence’s decision was brave, as are the photographs that depict this journey, which was often, she acknowledges, a lonely one. The body of work The Picture of Health? clearly reveals Spence’s vulnerability, particularly when we see her undergoing a mammogram, her naked breasts imprisoned by a machine.

There is perhaps too much to see here and to absorb in a single visit. A profound sense of battle, of Spence’s fight against cancer, the medical establishment, cancer treatments, and her body presented to us as a war zone, makes the experience not an easy one for the observer. But then, why should it be otherwise… Spence was brave and humble enough to share her experience, and to leave a personal record of what it was like, with disarming honesty. The very least we can do is to bear witness, and to consider what is laid bare before us.

Jo Spence: Work (Part 1)

SPACE, London, to July 15

Jo Spence: Work (Part II)

Studio Voltaire, London, to August 11


Tuesday, July 3, 2012

I am not sure what I experience when I look at Bacon’s self-portraits. On the one hand, I think I am initially repelled, yet on the other I also drawn and enthralled. If art succeeds by compelling and holding one’s gaze, then perhaps Bacon’s self-images have succeeded, experientially at least, in my case.

Some weeks ago I spoke about Munch’s The Scream, and the record sale of one of the four original versions at Sotheby’s New York. Two of Bacon’s works, both named Study for a Self-Portrait, but created 16 years apart, 1964 and 1980, have just been sold at auction.

The later canvas, 1980 work, sold at Sotheby’s for approximately 4.5 million pounds, having had an estimated label of 5 to 7 million pre-sale, the underwhelming final price perhaps reflecting a more cautious art buying scene just now. However, the earlier self-portrait from 1964 sold for the impressive sum of approximately 21.5 million pounds at Christie’s on June 27. The sale was no doubt boosted by the recent discovery that the work was in fact not just a self-portrait, but a moulding of the face of Bacon and his (at that point) friend Lucien Freud’s limbs and body.

Bacon obsessively created self-portraits throughout his career, often with a savagery that was disturbing, arriving at a ‘reality’ that at first appears wildly removed from what we see (or want to see). Yet, perhaps the vicious stripping away, the unmasking, the re-creating that his portraits (and not only the self-portraits, take for example, Study for the Head of George Dyer (1966)), portray are more real than what we want to believe and to acknowledge.

The screaming mouth is a recurring motif in Bacon’s work, from Head VI (1948) to Study after Velazquez’s Portrait of  Pope Innocent X (1953). Inspired, at least partly, by Eisenstein’s The Battleship Potemkin, which Bacon first saw in 1935, these feel like raw, unadulterated expressions of suffering, but whose distress is being expressed is unclear, and ambiguous.

I remain fascinated by Bacon, in an unknowing and ignorant way. He produced work that eludes me, but mostly speaks of an unfathomable distress, which may just in the end be mine.


Sunday, June 17, 2011

The artist Keith Vaughan wrote his last diary entry on November 4, 1977, the day he committed suicide. He had just taken the capsules and whisky:

‘I am ready for death though I fear it.’

’65 was long enough for me’

When he commenced the diary, at the age of 27 in 1939, he felt alone and with ‘no great liking for life’, yet with a ‘mule-like persistence in continuing the struggle.’

The diary entries over the next 38 years or so document this personal struggle, the written record growing out of a sense of ‘failure to live my life.’

Vaughan’s eventual suicide is perhaps not so unexpected, as death is a prominent and recurring theme in his writings. Throughout, he feels under the sentence of death, his heart ‘beating like a metronome in a coffin.’ His role in life, he judged, was to survive, belonging to the Survivors group, whose energy has been exhausted by the struggle of surviving, leaving in its wake an ‘apathetic existence’. Even before he entered the ‘Cancer Era’ in 1975, he mused on voluntary extermination camps, for those who have just had enough…Yet, with the cancer diagnosis, the proximity of death seems to take on a calmer, less threatening significance for Vaughan.

Though death and mortality feature prominently in Vaughan’s writings, there is also much more. Particularly in the earlier postwar years, up to 1965, Vaughan’s poetic prose allows the reader to see the art, even before it happened. His exquisite descriptions of both (male) strangers and of landscape shows what an observer he was, perhaps proving his own view of himself as one of life’s spectators rather than participants. He describes wartime London, and the arrival of sand, imagining how it must increase the weight of the city…and Hampstead Heath, near where he lived all his life, ‘blighted by a plaque of bull-dozers, their grinning steel faces burrowing into the sand like diabolical ostriches.’

Art, to some extent, equilibrated his life. It commenced as an escape from life itself, then functioned to sublimate ‘sexual energy.’ Later, as he struggled to create and to paint, he blamed his decreasing libido, which left nothing any longer to sublimate…He mused on what art does to its creator. Does it destroy him? Or is creating an alternative for those who are otherwise disqualified from life?

Vaughan has much to say about war. He was a conscientious objector, joined the St John Ambulance, and later was a translator in a POW camp. For him, war was an abomination, a tragedy:

‘Just call at the office and sign your name and immediately you’re somebody instead of nobody. The diabolical deception of war.’

He was profoundly affected by war, and it left him with a deep sense of death’s decay, amongst many other emotions. It also left him with the sadness of partings, the many friends he made during the war, and also the death of his brother Dick.

Vaughan read widely, and deliberated much on what affected him. Thus, his diaries share his thoughts on Rimbaud, Freud, Laing, and many others.

He was also aware that he was repeating himself. He re-read his diaries, and was struck mainly by two recurring themes: firstly, the mismatch between his creative outpourings and ‘success’, and his overwhelming and persistent sense of personal frustration, emptiness and creative lethargy; and secondly, the ‘blanket of depression and boredom’ that enveloped him and that featured so prominently throughout.

Life, to Vaughan, at least in a biological sense, was overvalued. It was also a cheat, and a game that was impossible to win: as you climbed further up the ladder of success, you look down and see how much you have lost.

Keith Vaughan, Journals, 1939-1977. London: Faber & Faber, 2010 (Kindle edition 2012).

Next, the art…


Saturday, June 9, 2012

This exhibition at The White Cube Mason’s Yard (until June 30) contains two of Salcedo’s installations, A Fleur de Piel (2012) and Plegaria Muda (2008-10), each occupying an entire floor. They are both instantly impressive and deeply moving, almost shockingly so, and the feelings they engender linger and haunt long after you leave the gallery.

The Colombian sculptor constantly draws our attention through her work to human suffering, challenging us to bear witness to acts of violence, to victimisation and to inequality. Shibboleth, the architectural installation that occupied the Tate Turbine Hall in 2007, consisted of a fissure in the concrete floor, which commenced as a thin crack at one end that gradually widened and deepened as it progressed across the hall. The installation was about racism, and the fissure, which Salcedo saw as bottomless, represented the gap between white Europeans and the rest of the humanity.

Her work often involves the transformation of familiar objects into something sinister and shocking. In Untitled, Salcedo removed the doors from a wardrobe she had bought in an antique store, placed a chair within the frame, and then sealed off all the openings with cement, thus fusing all the elements together, creating a concrete tomb-like structure.

Salcedo’s work is explicitly political, frequently a response to killings and disappearances, including her own family, in troubled and unsettled Colombia.

In the current Plegaria Muda installation, the title roughly translates as ‘mute prayer’, the theme of death and loss continues. Salcedo commenced the project in 2004 when she was researching the lives of young people in Los Angeles’ ghettoes. Later, the work was more clearly influenced by the discovery in Colombia of the bodies of 1,500 young men, who had been lured into the army and killed. The installation contains 45 out of the original 162 units that comprise the complete work. Each unit, the approximate length of a coffin, is a sculpture containing two wooden tables, one on top of the other, surface to surface, separated by a slab of earth. The uppermost table has shoots of grass pushing through.

As one negotiates around the ‘coffins’, it feels like a graveyard, silent, eerie, and anonymous. Yet each sculpture is unique and slightly different, reminding us that no-one need be nameless, or forgotten.

The second installation, A Flor de Piel, also deals with suffering, and loss. The work consists of an enormous shroud, make of thousands of connected rose petals – ‘neither fresh not withered’, each of which represents a victim of torture. It is extraordinarily beautiful, and fragile, and utterly tragic.

I was unsettled by this exhibition. Rightly so. Through her art, Salcedo presents human suffering, man’s inhumanity to man, not as stories from another era, but as today’s truths. Acknowledging, remembering, not forgetting, will not undo the atrocities, but may just encourage us to consider what our silence might be colluding with.