82 portraits and 1 still life

82 portraits and 1 still life by David Hockney at The Royal Academy

David Hockney is doing something very important for artists –combining the conceptual understanding of contemporary art today with the innate craftsmanship of applying paint onto a surface.

He is a modern man who doesn’t close his mind to new innovations.  He has that most important ingredient for an artist in any age, an open mind.  When a young man he became known for his photographic collages, large canvases which put together small standard photos but overlapping, adjacent and continuous to the previous image.  What these photo collages did was attempt to give a bigger picture than was possible with a single lens camera.  His paintings of sunny California bucked the trend away from the craft of painting and encapsulated something bigger and more interesting than the play of sun on swimming pool water.

He is still looking for the bigger picture, and, after a long and distinguished career, he comes to this project with a the vast amount of knowledge about the photographic image.  But he comes to it with something else, he personally observes the difference between looking through an image-catching single lens machine and looking directly through his two, independent eyes and he adds to that the skill to put down what the magic inside his head has translated and conveyed to his hands.


82 portraits and 1 still life, Hockney’s ambitious new hang at The Royal Academy is so much more than just a collection of people painted in front of uniform backings in a maximum of three days in the artist’s studio in Los Angeles.  This collection of paintings is not only a view into the way we see the difference between individual sitters but also “reaffirms the significance of the painted portrait in an age when selfies and photo-portraits have proliferated in social media.”[1]

For me this exhibition is a very poignant and personal archive which when installed in near-chronological order – as it is, permits the viewer an insight into the psychology of the artist himself.  “Hockney was recovering from a very difficult series of events, including a minor stroke, and he did not paint for some time, which was unusual for him.”[2]  When you walk around the gallery space and take time to observe the format and execution of these paintings you can almost see as a tangible thing, Hockney’s emotional state of mind lighten as we follow his confidence and conviction in the format and medium grow.


As I came away from the gallery and walked along Piccadilly it seemed that my own perceptive abilities had been heightened by an artist who had taught me a lesson in how to really observe people. The tourists, locals and business-people I passed now appeared more interesting; so much that I could almost see them with a blue wall behind them and a green carpet beneath them sitting on a chair and revealed in all their complexities.

This is what I consider a successful visit to a gallery.

[1] 82 portraits and 1 still life, by  Edith Devaney.  Royal Academy catalogue

[2] Ibid


I saw Corps étranger [1994] by Mona Hatoum for the first time in 1995 when it formed part of the Tate’s wonderful Rites of Passage exhibition marking the end of the twentieth century.  I was just beginning my art degree then and I’d never seen anything like it; there wasn’t anything like it.  It made a very deep impression on me, the fibre optic camera moving slowly across the body’s landscape and disappearing down orifice’s and into deep thickets of hair was foreign territory for me.

Now all these years later and twenty years older I have had perforce a few occasions when I became a little more familiar with my own moist and glistening interior and I have become aware of just how complex this installation must have been to execute.

The perfect white encasing cylinder was a departure from the artist’s usual oeuvre and so evocative of one of Le Corbusier’s primary solids. But it also served to create a space that was both inside and part of, yet also separate from the space of the museum.  The neutral, clean surface of this column was cool and sophisticated, with a whiff of Huxley’s Brave New World about it – a giant test tube for creation?

Once inside I watched vertiginously from above the journey moving relentlessly onwards on a forward momentum through familiar and unfamiliar parts towards an unknown goal.  This time my added years and own personal experiences has lent this work added significance and a more personal appreciation of just how magically Mona Hatoum manipulates her audience.

Corps etranger

I had plenty of time, and the patience to wait and allow the works to communicate to me.  Three works especially moved me and highlighted the artist’s prescience. Light Sentence [1992] was visually interesting from the outset – this installation was made up of square wire mesh lockers stacked to create a three-sided enclosure of over human height.  They resembled animal cages, prisons or might have been short hand for modernist architecture?  The incredibly bright, single light hanging in the centre threw shadows of fine, intersecting lines and squares onto the outer walls.


Standing quietly and watching the shadow play on the walls I slowly became aware that the disturbed ambient air in the room was making the light bulb swing very, very slightly on its wire thus creating the effect of shadows that were moving rhythmically up and down much like that of breathing.  This subtle, uncanny movement, full of suspense and unspoken threat spoke to me of sinister Prison Camps for terrorists.

One of Hatoum’s earliest works, Don’t smile, you’re on camera! [1980] was a performance where she surreptitiously mixed live shots of audience members with images of naked bodies and x-rays, making it appear that the camera could see through layers of clothing.  In 1980 how could she have foreseen cameras in at airport check ins which actually do see through your clothing – all introduced without any complaints about invasion of privacy or decency?

Finally there was a room full with a combination of kitchen utensils and household furniture, connected to each other with electric wire, through which ran a live electric current.  Homebound [2000] crackled and fizzed with the sound of the amplified hum of the fluctuating current which alternately illuminating separate parts of the installation.  At first I didn’t think this complicated set up was very effective.  I sat on the bench conveniently placed in the room; I sat and watched the loop of disparate, mundane objects lighting up and then going off and didn’t get it.  What was the connection?  OK so most of the objects were distressed metal, cooking utensils, whisks, colanders, chairs, tables, stools, buckets.  Then I noticed the empty metal baby’s crib, there was nothing to soften the hard, metal surfaces, no mattress or pillow.  Under the cot was a metal potty, white inside.  Then the lights went on and this potty glowed brightly and seemed to draw attention to the complete abandonment of the place and suddenly into my mind came the pictures of bombed out and abandoned building in Aleppo and I got it.


Mona Hatoum’s work does seem to improve with age.  Her work.  Her Art.  Her magical ability to force her audience to experience something and to empathise with what concerned her mind at the time.  Taking the time with this retrospective I became conscious that for Hatoum the viewer is always part of her considerations when contemplating her work.  Seeing all these works together we are moved from vicarious involvment, bound up in hopeless adventure, empowered as a voyeur, entrapped, and with luck just a bit of self-recognition. If you go please give this very well curated exhibition plenty of time and an open mind.



by Alice Anderson

The Wellcome Collection

22 July – 18 October 2015

How do we remember the past and commit moments to memory?  This is one of the questions that artist Alice Anderson addresses in her latest exhibition ‘Memory Movement Memory Object’. In this painstaking and slick exhibition our visual sensibilities have been given to a treat.

Anderson has taken ordinary objects from our everyday lives and elevated them to iconic status by wrapping them in copper wire; the process itself becoming an almost religious and physically beautiful ritual.   The catalogue states that “beautiful and uncanny sculptures prompt you to rediscover things you thought you already knew”.

IMAG0627                   IMAG0625

By using mundane objects, it seems that Anderson has ordered the world, promising – by association – a better, more beautiful existence; a Utopian world where there is no rush, or dirt, or noise, or strife.  However, it is true that if you put enough things together of the same colour and brilliance and present them beautifully, as she has done, then almost anything would seem impressive.  But that is the point, I think.

As you enter the dark, expectant spaces of the Wellcome Collection you are met by a golden Ford Mustang, this iconic car, a pristine and copper-coloured phantom (sans fittings, sans, doors, sans mirrors, sans any defining features at all) seemed to promise exciting things to come.

In the second room (which felt like the ‘main installation’) each black podium disappeared into the similarly black background, making the rose-tinted objects shimmer, even float in a guard-of-honour leading the visitor along and up an ethereal stairway to something mysterious; an implied perfect place perhaps? Whilst in that room I was strongly reminded of a Sacred Inca place of worship, was it all that golden glow or the pyramid-shaped staircase, I cannot be sure?

IMAG0634                 Ladder

The objects were protected, glamorised and hidden, producing, what could be described as, ‘silk purses out of a sow’s ear’.  The clean, sharpness of the presentation and the precise and important lighting added to the overall effect of being in a sacred space, with a litany of minor deities on their pedestals.  But it is a funny kind of religion that doesn’t celebrate the details or the differences.

Nonetheless, I loved this visual treat, the shapes, the setting, the lighting and I think it went some way towards a better appreciation of the commonplace.  Anderson has run with Duchamp’s idea of the ready-made and taken it one step further – no mean feat – by showing that anything is capable of change.  Thus cleverly combining the spiritual with the conceptual.


My only doubt was with the claims made by the curators that “both the making and display of works interrogate how we create, record and transform the past”, yes I get this, but “how we imagine the future”, is too great a leap of faith for me.

Alice Anderson, whose hair is, coincidentally, the same colour as her copper wire, has produced a stunningly attractive body of work, and it was a joy to walk through it.  Surely that is claim enough for me to recommend this to you, my reader, even though I cannot see my ability to imagine the future to be enhanced in any way.

REMBRANDT at The National Gallery, London

Rembrandt self-portrait-1669

Rembrandt was obstinate, dogmatic, cunning and capable of a kind of brutality.  He was no saint.  But through his art he searched for a way out of the darkness that was Dutch society and out of his own personal darkness too; to find the human in the darkness.

The writer and art critic, John Berger considers that there is great difference between the graphic work of Rembrandt and the paintings.  When drawing, Rembrandt was totally in control and master of space, proportion and the physical world, his paintings however, display little logic or spatial continuity, “the world he presents in his paintings is seriously dislocated”, says Berger.

Rembrandt placed his colour directly onto the blank canvas with no preliminary under-drawing to guide his brushes, he was aiming not just to render a likeness of all those fascinating facial features but to make visible the individual’s corporeal space – the authentic sense of personal bodyness which is always bound by the laws of the body, but with its landmarks, its emphasis and its inner proportions continually changing.

Visiting the exhibition of Rembrandt’s late works at the National Gallery you witness an artist with a relentless experimental approach to technique, and extraordinary skill in rendering the effects of light, an appreciation for mundane or even ugly subjects, an avid plundering of diverse visual sources for creative inspiration and a quest to understand and represent humanity’s deepest motivations and emotional states.

Rembrandt could not only find an outward likeness but could also get inside sitters; inside the part of them that makes them unique; the thoughts, the hopes, the fears, the loves, the desires, all enunciated using sometimes carefully placed, sometimes energetically random, coloured, oil paint on canvas.  He seems particularly comfortable with old and life-weary humanity; two particularly fine examples are ‘An Old Woman Reading’ where light from the book she is reading reflects upwards to bath the underside of her concentrating face in a wonderful glow; ‘Portrait of Aechje Claesdr’ in which the woman’s expression is so kind and familiar that you feel you know exactly what she is like; and there are his portraits of his own ageing self.  In Rembrandt’s ‘Self Portrait’ 1669 he records his slack, puffy face with clinical detachment: flesh sags loosely beneath his chin and a thick swipe of paint emphasises the pouch under his right eye, and to me there is a sense of humour, even a glint in his eyes which denote a sense of achievement, a final self-appraisal that seems to have told him that he has achieved all he had ever wanted to with his paint brushes, pencils and engraving tools.

A Contempt for Ingratiation.

The conspiracy of Claudius Civilis

Rembrandt’s The Conspiracy of Claudius Civilis

When Rembrandt was invited to redeem his reputation by the Burgher Masters of Amsterdam and contribute a painting for the interior of their new Town Hall they expected something restrained, classical and above all respectable.  What they got was deformity, barbarianism, ugliness, a thickly painted depiction of a rabble of rebels, the all too human Claudius Civilis.  An utterly brilliant painting.

He had every incentive to conform and was quite capable of painting what he knew the Burghers wanted but this was not Rembrandt’s style.  If you were to ask “What drives the greatest art?” what we see in this image is “The contempt for Ingratiation”.  Rembrandt had lost everything, his reputation, his wife, his house and his money but he wasn’t prepared to to paint anything inferior or to sell out to people who hadn’t the vision to recognise brilliance when it stared them in the face.

Inspirational I think.



“Am I a member of the same species as these people?” I wondered when visiting Marina Abramović’s ‘512 Hours‘ at The Serpentine Gallery today, because they seemed to exist in an alternative state to me.

On arriving at the Gallery in Kensington Gardens on this sunny August morning I joined the long queue, philosophically resigning myself to the wait, it was a price I was prepared to pay.  After two hours my feet and legs were aching and, as the sun had gone in some time before, feeling rather cold.  In retrospect I wondered if this was an essential and planned part of the softening-up process? To keep someone waiting is to assert power over them.

When I was allowed access to the pretty, brick building I was hand-stamped and told, through mime, not to make a sound, whilst being handed headphones – were these to block out sound or to highlight our innate internal head noise, or had the most subtle whooshing noises been put there on purpose?

In the first room the people were standing or sitting against the outer edges of the walls facing a small dais upon which gallery assistants had encouraged their chosen ones to stand, and again mimed-at to close their eyes.  The desire not to be called to the centre was enough for me to decide not to make any sudden movements, or look interesting or different in any way, not to smile or diverge from the atmosphere of serious concentration and slow, purposeful movements already created there.  Created by whom, the assistants, the occupants, Abramović, or was this reverence only presumed to be appropriate? But I was too interested in what the occupants were doing, I really tried to clear my mind and concentrate like I was in church or a yoga session, but a thought kept creeping into my head, was this what Abramović wanted or was she just observing what we had decided to do?  I pondered whether she would have been equally happy if we all smiled at one another and embraced each other.  But I wasn’t sure and the gallery guards looked intimidating so that I conformed, looked serious and watched a fat man without shoes doing exercises and an oldish woman wrap her scarf around her eyes, cover herself up with a blanket and settle down for something to happen, to experience or for a nap?.

On walking slowly into the second room I realised we were meant to sit on the chairs provided and look at the white blinds that hung in front of windows – so far so meditative.  But then I spotted a buff looking bald man in a trance with his hands splayed out, palm upwards, and then all the other people in the room who were sitting, silently, seriously watching white and shadow and light play out in front of them.  I compared this experience with the Mark Rothko chapel filled with his colour-field paintings, was this similarly uplifting?

I walked a little faster, rebelliously, to the third room passing a body laid out prone in the corner.  Room three was a slightly longer and thinner room and people had either autonomously decided or were told (probably through mime, but how do you mine that?) to walk slowly up one side, turn around and slowly walk back.  But I am afraid I was then totally undone by the sight of a man standing with his face to the wall.  Why had he decided to do this, and how could he carry this out with such a straight face and stay at his punishment wall for so long?  I could not maintain my impassive expression, I laughed out loud and betook my smiling face out of there as quickly as I could before disturbing the delicate ambience.  Why didn’t anyone else find this as hilarious as I did?

Walking home along Old and New Bond Streets this installation was still on my mind.  My first thought was why in this secular age of ours did people seem so desperate for an experience, for enlightenment, for a kind of existential moment?  You never see such reverent people in churches anymore and no one dares to enforce silence in those places.  Then I couldn’t help but notice the Gucci, Prada, and Dolce & Gabana shops I was passing, displaying their high-priced goods and I realised that we buy luxury goods like this because we are told that these are the must-have labels and we confirm to expectation – wasn’t that a bit like what Marina Abramović had exposed in her show?

My turbulent mind returned to churches and how we project onto paintings and statues in church and it made an inexplicable leap to the work of Magdalena Abakanovicz’s seminal sculpture ‘Backs’ – was that because they are both East European (Polish and Serbian) or because their names are a little similar with the same initials A M – and how it  achieves a truly spiritual experience by giving our eyes and minds those poignant, serried ranks of headless, limbless, burlap backs to focus on.

magdalena Abrakanowicz BACKS by MAGDALENA ABRAKANOVICZ

As an artist myself I suppose I do like to have something to feast my eyes on, to fix upon and to project onto, and that is why I could not really take this NOTHING seriously. The visible has been and still remains the principle human source of information about the world.  Even perceptions coming from other senses are translated into visual terms, when we say “I see” we really mean “I understand” and I missed seeing something made by the artist. Unfortunately I came away with the feeling that I was the little boy who saw the naked King and knew no better than to shout out that the King didn’t have any new clothes at all.

KAZEMIR MALEVICH – at the Tate Modern. July 2014


Travelling home from visiting the new Malevich exhibition at the Tate Modern today I am trying to understand why I have been so much more impressed with this show than the Matisse cut-outs that have been so highly praised recently? (my blog CUT IT OUT WITH THE CUT OUTS).

Can it just be that I have come to the Turbine Hall with intransigent and preconceived ideas about the merits of these two artists from the early twentieth century?  I have always been unimpressed with Matisse but I do acknowledge he had a big influence on fellow artists in France at that time, and surely if the curators had done their job properly this enormously ambitious (and expensive) show would have won me over?  My problem with the cut-outs is that whilst extremely pleasing to the eye I cannot get a sense of the artist’s mind and soul, of the story behind the prettiness.

However, to walk into the first room of the Malevich exhibition is to witness the range of influences acquired, imitated and assimilated into the melting pot that was this artist’s brain. How fascinating to see replicated on those walls an almost perfect Cezanne pastiche piece and how attractive is the idea that, like the older artist, he too resisted the easy formula choosing to distil his own strong and authentic personal perception of the world.  (my blog PRIMITIVE OF A NEW ART).

The second room finds Malevich applying those new artistic trends to Russian subjects – the distilling process had begun – and in the third room Malevich rejects Futurist obsession for speed, war and the cult of the machine for Russian themes, applying the new fractured planes of cubism to rural scenes and peasant folk.  Catalogue notes say that ‘having followed the innovations of Paris, Malevich was now finding the confidence to outpace them’, a huge claim, but I prefer to think that the work seen here, whilst brilliantly executed still forms part of his formative stage.

Room four illustrates the leap of ideas from one stage of an artist’s development, through the stimulation of a change of discipline, into the creation of an original new form of visual representation.  In collaboration with a musician and a poet Malevich staged a futurist opera, Victory over the Sun and the group’s innovative treatment of language proved fundamental to Malevich’s thinking.  The idea of words without meaning encouraged him to conceive of, what he called, alogical painting, allowing colours and forms to sever their ties to the physical world.  The coloured geometric shapes of the costumes he designed for Victory over the Sun and the dividing up of the backdrops into fields of colour helped Malevich make the radical move to abstraction.


Here, at this point in Malevich’s career we witness how a great moment in art was achieved and Suprematism was born.  He has said “What was done unconsciously is now bearing extraordinary fruit”, but what occurred was no accident, it was the result of his incredible immersion into the ideas of that time and, through some process or connection in his brain, it culminated in his painting called Black Square –  essentially the ultimate abstract painting – with no colour, just a black square painted onto a larger white one.  In reproductions it is easy to miss the dense, layered thickness of this black hole.

From this point the exhibition follows Malevich’s obsession with abstraction and his gradual elimination of the figurative.  Whilst Russia underwent extreme change and bloody turmoil the Russian people disappeared from Malevich’s “non-objective and pure” canvasses, “colour harnessed into geometric forms, arranged to convey a sense of agitation and movement drifting together or apart, in a finely balanced tension between order and chaos”. And we witness Malevich enacting the gradual dissolution of painting with his white forms against a white background – the distillation was complete.

Malevich     Kasimir-Malevich-Kazimir-Malevich-Portrait-of-the-Artist_s-Wife

But Malevich the man was still watching and distilling the influences all around him and in the last rooms we see the pull of Russian folk to have been too great.  He returns, re-invigorated by his abstract de-cluttering to produce some beautiful paintings that are proto post-modernist statements allowing a mix of all styles with aesthetic harmony the only yardstick.  Yet the little black square is still present, now used as his logo in place of a signature.

The strength of this exhibition (as opposed to the Cut-Outs) is, I think, because it tells a human story whilst elucidating and educating the viewer about the mysterious alchemy involved in creating an important modern icon.