Monday, 27 February 2012

Simon Turner - Exhibition Notes

Bridget Riley

Whatever your thoughts on abstraction, it's central - absolutely vital - to any understanding of 20th century art.  I like to think I'm not a philistine - at least not in this regard - but I've found myself underwhelmed by much of the work on display here.  Ghosts of A level art portfolios haunt the gallery.  Half-formed ideas and sloppy execution mar many of the pieces.  Maybe it's the decision to withold the information regarding artist and title (you're given a handout at the door, if you want to follow your curiosity) that's the problem: paintings bleed into each other, and there is for the most part such a homogeniety to the compositions that you might as well be watching the retrospective of a single artist.  Though, no, that's wildly unfair, because the best work leaps out: Riley, in particular, really catches the eye, her bold clean linear composition setting off the shortcomings of so many of the other pieces.  Which, I guess, puts the lie to the old knee-jerk reaction to Modernism and its abstract offshoots - 'A child could do it' - which of course is utter piss.  If that were the case, then the genuine mastery of Riley wouldn't exist, there wouldn't be any means of distinguishing from one piece and another.  As with more 'traditional' forms of painting, technique shows through: a lazy conceptual or abstract piece is as detectable as a lazy landscape, it's just a matter of adjusting your filter to really comprehend why an abstract fails: the language of understanding is different, but the underlying criteria are basically the same.  What did I really like here?  (Sorry, I failed to make comprehensive notes of pieces and painters)  The wall of lobsters: the vertical lines of red and black arranged around a central mirror that essentially generates three paintings from one; Riley's vertical lines; an intricate piece that involved undulating waves of minute squares that, on close inspection, seemed to have been drawn in biro and painted in individually.  Saw George immediately after seeing the show and we came to the conclusion that what leaps out in the best work is either technique or concept (the best work finding a marriage of the two).  Really, we're talking about form and content (See?  Different language underpinned by the same precepts), just through a different lens.  I've juat read an interview with the American poet AR Ammons where he states that a poem isn't a statement but an action or a behaviour, which seems appropriate: the process of composition is bound up with how the meaning - the statement - comes across.  This seems to bring things into focus.  The correlation between form and content - statement and behaviour - is more vital to abstract painting than with other 'realist' modes, because form and content are basically one and the same: if one is lacking, the whole being of the painting fails somehow.  These are only notes, not a philosophy.  The same true of avant / left field writing and poetry, maybe?  The best is alert to both its 'statement' and its 'behaviour'; work is lacking which gives attention to only one facet of composition.       

Moore seems to thrive on tension and ambiguity of form.  Organic shapes that mimic the non-organic; odd shaped bronze boulders covered with isobars to give the piece the appearance of wood; a bust that is both human and robotic, ancient and post-industrial, simultaneously an echo of Agamemnon's death mask and a massive link of chain in a Glasgow shipyard.  One piece, a writhing amalgam of beaten brass and taut wires suggests a lyre, but is stripped of its function: it would sound dreadful, if it played at all: hovering between function and decoration, meaning and abstraction.  I was hoping to see more of Moore's sketches of blitzed Londoners sheltering in the Underground during WW2, and there were one or two: harrowing pieces, haunted, the figures in them (again) weirdly ancient and modern, human and reduced to pieces of meat or mere arrangements of space and form.  Darkness is a physical, all-consuming presence in these pieces.  Favourite moment: sketches of shells and bones, with Moore's notes beside them, suggesting their efficacy for sculptures: one is dismissed as 'too complex', which fits perfectly with his aesthetic: these are 'simple' or deceptively simple pieces; if they were too busy they simply wouldn't work.  The stand-by museum command of 'PLEASE DO NOT TOUCH' has never seemed more appropriate: there's something so tactile to Moore's sculptures that you do want to handle them, to get to grips with their curves and deviations, the weight and rhythm of them.  In their presence, the artist is present: maybe that's the failure I found in many of the abstracts at the Mead?  Increasingly I'm drawn to imperfection, surface flaws where the personality of the artist / writer peeps through, like the head of a nail beneath a worn-through carpet.  The carpet isn't everything.            

No comments: