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Friday, 1 April 2011

Resemblances, Sympathies, and Other Acts - Jeremy Millar @ CCA, Glasgow

Review by Alistair Quietsch

Seeped in conceptual layering and research, Jeremy Millar’s current show at the CCA is at times, a seemingly disparate show of literary nods with a thorough post-modernist upbringing in the use of meta-narratives and referencing. However, it's visually intriguing, as Millar seems unconstrained to a particular medium and seems happy to use various modes of expression, from wooden sculpture to video. Upon entering the larger gallery space immediately on the left is an unforgettable piece that resonates throughout the show even after viewing: the complete lifelike cast of the artist lying water logged and pale-white-dead on the floor. The piece is titled Self Portrait as a Drowned Man (The Willows) (2011) and was commissioned by the CCA itself and lies there, with suspicious gouges in its skin, begging for attention.

Self Portrait, as the introductory piece to the show, is an attractive starting point as it lays out the conceptual methodology Millar pursues. He mostly references authors as inspiration for pieces like Algernon Blackwood, a horror short story writer who dabbled in occultism and whose work, The Willows (1907), is accredited in the title. In Portrait he also references the movie adaptation of Alexander Trocchi’s Young Adam (1957), shot in and around Glasgow. The piece can be seen as the formal representation of characters and plots created from these fictions. Millar employed the use of Grant Mason FX after seeing the life-like drowned body of the female victim in Young Adam and decided to create his own narrative for the CCA commission. As the blurb cites the piece also references Hippolyte Bayard’s 1840 photograph Self Portrait as a Drowned Man raising questions of paradoxes within the idea of the artist being dead yet being able to create. The text reiterates this and it is an interesting question, since semantically/etymologically you could produce self-portraits after death if you yourself were the titled dead portrait.

Millar’s use of literary sources as starting points can again be seen in A Firework for W.G. Sebald (2005), where he has taken the inquisitive path of looking into W. G. Sebald, a German author who died at the side of the A146 in 2001. In the authors book Rings of Saturn (1995), a walking tour of East Anglia, he photographs a lighthouse in Southwold, which also appeared in the film Drowning by Numbers (1988) which in itself has a character that marks the death of each person he knows by lighting off a firework. Millar takes this ceremony in hand and repeats it for the Sebald car crash site, with the blurb strenuously stating: “Sebald’s face seems to appear in the smoke, as if in acknowledgement of the gesture.”

The breadth of Millar’s research has to be applauded, and his use of varying materials from photography to sculpture is interesting and adventurous, like the burnt repetitions of Sol Lewitt’s cubes, reflectively titled Incomplete Open Cubes (Burnt) (2010). However as in the Sebald photographs, his use of ritual as the unifying theme between works seems almost secondary even though it is the core of the show: Lewitt’s statement of conceptual artists being mystics, the Virgilian Bronze Fly conjured to protect Naples and the droning kaleidoscope video piece The Writing of Stones (using text from Roger Caillois who is obviously a strong influence) which connects author to ritual to art product again in what is obviously Millar’s own rite to conceptual art. Millar clearly has an interest in literature and theory, his use of novels and stories as the starting point for pieces is exciting and seems full of potential plot twists and narratives.

Resemblances, Sympathies, and Other Acts continues at CCA, Glasgow until 7 May. For more information visit www.cca-glasgow.com

Image: Incomplete Open Cubes (Burnt)(2010)
Painted wood; burnt wood
Courtesy the artist and CCA, Glasgow

Thursday, 31 March 2011

Cut + Paste: Romare Bearden @ Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, NY

American artist, Romare Bearden's (b.1911) practice is complex and wide reaching. This exhibition at Michael Rosenfeld Gallery is the first to focus exclusively on collage, the medium through which Bearden arrived at his later style. Created between 1964 and 1983, the 21 works in the exhibition exemplify Bearden's exceptional talent for story-telling as well as his mastery of the medium's fragmentation of form and space. Together, they reveal an innovative artist whose style is distinguishing by partial images, unexpected juxtapositions, harmonious collisions, and a dynamic modernist aesthetic that continues to inspire and challenge viewers today.

While Bearden's early work consisted of figural paintings inspired by the social realism that dominated the 1930s, a trip to Paris in 1950 inspired him to move closer to abstraction. In the early 1960s, he turned to collage in an attempt to redefine the image of man in terms of black experience. Cutting and pasting photographs, paper, fabric, newspaper, and magazines. Bearden often added gouache, ink, pencil, and oil to his surfaces, creating compositions that focused on expansive themes. Bearden went some way to redefine the image of humanity not through the black experience but black experiences. That is to say, his representations of the rural and the urban, African, American and Caribbean explored a broad scope of histories, identities and multiple lives.

The works in this exhibition reflect the artist's belief that art is made from other art. This idea is literally present in the act of collage-making-taking images, colours, and forms out of one context, altering them and juxtaposing them with other-pre-existing images, colours and forms to create something new. It is equally apparent in Bearden's celebration of jazz and blues, the inspiration he draw from African art, and his passion for telling the stories and representing the cultures of ordinary black Americans. Included in the exhibition is The Fall of Troy (1977), from his series based on Homer's Odyssey, a work that offers further evidence of Bearden's dialogue with the canon of European art.

Romare Bearden Collage: A Centennial Celebration is on display at Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, New York until May 21. For further information visit www.michaelrosenfeldart.com

Image: Romare Bearden (1911-1988)
Illusionists at 4 PM, 1967
mixed media collage on board
30" x 40", signed
Courtesy of Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, LLC, New York, NY

Wednesday, 30 March 2011

Simon Starling, Recent History @ Tate St Ives

Review by Colin Herd

To accommodate Recent History, the Tate St Ives has reversed the sequence of galleries, so the show begins in Gallery 5 and finishes up in Gallery 2. It’s an appropriately counter-intuitive way to experience Simon Starling’s work, the process of backcombing through the galleries is an interesting analogue to the journeys, retreaded routes and return-voyages around which his practice so often centres. Presenting work produced in the last five years, Recent History is the largest exhibition of Starling’s work to be shown in Britain since he won the Turner Prize in 2005 for Shedboatshed. A process-led piece for which Starling dismantled a shed, built a boat out of it, sailed the boat with the remains of the shed down the Rhine, then reassembled the shed when he reached the gallery, Shedboatshed established the circular, almost palindromic patterns and thought processes that his work embodies and provokes. It should come as no surprise then that, rather than striking out in any new direction, this major new show feels somehow un-new and familiar. Starling is an artist whose work values the interrogation of repetitions and connections above novelty and surprise, a set of values reflected both in the show’s title and the work exhibited, which in the course of four substantial rooms revisits both boats and sheds.

The Long Ton (2009) is a sculpture made from two large pieces of roughly carved marble, hanging by yellow canvas straps and a pulley-system from the ceiling. Rough and lustrous, the blocks look a little like Modernist marble sculptures in transit, creamily off-white, not far in fact from the colour of Evans and Shalev’s Tate building itself. One block is sourced from China, and the other from Italy, but they are identically cut, the Italian piece having been cut with digital precision to replicate the form of the Chinese piece. Thanks to the weighted pulley system, they appear to hang in equal balance, as if the blocks were of identical weight, but in fact the Italian piece is roughly a quarter of the size of the other, reflecting its significantly greater market-value, in spite of the much shorter distance it has travelled. Obsessively connective and process-driven, Starling is often criticized for the unabashed intellectualism of his work, the prioritization of an appreciation of his projects’ back-stories and connections above the remnant of the process presented in the gallery. The Long Ton strikes a balance between breathtaking visual sculpture and a sensitive approach to the marble itself, alongside the intricacies and nuances of the piece’s ‘history’.

Whereas in The Long Ton, the journey suggested is that of a lump of marble, many of Starling’s pieces involve a physical journey or pilgrimage undertaken by the artist himself. Red Rivers (In Search of the Elusive Okapi) (2008) is a video-work, documenting a trip down the Hudson River Starling made in a hand-built strip canoe made from African Walnut. The piece refers to a similar adventure by the scientist and photographer Herbert Lang, famous for capturing some of the earliest images of the miniature Giraffe-like animal the Okapi on a 1909 Congo expedition in a similar canoe. Part indulgently obsessive flight of fancy in the manner of historical re-enactments and part rigorous research project, Starling’s expedition is documented in a film made of still photographs and short video clips, projected drenched in a wash of darkroom-light-red. In watery clips of the photographs’ development process intermingling with quaintly bizarre images of Starling in his canoe, Red Rivers takes on an elegiac tone for the practice of analogue photography itself.

The exhibition concludes in the centre gallery, overlooking St Ives Beach. Starling has built a large scaffolding pier atop of which he’s set a large wooden two-room shed. The rooms, which are accessed by a scaffold stairway, enter into an exact, full-size reconstruction of two galleries in The Pier Arts Centre in Orkney, well-known for being the home of an excellent collection of Modernist British Art, including work by many artists associated with St Ives. It’s a surreal, ambitious uncanny work. In one of the rooms hangs a painting by Alfred Wallis, and in the other room a video-projection by Starling, Autoxylopyrocycloboros (2006), previously exhibited at Pier Arts Centre. Autoxylopyrocycloboros documents a self-defeating journey Starling made in a wood-burning steam-boat on Loch Long in which he cannibalized the boat piece by piece for fuel. With a characteristically poetic attention to the reverberations and connotations of his practice, the shards of boat are analogous to the scraps of board Wallis used to paint on. There’s also a more political resonance, a comment on nuclear redundancy and pointlessness when you reckon that Loch Long is the home of the Trident missile. ‘Recent History’ is a thoughtful survey of Starling’s recent work, rooted in his feelings and responses to the artistic traditions of St Ives, and it achieves a subtle balance between the intricacy and intellectual commitment of Starling’s practice and a compellingly whimsical and humorous sense of adventure.

Simon Starling: Recent History continues until 2 May at Tate St Ives. For more information visit www.tate.org.uk/stives

Image: Courtesy the artist and neugerriemscheider, Berlin
Photo: Jens Ziehe

Tuesday, 29 March 2011

Flexible Filmmaking: Ben Rivers' Slow Action

Review by Ruaidhri Ryan

"I’m not a film purist, for me it is about my own enjoyment; I really don't feel part of a debate between film and digital."

Purists may argue that film should be displayed as film – the Lumière Brothers adapted the camera they shot with to become the projector they would display with. The debate between film, digital and display is regular discussion point around artists’ film and video, yet some artists’ work questions the relevance of this debate. “People should just use the medium they are comfortable with, which responds to their ideas and their practical means”. Ben Rivers films on a wind up 16mm Bolex camera and develops the film in his kitchen sink, occasionally he has the film teleclined and edits digitally on screen before reconverting the final article to film, with which he usually exhibits.

This flexible attitude regarding his medium corresponds with the various ways Slow Action, a new commission by Picture This and Animate Projects, has been displayed. Currently at Matt’s Gallery, London, Slow Action is presented as a single channel 16mm projection. The gallery accommodates individual bean bags and wireless headphones for a comfortable, cinematic and solitary appreciation of the work. The works premier, at Picture This, Bristol, was screened as a four channel video installation. The viewer sat in the centre of four screens hanging from the ceiling on to which the film was digitally projected from behind.

The form of each display renders a different reading of the work. The single channel presentation administers a narrative sensibility, more in tune with a cinematic experience. The film has a defined beginning and end point and the awareness of cinema is heightened by the presence of ‘the projector’, on display entering the gallery. The four channel installation feels more consciously like a gallery experience, encouraging the feeling of an audience sharing the film. The narrative of the film in this context becomes fragmented and offers the possibility to go off on a tangent. Online, viewing is more reminiscent to the experience one might have with iPlayer. Comfortably at home, you can choose to play and pause as desired, flipping between tabs or windows of each of the four films, you have the freedom to tailor your experience of the work. The online display of the work amplifies this potential to become sidetracked from watching the film and, in this sense; the work becomes more integrated with the audiences’ day to day.

Each configuration of Slow Action has been effective, so is there a best way to view Slow Action? We asked Ben Rivers to find out.

You seem flexible with your use of 16mm, this confidence in shifting techniques is also evident in your display. As well as Picture This, Matt’s and Animate, I also understand Slow Action was screened at the Rotterdam Film Festival. What was that like and what is your favourite presentation of Slow Action?

I am still very much interested in showing my films in the cinema and in festivals - I am interested in how showing work in different spaces can change the work based on an audiences expectations of those spaces. So I would find it hard to say I have a favourite because both cinema and gallery offer something different, while neither being perfect. Though at a push I would say I am most happy, in terms of Slow Action specifically, with the presentation at Matt's gallery - what you get is a very thought-out environment, which also has the immersive darkened and shared space of cinema, a captured audience because of the timed screenings (and as far as I've been told the majority have stayed the 45 min duration), as well as being intimate because of the cordless headphones - and very comfy with the beanbags.

How happy were you with giving up all control of viewing Slow Action to the masses online?

This was the first time I tried this and I'm unsure about it. I like watching things myself online, but knowing how I do that, and how everyone else does, it bothers me a bit. I prefer people to see my films from beginning to end, which is also why I have always tried to find ways of encouraging audiences to watch from start to finish in the gallery, either with timed screenings or with push buttons to start the film which automatically stops at the end.

Each of the four films which make up Slow Action were released each fortnight on Animate, rather than all being launched as a collection in one go. Some audiences may have been misguided into thinking, for example, Eleven was a film in it’s own right…does this bother you?

This was my idea. I wanted to make it clear that this wasn't actually the real article as such, or at least was a very different experience to the other ways of seeing the piece. What I really hope is that this way of seeing is a precursor, and if someone is interested by it they will come and see it at the gallery or at a screening, or it can be used as a reminder after seeing it projected. I think this film in particular, partly because of the scope aspect ratio, needs to be seen big.

For more information on Ben Rivers please visit www.benrivers.com Slow Action was on display at Picture This, Bristol from 20 November–18 December 2010, Matt's Gallery, London from 26 January-20 March 2011.

Slow Action, commissioned by Picture This and Animate Projects, is available to view online at animateprojects.org

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