Monday, 29 September 2008

Rothko, Tate Modern

A strong show. There's not the consistency of the other 20th century titan blockbuster down the road but the centrepiece, the expanded collection of Seagram murals, is the ticket price in one room.

Mark Rothko was a sort of paint synaesthetic. These dark but pulsing canvases aren't the masterworks of a great colourist so much as of a great technician. Where similar works by Ad Reinhardt or Josef Albers throw colours together with a great clang (right), the surfaces of Rothko's pulse and shimmer, changing in the light like taffeta or steel.

The Tate have done a good job examining the pictures (and a poor one of exhibiting their findings) using bright and ultra violet light to expose the build and execution processes and different composite colours and textures. When one can actually get to it, the detail of Black on Maroon, 1958 is very instructive.

One doesn't need to be forearmed to have an exchange with these paintings though. As mentioned, the Seagram collection is wonderful and well exhibited. There were well-over a hundred people in the gallery when I visited and no-one was in another's way. I particularly like the single-square form paintings (the west wall) which are exemplars of the multi-textural approach to rendering the form, sheer and glossy.

I hadn't thought about it before but the polyoblong-form paintings reminded me of the hospital door studies of Gary Hume or the famous elevator in The Shining, gushing blood in a dreadful magic realist sequence.

My favourite paintings are currently the Black-Form paintings which look entirely black but which are built up (colourwise) with deep indigo and maroon as well as black. These are the canvas equivalents of (more Kubrick) the mysterious obelisk-antennae from 2001: A Space Odyssey - void of content but undeniably alive when viewed.

I am looking forward to going again, not least to try with the Black On Gray sequence which didn't grab me (although I was reminded of Goya's The Dog, a desolate, almost-abstract masterpiece of the latter's 'black' series from the early 1800s in their form and brushwork).

Wednesday, 24 September 2008

BBC's Storyville 1968

Courtesy iPlayer. What a wonderful documentary - a dense 90 mins giving an overview of the most important year of the 60s. I should watch it yourself if you're in time.

Friday, 19 September 2008

PJ Harvey

I'm watching a gig PJ Harvey played in 2004 at LSO St Luke's, a converted Hawksmoor church that serves as a rehearsal venue for the London Symphony Orchestra (courtesy iPlayer).


PJ Harvey has played a growing roster of remarkable venues - Tate Modern, Somerset House, the Hay-on-Wye Festival. This gig is in that tradition. The audience seem slightly out of their comfort zone. Not unappreciative but perhaps subdued. I wonder to what extent that's to do with the venue or the fact that there are BBC cameras all over the place. Both, no doubt.

I feel inspired so I'm going to dig this out.

Tuesday, 16 September 2008

Richard Wright

Framescourer is sorry to hear of the death of Richard Wright, formerly the keyboard player with Pink Floyd.

This has been a wretched month for the passing of various personalities in the arts, with the deaths of prima inter pares voiceover artist Don Lafontaine, British conductor Vernon Handley and the Japanese video installation director Nagi Noda.

Monday, 15 September 2008

Bacon retrospective, Tate Britain

I've just returned from my first viewing of the new Bacon retrospective. It's a high octane exhibition: only one room is given over to 'Archive' material (materials salvaged from his studio); the rest are mature paintings thematically grouped. It's powerful, thought provoking and occasionally scary, a much more focused, punchier show that the last big British retrospective at the Hayward ten years ago.

I noticed a few things which I'd come across before but that viewing in a group reveals as consistent and so important.

The first is the 'three-dimensional' frames he uses within pictures. His canvases are typically quite gloomy, as if artificially lit, and consequently these boxy, thin-but-solid scaffold-frames are picked out in white. The viewing notes pick these out as well:
Figures are boxed into cage-like structures, delineated 'pace-frames' and hexagonal ground frames, confining them within a tense psychological zone. In 1952 he described this as 'an attempt to life the image outside of its natural environment'.
I think that this removal from it natural environment is already achieved in the very artificial, stagy manner in which the pictures are set. The 'space-frame' gives something more. For me, that is the suggestion that the figure at the centre of the picture is suspended, free from gravity, free from contingent ties to it's own self - rather like a carcass or flayed skin floating free of the density of 'person'. With the void represented in the gaping black mouths of so many subjects, this makes for an interesting effect. There is nothing withint and nothing without.

Many of the exhibition's earlier pictures also have vertical stripes or streaks over the figure and often panning out at its base. This suggested to me the PvC strip curtains familiar from a butcher's or an abattoir, separating one working area from another. This is a more minor observation - I'm not sure if such partitions were commonplace in the middle of the last century - but I found such a connection striking given the carnal nature of Bacon's subjects and allusions.

Bacon's art is clearly highly visceral and honest, trying to expose the nature of being human. Most subjects are painted in isolation from the world (even before the framing or empty-core inventions mentioned earlier). Bacon's figures have their own take on the three-in-two dimensionality of Picasso/Braque's cubism, rather like photographs with multiple or long exposures.

More interestingly these figures are sometimes shown within their own shadow, as if placed in a cut-out space too large for them. They have their own penumbra.

As a strange corollary to this, many later works - the Dyer memorial pictures and a late portrait of John Edwards (1988) - cast their own shadows on the foreground.

But both the black halo-penumbra and the bright foreground shadow come over as materially part of the subject. It is as if the ark outlines of a subject suggests an alternative person: the inauthentic as Heidegger (et al.) has it, or a Doppelgänger. The colour bleed of the foreground shadow is just that - an extension of the subject oozing into the unoccupied space before them. The overall effect is one of precipitation. The precipitation of the void into the person that is the subject; the precipitation of the subject into the surface of the painting.

It would seem that the framing devices that are part of the content of the pictures are meant to dissociate the subjects from everything - the viewer, the picture, the world of their situation, scrupulously limited though it is. At the same time it seems that the shadows from which and by which the subjects are cast do precisely the opposite precipitating figures from an unknowable void and casting the very stuff of the figure into the physical experience of the viewer.

These are daring existential experiments. There's a very economical canvas in the final room that achieves this technically if not particularly elegantly. Blood On Pavement (1988) is simply that. But looked at close up, the paint of the upper pavement has run down into the patch of blood. Blood On Pavement, or pavement on blood?

For this reason as well has others above, I'd recommend a trip to see this exhibition (I read Laura Cumming's piece from last Sunday's Observer Review prior to my visit, which I can recommend).

Thursday, 4 September 2008

Alice in remixland

I'm sure that Portishead share the use of a sample from Alice in Wonderland with this painstaking prepared video.