Art Anorak

Art + architecture + typography + maps & guides

0 Notes

Anonymous asked: If you look in 'Lost London' you'll see a picture of the interior of the Dover Castle, the pub on corner of Lower Marsh and W'minster Bdg Rd which became a language school and now awaits what?.. It had all the mahogany and cut glass mirrors. Great loss.

More fascinating info - thanks. I’m currently mourning the lovely old warehouse that just got demolished on Baylis Road. I was utterly shocked, it never occurred to me that would be in danger. Pure philistinism. And I also remember the handsome teak detailing (bollards etc) of the ex MI6 tower block… what a nightmare it is getting older and seeing good things disappear!

0 Notes

Anonymous asked: Thef post office inn Westminster Bridge Road used to have a circular interior with a wonderful roof made of ovelapping wood tiles. Hopefully the ceiling is still there above the ceiling tiles of the present establishment.Oh and the new management of the new Crown and Cushion have stripped the black paint off the Doulton 1930s tiles which makes it look better though some of them are in poor condition.

Wow, thanks for the info. I remember when it was a dedicated post office (rather than a Spar), but certainly not the wooden ceiling. And never been in the Crown & Cushion, maybe I need to take a peek…

0 Notes

From Kusama to Shrigley by tube

Click here to read a fully illustrated version, with bigger images of all the tube map covers, on my new blog Art Orbit.

• London’s tube maps are currently decorated by Yayoi Kusama, with the 15th artist’s cover since 2004. But can you remember the other 14 – and was David Shrigley’s scribble the best?

Below: Posters of tube map art at Piccadilly Station – coincidentally my most and least liked, David Shrigley and Gary Hume, are side-by-side.

I remember the days, not actually that long ago, when London’s tube stations were so run-down that some were like outposts of Hades, as notably celebrated in Jock McFadyen’s grimy 1990s underground paintings. These days most are sparkling clean, and even incorporate specially-commissioned projects by major artists. So while you’re travelling to see Yayoi Kusama at Tate Modern, and David Shrigley at the Hayward Gallery (I recommend going to Waterloo first for the Hayward, then strolling along the riverbank to Tate Modern), you can gaze lovingly at a map leaflet decorated with Kusama’s contorted dots; and a few years before, you’d have been bearing a tangled cloud of Shrigley’s colourful lines. They’re just two of the 15 art-fronted tube maps that have been produced in their millions since 2004 – there’s a poster exhibition of them up at Piccadilly station right now. It’s a simple yet life enhancing intervention that flows from the public service ethos of Frank Pick’s pioneering commissions, one of those little pick-me-ups like Michael Landy’s “Acts of Kindness” poster campaign, Dryden Goodwin’s staff portraits on Southwark’s hoardings, or Poems on the Underground replacing advertisements on the trains. It’s no easy task to design a concentrated tube-appropriate statement that will work on the cover of a tiny leaflet, and doubtless involves much to-and-fro between artist and commissioner, but the results have generally been striking and, in the best cases, thought-provoking. In a spirit of tube-spotteriness I’ve listed them all below, with my thoughts on their relative success – you can still pick up examples cheaply on eBay, if you’re that way inclined.


David Shrigley, Map of the London Underground, February 2006: The simplest and the best. A mad dashing scribble of tube lines suggesting mind maps and mazes, entanglement and anarchy, its bright tube line colours keeping it cheerful rather than cloudy.

Eva Rothschild, Good Times, March 2011: Looks inspired by Richard Long’s effort, but a more satisfying composition that cleverly echoes her fetishistic sculptural work. By making a broken decimal clock out of tube-coloured line fragments, she suggests a dashed circular whirl through the night time tunnels, lending the concept of a “Good Times” a slightly menacing air.

Liam Gillick, The Day Before (You know what they’ll call it? They’ll call it the Tube), January 2007: A typically wordy title from the verbose Gillick, but the idea – the date of the day before the first underground line opened, treated typographically in tube colours – works well visually.

Richard Long, Earth, September 2009: Imposing order on tube lines as he does on rocks, this is clever in its brutal simplicity, a lopping-off of all the lines (including the non-tube DLR) into stubby branches on Northern Line black. Not being an old hippy, I assumed the title referred to travelling through, or returning to, earth; in fact, the design echoes an I Ching hexagram symbolising earth.

Cornelia Parker, Underground Abstract, January 2008: Kind of a cerebral twin to Shrigley’s spirited scribble, this Rorschach blot in tube colours cleverly suggests the mental journeys we make – and for anyone who doesn’t get the reference, it’s a true Rorschach test, suggesting a nice butterfly, or perhaps something more sinister…


Yayoi Kusama, Polka Dots Festival in London, December 2011: OK, so Kusama’s known for covering everything dots, but she usually gets quite a bit of variety out of them. Anyone could have done this bland pattern that looks designed for an umbrella – intense and obsessive dots, or something based on her amazing infinity rooms, would have been more exciting.

Michael Landy, All my lines in the palm of your hand, August 2011: Sensitive and human-centred as ever, you hold his hand in yours and follow the tube lines on it, foretelling who knows what future – but somehow it doesn’t really add up to a coherent whole and comes across as a bit trite.

Emma Kay, You are in London, August 2004: The first and least well-known artist commissioned, Kay appropriately makes works about knowledge systems, and once drew the entire world from memory. This map was a bit easier, turning every line into a circle line, and suggesting London is at the centre of things; it makes an attractive start to the series, but looks more like graphic design than art.

Jeremy Deller with Paul Ryan, Portrait of John Hough (Transport for London’s longest serving member of staff – 45 years of service), July 2007: A charming and typically democratic idea from Deller, this veteran employee sketched in tube coloured lines is worthy, but a bit delicate and impersonal in appearance – until I researched this, I’d always thought it was a Hockney.

10 Pae White, …fragment of a Magic Carpet circa 1213, October 2008: A rather optimistic interpretation of the average underground journey, this complex Persian carpet fragment is woven from tube line colours, but its intricacy is the opposite of the tube map’s simplicity, and the Liberty-like lusciousness suggests shopping rather than stopping.


11 Barbara Kruger, Untitled (Tube Map), May 2010: This looks too much like a normal tube map to have impact, and the idea of renaming tube stations was done better in Simon Patterson’s “The Great Bear”. Here, stops such as Envy, Joy and Compassion seem arbitrary, though they’re apparently named after her experience of those areas. One of her trademark big slogans would have been better, or changing the colours of the lines to represent the stations in some emotional way … and she used to be a graphic designer, too.

12 Yinka Shonibare, Global Underground Map, June 2006: A world decorated in tube colours to represent London’s multi-culturalism, this uses the Peters projection to show continents in their correct proportion. But the map’s so small it looks lost (presumably not a visual pun) – he could have turned it on its side or used an imaginary projection to make it more striking and less apologetic.

13 Paul Noble, Troubadour Carrying a Cytiole, March 2009: I know Noble generally works in this very restricted monochromatic manner, and I admire his 15-year pencil-drawn magnum opus Nobson Newtown, but to me this chunky busker says more about the artist than the London Underground and could have been for anything – in a word, arbitrary. One of his turd-folk squeezing into an apocalyptic tube train would have been more fun.

14 Mark Wallinger, Going Underground, May 2008: The official explanation is that this celebrates the RAF roundel and Londoners using tube tunnels as bomb shelters in the Blitz. To me it reads as a blokey comment on The Jam’s eponymous hit (which went straight in at No. 1 in 1980), referencing Paul Weller’s appropriation of the Mod target, which was of course copied from the RAF. It may use two tube colours (Victoria and Central lines), and the colours of the tube roundel too, but seems more evocative of backwards-looking British culture than modern-day journeying. Hmm, the more I write about it the cleverer it seems. But I still think it’s boring to look at.

15 Gary Hume, Untitled, July 2005: A queasy crayon drawing of an abstract backgammon board that’s not really representative of Gary Hume or the tube – unless he’s suggesting the whole thing’s a gamble – and the layout’s different from all the others. If he’d done one of his typically amorphous print images in hard-edged tube colours, it could have been great.

And finally, all the maps in order of release, from left to right, top to bottom…

1 Notes

Four abstract artists in conversation

Click here to read a fully illustrated version, with images from all the artists, on my new blog Art Orbit.

• From wrestling metal to pouring paint, from modernism to microscopy – an engrossing talk on abstraction with DJ Simpson, Daniel Sturgis, Mark Francis and Ian Davenport.

Below: Daniel Sturgis, Oscillate Mildly, 2011, acrylic on canvas.

I was enthused recently by a talk at the Pippy Houldsworth Gallery in London, staged to mark end of their abstract painting show, Means Without Ends. This collated a nicely-matched quartet artists – Ian Davenport, Mark Francis, DJ Simpson and Daniel Sturgis (images throughout) – all of whom veer towards strong, hard-edged colour, and have narrative or performative concerns underlying what at first appears strictly non-representative work. All four artists took part in the conversation, which was moderated by the academic Richard Dyer, and attracted a full house. I generally find art talks dull, which doesn’t mean not interesting, but I think they are of more fascination to the “trade”, ie practising artists and curators. This however was pleasingly engrossing, and Dyer did a good job of keeping things going and raising pithy points, as did the audience once questions were opened to the floor. DJ Simpson and Ian Davenport have performative practices – their work being based on physicality rather than traditional painting – and perhaps not coincidentally they were also the more direct and animated speakers, concentrating grippingly on the practical aspects of their craft. Mark Francis and Dan Sturgis, who wield brushes conventionally, took a more verbose and cerebral approach, using metaphor and theory to quietly ponder how their semi-representitive abstracts respectively engage with – to be reductionist about it – grids and microscopy, and the place of design in modernism. The points that stayed with me were as follows…

Below: DJ Simpson, Isovist, 2011, powder coated aluminium.

• DJ Simpson spoke compellingly about wrestling with large pieces of metal before binding them up with high-tech tape ready for powder coating. (“You sound as if you work in a frenzy,” commented one audience member amusingly.) Like his earlier work routing serpentine channels out of Formica-veneered boards, this is a reverse-reveal process, and as with Formica it restricts him to an “off-the-shelf” palette. He waxed lyrical about the technicians he works with at the powder coating factories, and what brilliant colourists they are, although they wouldn’t think of themselves as such. Other than that he prefers not to use assistants, and seemed conflicted as to whether this was because it was too much hassle, too uncontrollable, too unsettling having someone else in the studio, or because he couldn’t afford them. A mix of all four, I suspect: once artists can afford serious help, they learn to deal with the first three reservations, and it can free them up to expand their practices much further, though not necessarily to good effect (insert your least favourite rent-a-sculptor here).

Below: Ian Davenport, Puddle Painting (Yellow, Lime Green, Study), 2010, acrylic paint on aluminium mounted on aluminium panel.

• Ian Davenport admitted to an early fascination with Jackson Pollock, and said he sometimes bases his colours on other artists’ palettes. He agreed his work was definitely performative, explaining that he hones his series by practice, until in a zen-like way he can achieve the perfect drip, the ideal arc. Due to the expense of paint there is a lot of forward planning, often on computer, but for him the making, not the conceptualising is the fun part. Even as a schoolchild he would push media beyond accepted norms, mixing glue with his powder paints because he liked the texture.

Below: Mark Francis, Duality, 2011, acrylic on canvas.

• Mark Francis reckoned the biggest step change in his work recently has come about by moving to a studio with natural light, which he had never worked under before. He found he was using different colours than in his previous strip-lit environments, and also making more informal pieces by working at a large scale on the floor. He used to have to be in exactly the right mood before starting a painting, then complete it in one fell swoop. Now for the first time he can paint every day, and work on about five pieces concurrently, whereas before it was strictly one at a time.

Below: Daniel Sturgis, The Social Question, 2011/12, acrylic on canvas.

• Daniel Sturgis, in contrast, said he’d get confused if he worked on more than one piece at once. While his oeuvre clearly comments on modernism, and the use of pattern within it, a less expected revelation was that he’s inspired by Baroque architecture, with its mix of decoration and simplicity. The unusual crimson of his socks precisely matched his bright yet subtle paintings, and reinforced that, like the other three, colour is a major theme for him. The least well-known of the quartet, Sturgis is currently head of BA painting at Camberwell. I’ve followed his work for many years and it’s good to see he’s stuck to his chosen path rigorously, developing but not diversifying from his chosen themes.

He recently curated a show of abstract painting for Tate St Ives and Mead Gallery, Warwick Arts Centre, entitled The Indiscipline of Painting: International abstraction from the 1960s. While starting with a brief to choose from the Tate and Warwick collections, he ended up branching out and calling in work from all manner of private and foreign collections, creating a personal and compelling visual essay on colour and geometry within painting. It’s the best kind of optical, rather than theoretical curation: making really good use of untypical works that fitted his visual thesis, while also developing a coherent analytical journey. The accompanying book is superbly designed and edited, full of stunning images, and introduced me to lots of work I was unfamiliar with. The show continues at Warwick till 10 March – I’m hoping to go see and it.

The audience raised interesting concerns too, the main discussion points being:

The use of the artists’ hand versus employing assistants or computers, specifically referencing Damien Hirst and Renaissance studios. Bridget Riley cropped up a lot too: she uses all her assistants “like a computer” apparently, working things out basically then getting the assistants to do all the maths, draw up and paint the works; and of course long before Ian Davenport she was using palettes from art history.

How we judge the future worth of current artists, again with much reference to Damien Hirst, who came in for a fairly good kicking. There seemed to be much elision between monetary and cultural value, surely Hirst’s point; but he’s so far beyond the bell curve it’s really not a representative example. The moderator mentioned Vermeer, whose works could be picked up “for 40 quid” a century or so ago; and I always think of Edwin Longsden Long, who had queues round the block for his dreadful biblical epics in Victorian times, while all that remains of his reputation now is a room at Bournemouth’s bonkers Russell-Cotes Museum. But sadly it’ll be around 200 years before the jury returns on Hirst…

A fear of Romanticism and conveying emotion in painting still persists, probably thanks to Clement Greenberg, contended the moderator. Aptly, when he raised this point, there was a massive uncomfortable silence from all four artists – enough to force an embarrassed laugh from the audience – so the subject was never really interrogated.

Finally, in an extra-curricular point, I’ve now seen 10 male abstract painters in two group shows in five days (the other one was at Cul-de-Sac).  Maybe more men do abstract painting than women, or maybe they’re simply more clubbable and visible. I really don’t think the former point is true – and I have learnt recently of at least a couple of galleries who are attempting to bear women artists more in mind (an art version of putting more females on the board, perhaps). There are plenty of women in high art administration positions, so the imbalance is strange. But at least Bridget Riley proved to be the leitmotif of this particular show.

Below: Means Without Ends, installation view, Pippy Houldsworth Gallery, from l to r, Daniel Sturgis, Ian Davenport, DJ Simpson.

• Means Without Ends Artists: Ian Davenport, Mark Francis, DJ Simpson, Daniel Sturgis. Times: 20 Jan-18 Feb 2012. Address: Pippy Houldsworth Gallery, 6 Heddon Street, London W1B 4BT. Web:

• The Indiscipline of Painting: International abstraction from the 1960s Address: Mead Gallery, Warwick Arts Centre, The University of Warwick, Gibbet Hill Road, Coventry, CV4 7AL. Times: Until Sat 10 Mar 2012 Mon-Sat 12-9pm. Web:

0 Notes

A “Fifth Plinth” at the Elephant

Click here to read a fully illustrated version, with images from all the artists, on my new blog Art Orbit.

New art in gritty south London: a life size breeze block replica of Trafalgar Square’s fourth plinth, some blokey Mesolithic primitives, and an enjoyable show of non-painted painting.

Below: That’s the fifth plinth down at the end of the road.

There are signs that, edged out of their traditional east end haunts by gentrification, some of London’s less gilded art enterprises are crossing the Thames to Southwark and beyond (and even some gilded ones, because White Cube has followed suit). The area is spread out and lacking in tube lines, so after a freezing afternoon touring various far-flung warehouses I was pleased to end on a high note at Cul de Sac, a newish artist-run space just a short walk from Elephant and Castle underground station. It would be great if this new south-east art tendency regrouped round the Elephant, as with regeneration just starting, it’s got lots of big empty buildings, feels less intimidating than of yore, and is still quite cheap. A rich area historically, socially and architecturally, it has the gritty Hackney-esque feel that adds an off-piste frisson to art hunting, but also has loads of bus, tube and train options and is less than two miles from Trafalgar Square.

Cul de Sac gallery, lurking at the end of a crumbly dead end road, feels even nearer to Trafalgar Square, because looming up outside it is a monolith that at first glance looks exactly like the empty fourth plinth. And at second glance, that’s just what it is: “Phantom”, a breezeblock replica of that temporary home for mainly useless blockbuster sculptures (giant bottle, come on down), nobly blocking a rubbishy razor-wired vista reminiscent of one of Jock McFadyen’s more dystopian works. And where else but at the arse-end of Elephant and Castle could you build a full-size replica of the fourth plinth and have nobody notice for nearly a year? To me, it looks better here: the creators should call up Sarah Lucas and ask to top it with her brilliant birdshit-streaked abandoned car “This One’s for the Pigeons (Oi! Pigeons, over here!)”, which was stupidly rejected for the real plinth. Or they could even make their own, as there are plenty of suitably aged motors in the vicinity – indeed, two were parked right beneath it.

Below: A close-up of the fifth plinth, aka Phantom, 2011.

This “fifth plinth” literally and figuratively overshadows the show within the gallery, “Painting, is a Painting, is a Painting”, described in the blurb as being about “artists who rework the paradigm of painting as representational and complete … instead of relying on the canvas as an ultimate facility”, which means they don’t always use canvas, let alone anything so gauche as paint. The curator is Rod Barton, who works with an interesting roster of abstract painters, of whom I particularly rate Michiel Ceulers and Daniel Pasteiner. This project includes a concise selection of work by Nicolas Deshayes, Roman Liska, Oliver Osborne, Oliver Perkins, Dan Rees and Hugh Scott-Douglas (images at end), but is one of those shows where the sum is greater than the parts due to good curation and hang. If I’d been forced to take one piece home it would have been Oliver Perkins’ “The Bridge” (2012) – a splashy confection of ink on rabbit skin and canvas that prettily and lightly references a whole history of painting – but you’d need to see more from each artist to decide if you thought they were worthwhile or not, so it was really just a teasing introduction to some emerging names.

Or should I say, emerging male names. I’m not into form-filling, box-ticking, right-on art worthiness, but I do find a genre show of six artists where all are men odd these days. I think if a woman had curated, in all innocence, a serious show of six women painters it would be viewed by many as some kind of exclusionist feminist statement, even if it wasn’t; whereas such a large gathering of men can easily pass without notice, let alone question, which shows the reduced forces women still work with. This was especially pointed up since I’d just come from a Brixton group show called “Mesolithic Pop (The New Primitives)”, where the blurb – aka “a newly commissioned text by author and psychoanalyst Anouchka Grose on the subject of masculinity” – had jokily tried to explain away the essential laddishness of the enterprise as a return to supposedly mesolithic days when men were men and women did the cooking (which I think serious research would prove fallacious). While amused by Joel Gray’s life-size stone carvings of modern technology (he also carves stone for Anish Kapoor), and Francis Thorburn’s lashed-together alternative vehicles, my abiding memory was of a shaky video showing a bunch of pallid loinclothed art geezers pushing each other on planks and barrels – basically a DIY beer wagon – down a Dundee hill, tottered after by a brace of giggling girlies on improbable heels. Jeremy Clarkson, eat your heart out.

Still, I can’t blame the far better “Painting, is a Painting, is a Painting” for that, and it’s one of the more intriguing small shows you’ll find in London currently. Professionally presented in an attractive space, Cul de Sac radiates the sort of energy that has evaporated from the Vyner Street environs as rent-a-space chancers and braying First Thursday mobs progressively edge out the serious original gallerists. Cul de Sac don’t have exhibitions that often, but they do partake of the “South London Last Fridays” initiative, and if this is the typical standard, it’s worth keeping an eye on their future projects. Meanwhile the uncredited “Phantom” is open to view 24/7 and highly recommended – visit it, and at the same time you’ll get an excellent introduction to a fascinating off-the-radar area. (Local hint: the Elephant & Castle shopping centre is a thriving 1970s gem that’s not as horrible inside as it looks outside, and has some good cheap ethnic fooderies, including noted Polish and South American outlets – or walk up to The Cut at Waterloo for slightly posher pubs and grub.)

Painting, is a Painting, is a Painting / Phantom – Artists: Nicolas Deshayes, Roman Liska, Oliver Osborne, Oliver Perkins, Dan Rees, Hugh Scott-Douglas. Address: Cul de Sac, 65-69 County Street, London SE1 4AD. Times: until 26 Feb 2012, Thu-Sun 12-6pm, open till 9pm Fri 27 Jan and Fri 24 Feb. Phantom 24 hrs access, no end date. Web:

Mesolithic Pop (The New Primitives) – Artists: Joel Gray, Francis Thorburn, Cedar Lewisohn. Address: Workspace Group, Unit 2, Canterbury Court, 1- 3 Brixton Road London SW9 6DE. Times: until 19 Feb 2012, Fri-Sun 12-6pm. Web: Below: works from “Painting, is a Painting, is a Painting” at Cul de Sac, London SE1, Feb 2012

Below: Bye bye Cul de Sac – the Phantom plinth viewed from inside the gallery

0 Notes

David Hockney: smaller splash

Click here to read a fully illustrated version, with lots more Hockney painting images, on my new blog Art Orbit.

Hockney can be brilliant, but the overblown A Bigger Picture shows him below par – if only he would start reporting honestly rather than falling back on bravura technique like an old rock star.

BELOW: One of Hockney’s better Yorkshire paintings: “Woldgate Lane to Burton Agnes”, 2007.

• I feel as if I should apologise for writing about David Hockney – there’s already been more verbiage about his Royal Academy megashow A Bigger Picture than here is foliage in it, and that’s too much. But people keep asking my opinion of it, and I thought I should do more than keep answering, flippantly if honestly, that I felt he could have said more with just one good tree painting than a forest of mediocrities. The pip was taken the other day when, after gushing uncritically about how enthralled by it he had been, an earnest student started quizzing me about how Hockney had broken all those iPad drawings up into multiple canvases. I couldn’t work out which room the guy was referring to at first, then twigged: he had thought that every single artwork in the show was produced on an iPad. Complete with giant swishy oil paint strokes and all, perhaps from some magic giant oil paint printer. Which just goes to show that people read the blurbs, they mill around anything with a number having their thoughts directed by the audioguide, but they don’t actually look properly at the art. And whatever your opinion of this particular overblown exhibition, the best of David Hockney’s work is precisely about looking.

I mean looking in its literal, retinal sense: what Hockney excels at is exploring the many ways an artist can represent the appearance of things, varying his method and materials to suit the subject, aided by the perfect pitch of his drawing skills. I haven’t seen Lucian Freud Portraits at the National Portrait Gallery yet, but it should make an interesting blockbuster comparison, for Freud offers the reverse proposition – digging slowly beneath the skin of things with a dogged, unflashy technique that he developed consistently over the decades. And whereas Hockney mainly conjures his studio works from memory or visual notes, Freud allegedly needed the sitter in the room even when he was painting the background, so sensitive was he to atmosphere. Graphical analysis versus Freudian analysis, to put it glibly – one artist celebrating the outer world, one questioning the inner. With Hockney, it’s all about how he sees it; with Freud, it’s about what he sees.

Hockney’s pivotal works can be summed up as Percy, Pools and Polaroids: the slick paintings he made in his thirties, epitomised by “A Bigger Splash” (1967) and “Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy” (1970), and the groundbreaking multi-photo panoramas of the 1980s. Traces of both periods are represented in the RA’s scene-setting capsule collection of his landscape career, which whips smartly from a sooty 1950s Yorkshire hedgerow, to sunny self-discovery in 1960s LA, to ever-expanding experiments with medium and technique during the 1980s and 1990s. It’s all presented as preparation for diving out into yet more Yorkshire hedgerows, now candy-coloured and surreal, flowering over half a century after that first gloomy verge. But this small room deserves proper scrutiny, because there is more visual invention contained here than in all the bosky salons beyond.

The most exciting moments are when Hockney really starts to toy with representation. “Rocky Mountains and Tired Indians” (1965) includes, purely for the look of it, a beautiful blue chair in graduated paint which recalls David Hamilton’s sinuous car parts, while “Ordinary Picture” (1964) presents the multiple visual planes of sketchy billowing curtains framing a ruler-straight fence blocking hazy pastel mountains, again with a touch of the Hamiltons. Sadly the glory days of patio pools and tense couples in smart houses are bypassed in favour of the era where he gets bored, goes all post-modern, and churns out jokey efforts like “Kerby (After Hogarth) Useful Knowledge” (1975), with its art styles from many eras colliding (a bad idea he revisits with some terrible Claude Lorrain pastiches in the main exhibition). Finding renewed vigour in the 1980s, he started tackling the vivid, fragmented, multi-viewpoint landscapes which continue to this day, first in Polariods and then in paint. The scale expands like a bubble economy, until by 1998 you could literally jump into the monstrous red maw of his 60-canvas “A Closer Grand Canyon” – exactly concurrent with his first visual forays back into the utterly different Yorkshire countryside.

But as his canvases grow, their treatments become less sophisticated; in retrospect, Hockney’s photocollages appear fresher than the paintings they presumably inspired. The most subtle, “Grand Canyon Looking North September 1982”, has the muted quality of an etching, with striated rock and pointillist scrub the only “marks” defining the vast arena. There’s a playful fringe of blurry netted fence in the foreground, for we’re on a viewing platform – all proof that Hockney is perfectly capable of tackling his recurring themes of viewpoints, texture and theatre without bombast. The famous “Pearlblossom Highway, 11-18 April 1986 #1” is more strident, but just as meticulous a study of contrasting surfaces as the tightly controlled early paintings, a compelling agglomeration of spiky cactus, scrubby desert, gradated glass, graphic signage and shiny metal, all beneath a glittering cubist sky. It’s a late celebration of Pop, once again recalling Richard Hamilton, whose 1956 photocollage “Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different, so appealing?” was critiquing the glamorous US lifestyle while Hockney was still making kitchen-sink daubs at Bradford School of Art. 

Since then, Hockney has worked through enough styles to sustain several lesser careers (tellingly, mainly illustrators). But this relentless scaling up has sometimes been his downfall. Rather than representing with paint, using it to sculpt and suggest and tease as he did in the 1960s, on a large canvas he has a tendency simply to fill in geometrical areas with patterny brushstrokes, in a patchwork of garish textures not dissimilar to 1980s Kaffe Fasset knitwear. It is an ailment that afflicts a surfeit of the pumped-up works parading through A Bigger Picture, which some critics have suggested were too quickly created to fill up the show, and even compared to sunday painting. It’s a convincing argument, for the endless array of very similar landscapes don’t really seem to add anything to each other, or to the genre: I often found myself wishing I could be alone with just one small Eric Ravilious hillside instead.

Another problem is emotion, or rather lack of it. Before I saw the exhibition, I was expecting intimations of mortality from the 73-year-old artist, what with all those tunnels, tree stumps, wintry vistas and vanishing points. And Hockney’s rediscovery of his native landscape has a literally funereal genesis, as he first started looking closely at the area in 1997, on a regular drive to the Wetherby sickbed of his close friend Jonathan Silver, founder of Salts Mill, who died aged just 47. It was Silver who suggested painting the Yorkshire landscape, but though Hockney watched his old colleague fade away over a period of many months, the bright crumpled hillsides produced as a result give no hint of the bittersweet experience of driving through the world’s blooming beauty en route to a terminal patient. Not that they should do, and that was presumably not Hockney’s intention; but they would be better works of art if they did (or if he was able). And as for those endless vanishing points, Hockney’s always done them – there’s one in the first room dating from when he was 18, so they’re more about geometry than mortality. Some people do see mortality in the “totem” tree stump series, though I found them awkward and too obvious, while the cigarette-like logs of the “felled tree” paintings descend into pseudo-symbolist mannerism. One is even called “Astray”, which is surely an egregious pun on “ashtray”, if not a nod to the similarly fag-obsessed Damien Hirst, who really does deal with death.

Hockney’s naming schemes are usually pedantic, simply stating subject, place and date, and often incorporating a modifier of size or distance, as if on a spreadsheet (though I was pleased to learn there’s a place called Thwing). There’s even one where he dictates the pronunciation – “The Arrival of Spring in Woldgate, East Yorkshire in 2011 (Twenty-eleven)” – heaven forbid we should say it “two thousand and eleven”. This matter-of-factness pervades the paintings too, and no matter what the weather, sunny or snowy or misty or autumnal, the same air of decorative, optimistic note-taking prevails. Perhaps that’s why so many commentators loved his crazy writhing hawthorn bushes: a room full of mad blossom captured from memory in what Hockney calls his “action week”, they look as if fat white witchetty grubs are seething from the trees, while cartoony shadow fingers crawl the hot pink road. They were too over-the-top for my taste, but the couple of more “realistic” treatments stood out too – the one at the top of the page, “Woldgate Lane to Burton Agnes” (2007), is one of my favourite works from the show, for its unforced splashy simplicity.

With their blast of openness and light, the hawthorns’ surreal verve makes the surrounding roomfuls of towering woods seem dutiful. For all their powerful physical presence, these grand seasonal series are at heart schematic – you can’t help suspecting Hockney was painting by numbers at some points to complete the set. The worst come at the end, with enormous looping spring glades such as “Under the Trees, Bigger" (2011-11), whose beds of flowers look (possibly deliberately) like floral duvets, and are reminiscent of art nouveau-inspired municipal murals. Best are the serene and restrained late autumn and winter pieces, which due to being leafless and more linear are not so in thrall to strident colour and mark-making as the squelchy spring and blobby summer scenes, though the branches still writhe.

It’s advisable to ignore the jarring roomful of self-pleasuring knock-offs of Claude Lorrain’s “Sermon on the Mount” (c.1656), which nestle amidst the trees like a stash of guilty porn. These are a return to his 1970s po-mo posturing, in which Claude’s dark and mysterious mount becomes various psychedelic shapes – coil, conch, pyramid, polyhedron – and most embarrassing of all, with “Love” written above it. Apparently Hockney was interested in the compression of background space (in camera terms, a long lens effect), but it’s all a bit stupid, and Turner pastiched such things better. Taking hubris one step further, he also does iPad plays on the American sublime, with technically impressive banners of Yosemite scenes, immersive in their size but with surfaces as as shallow and slippery as their digital birthplace. They cry out to be projected, or even animated (in which case they’d look like one of those tacky moving waterfall pictures you get in Chinese restaurants), rather than have their pixels rendered in flat ink. The smaller series of 51 spring drawings made on iPad aren’t quite as bad as the harsher voices claim, but they too prove that pixels behind glass are no match for particles on paper. Tucked in a far more rewarding back room of sketches, “Blossom, May 25th 2009, Sketchbook (pages 7 & 8)” is a tiny black ink, watercolour and charcoal drawing of a row of trees, each one wittily varied in its treatment, that is a more telling comment on the nature of woods than all the 60-odd iPad works put together.

There’s a better use of technology in the multi-panel HD films, which have met with a luke-warm reception, but which I found mesmerising. Not Wayne Sleep’s colourful dance games, though they are fun in a clever-clever way (especially some Matisse mats); wait till the music stops and catch the long, silent glides through the very scenes depicted elsewhere in paint, caught on multiple cameras like an electronic compound eye. Two three-by-three banks of HD screens abut, presenting a series of serene tableaux: sometimes driving us into the same tunnel view at two different times or seasons, and sometimes panning sideways along one undulating grass verge, 18 panels wide. Although each camera catches the same area as it passes, the views are slightly out of synch, and the effect is similar to an animated version of the multi-Polaroid pieces. They make the familiar unfamiliar, allowing us to observe as minutely as a woodland creature while in crystalline detail Hockney contrasts fog and snow, bright and misty blossom, vibrant thunderlight and pallid dampness. It’s like cubism in action, or Google Street View on steroids, and makes you wonder how anyone would even dare to try and capture all this existence for posterity. Yet Hockney seems to be trying to fit the whole world and all of its art history and seasons into his oeuvre, by churning out work ever faster with whatever means come to hand. It’s his most overt nod to mortality, but comes at the expense of many kinds of quality.

Hockney is brilliant at times, and has had periods of being a truly original visualiser and commentator. His explorations into how earlier artists used lens-based aids such as the camera obscura are a valuable addition to art historical debate, written from the viewpoint of a super-observant practitioner. His experiments with photographs and film have been groundbreaking, and remain relevant to this day. My gaze could rove around his 1960s paintings for hours, their nuanced surfaces transcending overfamiliarity. But how I wish he would try making a smaller splash and start painting intimately again, without all the mannered grandiosity and clashing colours. I’d love to see what he made of an intimate interior, a humble still life, a minutely observed patch of ground; still employing his different painterly voices, but reporting honestly on the objects rather than falling back on bravura technique like an old rock star lashing operatically through a stadium gig. By filling 13 rooms with hundreds of large artworks created to very short order, Hockney has certainly shown, and shown off – now it’s time to start telling again. • David Hockney RA: A Bigger Picture, 21 Jan–9 Apr 2012, Royal Academy, London,

Below: Hockney with the bedspread-esque and pedantically-named “The Arrival of Spring in Woldgate, East Yorkshire in 2011 (Twenty Eleven)”.

1 Notes

When Rodin met Buren

Click here to read a fully illustrated version on my new blog, Art Orbit.

Brian Sewell calls it Slough-on-Sea, but I enjoyed a clash of old and new at Margate’s Turner Contemporary – and I don’t mean Turner’s weather and Hamish Fulton’s walks

Above: Rodin’s “The Kiss” in front of Daniel Buren’s “Borrowing and Multiplying the Landscape” at Turner Contemporary, Margate.

• Margate’s new Turner Contemporary gallery currently has a hit with a show of, you guessed it, Turner: which is good for the run-down town, but a bit of a bore if you’ve seen one squillion works by Turner already, superb though some of the evocations of weather in Turner and the Elements are (especially as they’re mainly watercolours, so much more immediate than his hefty oil works). Currently the Contemporary aspect of the gallery’s name is provided by Hamish Fulton: Walk, conceptual yomps commemorated by giant posters resembling homages to Edward Johnston’s London Underground typography and colour supplement ads for mineral water, adorned with poorly-letterspaced texts of de Botton-ish vapidity. A less ponderous meeting of new and old can be found on the ground floor, where two French stubs of previous exhibitions temporarily enhance each other: Rodin’s ever-fresh and ever-realistic “The Kiss” (1901-04) making a striking focal point to a massive picture window banded with translucent yellow stripes. At first I thought the window stripes were an above-average Liam Gillick, or a follow-up to Sculpture Remixed, Wayne Hemmingway’s mirrored disco salon of sculpture at Tate Liverpool, in which a century of wildly divergent figuration pranced and preened equitably together in a fun but non-dumbed-down new context. Pleasingly, the window turned out to be by a far more substantial figure, 1960s French conceptualist Daniel Buren, who while famed for a rigorous adherence to stripes, has made architectural interventions using all kinds of beautiful plays on geometry and light, as this Lisson Gallery page shows. However for Turner Contemporary the wily stripemeister has indeed stuck to stripes, and stripes by the seaside can’t help but evoke deckchairs, which may seem a bit obvious; but as there is something wistfully seasidey about Buren’s work at the best of times, from the cheap fairground colours to the beach-hutty panelling to the decaying concrete public art, it was a clever commission.

Below: The view that inspired Turner reflecting into infinity from the upstairs balcony.

Entitled  “Borrowing and Multiplying the Landscape” (2011), the installation was a response to the site for the gallery’s inaugural show Revealed, and remains though that has ended, while Rodin’s famous couple are the lingering remnants of a display about youth culture, Nothing in the World But Youth. As might be expected of canoodling teens, they turn their backs on the view that inspired Turner – literally from this spot, as the gallery is built on the site of a boarding house he used to frequent. That bleak vista is now entrapped by Buren’s own spot: an untaped circular area of clear glass, like the blank pupil of a Big Brother eye logo, revealing sea and sky and container ships through sunny stripes that are mirrored into cloudy infinity on either side of the double-hight space. But attractive though the Buren is, especially on a dark winter’s day, it does obscure the seascape. While the mirrored walls enhance the space, it would be a shame if the stripes were permanent, as the window would be more spectacular unadorned, offering an unmediated frame for the scenery that so affected the gallery’s namesake (not that a specific sense of place is always apparent in his paintings). Whatever your views on Turner, Buren, Rodin and co, a visit to David Chipperfield’s jagged white sheds – reviled as “Slough-on-Sea” by Brian Sewell and loved for its “genius loci” by Edwin Heathcote – is recommended. Just a step away is the rejuvenating old town with its quirky buildings and regulation arty-regen cupcake’n’retro outlets (see also Folkestone), and even on a stark Sunday when most were closed, there was enough on offer to pass a pleasant afternoon. For those in search of a grittier reality, the magnificently tawdry Margate of Tracey Emin stretches gappily along the heavy ochre sands, still home to many classic facades and attractions despite the shutters and burnt-out lots; lovers of decay should catch it before the historic Dreamland is restored as a vintage amusement park. In case any further reminder of the haves and have-nots were needed, Turner Contemporary currently has its own Occupy camp, a gaggle of plastic humpies wilting in the lee of the pristine concrete bulwarks like an offshoot of Mark Wallinger’s State Britain – nice to know that art can provide shelter when the Church of England can’t. But whether you visit with or without art intent (geddit), I have one vital piece of advice: go on a day when the weather’s too nice for Turner to have painted it.

Below: Exterior view of David Chipperfield’s shed-like Turner Contemporary: note the mini-Occupy encampment, bottom left.

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Stalking Bernd Becher

Click here to read a fully illustrated version on my new blog, Art Orbit.

How I accidentally stalked the great photographer, plus five things to see in arty Düsseldorf

Above: What I have always assumed to be the very cool mailbox of Bernd and Hilla Becher, 2005

• I was just filing some old photos when I came across this enigmatic image, souvenir of an embarrassing art moment that, with retrospect, I’m glad I had. I was visiting Düsseldorf, which isn’t as dull as it sounds, being home to numerous well-stocked museums, and the one-time base of genre-busting figures from Stockhausen and Kraftwerk to Paul Klee and Joseph Beuys. So I checked out the Joseph Beuys boulevard (pretty dull, but imagine having a road named after him in your town, especially if you found a dead hare on it), did a mad dash through the art-historical treasures of the Kunsthalle and Kunstsammlung, and drank lots of surprisingly good coffee. And then it was time to seek out the unsurpassable documentary photography of Bernd and Hilla Becher, influential teachers of so many of today’s art photographers: Andreas Gursky, Thomas Struth, Thomas Ruff, Candida Höfer, et al. At the time Bernd Becher was still alive, and my companion had an address for what he thought was his public gallery and archive, so off we set through the clean-scrubbed Düsseldorf suburbs to locate it. This proved strangely difficult, but we finally came upon a large warehouse-type building in a quaint leafy quarter which looked the part, especially as one of the mailboxes read “Becher” – which I was enough of a fan-girl to photograph, as you see here. Previous experience had taught us that smaller German galleries aren’t as efficient as national stereotype suggests, and don’t always open at the advertised hours. So we weren’t deterred by the closed doors, and buzzed persistently on the bell. Eventually, a bemused old geezer poked his head out of an upstairs window, and gruffly informed us it was a private house and we’d just woken him up. Internet image searches were more primitive in 2005, so after running away we were unable ascertain if it was Mr Becher himself whose ire we’d unintentionally aroused. But as he seemed about the right age, we reckoned it was; and when in 2007 he sadly died, the obituaries offered photographic proof that it had indeed been the great man. Thus, although I never got to see his “public archive” (which was obviously an urban myth), I did get to see him. And his very cool mailbox.

Below: Andreas Gursky’s supra-real landscape photo, “The Rhine II” (1999)

Five non-mailbox things to see in Düsseldorf

There’s lots of other art-related stuff to do in Düsseldorf – here’s a bit of it Kunsthalle Massive, somewhat brutalist concrete museum in which to contemplate the impressive contemporary collection in relatively punter-free Modernist splendour. Kunstsammlung Nordrhein Westfalen The art collection of the state of North-Rhine-Westfalia, stuffed with historical gems from Caspar David Friedrich to the Brueghels, and with dedicated 20th and 21st century wings and a sculpture garden. Rheinturm Aka the Rhine Tower, not as Dr Who as East Berlin’s ball-topped TV tower (immortalised by Tacita Dean in “Fernsehturm”, 2001), but like all such structures a tragi-comic memento of the past’s idealistic future, complete with tacky rotating cafe. Joseph-Beuys-Ufer A road named after the great hare-slapper. It’s a dull dual carriageway that runs along the Rhine. But, wow, it’s named after Joseph Beuys… The Rhine Visitors to Tate Modern may be familiar with Andreas Gursky’s $4m photo “Rhein II" (1999), a quintessential northern European view of slime-green grass sandwiching stripes of flat grey river and sky. It looks like a deliberate abstraction but stand on the banks of the Rhine in Düsseldorf and that’s what you see (even if it wasn’t the bit he expressly photographed). Like the best landscape work (eg the Australian deserts of Fred Williams), it’s so supra-realistic it looks like an exaggeration until you’ve experienced the real thing. But then, Gursky was a student of Bernd and Hilla Becher. Other resources:Düsseldorf Tourism – a useful starting list for Düsseldorf art sites, if a bit old. • Düsseldorf art calendar – has a list of museums and galleries, though it’s in German. • Becher exhibition – the only one I could find in Europe currently is at the Winterthur photography museum in Switzerland till 12 Feb 2012.

Below: And here’s the Becher mailbox again in all its full, nerdy glory

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Gimme art shelter

For a fully illustrated version of this article read it on my new blog, Art Orbit, an updated and much better-looking version of this one.

Above: James Yamada’s “The summer shelter retreats darkly among the trees” – a poetic anti-SAD bus shelter behind Parasol Unit

• The other day I came across these two very different shelters sharing a weedy stub of the Grand Union Canal: a domed wooden hut atop a DIY scaffolding jetty, and an icily-lit plastic pavilion borne on white aluminium branches. In the gloom of a winter afternoon they had a fairytale air, though both proved to be artworks, the former relating to Victoria Miro and the latter to Parasol Unit, who share a terrace overlooking the backwater. The ethereal bus shelter, an installation by James Yamada poetically entitled "The summer shelter retreats darkly among the trees", is perfectly placed to sit and contemplate the colourful patchwork hut and its crazy stack of external hutches, which looked to me like a tramp’s rabbit farm (who knows, maybe it is – locally-sourced food is popular in east London). If the view doesn’t cheer you up then the bus shelter itself should, as it’s illuminated by full spectrum light, which supposedly alleviates SAD – aka Seasonal Affective Disorder, or feeling a bit grim in winter – an effect negated by the fact that you’d die of hypothermia while alleviating it.

Below: Alex Hartley’s DIY geodesic hut, his weedy canalside home for the duration of “The World Is Still Big” at Victoria Miro.

The hut it overlooks was built by artist Alex Hartley, who makes work inspired by counter-culture refuges such as Colorado’s 1965-founded “Drop City”, one of the first rural hippie communes. Its inhabitants were early adopters of Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic dome, using car roofs to build their hemispherical shelters; Hartley’s hut is a wooden reconstruction of one such home, in which to reside for the duration of his Victoria Miro exhibition, "The World Is Still Big". Within the gallery’s sleeker confines he has mounted a set of large-scale photos of wilderness landscapes, each bearing a tiny 3-D model, in trompe l’oeil perspective, of an architectural structure. Some are industrial, some are folksy, but most look lashed-together with available materials, making temporary shelter in unpromising surroundings. The theme is continued on the top floor with a tragi-comic yellow tent, just big enough for one hunched human, floundering amidst a cartoony meringue of fake snow. This is part of Hartley’s ongoing project "Nowhereisland", a utopian imaginary island inspired by two trips he made to the high arctic, whose citizens will collectively shape its constitution  (you can sign up on Facebook). The Miro show ended on Saturday 21 Jan 2012, but apparently the dome will next be sheltering Hartley’s teenage son at the nearby Occupy camp in Finsbury Square, while “Nowhereisland” will be taking a 500-mile jaunt around England’s south west coast as part of the Cultural Olymiad’s rolling behemoth. An artist definitely worth catching, with or without a sad bus shelter to view him from.
• Alex Hartley: Victoria Miro, 16 Wharf Rd, London N1, until 21 Jan 2012,,

• James Yamada: Parasol Unit, 14 Wharf Rd, London N1, until 18 Mar 2012,

Below: Arctic tent as collapsed lemon meringue: an installation view of Alex Hartley’s “The World Is Still Big” at Victoria Miro, London.

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Pipilotti Rist: overrated underpants?

For a fully illustrated version of this article read it on my new blog, Art Orbit, an updated and much better-looking version of this one.

Pipilotti Rist's underpant light installation at the Hayward, "Hiplights Or Enlighted Hips"

Above: Pipilotti Rist’s underpant light installation at the Hayward, “Hiplights Or Enlighted Hips”, 2011

Eyeball Massage, Hayward Gallery, London, 18 Oct 2011-8 Jan 2012: Why Pipilotti Rist should stop making pants and follow her inner Pippi Longstocking

I once saw some underpants entangled in a tree outside the Hayward gallery, and they were not an art installation. But at the end of 2011 there were 200 lightbulbs hanging outside it which were an art installation, allowing much lowbrow media punning along “art is pants” lines. They were part of the exhibition Eyeball Massage by Pipilotti Rist, a Swiss artist and folk-punk performer, who was a surprise hit at the 2005 Venice Biennale with an ambitious son et lumière in the canalside church of San Stae, normally more famous for Tiepolo’s Martyrdom of St. Bartholemew. Here footsore art yompers could recline on curvaceous foam platforms and watch the less exalted Homo Sapiens Sapiens (2005), a film starring two naked Eves in the Garden of Eden, projected across the building’s expansive ceiling. Anecdotal evidence suggests it was popular largely because you could get a free lie-down, normally impossible to find in park-starved Venice; given the mix of art overload, physical exhaustion and slight hysteria that characterises Vernissage week, whether the film was worth watching or not was probably irrelevent.

The first Rist show I ever saw, at Fact during the less exotic 2008 Liverpool Biennial, also offered a welcome chance to lie down. I was hugely grateful to the artist, because it was pouring with rain and my feet were killing me, but despite spending much time with her substantial survey I remember nothing of it bar a giant chair and a heap of Scouse hipsters nodding out to the warbliness of the films. It’s a vagueness that speaks more of the work than incipient Alzheimer’s, as I can recall plenty of other art from that trip. I thus assumed that equipping her installations with facilities to lie down and chillax must be the secret of Rist’s success, as her projections’ content – naked women, wet nature, woozy close-ups, strategic grunge, whimsical muzak – struck me as the same filmic wallpaper in varying formats, and meaning-free to the point of inconsequence. So would the Hayward tell a different story, or is Pipilotti Rist really, to quote the philistines, “pants”?

Big chairs in "The Room" at Fact, 2008

Above: Big chairs in “The Room” at Fact, 2008

At the Hayward too, there were plenty of opportunities to lie down, but thanks to the hefty entrance fee, its floors weren’t strewn with weary Christmas shoppers. Only a few punters wandered the wanly-lit installations dotted sparsely around the concrete acres, and far from the “thrillingly immersive” experience many reviewers raved about, the ambience was more reminiscent of an unpopular Occupy encampment, or an ill-attended indie rock festival in a 1970s library. The rebellious teenage bedroom feel reminded me that, as a teenager, the artist renamed herself after a figure from childrens’ literature, fearless seafarer Pippi Longstocking (Pipilotti being a diminutive, apparently). Super-strong Pippi was also my favourite childhood heroine, so I wanted to like the show, but it was tough. The films flickering from arrangements of handbags and retro-chic eBay furniture were not greater than the sum of their parts, and the ricketty self-made low-tech machines did not evoke their intended personalities. True to Rist’s adolescent self-reinvention it was all a bit child-like and child-centred, but in the sense of a groovy teaching assistant entertaining toddlers – CBeebies on party drugs – rather than a grown-up intellectual encounter. Fittingly the most engaged participants were a bunch of kids, dutifully tugging some headless-torso-cum-bean-bag things around as if they were in the world’s largest, most depressing, nursery.

When people praise Rist, and quite a lot do, they always refer to Ever Is Over All, a film from 1997 in which she smashes car windows with a flower. This was on display here, and you can see the allure: a pretty young woman skipping past a row of parked cars in slo-mo, swinging a massive, overtly phallic red hot poker flower and occasionally hefting joyful swipes at car windows, which quietly shatter. The female cop trailing her adds a note of tension, till she saunters briskly past with a cheery salute and the film loops again. One reading posits this scenario as an alternative feminist ecoverse, but though it’s fun, it’s not that deep, and it’s certainly not immersive. You can’t help but ponder the mechanics of it – did they just park certain sacrificial cars, was filming permission gained, who cleaned up the glass, how did they get a metal bar in the flower – not to mention snigger at the over-literal symbolism of a stiffened rod, whose flowery bell-end looks like it’s encrusted with tiny breasts. Rist’s background as a musician means the piece also reads as a clever one-trick pop video, by which definition all sorts of things could be presented as art which actually aren’t.

Above: “I’m Not The Girl Who Misses Much”, installation view

The other standout, the obviously Bruce Nauman-influenced I’m Not The Girl Who Misses Much, was an even earlier play on the MTV generation: her first-ever video work, made in 1986 when she was still a student. It’s worth watching on YouTube (where the artist generously makes many of her works available), but the installation here added another level. It was shown inside a large triangular box sticking out from the wall, with holes in the underside through which to stick your head, all low enough to make it – presumably deliberately – fun for kids but uncomfortable for most men. Inside you were confronted by a blurry, black-dressed Pipi, her breasts exposed in the manner of a Minoan priestess, frenziedly gyrating and screeching a line adapted from John Lennon’s Happiness Is a Warm Gun at crazily fast and slow running speeds. This provided the only genuinely immersive sensory experience in the show, as your head felt totally divorced from your body, floating in enforced intimacy with other heads in a strange disembodied plane, getting no input from anything but the film. It was like being trapped in a garret with a voluptuous, capricious madwoman, intended perhaps to evoke claustrophobic childhood dependence on the mother, or conversely a mother stuck at home with a hysterical mini-me – the one truly visceral reference to childlike states that I found.

Perhaps those two works were Pipilotti Rist’s career high points. Elsewhere her themes went underexamined in a jumble of psychedelically-hued, overlapping light projections and unsubtle Freudian found objects, relying for effect on physical rather than conceptual layering, or basic show-and-tell, such as The Innocent Collection (1985-), a banal wall of found white detritus, reminiscent of a first-year graphics project (she did after all study graphic design). Apologists claim she talks about complex subjects like evolution, religion and the law, but there’s a difference between simply presenting things, and making a serious comment on them. Maybe some see a fragile poetry in her work – there’s a fragile poetry in anything, if you contemplate it for long enough – it but to me Rist trades on rave installations for the easily pleased, without any hint of the transformative rigour that characterises truly rewarding art. However, I may be lonely in that view, as she has many fans in the art world. A couple of male art writers whose opinions I rate certainly remain entranced with her, perhaps reading those bloopy, bubbly panoramas of floating body parts and pouting lips (mainly belonging to attractive women, it should be noted) as sexy encounters with a fanciful feminine ego, though to my jaundiced eye they look more like the twee antics of some wacky bird you’d meet at an art therapy group.

George Condo: Mental States, exhibition view

Above: “George Condo: Mental States”, exhibition view

To be kind to the Hayward’s greater curatorial vision, the Rist show’s light and playful female mind-spaces contrasted intelligently, though not to her benefit, with the darker male psyche evident in George Condo: Mental States, a survey running concurrently on the floor above. Although a bit paint-by-numbers at times, Condo’s warped de Kooning-paints-the Muppets schtick was chewier viewing, partly due to his work’s obvious influence on queasily kitsch art market stars John Currin and Lisa Yuskavage, and partly due to a mordantly humorous salon hang exploring male cliches and classical tropes that demonstrated an unexpectedly rigorous development.

But it’s Rist who got the plum spot downstairs, and while she’s obviously a godsend for curators looking to fill a large space with modish audiovisual work, the promise of her early productions seems to have dissipated. There’s a bit at the end of her disturbing dance in I’m Not The Girl Who Misses Much where the blurry thrashing stops, and John Lennon’s original song kicks heart-stoppingly in, punctuated by an image of Rist’s bared teeth. After some non-sequitur scenes of a tree and the artist dressing, the dancing returns in brief echo, before being engulfed by a sudden whining blackness suggesting off-screen catastrophe. That grimace as the poignant “real” music (meaning real life?) plays out is ambiguous: it could be read as a fierce look, but also an accommodating grin.

The latter aspect of her muse held sway: instead of pursuing an inner dancing demon she wandered off into the nature-and-nakedness shallows signposted by the non-sequitur scenes, a woozily feelgood landscape despite the recurring elements of blood and minutely-inspected orifices. As in the recent Tate Britain show of Barry Flanagan, which sensibly concentrated on his inspiring Arte Povera riffs and terminated once he found success making appalling hare sculptures, in this show – to work a metaphor – you could map the ghostly traces of a strange artistic path left untrod in favour of an unchallenging, crowd-friendly highway. Personally, I’d have preferred to see more of the adventurous Pippi Longstocking, and a lot less of the pants. 

"Massachussets Chandelier", 2010

Above: A load of old pants in “Massachussets Chandelier”, 2010

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Phew. Just finished reading this book, Owen Hatherley’s The New Ruins of Great Britain - who’d have thought an extended architecture rant could be so unputdownable? Over the last decade I’ve visited most of the places he talks about, and photographed many of the buildings that also grab his attention, but I never knew so much before about the architectural, planning and political landscapes that underpin them. Hatherley’s been longlisted for the Orwell Prize for this effort (guess there’ll be one going spare if they de-Orwell Johann Hari) - good luck to him. If like me you enjoy buildings as huge thrilling sculptures, and are strangely moved by windswept vistas of tragi-comic failed aspirations, read this book. There’s more about it here. Oh, and it’s a superb cover – reminding me somehow of the work of Sex Pistols cover designer Jamie Reid, crossed with the colourways of Gilbert & George – but is in fact by Dan Mogford, who blogs here.

Phew. Just finished reading this book, Owen Hatherley’s The New Ruins of Great Britain - who’d have thought an extended architecture rant could be so unputdownable? Over the last decade I’ve visited most of the places he talks about, and photographed many of the buildings that also grab his attention, but I never knew so much before about the architectural, planning and political landscapes that underpin them. Hatherley’s been longlisted for the Orwell Prize for this effort (guess there’ll be one going spare if they de-Orwell Johann Hari) - good luck to him. If like me you enjoy buildings as huge thrilling sculptures, and are strangely moved by windswept vistas of tragi-comic failed aspirations, read this book. There’s more about it here. Oh, and it’s a superb cover – reminding me somehow of the work of Sex Pistols cover designer Jamie Reid, crossed with the colourways of Gilbert & George – but is in fact by Dan Mogford, who blogs here.

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Bye bye Dirac House

Above: Pseudomodern Dirac House, possibly soon to be renamed

A while back I posted a map and guide to “Dirac’s Bristol" – things either named after or associated with the Nobel-winning mathematician Paul Dirac, who was born and schooled in the city. There weren’t many such places, and now there’s possibly going to be one less, because according to the email here from one of its occupants, Dirac House (pictured above) is being vacated by the Institute of Physics Publishing, and may be renamed. While I’m impressed that Paul Dirac’s daughter opened it in 1997, and by the affection my correspondent obviously feels for it, it’s hardly a great building. I’m currently gripped by architecture blogger Owen Hatherley’s brilliant book “The New Ruins of Great Britain”, and Dirac House is of the toytown style he cleverly calls Pseudomodernism. Bristol’s a proper city, ancient and established enough not to have been overwhelmed by this kind of sandy-bricked mediocrity, but even so they’d be better off losing all of Dirac House, not just its name. The greater point is that Bristol should be naming nicer things after Paul Dirac in the first place, and making far more of their fascinating connection with Britain’s Einstein. It certainly wouldn’t be hard to better the current unprepossessing memorials to him, which you’ll find in my guide here. And if you’re interested in the architectural politics of the last 60 years, and the strange “non-places” post-war planning has created, I can’t recommend Owen Hatherley’s mordantly descriptive, passionately-argued book and associated blog Urban Trawl highly enough. It even has an entry on Bristol, which he seems to find as fascinating as I do.

Filed in architecture Bristol