Bruce Nauman (1941 –

Kweiseye is an art criticism blog written by Tom Kwei. If you enjoy this article, browse the archive HERE for more than 60 other critiques of both artists and exhibitions. Any questions/queries/use: tomkweipoet@gmail.com. 

Painting is but one of the skills that sculptor, photographer and installation artist Bruce Nauman also has at his disposal. In spite of his myriad of approaches though, there runs an aesthetic minimalist consistency throughout his work. A stoic adherence to precision, with a direct eye that conjures deep juxtaposition puzzles for the viewer within subtle signifiers.

NO (1981)

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The sheer power of words is never better exemplified than in Bruce Nauman’s ‘NO’. The painting is a smart flip on the idea of patheticfallacy, with the chaotic weather of the piece not just representing the idea of the word ‘No’ as a concept, but also incorporating the slick contours of the word itself within the maelstrom. The word charges out from the front, the stormed techniques curving around the contours.

Regardless of the term however, the work throughout is outstanding. Though on first glance they may feel as childish scribbles, there is a consistency to the manic scrawls; spirals tube up and out of the words, small twisted tornados gather in arches, the guttering white at the left hand side of the ‘N’ of the word gifts it a seething, searing quality. Around this depiction of solid refusal there is still some of Nauman at work, with a clean white boundary left around the word, adding a caustic edge to the denial.

Though undeniably powerful even just on the screen in front of you, experiencing’ NO’ in real life, as I did when staying in Liverpool, really allows you appreciate the power of the painting within the context of a gallery. Scanning the upper room of the Liverpool TATE where the painting is housed, it will always catch your eye with monomania.

Ultimately, there comes a sense, especially with ‘NO’, that perhaps analysis as per Kweiseye isn’t even necessary really for this one, its powers self evident and without question.

Ah Ha (1975)

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The title of this delicate mirror image piece is something you may initially mutter to yourself you dig deeper down in its symmetries. There is just not just the black and white of the left and right, nor the fact that opposing words, whose letters can each equally be halved exactly, are in fact the same reflection in both shape and spelling. The interest and trouble then stems from the fact that the definitions of the actual pure words themselves, the ‘ah’ and the ‘ha’ are hard to pin down in terms of empirical certainty.

‘Ha’ is obviously the easier of the two, the standard explanation being laughter, though perhaps it can be of malice. Is the ‘Ah’ an exhalation? A scream of pain? Perhaps it’s meant as mentioned at the opening, as an ‘Ah’ of discovery.

The standard tropes of this blog then, looking at brushwork, imagery etc. these cannot apply here. Yet the piece still retains interest through both the simplicity of its execution, and the effectiveness of the sheer idea of the thing. It is playful and suggestive, alluring in an unpretentious way. A nudge in the gallery to remember that defining artwork is treacherous. And if forced one should be taken by the glee of the situation rather than labored with obtrusive baggage.

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Judith Leyster (1609 – 1660)

Kweiseye is an art criticism blog written by Tom Kwei. If you enjoy this article, browse the archive here for more than 60 other critiques of both artists and exhibitions. Any questions/queries/use: tomkweipoet@gmail.com. 

Despite being highly regarded within her own lifetime, it took more than 230 years after Judith Leyster’s death for her to be rediscovered for a contemporary audience. Up until that point the entirety of her own work was actually considered to be that of acclaimed portraitist Franz Hals, an error eventually corrected by the excellently named critic, Cornelis Hofstede de Groot.

Leyster’s work typically is of people within scenes of entertainment and leisure. The preoccupations of the then growing Dutch middle class.

The Last Drop (1639)

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The signs are clear that the men have indulged too much. The tankard is tipped empty, the long pipe smoking. The drinker at the left is maternally gripped to his jug, cheeks bulging. And as if this wasn’t enough to connote avarice, there are the items that the grimacing skeleton holds too. A flickering candle reaching its end, a running hourglass, and, somewhat more obscurely, his own head. A sight to suggest the loss of reason maybe, or, more likely, something to underscore the uneasiness of the image.

Whilst the moral lesson of The Last Drop is practically spoon-fed (the title a pun on both the end of the bottle and the end of life), what holds interest is the sense of light. From the candle in the middle we have not only the bones themselves illuminated in all their macabre glory: the broken teeth, the wide, searing eyes which are enrapt looking at the oblivious gulper. But the features of the indulged too, the ornately clothed smoker lit up in a delicious execution of skill, the watched man on the left shown on his darker side with the light peeping out, gilding a three dimensional edge to the image.

The light also draws us into the face of the standee whose look is a perfect vision of drunkeness. His mouth toothy and agape above eyes rolled back, looking off over the shoulder of the viewer to some beleaguered sense of reason.

Alongside the skeleton, this element of otherwordlyness is compounded through the blank, grey background. Where actually are we here? A bar or something of that type would make sense but they seem on display as a lesson rather than amidst mere depiction. Everything is good in moderation so they say, even moderation.

Young Flute Player

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Lost in the trills of practice, the small boy (who is much smaller than his large tented clothes let on), looks out into the nothingness that musicians inhabit when they’re amidst practice. Behind him other extraordinarily well realised instruments hang, the sheen of the violin and recorder something really to behold. But he is elsewhere, engaged with his flute; his mouth pursed, his fingers curved into a melody.

Again, much like The Last Drop, Leyster takes us to a blank background to reinforce all the details within. The arch of the chair the boy sits on, the cobra like patterning that creeps up the leg, as well as the delicate, hushed white ruffling of his collar.

There 0f course is no sound in painting, no other sense but sight. Yet Leyster seems to have captured the moment so well in its tranquility and envelopment, that you strain a little to imagine what sound the boy is making.

 

For Dutch genre painting of a similar ilk, read about the earlier explored Jan Steen (1626 – 1679) here.

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Jakub Schikaneder (1855 – 1924)

 

Kweiseye is an art criticism blog written by Tom Kwei. If you enjoy this article, browse the archive here for more than 60 other critiques of both artists and exhibitions. Any questions/queries/use: tomkweipoet@gmail.com. 

I like painters who leave hints. Painters whose work renounces mere representation and engages their audience with some narrative assembly. Jakub Schikaneder, the Czech Realist, is such a tease.

An artist of delicate, sombre pieces that feel at once both full and empty. His technique is remarkably assured, especially in the treatment of the human body, yet ultimately his work’s intent is obscure and unsteady. Schikaneder’s paintings feel as offerings in a sense, invitations up to the discerning, inquisitive eye.

Evening Street (1906)

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There is a squinted-eyed dimness to this piece. A sense of solitary chill which permeates the very bones of Evening Street, developing a trace of hazy static as if it were encountered through a light sleet. This is best evident on the worn walls and browning cobbles, their quickly dappled surfaces emanating a bleary frost.

Up top amidst the eaves of the forward facing building, a snow has gathered and grown visible. Above this the night holds impenetrable but for a single defiant star – much akin to the solitary lamplight seen at the far left window – that is fighting against the inevitable tug of a wintry night. Atop the aforementioned pane, another is curiously open to the world, along with yet another which hangs ajar just to the upper left of the unreadable sign. Maybe whoever was there has upped and left; who would want to live in such unenviable cold?

Our only real sense of any powerful light comes through the intriguing passageway at the right. The shine both richly illuminating the pallor of the buildings, as well as pulling us subtly away from the numbed heart of the square to somewhere more inviting. But of course, there is no exit here. Schikaneder is a heckler as we’ve discussed. Rather our eyes become dragged back to the street, wherein it soon becomes clearer on examination that this is an oddly claustrophobic image. One that is walled with no escape at the right, bar the subtle tease, with a solid storefront facing outward defiant towards us. The gloom of the square is less expansive than it may have first appeared it seems.

A feeling compounded by the two departing women who in a sense seem to reflect each other, creating a smaller enclosed division within the open space. Their paths are a near perfect angle of symmetry, along with their similar white covering and haunches both up struggling against the night. With the solitary light and their pale shawls, they can perhaps be seen as ghosts in this wasteland, stalking on the bitter chill of a Prague street.

Murder in the House (1890)

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A man at the front of a group gestures to a body, the corpse itself seems to point back. This wonderful picture is one to be scoured for its details and mysteries.

Amongst themselves, regardless of the tragedy around them, the crowd are a fantastic collection of characters. Most, such as the maid with her hands clasped or the older man leaning forward, appear pensive and curious rather than horrified. Perhaps what Schikaneder is showing is a moment past the initial hysteria of discovering a murder.

The majority of the 10 (look out for the easy to miss younger girl beside the older man infront of the door) appear to be focusing more on the older couple up front as opposed to the body. Intriguingly, it seems that the small child is the one most fascinated of the rabble, her pose relaxed yet gripped in its gaze. From the exasperation of the man signalling towards the boy to the more diplomatic reserve of the maid behind him, Schikaneder excels in creating character through expression. On the face of it they seem a disparate bunch, but through placing them all in the context of the horror they feel coherent and believable.

Supposedly images of this kind, which look to the fate of women within squalor, was an arc that Schikaneder plumbed regularly for inspiration. Research has identified the place that inspired Murder in the House as the opening of the dead-end Sitalska street which lead in part to the ghetto of the artist’s home city, Prague. The vivid realism here then is no accident, with the incredible detail of the area indebted to Schikaneder’s own experience.  The walls all scrubbed yet dirty, the window frames wooden and uneven. At a close corner by the barrel, a piece of wood festers broken.

There is of course the woman herself too. Despite her clear once-elegance, the artist is unsparing in his depiction of her demise. Her head silently twisted in her own blood puddle, her wrist cast awkwardly backward. Grimly it seems that this position was something she would have stumbled to, with her hand print on the yellowed hallway suggesting she had held herself for a second before collapsing to be found by the crowd.

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Joan Eardley (1921 – 1963)

Kweiseye is an art criticism blog written by Tom Kwei. If you enjoy this article, browse the archive here for more than 60 other critiques of both artists and exhibitions. Any questions/queries/use: tomkweipoet@gmail.com. 

Some of my all time favourite songs are instrumental. Freed from the conventional storytelling of lyrics, there often paradoxically seems to be more to be said through a weaving melody line than couplets that inevitably chorus climb. Of course there isn’t any actual tale being spun within a song of this ilk like, say, Dirty Three’s excellent ‘The Restless Waves’, rather it seems the lack of a coherent centre allows the technique and style of the musicians to flourish.

As Tommy Emmanuel and Guthrie Govan before her then, Joan Eardley feels to me as an instrumentalist. An artist who primarily feels concerned with pageantry, her affecting style taking over her stark depictions. Eardley’s world is one of great force and abandon, a place dominated by the brush rather than any message.

July Fields (1959)

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This painting captivates through its impenetrable surface. With little in the way of pictorial representation July Fields feels essentially an exhibition for Eardley’s sublime control of chaotic colour blending. Such simplicity of image – the gruff of a field beneath a smudged blue sky – inevitably invites scrutiny, and up close the complex grassland begins to disintegrate to something more akin to the tapering plaster of a wall than a waist high meadow.

Its blends come in pockmarked creases, the brushstrokes visible as they mingle. Every inch of the greenery feels worthy of interest as its subtle tones weave in and out, leading the audience’s eye with them. The grass here is dense and stubborn rather than flowing, almost concrete in its recalcitrance. It seems that no matter how hard you scour, it’s impossible to get past the first layer.  And it is here within this investigation that the true wonder of ‘July Fields’ is revealed, with two distinct halves emerge from the pasture.

As Manet famously said, ‘there are no lines in nature, only areas of colour, one against each other’, and here within July Fields we see a perfect demonstration of this collision. At the far right there being a more typical depiction, the greens deep and verdant, their flowers evoked as white wisps of flick on a leaning stem. Whilst at the left there holds a splodge of red on top of the brush, the sun perhaps, that seems to have dribbled down into the reeds as water.

Perhaps the impervious nature of July Fields works in its favour, as down here, as nature towers above, we feel relaxed, guarded. Free from the heat of July and able to singularly appreciate the sense of isolation that Eardley stubbled technique conjures.

Sea and Snow (1958)

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Caught amidst two marauding elements, the smiling inward curve of a shore appears battered between. Eardley’s painting is truly remarkable here, capable both of evoking the slushy drifts of snow on the sea, as well as the blistered browning rocks before the tide.

The foreshortened sky and indulgent coast pulls the image closer to us as viewers, giving a reduced distance to everything. Detail is sparse. And within the broad, gnarled strokes of the sky and the near translucent bluffs at the bottom right, Eardley presents a vague, cold world. A place in which the sea and the snow work to drain each other of definition, their interactions, such as the long streaks of turbulent white against the furthest point of the cliffs, marvels of layered discipline.

Similar to the earlier explored Raoul Dufy, Eardley seems to revel in the artifice of her work. There is no effort towards true mimicry (what are those pink streaks on the water for one?) rather an indulgence in the raw revelry of display.

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David Kakabadze (1889 – 1952)

Kweiseye is an art criticism blog written by Tom Kwei. If you enjoy this article, browse the archive here for more than 60 other critiques of both artists and exhibitions. Any questions/queries/use: tomkweipoet@gmail.com. 

A polymath of his time, David Kakabadze was not only a visionary avant grade painter, but an art scholar and innovator of cinematography. Within his sparse depictions there comes breathing room for his affecting technique. His imagery a subtle meld of leftist techniques and his native Georgia.

Rioni Power Station (1931)

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There comes a modern oddness to this painting. It feeling near inconceivable on initial viewing that it has crept from way back within the 1930s. Not only does the anachronistic sense stem from the small, soft concrete of the bridge that feels sharper than it has anything right to be, but via the mountains too, their base, expressionistic patches of surprisingly few shades creating a landscape more affecting than inspiring.

Nothing is given too much definition. The forests darkened deposits rather than detailed leafy canopies. At the top left there stand two solitary trees as guardians, the duo being of only a few trunks visible. Above this all the sky, stark in its realism, only serves to highlight the somewhat Fauvist approach to colours that Kakabadze has adopted. His world a take on the world rather than a fitful representation.

In spite of the blocky discipline though, movement does seem to dribble through here. The sun above falling majestically against the cleft of the world behind the power station, a single ridge, to which another tree watches, lying completely shadowed whilst the rest behind blazes indifferently on.

Sailboats (1921)

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Whenever faced with a Cubist image like this, I always scour the thing for traces or hints to which the title could be alluding to. It’s always best to initially center yourself this way I find, with Sailboats being an easy task for its sharp angles intersecting that resemble as masts. There also occurs small waves on the Sailboats, tiny ripples of water occurring within the white fold shape of the folds. There is little else to engage though.

The boat feels pinned up on the grey to be examined, a specimen. An origami rearrangement whose center folds inward, inverting the colours. This semi transparent shade behind is particularly well realised, the shapes below still visible and submerged beneath. Sailboats a simple puzzle of mental assembly that grows more complex as the subtle patterning of suggested colour are imagined.

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The Royal Academy Summer Exhibition 2015

Kweiseye is an art criticism blog written by Tom Kwei. If you enjoy this article, browse the archive here for more than 60 other critiques of both artists and exhibitions. Any questions/queries/use: tomkweipoet@gmail.com. 

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A veritable smugglers cove of an art show, wherein huge varieties of new work hang together as disparate plunder, The Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition is like no other exhibition at all. There is no theme, no single artist (rather, 1100 or so) and there are no rules for entry it seems. Only that the submitted piece be either sculpture, illustration, installation, or, of course, painting.

Whilst visiting London last weekend I ventured inside and spent the best part of three hours merely scratching the surface of the thing. The show, which is the oldest open-submission exhibition of its kind, is staged across 16 large rooms. With some of the designs, such as that of Jim Lambie (the stripes above belonging to his awesome ‘Zobop’) even spilling out of their predetermined spaces.

And though I must say that the quality was a tad patchy at times – something always to be expected with the nature of something so sprawling. There is routinely some excellence to encounter within this year’s Summer Exhibition and it’s well worth a visit. Here’s a selection of things that caught my eye:

Mick Moon – Noon Fishing/Dawn Fishing

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By stacking these two pieces one on top of the other, the inference comes of them being one complete, cohesive whole. The top , Noon Fishing, showing seagulls circling in the clouds. The lower portion, Dawn Fishing, depicting anglers working on the sea. Moon’s creative reapprproation of wood is a smart surrogate for both the sky and the ocean, all three of these entities being things with a sense of the eternal inherently embedded. All holding a feeling of permanence that far outstrips the things that ever depend on them.

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The use of wood is employed not just as metaphor by Moon though, but also as a very element of the picture. Such as in Dawn Fishing, wherein the knot of the wood itself appears to behave as rippling water beneath the casters. The paint and the material intertwining intelligently to suggest reflection and depth of shimmer on the canvas.

Holloway Back Gardens with Self Portrait – Melissa Scott-Miller

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A terrific, wide sprawl of an image whose detail sadly cannot be given real justice by my craned iPhone camera. This ‘self portrait’ of sorts (the artist can be seen on the left, her own image interestingly of a childish house) impresses not only through its scope, but its eye for the smaller universes of each garden depicted.

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Though perhaps slightly cartoonish at an initial glance, the charming style is of true vision and skill. Not only does the sun fall across the image with great accuracy, with the rays falling lazily across the various outcrops, but the whole thing has a biting affirming Britishness to it. A real for the back garden. All of them depicted here seeming to form an uninterrupted wilderness together, as if the houses are penning them back as one.

Sticky Toffee Pudding – Archie Franks

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Delivered through heavy throbs of pressed down paint, this depiction has a gluttonous weight to it far beyond the connotations of the humble treat it shows. Against a tame and mild flan coloured background, Franks pins us right up against the food at the front. Some of the desert has ran out of the middle, the exposed gooey centre seeming to lift off the easel as if rising lines of heat.

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From afar in the Royal Academy Sticky Toffee Pudding is easy to miss, both because there’s just so much around and also by the small size of the platter, effectively done to scale. Up close though there is a real vibrancy and aggression here, the thick globules suggesting anger and division – all within a pudding.

Olive Tree in a Field of Grass Feed – Paul Sayers

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And finally, here we are in a field somewhere. There comes a suggestion of pattern , the trees seeming to reflect each other’s place on dual parallel lines. Yet the mood is flagging and hazy rather than uniform. The technique rushed yet endearing. With the grass coming in thick, tense brushstrokes of definite crinkled green, whilst the leaves of the trees appear to flutter amongst their own celluar structures.

At the corner of the image another two lines cross as an angle, suggesting further patterning soon to be found off canvas. `

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Evie Hone (1894 – 1955)

Kweiseye is an art criticism blog written by Tom Kwei. If you enjoy this article, browse the archive here for more than 60 other critiques of both artists and exhibitions. Any questions/queries/use: tomkweipoet@gmail.com. 

Though primarily regarded as one of the most outstanding stain-glassed designers of the 20th century, Evie Hone was also a talented painter. An extremely devout artist who tended more towards the unreal within her brushwork.

Abstract Study (1930)

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There is a sheath, a skin to this work. An overwhelming presence of blue that itself seems unsteady in the frame. The image plays with ideas of images, the outer limits of the canvas painted on as if wood.

Striking first is the many shades and variation of the colour. It is a blue holding formations and currents beneath, their designs piled on as stencils laced. At the center there comes a sense of a torrent, the shapes in the outer reaches seeming to begin to curve whilst those in the middle conforming utterly to a circle. It is as if the aforementioned sheath is pulling backwards to a determined, gritty difference between the two. A pearl in the oyster.

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This crystallised centre. Intricately measured and judged as bricks of colour from bold, powerful strokes. As orientation is easier down here, it allows a sharper appreciation of the sense of movement and distance between the two areas of the image. The exterior expanses far more sluggish and broad, the heart so varied.

Canal Bridge

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An intelligent balancing act of a painting. In ‘Canal Bridge’ we see all the pieces fitting together smartly: from the disembodied leaves on the top left mirroring as dapples on the water, to the eponymous bridge itself which smiles back in a positive hum. Our view is both teased further and cut off shortly through these catoptric surfaces. There is a sense of being tugged back to the image as you try to spy further into it through its echoes.

It is both modern and engaging, and postcard. There is no depiction bar the very technique that realises the bridge. A theme common throughout Hone’s painting.

The palette overall is far rougher than ‘Abstract Landscape’, with the tempo of the work both urgent yet calming. Everything comes in bold strokes, the water itself seemingly translucent and absent through the build of different responses of the landscape rather than the employment of depth.

Perhaps her fundamentals within stained-glass influenced this crystallised sense of her image. Her goal more to reverent iconic pieces rather than suggestions and prods. Within Hone there is a peculiar silence build from a beguiling, stilling technique.

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George Grosz (1893 – 1959)

Kweiseye is an art criticism blog written by Tom Kwei. If you enjoy this article, browse the archive HERE for more than 60 other critiques of both artists and exhibitions. Any questions/queries/use: tomkweipoet@gmail.com. 

As a German anti-Nazi satirist who composed much of his work amidst the rise and fall of The Third Reich, George Grosz (originally ‘Georg’ until 1916 when he anglicised the spelling in antinationalist protest) is a fascinating figure both historically and artistically. Damning and iconoclastic, Grosz’s vibrant, skewered depictions of his battered time are as savage as they are prescient.

To Oskar Panizza – (1917/18)

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Witnessed from high above, the maniacal parade of flags, sabres and hellfire trundles past the viewer with a palpable fury. A procession itself of a chaotic mixture, churning figures prevalent in the post-war despair of the Weimar Republic (the evangelising priest, the jingoistic general etc.) with Grosz’s own apocalyptic flourishes of tone and vision.

Amidst this kaleidoscope display of dulled, oppressive yet varied hues, everything comes tinged with some darkness. The only natural light within appearing from the back – a small fire which has sprung up spontaneously taking several bodies with it.

And perhaps that’s all for the best as this appears a brutal, hellish world. Take the aforementioned priest at the bottom left for example, he who brandishes a brittle white cross, rising from the dead off the back of a pig hybrid that greedily cradles a bottle of wine. This duo themselves being but a moment amongst a panoply of grotesque detail throughout. A world that seems creaky on its hinges as the buildings leer in and out of frame.

Revealingly in retrospect, Grosz detailed the piece as a reflection of his own view of society at the time, his goal to show ‘a diabolical procession of human figures… their faces eloquent of alcohol, syphillis, plague’. A procession who appear riven by a skeleton that carries on atop them by coffin. A symbol easily missed perhaps as its own vague skin assimilates into the riot below, but one that’s important as it serves reminder that though the depiction of this world is cartoonish, the realities are still pertinent. Maybe with our future hindsight it is easy to dismiss the intent, but with such technique and unflinching directness, ‘To Oskar Panizza’ is impossible to ignore.

And Oskar Panizza himself? Understandably he was not a man of peace or reason, rather an objector of the most conscientious and rigorous kind. Repelled by the church, the army (Grosz himself was twice expelled for poor health) and authority of any sort whatsoever. The writer Kurt Tucholsky described Panizza as the most daring, barbed, witty and revolutionary prophet Germany had ever seen – perhaps in Grosz he has found fitting tribute.

‘The Painter of the Hole’ – (1948)

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During World War II, a conflict which felt all but inevitable to Grosz for years prior, the German painted a number of apocalyptic scenes expressing his despair and hopelessness at the tragic developments he had warned of in vain – see ‘The Pit’ or ‘Cain, or Hitler in Hell’

Perhaps it is logical then that in the aftermath of WWII the artist near-exclusively adopted the use of stickmen, a symbol of artistic impotency in the face of annihilation. They are, after all, perfect signifiers of nothingness and fundamentals, something Grosz expanded upon in a letter to the playwright Bertolt Brecht, stating, ‘they consist of thin but firm strokes. They cast no shadow, and are themselves completely grey’.

Yet there seems a paradox at the heart of this painting. As in demonstrating the futility of depiction, Grosz has in fact created a wonderful work. One that is wry and knowing, the message clear and the technique assured. And beneath the Hole Painter’s chair especially, there is great work. The distressed, drained palette allowing Grosz to contrast the squeezed paint tubes and scored notebooks with the flotsam and jetsam of rubble and mess. The righthand corner which gathers with forgotten reproductions of the past, their own images slowly peeling off the canvas back into the dirt. All there seems to be here is the sense of something missing.

The figure himself stands clear from the rest of the faded image with his comic, ghost-like appearance. His weak wrist almost as fluid as the paint that flicks from it. Easily mocked as he is though, this is a man that seems to be respected, seems to be something that Grosz charges with heroism rather than mock defeat. And perhaps this is because he keeps going; through the chaos all around, past the rat that gathers on his image and the other that waits at his feet, his own eye sees forth and he continues to depict knowing that it will offer no change against the past.

Or, more likely in truth as it is with Grosz, this is a final image of defeat. A wonderfully evocative painting with a quieting message about a final loss of hope.

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Francisco Goya (1746 – 1828)

Kweiseye is an art criticism blog written by Tom Kwei. If you enjoy this article, browse the archive HERE for more than 60 other critiques of both artists and exhibitions. Any questions/queries/use: tomkweipoet@gmail.com. 

When his works are collected together and poured over, Francisco Goya can seem frenzied and unpredictable in his approaches. Here for example is a painter who depicts a bygone innocence of the Spanish past as richly as he imagines executions of native soldiers by French troops. Here also is a conferred ‘Painter to the King’ whose subtly subversive royal portraits share stylistic similarities to his ‘Los Caprichos’, a haunting passion project of the artist that aimed to explore, ‘the extravagances and follies common to every civilized society’. What ties the entire oeuvre of Goya together though is a distinct sense of something more beneath the paint, a preoccupation not just with satire or veiled critique, but an appeal to feeling beyond the mere rapture of his brush.

The Straw Mannequin (1791 – 1792)

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Despite this no doubt being a familiar carnival sight to the Spanish aristocracy whom commissioned it, ‘The Straw Mannequin’ cannot be anything but acutely disturbing to the modern eye. Taking aside for a second the simple fact that there is a corpse-like dummy being flung high by women who seem enchanted by the act, it is the very moment that Goya picks to crystallise that lends the image such a sinister quality.

Had the mannequin been dropping down head over heels or in some other less recognisably human pose, its discerning qualities could perhaps have been discarded in favour of the jubilation being had. Yet by showing ‘him’ behaving anatomically quite how a person would look thrown upward, Goya revels in the disjunction between the real and the imitative. Look at the slack, unresponsive limbs. The buckled shoes pointing out askance beneath ornate britches. It’s lifeless, painted face that arches back on what looks like a broken neck with a ponytail swinging behind. The figure, of course, isn’t real and feels nothing. But the subtle blurring keeps us as entranced as the foursome.

What is Goya saying here though? Is this a commentary, suggesting what strong women can do with a weak man? Or is the net cast wider and this is more about mob rule and its influence on the single individual caught in the middle? The circumstances are murky, what is clear though is that Goya’s revered attention to detail isn’t just regulated to the action at the centre.

The unusually tall image allows the artist to achieve a fantastic level of depth at both ends of the work. At the base his brush is keen and nuanced. The shadow of the blanket varying in heaviness and shade depending on where it is pinched and the buckles of the women beneath sparkling wonderfully under cover. Above the straw filled body we have a fantastically imagined sky whose washes of wispy cloud ape the golden backed green of the trees.

Duel with Cudgels (1820 – 1823)

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Both of these men feel inextricable from their landscape. The fighter on the right appears to be fading into the white of the backdrop, his legs cut off from the ankle down, one and the same with the sediment beneath. On the left, his opponent is similarly entrenched, his own cudgel appearing to be the source of the smoky clouds behind  There is a grisly madness to this desolate scene. A futility and sadness, a sense that whoever is the victor will still be trapped, still have gained nothing.

With their heights so exaggerated and their bodies so cemented, perhaps the two men are representative of some higher order. Some symbols of how the powers that be are effectively rooted within the same world and that murdering the other is only serving to ruin the world around them. The two even seem spotlit by the landscape’s sunshine, the left warrior’s cudgel also appearing to tear through the clouds themselves.

Up-close however, and the painting definitely should be seen up-close (click it) for its wonderful treatment of diaphanous colour, individual faces and emotions are detectable which draw the magnitude down to a more painful, one on one confrontation. A fight that has been going on a while it seems. The man on the left all bloodied up and continuing, his opponent cocked back on the left ready for a huge swipe lest he be blocked.

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MODERN REVIEW: Cornelia Parker at Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester.

Kweiseye is an art criticism blog written by Tom Kwei. If you enjoy this article, browse the archive HERE for more than 60 other critiques of both artists and exhibitions. Any questions/queries/use: tomkweipoet@gmail.com. 

*The first of a new series of articles entitled ‘MODERN REVIEW’. This infrequently posted selection will feature reviews I’ve done of contemporary UK exhibitions for online publications other than ‘Kweiseye’. IMG_3181

Cornelia Parker at Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester (01/04/2015).

Original review: http://www.theskinny.co.uk/art/reviews/cornelia-parker-whitworth-manchester-review

Upon entering the newly revitalised Whitworth, it can initially be unclear where Cornelia Parker’s retrospective is actually located. There is just so much to see. Exhibitions taken from the Whitworth’s portraiture collections, new acquisitions and examples from the gallery’s textile archive are all on display on the building’s lower level, and Parker’s show exists among them.

The first groups of pieces focus on Parker’s paper-based and smaller sculptural work. Embryo Firearms (1995) is a disturbing, engrossing piece of reductionism. Two Colt 45 guns are displayed in their earliest form of production accompanied by Precipitated Gun (2015), a suggestively cocaine-like line of powder. This is, in fact, the remnants of a gun that has been pulverised for the exhibition. Throughout, weapons and ammunition crop up with menacing regularity, achieving an odd abstraction through their use as a medium in drawing and painting (for example, the drawings made with melted lead bullets). Although a variety of techniques is employed, one constant remains: a focus on the fundamental parts that contribute to the whole, and how an engagement with such constituents can engender a deeper, more profound understanding of the thing. IMG_3180

This notion reaches its apotheosis with the installation Room for Margins (1998), which consists of a group of canvas linings taken from paintings by Turner during their conservation. The canvases are browned, and show compelling indentation of the proto-Impressionist delights once above them. The gesture is a bold one. Initially these works are confusing and obtuse – we question their veracity – but the process becomes an enlightening one as small images of beauty leak through the surfaces. Further on into the exhibition comes a series of Parker’s larger installation works, including the one she is, perhaps, most famous for: Cold Dark Matter: An Exploded View (1991). The astonishing slow-motion implosion of sorts decorates an entire room in the floating aftermath of disintegration. Opposite this work we find a new commission, War Room (2015), a punishing, remarkable piece wherein the walls and ceiling of a single room are layered with red poppy cutouts – waste material from the Royal British Legion’s Poppy Appeal. The experience is significant, the room seeming to both swoon and be still, the pointillist echo of colour playing out as an angry womb. IMG_3188

These larger installations have certainly been the most advertised and discussed in relation to the show, but do not just be taken in by these grand motions. It is the earlier, more muted sculptures, experiments and works on paper that deserve the most attention. Here the rich imagination of the artist plays out with none of the equipment, posing questions in true, essential ways.

Enjoy reading that? Click HERE to see a list of all the art analyses on Kweiseye to date. To keep up with the blog and all the art I write about, follow me right here on this blog or here @tomkweipoet

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