Tuesday, 22 April 2014

Serious Laughter: Jeremy Deller & Banksy in Bristol

Curious scenes at the Bristol Museum and Art Gallery the other day. As well as the usual mums with pushchairs and kids wondering out loud when they'd be getting an ice cream, the entrance hall was abuzz with young adults brandishing mobile phones. They were all waving said phones at a gloomy-looking painting of a couple embracing while they too look their phones.

We Sit Starving Amidst our Gold, Jeremy Deller, 2013 Courtesy British Council. Photograph Cristiano Corte. Painted by Stuart Sam Hughes.
So this was the new Banksy painting that had been causing all the fuss (which I'd heard about courtesy of the ever-vigilant Bristol Culture blog). The tale of the painting's semi-miraculous appearance on a boarded-up door, its removal by a crowbar-wielding latter day Robin Hood, Bristol City Council's announcement that it was their boarded-up door and therefore their painting, the Mayor's involvement... All of this came back as I looked at the painting, which didn't seem to be one of Banksy's best but is nonetheless potentially worth a few bob to the cash-strapped local authority.

Quite by chance (if anything is quite by chance) the picture and surrounding furore made rather a good introduction to the main event: Jeremy Deller's 'English Magic' exhibition, which we are lucky enough to have in Bristol until September. It's already been to Venice, where it filled the British Pavilion at the 2013 Biennale, and to the William Morris Gallery in London.

Jeremy Deller: Ooh-oo-hoo ah-ha ha yeah (installation view, British Pavilion, 2013) Courtesy the British Council
I've no doubt the exhibition has divided opinion, given that it includes film of Range Rovers being cubed at the breaker's yard and a painting of Mr Morris dispatching an oligarch's super-yacht to the watery deep, but no one can argue with the artist's desire to share his work with as wide an audience as possible. According to him, no previous British Biennale exhibit has been shown in this country after being displayed in Venice, so this is an intriguing precedent.

On entering the exhibition a younger member of our party, who had been explaining for some time that a visit to the Museum was not his idea of fun, immediately stopped as he took in the on-screen automotive destruction and the off-screen crushed-car-sofa. Being able to sit on the latter to watch the former made the whole thing much more fun than your average museum installation, but unfortunately we got so engrossed in the film, which also features people bouncing on an inflatable Stonehenge and a parade through the City of London, that we missed the second half of the exhibition upstairs.

I got there as a caretaker was solemnly closing the doors, and just caught a glimpse of a giant painting of a hawk before it disappeared.

When I was studying at UEA in the 1990s my tutor Lorna Sage used to talk about Serious Laughter, by which she was referring to writers who approached life's most difficult subjects through humour. I've never met Jeremy Deller but his art is very much in this spirit, earnest in theme but presented simply and with a light touch.

He is particularly good at surprising juxtapositions, as in the room of photographs which feature alternately moments from David Bowie's Ziggy Stardust tour (1972/3) and news photos from the same days. Importantly, these are not labelled but are listed in a doorway, so that you have to work at making identifications and connections. As a measure of the artist's success, this appealed as much to the younger member mentioned above as it did to me, and he knew as little about Bowie as he did about the IRA.

In or Out? Banksy's 'Mobile Lovers', courtesy of Bristol Post 
Cultural references have been a staple of contemporary art for as long as contemporary art has existed, but rare is the artist who can create from those references something that transcends them.

English Magic is on display until 21 September in Bristol and then goes to Turner Contemporary, Margate. 

Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Tiles of the Alhambra

Just got back from a short holiday in Almunecar, on the Costa Tropical, which included a day trip to beautiful Granada (a name I've associated for forty-something years with gritty northern TV). I don't usually give travel tips, but here's one for the Alhambra, one of the most sought-after European monument-type destinations. You basically have to book ahead, but the online booking is not very easy. If you should find yourself with an imminent visit to Granada and no ticket, go to the Granada tourist information website and buy one of their tourist cards - I think they're called Bono Turistico - which entitles you to several bus trips, free admission to the alarmingly grand cathedral (and other sights) and a visit to the Nasrid Palaces (the masterpiece of Moorish architecture that forms part of the much bigger Alhambra) at a particular time. These are available even when the Alhambra tickets are sold out, but are more expensive.

I know there are pictures of the Nasrid Palaces all over the internet, but the tiles just knocked me out, especially after researching Peggy Angus. She always said that tiles last well, and these have been on the walls for centuries, and have survived invasion, occupation, attempts by Napoleon's troops to blow the buildings up, etc, etc. Lots of info about the Alhambra and its astonishing decoration here.

Some of the tiles seem to be translucent, but they're just painted

The designs are full of life - this one reverses in and out as you look at it

These tiny tiles are set into the floor - I saw them around Almunecar as well, even in our apartment...

The colours are so strong...

Footnote: Granada was the last Moorish outpost in Spain, which fell to the forces of Ferdinand II and Isabella in 1492. More than 300 years later American writer Washington Irving rented part of the palace, where he collected the material for 'Tales of the Alhambra'.

Monday, 14 April 2014

Peggy Angus at the Printers!

From the website of Antique Collectors' Club:

Born in Chile in 1904 (to Scottish parents), Peggy moved as a child to London. A student of the Royal College of Art in the 1920s, her contemporaries included Eric Ravilious, Edward Bawden, Enid Marx and Helen Binyon. 

Peggy travelled extensively throughout her life, she captured places, people and scenes of everyday life with an intuitive perception. The portraits she painted are highly original; the designs she created for the wallpapers and ceramics that furnished her interiors are uniquely styled. 

Following WWII she began producing patterned tiles, adapting the design skills she had taught in the classroom, and up to the 1950s her colourful and decorative tile murals, commissioned by Carters of Poole, were used in a range of newly constructed buildings. Her success in this area prompted her to experiment with wallpaper design, creating a diverse body of work that carries echoes of an artist and designer whom she admired greatly, William Morris. 

Combining biography with a critical analysis of her work, this richly illustrated book aims both to celebrate Peggy's life and remarkable career and to bring it to the attention of a new generation.

'Peggy Angus: Designer, Teacher, Painter' is published by Antique Collectors' Club in June.

Monday, 17 March 2014

'Ruin Lust' & John Skoog's 'Redoubt'

From John Skoog, Redoubt (commission from Towner, 2014)
After visiting Tate Britain's new show 'Ruin Lust' recently I felt there was something missing, without being at all clear what it was, and at Towner on Saturday I found it. In his film 'Redoubt', Swedish artist John Skoog doesn't just show a ruin, he also gives a wonderful sense of what it feels like to discover and explore an extraordinary, abandoned site.

Like many Romantically-inclined people I've always loved exploring strange and interesting places, from tumble-down farm sheds of black corrugated iron to pill boxes and similar relics of wartime. As a youngster I used to love an abandoned house that had been half destroyed by some cataclysm, so that you could look straight into the surviving rooms as if into a doll's house. The place stood by itself near a railway line and I vividly remember discovering it for the first time, fragments of glass and masonry crunching underfoot as I approached. Wallpaper still adorned an upstairs bedroom, though the stairs were gone, and I think there was even a bath open to the sky.

That's what Ruin Lust means to me: the thrill of mildly illicit exploration in places that are neither exotic nor far-flung but hidden close to home in thickets or down quiet lanes. I have been very lucky with ruins, from Knowlton Church which lay close to my grandparents' house in Dorset to the abandoned World War II airfields that made such great playgrounds in Lincolnshire in the 1970s.

From John Skoog, Redoubt (commission from Towner, 2014)
Even today you don't have to look very far to find interesting relics of the past, as Paul Nash did when out photographing and collecting 'objets' in 1930s Dorset. I wasn't really expecting to find his photographs of stone steps and bedsteads, let alone pieces like his 'Marsh Personage', in the Tate exhibition, but there they were and it was a pleasure to see them. Nash walked around with his eyes open wide, looking out for interesting stuff, and he had the modern conceptual artist's ability to get the most out of the most humdrum find.

I think my favourite piece in the show is Paolozzi's 'Michelangelo's David', partly because it seems like a scale model of some vast, terribly broken relic of antiquity. And there are plenty of other treats to make a visit well worth it, from Tacita Dean's mesmerizing film of the last days of a Kodak film factory to Constable's sublime 'Sketch for Hadleigh Castle'. But I left with that sense of something missing - unspecified at first - which only made sense once I had seen Skoog's work.

From John Skoog, Redoubt (commission from Towner, 2014)
The subject of 'Redoubt' is one that should make all psychogeographers, flaneurs, Cold War relic hunters and other modern explorers green with envy. As a writer on the Aesthetica Blog put it:

The film is set in the flat farmlands of southern Sweden and focusses on the lifework of a rural farmer, Karl Goran Persson who died in 1971. ... Following the death of his parents in the 1940s, Karl became increasingly paranoid about the threat of Soviet invasion and so obsessively fortified his rye farm with concrete and junk – bicycles, spring beds, anything he could cheaply purchase at the scrapyard was mixed in concrete and cast onto the farm building. As the years pass, the concrete outer of this monument is worn away to reveal the inner artefacts of Karl’s manic fear.

The resulting building is a cross between an abandoned folly and a Cold War bunker. It is dark and dank, its concrete skin pierced with rusty metal. A tree grows through it and beyond its walls the flat farmland stretches away, but these outside realities are only glimpsed. The camera's focus is, like the gaze of the explorer, fixed on the ruin itself.

Ruin Lust is at Tate Britain until 18 May
John Skoog: Redoubt is at Towner until 8 April

There is a ruin near you waiting to be discovered!

Saturday, 22 February 2014

Artists' Textiles in Bermondsey

Popped into the Fashion and Textile Museum in the old warehouse district that is apparently now known as Bermondsey Village... Fascinating to see how Dali, Picasso and co were marketed to the fashion-conscious, and intriguing how many post-war British artists became involved - although my favourite pieces were the few pre-war block-printed textiles in the first room. There's a nice intro to the exhibition here, with much better photos. Rather less women artists than men, but the other way round I think with the dress designs.

Not many artists could turn a scribbled date into a commercial design.... Viva Picasso!

Salvador Dali a textile designer? 

Produce books like this and who'd want a plastic one?

Wonderful designs from the 1930s

Even Cubists have to earn a crust - this fabric is by Georges Braque

Fun to see designs (by Warhol) 'on the wall' and in frock form... 

I love this photo of Andy Warhol - not only sulky, but young too. Not unlike Julian Assange.

An intriguing take on Paddington Station in simpler times, courtesy of Saul Steinberg, 1952

Steinberg again, with cowboys

And again, with apologies to Picasso?

Fabulous John Piper design...

And a close-up... but did people make dresses out of this? And if so, who wore them?

Artist Textiles: Picasso to Warhol is at the Fashion and Textile Museum, 83 Bermondsey Street, Bermondsey, London, until 17th May 2014 .