All posts by Mulholland Dr.

Bertrand Lavier, Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, 31st May – 22nd September 2002; Philippe Parreno, Alien Seasons, Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, 31st May – 15th September 2002.

Contemporary French art appears to be on the threshold of crisis, rudely awakened from bureaucratic slumber by the Right who, encouraging debate on museum privatisation, seek to revoke massive increases in state funding introduced in 1982. These attacks on cultural statism threaten French endorsement of the Euro Kunsthallen model, and may shift emphasis away from neo-conceptual practices. Additionally, Nicolas Bourriaud perceives a waning of critical spirit in French culture. Committed to the work of emerging artists, Bourriaud’s dressed-down Palais de Tokyo Site de Création Contemporaine may serve as a corrective. Equally, it could exasperate the problem by pampering the few peripheral French art practices that circumvent €urokunst. Siting an ‘alternative’ space in the 16th arrondissement is not an ironic gesture in the face of horizontal cultural coordination. To make matters worse, the Palais de Tokyo has been parading Parisian squat art; an alternative scene that has little to offer other than misplaced hippie sentiment and attendant expressionist relativism. Despite its faults, the inclusive approach of the Palais de Tokyo does at least suggest that ‘international profile’ can no longer be the only desirable cultural aspiration.

As such, the Musée d’Art Moderne’s concurrent solo exhibitions of Bertrand Lavier and Phillipe Parreno may amount to nothing more than nostalgia; Lavier being a major French figure of the 80s and Parreno, of the 90s. Lavier engages with the intersection between museological endgames and consumer culture. His concerns may be semiotic, but his work is primarily ironic and parasitic rather than erudite. Composition rouge, verte et jaune (1989) looks like a hard-edged abstract painting, but turns out to be a section of wooden sports floor. The semiotic implications of allegedly pure signifiers are probed only for the hollow applause of the converted. Such works are the cultural products of an 80s France that understood the role of museums. Knowing his place, Lavier found these desublimating puns endlessly amusing. A series of Relief­-Peintures (1987-91) are constructed from portions of brightly coloured prefabricated building façades; Lothar (1999) is a pylon snapped off by France’s 1999 hurricane painted silver to resemble a Modernist steel sculpture. Only when Lavier leaves literalism and uncooked juxtapositions behind do his museological musings become worthwhile. Walt Disney Productions 1947-1984 – an arrangement of paintings and sculptures based on a cartoon of Mickey Mouse’s visit to a Modern art gallery – works on the level of the pun certainly, but it has awesome psychological force. This realisation of a virtual space is truly nauseating; green and yellow walls enclose bright biomorphic polyester resin sculptures, mobiles and silvery abstract cartoon cibachromes. Lavier’s recent cibachromes, Harcourt/Grévin (2002) unite the glamorous chiaroscuro developed by Harcourt photography studio in the 1930s with the gauche celebrity of the Musée Grévin wax museum. Taste apart, Harcourt and Grévin are equally accomplished mythologisers of Parisian cliché. By photographing waxworks of contemporary figures such as Vladimir Putin and Arnold Schwarzenegger in the now unfashionable Harcourt style, Lavier not only mocks the epochal pretensions of such individuals, but pricks at the heart of representation’s canonising power. More pressingly, Lavier prophesises the avaricious populism that we might expect if French museums are privatised.

Parreno, like Lavier, is respectful of the institution, taking just as great care to produce an exhibition grandiose in aspiration and solemn in tone. Parreno is also drawn to discordance and conflation. The opening work of the exhibition, his short 35mm time-lapse film of growing Norwegian vegetation El sueño de una cosa (2002), is projected onto a Robert Rauschenberg White Painting (1951) every 4 min.33 Secs. (John Cage, 1952). The long painful wait through Cage’s music while staring at Rauschenberg’s equally uneventful monochrome is finally rewarded with breakneck rendition of genesis. Parreno here appropriates time and space rather than material culture, he does not use objects but memories, collective hallucinations, ‘the dream of a thing.’ In this way he avoids Lavier’s cynicism, circumventing vulgar materialist questions that museological art tends to raise verbatim, focusing instead on the structures of feeling that permeate culture as a whole. Parreno’s vision of the world is more nuanced, fragmented and estranged since he has faith in the ability of the imagination and our biochemical selves to reconstruct semiotic and spatial relationships. Alien Seasons (2002) a video projection of a cuttlefish camouflaging itself by changing colour to match its surroundings can be read as a metaphor for the means of subterfuge by which Parreno leads his audience into an alien environment constructed according to his wishes. The show’s final work Crédits (1999), extends this metaphor to a false dénouement. A collection of coloured plastic bags hang from a tree planted in waste ground near a 1970s housing project. The luminous bags filmed under relentlessly changing lighting conditions, flutter in the wind and rain to the accompaniment of electric guitar by ACDC’s Angus Young. The sound, lighting and mise-en-scène continuously alter our reading of the video: extra-terrestrial, utopian, haunted, grunge, dystopian, stage-set, children’s game. Blaming the government for France’s allegedly low international profile may not be the solution, for such exhibitions, like life, are movies without cameras, and such movies have no directors.

Neil Mulholland, Edinburgh, October 2002

‘Woodwardianism’ Jonathan Owen and Ryan Doolan Previews on Saturday 4th May from 7:30pm Glasgow Project Room

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Contemptuous, guilt-ridden and disgusted by the treachery and hypocrisy of their profession, Owen and Doolan know how to deal with männliches verbrechen (‘maskulinekrime’) as relentlessly and single-mindedly as a shark. They specialise in keeping villains on the streets and out of the Glasgow Project Room. Their enlightened artisanal activities muster the definitive personas of honourable gentleman, souls of decency, always polite and impeccably dressed, who struggle to maintain their own personal dignity in an amoral and corrupt Modern Athenia. Despite the fact that they hail from different ends of Edinburgh New Town, they play essentially the same parts, world-weary artists with a conscience, a steely-eyed gaze and danger in their rueful laughter. His gas mask decorated by Her Majesty, the boy Owen is one who dared and won, disposing of dangerous men through bribery, blackmail, frame-ups or, in the last resort, painting. Masquerading as a preacher, Doolan, in the interim, hid out from those godamm conservative cops in the imperialist subterfuge of The Dome; brooding, solitary, and friendless except for his grubby cane. After all these years of penance, Owen and Doolan have only two personal weaknesses: they are rebellious and they care. Still, perhaps … and, despite some uneven writing, Woodwardians are always compelling gets as they expiate their sins.

Robert McCall, April 2001

 

 

City Art Centre, Edinburgh Joan Eardley: Paintings and Drawings – 3 Stars Until 22nd February Toil: Rural and Urban Working Life – 2 Stars Until 22nd February Recent Acquisitions – Until 22nd February Transmission, Glasgow David Musgrave – Until 18th January

Joan Eardley: Paintings and Drawings – Until 22nd February

Toil: Rural and Urban Working Life – Until 22nd February

Recent Acquisitions – Until February

David Musgrave – Until January

The City Arts Centre’s current selection box of exhibitions covers everything from weaving to a Big Brown Dog, Basil Blackshaw’s memorable painting in The Public Eye, a collection of otherwise pallid works drawn from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland Collection. Joan Eardley’s work is showcased with a few studies of Glaswegian slums and a small assortment of expressionist landscapes painted in the dreich cliff tops of Catterline in the early 1960s. These works are well known, and there are no surprises in the display. They would have benefited more from inclusion in the adjacent show Toil, which explores the themes of rural and urban working life. The main theme here is the dramatic shift from Romanticism to Realism that took place in Scottish art in the latter part of the 19th century. It’s a story oft told, and not particularly compellingly by this limited exhibition, dominated as it is by literal readings of work in the form of images of domestic labourers, peasants, industrial workers and keelies. The odd shrewd juxtaposition is made, for example, between James Wingate’s idealised Harvest in Arran and Robert McGregor’s gritty Gathering Stones, which is attuned with the social Realism pioneered by Gustave Courbet in the mid 19th century. The problem is that, with the possible exception of Walter Geike and Ken Currie, these artists are no Courbets, even in Scottish terms they are largely third rate. Currie’s early charcoal drawing Peace, Build the Future, a mixture of youthful idealism and doddery Socialist Realism, is the best here, its naïveity making Howson’s sentimental caricature The Noble Dosser look belligerent in comparison. Perhaps lack of artistic merit wouldn’t matter if Toil told us something meaningful about work, the countryside or the city. It is a wasted opportunity to explore what ‘toil’ means in the post-industrial, post-Cold War, urbanised Scotland we live in.

This might have been partly remedied with the inclusion of Chad McCail’s gouache drawing People Take Turns to do the Difficult Jobs, currently on display amongst Recent Acquisitions bought for Edinburgh’s citizens by the Jean F Watson Bequest. The new additions focus on artists and images associated with Edinburgh, such as local artist Sandy Moffat, who is represented by his drawing of Lallans poet Sydney Goodsir Smith. Insularity is a questionable acquisitions policy. Edinburgh Museums might want another Elizabeth Blackadder but do they really need six? Do Edinburghers need two paintings by one-drip wonder Callum Innes? Although resident in Dundee, Nathan Coley slips through the Reekie radar by photographing himself in Princes Street Gardens Reading Burns to the Scott Monument and Waiting on the Scottish Parliament in Dumbiedikes. These are not Coley’s best works, and were, I suspect, purchased mainly for their parochial subject matter. Focus on Edinburgh artists must be intensified if the city is ever to generate credible contemporary art, but selectors should heed the populist mistakes made by Glasgow Museums. They will also need to pay far more attention to less established artists who will flee the capital if it fails to give them the support they deserve. Thankfully, there are a few enlightened purchases here, Kate Gray’s Mission, a miniature light box version of her Collective Gallery installation in 2001, and a paper halo by Jonathan Owen, which pillories male heroism and sporting prowess. On the whole, however, this collection is too slow on the uptake and will not compete with that currently being acquired by Glasgow Museums to right the wrongs of the Museum of Modern Art debacle.

At Transmission, master of understatement David Musgrave exhibits epoxy putty sculptures and a range of fine liner drawings of tiny skull and crossbones. Many Lifeless Heads and Bones poses what the minimum amount of pictorial information needed to recognise a ‘dead’ head might be. Minute crosses represent ‘dead’ eyes, a novel convention popularised by adult cartoons such as Viz and The Simpsons. Musgrave’s sculptures, cast from randomly squeezed plastercine, are frozen at the point where we stop seeing jumbles of volumes or pictorial conventions and start to ‘see in’. Some resemble roughshod heads, but only just. “I stop fiddling around when it becomes readable”, says Musgrave. These quiet works ask candid questions about how pictures and sculptures work, but such enquiry bears rich fruits.