Thursday, 1 December 2011

Turning One

I cannot yet say which direction this blog will go in, or even if it will survive its first postings (many blogs don't and Blogger begins to look like a graveyard of forgotten cyber-ambitions). None-the-less I choose to see these points positively: I have an open, indefinite, intangible place from which to muse. It's kind of like buying a Lotto ticket: You know it will almost certainly amount to nothing - but still, you gotta' be in it to win it.                                                                                                                                                                                                                         - My First Post

Bite 147: Andy Warhol - Dollar Sign, 1981

Dollar Sign, 1981, synthetic polymer paint and silkscreen inks on canvas, 228.6 x 177.8 cm, Private Collection
"Money doesn't mind if we say it's evil, it goes from strength to strength. It's a fiction, an addiction, and a tacit conspiracy."
                                                                                - Martin Amis
A work of simple honesty, presenting art as the deceit it too often becomes reduced to, a purely commercial venture. This is art as Warhol saw it: Opportunity.

Could Warhol have chosen a single symbol more loaded with meaning for our society? The double image hovers in green space, an apparition by which our lives are dictated if we let it. Purely a concept, non-existent and slippery, a dominant, moving goal.

Perhaps this work should be titled £1,553,250, the price 'realised' for this work when sold at auction by Christie's in June 2008. In reaching this sum, becoming part of a private collection, long after the artists' death, the work achieves its true conceptual potential; an irony but also a celebration of money itself. There is a reason Warhol remains so attractive to a wealthy, collecting audience of claimed art-lovers - making up a staggering 20% of the contemporary art market: the world he presents is not only unthreatening to those in the 1%, but glorifying of the trivialities that come with excessive monetary power.

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Bite 146: Charles Burton Barber - Suspense, 1894

Suspense, 1894, oil on canvas, 78 x 98.5 cm, Private Collection
A  faded reproduction of this image sat on the windowsill at the end of my family kitchen growing up. Seeing it now, in it's gentle humour and nostalgic familiarity, brings back that whole space - alive with the noise of crowded domestisity.

Two loyal pets stare down the quaint breakfast of a young girl, laid out on her bed, as she diligently offers a prayer, staring distracted herself at something out of frame. What more appropriate image to grace the benchtop in the heart of a Christian home? The perhaps simple subject-matter belies a complex composition, maintaining a delicate tension between the players in this warm, homely drama.

Saturday, 1 October 2011

Bite 145: Alfred Jacob Miller - The Trapper’s Bride, 1850

The Trapper’s Bride, 1850, oil on canvas, 76.2 x 63.5 cm, Joslyn Art Museum, Omaha
"I saw the marriage of the trapper in the open air in the far west, the bride was a red girl,
Her father and his friends sat near cross-legged and dumbly smoking, they had moccasins to their feet and large thick blankets hanging from their shoulders,
On a bank lounged the trapper, he was drest mostly in skins, his luxuriant beard and curls protected his neck, he held his bride by the hand,
She had long eyelashes, her head was bare, her coarse straight locks descended upon her voluptuous limbs and reach'd to her feet."
                                                 - Walt Whitman, from Song of Myself

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

Bite 144: Giuseppe Penone - Tree of 12 Metres, 1980-2

Tree of 12 Metres, 1980-2, wood (American larch), 600 x 50 x 50cm, Tate Modern
Out of processed planks of timber the ancient technique of carving draws out the shape of a tree, wood removed ring by ring until twelve metres of tree - bottom to top and top to bottom - is exposed within two sawn pieces of wood, initially intended for construction.

Twin poles tower above, skeletal totems warning of the future potential for a barren wasteland where forests once stood.

Against a compartmentalised exploitation of nature, Giuseppe Penone reveals the potential for a more sensitive approach to the environment. Sculpture is engaged in a reconstruction through deconstruction, a turning back of the clock, pulling back to reveal the raw within the contained.

Monday, 5 September 2011

Bite 143: Richard Long - A Line Made by Walking, 1967

A Line Made by Walking, 1967, photograph, 38 x 32 cm
The artist paces an empty, nondescript field in the west of England for an indeterminate length of time. The act of walking, over time, creates a line: the sun catching the flattened grass enough to make this physical intervention visible on the landscape itself. 

The artist photographs the result, forming a (semi)-permanent record of a temporal performance.

As a work of 'art' the piece exists in many forms: as an action, a performance; as a temporary 'sculpture', flattened grass left to continuing growing as it had been, soon to disappear; as a photograph, captioned simply A Line Made by Walking, 1967; and as an idea, with the potential of the 'original' action being played out by others.

Wednesday, 31 August 2011

Bite 142: Julia Margaret Cameron - Julia Jackson, 1867

Julia Jackson, 1867,  albumen print, 30 x 24.6 cm

Julia Margaret Cameron’s expert use of light and shadow is ground-breaking. In this image of Julia Jackson, Cameron’s niece and Virginia Woolf’s mother, the figure is almost lost in darkness, light rimming her face and exquisitely defining a taut tendon on her neck, evidence of the sitters inner tenacity.

This is a widow facing life alone with strength. She has blinked during the exposure bringing a veiled quality to her eyes and reinforcing the impression of inner contemplation. Her tightly bound hair is just as expressive as the unkempt hair in The Echo or The Mountain Nymph, Sweet Liberty, conveying a potential for wild disarray.

She may not be facing the camera directly but she is very much a dynamic representation of the Victorian female - commanding in her beauty and strength.

Tuesday, 30 August 2011

Bite 141: Julia Margaret Cameron - Mary Mother, c. 1866

Mary Mother, c. 1866,  albumen print, 34.9 x 27.1 cm
It is said that all photographs are in a way self-portraits and there is certainly an element of the autobiographical within Cameron’s oeuvre, a product perhaps of her status as (technically) an ‘amateur’ photographer in the sense that she was not bound by commercial interests or economic necessity. 
An example of this self-referentiality can be seen in Mary Mother. Pensively, she gazes absently out of the frame, the only indication of the role being played the robes around her neck and over her head; a substitute for the untamed hair in other Cameron images. 
We know without explanation that this is Mother Mary following Christ’s death. She is a woman in grief, sacred while at the same time individually human.
Modelled by Mary Hillier, a housemaid to Cameron and her favourite and most frequent model, (depicted separately as both the Virgin Mary and Mary Magdalene), Cameron explains, “In every manner of form has her face been reproduced, yet never has it been felt that the grace of the fashion of it has perished.” 
In this image Hillier can actually be seen as a stand in for Cameron, who herself lost a child. The tenderness of the image betrays a deep understand of the suffering depicted.

Monday, 29 August 2011

Bite 140: Julia Margaret Cameron - The Echo, 1868

The Echo, 1868,  albumen print, 27 x 22.6 cm
“Photographs state the innocence, the vulnerability of lives heading towards their own destruction, and this link between photography and death haunts all photographs of people.”
                                                                                 - Susan Sontag, On Photography
Part of what draws us to Julia Margaret Cameron’s images is that, coupled with the exquisite melancholy of her figures and the originality of her technique, is the knowledge that none of their subjects could be alive today. 
Considering the relative youth of the invention of photography this is a fairly recent development, and in the inevitable death of their subjects the conceptual cycle of her images is completed. 
This combination of the theme of mortality along with that of the photographically unique that-has-been adds profound theoretical interest to a modern reading of Cameron’s images. One of Cameron’s most haunting portraits in this respect is The Echo, modelled by the tragic actress Ellen Terry. 
With her particularly piecing yet absent gaze, and pale skin she almost resembles a corpse, the title referencing Greek mythology and perhaps also the inherently reflexive nature of the photographic medium.

Sunday, 28 August 2011

Bite 139: Julia Margaret Cameron - The Mountain Nymph, Sweet Liberty, 1866

The Mountain Nymph, Sweet Liberty, 1866,  albumen print, 36.5 x 28.6 cm
Julia Margaret Cameron’s aim was “to ennoble photography and to secure for it the character and uses of High Art by combining the real and the ideal and sacrificing nothing of Truth by all possible devotion to Poetry and Beauty.” To attain the status of High Art it was necessary to depict classical and religious subject-matter but if she had achieved only this she would not appeal to a modern sensibility as she does. 
The power of her images comes directly from the fact that they are startling traces of those who have lived and stood before her camera; what Roland Barthes refers to as “that-has-been”. 
Take The Mountain Nymph, Sweet Liberty as an example. Modelled by Cyllene Margaret Wilson, an orphan adopted by Cameron, the title refers to the Milton poem Allegro. The young girl looks out at the viewer with a direct yet softened stare, her hair tousled and stormy behind her, alternating light and dark. She is in transition, an adolescent moving from darkness into light, from girlhood to womanhood. 
Herschel praised the image, calling her, “Absolutely alive and thrusting out her head from the paper to the air.” 
Alive she certainly was/is, and as the viewer stares her directly in the face the ambiguity of the image and its allegorical title charges the image with questions: “Who was this girl?” “What kind of life did she live?” “Was she happy?” These are questions that haunt the viewing of many of Cameron’s images and they are so strong only because we are before photographs – emanations of reality.

Saturday, 27 August 2011

Bite 138: Julia Margaret Cameron - The Kiss of Peace, 1869

The Kiss of Peace, 1869,  albumen print,  34.3 x 27.7 cm
Julia Margaret Cameron's work can be seen as the first example in the history of art of a sustained photographic exploration of women by a woman. Nicole Cooley sees Cameron’s work as decidedly proto-feminist pointing out that “rather than portraying woman’s face as the object of the (male) gaze, Cameron invokes a secret, private world of women together, involved with one another.” Carol MacKay defines it as a “transpersonal” representation in which women represent both themselves and the concept of a higher “collective self.”

In the case of The Kiss of Peace she sees their gazes as providing “a sense of transpersonal dispersion.” Two girls are shown embracing, one laying her lips upon the forehead of the other. But in contradiction to the rather sentimental title she does not appear to be offering any sort of kiss, and the conveyance of the image is more one of melancholy than of a peaceful optimism. Together but alone the figures gaze, in traditional Cameron fashion, towards nothing, one looking up, the other down. 
In what MacKay refers to as “creative negativity” many of Cameron’s portraits, particularly those of women, convey a deep melancholy, a meditation on the plight and hardships of Victorian women. This psychological space, intimate and somewhat claustrophobic, can be seen as a reflection of Cameron’s own confined world, one in which inner creativity becomes a way of escaping imprisonment. 
Her exploration of the photographic medium is inextricably entwined with this transpersonal view of womanhood. The dichotomy of the divine and the human within her work is matched by the paradox of presenting both the personal – photographs of individual woman; and the transpersonal – woman depicted as allegories: metaphors for human (and often uniquely female) experiences.

Friday, 26 August 2011

Bite 137: Julia Margaret Cameron - Iago, Study from an Italian, 1867

Iago, Study from an Italian, 1867, Albumen print
Portraying a man with tenderness and compassion as opposed to lifting him up as a 'Man of Genius', Iago, Study from an Italian is an image unique within Julia Margaret Cameron’s work.

Strongly resembling Domenico Fetti’s painting of Christ with lowered eye, it is possible that Cameron avoided profanity by labelling it instead as the betrayer – more a Judas than a Christ – from Shakespeare’s Othello. But the image of Christ is nonetheless visible, albeit a gloomy or even sinister depiction of the Ecce Homo. As Mike Weaver asks, “Could we not have here a preposterous and beautiful attempt to depict Christ?”
Front-on and close-up, the role, modelled by Angelo Colarossi (probably the only paid professional model Cameron ever used), is portrayed with no props and only the hint of a dark robe. The long, wild hair frames the face along with a strong jaw showing several days of stubble. Even without showing the eyes Cameron again utilises the gaze, dark pits indicating an emotional intensity behind a stalwart exterior. 
The power in the portrait is more in what it withholds from the viewer than in what it gives away, which is decidedly very little. Yet the unmistakable feeling is one of suffering, deep sorrow and concentration. Somewhere between Christ and Judas, strong and fearful, alive and dead, this could perhaps be the most ambiguous image within a photographic project largely defined by ambiguity.

Thursday, 25 August 2011

Bite 136: Julia Margaret Cameron - Thomas Carlyle, 1867

 Thomas Carlyle, 1867,  albumen print, 33.7 x 24.5 cm
“From the first moment I handled my lens with a tender ardour, and it has become to me as a living thing, with a voice and memory and creative vigour."                      
                                                    – Julia Margaret Cameron, The Annals of My Glass House, 1874
Julia Margaret Cameron’s dynamic portrait of Thomas Carlyle utilises ambiguity in technique to compelling affect in a portrait made up almost of only smudges and smears on the collodion glass surface streaked with the application of the light-sensitive coating. Yet the image portrays all the more feeling for this, his eyes, similarly to Herschel’s, vacant in contemplation – “staring eagerly into emptiness" - as Carol MacKay puts it, his bright white hair framing his profile, his head filling the frame, arresting the viewers’ attention. 
As with many of Cameron’s portraits the subject is given little context with a deep black surrounding the figure. Movement is evident in what must have been an exposure of several minutes, yet this only adds to the pure energy of the portrait. 
As Roger Fry points out, comparing Cameron to more recent portraitists, “The slight movements of the sitter gave a certain breadth and envelopment to the form and prevented those too instantaneous expressions which in modern photography so often have an air of caricature.” 
Cameron has not captured so much a likeness or a moment, as a manifestation of genius. Carlyle wrote that sitting for this portrait was an “inferno” and this is certainly evident in the resulting portrait, while Cameron described him paradoxically in her Annals as “almost the embodiment of a prayer,” recognising a transcendence which is present in this haunting image.

Wednesday, 24 August 2011

Bite 135: Julia Margaret Cameron - Sir John Herschel, 1867

Sir John Herschel, 1867,  albumen print,  34.9 x 26.1 cm
“I longed to arrest all beauty that came before me, and at length the longing has been satisfied.”
Julia Margaret Cameron, The Annals of My Glass House, 1874
Sir John Herschel stares off, glassy eyed, to the right of the frame. What he is looking at is not important, instead it is clear that he is in a kind of meditation – “intently seeing beyond the immediate present” as Carol Hanbery MacKay puts it in her essay The Singular Double Vision of Julia Margaret Cameron.
His hair is wild under his set back beret indicating the mental action going on beneath the hat, which seems to be barely maintaining the activity within it. It is reported that Cameron washed and fluffed up his white hair before the shoot. For, “when I have had such men before my camera”, Cameron reports in her autobiographical fragment Annals of My Glass House from 1874, “my whole soul has endeavoured to do its duty towards them in recording faithfully the greatness of the inner as well as the features of the outer man.” 
Cameron waited several years for the opportunity to photograph her old friend Herschel, who had introduced her to the photographic process as early as 1839 – the year the Daguerrean invention was first revealed to the public in Paris by Louis-Francois Arago.
Highly affected by Herschel’s character and intellect she successfully translates this impact in one of her most famous images, effectively harnessing the narrative power of hair and the eyes, emotive elements focused on in many of Cameron’s portraits.

Saturday, 6 August 2011

Bite 134: Briton Rivière - Beyond Man's Footsteps, 1894

Beyond Man's Footsteps, exhibited 1894, oil on canvas, 119 x 185 cm, Tate Britain
A lone polar bear peers toward the setting or rising sun. The tone, to me, indicates the end of a long day, the final rays of the sun illuminating a monolith of ice in deepest blue. The weary animal, beyond man's footsteps, seems almost human in pulling himself over the ice and reaching out to the western sky.

A romantic gesture on the sublime dominance of nature appears, through modern eyes, rather to hint at the fragility of the polar landscape and the environment in general. That even at the farthest reaches of the planet the impact of 'man's footsteps' is beginning to make itself felt.

Monday, 25 July 2011

Bite 133: Mark Wallinger - Threshold to the Kingdom, 2000

Threshold to the Kingdom, 2000, (still), installation, video: 11min 12sec, Tate Britain
In a grand side-room, reminiscent of a chapel, in Tate Britain, a looped video is projected against one wall.

Accompanied by the haunting hymn Miserere Mei, Deus by Allegri, the single scene, is a pair of automatic double doors at London City Airport; this is the International Arrivals gate, the industrial threshold by which you enter the United Kingdom. Travellers walk toward the viewer, unaware they are being filmed. They stride with purpose, the video slowed down filling their every movement with significance, the door opening as if by the hand of God.

An employee runs across screen. A man stops with his trolley, looks around confused, then regards a scrap of paper and continues on. Three older women greet affectionately, probably after a long absence (above). At this point the video fades out, one of only two cuts. It comes back to the closed doors before further arrivals file through, continually piquing our interest, then looping through again in repetition.

The image fading reinforces the idea of heaven - Kingdom - coming through the work. Each arrival is also a departure, and vice versa.

In a surreal juxtaposition of spirituality/religiosity and the everyday, Wallinger presents a grand and intimate statement about the mundane, generic site airports are - liminal public spaces of boredom, transition and heightened experience.

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Bite 132: Caravaggio - David with the Head of Goliath, 1609-10

David with the Head of Goliath, 1609-10, oil on canvas, 125 × 101 cm, Galleria Borghese
In one of Caravaggio's last works before his mysterious disappearance and death, the artist paints himself as the dead Goliath, having been defeated by David. It is said that the young David was modelled on "his own little Caravaggio." This may refer to previous studio assistant - and lover - Cecco del Caravaggio. The diagonal sword - inscribed with an abbreviation of the phrase  "humility kills death" - mirrors David's gaze and has been seen as sexually suggestive. Or rather David may depict a younger version of the artist himself, who, in a double self-portrait, looks upon the head of his adult counterpart with sadness and compassion, in sharp contrast to the jubilant expression typical of other portrayals of this Biblical subject.

Carvaggio is on the run from the authorities, having murdered a man. He paints in desperation - his patron, Cardinal Borgese, maintained the power to grant him pardon. The result is a self-portrait alive with turmoil, his face contorted in hopelessness, mouth gaping as if about to utter his last words. 

A devastating explication on the human condition, the painting itself becomes the artist's own monumental elegy, the bold and mysterious Caravaggio having the final word.

Tuesday, 19 July 2011

Bite 131: Caravaggio - St. Jerome, 1605-06

St. Jerome, 1605-06, oil on canvas, 112 × 157 cm, Galleria Borghese
In the act of writing St. Jerome gives himself completely to his task. Pen and books become an extension of his body. Furrowed brow, head bowed, this is scholarship as an act of worship. 

The simplicity of the composition, as with the saint's attire, testify to Jerome's ascetic penance, seen as a requirement for an absolute dedication to study, writing and translation. A skull sits with him as a humble reminder of mortality and recognition of the greater purpose of his work.

St. Jerome is recognised as the patron saint of translators, librarians and encyclopedists.

Monday, 18 July 2011

Bite 130: Caravaggio - Bacchus, c. 1595

Bacchus, c. 1595, oil on canvas, 95 x 85 cm, Uffizi, Florence
With the healthy glow of youth and the rosy cheeks of liquor, Bacchus, the Roman god of wine and ecstasy, garlanded with vine leaves, reclines before a still-life of fruit and wine. 

Endowed equally with mythical symbolism and realism, the adolescent Bacchus regards the viewer with a quizzical, tipsy expression. His fingers are dirty as one hand delicately holds a glass of wine out to us. 

Like many of Caravaggio's paintings it can be seen in overtly homoerotic terms, the other hand seeming about to invitingly pull the ribbon holding his robe closed. The passive tilt of the head and sideways glance appears equally inviting.

Yet the decision to include rotting fruit complicates this reading, hinting at themes of mortality and the inevitable loss of youthful vigour. With this in mind Bacchus' look takes on an altered significance, simultaneously teasing, and mournful.

Sunday, 3 July 2011


My apologies for the lack of recent posts. I am on a two week trip around France, Italy and Croatia. I am currently in Rome marvelling at the works of Caravaggio and Bernini. Florence, on Friday, Saturday, was equally significant. It will take time to adequately respond to the justifiably renowned David by Michelangelo.

For more on the trip see my partner's travel blog at The Antipodean.

Saturday, 25 June 2011

Arthur Rimbaud - The Drunken Boat

As I was floating down unconcerned Rivers
I no longer felt myself steered by the haulers:
Gaudy Redskins had taken them for targets
Nailing them naked to coloured stakes.

I cared nothing for all my crews,
Carrying Flemish wheat or English cottons.
When, along with my haulers those uproars were done with
The Rivers let me sail downstream where I pleased.

Into the ferocious tide-rips
Last winter, more absorbed than the minds of children,
I ran! And the unmoored Peninsulas
Never endured more triumphant clamourings

The storm made bliss of my sea-borne awakenings.
Lighter than a cork, I danced on the waves
Which men call eternal rollers of victims,
For ten nights, without once missing the foolish eye of the harbor lights!

Sweeter than the flesh of sour apples to children,
The green water penetrated my pinewood hull
And washed me clean of the bluish wine-stains and the splashes of vomit,
Carrying away both rudder and anchor.

Friday, 24 June 2011

Bite 129: Joseph Wright of Derby - An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump, 1768

An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump, 1768, oil on canvas, 183 x 244 cm, National Gallery, London
Ten figures emerge from the inky shroud of blackness claustrophobically, comfortably, enveloping them. A single candle behind a skull in glass dimly illuminates the scene - in Wright's signature, highly-contrasting style - of a scientist performing an experiment in the formation of a vacuum. Dramatically, but perhaps unrealistically, a rare white cockatoo is used in the demonstration. It dies from lack of air. The old scientist, mouth slightly open, looks intensely out at the viewer. This is a human, not merely a scientific, drama.

Nine others witness the experiment. All of their faces tell a story, each representing a particular reaction when faced with the stark reality of death. 

A young boy looks on wearily, opening the window to reveal a bright moon. On the left some watch interested but nonchalant, others in wonder or even a hint of confusion. 

Two young girls seek consolation, a well-dressed older gentleman instead instructs them. The youngest of the girls, her face brightly lit, the focus of the composition, looks up at the dead bird with fear and deep concern. In devastation she mourns the small creature, confused and innocent both. Of all the reactions hers is perhaps the most open and honest when faced brutally with the fact of mortality.

But more intriguing still, perhaps, is the man slightly to the side, right; the only figure not regarding the experiment or those in the room. He sits reflectively, lost in melancholic thought. Standing in for us, he meditates on the fragility of human existence, lost time past, the seeming meaninglessness of it all.

Wednesday, 22 June 2011

Bite 128: Marc Quinn - Self, 2006


Self, 2006, blood (artist's), liquid silicone, stainless steel, glass, perspex and refrigeration equipment, 205 x 65 x 65 cm, National Portrait Gallery, London

The hum of a refrigerator unit below a cold glass case. Within: a red decapitated head, eyes closed, as if in meditation.

Every five years, beginning in 1991, Marc Quinn creates a new sculpture - of his own head, out of his own blood, taken over a 5 month period. Formed from liquid - the liquid of life and the Eucharist - it only remains a sculpture through freezing.  A death mask of blood.

Quinn refers to it as a "frozen moment on life-support," maintaining the tension of an object wanting to destroy itself, reminding us of the fragility of the human state. Being a life-cast it operates like a three-dimensional photograph, brutal in its honesty while withholding easy meaning. As with all photographs, like a death mask, it heralds the subjects - and our own - mortality.

Monday, 20 June 2011

Bite 127: Sir George Hayter - The House of Commons, 1833-43

The House of Commons, 1833-43, oil on canvas, 300 x 500 cm, National Portrait Gallery, London
Painted to commemorate the passing of the first Parliamentary Reform Bill in England in 1832, Sir George Hayter took 10 years to complete the work, which depicts the opening session of the new House of Commons on 5 February, 1833.

Of the 658 in parliament at the time 375 are present in the portrait and 323 can be definitively identified, including a self-portrait of the artist himself, kneeling in the bottom right corner. Highly figurative, each representation has been given specific painstaking attention, with individual sittings taking place in most instances, of which many preparatory oils survive.

After completion, interest in the Reform Bill having waned, Hayter had great difficulty in finding a buyer for the monumental work. It was 15 years later that he succeeded in selling the work to the, ironically, then Tory government (who originally opposed the commemorated reforms) for ₤2,000. It was presented to the newly founded National Portrait Gallery in London and was for many years hung in the Houses of Parliament, rebuilt following a fire in 1834 - a year after Hayter completed preparatory sketches of the space.

While the painting remains a record of a moment in the extension of democracy in Britain, it must be remembered that it was not until 1919 that the first woman joined the House and 1928 that women gained equal rights to vote. Looked at today the work is a stark reminder that power, global, has historically been held primarily by straight, well-off, white males.

Saturday, 18 June 2011

Bite 126: J.M.W. Turner - Ulysses Deriding Polyphemus, 1829

Ulysses Deriding Polyphemus, 1829, oil on canvas, 132 x 203 cm, National Gallery, London
Ulysses, aboard his ship, is triumphant in victory following escape from the lair of the cannibal cyclops, Polyphemus (seen in the mountains to the left), having blinded and deceived him. The sky before them is alive with golden early rays of light as Apollo's horses pull the Sun above the horizon. Similarly, transparent sea-nymphs appear to be dragging the ship toward the rising Sun.

The detailing of the vessel betrays Turner's figurative skill, while the landscape behind - with the mountains and sky blending together emphasising the mythology of the Romanticised scene - evidencing his move toward abstraction. The clouds are thick on the canvas, the grand sunrise appearing to glow, emanating light to the whole image and into the room.

Wednesday, 15 June 2011

Bite 125: Bridget Riley - Cataract 3, 1967

Cataract 3, 1967, emulsion on canvas, 222 x 223 cm, British Council, London
Painstakingly applied emulsion in a strict mathematical pattern gives the optical illusion of movement and depth. The work, impossible to see for what it is ('merely' paint on canvas), tricks the brain into seeing its waves and colours as regressions, an alive surface.

'Representation' itself is called into question. Our eyes cannot be trusted.

Tuesday, 14 June 2011

Bite 124: Barnett Newman - Midnight Blue, 1970

Midnight Blue, 1970, oil & acrylic on canvas, 193 x 239 cm, Museum Ludwig, Cologne
A light blue rod grounds the painting. A section of white on the extreme left provides contrast. Between: a balanced ocean of dark, vibrant colour - midnight blue indeed.

A painting to get lost in.

Monday, 13 June 2011

Bite 123: Henry Wallis - The Death of Chatterton, 1856

The Death of Chatterton, 1856, oil on canvas, 91 x 60 cm, Tate Britain, London
"Cold penury repress'd his noble rage,
And froze the genial current of his soul.
Now prompts the Muse poetic lays,
And high my bosom beats with love of Praise!
But, Chatterton! methinks I hear thy name,
For cold my Fancy grows, and dead each Hope of Fame."
               - Samuel Taylor Coleridge (from Monody on the Death of Chatterton, 1790)
Martyred to Art, Chatterton's pale corpse, reminiscent of the Pietà, lies in his bohemian quarters, a vial of poison on the floor, fallen from his hand; his hair of fire symbolising the deep passion which has led him to take his own life.

An overflowing chest contains the remnants of the unrecognised poetry of this earnest young artist, torn in despair at his failure. A candle has only just gone out; the window above, open, to allow his soul to depart. Beyond is the distant city, the world which ignored this tragic poet, leading him to a drastic - yet 'noble' - decision.

"Without Art I am nothing."

Friday, 10 June 2011

Bite 122: Mark Leckey - GreenScreenRefrigeratorAction, 2010

GreenScreenRefrigeratorAction, 2010, Samsung smart refrigerator, Samsung television, infinity green screen

An empty smart-fridge ready-made sits in the liminal space of an 'infinity' green-screen - used to superimpose the appliance into any given background. Nearby a screen plays a complex video of the object moving through space, showing its inner-workings and the sources of material that have brought it about. Throughout this collage (embedded above) the refrigerator speaks - as 'smart' ones do. But instead of detailing its gastronomical contents it speaks of its own processes, the chemicals living and reacting within its own shell. 

"My goal is to keep cold," it states, as if it were a person with a purpose and ambitions if its own. The artist himself, on a green stool with a green blanket draped over him, sits behind the large black object, completing the work. He speaks along with the appliance, becoming one with it, disappearing. "Becoming gas, becoming liquid, becoming vapour, becoming, becoming, becoming, becoming..."

The primordial, the Sun and the Moon, the past, the present, the future: all culminate in this futuristic object which sits in the kitchen, reliable and present - a member of the family.

"They ask and they answer. Above, below."

Currently on show at Serpentine Gallery, London, as part of Mark Leckey's exhibition See, We Assemble.

Thursday, 9 June 2011

Bite 121: Dirk Skreber - Untitled (Crash 1), 2009

Untitled (Crash 1), 2009, Red Mitsubishi Eclipse Spider 2001, 292 x 323 x 236 cm, Saatchi Gallery, London
Moving objects around us everyday bristle with dangerous potential energy and power, often with the possibility of destruction. Suspended above the ground, frozen in the moment of releasing its raw power, a car (or what previously was one) is wrapped around a pole, created by carefully choreographing an accident in a controlled environment.

"If you pass an accident and see a car like this, it's occupied by tragic thoughts for the people that would be involved, and you might see blood," Skreber says. "This work gives you an opportunity to see the things like in a dream. It's clean and polished and abstract." Walking around it gives the surreal impression of a three-dimensional photograph, a collision stopped mid-motion.

Currently showing in the exhibition The Shape of Things to Come: New Sculpture at the Saatchi Gallery in London.


Wednesday, 8 June 2011

Bite 120: Kris Martin - Summit, 2009

Summit, 2009, found stone, paper crosses, ink, Saatchi Gallery, London
A simple paper cross, a symbol redolent in meaning, from religion and death to territorial domination and colonialism, transforms a large, found rock - earthy and primitive - into a great mountain with towering cliff-faces. 

Eight such pieces make up the work Summit, an experiment in perception and a testament to the futility of human ambitions. "The top is nice when you haven't reached it,” Martin has said. “But once you get [there], the potential is gone. Dreams are what keep people going.” 

Each monolith with its flimsy token to land conquered becomes a silent memorial to human dreams, forgotten and achieved; to the sublimity of nature, and the inevitability of death.

“For me, they're all very dangerous, mountains… They're filled with a dangerous power, especially for puny little human beings, like we are.”

Currently showing in the exhibition The Shape of Things to Come: New Sculpture at the Saatchi Gallery in London.

Images & Quotes:

Friday, 3 June 2011

Bite 119: Paul Gauguin - Nevermore, 1897

Nevermore, 1897, oil on canvas, 61 x 116 cm, Courtauld Gallery, London
"Much I marvelled this ungainly fowl to hear discourse so plainly,
Though its answer little meaning - little relevancy bore;
For we cannot help agreeing that no living human being
Ever yet was blessed with seeing bird above his chamber door -
Bird or beast above the sculptured bust above his chamber door,
With such name as `Nevermore.' 
But the raven, sitting lonely on the placid bust, spoke only,
That one word, as if his soul in that one word he did outpour.
Nothing further then he uttered - not a feather then he fluttered -
Till I scarcely more than muttered `Other friends have flown before -
On the morrow he will leave me, as my hopes have flown before.'
Then the bird said, `Nevermore'."
                                                 - Edgar Allan Poe, from The Raven

Thursday, 2 June 2011

Bite 118: George Segal - The Restaurant Window, 1967

The Restaurant Window, 1967, mixed media, 244 x 351 x 175 cm, Museum Ludwig, Cologne
An Edward Hopper painting become sculpture, the lonely figures are re-imagined in white plaster. A passing moment in a desolate restaurant at night is crystallised; the chair, table and window represent themselves, while the white figures - cast directly from life - are pillars of salt, frozen in time. Standing nearby, their alien presence enters your own space. Memorials of a forgotten moment of silence between passing strangers. 

Wednesday, 1 June 2011

Bite 117: Thomas Struth - Museo del Prado 7, Madrid, 2005

Museo del Prado 7, Madrid, 2005, C-Print, 178 x 219 cm
"I first started taking photographs of people in museums in the early 1990s. I went to the Prado in Madrid and was flabbergasted by one particular painting, Las Meninas by Velásquez. It was so close to my own interests. I thought: "Jesus Christ, why did nobody tell me about this?" And yet I never photographed it until 2005. I don't know why. 
"When I went back to it, it marked a moment of evolution for me. I decided that I had to try something different: I had to stand inside the groups of viewers, creating a greater intimacy between the people viewing the painting and those depicted in it. 
"I worked there for seven days, eight hours a day, and I noticed how the school groups stood very close to the picture, almost touching it with their elbows. I like the two guys [at the left] of this image, who look very sceptical about what the guide is saying about the painting. I find that funny. Evidently, they mistrust the situation. Perhaps they would rather have a beer."
                                                                         - Thomas Struth 

Tuesday, 31 May 2011

Bite 116: Salvador Dali - Anthropomorphic Chest of Drawers, 1936

Anthropomorphic Chest of Drawers, 1936, oil on wood, 25 x 43 cm, K20, Düsseldorf
Frail hand extended, rejecting the outside world, a disjointed figure - a chest of drawers for a chest - looks within itself, head down. Drawers pulled out, darkness within, the exterior world represented in the top right corner (it appears to be Cologne with its double-spired cathedral), seems to retreat, casting an ethereal light on the disconcerting figure.

A small oil painting on wood with a large frame, the work typifies Dali's approach as a skilled painter referencing the style of the old-masters, while the subject matter sits is stark contrast to this technique, showing a woman simultaneously opening up and withdrawing.

A manifestation of Freudian internalisation and reclusion, the woman (with draw-handles for nipples) is engrossed by the drawers that have spontaneously opened from within her, threatening to disclose their contents - her interior world -, a white cloth protruding from one. In this sense the anthropomorphic cabinet becomes a symbol of psychoanalysis. This motif appears in other forms in Dali's work such as the sculpture/furniture piece Venus de Milo with Chest of Drawers (1936/64) which stands near Anthropomorphic Chest of Drawers in Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen (K20).

Archive Bookstore

Five minutes walk from my apartment, on Bell St, between the Marylebone and Edgware Rd tube stations, there is a small bookshop with a basement: Archive Books and Music.

It is just as second-hand bookshops should be: cramped, messy, disorganised, books pouring out onto the street, and with that 'old book smell'. 

With a fantastic array of art books, philosophy tomes and novels, all very reasonably priced, floor to high-ceiling shelves and teetering piles of boxes hold endless promises of hidden gems. "A browser's delight!" indeed.

Down a flight of winding stairs is the basement where a plethora of used sheet-music - vocal, orchestral and otherwise - towers around a wonderfully old, out-of-tune piano. Music is heard from this dark basement as you browse away the hours upstairs, overhearing the owner and his assistant (dressed in a thick apron as if he were a carpenter) as they natter away with regulars on an assortment of topics. I will surely become one of those regulars, before too long.


Wednesday, 25 May 2011


"Art is the only way to run away without leaving home."
                                                 - Twyla Tharp
I am taking a short break this week. I am going to Germany. Posts will resume after the long weekend.

Friday, 20 May 2011

Bite 115: Jan van Eyck - Portrait of a Man (Self Portrait?), 1433

Portrait of a Man (Self Portrait?), 1433, oil on oak, 26 x 19 cm, National Gallery, London
A head, almost certainly that of the artist, emerges from darkness. His piercing eyes and ambiguous expression confront the viewer from beneath a red headpiece, light accentuating red detailing. 

The frame, also by the artist, is inscribed, trompe l'oeil - to give the illusion of carving - with the words "Als Ich Can," a pun in Greek meaning "As I/Eyck Can," and below with, "Jan van Eyck made me on 21 October 1433." These references, along with the slight turn of the man's head and his penetrating gaze, strongly suggests at the painting being a self-portrait.

Thursday, 19 May 2011

Bite 114: Jan van Eyck - The Arnolfini Portrait, 1434

Portrait of Giovanni (?) Arnolfini and his Wife (The Arnolfini Portrait), 1434,
oil on oak, 82 x 60 cm, National Gallery, London
Redolent in symbolism, this mysterious painting has been the subject of much conjecture among art historians.

The woman, thought to be Giovanna Cenami, is not believed to be pregnant here, despite appearances. This, along with the dog, fruit and bed, can be seen instead as indicative of fertility, in what many scholars believe to be a marriage or betrothal portrait. Whether this be the case or not, an oath is none-the-less seen to be taking place - Giovanni raising his hand and Giovanna lowering and opening hers. Extravagantly attired in highly expensive winter clothing the couple stands in the front room of their house, on the second story, with cherry blossoms outside suggesting early spring - further adding to the confusion surrounding this Early-Netherlandish work (a very early example of oil on wood instead of tempura).

Thoroughly justifying the extraordinarily fame of this work, however, more even than its remarkable realism and painstaking illusionistic technique, is the convex mirror and inscription in the centre of the painting, on the far wall behind the couple. In the round glass can be seen the backs of the Arnolfinis and a man in front of them holding up his hand, widely accepted to be the artist himself. Above this is transcribed (some even believe legally notorised): "Jan van Eyck has been here." This gesture of authorship attests to the role of the artist as witness, while also being a bold statement on consciousness and the human ego

Wednesday, 18 May 2011

Bite 113: Do Ho Suh - Staircase-V, 2008

Staircase-V, 2008, polyester and stainless steel tubes,
staircase: 108 x 261 x 76 cm, Tate Modern
Korean artist Do Ho Suh uses the delicate medium of fabric to recreate, in life-size, interior domestic spaces. With his ongoing work Seoul Home/L.A. Home/New York Home..., where the artist transports a recreation of his childhood home in Korea with him as he relocates, showing it in galleries all over the world. With Staircase-V he brings the staircase from his Chelsea, New York apartment into a London art museum.

The ceiling above becomes fabric. The intricate staircase, with detailing - balustrade and light-fixtures - falls, life-size, into the empty space beneath. Translucent and oddly comforting, parred-down yet homely. Zen and minimal while remaining refreshingly personal.

No Balance Palace

Tuesday, 17 May 2011

Bite 112: J.M.W. Turner - Sun Setting over a Lake, c. 1840

Sun Setting over a Lake, c. 1840, oil on canvas, 107 x 138 cm, Tate Britain
"Turner lived in a cellar. Once a week he had the shutters suddenly flung open, and then what incandescence! What dazzlement! What jewels!"                  
                                                         - Henri Matisse, 1943

Monday, 16 May 2011

Bite 111: J.M.W. Turner - Self-Portrait, 1799

Self-Portrait, 1799, oil on canvas, 74 x 58 cm, Tate Britain
At 24 Turner has just been made an Associate at the Royal Academy. He paints himself, almost life-size, confident and dapper, standing tall - yet with perhaps a hint of self-doubt. He gazes, front on, directly at the viewer, head protruding from a tight jacket, willing himself to be undaunted. 

He is tremendously present in a bold statement of who he believes he could be.

Contained and silent. Yet brimming just beneath the surface: a violent energy - like that in his later marine paintings; his billowing white scarf even prophetic of this. With thick, confident brushwork, he bristles with potential and possibility - and the lingering fear that he may in the end amount to nothing.

It is this paradox of ambition, in an expertly understated and transcendent work, which reaches across centuries to confront the viewer as if to say: "You may be young and a little scared, but dare to believe you have something unique to offer the world."

Turner certainly did. He went on to become the dominant figure in English Romanticism, and the key forerunner to Impressionism.

Friday, 13 May 2011

Bite 110: Francisco de Goya - Pilgrimage to the Hermitage of St. Isidore, 1819-23

 Pilgrimage to the Hermitage of St. Isidore, 1819-23, oil mural transferred to canvas, 139 x 436 cm, Prado
Over 30 years after Festival at the Meadow of San Isadore, when Goya is deaf and isolated, at the end of his career and near the end of his life, he paints, on the wall of his house, a scene from the same theme. Yet, could two works from the same artist be more contrasting?

Here the pilgrimage becomes a terrifying nightmare. A pilgrim in the front of the procession plucks on strings, mouth gaping more in a silent scream than a song, his head twisted, maniacal eyes rolled back. Behind him faces contort in pain and bow in melancholy, others smile sinisterly. The great mass of people under the dark sky speaks powerfully of the futility of the human condition.

This is a procession of death, a vision of hell on earth, Apocalypse.

Thursday, 12 May 2011

Bite 109: Francisco de Goya - Festival at the Meadow of San Isadore, 1788

Festival at the Meadow of San Isadore, 1788, oil on canvas, 44 x 94 cm, Prado
Painted as a sketch for a tapestry which was never completed, Festival at the Meadow of San Isadore shows festival goers and pilgrims celebrating the the feast day of St. Isidore the Labourer, patron saint of Madrid. The festival is the most popular in the Spanish calender, still celebrated today on May 15th each year.

The background, one of the best examples of Goya's landscape painting, shows the panorama of the city of Madrid with several recognisable buildings. The foreground exemplifies his skill in character studies, presenting Spanish people from all walks of life, brought together in joyous celebration on a warm spring day. The crowds of people draw us into the composition as they celebrate their city and their country.

Wednesday, 11 May 2011

Bite 108: Francisco de Goya - Two Old Men Eating Soup, 1819-23

Two Old Men Eating Soup, 1819-23, oil mural transferred to canvas, 49 x 83 cm, Prado
Thick, loose brushwork, paint expertly applied by a highly experienced hand conveys a nightmarish scene with minimal form. Yet it is all the more sinister for it. 

The gender of the subjects appearing out of the darkness is only supposed. They could very well be witches (a common type throughout Goya's oeuvre). The right figure however, barely there at all with its dark skull-like head, is most likely the apparition of death itself; pointing, along with the other sinister grinning figure, at a spoon, inviting someone - you - to dinner.

Tuesday, 10 May 2011

Bite 107: Francisco de Goya - Saturn Devouring His Son, 1819-23

Saturn Devouring His Son, 1819-23,
oil mural transferred from canvas,  143 x 81 cm, Prado
Imagine looking at this painting everyday, on the wall of your house. Piercing wide eyes maniacally peering back at you through the darkness from behind a half eaten corpse.

Saturn Devouring His Son was among the so called Black Paintings found on the walls of Goya's house, Quinta del Sordo (Villa of the Deaf Man) - named for a previous resident, although Goya was also deaf when he lived there.

The subject here, taken from Greek mythology, is Titan Cronus (romanitised as Saturn), who, fearing that his children would overthrow him, ate each one at birth. He desperately grasps his child, possessed and demented, its gory stump of an arm protruding from the creatures wide, black mouth.

As with all of the Black Paintings - particularly The Dog - their intended meaning can only be guessed at. None-the-less, largely due to this enigmatic quality, they continue to haunt and inspire.

Monday, 9 May 2011

Bite 106: Francisco de Goya - The Dog, 1819-23

The Dog, 1819-23, oil mural transferred to canvas, 132 x 79 cm, Prado
Appearing to sink into the sand behind a dune, a dog, only its head showing above the surface, pleads desperately with its eyes, gazing up ominously. Filled with human emotion the animal is the epitome of helplessness, lost and alone, silent in its agony. 

The empty space above, minimal, a precursor to abstraction (Rothko before Rothko), further emphasises the fate of the animal, and, it its sublimity, the work is a powerful comment on the human condition. Have we not all been where this simply but effectively painted dog is, at some point in our lives?

Friday, 6 May 2011

Bite 105: John Singer Sargent - Paul Helleu Sketching with His Wife, 1889

Paul Helleu Sketching with His Wife, 1889, oil on canvas, 66 × 81 cm, Brooklyn Museum, NY
Paul Helleu sketches en plein air, his wife at his side. An artistic collaboration as well as marriage, their bright hats mirror as they sit close on the grass. Yet Paul, head down, regards his canvas, deftly applying paint from his palette, while Alice, almost deathly pale, looks meditatively into the distance. They appear content to sit in silence, within their own worlds.

Painted by their good friend John Singer Sargent, the complex composition and framing reflects the influence of the invention of photography on 19th century painting. The cropping of Alice on the right and the canoe at left transforms the intimate scene into a vignette of a larger scene, adding dynamism and realism to the representation.

Thursday, 5 May 2011

Bite 104: Paul César Helleu - Madame Paul Helleu, 1894

 Madame Paul Helleu, 1894, pastel on blue paper, 48 x 31 cm, Musée d'Orsay, Paris
A women of the utmost elegance and grace, Madame Alice Helleu (the artist's wife) reclines on a chair. Perhaps after a long evening among the Parisian aristocracy, she stills wears her fashionable evening dress and gloves. 

This intimate portrait is exquisitely drawn with a pale averted face, dark contours and expert, loose colouring. The result is a small but captivating image of a tender moment at the end of a day.

Wednesday, 4 May 2011

Bite 103: Arman - L'Heure Pour Tous, 1985

L'Heure Pour Tous, 1985, bronze, 700 cm tall, Gare St. Lazare, Paris
"Clocks slay time... time is dead as long as it is being clicked off by little wheels; only when the clock stops does time come to life."
                                                  - William Faulkner
Outside a train station in Paris (the Gare St. Lazare to be exact) there is an accumulation of bronze clocks. 

L'Heure Pour Tous (Time for All), with its many faces, looks down on hundreds of Parisians and tourists everyday, rushing by. All with somewhere to go, a train to catch, a deadline to meet - a clock to beat.

To stop and look up at these clocks you see that they do not move. They are all stopped on different times. It becomes a silent memorial to lost time.

Tuesday, 3 May 2011

Bite 102: Pierre Bonnard - Back of a Nude at Her Bath, 1934

Back of a Nude at Her Bath, 1934, oil on canvas, 107 x 74 cm, Pompidou
Marthe disappears against the wall of her bathroom, bright yellow. She is in her element, within herself, turned from the viewer. 

Bonnard paints his obsession, his muse. His art is a manifestation of their intimacy, painting as tender caress. 

Monday, 2 May 2011

Bite 101: Pierre Bonnard - Woman Lying on a Bed, 1899

Woman Lying on a Bed, 1899, oil on canvas, 96 x 106 cm, Musée d'Orsay
The bed - a landscape, tilted toward the viewer, with post-coital sheets bathed in soft late afternoon light.

The woman - Marthe, the artist's bath obsessed, highly-strung muse (and later wife), dozes, tautly, her left leg at a right angle to her right, exposing her sex.

Smoke from a pipe rises before her, evidence of the the artist (and voyeur), Bonnard.

This is the distillation of a moment, filled with intensity in its atmospheric portrayal.  A domestic world, layered with private meaning.