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Monthly Archives: July 2013

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I left my soul there / Down by the sea / I lost control here / Living free – Morcheeba, The Sea

I think anyone who has visited Dungeness will attest to the fact it is a strange and often eerie place. A vast network of barren flatlands, it is home to a host of wildlife, some alien-looking concrete sculptures, a thankfully underrated and thus often deserted beautiful beach, and a much loved, rideable little steam train which has filled the dreams of many a Kentish child.

On visiting the area, one is struck immediately by the landscape. The gleaming green wetlands of an RSPB nature reserve contrast, in a bittersweet thrill, with the deserted expanse which runs along the seafront; startling red rusting machinery and crumbling fisherman’s shacks dot the horizon. The effect is very much ‘Texas Chainsaw Massacre‘ and its power hinges partly on the same provocation of human emotion which made successful that infamous film – the exposure. The vulnerable haunting nature of a sparsely populated area. A lack of shelter, a lack of shade. Nowhere to hide, no-one to help. Of course at Dungeness there are plenty of houses, but certain areas of the front are almost entirely empty. A few architects and design gurus have taken the opportunity to build experimental structures, which sit upon the plains like spaceships landed on an African peninsula.

A trip up the lighthouse allows you to survey this scene in all its glory, the mini steamtrain line on its perpetual circuit, the endless patches of reds and browns interspersed with grey waves of shingle and sprinkles of green, the open ground scorched from the all-seeing sun in tandem with the assisting sea breeze.

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An exploratory walk North-West leads you over this dusty earth and through to the nature reserve where upon the horizon great blue lakes appear, quenching the entire landscape. The air becomes fresher, the wildlife more prolific and an abundance of beautiful birds showcase the best of nature’s design and make you remember why the RSPB are so important.

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Emerging from this bliss and turning North-East will lead you straight to the ‘Acoustic Mirrors’. Set amongst the lush vegetation and straddling an impressive lake, these striking concrete structures were erected around the time of the second world war. Dungeness, the only part of Britain classified as desert by the Met office, seemed a perfect spot to erect these objects, relying as they did on quiet surroundings to pick up the noise of approaching enemy planes. The acoustic mirrors, or ‘listening ears’ as they were known, were an early exploration into the principles of radar, their use discontinued once new technological advancements surpassed their capability. They are now of historical interest and it is possible to cross the water to walk around them.

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And besides all this you still have the glistening beach, shrouded with an ominous rising steamy mist at low tide on a hot day and thanks to the proximity of local favorite camber sands, used mainly by locals, with a few scattered tourists.

In all, the place is, well, strange. The first time, a bit too strange. But the second time. The second time I fell in love. See you soon Dungeness x

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Photograph: Greg Shrubsole

Photograph: Greg Shrubsole

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Photograph: Greg Shrubsole

Photograph: Greg Shrubsole

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Photograph: Greg Shrubsole

Photograph: Greg Shrubsole

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Photograph: Greg Shrubsole

Photograph: Greg Shrubsole

Photograph: Greg Shrubsole

Photograph: Greg Shrubsole

Photograph: Greg Shrubsole

Photograph: Greg Shrubsole

Photograph: Greg Shrubsole

Photograph: Greg Shrubsole

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All photographs Kate Withstandley except those specified

Cornelia Parker - Unsettled 2012 - 2013 Wood found on the streets of Jerusalem, wire Dimensions variable

Cornelia Parker – Unsettled 2012 – 2013
Wood found on the streets of Jerusalem, wire
Dimensions variable

Pure mathematics is, in its way, the poetry of logical ideas – Einstein

To many, she is the creator of the infamous ‘exploded shed’, a phrase which certainly elicited a knowing (and generally approving) head nod when explaining to friends where I spent my Saturday afternoon. But Cornelia Parker’s work is far more than a sculptural gimmick and her latest show at the Frith Street Gallery (not actually on Frith Street I can attest, after much traipsing around in hellish London heat), is testament to her insightful exploration of the physical and intellectual societal framework we inhabit.

Entering the gallery, I felt initially triumphant that I had not caved into my clawing instinct to give up and head home, after a difficult journey through central London in summer heat, riding a wave of nauseous hangover and unable to locate the gallery address. This feeling of success began to ebb away as I looked around and concluded instantly that the place must be mid-renovation; piles of wood, exposed concrete floors, until I noticed that the planks of wood were floating. Magic. Or so it seemed until I put on my glasses and saw the wires. My initial reaction, however, sums up in many ways the beauty of Parker’s works; the simple magic of her pieces stun me in the way pure maths might a rocket scientist. Concise, honest, her work is delicate in form even when robust in material. The utter beauty is in the restraint; not lifting the wood high from the floor (perhaps 2 inches) she causes your brain to become confused. Peripherally the planks are standing on the floor, but a direct glance reveals they are suspended. The wires of course show it as not being truly levitational, but their linearity actually only add to the illusion, visually driving the planks further toward the floor and contrasting the horizontal of the concrete over which they hang. It was only after a circuit of the gallery that I discovered the intended meaning behind the work (although I enjoyed it just as much without knowing); the wood was collected by Parker in Jerusalem, a traditional holy land often blighted by war and poverty, the material bringing back with it the stories it holds and the scenes it has witnessed. Broken wood also representing the life cycle, it speaks to me of mortality and family ties.

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Actually, quite a lot of Parker’s works strike a chord in me not unlike fear. By pointing to childhood games, particularly alongside the previous work, she pokes an inquisitive finger into that inherent terror most human beings hold in the depths of their belly, that of their own insignificance in the wider viewpoint when set against the vast backdrop of Time. Our fragile mortality. Her casts of pavement cracks remind me instinctively of Rachel Whiteread, but although the similarity in process links them, the point seems entirely different. While Whiteread casted ’empty’ space, provoking questions about spirituality, matter, physics, materiality, Parker’s work casts the space around, above and between. It produces a version of the real thing, a bit like an off-centre shadow. Her floor pieces are impressions of the streets below our feet, inspired by her love of childhood hopscotch; the brushed metal material making them seem both delicate and dense at the same time. Again, their minimal suspension from the floor has an arresting effect, with the shadows cleverly cast and mirroring the idea that the object itself is a metaphorical shadow.

Cornelia Parker -   Black Puddle (Rhoda Street) 2013 Black patinated bronze 109 x 118 x 6 cm

Cornelia Parker –
Black Puddle (Rhoda Street) 2013
Black patinated bronze
109 x 118 x 6 cm

Above and adjacent to the floor works are hung what appear at first to be abstract paintings. Peering closer I think myself to be initially wrong and conclude they are mixed-media collages. At the end, reading the guide text, I discover I was wrong again. They are in fact close-up photographs of the exterior of a prison wall. An investigation into cracks, they complement beautifully the linear language of the other pieces, and continue the theme of enlivening seemingly banal spaces. Taken shortly after a maintenance effort to fill widening holes, the images record the layman’s version of Parkers’ method; the filling of cracks for safety management is suddenly transformed and presented to the viewer as abstract expressionism.

Cornelia Parker - Prison Wall Abstract (A Man Escaped) 2012/13 12 x Digital pigment prints on Hahnemuehle Photo Rag 308 gsm 76 x 60 cm 82 x 65.2 cm

Cornelia Parker – Prison Wall Abstract (A Man Escaped) 2012/13
12 x Digital pigment prints on Hahnemuehle Photo Rag 308 gsm
76 x 60 cm
82 x 65.2 cm

Beautifully linked, visually understated, metaphorically loud and aesthetically sublime, I thought the show couldn’t get much better until I concluded with Bullet Drawing (Crosshairs) 2013, a set of geometrically- inspired pieces constructed with melted down bullets thinned and threaded through paper. With their offset mirror image again evoking the shadow, the works have a distinctly sexy aura and made me feel both exhilarated and utterly Zen looking at them, a very Kubrick moment occurring as I considered how their striking and magnetic simplicity seemed to relate both to our most basic primordial origins, with also a distinct nod towards the space age; purity, clarity, the future, the past. A captivating journey covering mathematics, geometry, architecture, structure, material and power; Cornelia Parker’s new work is a must-see.

Cornelia Parker – Frith Street Gallery. Until 27th July 2013.

Cornelia Parker - Black Path (Bunhill Fields) 2013 Black patinated bronze 340 x 250 x 9 cm

Cornelia Parker – Black Path (Bunhill Fields) 2013
Black patinated bronze
340 x 250 x 9 cm

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Cornelia Parker - Pavement Cracks (City of London) 2012-2013 Black patinated bronze 206 x 152 x 9 cm

Cornelia Parker – Pavement Cracks (City of London) 2012-2013
Black patinated bronze
206 x 152 x 9 cm

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ALL WORKS COURTESY THE ARTIST AND FRITH STREET GALLERY, LONDON
PHOTOGRAPHY: STEPHEN WHITE
MK - Lady with Hole, 2009 Image from Wellcome Collection

MK – Lady with Hole, 2009
Image from Wellcome Collection

Art Brut: is visual creation at its purest – a spontaneous psychic flow from brain to surface

Outsider Art: has been used increasingly loosely and can often now refer to any artist who is untrained or with disabilities or suffering social exclusion, whatever the nature of their work

source: Raw Vision Definitions

Outsider Art, or the more aptly-named Art Brut (raw art), has always been the genre which fascinates me the most. Its methods and theories are born of the same basis as my own values regarding art production and criticism. Its outputs never fail to fascinate me, conveying in often cryptic form inherent emotions and opinions through a direct outpouring of expression. The genre seems to be having something of a renaissance recently, with the intense Koestler Trust ‘prison art’ shows at the Southbank, the very in-vogue Hayward Gallery hosting the Museum of Everything at their current Alternative Guide to the Universe exhibition and of course Souzou; Outsider Art in Japan, which finished at the Wellcome Collection on Sunday. Outsider Art hasn’t been this fashionable since Basquiat in the 80s. Good. Lovely. But although almost every facet of it strikes a chord with me, I’ve also always been a tad dubious about the label and its use, or misuse, in the separation of art and artists.

Even in an exhibition about art from a culture I know very little about, I can see stylistic riffs running throughout many of the works which would probably help to classify them as ‘outsider’. One such example is that of smallness and intricate detail which can often, but not always, be linked to introversion and a lack of confidence. I can use the case of a student at Artbox as an example of my experience of this: 3 years ago Chris, on encouragement to put material to paper, would almost always begin a detailed and creative scene in the furthest corner of the paper, using up often only about 4cm2 of an A4 page. It was 2 years before we realised the significance of that technique, as Chris gradually opened himself up to us and to his own artistic expression; he can currently be found sweeping brushstrokes across A1 sheets blindfolded whilst listening to music. Transformation. Many people don’t emerge from the cocoon in the way Chris did; for some, the lack of confidence and fear of opening up continues to manifest through their works. Norimitsu Kokubo’s intensely detailed city scenes, Yumiko Kawai’s intricate embroidery and Shota Katsube’s army of tiny twist-tie figures are all examples of this style. A preoccupation with size also features in other works such as ‘Mother’ by Takako Shibata; a poignantly ever increasing and subsequently disappearing-off-the-page portrait of the artist’s absent mother.

Takako Shibata - Mother Image from Getty Images via The Independent.com

Takako Shibata – Mother
Image from Getty Images via The Independent.com

Shota Katsube - Untitled, 2011 Image from Wellcome Collection

Shota Katsube – Untitled, 2011
Image from Wellcome Collection

Norimitsu Kokubo -  The Economically Booming City of Tianjin Image from Wellcome Collection

Norimitsu Kokubo – The Economically Booming City of Tianjin
Image from Wellcome Collection

Outsider Art is sometimes defined as being produced by those who create spontaneously, without the influence of the establishment and art culture and without a commission. This is almost only ever partly true. Prison artists for example have often been very much informed by culture and are aware of the established market. But you can see the general idea ie. they’re not fresh meat straight out of St Martin’s, sitting in a South London studio tearing their hair out in a dramatically melancholic search for the inspiration to win this year’s Turner Prize. Outsider Artists are usually those who have come to the practice through somewhat ‘anti-social’ means; they are often incarcerated in a prison or mental health institute, but by no means always. Art therapy would fall under the ‘Outsider’ classification, but in art therapy the artists can be from any walk of life and in any situation, eg.divorce, depression, rather than necessarily prison-based or mentally ill. So if the scope can include Art Therapy and definition is therefore not reliant on any specific life situations, it follows that inclusion in the Outsider Art category must be more focused on the means of production.

Art Brut, Outsider Art, Souzou – Raw Art. Art by means of immediate and direct expression, an outpouring, art from the soul. I see what the categorists are trying to do through this definition, but although part of me agrees, another part doesn’t. In some cases it is possible to distinguish fairly easily between types of people, situation and production style, eg. the difference in work and means between a graduate art student trying to pay the bills and a lifer in prison extracting some cathartic relief from art production, but what about in an instance such as between Paul Gaugin and Vincent van Gogh? One a manically depressed recluse who cut off his own ear in a fit of rage (allegedly), the other considered to be, although perhaps not entirely straight-laced, a fairly well-balanced traditional artistè. Despite fitting most of the criteria for an ‘Outsider Artist’ van Gogh is not generally included in this grouping and was also producing art for recognition, for money, as was Basquiat in the 80s even though he was classed as Outsider.  In parallel with this, many artists in the Souzou exhibition contradict the classification by creating works influenced by cultural tradition or are known for their work and have sold pieces. Through social and charitable initiatives such as Artbox or Centerpieces (I’m lucky to own a fabulous ‘outsider art’ piece by Rich Zyzanski) this is actually more and more common, and not at all a bad thing. Does this then diminish from their ability to produce a direct expressive outpouring through artistic production? I don’t think so. Surely these rigid boundaries of definition cannot meaningfully apply to all artists without diminishing their individuality? Our very human obsession with labels and boxes leads us to the point where we ignore the essential grey area, the blurring of the boundaries and as such, the system files in error. Is it about time to de-compartmentalise art or should we step up the factioning to create a more meticulous framework? Either way by its very nature one size does not fit all when it comes to Art Brut.

Yumiko Kawai - Circles, 2009 Image from Social Welfare Corporation Yamanami Atelier

Yumiko Kawai – Circles, 2009
Image from Social Welfare Corporation Yamanami Atelier

Nobuji Higa - Naked Woman 10, 2011 Image from Wellcome Collection

Nobuji Higa – Naked Woman 10, 2011
Image from Wellcome Collection

Ryoko Koda - Untitled, 90-00 Image from Wellcome Collection

Ryoko Koda – Untitled, 90-00
Image from Wellcome Collection

Takashi Shuji - Telephone and Water Jug and Roller, 2010 Image from Wellcome Collection

Takashi Shuji – Telephone and Water Jug and Roller, 2010
Image from Wellcome Collection

Ryosuke Otsuji - Okinawan Lion, 2010 Image from Wellcome Collection

Ryosuke Otsuji – Okinawan Lion, 2010
Image from Wellcome Collection