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I recently went to Sevenoaks Nature Reserve on an exploratory trip with my 2 year old. Miraculously I actually managed to get some nice shots, as my attention was drawn from following his ever-running footsteps, to some of the striking aesthetics born of the natural oasis I was travelling through.

Being November, the three elements which were on my side with regards to getting some great images were colour, light and texture. Sounds obvious, but winter in Kent produces remarkable conditions in which to appreciate the beauty of the situation around us.

The colour of the leaves as the season takes hold is of course a wonderful sight. Living in Kent, the Garden of England as they say, I see this every year and have done for 33 years. It never gets dull. It’s never assumed. It is always, without fail, an open-mouthed moment of delicious shock, at how a tree so recently full and green, can so quickly become a riot of flame and opulence.

Winter light is by far my favourite of all the seasons. Low and hazy, it casts a glow over the scene. In contrast to summer shadows, which are often crisp and glaring, winter shadows are long and inventive; invoking a new aspect of reflection upon their subject.

And of course, texture. Mud. Water. Wet. Crisp. Crunch. Slop. Slide. Squelch. Burn. Bite. Smooth. Wash. Mix. The tangibility of this seasonal effect is almost as extreme as it’s tonal effect. Every aspect evokes a dramatic physical reaction. The modern instinct tells you to avoid the slop, the squelch, the burn. But once engaged, the elements draw you in deeply, in a way saccharine summer cannot.

Rarely is such a thing more beautifully satisfying than a winter walk in the Kent country.

SHOWING NOW and for sale as part of a Dartford Arts Network exhibition at the Mick Jagger Centre in Dartford until 4th January

Images taken on a Nikon D5100 with 50mm lens

A4 (4)

Golden

A4 (2)

Collision

A4 (3)

Nature’s Sculpture

A4 (1)

Reflection

Reflection

The Artist and his Model 1919-21

It is rare that an artist can transform a space such as the galleries at Tate Modern; rarer still to transform you, within it, into an entirely different state of mind; and even rarer to achieve these with purely 2D media. But Edvard Munch, along with the curators at Tate, has done just that.

The new Munch retrospective opened last week, following the extremely opportune timing of The Scream 1893 auctioning, which propelled the painter to the forefront of current public interest. Not that Munch has ever really been forgotten; The Scream is endlessly parodied across all art forms. It is a shame though to think of the many disappointed faces when they realise that neither the scream is on show, nor the Madonna 1894-5, another classic Munch. However I feel quite sure that any initial frozen smiles will soon melt to real furrowed brows of concentration and absorption as visitors get whisked away into Munch’s dreamlike world.

Initially, in this William Blake-esque setting, where pronounced yet unstable verticals abound and focus refuses to submit to standard optics, you feel somewhat comfortable; as if a traveller in a pastoral narrative. Then you notice that the couple you spotted kissing tenderly is named Vampyr 1893-4, and the mother and child sharing an embrace is titled The Sick Child 1885-7. As if in a dream, comfort and menace intertwine; contrasting versions of works are displayed facing one another with you suspended in the middle, caught up in a fundamental struggle which permeates the rest of the paintings.

Vampire 1893-4

The Sick Child 1885-7

One of the most fascinating elements of this show is the photographic experimentation and documentation of Munch’s interest in the new pioneering visual machines. Photography was relatively new at the time; Kodak had developed the first mass-marketed camera in 1901 – the Brownie. The sometimes transcendental effect of the photographs, created through over-exposure and double negatives, tied in with Munch’s own curiosity about spirituality as well as giving him an outlet for self-reflection. Munch dealt with an inner struggle, a fact which is well-documented due to his breakdown in later life, and threads of these issues do seem to shine through in his work. Looking through his photographs I felt a sudden concern that these images felt inherently personal. Much like the public/private battle of Gillian Wearing, I was torn between the fascination of voyeuristic intrigue and the moral inhibition around questions of personal privacy. Did Munch want these to be on show? Some show him in strange poses, and even naked; were they intended for public consumption or were they an intimate exploration of self?

Rosa Meissner at the Hotel Rohn in Warnemunde 1907

Self-portrait on Warnemünde beach 1907

One theme which repeats throughout his paintings is that of the outward gaze. I call it a gaze, when what I really mean is a stare. Often threatening, sometimes unsettling, but usually menacing. Rarely does a figure smile at the viewer from the canvas. Paintings such as Workers on their way home ’13-14 portray frightening and aggressive stances towards the viewer. Was this how Munch saw the world? Are we the figure in the painting or is he? This motif continues in The Artist and his Model ’19-21, Murder on the Road ’19 and Red Virginia Creeper ’88-89 and creates an unsettling tension between viewer and painting. In Street in Asgardstrand ’01, the figure is there, albeit not so seemingly malevolent; but its very situation and directness still set the viewer on edge. In the background, roads and pathways regularly appear, perhaps signifying ways to escape from his own state of mind. A group of people are often nearer to the path, but the solitary figure in the foreground remains, fixed and looking out from the frame; the way is there, but only in the peripheral.

Murder on the road 1919

Red Virginia Creeper 1888-9

Street in Asgardstrand 1901

Throughout the exhibition I felt the overwhelming sense of an artist ahead of his time. Despite the obvious influence of the Impressionist movement on his work, with its veritable myriad of conspicuous brushstrokes and deep variation of tone and colour, Munch’s ability to communicate tension through style and medium is sometimes reminiscent of very modern day artists. In Self-Portrait Facing Left ’12-13, he uses woodcutting to create a representation of self-image through a series of disconcertingly violent scratches. The composition of the piece I found reminiscent of Francis Bacon, creating form and raw emotion with fast movements. No wonder they named him an Expressionist. His Kiss in the Fields ’43 is intrinsically minimalist; the natural texture and grain of the wood contrasting against the sharp, imposed scoring of the suggested coupling. This piece could sit quite inconspicuously in a modern art gallery. Another of his pieces which could easily blend into not just a gallery, but a specific exhibition, is Yellow Log ’12. Anyone who saw the recent David Hockney exhibition at the Royal Academy could not fail to spot the extreme similarity between this motif and Hockney’s newer works; the comparisons are there in colour, form, style and technique.

Kiss in the fields 1943

The Yellow Log 1912

I hope that both Hockney and Bacon, as well as many other artists, would happily admit their debt to this great painter (Hockney for one could hardly deny it). His skill in conveying memories and emotions as almost lost in that moment between dream and wake; his ability to pick out the sharp points in those hazes, whilst still rendering the featureless forms in the background with inherent purpose. Towards the end of his life these nightmarish scenarios became reality for a period during his breakdown, in this period his paintings became less concerned with faceless shadows in the peripheral and more of a confrontation with solitary mortality. His work continues to fascinate us, and not just because he provides an insight into mental illness, but because we recognise his universal struggle with the human condition.

I believe your reaction to the Gillian Wearing exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery may well correlate with your individual Empathy Quotient. This figure is measured by a scale which has at the 0 end a total lack of empathy (and thus sociopathy). An average woman would score 47. I (big softie that I am) scored 63. This is probably why I found myself close to tears at almost every exhibit in the show; and those which didn’t gut-wrench me into despair, scared me to almost the same point.

If art is meant to provoke (and I certainly think it should) then this truly is Art. Through film and photography, Wearing creates a no-holds barred showcase of the human condition and slaps you in the face with it. The whole conceptual theme running throughout Wearing’s work is the question of private vs public. What do we keep private and why? What happens when we take that private part of people and make it public? How and why do we put on a constructed facade, a ‘mask’, for other people? Her work forces you to confront these questions and to analyse your own reactions. I felt immediately ashamed when I recoiled from the man discussing his sexuality in 10 – 16 (’97). Although I know these people agreed to be filmed, it felt like intruding.

10-16 (c) Gillian Wearing

Is this what Wearing is trying to point out to us, though? That social stigmas are so ingrained in us that we now think them ‘natural’. It is ‘natural’ to want to turn away when you see someone being abused such as in Sacha and Mum (’96), or when faced with the deep sadness of reality in films such as Prelude – Lynn & Sister (’00). In the same way that we would turn off the news to avoid feeling depressed, our culture is one of denial and repression. We are encouraged to bury our heads in the sand. ‘Life’s too short, why dwell on it?’ is the familiar cry.

Sacha and Mum (c) Gillian Wearing

Prelude (c) Gillian Wearing

Wearing’s work focuses on our self-enforced repression and drags it to the surface. In pieces such as 2 into 1 (’97) we watch a mother and her two (awful) sons lip-synch each others opinions of themselves. 2 minutes of this and you will either realise how lovely your own children are or, like me, be very glad you don’t have any at all. But of course this is the mirror emotion to the sadness and despair provoked by the pieces. The relief. The overwhelming gratitude that when you leave the exhibition, this is not your life.

2 into 1 (c) Gillian Wearing

On the other hand, in a way, it is. We all have secrets. We all have feelings we are ashamed of. The contrast between our real selves and our facades is explored explicitly in Wearing’s famous social experiment, Signs that say what you want them to say and not Signs that say what someone else wants you to say (’92-3). As a relatively unknown artist, on the streets of Brixton in the 90’s, she asked passers by to write whatever they wanted on a piece of card and have their photograph taken with it. The results are surprising. As you would expect, there are quite a few references to the recession and subsequent lack of jobs. But amongst these you have clashes of image and words. Policemen stating ‘Help’ and a very together-looking young woman claiming ‘My grip on life is rather loose’. We all make judgements based on facade, but we project that facade too, so that people see what we want them see. We have to have control.

Signs that say what you want them to say, not Signs that say what someone else wants them to say (c) Gillian Wearing

Extract from Signs that say what you want them to say, not Signs that say what someone else wants them to say (c) Gillian Wearing

The most disturbing part of the exhibition for me was the portrait room. I consider myself a pretty hardy young woman; I’ve watched The Exorcist a number of times, and laugh in the face of the multitude of modern teen-horrors. But this was something else altogether. In the honest spirit of the show, I will admit that I sat in front of these photographs and felt genuine fear in the pit of my stomach. ‘Self Portrait as…’ (’04-06) consists of a series of large photographs of Wearing’s family; grandmother, father, brother, as well as famous figures such as Andy Warhol. At first seemingly innocuous, a closer look reveals a familiar pair of eyes. Wearing has constructed lifelike masks of people and put herself behind them, carefully cutting out the area around the eyes so that you begin to back away as you realise that there are 13 different faces looking at you, but only one person. I was reminded of Buffalo Bill from Silence of the Lambs, or the Texas Chainsaw Massacre; the psychological difficulty of dealing with someone hiding behind another person’s face has us cowering behind the nearest cushion.

Self-Portrait at three years old (c) Gillian Wearing

Self Portrait as My Grandmother Nancy Gregory (c) Gillian Wearing

Not knowing what it is that we are facing is a fear which taps into every scary film set in the dark of night, or the surprisingly common fear of clowns. The irony is that we do this every day, with almost every person, but we accept the facade. Its easier. We are conditioned not see the masks. In pieces like Confess All On Video. Don’t Worry, You Will Be In Disguise. Intrigued? Call Gillian (94), Wearing literalises this situation by placing people in masks and asking them to describe their ‘private confessions’. The concept is tantalising and you can see why people took up the offer. For us as the viewer, it creates a disturbing scenario in which we helplessly watch someone bare their soul without being able to offer comfort, but for the participant it is no different to catholic confession, or even the popular therapy session. The need to share our private secrets is inherent in us as humans, and Wearing explores this need by making us do just that.

Extract from Confess All On Video. Don’t Worry, You Will Be In Disguise. Intrigued? Call Gillian (c) Gillian Wearing

Extract from Confess All On Video. Don’t Worry, You Will Be In Disguise. Intrigued? Call Gillian (c) Gillian Wearing

The exhibition is on until 5th June. If you are interested in the human condition and the power of art as social catalyst then I would highly recommend you see it. Although I suggest taking a cushion, either to hide behind, or to cry into. I wish I had.

Gillian Wearing at Whitechapel Gallery – Click to book or for more information