• Spots or Dots? Dead or Alive?

No contest.  At one end of Tate Modern, what’s on display is an illusion of art, clinically and artistically dead (Damien Hirst, until 9.09.12).  At the other end, the art is intuitively and artistically alive (Yayoi Kusama, until 5.06.12).

I wasn’t the only one moving pretty much at a walking pace through the exhibition of work ‘by’ Hirst.  It has little depth, never engages beyond the occasional gawp at the moments of sheer grossness.  It is cold, calculating, shallow.  The famous pickled shark doesn’t “provoke in the viewer a profound, primal fear”, as Hirst boasts.  It’s dead, for goodness sake.  The cabinets of cigarette butts, medical instruments and pharmaceutical products are as lifeless and flat as the spot paintings.  If you like catalogue art, go to the more intriguing and less formulaic show at the Barbican Curve.  There, Song Dong‘s ‘Waste Not’ (until 15.06.12) has gathered together and sorted 10,000 household objects that his mother hoarded in her Chinese home over decades.  At least there’s humanity in such a collecting mania.

Hirst’s greatest crime against the living is his attitude towards butterflies.  He’s killed thousands.  He’s pasted them in pretty-pretty patterns in huge frames (well, of course, he didn’t do it himself; he’s above that sort of thing).  You can even buy tawdry rolls of ‘Hope’ wallpaper reproducing images from the circular Sympathy in White Major – Absolution II (2oo6, butterflies and household gloss on canvas).  That’s if you’re callous enough and foolish enough to fork out for the extortionate price the Tate Modern shop is charging (£250 a roll; you can pay £675-£700 for limited editions of other patterns).

Most disgusting of all is the room containing living butterflies.  Not British ones – too common – but exotic butterflies, stupefied by the chunks of sweet pineapple and mango on which they sup.  They can fly, but they’re in the last stages of life (no life-cycle here – no eggs, caterpillars, just chrysalises brought in from outside).  If you want to see exotic butterflies in a more reasonably natural habitat, go to Kew Gardens.  Hirst’s cynical, mortiferous attitude to life is nowhere more full-frontal than in his work with flies.  They die like flies in a sealed transparent box.  Elsewhere, their predecessors have been pasted thickly onto a giant ‘spot’ on a wall (Black Sun, 2004).  Flywheel and Shyster.

Both Hirst and Kusama have a strong element of OCD.  Where Hirst has spots, dead flies and cigarette butts, Kusama has dots, airmail stickers and quasi-phallic symbols.  I know which I prefer.  Only one of Hirst spot paintings (1986) has any expressive quality: it’s roughly executed, and he painted it himself (good grief).  Kusama’s repetitions are also irregular, and she’s genuinely hands-on.  She’s been developing her repertoire of repetitions for much longer than Hirst has been on this earth and her impulsive art draws the viewer in.  It was noticeable on the day that I visited that there were hundreds of people skimming through the Hirst galleries, while in the Kusama galleries less than a tenth of that number were able – and wanted –  to absorb her work at a thoughtful pace.  As if to point up the aesthetic gap between to the two, Kusama’s fascinating collage of an elephant hawk moth from the 1970s was made without having recourse to murdering any living creature.

Her repetitions are free, crowding in or spaced out on more than one plane, challenging in their metaphorical dimensions.  There are clear themes which follow one another as the years pass, but the forms into which Kusama shapes her obsessions rarely stand still and nearly always surprise and delight.  I was particularly taken by the ‘white’ paintings of the late 50s and early 60s, reminiscent of the minimalist, unistic paintings that Władysław Strzemiński created in the 20s and 30s.  Her ‘accumulations’ of off-white quasi-phallic shapes are also intriguing, no more so than in Aggregation: One Thousand Boats Show (1963), which features in The Guardian picture sequence linked at the top of this post.  There are off-beat videos, involving her wandering around NYC in Japanese costume or placing leaves on naked bodies.  Very happening in the late 1960s.

Quite how her personal circumstances during the last 30 years and more are reflected in her work is up for debate. She has effectively sectioned herself while still going out to her studio each day to continue her artistic career.  She’s become more colourful, and therefore ostensibly bolder.  And she takes delight in being present in her works and exhibitions, presenting a gnomic face to the external world.  For me the most magical work of recent years is her play with lights and mirrored infinity rooms.  In I’m Here, but Nothing (2000), a sitting room is cover with fluorescent coloured stickers which glow in the dark and disorient perspective.  Her infinity room Filled with the Brilliance of Life (2011) is one of the most beautiful installations I’ve ever seen.

The constantly varied combinations of little suspended lights, reflected and reflected in the black-mirrored space, range from spring woodland to bright city colours in a way that is bewitching.  It felt as if one of van Gogh’s night paintings had come to life, in a delicate Japanese way.  I came out of the exhibition feeling alive and invigorated.  I’m so glad I went to it second.

• Arnold Böcklin Self-Portrait (1872)

I’ve been fascinated by the Swiss painter Arnold Böcklin for years and was very excited when I saw so much of his work in Basle a few years ago (though this self-portrait was not there – it’s in Berlin).  I’d known his Isle of the Dead (1886) in association with Rachmaninoff’s wonderful symphonic poem of 1908.

This upload has a cover photo that’s not really appropriate for the piece, but it’s a fascinating audio document.  The composer recorded The Isle of the Dead with the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1929.  As I believe is quite typical of performances of his own works, it is brisker and less indulgent than many others.

Oh yes, Böcklin’s self-portrait. He painted it in 1872 and it has come to haunt me recently, though not in a lugubrious way.  Happily, he lived for another 29 years after he made it.


• Lost sheep (who needs Damien Hirst?)

• Tangled Limbs (don’t get too excited)

Here’s a trio of point-and-shoot studies from yesterday’s walk for the paper.  Today, the moor was rain-swept and on the way back I was head-butting a NW wind.  Yesterday, though, was balmy and the early-morning sun created magic light and shadows among the trees.  The middle one reminds me of Mondrian’s early drawings (Red Tree, Tree II, The Grey Tree, Apple Tree in Blossom, 1912) which he soon translated into a more familiar geometric idiom.

(photo taken 07.35, Saturday 3 March 2012)

(photo taken 07.40, Saturday 3 March 2012)

(photo taken 08.30, Saturday 3 March 2012)

• Who needs Jackson Pollock?

100th post
(photo taken 08.20, Saturday 3 March 2012)

• Lunch on the grass

While posting yesterday on the planned new concert hall in Katowice, I remembered a couple of walks I took with Górecki’s daughter and her family while I was visiting him in 2010.  One was to Nikiszowiec, which I’ll post about sometime soon.  The other was on Sunday morning, 1 November, in the birch forest and parkland on the southern outskirts of the city.

A clear, crisp morning, with a couple of unusual sights: a red squirrel at close quarters

and …

something strangely reminiscent of a certain French painting.  Although it has all the facial hallmarks of socialist-realist imagery of the early 1950s, I think that it must be from a later period, possibly the 1970s.  I can’t work out whether it’s tongue-in-cheek or oh-too-serious … or both.

• Even a piano needs to keep warm …

… but at what cost to its piano-ness?

Joseph Beuys Infiltration Homogen für Konzertflügel (Homogenous Infiltration for Concert Grand, 1966)

Afterwards, I asked how it felt.

• Slight of Hand

Yes, the spelling’s deliberate, though ‘Sleight of Hand’ is equally appropriate to my rant of the day.  I usually quite enjoy my grumpy moments, but the realisation that the media circus that is the Damien Hirst industry has launched its latest stunt has really made me see red (and orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet).

All eleven Gagosian galleries (in Athens, Geneva, Hong Kong, London, Los Angeles, New York, Paris and Rome) open today with ‘The Complete Spot Paintings 1986-2011’.  They say that over 300 paintings will be on show, though that can hardly be a complete list.  In fact, it’s barely 20% of the 1500 reportedly made by Hirst’s factory of assistants.  If we buy the line that artists have always had a team of assistants, we have to ask the question: ‘How much active, present input has the artist had?’  Rembrandt was surely in the studio with his assistants, constantly in touch and on their shoulder.  It would be interesting to know the nature and extent of Hirst’s actual presence in the creative process. If human contact was minimal, what does that say about the hands-off nature of the product? Slight?  Sleight?

Well, there are others better qualified than I am to comment on this matter, in the same way that there are those who understand better than I the behaviour of certain financiers.  I can but append three sayings that seem to me to point up the bankruptcy evident in today’s events.

• What is a cynic?  A man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. (Oscar Wilde)

• Nothing kills creativity more than the lethal combination of cynicism, laziness and pretension. (unattrib.)

• Opportunists thrive only in spaces afforded by dupes. (Chinese saying)

• @artboy68 100 portraits in 20 weeks

By a sequence of online connections which I can’t now remember, I got myself last year onto a list of subjects for an unusual online art project.  And yesterday my turn for a miniature portrait came up.  It’s just 2 3/8″ square, drawn from my WordPress gravatar.  Remarkable.

The artist is Scott Hamilton from Courtenay, British Columbia.  Three months ago, he embarked on a fascinating project to complete 100 (mostly miniature, mostly pencil) portraits in 20 weeks, almost all of his subjects being total strangers met via the internet.  Not only does ‘artboy68’ get the challenge of a new subject pretty much every day but he’s generous enough to do them in the first place, to share them on his blog and then to send them on to the individual subjects afterwards.  That’s a special kind of creative generosity.

Originally, the portraits were really miniature (just 1″ square), but soon settled on either a square format like mine or slightly larger oblong format (often 2 3/8″ x 3 1/8″).  Some are darker hued, some have a touch of pencil colour, but mine (no.64) is the only one so far to have a mountain background (no, it’s not Cornwall nor is it the view from Courtenay of the coastal mountains of British Columbia!).  Thanks Scott – a great New Year’s present.  Good luck for the remaining 36 portraits and for the realisation of your lifelong dream.

You can see Scott in fast-forward action on his fifth portrait below (he’s also uploaded six others).  You can follow him at http://artboy68.wordpress.com/ or at https://twitter.com/#!/artboy68.  The sequence of portraits is at http://artboy68project.wordpress.com/.

• A Stella Line-Up

Barely three hours after posting about wan colours in recent screen adaptations of classic novels (Jane Eyre and Great Expectations), I feel the urgent corrective need to bring colour and dynamism back into this drear Saturday.  So I’ve found pictures from an off-the-wall exhibition that was held in the bizarrely named ‘Haunch of Venison’ gallery in London last autumn.  The gallery’s got great open spaces and a ‘photograph as you wish’ policy.

I’ve adored the work of Frank Stella (b.1936) since I saw an exhibition of his paintings and constructions in Amsterdam in 1988.  The workings of his 3-D designs are open to see, not unlike those of the Pompidou Centre in Paris.  They’re exuberant and fantastical.

La penna di hu (1987-2009) occupied a prime site at the far end of the third gallery, which was devoted to several versions and 3-D maquettes of a design that has evidently been central to Stella’s creativity for a long time.  Below are three photos that I took from different perspectives of the largest version of La penna di hu (with its references to the Soviet hammer and sickle and, in its open framework, to Tatlin’s tower), plus a shot of the smaller-scale models.

I hope you enjoy exploring it as much as I did.  There’s nothing to beat being up close and physical with a Stella (rather than Estella), so if you ever get a chance to see his work, do!

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