McAlpine Miller: The New Collection

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It is so exciting to see McAlpine Miller’s latest artwork.

At first sight I wondered what it was, exactly, that McAlpine Miller’s newest artworks remind me of. Then it hit me. It’s the high-tech look. In them I see something of both the very modern and the nostalgic, in sync.

It is the merger of today’s science of technology with the prowess of ‘live’ cartoon action that is at the heart of his new body of artwork. And it is the clarity of these forms of his, both human and animated, that invite me ‘in’ to his frame, to be a participant. As if a play on the stage, his actors are framed in the scene through architectural elements that challenge today’s 3D space but, realising the art history of centuries past, it is as if you’re looking at a Roman Fresco that’s up to date with 3D Projection Mapping, but also stereographic 4D.

The similarities between his traditionally-painted canvases and today’s Social Media micro-electronics are what integrate his pictures. It’s as if waves of electrical quantum photons (light) take the place of both the traditional Old Master’s Classical or the Modernist’s Impressionistic prism, on level pegging. By taking the cartoons of yesterday and brightening them up with the cartoon colours of today, his sense of hue is as sophisticated as a Renaissance painter’s in softening natural looking skin tints that appear to be blended with today’s CGI pixelated palette. From traditional looking Antique White to Saddle Brown he pulls his visionary-art right bang-up-to-date through colours that are so …. of the ‘now’; of today.

Walk up any High Street, look in the fashion-chain store’s windows and you’ll see all the models dressed in the same lively, exotic, lush Pantone colours that McAlpine Miller squeezes from emerald green to chilli powder pepper red, canary yellow, tangerine tango, hot pink and peach puff. He uses colours that look as though they’re on a video display but they’re not, they’re on his canvas. Here is an artist who really understands what tomorrow’s Social Media is all about. His treatment of pictorial space is brilliant through the combination of multiple spaces and pictorial surfaces ‘released’ (painted) on ‘multiple platforms’ (picture planes) with an apparent Pixar style of animation about them. In eye-catching overlapping of graphics therein lays the McAlpine Miller Modernity.

All the things that David Hockney can do with an iPad in terms of colour, collaged composition and cut-and-paste layering, McAlpine Miller takes full circle by doing New School in an Old School style all, incredibly, with his oil paints! McAlpine Miller is taking Hockney a step further, by taking it a step backwards. Being far more complex, with traditional oil paints. His paintings have a 3D look about them. Seemingly composed through the employment of graphical cropped images edited under a CGI mouse-move, but it is all done with his sable paintbrush not the magic wand of Photoshop. With this, he paints pictures that connect with you, today. McAlpine Miller is one of the best artists of our time, painting about our time, in the best way I’ve seen. This is how he is changing the course of Art History – much in the same way that Da Vinci, Monet and Picasso did. The art of tomorrow starts here ….

Constantly looking around him at our everyday, McAlpine Miller has a set of references that are totally different to other painters. It’s as if, he says, that, “these realities combine to challenge us and perhaps create a greatly unstable world. By uncovering our real issues we discover ourselves. Undressed to the world, yet layered to the world. The illusion continues…”

It appears like he has tagged all this in Pixar animation, transforming, for example, the imagery of Stan Lee, founder of Marvel Comics, and Hanna-Barbera of the 50s and 60s, with Steve Jobs and George Lucas’s Pixar Animation Studios of today. As in, ’Taking the Trash Out’, where Hanna Barbera is alive in Hoagy’s Alley wearing this new summer season’s high wedge sandal. It is not just about taking the trash (rubbish) out, it is about the unwanted material – the waste – as the leftovers of our forgotten civilization, about to be recycled for posterity into today’s computer jargon of the ‘trash’ of the PC world. As he points out, by, “Taking the idea of the central figure and revealing an alternative opinion of that character, [this show hopes] to reveal the ongoing nature of the transparent life. Beauty is only ever skin-deep and our ability to hide behind the facade has become something of a 21st century art form.”

Something else, for (some of) the boys, highly topical and relevant to today, you cannot close your eyes to the psychological interpretation of reference to unconscious homosexual fantasy when Batman can now legally marry Robin. With Catwoman taking the part of the witness, ready to whip you in to shape, in, ‘Woman of the Night’. DC Comics’ Batman – aka Bruce Wayne the billionaire playboy, industrialist and philanthropist that all Americans aspire to become. Whilst for the girls, in, ‘Here to Save the Day’, Superman – the fictional Superhero inspires the a-typical personification of the American, apple-pie-loving girl-next-door Gibson Girl, to show what she is prepared to do for her country, not the other way around. McApline Miller explains, “Highly celebrated and widely identified, beauty hides the ugliness of our reality. War, hatred, anger and religion make up our every day.”

Where, even as goodness Captain America slaps the enemy in the face, you’ll see that it is an extremely sexy, McAlpine Miller high-heeled heroine, in, ‘Salute to the Captain’, from a time when comics cost a slim dime, and models today are just as thin. And in, ‘A Typical Feminine Trait’, he fuses the Terrytoons animation studio with the multiplex Uncle Sam (metaphor for the United States recruiting of soldiers for the Wars), fighting wars, fighting the great ideals of justice, and even, fighting the fusion of today’s fashionable franchise branding where the references to catwalk anorexia and financial waste (and gain), connect.

McAlpine Miller achieves all this through his all-action comic book colour palette painted with his idiosyncratic, painterly, Old Master skill. Together with the industrial precision of a commercial graphic illustrator, over, the prominence of what I’d say is surely his own, Social Media edit look. All blended with Chiaroscurism’s use of shade and light. Unique to McAlpine Miller, there are two kinds of light in his paintings. The light of day, where he makes everything known and available. And the internal, spiritual, light which is when he paints all that which we can only just about imagine in our dreams. I’d be happy to live in a McAlpine Miller picture.

To help you, he splits his multi-focus Cubist compositions in to single-viewpoints of flat, fixed, fragmented planes that sculpt his storyboard characters over overlapping perspectives. Exposing them as collaged Pop Art mass culture, that looks physically disturbed by an Expressionistic revelation of images, through to an Abstract subsistence of layer-upon-layer of veiled-on oil paint revealing, informing and identifying a connection that is pure lifestyle. This is all perfectly clear as McAlpine Miller’s wholesome flesh-and-blood bikini-babes retreat to an ever-eternal return that connects the past to the present, and even the future.

There is also something of the conservative, I’d say spiritual, in his compositions too. From the triptych, ‘Three Times a Lady’, surfaces the early Christian art formatting popular for church altar paintings from the Middle Ages. McAlpine Miller’s canvas is rich in a visual legacy enabling him to project his content-aware prominence, found only in today’s world of celebrity-worship icon advertising. Amidst all of this he uses highly distinctive, iconic, 1950s Americana which he blends with Romanticism. From the portrayal of the beautiful Movie Star from the Golden-olden-good-old-days-gone-by, off-of-the-Silver-Screen, to today’s multicoloured computer-animated, backlit fluorescent light of the iPad, it’s all pure cinema.

He is both painter and public entertainer that, if Jessica Rabbit were alive today, I’m sure that McAlpine Miller would be the artist whom she’d want to be framed by.

©Estelle Lovatt FRSA

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The Industrial Allure of Lowry’s Urban Landscapes

Industrial Landscape 1955 Tate © The Estate of L.S. Lowry

Industrial Landscape 1955 Tate © The Estate of L.S. Lowry

If you are an American coming over to London for your summer vacation this year, then I must recommend one exhibition to you: Lowry and the Painting of Modern Life at Tate Britain.

I was having a discussion recently about the painter L.S. Lowry and his impact on the art world. The discussion revolved around how Lowry is often a victim of the art world’s middle-class snobbery when assessed as a painter.

Be it panoramic or intimate vignettes of the North of England, Lowry’s matchstick men may look fairly idiotic; nonetheless they are instantly recognizable. Hard-edged, grotesque and comedic, Lowry’s painted people might look formulaic because they were drawn from his memory. Although simple-looking, you’ll recognize human variety in every one of his people. In fact, many faces in his paintings are former tenants. In his lifetime, Lowry made over 1,000 paintings and 8,000 drawings. If you asked him, “What are you doing when you’re not painting?” he might have replied, “thinking about painting.” Lowry often described himself as “a simple man,” but, in fact, he was a complex and contradictory character considering the murky realism of his environment and British history in general.

Ancoats Hospital Outpatients’ Hall 1952, Whitworth Art Gallery, University of Manchester

Ancoats Hospital Outpatients’ Hall 1952, Whitworth Art Gallery, University of Manchester

It took the attention of American art critic Jessica Stephens to wake the world up to Lowry’s work. In her writing in ‘The Studio’ in 1928, she describes how “beauty may be of many kinds…The work of Mr. L.S. Lowry has qualities which make it difficult to forget.”

For those not familiar with Lowry’s artwork, he was a modest man in both character and artistic temperament, known for his landscapes which spoke to the enormity of England’s industrialization. His pictures tell the story of life before the National Health Service (similar to Obamacare): pre small-scale Capitalism; pre strike meetings. In other words, British history in oil paint. Or, as Jessica Stephens wrote: “It is the nearest rendering of the life of Lancashire one knows.”

There are lots of assumptions surrounding Laurence Stephen Lowry (1887 – 1976). Here’s the truth for you; he was born to lower middle class parents (a real estate agent and hopeful concert pianist) in Stretford, Manchester, Northern England. A move to the industrial hamlet of Pendlebury led to an obsessive subject matter for the young painter. He captured the twisted forms the human body took when it was bent over machines for 12 hours a day, six days a week. Always scurrying along, the subjects of his paintings have very little time and money; too busy running around representing the rituals of public life from football matches (otherwise known as soccer to Americans) to protest marches, evictions and fist-fights. The experiences of the 20th-century working-class life in England were all captured by Lowry.

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Coming Out of School / Courtesy Tate © The Estate of L.S. Lowry

A rent collector by day and virgin by night, Lowry lived with his mother and was formally trained in drawing and painting under the French Impressionist painter Valette. The Parisian galleries and French art critics recognized and helped further his endeavors in the history of British art. He exhibited at the Lefevre gallery in Mayfair, London, and was a visiting tutor at the prestigious Slade School of Fine Art, recognised at the time as one of the best art schools in England.

What was unusual about Lowry was that he was not the typical moneyed student graduating from the Courtauld Institute of Art, nor was he an artist that fit into the traditional Eton-Oxford English mold. Nor did he study art history at St Andrews University in Scotland – where Kate Middleton and Prince William, now the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, first met and studied art history. Why? Simply because Lowry’s subject as a painter was British industry – not the British Empire.

Although Lowry has never been a darling of the art world, his work does find its fans. The minute details in his densely-packed paintings give the eye much to feed on. More importantly, his landscapes of Northern England’s textile mills and factory chimneys make Lowry an artist of ‘place’. This ‘localism’ – topographies of slums in Manchester – speaks to those who inhabit these areas. Whereas traditionally labor is concealed within factory walls, Lowry brings it to the public’s attention: showing men at work or on the streets. Describing the slum subjects in his paintings, Lowry said: “I saw the industrial scene and I was affected by it. I tried to paint it all the time. I tried to paint the industrial scene as best I could. It wasn’t easy.” His ambition was to reveal the industrial scenes shaping England at the time. No one else had done it seriously and Lowry had an edge over the rest: he was wise about street life.

The Fever Van 1935 © The Estate of LS Lowry / Image courtesy of National Museums Liverpool

The Fever Van 1935 © The Estate of LS Lowry / Image courtesy of National Museums Liverpool

First melodramatic and pessimistic, his mood changes drastically after World War II. If you’re surprised at how small the paintings are, just wait for the last room in this exhibition, which houses the Industrial Landscapes. Here, for the first time ever, are five grand-scale panoramic paintings of Lowry’s world shown together. His world is a pictorial record of a time before Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher changed the face of British industry. However, when the industrial scene changed, so did the nature of Lowry’s subject matter. He couldn’t paint what wasn’t there. So Lowry left for the mining districts of South Wales, where he painted the trees looking like they oozed smoke. Faced with these panoramas the size of large-scale history paintings, the viewer finally understands the scale and scope of Lowry’s ambition.

Lowry certainly left more than a cultural legacy. What makes this the perfect exhibition at the moment, is our social awareness of our unemployment and current dismal financial times. Lest we forget, today, Lowry’s artwork often sells for millions of dollars. Enjoy.

Lowry and the Painting of Modern Life runs from 25 June – 20 October 2013 at Tate Britain.

By . Published in Cultural Weekly.

Noa Lidor: Doubting Thomas

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I believe that nothing happens totally by chance. And that to be a great art critic you have to believe in God – in order to understand that to be an artist is a God-given gift.

I feel it necessary to preface this essay by introducing myself as a Jewish art critic, who adores Leonardo da Vinci’s ‘The Last Supper’; its Apostles and their symbolic roles. That, in itself, is quite a feat for a ‘nice Jewish girl’. The part I find most irresistible is the spilt salt cellar near Judas Iscariot, who, abruptly taken aback, reacts to the sudden revelation of his plan to betray Jesus by tipping over the salt shaker which symbolises … ah, wait, back to all of that later..

For now, I want to tell you how I first became enticed by the artwork of Noa Lidor. In January 2011, I was reviewing an exhibition entitled, ‘Drawn from Life’, at the Abbot Hall Art Gallery, Kendal, Cumbria for BBC Radio 2’s flagship arts programme, ‘The Arts Show with Claudia Winkleman’.  I picked on Noa Lidor’s piece, mentioning how much I enjoyed it, for its symbolism, which I find quite irresistible.  I said that what I liked about Lidor’s artwork was her ability to use salt in a way that shaped channels of communication between localities and epochs as diverse and distinctive, unique and individual, as human characters that have narrated accounts that probe the ‘self’, as seen throughout art history. 

Being an art history lecturer, for me, to see how much they all overlap is particularly exciting.  It was through Lidor’s employment of salt – as a metaphor for tears, decay and aging, whilst simultaneously being a preservative over all that is life-quenching, and life-sustaining, that makes salt a most necessary natural element of the world.

Almost a year later, in December 2011, I visit her in her studio in north London, prior to the exhibition.  As much as she is plain-spoken, proud and intelligent, she is humble, gentle and down-to-earth. Her portfolio is sober and bold, united by an undercurrent of compassion for the human condition.  Not just a collection of ‘singles’, but an ‘album’.

I do like it when an ‘artwork’ comes together.  Be it the artist’s, or mine.  Let me explain.  I recently held a Leonardo da Vinci illustrated slide lecture and drawing from the model studio session at the Hampstead School of Art, London, following the National Gallery’s sell-out ‘Leonardo da Vinci:  Painter at the Court of Milan’ exhibition.  I focused on his symbolism, bringing the most Christian of art to some of the most orthodox and observant Jewish women in north London.  Ironically giving them the most religious of cathartic experiences. And so it happens that I find myself fascinated by Lidor’s work also because, as a Jew, I find the Judeo-Christian connections in her art so appealing.

In Chaim Potok’s book, ‘My Name is Asher Lev’, about a Hasidic Jewish boy living in New York City, the story follows Asher’s maturity as both an artist and a Jew, as he studies the paintings he becomes interested in – Crucifixions; as he explores the conflicting traditions of all that is traditional in art, versus religion.  For Asher, art is his religion, just as to me, it appears to be Noa Lidor’s. Besides which, I’ve always maintained that the artist’s studio is their temple. And I always feel that the Art Museum is a sort of temple for me, and when I visit it I feel like a pilgrim.

One further thing I want to tell you about is of my own sanctimonious practice before starting to write an art review.  I often imagine that I am describing the art to a blind person.

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Lidor’s art is about the free-verse separation that unites poetry with prayer, using Duchampian ‘ready-mades’ that coalesce that which is public, with the personal, so that a ‘blind date’ takes on new meaning, offering much promise.

The installation ‘Field (Andromeda)’ is made of various brass bells deep-rooted, sunk into a double size bed mattress, in a way that exposes their inner, normally concealed, space. The bells, eighteen of them in four different sizes, are positioned to map out the star constellation of Andromeda – named after the princess who, in the legend from Greek mythology, was chained to a rock as a sacrificed to a sea monster. Perseus, the hero who slew the sea monster, saving the beautiful Andromeda from death at the last moment, later becomes her husband. Ah, I love a happy Hollywood ending.

 This is a very feminine piece, the bed’s symbolism of sleep and subconscious, as flatly laid-down and bare as Tracey Emin’s, ‘My Bed’, is a reflection of the self.  ‘This dark ceiling without a star’ (the title of the solo exhibition in which this piece was first shown) is the closing line of the poem ‘Child’ by Sylvia Plath.  Gazing somewhere in-between heaven and earth Plath shows how, distressed in spirit, she feels she is living a life without light [“this dark ceiling without a star”], ubiquitously stuck between the immense celestial and the small-time small-town, small woman that is herself (or in this case Lidor), quixotically domesticated.

The size of the bell-circles corresponds to the level of brightness of each of the stars. This, in turn, also perhaps looks like a rash developing over skin, or wounds in the surface.

Although silent, the significant positions and sizes of each bell may well be interpreted as tuneful notes on a musical staff that could form a muffled musical composition, gently silenced by the squeeze of padded mattress foam. Bells playing a ‘light’ (through the sense of meaning both ‘not dark’ and ‘not heavy’), albeit silent music, and ring loudly with the immensity of all that we love in big, grave sculpture.

‘Tank’ is a massive mural organized out of Pointillist dots, which, once joined by your eye Dot-to-Dot fashion, form the profile of a military tank. On near inspection you realise the tinny picture is created out of hundreds of thimbles implanted deep into a wall of plaster. Renaissance fresco-like, ‘Tank’, life-sized at 9 metres long, engages the wall as something that both separates and unites.

Think of the Western Wall (also known as Wailing Wall) – a remnant of the broken down temple in Jerusalem, where Jews come to pray, Or the Israeli West Bank security barrier, standing between the Israelis and the Palestinians, just as the walls of Babylon were fortification and the walls of Jericho fell after Joshua’s Israelite army marched around the city blowing trumpets. And Pink Floyd’s album, ‘The Wall’, which features the wall as part of ‘the problem’, realising an urge for destruction.
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This exercise of ‘pointing’ – the thimble can be read as a surrogate for the fingertip – towards the reality outside the exhibition space, allows Lidor to ask the bigger questions we want answered about art. Making art. Making reality. Her pointing out that which might be on the other side of the wall – which we cannot see.

The use of thimbles in today’s BlackBerry and iPad technological age is somewhat out of date, maybe an anachronism yes, but they’re also romantic. Starry-eyed and prosaic; the stuff of fairytales bound up with moral myths of sacred narrative explaining how the world – and humankind – came into being; an abstraction wistful of times gone by, of the lost innocence of the child – suffer the little children to come unto me. It is of the simple, being above suspicion, as with the Chapman Brothers’ ‘Zygotic Acceleration, Biogenetic, De-Sublimated Libidinal Model’, where life – being both magnificent and transcendental, is numbed by God as something impossible.  In this way, Lidor is chief architect of the abstract assembly and parable, working with vessels and negatives. An intuitive artist, whose sagacity of knowing what it means to ‘feel right’ seems as if it originates from a compass she has within her bones, pointing in the right direction beyond ambiguity and beyond belief.

The thimbles, inserted bullet-like into the gallery wall, punctuated mark-making, become like a Leonardo da Vinci Cartoon – a full-size preparatory study. And of course, we know that da Vinci also, conceptually, invented the tank.

Lidor’s wall installation cleverly crosses the periphery of drawing into sculpture, somewhere in between the two and three dimensions. Drawing, as a 2D act, is unmistakably palpable, whilst the 3D upshot becomes mysteriously hard to pin down – so subtly intangible has Lidor made it, reduced in indication, as calculated and absorbed within the wall.  Whereas most artworks sit proud, out, on the wall, out to you, the gallery-goer, Lidor’s does the opposite; which is what I’ve come to expect of her now.  All an oxymoron.  This requisite tempts, invites, you to come closer within finger-reach of the work, enabling you to put your finger into it, to connect to it upfront and personal.  Feel the substance that Lidor’s image is ‘of’, like bullet holes, they punctuate space – like a full stop in the sentence of time – as Lidor’s work speaks of concerns of communication and all that is desire – both tactile and sexual.

The ability to touch and peer closely at this work heightens the obsessive, almost violent dimensions, of the process of means by which Lidor shoots hundreds of thimbles into the wall in this image, the manner of a tank: the metallic material-ness of which echoes the cold hard nose-metal circles of the thimbles, transforming the male fantasy of salvation into a female image bound to the wall surface, with nowhere to run.  No exit holes.  Simply a complex, yet subtle, sculptural disruption of space that maintains a still, pared down, feel of a highly sophisticated Renaissance drawn line in western art.

It is the union that Lidor draws between the two – the tank and the thimble – that establishes for me a rationality of discord and apprehension amid contrary parallels of control, proving that yes, opposites do indeed attract.  It’s the internal and exterior; big and little; masculine and feminine. Tank – a phallic, man-made erection symbolising man’s challenge to triumph over the force of machinery and tools (I cannot help but think of Epstein’s ‘Rock Drill’ being given a new life).  Whilst it is in the round, feminine, thimble that connubial intimacy is symbolised.  The private woman standing aside the public man, each with their ‘to protect-and-provide’ mind-set.

So whilst it is that ‘Tank’ talks about protection and security while denoting areas of danger and battle, it is the humble thimble’s purpose to protect and safeguard the small details that may be missed amid the coliseum of it all – the lady’s finger busy – ‘a stitch in time, saving nine’.  Being a Jewish mother (and Lidor is a Jewish mother too), for me Lidor’s images connect to the Jewish concept of ‘Eshet Chayil’ (Woman of Valour), who is full of life. Virtuous, able, maybe even a little lonely, within her domestic environment, as, self-absorbed and introvert, she tends to her ‘woman’s work’, consumed with a filling quixotic, reflective, worth of ‘home’.

The piece metaphorically invites you to poke a finger into the wall, to assert its solidity and question it at the same time. As in John

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20:24-29: “Now Thomas, one of the Twelve, called the Twin, was not with them when Jesus came.  So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe.”  Eight days later, his disciples were inside again, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

Lidor made a small graphite drawing in her sketchbook after Caravaggio’s ‘Doubting Thomas’ (not shown in this exhibition).  Caravaggio’s piece has been an influence upon Lidor in the way that Caravaggio depicts the scene with the finger in the wound; the way he chose to interpret the text of the scriptures – in which, by the way, it is never explicitly said that Thomas put his finger into Christ’s wound – only that he said he will not believe unless he does, and later that Jesus invites him to do it – all this, being relevant interplay for Lidor as a stepping stone from Bible to painting, making touching as equal as seeing.  Right down to the fact that we, the viewers, ‘see’ and ‘believe’ this scene as it comes through the painting. The power of it so strong, it brings both assurance of security and shock of horror.

Lidor’s new series of watercolours entitled ‘Doubting Thomas’, in shades of red, pink and brown, features imprints taken from a knitted round doily. She dips the doily into watery paint and rubs her hand over it to print it – blood-like – onto the paper. The result looks like an x-ray or like the imprint of hot metal on skin. Alongside these there are imprints of the artist’s forefinger. In the context of the title, the flower-like images of the doilies seem to represent wounds, pointed at or penetrated into by the finger.

Some flowers in Christianity symbolise wounds and suffering – such are the passion flower, named after the suffering of Christ and representing his five wounds, the poppy which stands for the blood of Christ and the red rose which symbolises martyrdom. The doily imprints in the ‘Doubting Thomas’ series also bring to mind ‘Rose windows’ – the symmetrical stained glass windows with a stylised flower-like shape – found in medieval churches.

Lidor is interested in the way that a natural element – the flower, is turned into a stylised pattern and becomes a decorative object – in this case the doily – by means of repetitive meticulous knitting labour (one might say futile, like masturbation). When she takes an imprint (a simple, quick action) from this object, it reappears on the paper as a general and abstract image of a flower again – as if the image of the flower is reclaimed, freed from the constraints of the decorative object.

After she started making them, some of these watercolours had also begun to remind her of images of sperm swimming towards an egg. I think of Munch’s ‘Madonna’.

In some of these drawings, the meanings expand, as a few of the ‘holes’ or rather the shapes created by the loops of the doily remain white and become like starts, pointed at by the finger. In a drawing that incorporates Van-Gogh’s ‘Starry Night’ Lidor traced all of the wavy brush strokes, leaving blank the stars and the tree – the tree like a finger or a phallus pointing towards the stars. In another drawing, the doily is halved, creating a metaphor of a hand-held fan which reminds me of Goya’s ‘Black Series’, his tapestry cartoons and his paintings of Spanish women waving fans.  Although a highly feminine art, fans were also used as weapons.  In Goya’s court of Spain, the fan was used in a more-or-less hush-hush unsaid cryptogram of communiqué.

In ‘And indeed there will be time’ (the title an excerpt from TS Elliot’s ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’), Lidor stacks about two hundred hand knitted cotton doilies under a small wooden side table. A hole in the tabletop, cut out in the shape and size of the doily, reveals the top doily in the stack, which is level with the tabletop, as if it lies upon it.

A knitted doily on a side table is very middle-class, bourgeoisie. It speaks of the woman at home. In this installation it seems as if, like in a Magritte painting, the doily has suddenly bitten through the tabletop like acid and has multiplied – like a mutated cell, like cancer. Penetrating the surface of the table right down to the floor; even through the floor to the centre of the earth, like a meteorite piercing the clay soil of life’s cycle, taking root in its sobriety and offering stability in its ground(ing). The radial symmetry of the doilies appears to fall through the table towards the ground with as much energy as Michelangelo’s God breathing the spark of life through the Earth’s atmosphere into Adam (Sistine ceiling), when Adam’s finger and God’s finger are about to … touch. Like Leonardo’s knot pattern engraving, or an Indian Dream Catcher, so beautiful, the doilies are suggestive in shape of a snowflake too – white in colour (spiritual and pure) that changes into something ‘clear’ once melted, almost as if it is traded for water – as it becomes see-through and unseen, like a ghost.
Lidor’s works make me think of a matriarch coming to repair and fix, as in Vermeer’s ‘The Lacemaker’, and the way Louise Bourgeois sews up her past. At the same time, she is questioning the flat surface, searching for depth and meaning. It is in this same way that you’ll look at Caravaggio’s ‘Doubting Thomas’, you too assuming the Doubting Thomas refusal to believe in something without direct, physical or personal evidence of it. You, the sceptic, invited by Lidor to ‘believe’.  It is in this approach that Lidor uses her basic household items. Establishing their ordinariness and familiarity. Yours for the discovery.

Lidor explores space that is disrupted through sculpture, which is inspired by the realities of (her) life. For the installation titled ‘I have heard the mermaids singing’, several lines from TS Elliot’s ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ were transcribed into Braille, blown up and recreated with small hills of table salt. The text becomes unreadable to the seeing eye as it is to the unseeing touch. Standing up by the force of gravity alone, à la Anish Kapoor, the salt mounds are arranged like mini sculptures on top of a family-sized wooden dining table, that seats the perfect family, of four, in order to take on a cultural dimension – like Joseph Beuys’, ‘How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare’.

Lidor has created a few series of drawings onto pages from a Braille book. In the series ‘Getting on with Gardening’ (2004-5), she imprinted parts of her fingers and palms onto the pages, creating floral images. The Doily series (2011) is done with black marker pen. Her current series includes images such as a tank, a bell tower and a lighthouse, all created in a (literally) Pointillist manner by repeatedly imprinting the tip of her finger onto the Braille page.
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Back to the use of salt that I started talking about at the beginning of this essay.  Salt, as a symbol for enlightenment from the Old Testament to the New.

To ‘betray the salt’ is to betray the Master.  Judas Iscariot knocks over the salt to symbolise the final days of Jesus, as told in the Gospel of John (13:21), when Jesus announces that one of his Twelve Apostles would betray him, rubbing salt in the wound in the absence of both instruction and obstruction.

The salting of the condemned indicates the severity of punishment too.  St. Mark (9:50) reads, “Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.”  The salt here, referring to the goodwill that ‘seasons’ relationships, friendships and the compassionate intelligent considerations between people.

It’s of preservation; brine water – a necessity of life.  A mineral used since ancient times in many cultures as a seasoning, preservative, disinfectant, ceremonial offering, unit of exchange.  Metaphorically it signifies permanence, loyalty, durability, fidelity, usefulness, value and purification.

I’m interested in how Lidor uses Braille to expose the limitations of her media and to explore the anomalies of life and human experiences, in a way that suggests a failure to contain these experiences. One of the means by which Lidor gives this expression is through the (im)possibility of actual finger contact by you; the drawings are behind glass, and any attempt to touch the mounds of salt would mean catastrophic failure since they’d inevitably disintegrate and disrupt the work’s ability to bear any sort of symbolic meaning.
Salt is also all that’s left as the residual remains after a dead body has decayed and the tears of the mourners have evaporated. In Genesis (19:26) an angel led Lot out of Sodom before destroying the city, and turned his wife into a pillar of salt for looking back whilst fleeing.  The punishment for nostalgia is ossification.  As a history that interacts with the present, let Lidor’s artworks serve as a warning to you, to be on your guard; to be in the world, but not of the world.
Like a diamond, salt is, in itself, indestructible.  From the most expensive material to the cheapest, when salt looses its taste it can be interpreted as being in a world filled with sin and deceit where one becomes contaminated and thus unsuccessful at being an effective ‘disciple’.  This – being the spiritual essence of life as in the New Testament, in the Sermon on the Mount passage, referencing salt, as in Matthew’s account (5:13) that refers to his disciples as “the salt of the earth.”  And as Leviticus (2:13) reads, “And every offering of your grain offering you shall season with salt; you shall not allow the salt of the covenant of your God to be lacking from your grain offering. With all your offerings you shall offer salt.”

Exploring the space between reality and our memory, Lidor’s work appears misleading; being minimal and sparse, but actually, it is the opposite.  So ‘heavy’, that only a tank, or a woman, could cope with the emotional load.

The fact that you cannot touch it forces you to use other senses. Like Doubting Thomas pointing a finger into the wounds of Christ, while trying to point out the reality behind everything. It is our inability to touch or hear Lidor’s artwork that brings about the true believers in all of us, just as it is Thomas’s inability to touch the risen Christ’s chest cavity that gives rise to his need to substitute ‘touch’ with ‘faith’. Lidor’s art is accessible through its inaccessibility.

©Estelle Lovatt FRSA

Jane McAdam Freud, Gazelli Art House

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As the daughter of probably the most famous portrait painter of his generation, Jane McAdam Freud’s latest exhibition pays tribute to her beloved father, Lucian. “I am channelling my artistic heritage and focusing on familial relationships,“ admits the London-born sculptor. “It is part of a continuing theme I have been exploring about my family. It includes a very large bronze portrait of my half-sister Annabel and sculptures of my husband and children as well as work relating to my father.“

And with a strong artistic background – her mother Katherine McAdam was also an artist – and a mixture of religious influences being half Jewish and half Catholic, Jane is continually inspired by her experiences.

“Everything in this exhibition is about the internal struggle with who I am and what my family represents to me. Family memories of my childhood are defined with positive experiences to do with art. My mother kept all my sketches and books, which I still have, and my father, Lucien, gave me most attention as a child when I was drawing. I remember him watching me when I was sketching.

“I was also very close to both my paternal grandparents, Lucie and Ernst Freud,“ she adds. “They came to visit, wrote regularly and sent wonderful birthday gifts. For those formative early years they had an influence on my life and my aspirations. In fact, I’m sure that my paternal grandmother, Lucie, was much more of an influence on me than I realise. I think that I connected to my father indirectly, through Lucie, as much as directly with him.“

But her connection with art started early. “My first experience of being enchanted with the materials and tactility of sculpture was in the sandpit at nursery school,“ she recalls. “When I first put my hands through the water into the sand I felt transformed. I cannot put into words the way it made me feel, but I knew then that I wanted to do more.”

“Then when I was at primary school, I overheard the headmistress telling a visitor during an open-day about my ability in art. She showed her some drawings that I had done in an exercise book. Overhearing the awe with which this teacher spoke was incredibly bewitching and exciting. This, I think, sealed it for me about being an artist. And it instilled in me a certain confidence about my future as an artist.“

And although Jane’s mother and paternal grandparents influenced her most growing up, it was unequivocally the act of drawing her father as he lay on his deathbed that has inspired her forthcoming exhibition more than anything else.  “That’s the last time that I saw my father,“ she admits.

“It was an extremely challenging experience but also most stimulating and very motivating. It means, meant, has been, and is, everything to me. I am highly influenced by my family and my family history, but also have something to say myself and I’m compelled to express it in an attempt to make sense of my life. Making art has given me breath – it is and has been a means of conveying my perceptions.“

 

“The other highlight of my exhibition is the large-scale relief of my late father, ‘EarthStone Triptych’, which is inspired by the sketches I made of him on his deathbed. It’s a memorial to his life and legacy.“

Her close-up pencil drawings look like sensitively observed donor drawings prepared for 15th century tombs, keeping his spirit alive. “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust…“ from Genesis, makes this sculpted portrait a wonderful ‘memento mori’. The process of mortality is not forgotten in the fact that clay – more than any other medium – is all about the manifestation of the four natural elements of antiquity – earth, water, air and fired combined to survive and stand along.

‘Earthstone Triptych’ is a complete installation – placed by a mirror enabling one to see both sides of the sculpture simultaneously; one side depicting “Lucien awake.  His eyes wide open. The other, not“. Getting down low to view it, I’m reminded of Holbein’s anamorphic masterpiece, The Ambassadors, with the skull of mortality only visible when vying the artwork from certain angles.  There’s also a plaque with her initials, ‘JMcAF’, on it: “this part of the sculpture“, she confides, “broke off being moved to the kiln for firing“, but it works as an effective persuasive symbol for many things, including separation.

Jane recalls her father leaving when she “was a child of eight years old, not seeing him again until I was 31, arriving back in London after studying sculpture at the Rome Academy of Fine Art.“by Jens Marott

The rocky application of clay not only resembles him, but it is ‘of’ him, ahead of the Freudian psychological perspective that exists beyond philosophy; beyond science; beyond truth; beyond life after death (think of how flowers grow, even when beneath blankets of freezing snow).

Knowing how Freud ‘sculpted’ with paint, did he ask his daughter to teach him to sculpt? “My father did. Yes“, she says; she taught sculptural techniques during her time at the Royal Mint in South Wales. “And it shows in his painting techniques that he loved sculpture. That he was a fan of sculpture even though he was a painter! I’m sure he would have loved to have been a sculptor.“

©Estelle Lovatt FRSA

Arshile Gorky: A Retrospective | Tate Modern

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In Tate’s ‘Arshile Gorky: A Retrospective’ it is fascinating to see how, for most of the 20th century, American modern art was far far behind the European modernist brush of Cezanne, Picasso, Leger and Matisse until Gorky transcribed their techniques.  Painting in the manner of, rather than directly copying from, existing paintings, Gorky was manifest in bridging the gap between the 1920s Paris School of Art and 1940s New York American Abstract Expressionism (Pollock, de Kooning, Rothko).

Listening to his widow, Agnes ‘Mougouch’ Magruder, at Tate’s press view, still a great engineer of his legacy, enthusiastically claiming this exhibition is “wonderfully hung!”, I have to agree.  Spanning his short-lived 25 year career, the show exposes how, single-handedly, whilst developing his own art language of animated abstracts motivated by memories of his childhood in Western Armenia, Gorky is of great artistic breadth and lyricism.

After fleeing the massacres and arriving in America,  Gorky much employed his favoured yellow ochre, for looking at the spaces in between things as much as the objects themselves.  An exquisite draughtsman, drawing from 19th century the Classicalist Ingres, Gorky’s precision of line mixed with a range of paint handling techniques make him simply superb.

By engaging the eye and the mind with his imagery, his pulsating canvas becomes something compelling.  Mechanical and biomorphic forms are integrated into abstract compositions that establish a rhythmic division of space, thick under layers of paint showing how he reworked the canvas over many years.  With influences of Ucello, Poussin, David, Bosch, Michelangelo and Piero di Cosimo in ‘The Artist and his Mother’ to ‘Waterfall’.  In 1946 a fire in Gorky’s studio destroyed his work.  Then diagnosed with cancer, he required emergency surgery.  His marriage suffered.  And he committed suicide in 1948.   

©Estelle Lovatt FRSA

Van Doesburg & The International Avant Garde: Constructing A New World | Tate Modern

Theo van Doesburg Composition II (Still life) Museum Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid

Theo van Doesburg
Composition II (Still life)
Museum Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid

In 1924, after van Doesburg and Mondrian argued over a diagonal line, Mondrian (believing the horizontal and the vertical line, straight up, down and flat, to be far more vital than van Doesburg’s visually idealistic diagonal line) broke with De Stijl.  Then by means of retaliation, he created his ‘double-line’ painting ‘Composition with Double Line and Yellow, 1932’.

Academically thought-provoking, Tate’s superbly installed Van Doesburg & The International Avant Garde: Constructing A New World confirms what a lot of people don’t know; van Doesburg is to Mondrian what Picasso is to Braque.

Impressively rich in art historical detail with 350 works and documents, the exhibition’s organisation is roughly chronological.  From van Doesburg’s very early, subtle, organic embryonic ‘Girl with Buttercups’, 1914, with no hard edges, to the rigorously strict geometric stained-glass design of the beautiful ‘Composition IV’, 1917, (offering two different interpretations from either seated woman to Bach’s music), to the influence of Kandinsky’s expressionism, philosophy and Cubism.  Obsessing about a mathematical approach to composition in Mondrian’s late ‘fourth dimension’ van Doesburg wanted to make an all-encompassing universal art, applying the fourth dimension to architecture too.

By way of explanation, in a house plan, van Doesburg combined his three-dimensional coloured planes with the idea of a hypercube.  The original concrete notion of it, as, van Doesburg rationalizes, as, “The new architecture is anticube; its different spaces not contained within a closed cube. The different spaces develop unconventionally, from the centre to the periphery of the cube, so that the dimensions of height, width, depth, and time receive a new plastic expression, giving the impression of floating, suspended in air, in opposition to the natural force of gravity… The new architecture takes account not only of space but also of time as an architectural value. The unity of space and time gives architectural vision a more complete aspect.”  Allowing this collaboration and partnership of art and architecture caused great conflicts and tensions as it consented to the break-up of facades of the buildings in plans schematic about movement and passage.  By representing the fourth dimension – as a conceptual reality of an abstract non-objective expression – van Doesburg gets rid of that which already exists as being considered as conservatively behind the times, for a more modern, rhythmic and dynamically spatial effect of the future.

Theo van Doesburg Composition I (Still Life) 1916 Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo

Theo van Doesburg
Composition I (Still Life) 1916
Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo

And that’s what interested van Doesburg.  The future.  From typography to furniture.  Relentlessly continuing using the fourth dimension, long after Mondrian abandoned it, as a way of naturally continuing his work; the combination of coloured planes in three dimensional compositions.  The abstract notion of the fourth-dimension of negative space – as represented by shades of grey in relation to positive space shown in primary colours – that eliminated perspective, whilst maintaining the appearance of a three dimensional space and indirectly representing the fourth dimension, in a sense, colour was the fourth dimension, influencing Constructivism and Dadaism, designers, poets, musicians and architects such as Rietveld and Oud.

Mondrian’s appreciation for mathematics led him to his unique style of representing the fourth dimension, “by both their dimensions (line) and values (colour), arithmetic compositions can express space without the use of visual perspective.”  His experiments with the fourth dimension were interpreted through Einstein’s theory of relativity.  The complexity of van Doesburg’s art embraced Einstein’s relativity theory too, in that the fourth dimension sought to make an art form that was more ideal and more perfected than previous works.  However, Einstein rejects the opinion that the  artistic language has anything in common with his discipline, stating, “In science the principle of order which creates units is achieved through logical connection while, in art it is anchored in the unconscious.”

Then by eliminating gravity, no longer was one direction defined as ‘down’ and opposed by ‘up’, nor did the words ‘left’ or ‘right’ have meaning. All directions were equal, and only their relative orientation to each other mattered.  The machine-made look of stencil and stamp employed so you couldn’t see the ‘hand’ of the artist.  Quitting complicated forms to just use squares.  Big to small, to give a rhythm of beauty, equilibrium and stativity, about ideas of time, as in ‘Arithmetic Composition’, 1929/30.  Quite exceptional.

In 1931 van Doesburg founded another group, Abstraction-Création, which attracted the troubled American painter Arshile Gorky, who later went on to shake up the New York art scene.  After World War II, American art articulated the post-war American spirit for their go-get-ahead overconfidence, that is typically the American brag and the envy of the art world, as non-figurative modern art – Abstract Expressionism – was born.

Chris Ofili | Tate Britain

Chris Ofili, Blossom, 1997 © Chris Ofili   Photo: courtesy Contemporary Fine Arts, Berlin

Chris Ofili, Blossom, 1997 © Chris Ofili Photo: courtesy Contemporary Fine Arts, Berlin

Tate let-down is Chris Ofili.  I’m sorry, this exhibition stinks.  As an art critic it’s my job to honestly tell you this.  Masquerading under the black African experience Ofili is still, hopelessly, lacking in skill as he tries, painfully, to express the wonderful primitive fetishism of African art.  His doctrinaire formula of decorating his canvas with elephant dung and glow-in-the-dark dots of bright fluorescent colour are now nothing more than simply naïve.  Much overworked and predictably garish.

It all started going wrong when Ofili was a student. Over-rated, over-praised, he received eulogize for the superficial four-letter expletive art he created, and it destroyed him.

Look around the walls.  A firework explosion of decorative doily patterns of paint overlaid with a collage of porno photos, glitter and a beadwork of counterfeit Zimbabwean paint blobs covering elephant dung, doing the same thing, over and over, there is no development.

Enter Michael Landy’s Art Bin.

Ofili, a Turner prize winner and trustee of the Tate, saw their purchase of ‘The Upper Room’ (for £705,000), which, no doubt references the Christian’s The Last Supper.  Either, so overpoweringly unimportant as a work of art, or by design a heretical slight, his monkeys hold chalices, prove to be the best piece of this juvenile run.  What a sham(e).

©Estelle Lovatt FRSA