Agnes Martin at Tate Modern

Apollo Magazine, July 2015. Original article

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Agnes Martin and the singular obsession

What is Agnes Martin trying to say? If you really want to know you will have to go see for yourself, because rarely does art lose quite so much in a photograph. Even once you are there, it takes a moment to work out what is going on: the Tate Modern retrospective of the American artist demands a certain commitment. Because as Agnes Martin once said: “Beauty is the mystery of life. It is not just in the eye. It is in the mind.”

At first glance the surfaces are plain – beige, grey, muddy yellow – but take a moment to slow your breath and much will be revealed. Do not expect the titles to be much help though: “I love the whole world” is one, another is “Happy holiday”, and so it goes, as if she is mocking our instinct to look for clues. Agnes Martin is not a thought – she is a feeling. This is the softest geometry, and the mellowest company you will keep today.

The exhibition runs chronologically, from Martin’s initial shapes in muted colours to the signature grids, which she started in the 1960s and stuck to for the rest of her life. For a body of work that is so meditative, Martin’s art also has a distinctly obsessive streak: she used a ruler to create her lines and blocks, always trying to get it straighter, more exact. Many of the grid paintings have tiny repetitive patterns – it is as if you can feel her there, straining so hard to get it just the way she wants it.

Martin’s extreme desire for order on the canvas can possibly be traced back to her schizophrenia, which she suffered from throughout her adult life. Sometimes this contrast can be felt on the canvas: the picture is a wish, the painful flipside or reality. But other times the same process creates a result that is nothing short of magical; “Friendship” is a large-scale canvas covered in gold foil, laid out in bright and deliciously dirty rectangles. It is still subtle, like everything Martin does, but the effect is a shiver down the back. “A grey stone” is another wonderful experience: the closely detailed grey surface transforms gentleness into thrill.

More blocks of would-be dull colours follow in the next room, but by this point we are primed to love it: pale grey, pale beige, off-white; small rectangles, dots, tiny squares. Then a whole section of graphite grey, in what starts to feel like obsession – what is happening here? The answer comes in the next room, where obsession turns into worship with the series called “The Islands”. Now the canvases are all in white, over and over, surrounding you, and the effect is nothing short of elating. The paintings glow from the slightly darkened walls, and it feels like the problem Martin has been working so hard to solve has reached some sort of resolution. The answer, it feels like she is saying, is in the light.

Martin’s journey towards a single colour brings to mind another Tate Modern retrospective: Mark Rothko in 2008-09. But while Martin’s journey of simplification culminates in bright white, Rothko ventured in the opposite direction: he moved through colour towards a room of canvases in intense black. What both conclusions have in common is a feeling of reaching answers to inner turmoil; “We favor the simple expression of the complex thought. We are for the large shape because it has the impact of the unequivocal,” Rothko wrote in his New York Times manifesto, co-signed by Adolph Gottlieb. “We wish to reassert the picture plane. We are for flat forms because they destroy illusion and reveal truth.”

Rothko’s journey ended differently than Martin’s: he committed suicide at 66, while Martin kept painting into old age, passing of natural causes at 92. For both artists, their Tate Modern retrospectives present one more room after their singular colour experiences, and in both cases the final insight feels revealing. For Rothko, it was the reintroduction of light: subtle panes of silvery grey started creeping into his black canvases, insisting that maybe there is more than one answer. For Martin, it is the breaking with her strict geometry: bold blocks of purple, defiant lines of red, cheeky tips of acidic yellow. It is still precise and exact, but it feels less obsessed and more playful. It feels like the work of someone with nothing to prove and nothing to lose – it feels like a wink, is what it does.

Mirrorcity at the Hayward Gallery

Apollo Magazine, November 2014. Original article

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Mirrorcity: Glimpsing the digital revolution

If mirrors were once considered to be portals into different realities, today’s mirror is the digital world. Almost everything has a digital component: scan a barcode or download an app to get information, wear a bracelet to track your health, use a hashtag to follow the conversation. As we live in a “digital mirror-city that echo our own”, Mirrorcity at the Hayward Gallery poses the question: “What is our current experience of reality?”

Mirrorcity is the second exhibition in London this year to look at the transition to a digital world is reflected in art. The summer’s Digital Revolution at the Barbican was a great examination of the emergence of digital imagery in the culture, from the blocky video games of the 70s, to today’s three-dimensional light beams that respond to touch. While Digital Revolution felt more like a walk through history than an art show, it illustrated perfectly how it has taken a very long time for digital tools to become a viable part of art practice.

Mirrorcity picks up where Digital Revolution left off, at least chronologically, as it focuses on how contemporary artists deal with the “challenges, conditions and consequences of living in a digital age”. While the show is decidedly mixed, one overall feeling remains: the digitisation of art is still in its infancy. The digital world, or the internet, is an augmentation of daily life now, and not an escapist place without consequences. But this development is still new, meaning heavy use of digital elements in art will easily feel gimmicky. Artists are working out how to use digital elements to enhance what they are trying to say, but the successful implementation of these new tools is a work in progress.

Because the best pieces in Mirrorcity are those with no obvious digital components whatsoever. Emma McNally’s large-scale drawings, presented so as to surround you as you walk into the room, are both overwhelming and subtle at the same time. They bring to mind nautical charts, the view from a plane through clouds, a map of stars, or maybe even a piece of music. McNally has described her work as a form of “visual thinking around questions of emergence”, intuitively creating a code that can be read with the right machine.

The feeling of a digital presence is even more clear in Katrina Palmer’s work. “Reality Flickers” is a plain metal box with a big hum, with two chairs inviting you to sit down and let it surround you. Hannah Sawtell’s also uses sound in her work, as well as software and devices such as tablet computers, as she works create a “dense digital situation”. Susan Hiller opts to immerse the audience in darkness, even offering cushions so we can lie back and forget the body as we take in her video piece, where colours and shapes overwhelm the senses as we are sucked into her world.

Mirrorcity explores interesting questions such as how we can navigate the space between the digital and the physical, but visitors emerge only slightly the wiser. Because as long as we are looking at a screen, the digital experience still happens outside of ourselves. Whether this is the fault of the show, or just the current point of technological development, is open to debate. At the moment, we walk around with the digital world in our pockets, as more immersive experiences, like so-called wearable technologies, are often considered too intrusive.

Last year’s Light Show, also at the Hayward Gallery, had a more modest mission statement, looking simply to thrill its audience with light-themed artworks. It’s very possible that digital tools were used to create some of the experiences in Light Show, but frankly, no one cared. We just wanted to jump between light strobes, and sink into bright rooms that made us lose perception of time and space. The digital mirror that echoes our lives has a similar ability to transport us, but Mirrorcity offers only a glimpse of what that may feel like. But maybe it is just too soon for art to truly reflect how the digital is changing our lives? After all, this is a revolution, and it’s all happening so fast. We don’t quite know what it means yet.

Radical Order: Geometry and the Utopian Impulse

Apollo Magazine, 2014. Original article.

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Radical Order: Geometry and the Utopian Impulse

There’s something timeless about geometric art, with its clean lines and basic patterns appealing to an instinctive desire for order. All the works included in the Royal Academy of Arts (RA) show ‘Radical Geometry’ all date from the mid 20th century, but they still feel modern. The artists, from Brazil, Uruguay, Argentina and Venezuela, turned to this visual language, fresh and subversive at the time, to express optimism for the future. This fruitful 50-year period coincided with a turbulent and often repressive political climate, with a solid streak of radicalism running through everything. The future was close, and change felt possible.

The the overarching mood of radical optimism colours the experience of the RA show. The Uruguayan and Argentine sections starts us off with block colours, subdued towards a spectrum of dusty purple and muddy yellow, as the artists searched for an universal visual language. The boldness comes in the Brazilian section, where the colour choices turn to unapologetic black, white and red, in shapes that fit together in neatly ordered ways.

Lygia Pape is only represented with a couple of wood cuts, but her work was essential to the Brazilian artistic identity, championing art as a merging of aesthetic, ethical and the political. “Magnetised Space”, the 2012 Pape retrospective at the Serpentine Gallery, included an installation where Pape had strung gold threads from floor to ceiling; sometimes the threads seemed to disappear into nothing, but two steps to the side and they looked like rays of light. Closer inspection showed it is all perfectly logical in neat geometry, but the effect is magical.

In “Radical Geometry”, the works of artist Gego (Gertrude Goldschmidt) provide a similar experience. Using wire and found objects, Gego joined her Venezuelan contemporaries in creating optical illusions, meaning the art changes depending on the viewer. “Sphere” seems to be floating in air, impossibly connected at each joint, so simple and yet so pleasing to look at. On the floor, the shadow is its own experience, unrecognisable yet inseparable from the original.

The sense of order and possibility in geometrical art comes in part from the mathematics at the core: the angles, the slots that fit. We are attracted to these shapes because they are natural to us: “Magnetised Space” showed how we have an instinct towards geometry through a still from Pape’s film, where a street performer dances in the middle of a crowd which has formed in a perfect circle around him. It is like the dancer is magnetic, attracting the crowd and repelling it at the same time, with geometry as a human impulse.

The link between radicalism and geometry was thoroughly examined in the “The Utopian Impulse”, the elegantly titled Buckminster Fuller retrospective at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in 2012. The futuristic designer called himself a radical idealist, dreaming up fantastic solutions to humanity’s problems. Prone to geometric designs, Fuller patented his solutions for energy-efficient housing and uniquely fuel-efficient cars, even lunar colonies, in his kooky style that left you feeling like anything was possible.

“The Utopian Impulse” included the 1969 “Earth Flag”, made by Norman La Liberte and John McConnell; it’s a grey and white planet on a blue background. Few artists today would present the idea of world unity in such a simple way as it feels distinctly nostalgic, like a throwback to simpler times. But considering how geometry, a fundamentally appealing visual language, keeps emerging in the artistic landscape, we still cannot help our impulse towards some kind of utopia. Looking at Gego’s hovering spheres, or Pape’s floating threads, we are swooning over the chance to create order in what we see.