Agnes Martin at Tate Modern

Apollo Magazine, July 2015. Original article

Screen Shot 2016-07-03 at 15.33.54

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.

Lynn Hershman Leeson: Origins of the Species (Part 2)

This Is Tomorrow, July 2015. 

Screen Shot 2015-07-01 at 16.05.09Lynn Hershman Leeson: Origins of the Species (Part 2)
Modern Art Oxford, 2015

What is technology, but another tool for shaping our identities? Lynn Hershman Leeson has been exploring the relationship between humans and technology for over 50 years, starting in a time before technology looked anything like it does today. Her multi-disciplinary approach remains pioneering, and if Hershman Leeson is a so-called digital artist, it’s is done with much subtlety. That’s also why it works: the digital element is here to enhance the idea, not an end in itself.

The retrospective at Modern Art Oxford shows a distinct thread running through Hershman Leeson’s work, from today’s interactive pieces all the way back to the earliest drawings. The show runs chronologically, easing you in with paintings of wired figures and their shadows, the first dated to 1962. The Breathing Machine makes subtle noises in response to people passing, a mechanism which was groundbreaking at the time and eerie still today. It feels like there’s someone here with me, and it’s possible that this someone is my own shadow: I’m the one who’s creating this presence.

The Roberta Breitmore archives stretch from 1974 to 1978, when Hershman Leeson created this fascinating alter ego, going great lengths to give this artificial character a complex inner life. From the photos, Roberta seems somewhat put on, with exaggerated make-up and what is obviously a wig – she’s a shadow that’s not quite right. “I saw her as a mirror of culture,” Hershman Leeson has said, but Roberta arguably became her own person. There are letters confirming her rental agreement, and Roberta’s notes to friends. Roberta left traces like a real person, but in retrospect, how can we tell what was real and what’s just a shadow?

All the while, the nearby Breathing Machine continues to make sounds. The idea of surveillance and monitoring takes on a more obvious shape in the Dante Hotel project, although the photographs from 1973 makes you wonder why we’re so muted in our outrage about surveillance today. We know we’re being monitored to a greater extent than ever before, in the street as well as in electronic communication. But for better or worse, it’s possible that privacy as a value in and of itself is fading.

Hershman Leeson’s early works take on new meaning as the visitor encounters Agent Ruby. Just like Hershman Leeson created Roberta Breitmore, we each have the opportunity to construct a digital persona in the manner of our choosing. Agent Ruby is a creature of artificial intelligence, and she invites you to talk to her via a keyboard. “Is the internet real life?” I ask, and she answers: “If it is, I’d be surprised.” We chat a little – she’s clever, and intriguingly philosophical. Sometimes she turns the question back at you, and I’m surprised how quickly I start to feel that Ruby is interested in me.

The third section of the show contains a film curated by Modern Art Oxford, where Hershman Leeson has interviewed Oxford-based scientists and researchers about genetic technology. The Infinity Engine is presented in an immersive space with photographs and paperwork pertaining to genetic discoveries. The scientifically grown ear in the picture – is it more or less real than Agent Ruby or Roberta? The microbiologist in the film is talking about evolution: “Biology can be very scary,” he says, explaining how we must take responsibility for what we create.

The Infinity Engine is ambitious in its attempt to explore a complex issues such as genetics, but it’s less approachable than the rest of the show and it takes a minute for a link to the previous works to suggest itself. But maybe anything can be a mirror of ourselves, from synthetic biology and Agent Ruby, all the way back to Roberta and the wired shadows in the earliest paintings. We create these representations and they can be whatever we make them, good or ugly. I get up from my seat after the film, and for a moment I can’t find the exit from the laboratory-like room. All I can see are the slightly warped walls, mirroring back to me numerous versions of my own twisted image.

Michelangelo Pistoletto: The Mirror of Judgment

Whitehot Magazine, 2011. Original article.

Screen Shot 2015-02-16 at 12.08.11Michelangelo Pistoletto: The Mirror of Judgment

The Serpentine Gallery, London. 

Michelangelo Pistoletto has got us all working for him. The artwork displayed at the Serpentine is only part of the equation; the rest is up to us visitors, moving slowly through the maze of swirling cardboard. The corrugated paper winds itself around the entire gallery, leading us on, every now and again depositing us in front of a massive mirror. There is no escaping Pistoletto’s mirrors; it is just you there, surrounded by white walls and cardboard, with no choice other than to look. Your eyes scan over your fellow audience, the walls and the ceiling, until like it or not, they come to rest on your own reflection.

Pistoletto, the Italian artist of worldwide renown, is no stranger to the themes of reflection and participation. It can seem as if there is a social experiment at work here, starting when visitors enter the gallery and search for instructions whether to go left or right. But there is no set order to the art, which is constantly changing anyway; it is all down to us. Standing in front of the big mirrors, several of the visitors seem uncomfortable having to look at themselves so blatantly, resorting to a quick adjustment of hair or clothing before scuffling on.  We are used to being provided with direction when looking at art, but Pistoletto does not seem to be all that interested in telling us what to think. Instead he sends us on our merry way through the labyrinth, possibly a metaphor for life, where around each corner we encounter a new version of ourselves.

Having said that, with an exhibition named The Mirror of Judgment it is clear Pistoletto is not devoid of motives. The four largest mirrors are adorned with iconography from one of four religions: a Buddha, an Islamic prayer mat, a Christian altar and the Jewish tablets. Pistoletto uses the word “judgment”, but there is something unifying about the way the cardboard maze ties it all together, creating a feeling it may in fact be about the opposite. Whether you stand by the prayer mat or the Buddha, the experience is the same: you, and your thoughts.

As the labyrinth leads us into the centre room of the Serpentine, we encounter Pistoletto’s mirror obelisk. Suspended from the ceiling are three large ovals, forming a symbol of infinity. The angles of the sculpture mean you get a different view each time you move, of the ovals, the obelisk and of the perpetually mirrored visitors. Then suddenly, only for a minute, I find myself alone in the room, with no reflection other than my own. With only white wall and brown paper behind me, I watch myself walk, conscious of the vanity but reluctant to look away. Pistoletto offers us no paintings to admire, no sculptures to study; just the maze, the mirrors and what we see when we look into them. I am not entirely sure what it means, but I believe the answer lies in the experience.

Bouvard and Pécuchet’s Compendious Quest for Beauty

This Is Tomorrow, 2012. Original article

Screen Shot 2015-02-16 at 11.51.46Bouvard and Pécuchet’s Compendious Quest for Beauty

David Roberts Art Foundation, London

It is a good thing the word “compendium” features so prominently even before you enter the gallery, as it makes a helpful prelude of what is to come. “Where is the rule?” is what Bouvard and Pécuchet used to say, the characters from Gustave Flaubert’s unfinished novel whose name has been given to this exhibition. The two Parisian gentlemen would meet to fuel each other’s curiosity about the world, studying a myriad of subject ranging from agriculture to medicine. After spending an hour at the David Roberts Art Foundation I am not sure if I am any the wiser about this elusive rule, but I do believe this show is not about a hunt for the red thread – but an exploration of that thing they call beauty. At least that is what followed my initial confusion about the volume of such diverse pieces, once I gave in and just focused on how good most of these works ultimately are.

34 artworks from as many artists make up this exhibition, including several famous names. Sometimes it feels like an education, while in other moments it is just luxurious to wander in a space where pieces were chosen because the curators liked them; the search for beauty has overwhelmed all other concerns. Still, says Pécuchet: “Beauty must be sought within a rule,” so the exhibition is divided into nine categories. But then Bouvard says: “Everybody knows that rules are not sufficient. Something else is needed: genius. And genius comes from sentiment, manifesting in expression.”

An urn by Grayson Perry is the first item comes first, representing the “Classic v expression” category. Photographed faces are contrasted against classical drawings around the pot, perfectly illustrating in a single work the points made by both Pécuchet and Bouvard about rules and their counterweight. “Memento mori” has Gerald Byrne’s large black and white photo of a newsstand, where an extra layer of meaning is derived from the juxtaposition of David Shrigley’s taxidermy kitten carrying a sign reading: “I’m dead”. The “Realism” segment has Thomas Demand’s large photograph of an empty office next to a perfectly crafted bin bag by Gavin Turk and a broom by Susan Collis, both easily mistakable for something left by the cleaners. Notes Bouvard: “The most banal things are liable to reveal new facets about the world. Modern life conceals within itself so much richness.”

‘Female beauty’ is the biggest single category in the show, with Valie Export’s “Body Sign Action 2” from 1970 being a standout piece. A big black and white image shows us a close-up of a woman’s hips; she has an intriguing tattoo on her thigh and her shadow plays up against the wall behind. Only then do you realise she is naked, a fact less subtle in the other images from this segment. One is a classic topless pose, another is a comical sex painting, the third is a man surveying a woman presented to him. Another excellent piece is Mario Pascual’s “Untitled” from 2010, where the photograph is gently folded in the middle so most of the woman disappears. Her head and shin sticks out, and somehow this is the most titillating of all.

Down the stairs, to “Abstraction”, we encounter Roy Lichtenstein’s six images of a cow. Each reworking looks less and less like an animal, illustrating Pécuchet’s point about abstraction being the final stand against art needing to represent anything at all: “One must reduce, purify.” Less obvious in its message but possibly even more intriguing is Bram Bogart’s “Blanc tombant”, where piled-on layers of paint are now hidden under a coat of white. Next, in the “Outsider beauty” category, is Douglas White’s “Mop print 1”: a large tea stain on a piece of paper, buckled from the moisture long since evaporated.

At the end of the exhibition we find “The sublime”: consisting of only one piece of art, by Graham Hudson. By this point, Bouvard and Pécuchet have run out of words to try and determine the difference between the beautiful and the sublime, and how to measure taste, because the rules have proved useless. Hudson’s rectangular box lined with lights spin slowly, and there is only one thing to say: how wonderful.