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Archive for February, 2010

Waiting for Ackermann

Coming in from the cold into a White Cube opening night had my head in a whirl already. Then there were the paintings. Some of them looked like they were spinning- but was that just the brain-freeze?

No. There were wheels. On the floor and on the wall. Spinning in all their neon glory. Franz Ackerman- a regular feature in trendy art fairs and a Saatchi favourite- is an artist more admired (and often grudgingly so) than actually enjoyed. You see, like an alternative rock band touring the unis, it would be ‘uncool’ not to like it. Even if it does give you a bit of a headache.

Ackerman’s latest show, Wait, at White Cube in Mason’s Yard, welcomed me (or not) with a geometric precision countered uncomfortably by off-kilter, clashing bolds. It was dizzying to say the least. I was either drunk or hungover. Or both all at once.

In the ground floor space, met by a large painting, Citizen, I was stared down by a goggle-faced pilot. He seemed to be the disembodied guard of the entire floor. He made me feel unstable- under observation and yet not knowing what to observe myself. This is a feeling that sets the tone for the whole show, which offers you, at every turn, shifting focal points, all competing for your attention. As I found out afterwards, the space itself had been painted to complement both the paintings and the moving installations. The whole experience is, then, immersive and completely- intentionally- overwhelming.

Upstairs, surrounded by these goliath canvases, you find yourself caught in one of those modern-art-moments where figures and objects elude you. You are subconsciously searching for- and really hoping for– a tangible subject.

In this state was I drawn to the video: a scythe-bearing skeleton is being turned in front of me on a block, before the scene shifts to that of a train moving behind a metal grill fence interlaced with padlocks. Hypnotising, but only for a moment.

Because yet again, of course, I am called back to my peripheral vision, where a round, flat platform lies in the centre of the room, painted in neon and piled high with pieces of timber. And it’s spinning. Covered in shapes that seem at the same time both mechanically interlocked and organic, Ackerman’s divisions prove both formal and thematic. As Ackerman alludes to architecture and engineering, and from the urban to the wild, the brains behind the seeming madness become a little clearer. A space is created in which his themes of globalisation, travel, and the crossing of borders becomes manifest. Within this, the internal dialogue of each painting address the rift between the glamour and scarring associated with global cosmopolitanism.

Downstairs, there is the same eerie mix of flat, bold, geometric shape and shaky depth. But I had a little more room to breathe. The canvases were not so packed as to prevent me from seeing them. I could almost appreciate the photography and collage interwoven among the (neon- of course) paint.

In the lower ground floor lobby, there is one painting, Crossing 1, which stands separate. Here, in a quiet corner, you can experience the work alone. You might even get lost in it. If the rest of the exhibition could be like this I am certain I would have enjoyed it more. If you could remove the masses for one moment, please, Mr Security Man, that would be much appreciated.

Why the exhibition is called Wait I’m still trying to figure out. Had I stayed longer, would this visual abundance- or overload- have crystallised into some simple clarity? As I consider this, even now as I try to give you some kind of rounded conclusion, I find it even harder. In one sense, it would be easy to box Ackermann’s work into the ‘altermodern.’ Yes, it is concerned with travel, globalisation, and the crossing of boundaries – so in that way (if only to make it easy for us to categorise it) it typifies altermodernity. In another, however, I feel that Ackerman’s work does not just bear the theme of travel as a hallmark. It really forces itself upon you. When you stand in front of a piece, dizzied by the push and pull of the colour and geometry, you are drawn here and there, drawn in and repelled all at once. The only solid ground you can be sure of exists in the uncertainty: there is no solid ground.

Order from chaos?

…or just chaos?

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When I was last in New York, I came across a woman sitting on a chair in the middle of the road, winding a huge ball of yarn around her head. This was art- of course! On the same street (on just an ordinary weekday), I saw half a bicycle supposedly sinking into the pavement, and a children’s playground inhabited by stuffed gorilla suits and spiderman outfits. I think there was a Santa Claus on the swing.

All in a day’s work for an artist down in Billyburg, I guess. But it’s not the sort of thing that always translates well. Imagine that same woman on the streets of London. She’d probably get moved for health and safety reasons. Or for getting in the way of oncoming traffic.


In any case, what people really want to see is life. The trans-Atlantic symbiosis is not about being clever. It’s not even necessarily about art, or fashion. It is, sometimes (often), about competition. But mostly it’s about two divided siblings wanting to reconnect. The thing is, when you’re standing and staring at an installation or show in the street, it’s rare that you can really break through the dividing screen between life and art. Londoners have been enchanted by New Yorkers for decades, and vice versa. I think it’s pure curiosity.

Manhattan in the ’60s was the original hotbed of collaboration- think New York School of Painters, New York Poets, the Beat generation and then, of course, Warhol’s Factory. Since then, the concept of collaboration has massively expanded. Interaction doesn’t need, necessarily, to be contained in a finite space. It can span an ocean. I think the reason we’re so intrigued by Warhol’s Factory is that it marked an era when people realised that barriers of artistic genre and form could be completely dissolved. Music, art, fashion and culture came together in one uncompromised, uncontrolled fusion- and there is no going back from the shift. It shook so far as to reach even our own stiff upper lips. It’s a good thing we’ve got the images to help us remember.

The late Nat Finkelstein, one of the most respected photojournalists of modern times, played a huge part in this. His work provides a pervasive visual narrative for these years, which were creatively formative not just for New York but for the entire Western world. Finkelstein’s photos are on display at Idea Generation Gallery in Shoreditch at the moment- but not for long. It’s the way of the modern metropolitan not to hang around.

The opening of the exhibition was an amazing night, a true case of worlds colliding, and in the best possible way. Finkelstein’s widow, Elizabeth, was flown all the way from the Big Apple to the Big Smoke by Metrotwin, but found herself quite at home among Nat’s old posse and his iconic photographs.


This stunning retrospective brings together Finkelstein’s diverse portfolio: from Factory scenes to civil rights and anti-war protests of mid-60s America, from intimate portraiture to a continuing exploration of the subcultures of 80s and 90s New York. The scenes- the Factory, protests and subcultures- interlaced by the recognisable glamour of Edie Sedgwick, Duchamp, Dylan and Warhol, capture the spirit of the age. Finkelstein doesn’t himself ever feature in front of the camera – he was too busy recording the life he saw. What you see is the world perceived through his eyes. And so this show is really one not to be missed.


“When all is said and done, when everything is gone, the photograph is what’s going to remain.

The photographer is the producer of history.” Nat Finkelstein


Nat Finkelstein: From One Extreme to the Other, is open until the 14th February.

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I have been thinking about Chris Ofili a lot lately- artistically of course. On the back of his mid-career retrospective at the Tate Britain, there have been a lot of reviews (the inevitable flurry of mostly good, but also bad and downright ugly). There has been a lot of debate around his audacious subject matter, his stunning technique and his blatant use of elephant dung (think “Ofili” and think “elephant dung,” right?).

In short, Ofili made his name alongside some considerable controversy- still, he has had his work exhibited on 3 continents and remains a superstar of the Hirst-Emin generation.

I guess it could be precisely this- the concept of the artist-celeb- which preoccupies me, and which makes me really want to know about the man behind the canvas.

We tend not to (or choose not to) see artists as normal human beings, but as entities set apart.So i was pleasantly surprised to hear Ofili at his exhibition talking modestly through one of his recent works with a  couple of viewers. “It’s completely made up,” he said. Laconic. Almost apologetic. How refreshing not to have a song and dance. How wonderful that he didn’t need a posse to signal his presence at every turn. How has the Turner Prize-winning artist retained such seeming normality a decade on? How has he managed to avoid the lure of the NY-Lon art scene and the arrogance often earned by being, well, one of its successful inhabitants?

The Tate’s retrospective tells all, and around a third of the works on show are previously unseen in the UK. Yes, of course his earlier work is all there- in the ‘90s, elephant dung abounds, adorned in glitter, as do naked women and giant afros. “Painting with Shit on it,” “Spaceshit,” “The Adoration of Captain Shit and the Legend of the Black Stars” are indeed his paintings’ typical labels, but- despite such titles (and often subject matter)- these pieces are really quite stunning.

Many of the works on display are familiar faces. There is “No Woman No Cry,” the piece Ofili famously created following the murder of Stephen Lawrence in 1998. There is the 1997 piece “Pimpin’ Ain’t Easy,” which was based on the prostitutes around Kings Cross, near where Ofili was working, and features a collage of black celebrity role-models (among them the previously unblemished Tiger Woods) arranged around the beaming face of a gigantic penis. There is also the infamous piece, “The Holy Virgin Mary,” which brought on a spectacular lawsuit between the Brooklyn Museum of Art and the then mayor of New York City, Rudy Giuliani, when it was showcased as part of the “Sensation.” In place of the holy cherubs and seraphs, Ofili had positioned not myriad angels, but myriad female genitalia (wing-shaped, but otherwise undisguised), and- of course- elephant dung. From afar, the pornographic images could be mistaken for butterflies. From up close they could not. There’s much to be said for dung, I have to say- it is a valuable source of fuel and has even been used to make paper in some parts of the world. I’m not sure I can give the same credit to the genitalia.

Moving through the rooms, Ofili’s work shifts (literally) away from the shit. Works from the late nineties and early noughties leave behind the rounds of dung, which previous works are exhibited resting on, and instead hang (!) from the walls themselves. Before long we are amid large flat canvases- covered in oil paints, not collage and resin. And not a speck of dung in sight.

The blue period, the collection which intrigues me most, is marked by three imposing works, each almost filling an entire wall. “Blue Stag,” a favourite of mine from the show, stuns in its bleakness. Chris Ofili has a way with colour. He knows how to use it, and he knows what it does. Whether it’s a ‘90s stomper in luminous pink and acid blue, or a thoughtful and understated introspection, the effect on the viewer is immediate. Looking at “Blue Stag,” from some angles the whole canvas appears black. From others the subtle nuances imply the baring of a soul.

Most artists strive to earn freedom from their predecessors- those masters whose work forms the basic guidance in an artist’s education and ultimate perspective. Chris Ofili strives, it would appear, to be free of himself. And all the associated shit.

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If you’re looking for cuddly bunnies and hamsters sitting in egg cups, Giacomo Brunelli’s The Animals is not one for you.

This select gathering, on show at Photofusion Gallery, has dogs, horses, geese and snakes look you cold in the eye. In one corner of the room, wings are outspread in flight, in another a horse’s nostrils flare above you in arrogant superiority. You can almost hear the goose hissing as the camera seemingly dives into its throat. Wild animals and road kill are shot at ground level as Brunelli enters their world and sincerely captures it- human interference has no place here. The photographer is not an editor, Brunelli reminded us as he spoke at the opening. His work is simply the telling of truths, the focal ambiguity a frequent reminder of life’s grey imperfections.

After seeing the Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition at the Natural History Museum, Brunelli’s images, on show at Photofusion Gallery in Brixton, was an utter relief. While the Natural History Museum exhibition bore ample fruits in terms of the whole intercontinental-ecological-nature thing, it was hindered by its neglect of the purely photographic.

The images, presented on lightboxes, were unnaturally enhanced, too saturated, seeming computer generated, almost….but head south of the river and the beasts are biting back. Animals “in their natural environment” on display at the NHM are completely obscured by Giacomo Brunelli’s “animal focused street photography,” which reflects, through his interaction with them, the creatures’ absolute and uncompromised freedom. I can’t help but meditate upon José Luis Rodriguez, whose photograph of an Iberian wolf hurdling a fence caused much furore, along with its swift disqualification. Stunning though it was, looking back there was not even a hint of the inherent wildness of Brunelli’s subjects- because the wolf was in fact, of course, tame.

The NHM, to my great pleasure, were not shy to admit and rectify this fact, wiping the guilty image from the show altogether, replacing it only by placards positioned to name and shame in the most spectacular way possible….Oh the disgrace.

Only ever taking photographs in the early morning light, Giacomo Brunelli’s images gain an intimacy and integrity which sets them apart from other wildlife photography. Not only does the photographer leave fur and feathers blurred in motion, but he also opts for a natural drying process to the images developed in his bath. The curves and bumps on the surfaces of the final pieces are the outcome of this organic process, the artefact reminding us of the event of its genesis.

Black and white photography is often used in human portraiture to reveal some quality colour often eclipses: vulnerability, grit, a flash of fear, a twinkle of humour. In the animals Brunelli photographs, the response that is challenged is instinct- “fight or flight”- and the result is astonishing. Betraying so much of life, Brunelli reminds us that it is not contained only to ourselves. His determination to express a more personal perspective, confronting his subject in an exploratory way, sets the bar high for his contemporaries. He is a man sensitive to his environment and that of his subjects, but let that not detract from that fact that he is, too, a photographer of serious intent.

The Animals continues until March 26th, and it is not one to miss.

See more images at: www.giacomobrunelli.com

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