Tales of Transformation, Venice Biennale

During the opening days of the Venice Biennale, in a classic hotel on the Grand Canal, U.S. artist Mark Bradford was reflecting on the issue of inclusive art history. An interesting conversation evolved about how an artist can, against his will, be stereotypically tied to a generalized identity, and be excluded from institutions, or included in discourses where he does not feel at home. Bradford talked about “the blackness laid on me without me deciding what it meant to me” and that he “didn’t want to be defined so narrowly.” A fair point, which deserves the attention of institutions and curators, in times of excessive identity branding. Meanwhile, decisions implying inclusion and exclusion might be inseparable from art, as distinguishing between works—in light of quality, value, authenticity, etc.—is at the very heart of its operations. Certainly also at the very heart of the 57th Venice Biennale.

You can read the full review on the 57 the Biennale here on the Brooklyn Rail website

It’s a Joke! Ceal Floyer in Bonn

Exhibition Ceal Floyer in Bonn

In ‘Ceal Floyer, a Handbook’, published on the occasion of an exhibition in the Kunstmuseum Bonn in 2015/16, a text about Ceal Floyer’s work is written by fellow artist Tacita Dean, who, as becomes clear, frequently dines with Ceal Floyer, and has known her for 25 years. Tacita Dean is somebody we might want to rely on while trying to get an image of Floyer, since the artist herself is not eager to give interviews. First we learn that her last name should not be pronounced as in ‘foyer’, but more like as rhyming with ‘her’. Floy-er. We are talking British, not French here. Both artist were born in England and live now in Berlin.

“It is not the fault of the goldsmith that writing about the work of Ceal Floyer is nearly pointless,” Tacita Dean notes and also: “Description kills her work because it has already taken too long.” With ‘too long’ she refers to the fact that Floyer’s work is about a quick moment of understanding or seeing something and grasping it. It is the kind of art that takes place in the split of a second, in the mind.

In the first room of the exhibition there was a light square projected on the wall, showing in the upper part the image of a light bulb, close to the ceiling, as where you usually find a lamp hanging. The image was actually produced by a bulb placed on an overhead projector in front of the wall. So the bulb was not giving any light, but rather it was a projection created by light. This work plays with perception in the tradition of René Magritte. What we see is something put together in our head, rather then what is actually there.

Floyer’s work springs from an attentive eye for objects and their formal qualities, while at the same it takes into account what happens when an object receives museum kind of attention. The artist is challenging her viewers till the point of laughter and irritation. Another work in the exhibition, Switch, shows an image of a light switch projected next to the entrance of a room, where usually the real switch can be found. The room was dark, the only light came from the projected image of a light switch. Got it?

Floyer’s work has been called conceptual and one can wonder to what extent her works are merely ideas or ‘switches’ in the mind, and to what extent actual objects and their presence are important. Clearly the light was important in some works. More physical presence has an alu ladder with only the first and last rung intact, while the ones in between have been removed. The ladder rests against a wall, waiting not to be used, you could say. According to the handbook this ladder is ‘negating its function as a tool and rendering it a purely minimalist sculpture,’ but that must be confusion over what minimalist sculpture is. It just looks like a practical joke. And the same goes for two similar versions of a photograph showing a glass that is, according to the title, either half full or half empty. That is not even a good joke. A work with more substance can be found on the floor, with a black marker an almost full circle is drawn on the wooden floor, and there is a saw stuck in it, suggesting that a circle is almost sawn out and about to fall down if you would step on it. Here the work gains some physical weight.

Floyer is playing a game with the habit of going to a museum and look at objects, to look for meaning or have an aesthetic experience. Her work is circling around expectations while looking at art, partly by mocking interpretation. But if the disruption itself becomes the main artwork, something strange happens. Once Floyer’s works are presented in a solo exhibition, as precious art works, just like those of the museum collection, they loose their credibility. They are domesticated, you could say, and this does not fit them, since it is not the kind of art you want to look at for a longer time. Once you get it, you go on to the next work. And once you are on this Foyer track, in a solo show, you know that more fooling will follow.

One work in the exhibition was called Sold. It was hardly visible since it was installed in a separate room with Georg Baselitz paintings on display. Under the right corner of a painting called ‘Sandteichdamm’ there was a small red dot. Actually it was a hole drilled in the wall that was filled with cadmium red. For those who did notice the dot, it suggested the work of Baselitz was sold, which would be a strange thing if a museum would sell out a painting. Such dots belong in commercial galleries. The funny thing though is that the Kunstmuseum did decide to sell this Baselitz painting in 2001 to the art foundation of the Sparkasse in Bonn to finance a hole in an exhibition budget. The work could stay in the museum though, since it was given as a permanent loan. Here the placement of Floyer’s work seemed adequate, since it was presented in relation to an existing artwork. On top, but this was something Floyer did not know, it pointed to an unusual episode in the museums history.

The type of art that Floyer makes forms a challenge to museums in choosing how to present and discuss it. It seems that Floyer is welcomed to mock the art world, and comment on its habits, but the art world is not yet ready to mock the artist, and find fitting ways of showing her work. The red dot was an exception: hardly visible, but in the right place. A text at the entrance of the exhibition said: “Ceal Floyer’s art is conceptual and sensual, minimal in its outlay and yet of great complexity.” The thought that this art could be simple instead of complex must have frightened the museum staff. In texts about the artist’s work, the tone is often serious, charging it up with different layers of meaning and intelligence. But is it really that complex and brilliant? And does it need to be treated as seirous as other pieces in the museum? Rather this seems an example of what Tacita Dean was warning for. If you talk too much about Floyer’s work, you might kill it. Because let’s be honest: a good joke you don’t have to explain.

A Kind of Escape. Peter Doig in Basel

After the work of Peter Doig was exhibited in the 1990s, a lot of young painters started to paint ‘Peter Doig-like’. Apparently he had struck a chord, inspiring a new generation of artists. He legitimized a new romanticism that had been impossible, and even suspect, for years. A show in Basel brings together a selection of Doig’s works from the last 25 years, and offers a chance for the visitor to comprehend the ingredients that make up his attitude as a painter.  

There are few such perfect locations in which to host a Peter Doig show as the Fondation Beyeler. The museum, situated in a rural setting just outside of Basel, is surrounded by a sculpture garden. While walking through the building there are moments when nature enters: a view of the surrounding hills or a tree that’s losing its leaves. Such impressions interfere with the exhibition in a meaningful way. They give context to the question of Doig’s relationship to nature. Does his work address what is ‘out there’ or is it, rather, a painted reality in itself, as the artist suggested in a talk at the museum: “A painting has to be convincing, in the sense that it provides a kind of escape and has a kind of reality of its own.”

Doig was born in Edinburgh, grew up in Trinidad and Canada, and studied art in London. His years spent in winter landscapes as well as in tropical ones, have informed his work. Observations from such different parts of the world can actually be seen mixed within single paintings. A recurrent motif is nature and man’s reflection on (and in) it. One can see, for instance, a single figure aside a lake, a figure in a canoe on a vast expanse of water, or somebody walking over the ice. In all cases, the reflection in the surface is important, and creates a painterly double, or extension of the figuration. According to Doig, “Reflection is a device to create space in a painting. It opens the whole thing up.” The mood of these landscapes is not only transmitted through the actual scenography and posture of the figure but also through the differences in paint application and mark making.

In Doig’s eyes, “Painting is about working your way across the surface, getting lost in it. The large size of the paintings is about getting absorbed in them.” A project made specifically for this exhibition is a long mural, Cat of 9 Tails, a collaboration with some of Doig’s students from Düsseldorf. It shows an ongoing wall of colored bricks in which different windows appear, offering a vista of the blue sea, an island, and the horizon. It’s not entirely clear whether these windows are really windows or rectangular images or paintings on the wall, and thus an illusion. As Doig says: “It’s a play on making a painting.” The mural is an extended version of his 2004 canvas called House of Pictures.

As do many contemporary painters, Doig borrows freely from art history. His appreciation of early modern artists, such as Daumier, Cezanne, Gauguin, Van Gogh, and Munch can be discerned in the way he draws silhouettes, enacts a starry night, or lightens-up white snow with pink. What is crucial is that the re-takes of these predecessors are incorporated in a new atmosphere. Unlike many of his followers, Doig succeeds in digesting his source material, resulting in a painterly language that can be experienced as current – if even in the work the sense of historic time is ambivalent. The present appreciation of Doig’s oeuvre doesn’t necessarily mean that it depicts our era; it may instead point to something that is lacking or that people are longing for at present. His paintings enable the viewer to establish a vivid connection to memories and internal landscapes.  

In many ways, Doig’s work is informed by photography, as can be seen in his image archive (presented as a slide show), while in his paintings he moves away from photography and looks for expression that can only be achieved through paint. “I use photography simply as a way of imaging memory”, claims the artist. Also exhibited for the first time are the graphic works that Doig has made over the years, which often contain images he would later use for his paintings. Even though the effect of these ‘experimental prints’ is modest in comparison, it’s interesting to see the pictures in black-and-white and at a small scale. It makes one aware of the importance of contrast in the compositions – before any use of color or virtuosity comes in. Doig’s credibility as a painter has to do with layering. Many paintings balance between multiple competing forces, moods, and notions. Parts of the works are executed with an obsessive emphasis on color, while other areas are hardly touched, being more sketchy or pale. Some areas are very precisely drawn, while others seem sloppy, the result of indifferent brush strokes or dripping paint. There is the notion of skill, but there is also the understanding that art is not about mastering technique. As Doig sees it, “You can make a painting plausible by having areas of focus, and then have other areas that are completely out of focus.”

The only thing lacking in Basel is a good insight into Doig’s recent production. Apart from the mural, there’s only one work from 2014, a figure on a horse – which looks like a battlefield, in terms of figuration. This doesn’t shed any light on which direction Doig is now moving in. What the exhibition teaches us, though, is that Peter Doig is not just a style or a look, it involves an internal quest. That is what distinguishes a real Doig from his epigones, who are enchanted by the surface treatment or the romantic imagery. As he put it in an interview: “I think you have to be connected to your subject, for your own sanity, really; and, also, to feel grounded.” ‹