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by Joe La Placa
Despite self-aggrandizing headlines claiming that his legendary appetite for drink and drugs had come to a sober end, artist Damien Hirst was spotted in London last week with what appeared to be more than a few drinks in him. Rumor has it that he's found God, too. This apparent conversion to Christianity might explain recent tabloid snaps of Hirst in his newly adopted Messiah-like pose -- arms raised in a crucifix position.
"A lot of people think they make better art when they're drunk, but they don't," said the born-again bad boy. "Everything is better when you are sober." Now that Hirst's zipped up his flashy lifestyle and his fly (once dubbed "Dick Flasher" for regularly "whipping it out" in SoHo dives at the slightest provocation), what's he getting up to?
Hirst has recently covered a 220-seat catamaran that cruises the Thames "Tate to Tate," from Tate Modern on one side of the river to Tate Britain on the other, with his trademark multi-colored spots. The 20-minute trip, beginning from a new pier in front of the Tate Modern, designed by London Eye architects Marks and Barfield, costs £4.50 -- a bargain considering the first few thousand tickets were limited-edition artworks challenging the "accepted conventions concerning bus tickets." Hirst is no stranger to river life -- when in London from his country estate, the artist and his family live on a luxurious narrow boat moored on the Thames.
Hirst has also begun to tackle Christian themes that will undoubtedly spark controversy. One project in the pipeline is a version of Leonardo's Last Supper in which Christ and the apostles are represented by 13 ping-pong balls floating atop 13 fountains of red wine spurting out of medical tubing.
A more gruesome piece features three crucified cows, stomachs splayed, impaled on crosses of steel. Shades of the Austrian Aktionist Herman Nitsch.
Perhaps most ambitious is Hirst's 22-foot-tall, polychromed bronze sculpture of a 1950s-vintage lame beggar christened Charity. In production at the Pangolin Editions foundry near Stroud, Charity is another "ready-made" production like Hymn, which was based on a mass-produced plastic toy of a man's ecorché body and was supposedly bought for £1 million by the Saatchi Gallery. The new sculpture is derived from the post-war charity-collection boxes that once stood outside English shops, done in the form of a little girl with a callipered leg holding a teddy bear in one arm and a "Help Spastics" collection tin in the other.
In Hirst's version the collection box is busted open and the coins are strewn all over the floor. Charity is slated to go up in Hoxton Square Park, just in front of Jay Jopling's White Cube gallery, where Hirst shows. The bronze behemoth will be on display in September, coinciding with Hirst's forthcoming solo show -- if Joplin can obtain planning permission from local residents, that is.
To make the deadline, Joplin's spinners have been working overtime. According to the White Cube planning application, "Charity is a public monument for the 21st century, speaking of injustice, erosion of values and robbing charity." Council members were unimpressed. "He better start saying his prayers, because he hasn't a chance in hell," said one, uncannily.
In an area renowned for street crime, it is ironic that local teenage youths I spoke to are actually looking forward to Charity arriving. "I'll do some justice on it," said one ominously hooded youth wielding cans of spray paint.
Riley's Tate sensation
The 72-year-old British grand dame of Op Art, Bridget Riley, has calculatingly assaulted museum goers, causing alarm at her recently opened retrospective at Tate Britain (to Sept. 28, 2003). But don't expect puerile stunts like the pickled sharks, frozen heads of blood and soiled bed sheets served up by the newer generation of YBAs. Riley's assault is retinal. Her brand of "sensation" occurs not in the tabloids but within the realm of the senses.
Organized by the artist herself, the retrospective represents most of the major turning points of her career, and a clear trajectory emerges -- the show begins with a big bang and ends with a fizz. The early works made between 1961 and 1968 are undoubtedly her finest efforts, and still deliver a shocking jolt of optical energy 40 years after their making. With eye-trembler titles that speak for themselves, such pieces as Arrest, Disturbance, Tremor, Current, Shiver, Burn and Blaze exude a psychological exhilaration that later works simply lack.
Riley's undulating, black-and-white bands became the syntax of Op Art, as well as a major motif of the hallucinatory 1960s, bowdlerized into psychedelic wallpaper and printed plastic of Swinging London mini-dresses.
Riley's serious art-world success was pillaged wholesale by the design and fashion industries. Richard Shops was one of many that traduced her Op Art as textile designs, with a line called "Clever Clothes." Not so clever, according to Riley, who said, "That upset me very much. My paintings were made to work against a flat surface and very particularly at a certain scale. This is completely destroyed when wrapped round a human figure, rendered completely pointless."
Seconds after encountering masterpieces like Shiver, the viewer is visually besieged. The eyes begin to flutter, causing a sense of odd pulses and the inability to pull focus. The painting starts to vibrate uncontrollably. A drugless hallucination of impossible colors and patterns emerge. Although fixed, the painting appears to literally shiver, the kinetic effect increasing the harder you stare. The painting becomes a phenomenon, packed with mind-bending effects causing physical "sensations," rather than remaining a mere "representation" in the usual sense.
Riley's path to optical aggression began in her youth. During WW II, while her father was off fighting, her mother moved the eight-year-old Riley to rural Cornwall, in southwest England. In her essay, The Pleasures of Sight, Riley describes natural phenomena that would unconsciously surface in her paintings years later. "Looking directly into the sun over a foreshore of rocks exposed by the tide all reduced to a violent black-and-white contrast, interspersed, here and there by the glitter of water."
Riley enrolled in art school at Goldsmiths College, where she met drawing teacher Sam Rabin. His conceptual approach to abstract representation, which sought to recreate on a two-dimensional surface visual experiences that had taken place in three dimensions, was extremely influential to his young student. "I gained an awareness that we ourselves are symmetrical structures," says Riley of her years spent doing life drawing, "and the moment that we start to move, we are changing weights, changing balances and axis."
Sadly, none of her pre-abstract, pre-Op work, nor her studies of Seurat's Pointillist paintings like Le Pont de Courbevoie (so critical to Riley's early development) is included in the show. This is a pity because the transition that occurred from 1960 to 1961 is the most startling leap of Riley's career.
Also missing is Pink Landscape of 1960, Riley's attempt to capture the intense heat on an Italian plain in midsummer. Frustrated that the painting didn't vibrate or glitter like her source, Riley decided that instead of starting from an experience of nature and trying to recreate it on canvas, she would invert the process and find out what could be done on canvas first.
The Tate retrospective includes only 56 of her paintings, perhaps in part because she has worked so much in series, which use the same colors and graphic formats. After her productions of the '60s, the show proceeds through one experiment with optical delusion after another, and each seems to merge into the next. While the works from the '60s and early '70s use dramatic contrasts and events, those of the '90s (like Rêve, Evoë and Lagoon) pursue a unity and fluidity, dispensing with any sort of charged optical effect. One step away from landscapes, the late paintings regress to a more typical form of abstraction, a Matisse-like lyricism that is almost a return to representation.
Riley's new penchant for subtlety is certainly not gaining her the attention she enjoyed in the '60s. After the private view of the retrospective, the guests spilled out onto the lawn in front of the Tate for champagne and strawberries. Held captive by her adoring audience, Riley was one of the last to exit the museum. When she finally managed to make her way to the bar for a well-deserved drink, she was told by the barman -- who clearly didn't know who she was -- that the bar was closed. Luckily for an amused Riley, an observant fan noticed the faux pas and sent a minion off to fetch the grand dame a glass of bubbly.
The art of chess
There's nothing like a little friendly rivalry to fire up the creative spirit. Mark Sanders couldn't agree more. In 2001 he commissioned Jake and Dinos Chapman, Damien Hirst, Paul McCarthy, Yayoi Kusama and Maurizio Cattelan to design chess sets and boards. "We chose this particular group of artists because they all know each other," said Sanders. "There's lots of rivalry between them. They're all obsessed with what the others are doing." It is precisely this competitive spirit that makes The Art of Chess, on view at the Gilbert Collection Somerset House in London till Sept. 28, such a compelling exhibition.
Sanders' new London-based partnership, RS&A, is dedicated to producing innovative projects with contemporary artists. On show for the first time, RS&A's productions more than stand up to the other 20th-century classics included in the exhibition: the only known Faberge chess set made in 1905; the first leather pocket-chess set by the father of conceptual art Marcel Duchamp (himself a contender for the French Chess Championship in 1928); and a 1997 version of Yoko Ono's 1966 White on White Chess Set, the pieces painted white so that within ten moves the players lose track of their pieces. "It's meant to be a pacifist's set because you end up feeling empathy with your opponent," explains Sanders.
Typically attention grabbing is the Chapman Brothers set of 32 hand-painted bronze little figures, sprouting real hair and featuring the artists' signature penis-nose sphincter-mouth mutations. The pieces are post-apocalyptic pre-pubescent figures: one side Aryan with straight blonde tresses and the other side black sporting puffed-up Afros. In an edition of seven, Chess Set 2003 is displayed in its own handcrafted games box, the board inlaid with white and black double-headed skull-and-crossbones. The hairpieces were designed by the wig-makers Mandoville. "I needed to get them styled before the show," said Sanders. "The hair on them is huge."
Damian Hirst's set, Mental Escapology, continues the artist's fascination with the classic themes of life and death. It is made up of glass vs. silver casts of medicine bottles with altered and etched silver labels: K-night, Castle tablets, Queen ER and the like. The glass and mirrored board, placed on a free-standing surgical trolley, displays the biohazard symbol. Captured pieces are placed in a wall-mounted medicine cabinet. The game is played in Hirst's trademark glass box.
The RS&A pieces can be purchased at prices ranging from £40,000 and up. Now what would Natalia Danko (1898-1942), the Russian artist whose Propoganda Chess Set of 1925 for the Lomonosov State Porcelain Factory of Leningrad poises Capitalists against Communists, have thought about that?
Artists Jake and Dinos Chapman can dish out the shock horror, but taking it is another story. In a bizarre role reversal, the "Brothers Grimm" of the YBA movement have themselves become victims of "comedy terrorist" Aaron Barschak.
A nonentity until very recently, Barschak became headline news when he gate-crashed Prince William's 21st birthday party at Windsor Castle dressed as Osama bin Laden. "The security was nonexistent," said the comedian. "If I'd have been a real terrorist the entire Royal Family would have been wiped out."
Themselves no strangers to controversy, the Chapmans are notorious for offending their audiences. Pieces like their sexually explicit Tragic Anatomies (1996), which features pre-pubescent, penis-nosed mannequins in various positions, have caused massive public outrage. Needless to say, in the London art world, outrage equals notoriety.
The brothers' recent Turner-prize-nominated Rape of Creativity at the Oxford Museum of Modern Art features original etchings of Goya's "Disasters of War" series enhanced or defaced -- your choice -- by the Chapmans. Presumably outraged by this perceived insult to Goya, Barschak leapt into action. While Jake Chapman was giving a guided tour of the gallery, Barschak attacked the unsuspecting artist, dousing him with a bucket of red paint and then pummeling him to the floor.
Not fans of the Royal family nor of Barschak's antics, the brothers were dismissive of the incident. "It was so cheap." said Jake. "If he were able to blow up the Royals, why didn¹t he?" "He is just a publicity seeker who should be ignored," added Dinos. Er, yes.
Flowers for Sam
Samantha McEwen's exhibition of florally inspired abstract paintings proves that the allure of the flower in its many guises is still irresistible.
"Garlands" is McEwen's first exhibition in almost ten years. To celebrate her return, a glamorous crowd descended on the otherwise sedate Cross Street Gallery in London's Islington district, the area where Prime Minister Tony Blair lived before he moved into 10 Downing Street (and now better known for its multitude of ethnic restaurants and designer fashion boutiques). Spilling out from the tiny gallery were B-list YBAs, local waifs, thespians (the happening Almeida Theatre is around the corner), bankers, a sprinkling of film stars, flocks of family aristos and terribly-terribly toffs, all captured for the pages of Tatler magazine by Leon St Amour. Appropriately, the evening was propelled by a generous flow of flowery pink champagne.
Then there was the lady herself. More Scottish heather than English rose, McEwen's beauty rivals that of the flowers she paints. And her pedigree is just as striking. A descendent on one side of the American Astor dynasty, she is the daughter of late Rory McEwen, one of the most prolific and poetic flower painters of his generation.
In early 1980s, Sam was one of New York's most intoxicating femme fatales. A down-by-law member of the East Village Club 57 scene, McEwen hung with some of best artists of her generation, including Keith Haring (with whom she shared an apartment), Kenny Scharf and Jean-Michel Basquiat.
McEwen's paintings, resembling solarized versions of Andy Warhol's "Flowers," are painted on handmade aquarelle paper provided to the artist's father by his friend, the American artist Jim Dine. Given all the enticements, no wonder the exhibition sold out during the first hour.
A radical chic Little Bo-Peep?
Has the Venice Biennale become the battleground for the crown of radical chic-dom? This year's emerging flavor-of-the-fair comes from two black artists: the UK's Chris Ofili and the U.S.'s Fred Wilson. Ofili's themes of Black bungle-in-the-jungle and Wilson's Afro-inspired questions of race relations have dominated the column inches since the opening of the fair.
But surely this year's most courageous statement must go to current Turner Prize nominee Grayson Perry. One of England's truly transgressive artists, the hetereosexual father of two was seen strutting through the Venetian side streets during the early days of the fair dressed as his alter ego, Claire, a transvestite version of Little Bo Peep. "I'd love to be Claire the entire time I'm here," he said. "But it's just so damn hot it makes my make-up run."
JOE LA PLACA writes on art from London.