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|London Art Letter
by Lewis Kachur
|On Mar. 23, 2000, the Tate Gallery in London rechristened its well-known museum facility as "Tate Britain." The new entity's collections are henceforth to be dedicated to works "done in, of, or about Britain," and director Stephen Deuchar vowed "no passport test" in this loose definition, which would seem to open the door to American artists working there. Deuchar also acknowledged the "Anglocentric bias" of the collection to date, and vowed to expand the representation of the other countries of the UK.
With its new mantle comes a new approach to the problematic category "national identity." One could say that Tate Britain's closest parallel is now the National Museum of American Art in Washington -- though the NMAA's programming is nowhere near as adventurous as the Tate's promises to be. And as everyone must know by now, Tate Britain is not to be confused with the brand new Tate Modern, which opens in a converted powerplant by the Thames on May 12.
To help kick things off, four dozen or so contemporary British artists in the collection turned out to be photographed on the front steps, below Martin Creed's new neon word piece on the pediment, which reads "the whole world." They ranged in age from Creed's 20-something to Patrick Caulfield's 68, at least. Although a multicultural mix was present, white males were still the majority. Following the shoot, the press unanimously descended on leather-clad Tracey Emin, who has emerged as a "working class heroine" in the tabloids.
Just inside, down the classicizing central aisle, is an impressive installation of three large new sculptures by Mona Hatoum, signaling a commitment to "challenging" new work, as well as the liberal definition of "British" (she was born in Lebanon). The works are monumental, beginning with the 20-foot-tall Mouli-Julienne, an apparatus enlarged 21 times the usual size of the French vegetable slicer. It cross-referenced the oversized objects of Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen, only more menacing in tone, as well as that historic French slicer, the guillotine.
Hatoum's second work, titled Continental Drift, is a horizontal map of the world in clear plastic with metal filings filling the seas. A magnetized bar circles like a watch's second hand below, creating a tidal "wave" of filings, which lap up onto the continents. Is this a hint of global warming and flooding?
The third work, Homebound, is a larger version of an installation that New Yorkers may have seen last year at the Alexander and Bonin Gallery in Chelsea. Behind a wire barrier, household items and furnishings are electrified, and periodically light up. Their increasing illumination is paralleled by the rising buzzing of a current, amplified through speakers, as a menacing sound element of the work. It projects an oppressive air of danger and domestic claustrophobia.
Hatoum's installation is accompanied by a big survey of acquisitions from the 1990s, a show that amounts to an overview of acclaimed Tate directorship of Nicholas Serota. The selection features quite a few items that could kindly be categorized as of "historical interest" rather than "museum quality." The YBAs are represented by figurines based on Goya prints by Jake and Dinos Chapman, and an impressive Chris Ofili painting No Woman, No Cry (1998). Her tears are collaged with small photos of Stephen Lawrence, a murdered London teenager. Typically the canvas is propped on two rounded balls of dung, which the label only identifies as "mixed media."
Attention is also paid to older generations. The show includes, for instance, a very good early painting by Howard Hodgkin, and a huge abstract work by Sean Scully (though he emigrated to the U.S. in 1975 and became an American citizen in 1983.)
The expulsion of the "foreign schools" to the new Tate Modern down the river, due to open in mid-May, has freed up about 35 percent more gallery space, with a further building expansion opening next year. The occasion has been seized to rehang the residual British collection in thematic groupings such as portraits, literary themes and more interestingly, "Roast Beef and Liberty" -- a catchphrase that dates back to the 18th century, when the French and the British first came up with the cheerful nicknames, "frog" and "rostbif," respectively, for each other.
The thematic approach recalls the current trilogy of installations at the Museum of Modern Art, even down to the repeated theme of "war," except the time span is much vaster here. Some jarring formalistic collisions result and, of course, the scheme favors "proto-modern" old pictures as well as more traditionally based contemporary ones. Thankfully this experiment is temporary.
Separate smaller rooms hold clusters of individual artists, from Gainsborough to Hockney, which prompted the thought -- are Hockney's portraits of the late-1960s and '70s the Gainsboroughs of our time?
At Anthony d'Offay are paintings, drawings and prints by Ellen Gallagher. Her signature fabric paintings were joined by a new black-on-black series, where the barely perceptible imagery is built up with bits of collaged rubber or gesso. And in advance of her already much-publicized Mary Boone debut this spring, Inka Essenhigh is showing five sizeable paintings at Victoria Miro. Their sexualized figuration in illusionistic space is redolent of 1940s Matta, while the slick, opaque enamel surfaces relate here to locals like Patrick Caufield and Gary Hume. Perhaps their most original aspect is the combination of unnamable dark hues.
What is striking to the visitor is the smallness of West End spaces like d'Offay, White Cube, Sadie Cole and others. Thus, Elizabeth Peyton's new show at Cole is absolutely dependent for its effect on the specific room. (This time around I found Peyton's petite figures charming at best, tepid and formulaic at worst.) This is already changing, as White Cube 2 and soon Miro open this spring in larger digs in the burgeoning East End -- even as Gagosian invades the West End with a new gallery, which opened last week.
For me the most intriguing is Hayley Newman, who presents a series of photos documenting conceptual performance pieces, including "Crying Glasses" worn on the New York subway. Several of these works raise issues of public space, gender and the like. A sunburn piece echoes a work done 30 years ago by Dennis Oppenheim.
Then a small sign at the end disavows the "authenticity" of the situations described in the exhibition labels and accompanying "documentation." We are left with an insoluble conundrum: which is "untrue," that sign or the labels? Either way, we come to appreciate Newman's true subjects, the deceptive status of photograph as document, and the slippery relation between words and images.
The Saatchi Collection opened with a big spring post-"Sensation" survey, anagramatically dubbed "Ant Noises" and featuring works by Hirst, Whiteread and other usual suspects. Similarly, Tate Britain opens "New British Art 2000" on July 6, a show of work by 22 artists that is to include Sarah Lucas' cigarette-covered pair of wrecked cars, seen in her show at Barbara Gladstone in New York last year, Yinka Shonibare's alien Disfunctional Family, and Bob and Roberta Smith's tonic Make your own damn art... Have British artists ever had it so good? Or perhaps more to the point, are there enough groundbreaking artists to carry all this exposure?
More effective was the exhibition, or better, "intervention," called "Retrace your steps" at Sir John Soane's Museum, an eccentric domestic space already crammed with the collections of the neo-classic architect. Two dozen contemporary works, assembled by Eurocurator Hans Ulrich Obrist, are inserted here and there, generally on small scale, and the visitor is given a guide to the hide and seek. Richard Hamilton's erotic painting is revealed in Soane's storage racks only upon request to the guard. Katharina Fritsch's yellow Madonna glows overhead amidst some antique fragments. Steve McQueen effectively inserts a low table mirror, and a sound work. Gilbert & George had tea in the parlor, and again we are left with a photo-souvenir. It is the first such contemporary installation at this quirky, lesser-known time capsule, a fine place to think millennial thoughts. Traditionalists cringe (I saw them do so), yet it merits a sequel.
At the RA, works were often hung in pairs, like an actualization of the dual slide projector lecture. Art from Europe and the United States is the main focus, though with artists from Russia, Scandinavia, Australia and even Japan, some names are bound to be unfamiliar even to historians.
The first room was limited to works exhibited in the Grand Palais at the Paris World's Fair of 1900. This cross-section of official representation is conservative indeed, despite the flashy huge painting by the Spanish Impressionist-academician Sorolla. Thus, we are grateful that the succeeding galleries cut a wider swath of the fin-de-siecle art world.
This moment catches the surviving Post-Impressionists at their peak, if not always seen here in major works, while the future Fauves, Cubists, Futurists and members of the Ashcan Schools are still working toward their main accomplishments. Rosenblumian chestnuts leaven the mix -- works like Gerome's punning Optician sign, or Belgian Leon Frederic's Stream constitued of dozens of budding nude adolescents. The latter still disturbs, in much the same vein as Sally Mann's photographs of her young children.
Rosenblum's collaborators, Maryanne Stevens and Ann Dumas, add their own accents. As with Stevens' "Post-Impressionism" blockbuster of two decades ago, highlights include oversized Italian Divisionist paintings, such as Pellizza da Volpedo's study for the Fourth Estate, a peasant crowd in uprising, or the radiant profiled sheep of The Mirror of Life. Add to these Angelo Morbelli's In the Rice Fields (paging the Dahesh Museum -- how about an exhibition of Italian Divisionism?).
Other works seem to enter as footnotes to art history, such as Australian Sydney Long's Pan. With its pipers and dancing nymphs in a grove, this is clearly an academic forerunner to Matisse's monumental Joy of Life. Other inclusions leave us wincing at their political incorrectness, or begin the beguine of camp in their overblown kitschiness. After awhile the stew of contemporary art starts looking better.
Once again, thematic hanging is the order of the day. (Aren't museums reviving formalism, as they pave over the loose ends of history?) Obvious topics like the modern city and landscape are followed by less expected ones: triptychs, for instance, or religion. The latter grouping is anchored by an enormous Bouguereau, whose ghastliness seems to be the point.
The show has a rich finale of self-portraits, which duly ring in Freud's century and its preoccupation with self. Among other things, these effectively dramatize the minority status of women artists. The whole show is nicely at home in the Academy halls, some of which have been renovated. One can't help but wonder at its fate in Wright's spiritual spirals. Or wonder, will we one day see the Academy halls bedecked with Portrait of Emin, R.A.?
LEWIS KACHUR is a New York art historian and critic.