Are categories helpful? This rather unpromising question seemed to be the starting point for a nevertheless intriguing exhibition at London’s Thomas Dane gallery, "Very Abstract and Hyper Figurative," Mar. 13-Apr. 14, 2007. The show featured contemporary paintings installed in two large, glass vitrines, one containing exclusively "abstract" works and the other filled with "figurative" art. Both were set up to be labeled and peered at like a bunch of dusty fossils in a natural history museum.
Since they’re contemporary paintings, of course, these categories are somewhat provisional. Sarah Morris, who had a painting in the "abstract" vitrine, isn’t really an abstract painter. Her painting Rockhopper (Origami) depicts a penguin made of flattened folded paper -- a figure to be sure, albeit in a De Stijl-inspired idiom. In the postmodernist manner of artists like Peter Halley, Morris has given the language of modernist abstraction a bit of new life by taking it back over the threshold of representation.
It was curator Jens Hoffman, former director of exhibitions at the ICA, who organized and displayed these pictures as though they were relics from a bygone era. And seeing blue-chip market darlings like Marlene Dumas, Peter Doig and John Currin hung as cultural flotsam did give a certain satisfaction. The paintings could be seen from the back, provenance labels and all, as if to show the behind-the-scenes structure that underlies the convergence in such big-ticket artworks of esthetic importance and cold monetary value.
True, the best works, like Mark Grotjahn’s shimmering insect-wing abstraction and a creamy, palette-knifed Wilhelm Sasnal, were obscured by the highly reflective glass and a curatorial conceit that literally came between the viewer and the art. But what the display was pointing out is the unreliability of categories -- that is to say, the institutional frame -- and it’s these categories that the viewer was actually inspecting in this installation.
As it happens, this also makes the exhibition a fine introduction to two other shows in London galleries, one by an apparently "figurative" artist and another by an apparently "abstract" artist, both of whom defy expectations.
Last year George Condo threw the UK tabloids some red meat when he painted a bug-eyed and bulgy-cheeked Queen Elizabeth, putting a particular irreverent chipmunk spin on that genre of ossified power, royal portraiture. In his latest show at Simon Lee, Feb. 7-Apr. 21, 2007, Condo infiltrates another staple of the Renaissance tradition -- the female nude. Condo’s no sneering iconoclast, though. His paintings combine a love of Renaissance painting with a funhouse-mirror version of Analytical Cubism.
Condo sees Western portrait painting, a genre designed to nail down the fleeting lives of monarchs into something approaching immortality, through the fog of howling kitsch. In the series of nudes at Simon Lee, Condo’s women bend their arms behind their heads in imitation of ideal beauty -- but their faces are car-crashes of cats’ grins and clowns’ eyes.
With their raised arms, Condo’s pin-ups make an obvious reference to the gruesome line-up in Pablo Picasso’s 100-year-old Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. Condo’s sketch, Female Rock Thrower, even contains an echo of Picasso’s abandoned male presence -- the medical student found in his sketches for Les Demoiselles, but elided from the final painting -- in the person of an oblivious, walkman-wearing teenager sitting on a park bench reading, ignorant of the leering female monster poised behind him with an immense boulder.
Like Picasso, Condo is obsessed with metamorphosis, both in terms of physique and genre, but what he loves more than anything is painting. The Smiling Sea Captain is a three-quarter-length portrait of a man whose puncturing with a spear recalls Renaissance depictions of St. Sebastian. But rather than pouting beatifically, he’s grinning wildly; not gamely suffering death but madly, stupidly alive.
On the other hand, New York-born Ian Monroe’s works at Haunch of Venison, Mar. 2-Mar. 31, 2007, were as far away from Condo’s as something still called a "painting" could be -- flat and geometric where Condo is loose-limbed and rich -- but they have in common an interrogation, even a resurrection, of a kind of carnival modernism. Where Condo channels Picasso via Philip Guston, George Herriman and Hanna-Barbera, Monroe views El Lissitzky and Kazmir Malevich through Halley, Archigram and The Sims.
The exhibition’s title, "Planit," refers to a long-lost plaster sculpture by Malevich -- entirely absent and undocumented, yet suggestive of an all-encompassing project -- which is as perfect a metaphor of the Russian artist’s obsolete-seeming utopian dream as you could want. In the face of this failed modernist promise, Monroe has created vast-seeming virtual worlds on canvas, like hypothetical architectural drawings, which react to Malevich’s ideal future by imagining apparently endless geometric vistas. Parallel, a two-panel freestanding work in black and grey vinyl on aluminum with eye-popping single-point perspective, encapsulates the push-and-pull of utopian ideology. It looks good, but you’d ruin it if you stepped in.
Monroe’s works speak to an obsolete idea of the space-age, reminiscent of the labyrinths of computer games. His deft handling of his materials makes the works engaging, and the neatness of the cut Formica and veneer gives them the geekish charm. There’s something endearing about a meticulously rulered line, with its tiny but significant nicks and flaws.
Such glitches and speckles abound in "Momentary Momentum" at the non-profit Parasol Unit Foundation for Contemporary Art in East London, Mar. 3-May 12, 2007, a survey of recent animated drawings created by artists, quite the opposite of the slick CGI films from Pixar and the like. These art animations seem filled with all kinds of social melancholy.
For example, Avish Khebrehzadeh’s Backyard is a projected digital animation with the somewhat naive, graphic look of a children’s book illustration. Slow metamorphoses taking us between a girl in a patterned dress and a lamb curled up in her lap are reminiscent of the deadpan logic of a children’s book. Khebrehzadeh often refers in her work to her childhood in Tehran, and the gauzy scrim on which the animation is projected, which part-conceals, part-reveals a wall-drawing depicting fragments of architecture, evokes the process of memory -- names and places lose focus, points of sensory impact resonate. Shown in an endless loop, the animation has the beguiling repetition of a dwelled-upon incident from a distant past, just beyond the reach of words.
Bullet Sisters by Christine Rebet makes good use of the wobbles and disruptions of hand-drawn animation to present a reconstruction of childhood in a style reminiscent of DIY adolescent pursuits. Viewers of the work sit in a theatre-cum-garden shed, which for the British carry nostalgic memories as a children’s retreat -- an eternal crucible of Dungeons & Dragons marathons, go-kart construction and amateur vivisection. In Rebet’s animation, the tiny movements of the characters in not-quite-consistently painted inks flickering from frame to frame project the hand-drawn obsessiveness of the young imagination. The image of a boy’s cup-and-ball magic trick, stretched over numerous frames, acquires an unexpected gravitas, an effect that is in part due to the film’s loping, indie-rock soundtrack, which gives it a melancholy that holds adolescence at arm’s length.
Finally, Naoyuki Tsuji’s whimsical, sometimes disturbing Children of the Shadows is a fantastical charcoal animation that -- like William Kentridge’s Tide Table (which also makes an appearance in this show) -- makes great use of the build-up and erasure of mark-making. After a dramatic outburst from a monstrous gouge-eyed father figure depicted sitting at the dinner table, cups and dishes tumble to the floor. Several frames later, their ghostly paths remain -- a metaphor for the persistence of trauma in the young mind?
Mining this same vibe of sinister whimsy was Marcel Dzama’s new half-hour film, called The Lotus Eaters, which was the centerpiece of his recent exhibition at Timothy Taylor gallery, Mar. 8-Apr. 13, 2007. Best known for his occasionally cute, occasionally powerful drawings of fantastical creatures and stiffly posing humans, Dzama’s film is, relatively speaking, something of a leap forward, in which his cast of characters is rooted in a poignant, if obtuse, narrative context.
A makeshift cinema in the back of the gallery sets the oddball scene immediately. Old-fashioned cinema seats, one of which is occupied by a cross-legged bear-man effigy in a thrift-store suit, sit in front of a player-piano which another bear-man is pretending to play, while wildly grinning at visitors. The film itself -- an apparent homage to silent movies with its leaps and flickering movements -- is shot on a combination of old and new film stock and framed as though seen through a fuzzily discernible keyhole.
An artist (played by Dzama’s own father) sits on a high stool in a cave-like studio, moodily enacting clichés of the tormented artist as he sketches familiar Dzama-like animal-men. Leaping occasionally into speckly pen-and-ink animation, the sketches come alive, most powerfully the figure of a woman, who transforms herself from a sketch into a giggling, filmed nude presence, into whose most intimate orifice a tiny version of the "artist" gleefully clambers.
The "artist" then plunges into his own fantasy world, appearing in a mask in a filmed dinner party peopled by his characters, played by actors in outlandish masks and costume (most of which are on display in the gallery). Slowly the rest of the dinner party discovers the imposter in their midst, and, in the best tradition of fairy tales, turn on their creator -- apparently devouring him.
The film’s enigmas are best unraveled through the props and other items displayed in the gallery outside. There, one finds that a masked mannequin skimming along the ceiling is a quotation of John Heartfield’s Prussian Archangel from 1920. A Polaroid of the bear-man posing on an anonymous roof is subtitled "the bear dances on the roof, even," a play on Marcel Duchamp’s famous Large Glass. And the collages that line the walls are straight out of Hannah Höch’s ‘20s photomontages. There’s even a doctored Mona Lisa (a la Duchamp’s LHOOQ) -- this time wearing a Zorro mask.
As a whole, then, this is an exhibition about a man -- the artist? -- whose subconscious has been ransacked by the ghouls of art past. The revolutionary art of the Dada and Surrealist collagists and filmmakers has been recast as creepily comic fairy-tale. And there is something nightmarish and fantastical about all those mad masks in any modern museum -- something that draws us back to our first experiences with art and which sits in our heads like a dream, sometimes remembered.
BEN STREET is a teacher, lecturer and critic living in London.