Tag: Art

Review: Glenn Ligon’s Encounters and Collisions at Nottingham Contemporary

Untitled, Glenn Ligon (2006).

Untitled, Glenn Ligon (2006).

One of the first pieces to catch my eye in Glenn Ligon’s Encounters and Collisions exhibition at Nottingham Contemporary is a neon sign which simply reads, ‘America’. Reminiscent of Allen Ginsberg’s poem of the same name, this untitled piece seems to be emblematic of this intensely personal exhibition in which Ligon brings together the post-War artists who influenced him, alongside his own work.

Encounters and Collisions explores the many narratives of American discourse, touching on themes of race, identity, sexuality, politics, language, history and aesthetics.  For Ligon, who was born in the Bronx in 1960, the Civil Rights movement formed a backdrop to his early years. Here, we see journalistic pieces of the time, including Kelley Walker’s 2005 piece Triptych, which re-appropriates a photograph of a black man being savagely attacked by a police dog as well as  pictures of the Birmingham Race Riots and Black Panthers. These sit alongside pieces which examine how these experiences were internalised. Ligon’s 2005 painting, When Black Wasn’t Bceautiful, a quote from comedian Richard Pryor, plays on the idea that our notions of beauty are bound up with a society’s dominant narrative. Meanwhile, Giovanni Anselmo’s interactive exhibit Invisible, where the word ‘visible’ appears on a projector, highlights the ephemeral nature of language and identity.

yellow

Yellow Islands by Jackson Pollock (1952).

Sexuality, and the subversion of established norms, is also significant as shown in Ligon’s colouring book picture of Malcolm X, who is rendered feminine in a Warhol-esque way with bright lipstick and eye shadow. Another is a silent and hypnotic film by Steve McQueen called Bear in which two naked men square up to each other in a display of violence and eroticism. The close-up camera work is disarming as it follows the contours of the men’s bodies and disrupts our perspective; McQueen has said he did not want the viewer to be a passive observer but rather to be hyper-sensitive to their own part in the action.

Elsewhere, Ligon pays tribute to the artists who shaped his outlook. The abstract expressionists, including Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning and Franz Kline, are represented here and the immediacy of their paintings indicate a radical departure from the social realism prevalent in the US at this time. Looking at pieces such as Pollock’s Yellow Islands and de Kooning’s Valentine, it is easy to see why they proved so influential for Ligon: developed in New York, this movement saw artists peering deep into the human consciousness, by-passing rational thoughts, as they explored abstract human desires and experiences.

Encounters and Collisions is on at Nottingham Contemporary until 14th June. It will then move to Tate Liverpool where it will run from 30th June to 18th October. 

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In the Shadow of War at Nottingham’s Lakeside Arts Centre

Francis Bacon's Figuure in a Landscape. Credit: Tate

Francis Bacon’s Figuure in a Landscape. Credit: Tate.

Before the explosion of pop art of the 1960s, when the works of David Hockney and Peter Blake heralded a new era of optimism, British art went through a period of deep reflection as the nation began to come to terms with the devastation of the Second World War. This dark period, characterised by grimy industrial landscapes and introspective figures, forms the basis for a beautifully-curated exhibition called In the Shadow of War at Nottingham’s Lakeside Arts Centre.

Featuring an impressive collection of artists, including Frank Auerbach, Francis Bacon, Lucien Freud and Henry Moore, it begins with a series of pieces which highlight how fresh the memory of war was in the 1940s and ‘50s. Auerbach’s Building Site, Victoria Street, London (1959) reminds that the post-War reconstruction was a protracted process. His thickly layered paint creates a viscous feel as if the city is slowly emerging out of the ashes.

Some of the pieces such as Moore’s Falling Warrior (1956-7) references the human cost of war more overtly. It depicts a warrior laying on the ground in defeat which stands in contrast to the idea of the victorious soldier. With its distorted facial features and gaping holes, Eduardo Paolozzi’s bronze statue Shattered Head (1956) evokes the physical and mental anguish of war. Meanwhile, Francis Bacon’s 1945 piece Figure in a Landscape, in which the figure is obscured by a black void, suggests a loss of identity though he is still discernible as a person. Blood-red flowers flicker in the background alluding to death on the battle field, poppies or Nazi uniforms.

Lucien Freud’s portraits – Head of a Girl, Head of a Woman and Portrait of Peter Watson – reveal inward-looking figures who appear to be carrying a heavy burden, although it is impossible to decipher what they are thinking.

The exhibition then moves towards a series of pieces where the connection with war is less obvious but its effects can nevertheless be felt. The pale, vacant faces of L.S. Lowry’s The Funeral Party (1957) references the austerity of the post-War years, while Josef Herman’s Evenfall (1948) is a startling study of a mining village in Wales where life continues despite the hardships people face.

Alongside In the Shadow of War, Lakeside is also hosting a complementary exhibition featuring photographs by Lee Miller. Miller worked with some of the most eminent artists of the early 20th century, including Picasso, Man Ray and Jean Cocteau, she also worked as Vogue’s official photographer during the Second World War. This exhibition features some of the photographs she took during the Allied victory and her images include the liberation of the concentration camps, towns razed to the ground, the suicide of Nazi officials and Hitler’s mountain home in flames.

Looking at these pictures it is almost impossible to believe that Europe was able to rebuild itself following destruction on this scale. Miller’s subjects bear a look of relief but also extreme weariness; you can only imagine how she and the envoys felt as they uncovered the extent of the Nazi atrocities.

The two exhibitions take place ahead of the 70th anniversary of the end of the Second World War next year. Both are free to attend and run until 22nd February.

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Mike Leigh paints a masterful portrait of Turner

Timothy Spall stars as JMW Turner in Mr Turner.

Timothy Spall stars as JMW Turner in Mr Turner.

It can be tempting, when producing a biopic, to focus almost entirely on the positives (see Pantani: The Accidental Death of a Cyclist). But in his critically-acclaimed film Mr Turner, Mike Leigh gives us a refreshingly honest character study of his subject, the artist JMW Turner.

Starting with a perfectly-conceived shot of the watery Dutch lowlands, we are introduced to Turner – played by the brilliant Timothy Spall – who is painting lush green fields, farm girls and windmills. He seems to be in his element as he captures the iridescent light which surrounds him.

All this contrasts with Turner’s return to his somewhat chaotic life in London. Grunting and grumpy, he refuses to acknowledge his former wife and daughters and seeks sexual gratification from his housemaid, Hannah Danby (played by Dorothy Atkinson). His painting technique often looks a little ham-fisted and in one scene he spits straight onto the canvas, making it difficult to imagine how he produced such fine pieces.

But what emerges is not simply a caricature but something altogether more complex. Despite his gruffness he is also sensitive and enjoys a tender bond with his father. Later he forms a close relationship with Mrs Booth, the twice-widowed landlady who runs the boarding house in Margate where he found inspiration for his seascapes. And, in an act of philanthropy, he rejects an offer from someone who wants to buy all his work, saying that it will be left to the British public.

There are also some wonderful moments which show Turner’s development as an artist. He is enthralled when the scientist Mary Somerville showed him how a prism can create a spectrum of colours. Unlike some Romantic artists – notably William Blake – Turner did not fear industrialisation; indeed he was excited by the new railways and the construction of London’s Crystal Palace, used to house the Great Exhibition.

Poignantly, however, we see Turner discovering the newly-invented camera and while it holds a fascination for him he also senses that it will change art as he declares, ‘I’m finished’. Little does he realise that his work would go on to inspire the impressionists whose work evolved into the non-representational art that became synonymous with modernism, cubism, formalism and other major movements.

Ultimately, this is a hugely enjoyable film, which does not fawn nor judge its subject. The dialogue, with its archaic lexicon, is superb as is the period detail. But what really stood out to me was the startling cinematography, with land and seascapes bathed in the sort of light that Turner himself might have imagined.

Mr Turner is showing at Nottingham’s Broadway Cinema until 20th November.

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Notes on Carol Rama’s exhibition at Nottingham Contemporary

c2A busy summer has meant that I didn’t manage to get to Nottingham Contemporary’s Carol Rama exhibition until Eanna O Ceallchain’s Wednesday walk-through earlier this week. The tour was an exploration of Italian artist Rama’s work, in particular her ideas around formalism and physicality, as well as the literary influence of her friend, the avant-garde writer Edoardo Sanguineti.

The Rama exhibition follows on very neatly from the Contemporary’s previous one, Somewhat Abstract, which examined different degrees of abstraction in art. Rama, who was born in Turin in 1918, experimented with these techniques in the post-War years but it is her bricolage – pieces made using found or everyday objects – which are particularly striking. As Eanna explained during the walk-through, the objects ‘reach out’ towards us, adding a sense of the corporeal to her work. Rama was fascinated by both purely formal ideas, such as mathematical formulae, language, shapes and colour, but she punctuates her pieces with physical and grotesque objects such as glass eyes and animal claws.

Another recurring motif is the use of inner tubes, a reference to her father’s failed bicycle business which precipitated his suicide. They are used in her pieces about so-called Mad Cow Disease in which they represent udders, although in their dismembered state they also resemble other body parts like intestines. The idea of a physical disease such as this breaking down mental faculties and changing the abstract notion of what a person (or animal) is.

Rama’s earlier works are also included in this exhibition. The figurative pastel illustrations, full of whimsical and sexually-charged creatures, are stylistically different to her later work yet many of the themes are present. The autobiographical references, such as her mother’s incarceration in a mental hospital and her uncle’s business of making prosthetic limbs (disembodied parts), also indicate how her early interest in mental illness and body parts would recur again and again.

The exhibition, which runs alongside one featuring the works of Danh Võ, is on until 28th September. Entry is free. 

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