Archive for the ‘ Art ’ Category

Conservative Politics in the Ancient World

The Ara Pacis Augustae

The Ara Pacis Augustae

The tropes of conservatism are well known: religion, family values, patriotism and a wider natural order of things. Politicians pose with their progeny, their wives, and have themselves seen in places of symbolic importance to their values. They evoke the rural, the family, the state as homeland and mother/fatherland in speech and symbology.

By its very nature, conservatism is not a political programme, it is instead in the realm of symbolic politics because it is rhetorical and demonstrative rather than programmatic and substantive.*

Conservatism is often a misnomer, since “the past”, “nature” and “the way things were and should remain” has very often been mobilised to convince people to accept the very opposite: sweeping changes, the destruction of nature, and the corrosion of the past. As a system of belief strays from its ideals, it often does so by fervently and paradoxically propounding those ideals.

The Ara Pacis, housed in the Museo dell’Ara Pacis, is a template example of the way conservative tropes are ironically employed to cement a radical power shift.

To give it its full name, the Ara Pacis Augustae (The ‘Altar of Augustan Peace’) is an altar to Peace, a minor Roman goddess. The monument was commissioned by the Roman Senate in 13 B.C. to honour the return of Rome’s first emperor, Augustus, to Rome after his three years commanding Roman legions in Hispania and Gaul.

Having completed those conquests, Augustus ushered in a period commonly known as Pax Augusta (Augustinian Peace) in which peace was maintained within the boundaries of the expanded empire by means of Roman military supremacy.

However, the real danger to Augustus’s power was not invading or rebelling barbarians, but the Roman people themselves, and the living memory of the Roman Republic which Augustus had officially abolished (Julius Caesar had done the groundwork by becoming dictator).

The Ara Pacis was therefore a centrepiece in the Augustinian programme of winning hearts and minds at home. While ostensibly an altar to Peace, it serves to visually encompass the mythic requisites for Augustinian reign and the new ideology of Julio-Claudian power (the dynasty that would rule until Nero’s death).

Ara Pacis - procession of nobles

Frieze showing the procession of nobles. Agrippa, the son-in-law of Augustus, is shown with his toga drawn over his head. The depiction of children was very rare at the time, the child is probably Gaius Vipsanius Agrippa, Augustus’s grandson and favored heir.

Religion and piety is presented not only in the existence of the altar itself but also the frieze running around it. Augustus himself and several members of his family (of which many are realistically represented and identifiable) wear hoods (their togas drawn over their heads actually) which symbolise them acting in a religious capacity (Augustus appointed himself as high priest of Rome). Bulls are led to sacrifice by priests, and children are shown among the procession (children were unusual subject matter at the time).

Augustus then, is inscribing his reign into Roman religious life and even into Roman cosmology. Aeneas, Romulous, Remus and Mars are also depicted on the altar, and Augustus had already engineered the notion that he had descended from them, that he was in his rightful place in the pantheon of Roman religion.

The lower part of the internal wall imitates the type of rural wooden fence that would have enclosed a sacrificial altar. The upper part bears festoons that hang from ox skulls (bucrania, symbolic of sacrifice), with ritualistic shallow bowls in the intervals. The hanging festoons include ears of wheat, berries, and a variety of fruit and nuts, all underscoring the economic value of peace (and military domination). Between the “fence” boards and the festoons is a palmette border, a common motif.

Internal Wall - Ara Pacis

The internal walls of the altar are decorated with festoons and skulls, common agricultural and devotional symbols associated with rural life.

All this adds up to a symbology of power – of inscribing the new autocratic regime into the natural, the rural and the religious. It is ironic that these “timeless” and “unchanging” aspects of the Roman imagination were transformed by this symbolic intervention.

*While modern conservatism sees itself as broadly in favor of free markets and small government, history has shown conservatism to be pragmatic to the core. Look, for example, at agricultural subsidies, the British post-war consensus, the huge state borrowing and military expansion under Ronald Reagan.

Souzou 想像: Outsider Art from Japan

Koichi Fujino, Squid

Koichi Fujino, Squid

I wrote this review (of sorts) for on 11 April 2013.

You’ll find the world in the Wellcome’s Souzou exhibition of Japanese outsider art. It’s in one of the final rooms of this kaleidoscopic journey through the minds of forty-six untrained artists, all of whom happen to be attendees of Japanese welfare centres. Norimitsu Kokubo’s enormous patchwork cityscape, A Map of the World, depicts places and objects he has never visited, but has instead gleaned from the pages of newspapers and the internet. It’s a jam-packed fusion of landmarks and buildings enmeshed together on a groundless void.

A Map of the World sums up this show pretty well since we have here a dense assortment of objects from the imaginations of vulnerable, but gifted people who use their fragmented life experience to form cohesive and powerful artworks. The sheer breadth of the exhibition is impressive, and it makes sense that the curator has categorised the works into broad themes such as ‘language’, ‘making’ and ‘possibility’.

Even within these zones there’s enormous variety – Shota Katsube’s two-hundred-strong army of tiny combat-poised warriors are made from twist-ties, the diverse and strangely animated array evoke a boyhood universe of endlessly-fighting cartoon robots. Then there’s the crowded, vibrant ceramics of Satoshi Nishikawa, who has sculpted an apple of rabbits. Yes: an apple formed of rabbits with a repetitive symmetry reminiscent of ancient eastern architecture.

The bold ink-washes of Koichi Fujino in shapes of animals, which brim to the edges of the paper have an abstract power in their simple, sumptuous forms. There’s also handmade pyjamas with painted motifs of fried chicken, salmon roe and pigeon-shaped cookies by Takahiro Shimoda. A special mention should also go to Marie Suzukie whose intricate bodyscapes brimming with sex organs, thighs and breasts dazzled us with textured kaleidoscopic patterns. Stare long enough into the waves and dots and you see eyes and faces emerge.

Shinichi Sawada, Untitled, 2006-2012

Shinichi Sawada, Untitled, 2006-10

It’s uplifting to walk among objects unfettered from professionalism or conformity to market norms. This is an overgrown garden of the imagination and all the more inspiring that it’s made by people at the margins of society. It’s also rather apt that when you leave the show you pass an Antony Gormley sculpture, as this professional piece of cod-spiritual solemnity looks insipid and lifeless in comparison. We need a museum of outsider art to challenge the pros.

Warhol’s Featureless Films

Vinyl 1965

Vinyl 1965

An edited version of this article was published on Art Wednesday, 10 April 2013.

Of the many Warholisms, the one that rings most true in his film output is “the idea of waiting for something makes it more exciting”, since there’s never really any action to come. Warhol’s films simply happen, but they do so in a provocative and often menacing way.

Ever needing provocation, I headed to the ICA over the weekend to witness the UK cinema premieres of three newly-restored Warhol films.Sleep, the first of the typically Warholian mono-action epics, screens his lover, John Giorno, slumbering naked in Warhol’s apartment. Alongside its continual screening, the ICA scheduled the viewings of two ‘feature films’ co-directed with Paul Morrison, Chelsea Girls and Vinyl.

The former, the action of which takes place in the centre of New York City’s creative universe – Hotel Chelsea, follows the lives of a number of the young ‘superstars’ that clustered around the Factory scene. Over six hours of footage is divided by splitscreen, giving us a diptych binary of the ‘white’ and ‘black’ aspects of the life of the hotel’s residents. The action takes place in front of a rapidly panning and zooming lens, giving the film a cool and detached aesthetic. Clocking in at over three hours, the film is a challenge of patience that at moments (with emphasis on ‘moments’) explodes with vainglorious brilliance and sordid shock-tactic.

Vinyl is a barely-watchable pre-Kubrick interpretation of Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange. In a starkly minimalist mise-en-scène, Factory superstars including Edie Sedgwick and Gerard Melanga shambolically play out the tale of ultra-violence and state control in the 70 minute film peppered with musical numbers by The Kinks, The Rolling Stones and Martha and the Vandellas.

While sharing a similar aesthetic as the fixed-lens Factory ‘screen tests’, the ‘actors’ bodies are cooped into a tight frame and shallow space (presumably in some corner of the Factory) and the camera stares down on them cruelly at a steep angle. There’s something sadistic about the film above and beyond the erotically-charged torture of Malenga – the cold Warholian objectivity is palpable throughout and the crude acting is almost abject. With no dialogue or real part to play, Sedgwick mostly looks on smoking, and appears in the film simply to appear, intermittently dancing and sniffing (what appears to be) poppers along with the other actors.

Chelsea Girls, 1966

Chelsea Girls, 1966

Both films have divided the critics since their release and will never be universally appreciated, I’ll admit I also found them hard to watch – they’re challenging to watch in their entirety for all but the most fanatical Factory scene devotees. The now late Roger Ebert observed that Chelsea Girls employed “perversion and sensation like chili sauce to disguise the flavour of the meal.” Whatever you may think of each film, they’ve made their mark more as a cultural statement, an epochal happening that we can still see reflected in self-destructive celebrities and the intrusive lenses through which we view them.

Lichtenstein: mediocrity, ambition and innovation


Masterpiece, 1962

Originally published on on 19 February 2013

Towards the end of Tate Modern’s retrospective of Roy Lichtenstein, there is a small abstract painting, Untitled, 1959, executed just before the artist found himself at the heart of the Pop Art movement. The painting is, by any measure, a failure. It is lurid and fussily composed – an ugly streak of red, blue and yellow terminate in a smudge of black. But in it we detect the desire behind Lichtenstein’s innovative aesthetic achievements: it’s too bold and too vibrant.

Awful: Untitled, 1959

Awful: Untitled, 1959

It was in 1961 when Lichtenstein found his signature style of mimicking comic book images. By using a method of painting through a perforated metal sheet with a toothbrush, Lichtenstein could finally achieve what his scrappy abstractions failed to do: render bright, bold primaries together on the picture plane. This is no mean feat. His older contemporary Barnett Newman made an entire series of paintings entitled “Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue?” But it was Lichtenstein, working in comic-book style, who had already emblazoned enormous canvases with unvariegated swathes of primaries licked with black outlines against his mechanical dots. The first room introduces us to Lichtenstein by way of the large primary-coloured “abstracts” that parodied the abstract expressionism that he once practised himself. But rather than coming across as a dry exercise, these show off Lichtenstein as a bold and innovative colourist.

Bold: Little Big Painting, 1965

Bold: Little Big Painting, 1965

It’s a nice surprise then, to enter an entirely monochrome third room. In here we find the first signs of the playful Lichtenstein: reproducing a gigantic cover of a compositions book, enlarging his dots under a painted magnifying glass. There’s also a picture of a portable radio that has a real strap attached to it. Alka Seltzer, 1966, embodies Lichtenstein at its best. The glass occupies the centre of a uniformly dotted surface making the composition almost symmetrical. The effervescent tablet dives to the bottom of the glass, leaving a wake of curling stream-lines and bubbles. It’s a picture of contradictions: dynamic yet flat and static, strongly evocative yet lifeless. But as with all of the oeuvre, it is, above all else, light. The tablet will fizz to nothing. It’s a banal thing yet Lichtenstein’s talent lies in his unwavering ability to make the banal compelling, to keep things rigorously breezy.

Alka Seltzer, 1966

Alka Seltzer, 1966

His breakthrough painting, Look Mickey, 1961, is as light as it gets and its themes run through the painter’s career: it conflates high and low culture, it contains text, it’s a joke about seeing and not-seeing and it is, of course, painted entirely in red, yellow and blue. Among the early paintings are a series of curiously monumental images copied from advertisements in which the manicured Caucasian hands of suburban housewives sponge away dirt and spray an aerosol can. A hinged diptych, Step-on Can with Leg, 1961, shows a slender leg – with bowed stiletto and smart gingham skirt – daintily operating a trash can.

A breakthrough: Look Mickey, 1960

A breakthrough: Look Mickey, 1960

The pictures lifted from war and melodrama comics, the work that he’s most famous for, take up a large central room and are backed up with studies and the original comic books. Here we see Lichtenstein at the height of his powers, his technique fully honed. If you look at them long enough the parts disintegrate into abstraction with their bold black lines and flat swathes of vibrant colour. The text – in yellow boxes or oval speech bubbles – serves to pin things together.

The show brings out the innovator in Lichtenstein. Some of his lesser-known works prophesied the big ideas that came in his wake. His parodies of modern masters anticipates the postmodernists of the 1980s, his advertisements and pristine brass sculptures which appropriate the language of art deco interior fittings came almost 20 years before Jeff Koons and his paintings of brushstrokes evoke Gerhard Richter’s later paintings of paintings. You come out of the show feeling that Lichtenstein doesn’t get as much art historical credit as he should. The lesser-known works of the Modern series are startling for their originality and prescience.Modern Sculpture with Velvet Rope, 1968, a two-part sculpture with deco curves and real velvet rope is both witty and elegant.

Lichtenstein’s powers falter, however, when he begins to parody himself and this occurs more frequently after 1968. His works become stylised and knowing, the spots take centre stage. Even his parodies of other artists become too self-conscious. Mechanical hatching and differing densities of dots become new textures in his visual language. Expressionist brushwork also creeps back with mixed results. You wonder if Lichtenstein painted himself into a corner with his technique as he attempts to break out of the restrictions he set for himself.

A monumental Laocoön, 1988, feels like a battle between the abstractionist and the illustrator: thick, spontaneous brushstrokes writhe beside regimented lines, spots and flat pools of black. It just about works, but the later Chinese Landscapes, with their timid free-brushed mists and spindly foliage, fail to touch the exuberance of his comic book and advert images. In one picture, Landscape with a Boat, 1996, a tiny figure at the margin punts a little boat facing a vast vista of black dots. You can’t help but identify that little man with Lichtenstein himself, dwarfed by the motif that has become synonymous with his name.

Sensory investigations into the power of light

CARLOS CRUZ-DIEZ Chromosaturation 1965-2013

Carlos Cruz-Diez, Chromosaturation, 1965-2013

Originally published on on 29 January 2013

I also spoke about Light Show on The Review on Monocle 24 Radio, you can listen to the show here.

Central to this thoughtful show is not really the use of light in art per se but how light appropriately serves a post-minimalist shift from the work of art to the environment itself. For the most part, the works here endeavour to shape the space around us or invoke a response on a physiological level.

The lower gallery’s main room is dominated by Cerith Wyn-Evans’s S=U=P=E=R=S=T=R=U=C=T=U=R=E (“Trace me back to some loud, shallow, chill, underlying motives overspil…”), 2010, made up of floor-to-ceiling columns of incandescent lights which “breathe” by slowly glowing bright and dimming, raising and lowering the light of the entire space. The effect is beautiful in combination with viewing Leo Villareal’s Cylinder II, 2012, in which random patterns rise and cascade in hanging sci-fi-like LED lights. Unlike Villareal’s silent fountain of light, Wyn-Evans’ filaments hum, vibrate and heat up in their delicate tubes. There’s a transformational difference between seeing these lights from afar and close-up, the ethereal gives way to the material in a few steps.

Light Show at Hayward Gallery, London. Photo by Linda Nylind. 27/1/2013.

Light Show at Hayward Gallery, London.

All light, of course, has its material basis, and the oscillation between material and immaterial is a running theme. This is perhaps most obviously sign-posted in the first room of the show by David Batchelor’s Magic Hour, 2004/7, which exposes the arse-end of a stack of light boxes with power cables that hang loose and coil thickly on the floor. The boxes are haloed by the gaudy pinks and yellows it projects against the adjacent pristine wall. Batchelor’s use of light takes optically-focused modernist aesthetics as far as it can possibly go; as far as the other side of the mobius strip into the psychic junk – or poetry – of the viewers’ mental associations. It’s a fun place to be but perhaps the irony is a little too academic. Magic Hour thankfully feels like a good fit here given its physical bulk. It more than matches the challenge of the wide-open first room which too often overwhelms its contents.

Physical also are the bodies that perceive light, and our senses are limited. “Visible reality is only a crumb of what’s really out there,” Conrad Shawcross writes. But while his Slow Arc Inside a Cube, 2011, spells this out with its shadow play (and you need to read an anecdote about the work to get his idea), Carlos Cruz-Diez successfully demonstrates it with his Chromosaturation, 2010, an environment comprising of monochrome-lit rooms of red, green and blue which dazzles the eyes as you move through the spaces: you become acutely aware of the limitations of your senses; your very physicality, even.

Iván Navarro, Reality Show (Silver), 2010

Iván Navarro, Reality Show (Silver), 2010

There is a conundrum at the heart of this show, striking a balancing act between mere perceptual play and serious aesthetic exploration. Many of the works teeter into the space of theatricality, such as Olafur Eliasson’s Model for a Timeless Garden, 2011, which uses the trickery of strobe-lighting to give the effect of crystallizing water in mid-air. It is, of course, fascinating to watch but I wonder where this work really takes us. On the lighter side we also have Ann Veronica Janssens’s Rose, 2007, an environment of pink light and fake mist, the entrance of which is topped by Philippe Parreno’s neon and Perspex Marquee, 2008. These nods to Pop’s influence are cursory and perhaps superfluous as they really jar with the interesting themes of the show. Those themes are of course embodied more or less in included works by two principal ground-breakers: Dan Flavin (material) and James Turrell (perception), but the omission of Bruce Nauman is surprising.

The curatorial coup here is anchoring these sensory investigations into the deep, dark waters of power. The inclusion of Ivan Navarro’s Reality Box (Silver), 2010, a phone box-like structure that feels like a torture chamber out of the pages of 1984, opens up questions about the punitive use of sensory disorientation, the deliberate unravelling of our senses to erode or extinguish our sense of self. Navarro’s experience of Pinochet’s Chile lingers in his unsettling work –  we disappear to ourselves in his mise en abyme chamber while remaining fully visible to others.

Also tackling torture and power is Jenny Holzer’s Monument, 2008, a tall stack of LED displays which relays declassified statements from the war on terror like a sinister stock exchange ticker. Its column-like form gives its technology a monolithic weight and intensity which melds with the ticker’s authoritative power as pure and indifferent information. It strobes manically and scrolls a little too fast for us to keep track of the information that it darkly relays. These last two works cast a shadow over the other works like a twist in a novel, and this exhibition would not be as interesting without them. You suddenly feel unsure in your relationship not just with the environment around you, but the world itself.

Unsilent Night: The Adoration of the Magi by Rubens

Peter Paul Rubens - The Adoration of the Magi

Peter Paul Rubens, The Adoration of the Magi 

Originally published on 20 December 2012 as part of the Yuletide Scenes series

Rubens’s gigantic masterpiece loudly contradicts the folkloric silent night. This typically muscular painting is deafening in its depiction of the commotion around the holy family when the Magi arrive to offer gifts to the divine king of Christian belief. The enormous entourage of camels, braying donkeys, war horses, servants and soldiers, richly ornamented in oriental colour and clothing, pile up in a decrescendo behind the composition’s quiet, even vacuous, centre of gravity: a tender moment as one of the Magi (perhaps Caspar) lifts the lid on his gift of gold coins which the infant Jesus delicately touches. In the characteristic theatricality of the baroque style, you can almost hear the quiet chink of the gold coins amid the cacophony surrounding the serenity of the holy family and the reverent Magi.

Originally painted for the Antwerp Town Hall in 1609 to commemorate a truce between Spain (at its imperial height) and the Netherlands, the original painting was given over to the Spanish in 1621 perhaps to win favour for Antwerp as aggression still loomed. When Rubens joined the Spanish court in 1628, he expanded the size of the canvas and reworked the painting while still under the stylistic influence of Titian. With its wedge-like composition and writhing figures clad in drapery, there’s more than a passing resemblance between this painting and, say, Titian’s Bacchus and Ariadne which hangs in our own National Gallery. Rubens added a self portrait on the far right and increased the height of the canvas to include the flying putti and the inclined camel’s head which pushes our eye back across the action toward the infant Jesus.

It’s a painting which underscores the political power in Christian art, particularly at its height in the post-reformation baroque period, during which painted and sculpted Christian allegories were wielded as increasingly theatrical weapons of influence and persuasion as kingdoms competed for the souls of their subjects. One of a series of Adorations by Rubens, who was an emissary for the Spanish Court, the message here is that all earthly kingdoms, in their racial and regional diversity, must submit to God and, by extension, the Roman Catholic Church.

Goya, Witches and Reason

Goya, Witches in Flight, 1798

Goya, Witches in Flight, 1798

Partially naked warlocks wearing coned hats levitate in the night sky clutching a naked man struggling against them, two appear to be biting him. Immediately below them a man with his head covered in a blanket stumbles forward with his arms out, he holds his thumbs in his clenched fingers in a gesture of figo – the warding away of evil. From the darkness to the right, a donkey stares forward uncomprehending and unfazed while on the left another man lies face down clutching his ears.

It’s a mysterious painting, and little is known of what Goya intended of the darker images he painted as he grew weary of the Spanish establishment from the late eighteenth century. Goya had a serious illness in the 1790s that left him deaf and withdrawn, he continued to paint for the Spanish court but also began a huge body of experimental work that was kept largely private, including Witches in Flight. At the same time, his privately expressed liberal and rationalist views increasingly alienated him from the Spanish establishment, culminating in his self-imposed exile in the 1820s.

The ironic reading of this painting is that Goya wasn’t attacking witchcraft, rather the opposite: he was attacking the organised religious authorities that mutually buttressed the ruling classes. Intermittently from the Inquisition onward, authorities exploited hear-say and hysteria among the lower orders of society around the practices of witchcraft (most notably during the Basque Witch Trails which implicated thousands). Maintaining a sense of fear of the occult guarantees it’s opposite: hope in the power of the church and faith in God.

While the meaning of the painting is a matter of speculation, I’m inclined to buy into the ironic reading. I’m inclined to do so not just because of circumstantial evidence, but more importantly because of the way the painting was produced: its composition and formal elements. Form and content, you see, are not mutually oblivious.

The various elements surrounding the central action suggests that this picture is allegorical, as does the sparse backdrop: the sky is pure blackness, there is no register of air: no clouds of any kind, no horizon, not even tree canopies to imply atmospheric movement. Only the clothing of the men holds the implied movement of their sudden ascent. The picture has space without environment. Only an arid ground serves as stage here for these four principal elements that are not necessarily connected. The man escaping is blinded while warding away evil that he couldn’t possibly see, the other man cover his ears, to muffle the screams? But he too cannot see what is taking place. Could it be that the air-borne victim is the spiritual doppelgänger of these terrified or insane men?

Supporting this reading are interpretations of Goya’s later Black Paintings. Some, including Saturn Devouring his Son (1820-23), and A Fight to the Death (1820-23), are highly allegorical or reflective. They are read as a commentary not only on the ageing Goya’s mental state but also on the fate of the Spanish nation from which he was exiled to France.

The Great He-Goat (Witches Sabbath)

Goya, The Great He-Goat, 1820-23

Included among them is a return to the theme of Satanism, The Great He-Goat (1820-23). Here witches sit in the presence of the devil in the form of a goat. These distorted faces betray the horrific vision before them while an isolated and veiled woman to the right of the group, possibly an initiate, sits still. The witches may well be hallucinating (various potions and brews were often drunk during these ceremonies), but the tables are turned here: the devil is clearly defined in silhouette while the coven of Satanists are distorted, they are, in other words, a synthesis of the manifestation of their inner state with the outward appearance. For us, there’s something dreadful not in the appearance of the goat, but rather the people themselves who appear to be less than human, abjectly obedient and drunk on superstition.

In the context of the Black Paintings, The Great He-Goat is seen as a horrific satire of the slide into superstition of Spanish spiritual life. In the aftermath of the French retreat from the Iberian peninsula intellectuals and scientists were persecuted by the church, and tales of witchcraft multiplied as Spanish royalists snatched power back in the vacuum that Napoleon left. Could The Witches Flight be a precursor to late Goya’s ambivalence to church and state? Were the seeds of Goya’s private dissent already sown? No one knows for sure, but I hope my formal analysis of the painting goes some way to suggesting that this is the case.