Saturday, August 16, 2008

Rezi van Lankveld - works on paper

It is now so common for painting to be described as being 'between abstraction and figuration' that this ambiguous space surely deserves a more formal title. So easily is the term used to describe anything lacking concrete definition that very few works categorised as such can actually claim to hold and explore this space in a way that is truly engaging and exciting.

Rezi van Lankveld's work is a welcome exception. The Dutch artist emerged last year as a Future Great in ArtReview magazine for her swirling paintings on wood panels, where the milky paint pooled into intriguing images that seemed half-imagined.

At the Approach's West End space, Lankveld is showing small new works on paper. Despite the shift in surface, the technique and the ambiguity endures, and Lankveld achieves a new plane of intimate intensity. She pours a mixture of watercolour, acrylic and gouache onto the surface and draws into these cloudy, slippery pools of muted colour (usually dark grey) until forms come into being. Suggestions of faces (on the brink of dissolving entirely into the surrounding morass), bodies (many of them nude, some in salacious positions) and animals (there's a duck as clear as day) emerge like apparitions from the murk.

Far from asserting the figurative aspects of the forms that arise, van Lankveld's intuitive process appears to lead the image astray, and any clearly discernable figurative motifs are absorbed into abstraction elsewhere in the canvas. The paintings hardly look dry. Anything could slide out of position and change irrevocably in a moment. The corollary of this feeling is that we have here very carefully selected, delicate and precious freeze frames, where the paint momentarily washed into an image with just enough cohesion.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Daniel Richter stage set

Daniel Richter created the spectacular stage set for Béla Bartók's opera "Herzog Blaubarts Burg". The premiere took place on Wednesday the 6th of August 2008 at the Salzburger Festival.

landscapes by Egon Schiele

Echoing claims made for the show of landscapes by Gustav Klimt at the Osterreichische Galerie Belvedere, Vienna, the case for the survey of landscapes by Egon Schiele at the same city's Leopold Museum insists on the high proportion of the artist's output falling within this category and on earlier commentators' relative, and paradoxical, indifference to it. Both assertions prove better justified in the case of Schiele. Over sixty per cent of the paintings in Jane Kallir's Schiele catalogue raisonne of 1990/98 are defined as 'landscapes'; yet this contribution to the genre has only recently become the subject of a monograph--Kimberly A. Smith's wide-ranging study Between Ruin and Renewal: Egon Schiele's Landscapes--and is only now the focus of an exhibition.

Although this is also the first show to be devoted to Schiele at the Leopold Museum, the private collection of Rudolf Leopold on which this institution is based has long been known for its extensive Schiele holdings. As underlined by the high proportion of items from that collection to be found within the current temporary display--eighteen out of fifty-one paintings on canvas, wood or cardboard and thirteen out of twenty-nine works on paper--varieties of landscape constitute one of its great strengths, with the most outstanding pictures clearly able to hold their own with its major figure paintings by Schiele, such as Hermits of 1912, the large allegorical self-portrait with Klimt. Leopold has, of course, done rather more than 'merely' acquire a good many Schiele landscapes. Of around fifty works newly identified in the catalogue of paintings incorporated within his Schiele monograph of 1972 (not included, that is to say, in the 1930 and 1966 catalogues published by Otto Kallir-Nirenstein) most are classifiable as landscapes, notably of the early years (1906-10).

That monograph may also be said to have pioneered the topographical approach to the study of Schiele's many paintings of his mother's birthplace, the small southern Bohemian town of Krumau (now Cesky Krumlov, Czech Republic). And the fruits of this research are now made more vividly accessible to a new generation through the design and layout of the opening section of the exhibition, which seems in part to reflect the clearer topographical exposition of Franz Wischin's 1994 volume on Schiele and Krumau. The conclusions reached in 1972 regarding Schiele's other landscapes, notably his remarkable trees, gathered in the second section of the show, are likewise assumed to have stood the test of time, being restated, sometimes word for word, in the relevant entries in the catalogue.

One of the earliest forerunners of Rudolf Leopold as a keen collector of landscapes by Schiele--the Viennese critic Arthur Roessler, who served as the artist's early champion, tireless mentor, informal 'agent' and influential biographer (the relationship was recently the subject of a path-breaking exhibition at the Wien Museum)--was also one of the first to explain his attraction to this aspect of the oeuvre. Roessler's misgivings about Schiele as a figure painter partially adumbrate those often implicit in the now familiar observations of scholars on the self-consciously 'performative', rather than directly revelatory, character of so many of the figural works. Reviewing the Schiele exhibition held at the Galerie Arnot in the winter of 1914-15, Roessler wrote that 'landscapes such as the one entitled Setting sun' (a complex, lyrical 'treescape', acquired by him in 1913 and sold on to Leopold forty years later) 'and some of the pictures of "old towns" evince such purity and tenderness of emotion and are so melodious in their appeal that one readily prefers them to the ecstatic figural images, which seem to have issued from the painful shuddering of a soul racked by convulsions.' And it was, he implied, precisely because the landscape subjects were essentially 'found', rather than 'staged', that Schiele was able to reveal more of himself through them.

In the largely thematic grouping of the current display (which also informs the internal arrangement of section three, reserved for works on paper) it is as much the reiteration as the development of the favoured motifs that hints at their depth of meaning for Schiele. Autumn tree in turbulent air of 1912, reproduced on the previous page, mediates between the earlier single subjects--the gaunt Sunflower of 1909-10 or the 'dancing' Small tree in late Autumn of 1911--and the subsequent group compositions that culminate in the Four trees of 1917, stiffly aligned against a striated reddish sky. As has frequently been remarked, the picture of 1912 tends to strike the modernist eye as almost 'abstract', and then to suggest an allegory of spiritual torment. But it is informed, if not entirely explained, by a blend of alert observation and affectionate regard for popular tradition. The flailing branches seem at first as if torn free on account of the quasi-invisibility of a trunk coated in lime; the bright patches around several of the few remaining leaves acknowledge the phenomenon known in meteorological lore as a sign of imminent snow and the undulations of the dark ribbon of distant hills is easily read as code for the environs of Vienna.

The 1915 painting of Krumau, by contrast, represents one of the last stages in Schiele's evolving response to this locality, which the exhibition traces from the haunting, nocturnal 'snapshots' of the shabbily venerable facade of its town hall and the first bird's-eye views of the huddled dwellings of the 'Town on the Blue River' series (all of 1910-11) to the more expansive vistas with stately rows of buildings fronting the Moldau (1912-14). Compositionally exuberant and chromatically exquisite, the three 'Crescent of Houses' paintings, above all that illustrated here, are an affirmation of Schiele's vision of the urban reconciled with the rural, of the man-made as a manifestation of the organic. More specifically (as argued by Smith in the strongest chapter of her volume), the mottled, wayward roofs and walls of this concentrate of Krumau attest to Schiele's faith in what he and many Austro-German contemporaries identified as its enduringly 'Gothic' character.

Hamburger Kunsthalle presents Mark Rothko.

The American painter Mark Rothko (1903-1970) is one of the most important representatives of Abstract Expressionism. Twenty years after the last retrospective in a German museum this show at the Hamburger Kunsthalle offers a unique opportunity to discover his outstanding oeuvre anew. In the face of the most recent developments on the art market, where prices for Rothko’s paintings have skyrocketed and considering the high sensitivity of the colour surface of his pictures and the challenging issues of conservation, the realisation of this exhibition marks a very special effort and a great responsibility to both the lenders and their works.

A comparable opportunity to see Rothko’s oeuvre in this concentration and quality will not arise in Europe for a long time to come. The exhibition comprises more than 110 works including more than 70 oil paintings on canvas and more than 40 works on paper. It presents works from all phases of Rothko’s career and allows the immediate experience of their intriguing and mysterious aura which no reproduction is able to capture. More than two thirds of the paintings come from the USA and the majority of these have never before been shown in Germany.

After his early interest in Surrealism, Rothko completely turned towards abstraction around 1946. In his multiforms, multiply-layered, freely composed, varying shapes of colour, he devoted all attention to the interaction of colour and shape in both the contrasts and harmonies resulting from their combination. In the later phase for which he is best known, Rothko most often arranged three horizontal, coloured rectangles with slightly blurring edges above one another. Like no artist before him did he foreground the expressive potential of colour alone – liberated from all narrative or figural elements – and in this way created paintings of high emotional intensity. Rothko himself said that his work was about the expression of the most fundamental human emotions with the means of colour.

“I’m not an abstractionist. I’m not interested in the relationship of colour or form or anything else. I’m interested only in expressing basic human emotions: tragedy, ecstasy, doom, and so on … The fact that people break down and cry when confronted with my pictures shows that I can communicate those basic human emotions … the people who weep before my pictures are having the same religious experience I had when painting them.”

Seen in a surrounding of dimmed lighting and viewed from a close distance, these paintings unfold their overwhelming power and their capacity to dissolve all borders. As the exhibition reveals, the glowing, intensely coloured and highly emotional paintings have lost nothing of their fascination and immense power of attraction.

The Retrospective presents the paintings of the American painter within an unusual context. Two historical precursors mark the poles between which Rothko struggles for his abstract visual language: On one side there is the Romantic European legacy of Caspar David Friedrich. In his landscapes the viewers (their place in the paintings taken over by the figures shown from the back) are drawn into the revelation of a space of personal emotion and reflection very much comparable to Rothko’s paintings.
On the other side there is painting as practiced by Pierre Bonnard, the famous modern French painter of the Nabis School, whose works are flooded by the sensuous colours and bright light of the Mediterranean and who took part in modernity’s effort to liberate colour from its representational function and to foreground, instead, its presence and radiance within the artwork. The paintings by Bonnard selected for this exhibition clearly show how Rothko, who had seen Bonnard’s pictures in New York, picked up the special quality of Mediterranean painting in his colour field painting.

The exhibition closes with a perspective on the traditions relevant for contemporary American art and shows the late Black and Gray paintings which give an idea of the bewilderment and despair that Rothko sensed late in his life.

Monday, August 04, 2008

Wolfgang Tillmans

Wolfgang Tillmans has scoured his archive to prepare his retrospective exhibition at Tate Britain. Jeremy Millar surveys the photoscape of this Turner Prizewinning artist.

The sun is bright in Wolfgang Tillmans' studio, warming and expansive. Outside, a commuter train sends arcs of light across the roofs of the sur rounding industrial landscape as it shakes its way on to the City of London. I am here to look through the artist's working copy of his new book, if one thing matters, everything matters, which will be published this summer to coincide with his exhibition at Tate Britain.

In making this book, Tillmans has revisited every film he has ever exposed, every work he has ever made, compiling more tha 2,300 pictures and placing them into a strict grid. Their ordering is ostensibly chronological, but based upon two systems: the year in which the photograph was taken, and then, within each year, the order in which the photographs became 'works'. Some pictures took time to be accepted by Tillmans in this way and thus occur out of the sequence of their taking. There is a general sense of an historical flow, but readers are likely to swirl through eddies of time and find themselves moving back upstream on occasion. Each image is held within a six-centimetre square; each matters as much as any other, no more, no less. The uniformity of the layout emphasises the extraordinary diversity of the pictures: portraits of friends and intimate revelations of great tenderness to experiments with abstract forms, tendrils of light curling around the blank paper or across empty landscapes.

There is so much here in this book, and so much that is different, that it might be difficult, at first, to see how it all comes together, how to make sense of it. I look up and around Tillmans' studio. Exotic flowers are casually arranged in mineral water bottles, although the water they stand in came from the tap. There is something appropriate about them here, something recognisable from the photographs in front of me - the beautiful found within the make-piece and sustained by the most ordinary.


All photographs are of light, are made by light, although not all are about light. Not all of Tillmans' photographs are about light either, or about it solely, but looking at a collection of them one gains a sense of its immense importance for him. It is not simply a technical necessity, or a formal device, but rather suggests a transformative process that is fundamental to photography, where the world around us seems to glow with meaning. Indeed, while looking at a photograph such as Shaker Rainbow (1998) one might ask whether light has meaning of itself. Here we see a beautiful white timber-clad house, caught in the thickened late-afternoon haze. Its symmetrical faade is mottled by the shadows of trees that stretch into the frame on the right. Two overhead cables slice acutely through the picture while, arching from the top-left corner towards the bottom-right, is a rainbow, its graceful curve ar rested by its meeting the gable of the building just behind. The sky is darker above the rainbow, as though the building is caught within a bubble of light.

The photograph was taken by Tillmans at a Shaker community in Sabbathday Lake, Maine, during an artist's residency in 1998. It has the casual beauty of much of his work - indeed, beauty is something that does not seem to trouble him and consequently he has little trouble finding it - and might in some way be seen as emblematic of his relationship to the world, the miracle in the backyard, the everyday sublime. Tillmans has photographed the Shaker community several times now, returning to them as he has with other forms of community. Indeed, it is a community that - for all their differences - shares a great deal with those whom we might more readily associate Tillmans with, the groups of musicians and clubbers who come together in New York, London or Berlin. As Dan Graham relates in his classic video work, Rock my Religion (1984-85), the Shakers were founded by Ann Lee, an illiterate blacksmith's daughter from Manchester, following a revelation that she had experienced in a trance 'produced by the rhythmic recitation of biblical phrases'. Believing herself to be the female incarnation of God - Christ having been the male incarnation - she decided to create a utopian commune in America, leaving for the country in 1774. Here, the familiar nuclear family was replaced by one of co-equal Brothers and Sisters as the 'Bible showed heterosexual marriage to be the unnatural result of Adam's sin'. Each Sunday, the Shakers would meet to perform the Circle Dance, in which lines of men and women would form four concentric, moving circles. They marched, chanting, stomping their feet, shaking their bodies, clapping, jumping. Some removed their clothes. They would reel as a group together, each individual freed from their own sin within a form of collective redemption.

Although the Shaker movement is close to disappearing, its rituals continue within our contemporary societies, albeit in new forms Just as within the groups of chanting Shakers the saved would 'reel and rock' so, more than a century and a half later, the crowd would lose itself in 'rock 'n' roll', a form of self-empowerment generated by the individual's subsumption within a group. This is obviously of great interest for Tillmans; not simply the representation of shared experience, important though this is, but the forms of individual transcendence that only become possible through the experience of ecstasy.

'It can be spiritual,' he explains. 'That's one of the strongest points of it: this idea of melting into one. Paradise is maybe when you dissolve your ego - a loss of self, being in a bundle of other bodies. It's really the most regressive state you can be in on Earth. The other way to it is sex. Neither of the two is ideal as a permanent model for living. Clubbing and sex have great potential to go stale and become boring and repetitive.'


One sees throughout Tillmans' work a longing that moves between engagement and retreat, a fascination for the crowd and all that comes from a shared experience, the 'sensuous community', but also those things which reveal themselves only when we find ourselves alone. These are the moments of reflection upon what has come before, an attempt, perhaps, to re-establish the sense of self that had previously been dissolved.

During the summer of 1997, the late American filmmaker Stan Brakhage bought a Bolex camera to replace the one he had worn out. It was not long after this that, passing Boulder Creek near his home in Colorado, he decided to test out the camera and, attaching some extension tubes he had been carrying since his father had bought him his first camera over 30 years previously, he began to film the stream. He did not film the surface of the water, however, but rather below it, that which bubbled underneath, not immediately apparent but important and real nonetheless. He had just discovered that he may have developed bladder cancer. The film which followed, Commingled Containers, featuring these underwater shots with sequences of bluepainted celluloid, was completed between his learning that the growth was cancerous and the removal of the bladder and subsequent chemotherapy treatment. The critic Scott MacDonald has written of Brakhage's film: 'The imagery of the bubbles is both ineffably beautiful and suggestive of the spiritual dimension of human life that lies just under the surface of everyday experience.' One might say much the same about Tillmans' work. Coincidentally, 1997 was marked by illness for Tillmans also. The day after the opening of his solo exhibition at Chisenhale Gallery in London, entitled 'I didn't inhale', his partner, the artist Jochen Klein, fell ill with Aids-related pneumonia and did not recover. He died a month later. These events are, of course, unrelated, but they do share that sense of tragedy that trickles and stains the everyday.

Perhaps it is this spiritual dimension lying just beneath the surface which brings together the many diverse elements of Tillmans' work, and which can be seen in his most recent ieces, such as Icestorm (2001), which contain abstract shapes floating within a representational landscape. In another recent work, Quarry II (2001), a faint red trickle seems to run down in front of trees that stand before the rock face, a distinct artistic intervention upon an otherwise realistic scene. Yet, as the artist pointed out, one does not interpret the light green forms at the top of the picture abstractly, but rather as leaves which have fallen out of focus. In this context, perhaps we might see Shaker Rainbow as a precursor to these later works, where dramatic optical effects transform their surroundings, although in ways that might not be so easily understood. Light has a meaning here, certainly, as its absence does elsewhere in numerous photographs taken during a solar eclipse. It suggests a way of looking at the world, a way of looking that Tillmans has developed with remarkable sensitivity, and an awareness that the most powerful abstractions - life, death, love, fear, despair and happiness - are the most real of all, and can only be found within our own everyday.