Das war der Seelen wunderliches Bergwerk
I’ve been dancing in drifting fields of visual art. It’s a bumper season for great exhibitions in London this autumn. For years I found that whole ‘painting’ thing a bit pointless, now it’s the thing that gets to me most viscerally, circumventing my pea brain and going straight to my big vegetative heart.
Six days after I came back from Bahia, glowing from my adventures with ayahuasca, I went with my friend Nikki to the new Charles Saatchi clutch of young artists, this time from the US. I often have a sinking feeling going round modern art galleries – especially the explicitly fashionable ones – but this one suprised me. It was a evening viewing which always adds a smidgeon of glamour. And there were no guards breathing down our necks. Which meant we could get really close to the art and peer.
I love to peer. Often I’m happier looking at the surface of the painting than the whole thing. There was a wonderful, brightly coloured set of big canvases by Kristin Baker. It was made of layer of luminous acrylic colour laid on through a stencil. You could almost imagine the artist’s satisfaction pulling off the mask and revealing the crisp edges of the colour beneath. I became slightly obsessed with those thick lurid patches of colour. It was only later that I noticed that the whole picture was of a Formula One car crashing.
In the same room there was a work with chocolate (white, milk and plain) used as paint and we all got close enough to sniff. The smell of different coloured cocoa only intensified the subject matter of the photo underneath – a black guy being mauled in a Civil Rights movement march.
Usually there’s one thing at any gallery that I love and that rather exhausts my pool of delight. I stand infront of it for ages and then go home. Here I was washed away by several pieces. There was the colossal red swoosh of Barnaby Furnas’ Flood (Red Sea). On a A4 sheet you could imagine the aritsts brush swishing the red sediment across the page but on a 8m x 3m canvas it was slightly scary to imagine the sluicing that created the art. As if the same God-sized power that scours the earth in massive floods or tsunamis was at play. Standing too close I began to feel light-headed and just a tiny bit scared.
All the pieces were so beautifully finished. Many of them must have taken months to fabricate. There seems to be a return to the carefully made, the artifice of art, that I like. There was a lot less ‘message’ and a whole lot of artistry.
Another piece that really caught me up in its webs was the poster wall of Matthew Day Jackson. I don’t know whether this was because I was feeling very mythic after Brazil, but his strange incantations of Mount Rushmore, Egypt, Washington, 19th Century Waco, Texas, needlepoint and the Christian Right seemed simultaneously hypnotic and horrid.
But USA Today was just the beginning. In the following week, I went to see the Fischli Weiss exhibit at the Tate Modern, the Modern European Photographers at the Barbican and the David Hockney at the National Portrait Gallery.
Fischli and Weiss are kooky Swiss artist who are most famous for their funny chain-reaction video from the 80s, the Way Things Go. In a battered looking artist’s studio a comic chain of tyres knocking bottles lighting candles bursting balloons knocking planks rolling tyres rolls on for almost 20 minutes. It’s boy’s own stuff. The simple pleasure of one thing causing another.
But the nice thing about Fischli and Weiss is that they NEVER repeat themselves. If you took one project and then looked at the next you’d never make the connection. After all that lo-fi Great Egg Race stuff, they then did an exquisite series of double exposed flowers which for some reason made me a bit weepy. Then they were making cartoons with Bratwurst and then a room of unfired clay comics. And finally a artist studio – all chaotic papers, pizza boxes, tyres and cigarette packets – but entirely recreated in polyurethane plastic.
Whatever I thought about them, I loved their perversity and their Damn It, I WILL DO IT THIS WAY attitude.
I picked that up too in David Hockney’s book The Way I See Things which I read a couple of months ago. He came across as so magnetically likeable and honest and he was completely uncompromising in doing what he wanted. He never apologised for his sexuality at a time when plenty of people did and he never painted what other people wanted – only what he loved. That attitude has really inspired me this year. Doing what you want, not what other people expect.
Some of the pictures in the Hockney Portrait exhibition were a bit rubbish. If an art student had done them they’d have been chucked out of class. Some of them were dizzying. I like an artist or a filmmaker or anyone who’s prepared to be rubbish. That’s why I like Robert Altman even when his films are terrible. He’s willing to do something different even if it doesn’t work. Hockney is unapologetic about whether people like what he does. Most important for him is the doing.
There is one stunning photo montage portrait of his mother at Bolton Abbey which made me and my mum a bit teary again. And I was really impressed by some of those totally over-exposed canvases (like Mr and Mrs Clarke and Percy) which look really good close-up. But you trust he’s a genial artist when you see those effortlessly beautiful crayon portraits where most of the colour goes on a piece of clothing or an arm. It made me want to get my sketchpad out and just draw lines. Look at people and draw them. There’s no better way of getting to know people. How is it that Mr and Mrs. Hockney’s feet are so moving? How many hours of looking does it take to notice the things that make the people we love loveable?
Finally, with my poor mother’s feet almost bleeding, we went to the Barbican to see the great retrospective of European 20th Century Photographers. Starting with spectral Paris of Eugene Atget in 1901 it moves through Brassai, Witkacy, Doisneau, into some wonderful Scandinavian, East European and Russians.
Doisneau’s handsome resistance fighter stayed with me as did the amazing picture of a group of friends dancing, arms out, along the back gardens of a Parisian terrace of houses. The childrenof the Lodz ghetto photographed by the Pole Henryk Ross were a slap in the face. But the photographer who stuck with me most was Boris Mikhailov. I’d seen some of his really disturbing pictures from post-Glasnost Ukraine: drunks and addicts in their 60s, with mutilated bodies and alcohol ravaged faces. But the series here, “Red” was wonderful. Full of wonders: filmed in the 1960s when photography was banned in Ukraine and colour film was incredibly expensive, Mikhailov collects wonderful images of life back then, each one carrying at least a splash of red. There was a red scarf wrapped around a post in a corn field which also, inexplicably, moved me to tears.
I love seeing pictures taken behind the Iron Curtain while I was a child growing up in Hampshire. The idea of a parallel world is very potent to me. That farms were being tended and scarfs lost in the Ukraine while I was playing by the beach on the Solent.
It’s such a personal thing. But the lovely thing with all this visual art is that it forbids any one response. You can’t reduce a picture or a colour to anything else other than itself. And what we love, we love for our own reasons. Basta.