Das war der Seelen wunderliches Bergwerk

Since I came back from Brazil 3 weeks ago, it’s been a cascade of art.

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.

12 Comments

  1. Michael

    November 4, 2006 at 10:23 pm

    A,
    I work as an educator in a museum. After I read your most resent entry your art comments brought a smile to my face. You are every museum’s dream. I so enjoyed how your comments about the various pieces you viewed. Most museum visitors spend no more then 3-4 seconds in front of a piece and rarely give an image a second thought, at least that is the case in America.
    It was refreshing to read your responses to the pieces that moved you. I experience the same when a piece grabs me. You also couldn’t be more right with your entries conclusion. I think the best part is that art has this incredible ability to grab everyone, young and old. No matter whether a perosn likes a piece or not the piece has the wonderous ability to make us smile, get angry or cry. What a treat!
    Thanks for sharing the beauty. Reading your blog is always a delight.
    m

  2. Anonymous

    November 5, 2006 at 8:52 pm

    Thank you for the lovely photos, lovely insights and lovely
    blog.

    I discovered you on “Cash in the Attic” at BBC America and
    enjoyed watching it in a very large part due to your wit
    and good looks. This blog is a wonderful gift.

    Please keep it up.

    I know you have left CITA. Any new shows we can look
    forward to from you on BBC America?

  3. Rick

    November 5, 2006 at 11:07 pm

    Alistair,
    Always a delight to look around your website!
    As a visual artist myself, I found this particular
    essay wonderful to read. Also, after discovering
    your website earlier this year, I was inspired to
    take up meditation. Just wanted to say thank you
    for touching my life & helping me to make a
    positive change in it!
    Rick

  4. loria

    November 10, 2006 at 6:09 am

    I admit, Alistair, I came to your site after poking a bit around the bbc websites and finding you had your very own space. However, I was not quite prepared for everything I’ve found here.

    I just wanted to say – the photography is beautiful, and the spirituality is touching in ways I never thought before. My boyfriend grew up in Thailand and we attend services at a local Theravedan Forest Monastery now. It has brought a breath of fresh air and a wonderful sense of peace into my life.

    Thank you for sharing your experiences.

  5. Vulpus15

    November 10, 2006 at 10:57 am

    “The deep, unfathomable mine of souls” is a great description of an art gallry.
    I love Mr and Mrs Clarke. They look so gloriously petulant, poisonous, indulged and throoughly sick of each other. She thinks she’s chocolate in that dress and the cat looks like it’s going to spring out of the window, and who can blame it?
    V

  6. Vulpus15

    November 10, 2006 at 12:20 pm

    PS taking a different perspective, Lodz is a very interesting place in the context of European Local Production Systems. It’s all about socks. A deep, unfathomable mine of them
    V

  7. Lara

    November 11, 2006 at 6:29 pm

    just a quick hello to say this blog entry was fascinating. great details of each event you attended…makes me want to go check out some art. thanks much.

  8. Stephanie

    November 13, 2006 at 12:47 pm

    Aloha Alistair (love this name),
    I am Stephanie (23) from Austria and just right now watching “Cash in the Attic”. Love your work, you are such a nice and funny lad. And only now I have come to the idea to look for a Homepage of yours which I found immediately.

    And then also your link to art – fantastic. Would be very interesting to meet you sometime, so just in case you’ll ever come to Austria, let me know. 😉

    Much love and keep on going!
    Yours, Steph

  9. Robert Benton

    November 20, 2006 at 9:48 pm

    Alistair,

    Your inspiring comments about art and how it affects us
    remind me of a poem “Archaic Torso of Apollo”
    by the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke.

    We did not know his legendary head,
    in which the eyeballs ripened. But
    his torso still glows like a candelabrum
    in which his gaze, only turned low,

    holds and gleams. Else could not the curve
    of the breast blind you, nor in the slight turn
    of the loins could a smile be running
    to that middle, which carried procreation.

    Else would this stone be standing maimed and short
    under the shoulders’ translucent plunge
    nor flimmering like the fell of beasts of prey

    nor breaking out of all its contours
    like a star: for there is no place
    that does not see you. You must change your life.

    Best wishes,

    Robert

  10. Duane

    December 1, 2006 at 11:49 pm

    Hockney’s – doing what one wants,not what other’s expect; Oprah Winfrey referred to yesterday on her show as “living outside oneself.” I do. A cookie fortune taped to my work monitor reads “The answers are right in front of you.” They are. Today, on a whim, I popped in to DBWT?, first skimming the photos, next reading your words on Hockney. Oprah’s hint reiterated. Another fabulous reality, omniscient forces nudging gently, providing focus and opportunity for enrichment. “Wake up!,” it says, “Here’s something you need to look into!” While continuing living outside myself, I am, for now content knowing DBWT? will spark a smile, giving me, at least a few moments of enjoyment – the things I like that I often miss out on. You know your journey! You do provide love.

  11. Duane

    December 5, 2006 at 1:48 am

    Yes, a parallel world. Last week on her show, Oprah Winfrey mirrored Hockney’s attitude, identifying, NOT doing what you want, but DOING what other people expect YOU TO DO, as “living outside oneself.” Tragically, more true of me now than in the past. Based on a few visits 1980-1991, I found unlimited amazement, savoring London exhibits and art; and found, as you have, more glamor of an evening. Should I physically never return, your journals take me back and beyond. You are reflective. You REALLY DO love and share love. That’s a good feeling.

  12. Duane

    December 5, 2006 at 1:59 am

    Redundancy. I just noticed my comment did submit December first. I’d left in a hurry, thinking I hadn’t submitted it, leaving a note to myself to finish the reply today. Well then, good or bad, a double dose!

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