Ana Mendieta

Ana Mendieta was born in Cuba in 1948 and was sent to the USA by her family when she was only 13. It’s tempting to see that early displacement as a major – perhaps unspoken – theme in her work, with all its references to the presence or absence of her body in the landscape.

Much of Mendieta’s work was performance-based or made from rather transitory materials and therefore it remains only as photographs. But the themes run in quite a tight circle and she is such a powerful and consistent presence in the work, that it still feels raw and energised despite the mediation of photography.

Her own body is a constant theme. Early on she modified its shape by pressing sheets of glass against it, or altered its perceived gender by constructing a moustache for herself using trimmings from a male friend’s beard. That piece, redolent of fancy dress but going further than that, is both comic and disturbing.

But she really finds her theme with the siluetas, a series of around one hundred works. These might take the form of a body-shaped impression in the ground, left unmarked or partially filled with water or pigment. Other pieces use her outline, burnt onto a tree or formed of blazing fireworks.

In another piece she lies naked, face down on the grass, the lawn partially covering her body. That process of assimilation by nature is extended in her Tree of Life works where she stands against a wide-girthed tree covered in mud from head to foot as if camouflaging herself, her arms and hands raised in mimicry of the branches above. Later on she incorporated mummy-like figures, often placed in body-shaped impressions in the ground. There is an aspect of ritual here, especially when the figures are pierced as if some kind of totem. In another image she evokes sacrificial rites by lying wrapped in a shroud with a calf’s heart resting on her chest. Another photo shows her lying in a stone coffin-like structure, plants and flowers covering her and growing above her body. The image is redolent of ancient Egyptian images of the god Osiris with stalks of wheat growing from his mummified body – death and rebirth in one.

Later rooms in the show move on to her drawings and sculptures in mud, bark and stone, but it is the siluetas that remain most alive in the mind. The repeated – dare one say obsessive – theme of the body’s simultaneous presence and absence, the shallow impression in the ground, the blending in with tree or grass, all add up to haunt the mind and make me wonder what desires lay behind this wish to be both present and to disappear into the natural world, to be defiantly alive and yet to mimic death in so many ways.

Rothko/Sugimoto: Dark Paintings and Seascapes

Mark Rothko’s paintings at their best are richly coloured, glowing and with a mysterious depth. Paint handling was at the service of conjuring up this sense of undefined forms floating in a pictorial space – think of the feathered edges of the forms in the Tate’s Seagram murals. Late in his life he chose a palette, materials and paint handling quite different from what had gone before. The paintings at London’s new outpost of the Pace Gallery are in acrylics not oils, and with most of the colour drained out of them. Blacks, greys and dark browns dominate, with one exception in a pinkish mauve and blue combination that provides light relief from the darkness elsewhere in the gallery.

Instead of forms apparently floating in a larger colour field, here the image is divided horizontally into two areas which extend to the edges. Black or brown is above and grey below, occasionally with a rough division between. There is little sense of depth. The black tends to be even and matt, the grey and brown brushed rapidly on with many broad marks. The dominant sense is of a dull flatness; that feeling is enhanced by the loosely taped edges that leave a slightly ragged white border around many of the works. It’s hard to separate the works, painted in the last year of the artist’s life, from the biography. These works are bleak and desolate, as Rothko’s life may well have become before he committed suicide in 1970.

It’s a relief, then, that these paintings are shown in juxtaposition with a selection of Hiroshi Sugimoto’s large-scale seascape photographs. While there are certainly formal affinities between the two sets of work, the contrasts are stark. While the height of Rothko’s ‘horizon’ varies from work to work, Sugimoto places his dead centre every time. The seascapes draw you in, the prolonged exposures softening detail and blurring the horizon – an affinity with Rothko’s feathered brushwork. Looking at an empty sea and sky, an infinite horizon, we are invited into a void and a sense of expansion. But there’s a contrasting force at work, the build-up of light over a long exposure, the light radiating from some of the photographs with the force of a painting by Turner. In one of the two images entitled Bay of Sagami, Atami, the light bulges over the horizon as if breaking through a boundary. At the other end of the scale, a sequence of three images of the Tyyrhenian Sea goes from a pale grey to a deep, satin black. The horizon is invisible and the only differentiation in tone is a subtle darkening at the corners. We have to take it on trust that there was anything in front of the camera, and I’m reminded of Wolfgang Tillmans’ abstract photographs – these too are experiments in light, not depictions in the usual sense. Sugimoto’s greys are smooth and subtly detailed, such as the soft ripples of water visible in Lake Superior, Cascade River. Rothko’s greys seem rather dull by comparison, but the most appealing of the canvases has striations that echo the water that fills Sugimoto’s images.

The radiance and softness of many of the photographs is a direct contrast to the dull blankness of Rothko’s late paintings. Sugimoto is opening up the world; for Rothko it was closing down.

Central Line Series: Art on the Underground

The London Underground is a busy place. It carries an average of 2.7 million passengers per day, many of them jostling for space as they make their way along crowded corridors, wait on platforms and squeeze into often absurdly crowded carriages. All the while they are subject to sensory bombardment: announcements, signs, sound leakage from mp3 players, and of course adverts. There are adverts above the carriage seats, on the platforms, in the corridors, on either side of the escalators and even sometimes on the floor and the ticket barriers. In some stations, posters are giving way to digital displays, heightening the intensity of information. In Kazys Varnelis’ essay on network culture, he comments on the privatisation of public space into a “theatre of consumption under high security and total surveillance”. The tube is one such increasingly privatised public space.

When I first encountered part of the work collectively titled ‘A Lock is a Gate’ at Bethnal Green tube station, it was with both surprise and a sense of relief. Instead of the parade of adverts beside the escalators, there are two long decorative panels. Both show undulating white lines traversing a brightly coloured checkerboard with the appearance of watercolour. The line resembles an audio wave and thus suggests music, words or song. While the pattern repeats along the length of the panels, the line changes as you move, adding a sense of engagement to the piece.

Adverts always want something from you: your time, your attention, and ultimately your money. Their insistence can be tiring, especially when grouped together as they are on the tube. An artwork like that at Bethnal Green, on the other hand, makes no such demands. Here instead is an offering, a gift. It is there to be looked at, and hopefully enjoyed. The work is enriched by the documentation in this book, where you find that it is one of many products of a collaboration between artists and members of a boat club in Hackney. The corporate has here given way to the communal.

Michael Landy’s ‘Self and Other’ project also explores themes of collaboration and connectedness, however momentary that connection may have been. The tube can be an isolating place, with each person trying to preserve a sense of their own space – even, perhaps, their own self – in a crowded environment. Headphones are frequently worn, with noise cancellation becoming increasingly popular, and eyes are averted from neighbouring passengers. Landy was aware of partaking in this isolation himself, and one day noticed two strangers on the tube, one helping the other. In ‘Self and Other’ he set out to collect stories of this kind of event, stories of kindness, and placed them in various sites: outside stations, on platforms and in carriages. The sample stories collected here are touching and a reminder of how much potential for kindness there is, even amongst people who may be spending most of their journey trying to avoid contact with one another.

Federico Campagna’s essay ‘Community is Dead – Long Live Community’ touches on the same topic in its discussion of the difference between communities which form around an abstraction – the nation state, for example – and those which are formed by individuals responding to one another as individuals, regardless of group identifications. Landy’s stories highlight the possibility of this more spontaneous kind of community.

The enforced communality of the tube carriage, especially on the central line at rush hour, can be an unpleasant experience, with passengers crushed together in unwanted proximity. Alice Channer’s work introduces physicality into the tube environment in a more allusive way. Taking impressions of elastic waistbands, she assembled numerous prints of them into long friezes lining the escalators at Notting Hill Gate. The looped forms, dispersed in different groupings along the white frieze, echo the passage of individuals up and down the escalators. As with Landy’s stories, they are a reminder of the individual in what is often an impersonal environment.

Central Line Series documents five projects including the three I’ve mentioned here. This slim and well-produced volume is a valuable reminder of how much can be achieved by public art projects when they are executed with flair and imagination.

Craigie Aitchison

Craigie Aitchison died in 2009, and this show is intended as a memorial. The first surprise is that the white entrance at Timothy Taylor has been painted an appropriately intense red. The surprise continues inside, where the normally bright lighting of a white-walled gallery has been dimmed to gloom and spotlights pick out the paintings on the darkened walls. It has something of the feel of a church, the paintings treated as icons or altarpieces. And this is appropriate too, because one of Aitchison’s signature subjects was the crucifixion.

The first, from 1958, is on a panel smaller than a postcard, mounted upon a rough piece of wood. Small rusted nail heads recall the harshness of the cross, though the painting itself is gentle and luminous.

Luminosity of colour is a hallmark of these paintings, often a thin wash over a pale ground, or a thicker layer of bright colour; intense yellow in Shepherd, for example. Blue Handle Vase with Iris has a similarly vibrant orange ground to complement the blues of the vase, with the bright contrast of a green butterfly floating next to the pale iris. And in Sheep and Orange Tree, the tiny oranges sing out against a dark violet sky.

Aitichison’s was an economical style, and this is exemplified in a later Crucifixon II from 1967. The cross is flanked by two spindly orange-brown trees that seem like flames against the black ground. Christ’s features are sketched in with a few thin strokes, and the crown of thorns is made of just four thin pink lines. The whole image is minimal, but altogether enough to suggest the dark sadness of the event.

There are also portraits and landscapes here. The young girl in an extremely minimal portrait has the intense gaze of sitters in early work by Lucian Freud. Landscape with Mountain (Holy Island) is three large areas of colour: Prussian blue, mauve and sienna. The darkness is alleviated by a yellow-green halo behind the right-hand slope of the mountain. Seventeen years later, a very similar mountain stands in the background of the show’s final painting, the Three Kings contemplating the star.

These are paintings worth spending time with, and the whole show is a fitting tribute to this distinctive artist.

Michael Raedecker: volume

The paint is thin, washy. Drips and splatters everywhere. Grey, silver, one work in dark blue. Two in green. Looking at the one in pale pink, I thought of wedding cakes. And then, moving to my right, there they were: two cakes. But most of the work of the paintings is done not with painting or drawing, but by thread. Fine cotton thread, thicker wool. Single colours, braided yarns. In places the yarns have been twisted apart into tufted outgrowths from the surface. I want to touch them, feel their softness.

Houses, curtains, cakes, a chandelier; all are outlined with thread. Sometimes fine lines, single or in parallel. Elsewhere a garden bush is a small pile of overlapping lines of thread. Mostly they describe outline or contour. In pretend, the thread is just there, a bright multicoloured scribble stretching across the surface.

Then there are the holes. Smaller than your little fingernail, the broken threads of the canvas are exposed across the dark openings. It’s as if something has been eating through the surface. They seem incredibly fragile, these delicately stitched works.

Wide canvases are divided into panels vertically and stitched together. The houses are cut into fragments, partial frames from a drive-by movie. Who lives there? The chandelier doesn’t look like it belongs in these modest bungalows, but maybe the cakes do, or did. The closed curtains certainly do, keeping the world out.

Published in a-n magazine, May 2012

Turner and the Elements

Turner spent a lot of time in Margate, and this delightful show opens with a selection of local watercolours. Ramsgate from: The Ports of England is a small and finely detailed watercolour with ships, buildings and wave crests all carefully delineated. You can almost feel the weight of the water threatening to engulf the ship beyond the harbour wall. Margate, on the other hand, is a simple, almost minimal study in light washes with a few delicate clouds and a suggestion of sunlight on the horizon: no substance, just light and air. These works set out the range of what is to come.

The show is divided into two large galleries. One is devoted to the four traditional elements of earth, water, air and fire, while the other is entitled Fusion: a catch-all for a variety of works, mostly from later in Turner’s career. The elemental distinctions seem slightly artificial, especially when many of the works seem more concerned with colour and light than anything more substantial. But separating the works in this way does highlight one quality: Turner seems to have less affinity for earth than the other elements.

Some of the mountain landscapes certainly have grandeur, especially Yr Aran and Yr Wyddfa, a large watercolour of a Welsh mountain range, and Morning amongst Coniston Fells. But these seem heavy compared to Blair Atholl. Here, dark cloud and hillsides obscured by rain or mist give this work an atmosphere the others lack.

If Turner seems more at home with the lighter elements, he also seems awkward when dealing with the human figure. In Entrance of the Meuse, rather stiff, awkwardly drawn figures occupy pitching skiffs in the foreground and seem oddly unaffected by the turbulent sea, which is almost sculptural in its deeply scooped waves. In a later oil, Whalers, the seamen look almost model-like, oddly static amongst the energetic handling of the sea and sky around them. Figures in a Storm, an almost entirely blue watercolour study, serves to underline the point: the figures are more believable for being merely blocked in.

Most of the works here are watercolours, and there are some lovely examples of Turner’s handling of the medium. Stormy Sea, a postcard-sized work on blue paper, has vague suggestions of boats and shoreline below an intensely dark sky. Also on coloured paper is a lovely cloud study dominated by an ultramarine cloud bank, heightened with splashes of red. There are a number of cloud studies here, and the inevitable comparison is with Constable. His studies can seem like investigations of the structure of familiar cloud formations, but Turner’s seem more like excuses to experiment with colour and wash effects.

Another example of this is The Burning of the Houses of Parliament. Turner was there to see it in 1834, and must have had to work quickly. The work is almost a study just in using thin layers of red, blue and black, and detail of the buildings is largely absent.

All this watercolour work is very enjoyable, but the highlights come in the final room. There are seven large oil paintings here, two of which stand out. Snow Storm – Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth is a vortex of high waves, cloud and smoke, the boat’s distress rocket an explosion of thick white paint at the centre of swirling forces. If this is Turner maximal, Turner minimal is seen in Sunrise with a boat between headlands. A soft glowing light seems to emanate from the painting. Even with the gentle impasto of glittering sunlight, this oil is more like a watercolour study with its washes of colour, lightly-sketched headlands and the boat all but invisible.

With so many riches on display, this is a marvellous show. Almost all the works here are loaned from the Tate, but many were new to me and it’s well worth making the journey to see them. It’s an exhilarating demonstration of Turner’s range, curiosity and invention.

Published in a-n magazine, May 2012