Tuesday, 3 July 2012

Polly Morgan: Endless Plains

Copyright Ed Sykes 2012

Having photographed Polly Morgan for The Independent Magazine at her studio in Hackney Wick I thought it only right and proper to see her current show. Endless Plains is at All Visual Arts, 2 Omega Place, Kings Cross until 31st July. Inspired by a trip to the Serengeti Polly produces a collection of work that is powerful, raw, poetic and reflective of nature's cruel cycle.

There is a twist where dark thoughts extend this metaphor to bats inhabiting a stag's carcass and plump piglets feeding off the sap of a tree trunk. The point is that we know almost everything there is to know scientifically about nature and animal's life cycle but the inner mind of an animal is a mystery.

Copyright Ed Sykes 2012

Although the showstoppers are the stag and the feeding piglets the portraits of birds drawn with their ashes are poignant and simply quite beautiful.

Go see if you can.

Monday, 7 May 2012

Saatchi Gallery. Out of Focus

Out of Focus is the first major photography show at the Saatchi Gallery for over 10 years. It is important because not only does it highlight the diversity of approaches to the medium but it also attempts to redress an inbalance in the perception of photography in the digital age. This show is an opportunity to stop and draw breath, to assess photography in its artistic form away from the plethora of imagery which threatens to overwhelms us in our everyday lives.
It may not actually provide us with a clear answer but it does attempt to say that there is another way to explore the world through the eyes of a photographer. In the digital age anything is possible and almost anyone can achieve it with a camera and the use of a computer. This group of photographers are rejecting that, turning it upside down, ripping up the photos, stretching them and splashing them with chemicals, paint or grubby fingerprints.
Curiously the first room containing Katy Grannans portraits does not introduce this notion. Large scale Californian portraits of a variety of edgy characters are shot straight and given some digital enhancement. They are big and bold but hardly groundbreaking for a show proclaiming innovation. 

Marriage 2006 by John Stezaker

John Stezakers sliced and juxtaposed portraits subvert a photographic practice and delve deeper into the human character. The merging of faces demands our examination of peoples physiology and questions concerning the psychology of recognition. They become twisted lookalikes, the couple who strangely seem to look similar or the actor who reminds you of someone you know. These images challenge the process of seeing, registering and processing visual information delivered to us in the form of a human face.
As the show continues the amount of space dedicated to each artist decreases. It feels less of a strongly curated show more of a collection that we are privileged to peek at.
There will be something for everyone as there is such a wide and diverse amount of work here. Highlights for me included;
David Benjamin Sherrys dramatic landscapes infused with single colour casts. It feels like an acid road trip infused with a romantic light.

Hyperborealis 2011 by David Benjamin Sherry
 Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarins exploration of archived material from Belfast where the labeling during selection and cataloguing reveals a poignancy to scenes of confrontation and violence. Also by them a series of old negatives from the Warsaw Ghetto (helped by archivist Laura Lejsu) of a young Jewish girl and her friends who posed ina family studio in the nude, an act of private defiance against the horrors closing in on them outside. Poorly fixed they are dark and bathed in a red light. Difficult to view they are poignant and quite moving.

Culture 3 Sheet 72 Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin 2010

Ryan McGinleys photographs of a group of friends shown naked in landscape in a suspended Utopia caught in a break from some Baccanalia feast.

Tree 3 Ryan McGinley 2003

 All images courtesy of the Saatchi Gallery, London

Tuesday, 3 April 2012

Damien Hirst at Tate Modern. A journey from radical artist to brand ambassador.

  Damien Hirst's retrospective at Tate Modern has for the first time in this country given us the opportunity to consider the artists output and assess whether he really was an enfant terrible and if he really is an overpriced and overexposed artist.
Hirst and his contemporaries undeniably shaped the modern art scene of 90’s London. They arrogantly blazed their trail from art colleges and into mainstream media. They simply could not be ignored. Hirst was at the forefront getting their work seen and then eventually becoming the figurehead who the media latched onto. His work backed up the arrogance - provocative but with serious questions about death and mortality.
Fast forward to 2012 and at this major show one wonders how it all went wrong.
In some senses it all went right for Damien Hirst, the prices went through the roof and buyers were eating out of the perfectly manicured hands of the gallery owners. The amount of money changing hands is not the problem per se but what is the problem is that his work has become less powerful as a result. The work on display does feel uneven and that’s ignoring the fact that there is much missing, including the much criticised paintings from The Wallace Collection show. There are real highlights, A Thousand Years 1990 is a stark, raw work stripped down the barest elements, - steel, glass, flies, maggots, MDF, insect-o-cutor, cow's head, sugar and water. The list emphasises the sheer confrontational element of Hirsts early work. The juxtaposition was daring and the effect was powerful. The issues raised about life and death were being shoved in our faces and the effect was at times shocking and it certainly made waves in the art world. In 1992 The Saatchi Gallery exhibited The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, the iconic shark suspended in a tank. Today the effect is diminished - the shark has shrivelled and the work seems smaller on a wooden floor in the Tate as opposed to the bright white walls and floors at Saatchis gallery.

The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living 1991 by Damien Hirst

In between the highlights there is also repetition which is certainly a Hirst trait.
The repetition does work in his pharmacy series, the scale of medicinal use in todays society and what is says about the solutions and answers we seek in response to our own fragile mortality. Of course he repeats and multiplies butterflies and of course his spots. This where the repetition surges into mass production. After personally creating 20 spot paintings it is now known that there have been 1400 created by his assistants. This large scale production was part of the development of Hirst as a brand.
Hirst was part of the whirlwind of 90’s celebrity culture and it seemed to be an ideal opportunity to extend the Hirst brand. It was in 1997 he launched Pharmacy a restaurant in Notting Hill filled with his artwork and attracting A list celebrities. The venture set up with PR supremo Matthew Freud lasted until 2003 when investors called time on its existence. Freud opined "There's always a danger when things represent a cultural moment that they will eventually fall. In the end you become a sacred cow. Culture moves on and it doesn't take you with it." 

Pharmacy 1992 by Damien Hirst

Around this time Hirst’s affairs were taken over by accountant Frank Dunphy who realised it was possible to renegotiate the percentages galleries were taking and increase the artists takings. In effect the middle men were being taken out and Hirst was getting even closer to the art market and his customer base. Business was booming and he was the darling of the art world. The later work reflects that of a luxury brand. It’s all glitz – gleaming, sleak, dazzling and reassuringly expensive. It has also become empty. Beneath the shiny veneer there is little being said, there is no rawness in the beauty, no provocation, no glorious juxtaposition of materials.
One hopes that Hirst is having a laugh at the absurdity of it all and he will return to what I think he does best. His ability to shock and show that beauty can be seen in the most unlikely of places and in the most unlikely of moments. In the years to come we will know whether Hirst is a radical artist at heart or whether his vision has become sanitised  and incapable of recapturing the rawness and beauty
that was once his trademark.

I Am Become Death Shatterer of Worlds 2006

Thursday, 29 March 2012

What is a portrait? Gilian Wearing as Arbus, Mapplethorpe and Sander at The Whitechapel Gallery

Gilian Wearings show at the Whitechapel gallery reveals an artist who uses various means to answer the same question. What lies beneath the mask? Essentially Wearing is a forensic portraitist cajoling herself and her subjects into revealing more.
Whether a portrait is a photograph, a painting, an interview or a film it sets out to achieve the same result. On the surface it is a physical likeness but the most rewarding and successful portraits reveal much much more. Gilian Wearing is best known in terms of portraiture for her use of masks which hide the face of the sitter but at the same time ask numerous questions about the person behind it.
As a photographer I was drawn to her recent self portraits of herself as iconic photographers such as Robert Mapplethorpe, Diane Arbus, August Sander. Why did she choose these particular photographers and what is it about their work that she feels is so important to her. 

Me as Mapplethorpe, 2009 Gilian Wearing, courtesy of Whitechapel Gallery

Whether it is during an interview or during a portrait session a sitter will be known to “drop the mask” for a brief moment. The process of portraiture starts with the technical challenge of producing a likeness but the skill is to go further and to provide psychological questioning and probing of what is in front of the camera. What Arbus, Mapplethorpe and Sander have in common with Wearings approach is that they embraced the mask or the veneer that a sitter provides. Mapplethorpes surface consisted of a luminous classical beauty but probe deeper and there is a haunting quality to many of the faces. At times the mask is ghostly and the eyes are the only insights to the person beneath. Mapplethorpe celebrates beauty physically but tries to go beyond that surface and discovers the humanity, the vulnerability and the toll it takes on the self.
Arbus seems totally opposite to Mapplethorpe as she confronts the subject in a brutal and raw act. What she does is in effect to cast the interrogators light on to a controversial figure. Dwarves, transvestites, strippers they all came under her unwavering gaze which shocked at the time. Beneath her approach though lies an intellectual rigour concerning image and identity. She does not seduce the viewer visually but instead showers us with questions about our preconceptions. Once you have answered these questions the subjects give themselves up and the viewer is rewarded with a vision of humanity.
Sanders approach was more straightforward that the others, technically he favoured a traditonal portrait in terms of composition, the subjects pose and the way they are presented to camera. What he does do is make the viewer eye the detail, the quirks, the physical anomalies that add to a forensic profiling of the individuals. The individuals and groups present themselves to the camera saying “this is me” but the photographer does not accept the answer but instead returns with more questions, more probing of who they are, how they see themselves and how we respond to image, stereotype and character.
Wearings self portraits of these iconic photographers are certainly interesting and her work raises valid points about self, identity and what makes us who we are. The real reward for me  lies in going behind her masks and into the minds of Arbus, Mapplethorpe and Sander. That is where the beauty of portraiture truly lies.

Friday, 16 March 2012

Lucien Freud drawings at Blain Southern

This is a wonderful exhibition showing Freuds drawings throughout his life and offers an insight to his development and working methods.

I have been slack recently but will try and make up for it with new posts! This exhibition has finished but I couldn't help but include it.

Lygia Pape (1927-2004) was a leading Brazilian artist whose work brought together formal rigour and daring experimentation. In her own words, she explained her approach: 'My concern is always invention. I always want to invent a new language that's different for me and for others, too... I want to discover new things. Because, to me, art is a way of knowing the world... to see how the world is... of getting to know the world'.

Pape was a founding member of the Neo-Concrete movement, which was dedicated to the inclusion of art into everyday life.The work is concerned with exploring and developing new possibilities, and there is a distinct feeling of playfulness and at times lightness of touch but underneath lie weightier issues

Thursday, 19 January 2012

The Death of Originality

 Is there anything left to be original about? Artists the world over seek out the holy grail that is originality in the belief that their particular vision will usurp anything that has gone before them. Yes you may argue that is a foolish thought in the beginning but it certainly doesn’t stop us. What has changed so drastically in recent history is that the ideas and inspirations that this wonderful world throws up have been distilled and packaged perfectly for us all to consume.

The WWW has effectively cut out all the long winded, laborious ways that we gather our information. People open up their hearts and their minds online  for us all to pick over. Is nothing sacred? Is there anything left out there that is unknown, intangible and so fantastically complicated that cannot be understood in the time it takes to press a button on your keyboard? Where are the small unformed ideas that generate the big ideas? Do they really exist anymore in this super-fast imagery laden culture of ours?

I started this train of thought after an idea I had ended up on the wall in my office. Coincidentally within a few days of pinning it up I came across an image created by Yes Studio and photographer Dan Holdsworth. It made me stop and wonder. I had never seen their finished concept before and the two of them were strikingly similar although theirs was created a couple of years ago. 

Image by Dan Holdsworth and Yes Studio

Ed Sykes image

Had I actually never seen that before or was it that in the massive deluge of images I view daily that it seeped into my sub-concious? The brain can only cope with so much in its conciousness and the rest gets stored away in the picture library in the mind. When as artists do we become saturated and overladen? Surely this is the extreme opposite of the work of isolated artists who die unknown after working theirr whole lives on one or two concepts only to be feted as the greatest years after their deaths?

Copying fashion, copying lifestyle, in fact copying anything has become big business and in our own ways we have become sucked into it - following trends, concepts and what has gone before us. If you want to be original do you have to unplug, disconnect and drop out? Leave the noise behind and create like a hermit? It seems to be successful I am going to have to buy a cave to work from. The problem is there aren’t any caves left in London. I could check online though…

Friday, 13 January 2012

Ataui Deng. Fashion story for Fiasco magazine

Photo by Ed Sykes

Photo by Ed Sykes

M. C. Escher. Pop Ups (Thames & Hudson)

Bond of Union by M.C.Escher
Pop Ups is essentially a 3D rendering of Eschers more famous creations. Marketed as a coffee table book it has a certain wow factor. Eschers work has been "brought to life" by a pop up technique. But why was I disappointed? Eschers drawings and woodcuts had a wonderful attention to detail and it was the flatness of the page or surface which actually made what he did so brilliant. He could give even more depth to a seemingly normal image but when the image has been made into a paper construction it somehow defeats the purpose. Sure it gives us a new way of looking at his work but it does feel gimmicky and with only 9 pop ups in the book it does feel less than generous. As an easy introduction to Escher's work it's fine but it actually feels like the essence and visual strength has been watered down.

Balcony by M.C.Escher

Another photo

Photo by Ed Sykes

Monday, 9 January 2012

Art Photography Now (Susan Bright) Thames & Hudson

Another recent addition to the bookshelf. I particularly like this book because of the photograph on the cover by Viviane Sassen entitled Flamboya:Victoria 2007. Sassens use of colour I find clean and refreshing and her work has a modernity that inspires. I have to say increasingly I find collections such as this frustrating in the way an artist is skimmed over where a monograph gives gives real depth and insight into a body of work. However they are good as an introduction to little known photographers and as a reference book. The photographs of Gregory Crewdson, Doug Aitken and James Welling appealed to me and led me to look further into their work.

CCCP Cosmic Communist Constructions Photographed

One of the highlights of Christmas is receiving long wanted art books. This had been on my list for a long time and did not disappoint. It is a wonderful collection of photographs of Soviet era architecture the majority of which I have never seen. In stark contrast to the bland steel and glass of today here the spatial imagination has at times been given free reign. Frederic Chaubin's collection shows how architecture can be awe inspiring, powerful, dominating and thus a  reflection of a cultural and political will. The interiors are as exciting, with beautiful detail in some of the fittings, chandeliers, ceilings and wall coverings. Outside some constructions veer from the large scale functionality to stunning nature inspired abstraction.