Lawlessness in French Guiana

Photographer Christophe Gin writes about his South American expedition to capture lawlessness in French Guiana, a project that won him the 2015 Carmignac Photojournalism Award

Christophe Gin, Camopi, March 2015 © Christophe Gin for the Carmignac Foundation
Christophe Gin, Camopi, March 2015 © Christophe Gin for the Carmignac Foundation

French Guiana is an exceptional territory. Partly because of its location in South America, and partly because of its expanse. But it’s also exceptional on a human level for the broad ethnic diversity of its inhabitants, the prevalence of their individual cultures and its recent unification with France. It stands apart economically, as a result of the underdevelopment of the land, and the breadth of the concealment of current activities.

It’s a region full of variation and contrasts. On the one hand, there’s the coastal area – a major metropolis with public services and state infrastructure, including places like the Guiana Space Centre in Kourou (the main equatorial launch site for the European Space Agency). Here, local residents are mostly civil servants and are fully integrated into the community.

On the other hand, there’s the entire inland area of Guiana, which is where I went to investigate the notion of laws and rights in the region. Inland Guiana is vast and difficult to gain access to, since it’s composed primarily of tropical forests, and was made a French Departement much later than the coastal regions.

Up until 1946, the Guianan inland was an autonomous expanse under the territory of Inini. After the area became integrated into the rest of French Guiana, its highly fertile subsoil in the area attracted a series of gold hunts. Even if there may be some truth to people’s ideas of a European El Dorado at the heart of Latin America, the fixation on this impression has resulted in a rather cliched perspective on the country.

Through my project, I was largely trying to demonstrate the complex interplay of historical, social and geopolitical factors that make French Guiana so difficult to capture as a whole. I’ve been photographing French Guiana for the last 15 years. This time, my aim was to find a route into the heart of the inland communities and to demonstrate how Guiana is a kind of patchwork, composed of exceptional regions ruled by codes and laws all of their own.

Christophe Gin, Saint Élie, 2015 © Christophe Gin for the Carmignac Foundation
Christophe Gin, Saint Élie, 2015 © Christophe Gin for the Carmignac Foundation

The main aim of my work was always to provide a means of understanding the underlying causes for the situations I encountered. For example, having been struck by the predicament of the indigenous peoples of the Americas marginalised by an ineffectual school system, blighted by alcoholism and without opportunities in life, I opted to encapsulate this by depicting the queues of people waiting in the Post Office for benefits payments at the start of the month. Through this, I aimed to demonstrate the dependency of this socio-economic group, having adopted citizenship.

Similarly, in my treatment of the issue of illegal gold panning, I depict foreign workers breaking across the ‘border’ rivers with unnerving ease. Historically, these rivers acted as channels of communication connecting Guiana with neighbouring territories, Brazil and Suriname, instead of providing divisions between sovereign states. I photographed ghostly villages and mining sites formerly explored by clandestine gold hunters, nowadays exploited by legal gold-mining companies that limit access to the area.

For me, I don’t see a lawless territory, but a series of exceptional areas; I see a region held in tension with the French Republic, which is trying to encourage a particular conception of the law and rights that are not always applicable.

Carmignac Photojournalism Award: A Retrospective, organised by the Carmignac Foundation, is taking place from 18th November – 13th December at the Saatchi Gallery. For further information, visit www.saatchigallery.com/current/a_retrospective /em>

Richard Long: Time and Space

A major new retrospective dedicated to British artist Richard Long reflects on his relationship with the natural environment and his hometown of Bristol

Richard Long installing Muddy Water Falls, 2015. Photograph by Stephen Jackson
Richard Long installing Muddy Water Falls, 2015. Photograph by Stephen Jackson

In 1963, when he was 18 and studying art in Bristol, Richard Long travelled to the Downs – a green expanse in the north of the city – and rolled a snowball through the pristine snow covering the ground. Long took a photograph of the trail he had made and quickly returned to his art class; the image he had created, and later submitted for a student project, was considered so provocative he was expelled.

Left: Muddy Boots Walk, 1991. Cut vinyl text. Image courtesy of the artist – Right: Muddy Water Falls, Richard Long, 2015. Image courtesy of the artist
Left: Muddy Boots Walk, 1991. Cut vinyl text. Image courtesy of the artist – Right: Muddy Water Falls, Richard Long, 2015. Image courtesy of the artist

Four years later, the young Bristolian produced A Line Made by Walking, hailed as the breakout moment both for Long and his particular form of conceptual art: land art. And yet it was in the quietly anarchic Snowball Track that Long first articulated a language that would see him become one of Britain’s greatest living artists.

Left to right: Manang Circle, Nepal 1983; Blowing in the Wind, 1981; Stones in the Andes, 2012. Images courtesy of the artist and Lisson Gallery
Left to right: Manang Circle, Nepal 1983; Blowing in the Wind, 1981; Stones in the Andes, 2012. Images courtesy of the artist and Lisson Gallery

Recognising the profound connection between the artist and Bristol, the city where Long lives and works today, contemporary art gallery Arnolfini has given over its entire exhibition space to a major retrospective of Long’s work. It is a survey of pieces completed by Long over the past five decades, on all seven continents and using a wide variety of media, including photography, text and materials taken from the natural environment.

Boyhood Line, Richard Long, 2015
Boyhood Line, Richard Long, 2015

Central to the exhibition is an off-site work commissioned by Arnolfini that commemorates Long’s connection to Bristol. Boyhood Line is situated in the liminal space between the city and the countryside, where Long played as a child and later made his first exploration into the transient and organic mark-making that would come to define his career. The desire line it traces with white limestone rocks is not there to record the artist’s activities in the landscape, as much of his other work does, but to trace a path trodden by thousands of people who have walked the Downs over centuries.

Mud Walk, Richard Longg, 1987. Cut vinyl text. Image courtesy of the artist
Mud Walk, Richard Longg, 1987. Cut vinyl text. Image courtesy of the artist

Back at the Arnolfini, a room of text works – the most conceptual form of Long’s practice – greet the viewer on the ground floor of the gallery. Mud Walk, complementing the kinetic painting the artist made with river mud on an adjacent wall, records one journey produced in 1987.

Time and Space, Richard Long, 2015. Delabole slate. Image courtesy of the artist
Time and Space, Richard Long, 2015. Delabole slate. Image courtesy of the artist

Quoting from the work itself, the artist walked 184 miles “from the mouth of the River Avon to a source of the River Mersey, casting a handful of River Avon tidal mud into the River Thames and the River Severn, the River Trent and the River Mersey along the way”. The prosaic, pared down nature of this text establishes a key aspect to Long’s work: the art is in the action. In this case, the action is the walk that the text evokes, and not in the vinyl lettering cut out and applied to the wall.

Richard Long installing Muddy Water Falls, 2015. Photograph by Stephen Jackson
Richard Long installing Muddy Water Falls, 2015. Photograph by Stephen Jackson

In their purest sense, Long’s works are an exploration of the possibilities of documenting time and space, as is suggested by the show’s title; Long’s art is generally a performance that can only be viewed after it has concluded. A work from 1975, unsentimentally named A Line Made in the Himalayas, shows a line of rocks stretching up a mountain. Photographic pieces like this, A Line Made by Walking and others, help to develop the imaginative aspect of Long’s text work by providing a visual record of his mark-making in nature.

Although it is easier to see Long’s presence in the environment in these images, just as in his text works or his stone installations in the gallery space, these photographs speak a poignant transience. They may last for hours or they may last for centuries, but eventually they will be subsumed into the landscape, remembered only by text and photographs.

Time and Space runs at Arnolfini in Bristol until 15th November 2015

A cloud, a feather, a butterfly wing

Elisabeth Scheder-Bieschin talks to PORT about her new exhibition at Paul Smith’s Mayfair store, which celebrates her love of cyanotype – one of the earliest forms of photographic printing

Elisabeth Scheder-Bieschin  in her studio
Elisabeth Scheder-Bieschin in her studio

Discovered in the first half of the 19th century by English astronomer and scientist Sir John Herschel, cyanotype is an age-old photographic technique that creates cyan-blue silhouettes and dreamlike prints when an object is placed on a reactive surface and left to develop in a dark environment. Although originally used by Herschel as a way of recording notes and making blueprints, cyanotype was soon picked up by his friend and botanist Anna Atkins, who went on to create stunning photograms of flora she had collected, which earned her the (somewhat disputed) title of the world’s first female photographer.

Over 170 years later, photographer Elisabeth Scheder-Bieschin has chosen to pick up that baton in collaboration with Joanna Skipwith from Silverjungle to put together an exhibition of her own cyanotype works at Paul Smith, 9 Albemarle Street, London. Here, Scheder-Bieschin discusses her work and the ethereal imagery created with cyanotype.

Cyanotype prints by Elisabeth Scheder-Bieschin
Cyanotype prints by Elisabeth Scheder-Bieschin

When did you discover cyanotype and how did this exhibition come together?

When I was still shooting on film, a long while ago, I always enjoyed printing both my colour and black and white work myself. Since my commercial work became solely digital, I was missing the darkroom so I set one up at home to work on some personal projects. I quickly realised that what interested me most was hands-on experimenting with processes; I wanted to create images that I couldn’t create with a digital camera and so, at the beginning of 2014, I started making cyanotypes.

What is special about the prints in your show?

Each print is a handmade, unique and fragile object. The choice of the paper and the coating of the paper is part of the resulting image. Also, some of these images are made without a camera at all – simply with paper, developer and daylight.

Were there any other photographers that experimented with cyanotypes who offered you inspiration?

I love Henrietta Molinaro’s work with cyanotype and, of course, the famous Anna Atkins. I am fascinated by the very early photographer William Henry Fox Talbot too. He didn’t work with cyanotypes, but he was very experimental. I love the work of Hiroshi Sugimoto and also Bauhaus photographers like László Moholy-Nagy. Other people have recently begun working with cyanotypes, most notably Thomas Ruff who has a show at the Gagosian gallery at the moment.

What did you learn about photography and your own work while exploring the cyanotype process?

I think I’ve begun to reconnect with the idea of making personal project work and with the potential of imagery to represent more than its surface’s content.

Photography has changed so much since I started working some 25 years ago. Negatives, darkrooms and chemicals have largely disappeared. Image-making and sharing is now so simple and ubiquitous that it is difficult to honour each image. The process that I use is very slow – I’ve worked on the few images that are in my show for nearly a year. Hopefully the amount of thought and consideration that has gone into the creation of each of them is evident.

What will you do next with cyanotype? How likely are you to use it in your commercial work?

I’m currently working on projects around the themes of time, memories and documentation. Creating images without the constraints of a brief has been liberating for me. But I think that there must be many applications for this image-making process in the commercial world – in still life and fashion, for instance.

Scheder-Bieschin’s cyanotypes will be on display at Paul Smith 9 Albemarle Street until 7 October 2015. From 1 November, the cyanotypes will be available to buy at Silver Jungle

From Bauhaus to Buenos Aires

George Kafka visits Manhattan’s Museum of Modern Art for a major exhibition of works by two vastly underrated Bauhaus photographers, Horacio Coppola and Grete Stern

Horacio Coppola, Plaza San Martín from Kavanagh, 1936
Horacio Coppola, Plaza San Martín from Kavanagh, 1936

Arriving triumphant into Buenos Aires, Argentina, in 1935, newlyweds Horacio Coppola (1906–2012) and Grete Stern (1904–1999) held a groundbreaking exhibition of their avant-garde photography at the offices of Victoria Ocampo’s literary magazine, Sur. Combining Coppola’s cinematic framing of his home city with Stern’s portraits of émigré artists and intellectuals that had fled Nazi-occupied Europe, the show was celebrated by the national press but largely ignored by photographic circles in Argentina and beyond.

The lack of attention paid to these artists within photographic communities characterises much of the careers of Coppola and Stern. The pair were true pioneers of portraiture and urban photography – their careers progressed alongside modernist heroes such as Bertold Brecht and Jorge Luis Borges – but they have been consistently overlooked for decades.

Left: Grete Stern, Dream No. 1: Electrical Appliances for the Home 1949 – right: Grete Stern, Dream No. 27: Does Not Fade with Water, 1951
Left: Grete Stern, Dream No. 1: Electrical Appliances for the Home 1949 – right: Grete Stern, Dream No. 27: Does Not Fade with Water, 1951

From Bauhaus to Buenos Aires, currently on display at New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) and co-curated by Sarah Meister and Roxana Marcoci, goes some way to address this imbalance. Framed as a twinned retrospective, the exhibition deftly charts the history of both artists from early experiments in the 1920s through to their professional peaks in the 1950s. As contemporaries at the Bauhaus in the early 30s and later as a married couple, the lives of Coppola and Stern intertwine across continents, exhibitions and collaborations. From Bauhaus to Buenos Aires reflects the couple’s trajectories, giving space to their individual projects as well as the furiously creative environments in which the two flourished.

Left: Horacio Coppola, Untitled Staircase at Calle Corrientes, 1928 – Right: Horacio Coppola "This Is Buenos Aires", Jorge Luis Borges, 1931
Left: Horacio Coppola, Untitled Staircase at Calle Corrientes, 1928 – Right: Horacio Coppola “This Is Buenos Aires”, Jorge Luis Borges, 1931

Coppola’s early work opens the exhibition with photos of Buenos Aires streets, in which he experiments with framing and light in a way that was wholly out of step with the photography of the era. While pictorialism — typically landscapes and nudes — dominated the scene in Buenos Aires, Coppola’s unorthodox views of the city were more suited to the avant-garde movements of the Bauhaus in Weimar, Germany, where he went to study under legendary tutor Walter Peterhans in 1932. It was here that Coppola met Grete Stern and her childhood friend Ellen Auerbach, with whom she worked under the pseudonym ringl + pit. The pair’s commercial projects were stylistically innovative and challenged contemporary gender norms: crossdressing and androgyny abound alongside mannequins, reflections and other tropes of surrealism.

Horacio Coppola, London, 1934
Horacio Coppola, London, 1934

After the closure of the Bauhaus under Nazi hands, Coppola and Stern spent two years in London that were to serve as a vital phase of creative development for both artists. Coppola’s snapshots of the city are imbued with an eye for the surreal that sits alongside a sharp social realism. Viewed individually, they seem purely documentary in nature, but through the show’s careful curation, the repeated imagery — reflections, graffiti, posters — becomes hypnotising and illuminating. The city takes on a bizarre tone and the peculiarities of English life are presented in a way that only a foreign eye can see.

Stern’s work from London is similarly entrancing. Beyond her talents for graphic design and photomontage, it is Stern’s portraits that stand out inFrom Bauhaus to Buenos Aires. Photographing German exiles Brecht and actress Helene Weigel while in London, and later the artistic community in Buenos Aires – including Jorge Luis Borges and Pablo Neruda – her portraits are honest yet stylish. Softly lit and free of retrospective manipulation, the subjects appear pensive and relaxed, as though in mid-conversation.

Left: Grete Stern, Bertolt Brecht, 1934 – Right: Grete Stern, Jorge Luis Borges, 1951
Left: Grete Stern, Bertolt Brecht, 1934 – Right: Grete Stern, Jorge Luis Borges, 1951

Both artists reached their creative peak upon their arrival in Buenos Aires and the exhibition at Sur in 1935. Coppola’s collection for the exhibition includes some of the finest photos of the Argentinian capital in existence, displayed at the MoMA on a busy wall that progresses left to right, from day to night. The series captures the city at a crucial moment of development: Neo-baroque architecture framed against crowded streets of suited businessmen, mannequins posing like fashion models, and the language of advertising against the geometry of the streets. Buenos Aires in the 1930s was booming economically and culturally; Coppola’s photos refract the optimism in the city through his distinctive lens.

Horacio Coppola, Avenida Díaz Vélez al 4800, 1936
Horacio Coppola, Avenida Díaz Vélez al 4800, 1936

Coppola’s images of Buenos Aires in the 30s were taken at the apex of his photographic career, yet Stern continued to produce quality work until the mid-1980s. The final room of From Bauhaus to Buenos Aires shows a series of Stern’s images from the mid-1950s titled Sueños (Dreams), which were created for a women’s magazine. Responding to descriptions of dreams sent in by readers, the series is a hallucinatory collection of photomontages that draw from Stern’s surrealist background and the growing influence of psychoanalysis in Argentinian culture – to this day Buenos Aires is known as the global capital of psychoanalysis. Expressing the desires and anxieties of the magazine’s readers, the series is captivating and deeply disturbing, like the dreams themselves.

From Bauhaus to Buenos Aires: Grete Stern and Horacio Coppola runs at the MoMA until October 4, 2015

New York City Now: art and the urban environment

In the second instalment of a three-part series, William Kherbek examines the New York art attempting to seek out responses to urban space

Jonathan Calm, Scudder Towers Down, Special Pulse Project
Jonathan Calm, Scudder Towers Down, 2008

At this year’s Pulse Art Fair in New York, one of the special project pieces was a video work by Jonathan Calm entitled Scudder Towers Down, comprised of slow-motion video footage of the controlled implosion of a housing estate. Watching it, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the episode of the HBO drama The Wire in which a hated housing development is demolished to the cheers of residents.

Once upon a not-very-long-ago time, starry eyed and socially aware architects planned utopian projects in which communities would not simply dwell, but where they would have all the conveniences of modern life, shopping, laundry, recreation and green space. What went so wrong that these projects ended up becoming a byword for deprivation, disenfranchisement, and, as many notorious estates in the US and UK attest, found associations with violence? The answer, it seems, lies not in our star architects, but in ourselves. Something such utopians didn’t appear to count on was how little human nature was likely to change just because it was housed differently. Indeed, few stopped to consider the resemblance of such projects to another well-known example of architecture wherein all of a person’s needs are met by the state: prisons.

The tendency of human beings to exclude, to create hierarchies, and to put problems out of sight so that they can slowly fade out of mind, is now impossible to ignore. New York, which is facing a housing crisis that rivals the problems of London, presents one of the great crises/opportunities available to artists concerned with examining the contemporary urban condition.

A show at New York’s Gagosian Gallery brings together works by the late sculptor, John Chamberlain, and French industrial designer, Jean Prouve, and looks back to the ‘good old days’ of better living through urban planning. Chamberlain’s twisted metallic totems served as an elegant counterpoint to astonishing Prouve creations like the Villejuif Demountable House – a construction originally intended to create an IKEA-style ready-to-assemble schoolhouse.

In many ways, Prouve’s vision is completely distinct from the fixity of housing projects like those shown inScudder Towers Down. The optimism his work embodies feels equally distant from the contemporary urban political discourse, so there’s a winsomeness inscribed in such works that Prouve, the clear-eyed solution seeker, would probably have hated. But, history seldom confers the legacy an artist seeks for their work.

Charlotte Becket, Curdle, Beyond 1.1
Charlotte Becket, Curdle, Beyond 1.1

In Beyond 1.1, an exhibition currently running at New York’s Tanja Grunert Gallery, Charlotte Becket’s Curdle suggets mobility was not conceived as the prerogative of the city, nor its residents. Becket’s work, a kind of kinetic sculpture of geometric forms, was not a million miles from something Toby Ziegler would do. It is something like a geometer’s nightmare, a multisided automated black mass, reshaping itself in a corner of the room as a motor whirs noisily away: part boulder, part trash-monster. Humourous, yes, but also deeply evocative of a conurbation where refuse always seems to be taking over. It invoked the character of New York’s downtown scene of the 1970s – a marriage of the low-fi and sci-fi sensibilities of Gordon Matta-Clark and Robert Smithson.

“I am interested in the slippage between place and experience, and the collapsing boundary between tangible physicality and hallucinogenic perception,” Becket told me, reiterating the importance of geography in the structuring and conception of her piece. “Geographic structures speak to temporality, mutation, beauty and violence and are totally indifferent to our existence,” she added. “We impact our environment, but it always finds its equilibrium, even if we can no longer survive in the circumstances we’ve created.”

“We impact our environment, but it always finds its equilibrium, even if we can no longer survive in the circumstances we’ve created.”

Gregor Neuerer, Various Tones,  Cathouse FUNeral
Gregor Neuerer, Various Tones, Cathouse FUNeral

Space is at a premium in New York, and in Manhattan in particular. Over the river in Brooklyn, Gregor Neuerer‘s show, Various Tones, at an erstwhile funeral home-cum-gallery called Cathouse FUNeral was a meditation on colour in space. The show consisted of a number of large canvases placed over the gallery walls, forming a room within a room.

The panels were varying shades of green, greens Neuerer encountered in public spaces from billboards, adverts and the like, many for health products or services. Neuerer’s literal green room had the ominous insinuation that everything’s supposed to be good for you and was both eerily calm yet menacing – do something healthy or else, it hinted. The emerald shades were anything but organic, yet they had an ecology of their own; the smooth and rough melding of various hues against one another seemed to generate a palpable physical tension.

Sebastian Lloyd Rees, Vendor, Room East
Sebastian Lloyd Rees, Vendor, Room East

The work of the city itself was a key feature of Sebastian Lloyd Rees’ exhibition Vendor at Room East in Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Vendor could be thought of as a material haiku composed of the ephemera and efflorescence of urban life, including shipping boxes, lottery tickets, flyers, shop adverts, all presented in a deliberate but deadpan fashion, veering just on the right side of pretension masquerading as anti-pretension.

The weathered hoardings in the upstairs gallery behaved like a simultaneous manifestation and critique of the ‘found object’ culture that a lot of post-recession art embraces. In their deformations and discolourations caused by urban pummeling – from both humans and mother nature – the hoardings espouse a terse eloquence that, in being presented without comment or artistic manipulation, only grows with attention.

Read part one of New York City Now: art and politics

Niki de Saint Phalle: a retrospective and a rediscovery

Madeleine Morley uncovers the Guggenheim Bilbao’s retrospective of French artist Niki de Saint Phalle, whose colourful and exuberant work celebrates the diversity of the female form and battled an oppressive patriarchy

The Three Graces, Guggenheim Museo Bilbao, 1995
The Three Graces, Guggenheim Museo Bilbao, 1995

The estate of the French painter and sculptor Niki de Saint Phalle, led by her granddaughter Bloum Condominas, have wanted to put on a major retrospective of her work for years, especially since her death in 2002. For various reasons, it’s never happened, so any current perception of de Saint Phalle – a prolific, extremely diverse artist – has tended to rely on her famed, exuberant “earth mother” Nanas sculptures. Think of these as her hits – the glossy pop-songs that are remembered while less immediately catchy songs gather dust.

“This exhibition is a re-discovery of her work – the things you might think of her aren’t necessarily true, and the retrospective will show you that” says Camille Morineau, the co-curator of the comprehensive exhibition that is at last happening, at the Guggenheim in Bilbao, Spain. “We need a younger generation talking and writing about Niki,” adds granddaughter Bloum, who has worked closely with curators Camille and Alvaro Rodrigues Fominaya to make this show happen. “We need people to explore her from a young perspective, so people can see how contemporary her work is.”

Niki’s colourfully monumental art deals, in part, with being a woman in the excessively body-conscious world of the 50s and 60s. Powerfully interested in women’s roles, her approach, attitude and strength should make her an artist that is widely discussed today.
Bilbao’s Guggenheim is the perfect place to showcase de Saint Phalle’s work in its entirety, from the Nanas she gave birth to, as well as her other, darker and less familiar projects. The space looks different depending on where you stand, like the artist herself, always confounding expectations. De Saint Phalle was many different women, not just the bohemian mother of the Nanas she is so often remembered by.She was Niki the teenage model, the angry woman, the loving housewife, the abused daughter, the inspiring collaborator, the blushing bride, the grandmother, the femme fatale, the swaggering hero, the avant-garde feminist, the celebrity on Andy Warhol’s arm, the self-taught, radical artist; this show reveals how these various selves infused her art. The exhibition’s structure is chronological, spanning six constantly changing decades. There are around 200 works included, beginning at the very start of her career as a model in the late 40s and early 50s for Vogue and Life magazines. Throughout the Guggenheim’s spiralling rooms, we see how her art was in dialogue with the process and progress of her life.

Having married young, she had a child and lived a typically well-off American lifestyle, before suffering a nervous breakdown in 1953. De Saint Phalle was institutionalised and treated with shock therapy like her equally unclassifiable but determined predecessors Sylvia Plath and Zelda Fitzgerald. They too were frustrated by the world of domesticity and its suffocating effect on any form of individual creative expression. Due to the strain on their mental health, they were all ultimately labelled ‘hysterical women’. Bloum tells me about how de Saint Phalle’s therapist said she should ‘blame herself’ for the sexual abuse she’d experienced from her father as a child: it is this kind of offensive patriarchy that de Saint Phalle battled against, both personally and creatively.

“Think of these as her hits – the glossy pop-songs that are remembered while less immediately catchy songs gather dust”

Madam or Green Nana with Black Bag (Madame ou Nana verte au sac noir), 1968
Madam or Green Nana with Black Bag (Madame ou Nana verte au sac noir), 1968

She embraced art as therapy and then decided on art as a career, before moving to Spain for inspiration. Her early work shows a woman trying to re-arrange the restrictive world around her into a new narrative. Fragments of domesticity like coffee beans, pottery, dolls and toy soldiers became the homespun medium of her collages. These materials of girlhood and motherhood were reconfigured into new shapes and images as she decided to break out of the traditional female role.

For the retrospective, Camille, Alvaro and Bloum have positioned de Saint Phalle very much as one of the first major feminist artist of the 20th century. They use these first, liberating pieces so that we see her later, less obviously volatile garden decorations and Nanas in the context of protest and resistance.

In the 60s, Niki was working on her early, explosive Shooting Paintings. They were dramatic performances, where she shot at pristine white plaster casts, the white of lace, so that they’d burst with colour when paint dripped from the bullet holes; these were more explicitly about her response to a nasty, repressive world. She was the first to use guns in art in this way, and it was as if she was releasing her thoughts and inner turmoil through the destructive act. De Saint Phalle once said: “I was shooting at myself – I was shooting at my own violence and the violence of the time.”

The Toilette (Make Up or Mirror of Life), 1978
The Toilette (Make Up or Mirror of Life), 1978


“The jubilant sculptures have been described as goddesses, as witches, as grandmothers, as shrines – they’re women who are uncorseted, confident, voluptuous and free”

Skull (Meditation Room), 1990
Skull (Meditation Room), 1990

 

“I’m not a person who can change society but I can present a vision. That’s all that I can do” – Niki de Saint Phalle

As the work burst from white plaster into colour, it revealed that de Saint Phalle was a subversive: she too burst with force and spontaneity although she appeared to be just a pretty model on the outside. “It’s easy to forget how dangerous this act was in the 60s,” says Camille. “This would have completely shocked people at the time.”

The slashes of colour erupting from her Shooting Paintings anticipate the gaudy colours of the Nanas sculptures. Instead of letting emotion – the wounds of life – drip out of the work as with the early Shooting Paintings, the Nanas boldly display emotion and colour on the outside. “She was missing heroines and role models as a kid,” Bloum explains, “so she decided to make some herself.” The jubilant sculptures have been described as goddesses, as witches, as grandmothers, as shrines – they’re women who are uncorseted, confident, voluptuous and free.

“I’m not a person who can change society but I can present a vision. That’s all that I can do,” de Saint Phalle says in a video projected over her creations on display. Although easily dismissed as relics of the hippie 60s and 70s, the voluminous sculptures still pack a modern punch and hint to potential future possibilities, ones that seem equally relevant for women today. The Nanas seem to have been guardian angels for de Saint Phalle. In the same room where they are displayed at the Guggenheim Bilbao, prints of diary-like drawings and love notes reveal a very self-conscious woman, obsessed with diet pills and sexy stockings. The nearby Nanas are perhaps totems from a world where people aren’t disturbed by these anxieties, and her way of creating images and rituals is an antidote to their corrupting influence.

From left to right: Bathing Beauty, 1967-68, Dancing Nana Anna, 1966, Black Nana Upside Down, 1965-66, Nana with her Leg in the Air, ca. 1966, Guggenheim Museo Bilbao
From left to right: Bathing Beauty, 1967-68, Dancing Nana Anna, 1966, Black Nana Upside Down, 1965-66, Nana with her Leg in the Air, ca. 1966, Guggenheim Museo Bilbao

Niki the person was magnetic but anxious and temperamental; the artist was in control of her life and used art as a restorative guiding spirit. Her 70s Devouring Mothers sculptures and her film, Daddy, are works that turn to her interior life and they jar with the sheer joyfulness of the Nanas. They’re darkly humorous pieces that she used as a way to come to terms with her difficult childhood, which the Nanas were unable to protect her from. At the end of the 70s, de Saint Phalle also married fellow artist Jean Tinguely – a tumultuous though inspirational relationship that fed into her angst as well as her artistic inventiveness. The couple self-fashioned themselves as the Bonnie and Clyde of the art world and the relationship had a striking influence on her work – she influenced him and he influenced her.

Because this exhibition brilliantly captures an entire life in action, we also see de Saint Phalle as a kind of grandmother figure to all children. We see her designs for parks and playgrounds where she extends her vision of joy to public spaces, imagining a world designed not in mundane blocks but as outbursts of whimsy and intrigue. Outside the museum, on the Guggenheim balcony, three of her Nanas dance deliriously in the Bilbao sun, glimmering like the shiny surface of the immense structure. They’ve found a real home.

Frank Gehry, the Guggenheim Bilbao’s architect, and de Saint Phalle were apparently going to collaborate on a building together, but it never went ahead – a world designed by minds like these would be extraordinary. This show positions de Saint Phalle as an artist with stunning vision, one that challenges the ordinary and shows how fantasy can be a very necessary and practical part of reality. She was always growing, her colours getting richer, her shapes more dramatic, and in light of the full body of her work, she keeps growing.


Film still  from Daddy, 1972
Film still from Daddy, 1972

One Day, Something Happens: Milena Dragicevic

Serbian painter Milena Dragicevic discusses her take on abstraction, choosing models and the influence of Willem de Kooning

Milena Dragicevic, Supplicant 101, 2008
Milena Dragicevic, Supplicant 101, 2008

“The Supplicants are not psychological studies or portraits but ‘stand-ins’ for something else. They are not masks, mutants or hybrids. They are simply unknowable”

I don’t think I ever made a decision to paint. I do know I made a decision to become an artist and painting somehow naturally followed. I would describe myself as an artist who uses a code of abstraction but tries to keep one foot in reality. The question of abstraction versus figuration in painting is something that completely perplexes me and I usually just ignore it. I began my ongoing Supplicant series in 2006 because at the time I needed a simple starting point. De Kooning once said that nothing could be simpler than a circle in the middle of a canvas and I thought that a face could be that simple device. Faces are voids or protrusions where an intervention or interception can occur: it is that which I am painting and not the figure per se.

The models I choose are usually female friends or acquaintances. I start with photographic headshots and the more I do, the more it feels performative because I am aware of the power of the face in that it is both viewer and viewed. I eventually pick one image that lends itself well to intervention and then drawing helps me understand how the intervention may play out. I mainly use tracing paper because it allows for speed when redrawing and dissecting forms. I do accept that once painting begins, U-turns may become necessary. My interventions or interceptions are moments caught in a process of unfolding and refolding both my material and intuition. It’s like trying to capture the passage of possible objects or fragments and never needing to know how you got there in the first place. The Supplicants are not psychological studies or portraits but ‘stand-ins’ for something else. They are not masks, mutants or hybrids. They are simply unknowable.

I am not really influenced by many painters. I tend to look more at sculpture, design, architecture, film and ancient art and I often borrow from marginalised artists. I love looking at cheap catalogues from shows that no one remembers. I want to work with something that already exists in the real world and I’ve come to think of my work as silent collaborations but with a ‘tag-team’ attitude. The Supplicants and my more recent series Erections for Transatlantica, 2011, and Pampero, 2014, act as an anachronistic place where something always happens. Hopefully they provide spaces or loopholes to be borrowed and reconfigured by other artists.

Words Milena Dragicevic

Excerpt from One Day, Something Happens: Painting People by Jennifer Higgie, curator and co-editor of Frieze magazine. Out now on Hayward Publishing.

Figure and Rhythm: reassessing Leon Underwood

Pallant House Gallery’s artistic director Simon Martin on why he is dedicating a retrospective to one of the most neglected artists of the 20th century

Leon Underwood Venus in Kensington Gardens, 1921
Venus in Kensington Gardens by Leon Underwood, 1921

More than 40 years have passed since a retrospective has been dedicated to Leon Underwood (1890 – 1975), an unsung hero of British art that helped cultivate some of sculpture’s brightest talents including Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth. This month, a new show at Chichester’s Pallant House Gallery entitled Figure and Rhythm will bring together Underwood’s often overlooked paintings, wood engravings, etchings and sculptures, as well as accompanying works by Gertrude Hermes and Blair Hughes-Stanton. Here the exhibition’s curator, Simon Martin, tells Port why he believes Underwood deserves far more credit for the role he played in moulding the landscape of modern British sculpture.

Within a year of attending the Slade School of Fine Art to study drawing under Henry Tonks, Leon Underwood had become the assistant teacher for life drawing at the Royal College of Art. He later opened the Brook Green School of Drawing at his home studio; the students under his tutelage included Eileen Agar, Blair Hughes-Stanton, Gertrude Hermes, Vivian Pitchforth, Henry Moore and Raymond Coxon. The men and women who passed through the doors of his school are praised as the most influential of the interwar period and yet he has lacked widespread consideration. As former director of Tate Britain Sir John Rothenstein stated: ‘No artist of his generation… has been so little honoured and indeed so neglected.’

So how is it that Leon Underwood – unlike his widely celebrated pupils – has fallen so much from view? Perhaps it was to do with his versatility. He was a painter, sculptor, draughtsman, printmaker, and illustrator, and due to what R.H. Wilenski described as his ‘restless progress’, Underwood did not have an instantly recognisable ‘style’ that could be easily categorised. When a remarkable series of etchings produced between 1921-22 demonstrated the strength of his draughtsmanship, London’s Chenil Gallery displayed them alongside the then famous Augustus John. Art historian Christopher Neve even described the etchings as ‘unsurpassed of their kind in the period immediately after the war’.

Two Musicians by Leon Underwood, 1925
Two Musicians by Leon Underwood, 1925

“No artist of his generation has been so little honoured and indeed so neglected”

Reclining Model in the Studio by Leon Underwood, 1920
Reclining Model in the Studio by Leon Underwood, 1920

The Family by Leon Underwood,1936
The Family by Leon Underwood, 1936

When wood engraving was introduced to the Brook Green School in 1923, Underwood and his pupils began to experiment with tools and techniques to achieve new and unusual effects. This was to be a precursor to his formation of the English Wood Engraving Society in 1925. After moving to New York in 1926, Underwood subsequently became a leading figure in wood-engraved book and magazine illustration. His illustration of Phillips Russell’s book The Red Tiger, 1929, had the greatest impact on his career, and introduced Mexican themes into his work.

While other British artists were deliberating over the question of how to ‘go modern and be British’ Underwood sidestepped the debate entirely by drawing on his first-hand experience of native traditions and ‘primitive’ cultures. He wrote seminal books on the masks, bronzes and wooden figures of West Africa and became fascinated by the relevance of prehistoric art to the 20th century.

The medium of sculpture seemed to fuse the directness and vitality of tribal art with Underwood’s understanding of European traditions, and works such as Recumbent Knight (Catafalque), 1935, heralded his return to sculpture. Later in the decade, his appreciation of ‘the rhythm of materials’ was to inform a series of dramatic sculptures, which reflected his belief in the ‘life-giving force’ of the figure and his goal of artstically expressing a sense of ‘pure plastic rhythm’.

Underwood’s complex ideas and, sometimes, esoteric philosophies, did not always endear him to the mainstream. Whilst his work was always changing, he was devoted to the representation of the human figure and particularly to drawing from life. It’s this theme of ‘figure and rhythm’ which brings together the body of work shown at Pallant House Gallery, through which Underwood’s legacy and his position in the history of modern British art ought to be reassessed.

Figure and Rhythm runs at Pallant House Gallery until 14 June 2015

Words Simon Martin

Soaked, Not Resting: negotiating the unprimed canvas

A new exhibition examines the canvas staining techniques used by Helen Frankenthaler and Aimée Parrott, two unique artists separated by a generation

Soaked, Not Resting is a new show at London’s Pippy Houldsworth Gallery, which sets out to explore the work of two unique artists and their use of canvas staining techniques. The Mayfair-based gallery is displaying pieces by the late American artist Helen Frankenthaler and emerging British painter Aimée Parrott, both of whom employ ‘soak-stain’ processes to manipulate unprimed canvases — a practice made famous by abstract expressionists such as Jackson Pollock. Conor Mahon speaks to Parrott and the exhibition’s curator, Jon Horrocks, about artistic breakthroughs, their technical approaches, and Frankenthaler’s legacy.

When did you first encounter Frankenthaler’s art?

Aimée Parrott: Early on in my BA at University College Falmouth, I saw The Bay and was astounded by it. Compared to a painter like Jackson Pollock, Frankenthaler’s work seemed to be less aggressive and more expansive; her paintings were simultaneously bold and light.

What I grew to admire in her work – and in work by painters like Joan Mitchell – was the combination of figuration and abstraction. For me, their paintings don’t seem to be about a reductive purity, but rather the relationship between memory, experience and the act of painting.

Aimée Parrott, First Hand, Second Hand, 2014 – watercolour and acrylic medium on bleach-treated canvas
Aimée Parrott, First Hand, Second Hand, 2014 – watercolour and acrylic medium on bleach-treated canvas

Aimée Parrott, Secondary Wrinkles, 2014 – dye and printing ink on calico
Aimée Parrott, Secondary Wrinkles, 2014 – dye and printing ink on calico

How has Frankenthaler’s manipulation of the canvas influenced you?

Aimée Parrott: I think the staining technique she used made such an impact on me because it emphasised a certain duality in painting; the surface is as much a part of the work as the paint that sits on it. Frankenthaler once said: ‘I have always been concerned with painting that simultaneously insists on a flat surface and then denies it.’ I feel that the emphasis of this double vision instills a dynamism in the thing you are looking at. The use of raw canvas allows the mark to sink beneath the surface, becoming an integral part of the fabric – a stretched out object, like a skin under which one can trace action.

“Soaked, not resting” was phrase Frankenthaler used to describe a breakthrough when creating Mountains and Sea. What eureka moments did you experience when creating this series of works?

Aimée Parrott: I think that my most recent breakthrough was probably the creation of the ‘over-lap’, where the surface of the painting is reproduced by scanning and then printed onto another fabric hanging loosely over the original. I think the simplicity of this technique lends the work a physical ambivalence between original and reproduction, between painting and sculpture. Superimposing one piece onto another creates a sort of syncopated rhythm so that it exists in direct relation to the next.

When did you first encounter both artists’ work?

Jon Horrocks: I’ve known Frankenthaler’s work for many years and always had a soft spot for her paintings. I first encountered Parrott’s work at the Royal Academy Graduate Show in 2014 and was instantly blown away by the removed, ghost-like quality that characterised her mark making.

How and why did you bring their paintings together?

Jon Horrocks: We wanted to position the physicality of the canvas historically by recalling the developments by America’s colour field painters of the 1950s and 1960s, who famously drew attention to the flatness of the canvas’ surface. Soaked, Not Resting examines the ways Frankenthaler and Parrott negotiate that picture plane.

What were the main challenges in curating this exhibition?

Jon Horrocks: We didn’t want to be overly prescriptive and force a direct link between the two artists. To avoid this, we didn’t show Parrott the works we had selected by Frankenthaler prior to the show, which allowed the similarities and differences in the work to come out naturally.

Aimée Parrott, Tears, 2014 – watercolour and acrylic medium on bleach-treated canvas
Aimée Parrott, Tears, 2014 – watercolour and acrylic medium on bleach-treated canvas

Helen Frankenthaler  Quattrocento, 1984  acrylic on canvas
Helen Frankenthaler, Quattrocento,1984 – acrylic on canvas

Can you tell us more about the technical side of both painters’ work and why their relationship with the canvas is so intriguing?

Jon Horrocks: Frankenthaler is renowned as an exponent of colour field painting, for pouring thinned paint directly onto raw and unprimed canvas. Frankenthaler did away with heavy, material brushstrokes and, instead, used squeegees, sponges and household brushes to manoeuvre the paint horizontally across the surface.

Parrott uses this ‘soak-stain’ effect to a similar end. Her large watercolour paintings use an open screen-printing technique where pigment is transferred directly onto the canvas through a polyester mesh.

The result from Frankenthaler is an emphasis on the flatness of the canvas; Parrott instead plays with pictorial depth by building up veil-like layers of colour that coalesce into amorphous forms.

Soaked, Not Resting runs at Pippy Houldsworth Gallery until 21 February 2015