Archive for category: Visual Arts

Comics Unmasked at the British Library

Hugh Armitage takes at a look at the Comics Unmasked exhibition at the British Library and how the British comic has always been about the outsider.


Comics Unmasked, Jamie Hewlett   (Click images to enlarge)

British comics have always been a bit queer.

That is not to say that in the history of comics in this country – which stretches back to the Glasgow Looking Glass in 1825, at least – has focused solely or chiefly on LGBT characters, or to imply some grand scheme of gay subtext running through 76 years of The Beano.

Those would be pretty outlandish claims, or would at least involve some complicated and persuasive arguments. But what British comics have demonstrated from an early age is representation of The Other – the minority, the underdog, the queer. This is something that the British Library’s current exhibition, Comics Unmasked, repeatedly demonstrates.

The exhibition is not without its flaws, and has been accused of failing to represent the enormous breadth of UK comics, particularly in terms of the current, booming scene. But even if it is not enormous enough, it still represents a vast array of comics and queer and gay themes of all sorts. And for comics fans, who were for a long time another sort of outsider, it is gratifying to see the sustained interest that curators Paul Gravett, John Harris Dunning and Adrian Edwards have been able to attract.


Mr Punch, Raven Hill /  The Tragical Comedy or Comical Tragedy of Mr Punch, Neil Gaiman, Dave McKean

The exhibition (which was designed by the unstoppable Dave McKean) with a section dedicated to the crossover of comics with those seaside perennials Punch and Judy. The figure of Mr Punch is so familiar it is easy to forget how much of a symbol of antiestablishment he is, beating to death first his wife, then a policeman, and, finally, the devil himself.

The first open section of Comics Unmasked is somewhat jarring, with several examples of American comics, even if they do feature the works of acclaimed UK creators including Alan Moore, Kevin O’Neill and Garth Ennis.

Slightly further in however, you will stumble across the harrowing 100 Months by John Hicklenton. The day after completing his graphic novel, an account of the agonising exploration of his battle with multiple sclerosis, the artist took himself off to Dignitas in Switzerland.


100 Months, Jonathan Hicklenton /  The Spiral Cage, Al Davidson

People with disabilities and terminal illnesses – another group treated as outsiders – is also represented here with examples such as Al Davidson’s autobiographical account of living with spina bifida, The Spiral Cage.

The second main section of Comics Unmasked deals explicitly with representation in British comics, from the poor and working classes – championed in the Victorian era by Ally Sloper – to ethnic minorities in Pat Mills’ Third World War and comics about and by women (who are not actually a minority, believe it or not).

This section includes John Smith and Sean Phillips’ Straitgate, a surreal and disturbing contribution to the Crisis anthology in 1990. It centres around a troubled young, reaching out for help which fails to come through in time. The implication throughout is that he is struggling to come to terms with his sexuality.

It also includes a page from Grant Morrison’s Invisibles, a celebration of counterculture and nonconformity. It featured among its main cast Lord Fanny, a Brazilian trans shaman who was one of the series most memorable and likeable characters.

Inevitably, gay and queer themes become more overt moving into the politics and sex sections. The focus is, again inevitably, frequently on the AIDS crisis, although an interesting difference between the mainstream media’s approach and that of many cartoonists emerges. The John Hurt-voiced television advert managed was deadly serious, but puritanical to the point that the imagery could hardly be less representative of the crisis at hand.



In comics, creators proved less afraid to shy away from both humour and stark reality when it came to the epidemic. Strip Aids attracted the attention of creators from both sides of the pond, including Moore, Melinda Gebbie, Hunt Emerson and Daniel Clowes for an anthology that attempts to relate the facts with humour and honesty, an approach captured in the short strips by David Shenton on display in the exhibition.

Another popular subject was Section 28 and other laws restricting ‘homosexual activity’, and cartoonists approach these in a similar style. In their 1977 strip It Don’t Come Easy, Eric Presland and Julian Howell make a joke out of the many precautions gay men were forced to take to ensure that their hookups were within the bounds of the law. But it’s not all giggles, evident in Charles Shaar Murray and Floyd Hughes’ menacing contribution to AARGH! (Artists Against Rampant Government Homophobia), an anthology which raised funds to fight against Section 28.

And what would a section on sex be without some joyful and apolitical depictions of sex. There is a Rogue strip by cartoonist and former HIM Magazine co-owner Oliver Frey, in which the impossibly sexy and idealised eponymous stud ravages yet another young man. Frey’s work is both erotic and technically beautiful, and in conversation with Rupert Smith at a British Library event last month, he revealed a innocence and almost naivety to the fantasies he depicts which make them all the more charming.


Rogue, Oliver Frey /  King, Bill Ward

To the right of Frey’s Rogue sits another HIM Magazine contribution, a King strip by the late, lamented Bill Ward. King promised “a fantasy where all things are possible”, giving the cartoonist space to experiment with his artwork and introduce science fiction and fantasy themes into his sexual encounters. Tragically, much of Ward’s work was lost when his collection was destroyed after his death in 1996.

The curation of the superhero section does not quite grasp Britain’s ambivalence towards the largely American phenomenon – an ambivalence that spawned parodies of the genre like Judge Dredd and Nemesis the Warlock. The exhibition lacks many of Britain’s queer superheroes, such as Smith’s Devlin Waugh, but does feature Warren Ellis’s American comic Authority. The page in question shows Apollo and Midnighter, two lovers who are barely veiled analogues of Superman and Batman. Rumour has it that they were a key driving force behind DC Comics’ acquisition of publisher WildStorm.

A beautifully painted page from Pat Mills and Simon Bisley’s Slaine: The Horned God is also on display – certainly the most erudite assessment of matriachal leadership versus the patriachal status quo in superhero comics.


The Unspeakable Mr Hart, William Burroughs, Malcolm McNeill

The final section focuses on magic and expanding the mind more than any particular queer themes, but does include The Unspeakable Mr Hart by queer icon William S Burroughs and artist Malcolm McNeill, as well as some contributions by occultist Aleister Crowley, who was famously happy to sleep with anyone so long as their name was numerologically significant.

What to make of British comics propensity for the queer? More so than American comics – which sold by the millions in its heyday – in the UK it has remained a largely marginalised medium, reserved for schoolchildren at best and ‘weirdos’ at worst. This underground quality has made it the perfect place for LGBT and other alternative content to thrive.


Trials Of Nasty Tales

It could also be argued that Britain has been very lucky in its success stories, with the likes of Moore, Morrison, Ellis and Mills all eager to explore queer themes in their work. Arguably, that very success has been due to their intelligence, originality and willingness to look beyond the ordinary, everyday heterosocial world that confronts us.

As observed earlier, there are some brilliant creators working today that Comics Unmasked does not even touch upon – queer and otherwise – including Howard Hardiman, Sina Sparrow, Timothy Winchester, Elliot Baggott, Julia Scheele, Dan Berry, Tom Humberstone, Isabel Greenberg, Hannah Berry and many, many more. Anyone interested in what they find at the British Library is encouraged to look beyond at the wealth of comics released every week.

Comics Unmasked is a sprawling, flawed and fascinating exhibition and, whatever its failures, its successes include opening a window on just how queer UK comics are.

The final weekend of the exhibition (August 15-17) will include a talk with Scott Pilgrim creator Bryan Lee O’Malley, a Great War in Comics talk hosted by Pat Mills, a discussion on Sex, Censorship and Sensibility with Comic Book Legal Defense Fund director Charles Brownstein and UK comics industry veteran Tim Pilcher, and more.

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Matisse: The Cut Outs & British Folk Art


    (Click Images to enlarge)

Matisse: The Cut Outs & British Folk Art

Matisse: The Cut Outs British Folk Art 
Henri Matisse / Various
Tate Modern / Tate Britain, London • Until September 7 / August 31, 2014
Michael Langan reviews

In the last couple of years there has been a resurgence of interest in so-called ‘outsider art’, with major shows at the Wellcome Collection in London and at the 2013 Venice Biennale. ‘Folk art’ is in many ways related to outsider art, not least because these designations of ‘folk’ and ‘outsider’ are increasingly contentious and Tate Britain have now mounted the first major exhibition of British folk art by a national museum. Having seen the Wellcome Collection exhibition and a major show of Art Brut (an earlier, European, term for outsider art) at the Arpad Szenes – Viera da Silva Museum in Lisbon, it struck me that outsider art is usually made by people who are marginalised or institutionalised in some way, and their work is often characterised by an obsessive approach to its subject, sometimes manifesting itself in fantastical landscapes and strange hybrid figures.

Folk art, whilst also made by those who are self-taught, or whose skills are learned in a craft environment and remain outside of an art ‘establishment’, tends to exist within certain traditions and utilises particular materials that have been seen, at various times, as lesser or insubstantial. As Tate’s curators of British Folk Art point out, the Royal Academy, on its foundation in 1769, were at pains to make a distinction between the fine arts and craft, stating that “no needlework, artificial flowers, cut paper, shell work, or any such baubles should be admitted.”


Hanging Partridge, Mary Linwood (Late 18C) / Crimean Quilt, Unknown

The designation of certain kinds of art as ‘folk’ also raises issues around class and gender. Many of those ways of working barred from inclusion by the Royal Academy were undertaken predominantly by women and/or working class men. Many of the works in Tate Britain’s exhibition are anonymous because their creators were either not known or documented. Perhaps what they were doing was seen as ‘work’ not ‘art’ but such distinctions need to be challenged, as they are in this exhibition and by artists such as Tracey Emin, who has used embroidery in her work, and Grayson Perry, famous for his ceramics and as a champion of the idea of artist as craftsperson.

All of this was brought home to me when visiting British Folk Art on the same day as going to see Tate Modern’s current blockbuster exhibition of Matisse’s Cut-Outs. I guess the Royal Academy of 1769 would have refused to show them – “cut paper” being one of those “baubles” inadmissible for their consideration. That would have been their great loss because these are astonishingly joyful and sophisticated works. Matisse, the great master of colour, first started using shapes cut from painted paper to help him work out the composition of his canvases. Eventually, the technique took on a life of its own and he used it to create decorative schemes, posters and books, stage design and stained glass windows. Later on, as his mobility became impaired and he could no longer paint, he was still able to cut paper in his chair or in bed, then hand it to assistants who, directed by him, would pin it in place.


Parakeet and the Mermaid, Henri Matisse (1952)

Many of the works in this exhibition were produced when Matisse was in his eighties and they have an energy and vibrancy that show him burning bright towards the end of his life. The cutting of the paper itself was often done very quickly, which gives the forms he uses their free-flowing nature. It’s crucial to see the cut-outs in the flesh, as it were, because the three-dimensional quality that they have, whether because of the collage-like layering of paper on paper, or the vibrating of colours placed side by side, is totally lost in reproduction. Scale also becomes very important here – standing in front of The Parakeet and the Mermaid, for instance, or Large Decoration with Masks, is a totally immersive and dazzling experience. As a summer exhibition this is perfection and I left feeling rejuvenated – it’s like being bathed in sunshine, cleansed by the sea and stroked by a cool breeze all in one go.

I wasn’t as equally engaged by all of the works in British Folk Art. There are quite a lot of ships’ masthead figures and shop signs that I personally found only marginally interesting. My main fascination was with smaller-scale objects, such as the paper and fabric collages made by the tailor George Smart and sold in his shop, or the quilts, blankets and embroideries made by individuals or groups, usually for their own use or as an expression of their own interests and creative ideas. An embroidered map of the Solar System from 1811 is one fascinating example of that, as is a beautiful blanket made by soldiers during the Crimean War from patches of dyed wool taken from uniforms. Making the blanket was encouraged by their superior officers because it was seen as good for them after the horrors and trauma they had endured in conflict. There is perhaps a moment of overlap here between folk art and outsider art, where the nature of the craft and the act of making has a therapeutic effect and becomes infused with a personal and social function beyond itself.


Goose Woman (detail), George Smart (c. 1840) / Icarus, Henri Matisse (1947)

The works in British Folk Art have been borrowed from many museums around the UK and it’s worth noting that it’s often in these ‘local’ museums where folk art and crafts have been preserved when large ‘national’ institutions have not previously valued them. Tate Britain is to be commended for seeking to break down these barriers and redress the balance. The life and career of Mary Linwood provides a case in point. Linwood (1756-1845) was one of the most famous artists of her day. She copied paintings in embroidery – ‘needle-paintings’ they were called – and so extraordinary was her skill that many of those viewing them refused to believe they weren’t actual paintings. A permanent exhibition of her works was established at a gallery in Leicester Square, where it stayed for fifty years and was a huge tourist attraction. After Linwood’s death her works were dispersed and, having already become somewhat unfashionable, sold for very modest prices. She is now virtually unknown and, regardless of what you might think of her needle-paintings as art, there’s no doubt her technique and skill are breathtaking. It’s not difficult to conclude that, had she been able to work in paint rather than the more ‘feminine’ pursuit of embroidery, she would now be considered a major artist.

Tate Modern’s Matisse exhibition includes a wonderful piece of film of him at work, sitting in a chair, painted sheet of paper in one hand, scissors smoothly cutting out forms with the other. At some point I noticed that all of the assistants Matisse handed the shapes to for pinning and fixing in place were young women. I couldn’t help but think that maybe if these women were making the cut-outs themselves they wouldn’t have been seen as art at all, merely ‘baubles.’

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Chris Marker: A Grin Without a Cat


Ouvroir: The Movie (2010) ©  Centre Pompidou    (Click Images to enlarge)

Chris Marker: A Grin Without a Cat

Chris Marker
Whitechapel Gallery, London – E1 7QX • April 16 – June 22, 2014
Simon Foxall reviews

Almost immediately on entering Chris Marker: A Grin Without a Cat, the UK’s first retrospective of this enigmatic and provocative French filmmaker, visitors are greeted by a large orange and black cartoon cat. A mysterious case of false advertising perhaps? All will become clear. The cat is painted directly on to the wall and a large speech bubble above his head asks us: “Wanna know more?”

Chris Marker, born Christian François Bouche-Villeneuve in Paris, in 1921, is considered to be the finest exponent of the ‘essay film’ and is best known for his cult sci-fi, post-apocalyptic, time-traveling romance, La Jetée (1962). At just 28 minutes long and comprised solely of still photographs, La Jetée is an enduring masterpiece; understated and minimal yet sweepingly epic. Unsurprisingly, it is given its own room here. Furthermore, The Whitechapel have a rare treat for Marker aficionados; this version of La Jetée has an alternative opening sequence.

But the question on this exhibition’s lips is ‘Wanna know more?’ What lies beyond the jetty?

The curators of A Grin Without a Cat have set themselves the task of exploring the wider scope of Marker’s extraordinary practice, from filmmaker to photographer, writer, editor, poet, cartoonist and activist. The exhibition includes five multimedia installations, a series of travel books called Petite Planète (1954-58) covering countries that inspired his first ‘photo essays’ and a large selection of photographs from his extensive Staring Back series that ran from 1952-2006.


Staring Back Series: They Stare (1952-2006) Courtesy Peter Blum Gallery, New York

Marker rarely gave interviews, resisted being photographed, and was a serious cat lover. When he was asked for photographs of himself he would often send an image of a cat instead. In later life he worked with digital art forms, adopting the online persona of a cartoon cat called Guillaume-en-Egypte. Guillaume is our introduction, leading us in to the first gallery with a question and acting as the Whitechapel’s statement of intent. The exhibition meditates on various key themes in Marker’s practice: the Museum, Travel, Image & Text, and War & Revolution. This attempt to categorise his work is perhaps a useful curatorial exercise, but as an exhibition structure is somewhat unnecessary.

The exhibition proper starts with Ouvroir: The Movie (2010), a guided tour given by Guillaume-en-Egypte around a virtual museum Marker created on the website Second Life. Here, we are introduced to a lesser-known area of his practice; cartoon cats, CD-ROMs and the noisy, multi-coloured, multimedia installation Zapping Zone (Proposal for Imaginary Television) (1990-94). These works seem to both reflect and predict the pervasiveness and persuasiveness of contemporary digital and online culture.


Zapping Zone (Proposals for Imaginary Television) (1990-1994) Photo Georges Meguerditchian

Zapping Zone imagines a televisual realm in which digital interaction becomes structured by, and informative of, the personal mythologies of the user, inferred with low-fi ‘90s graphics, advertising, politics and loads of flashing, gaudy colours. This is a currency that resonates with a great deal of contemporary post internet art, however, while the latter often (somewhat conservatively) uses digital culture as little more than a limited code of aesthetics, Marker engages in the zapping zone as provocative and propositional, imagining subjectivities emerging through, and expanded by, television. This is curated in conversation with the essay film Les Statues Meurent Aussi (Statues Also Die) from 1953. Co-directed with Alain Resnais, the film won the 1954 Prix Jean Vigo and is a challenging exploration of the appropriation and misinterpretation of African culture by colonial powers and Western art and design from the 19th Century up to the time when the film was made.

In relation to Zapping Zone, this work explores the subsuming and revising of mythologies and subjectivity from a very different position of privilege. The eponymous statues die robbed of the identity, mystery and magic with which they were once imbued. The film is a sharp critique of Empire and the rhetoric (more prevalent at the time) concerning the so-called benefits of colonialism to the nations that were once occupied. The anti-colonialist sprit of this unflinching polemic resulted in the film being heavily edited in France, the original being banned for over a decade and not shown there until 1968.


Le Joli Mai (1962) Courtesy La Sofra, Paris

Le Joli Mai (1963), a portrait of Paris and Parisians just after the Algerian War of Independence engaging with individuals on the street in a journey, as intimate and individual as it is political and international.

The exhibition ends with Marker’s most political work A Grin Without a Cat (1977), the work that gives this retrospective its name. The title refers to the Cheshire Cat from Alice in Wonderland, using his fugitive and illusionary nature as a metaphor for the rise and fall of new left wing politics, particularly in France and Latin America in the ’60s and ’70s. The original title was Le fond de l’air est rouge (The essence of the air is red) implying the sad failure of ‘red’ social idealism that, in the end, existed only in the air.


La Jetée (1962) Image courtesy BFI Stills Collection

The poetry and pain of failed politics and the reverence and risk in populist modes of expression and communication are recurring and sometimes co-dependent essences in the air throughout this retrospective. It’s worth walking back through the galleries to take another spin around the cat-less grin that is Marker’s oeuvre. Guillaume-en-Egypte is not the cat we thought he was; he isn’t the cat of the exhibition’s title and there is a whole other message behind his grin and his casual, colloquial enquiry. He is Marker after all, existing as an immortal motif, referring to a famous recluse’s choice of public face and is both within and without the structures of illusion and fragility, the evocations of mortality and subjectivity that hover purposefully nearby even the most hyperactive and spurting works. La Jetée twists time and space and death and our hearts towards its famous grin-less cat of a conclusion and Guillaume is outside that room too, asking again, benignly:“Wanna know more?”

In Marker’s turbulent, shifting, mesmerising practice, more is never enough.

Hannah Höch • Whitechapel Gallery

Hannah Hoch self portrait, Polari Magazine

Hannah Höch, Self Portrait (1926) (Click Images to enlarge)

Hannah Höch

Hannah Höch
Whitechapel Gallery, London – E1 7QX • January 15 – March 23, 2014
Simon Foxall reviews

If the Whitechapel Gallery wanted to distance itself from the reductive assessments that have been Hannah Höch’s fate – the Dadaist, the feminist, the bisexual ex-girlfriend of Raoul Hausmann – then they have done a pretty good job with this exhibition, the largest retrospective of Höch’s work ever staged in the UK.

Born in 1889 in Gotha, Germany, Höch exhibited in the first Dadaist exhibition in 1920. The anti-art spirit of Dadaism had been a direct reaction to the horrors of World War I and much of Höch’s most famous work emerges from the increasing social instability of the interwar years. But it is a drive of a more personal nature that is illuminated by the work on show at the Whitechapel; a response to gender, self-definition, resistance and mobilisation. The essence of her language of re-examination and re-addressing patriarchy is to dismantle the world through its populist manifestations and create something new with insightful sharpness, wit and an instinct for subversion.

Coquette by Hannah Hoch

Coquette (1925)

Coquette (1925) is a playful myth/pop romance. An expensively dressed flapper sits atop a plinth, her mask-like face teetering on the edge of her neck and threatening to float free. Her attendees are a child with the head of a dog and a dog with the head of a man. A beetle crosses what reads as the sun. Coquette audaciously sets up its references; the Ancient Queen/Thoroughly Modern Millie is god-like, her suitors are subverted allusions to infancy, the animal and the patriarchal.

Dialogues concerning race, colonialism and the dominance of the West infuse certain works. In the Untitled (From an Ethnographic Museum) series, images of traditional African masks and sculpture become flesh, become fashion, become cinematic and performative, and the connotations that these objects bring – of religious and cultural significance – become part of a dialogue concerning institutionalisation and involve flippant sampling. The spectre of the ‘Ethnographic Museum’ evoked by the series can be seen as a metaphor for the rewriting and favourable editing of history and cultural significance, as well as the objectification of women and the ‘other’, a recurring theme in her work.

Untitled [From an Ethnographic Museum] by Hannah Hoch

Untitled [From an Ethnographic Museum] (1930)

The political and cultural landscape of the interwar period imbued her work with an urgency and specificity which has long maintained the sense that it is a statement of intent, a comment. There is a joyful anarchy that feels like it can be broken down and analysed, it feels like it can be ‘interpreted’. The racial cues, the gender inversions and the unhinging of patriarchal prejudice feel like propositions of rebellion delicately crafted and intricately snipped into place. Yet the standard set by this perception means that Höch’s later work (of which a great deal is on show here) can lack some of that purpose and, as such, has been often overlooked.

She is to art history ‘The female Dadaist’, and while that period was a time of great productivity for her, as a summary of her work it is over-simplified. Her post-war work becomes more introspective, more abstracted and poetic in a way that serves to re-frame her more famous works. The Whitechapel takes this period more seriously than most, and does a good job of introducing us to subtler artist, one who has developed a more personal language, without the earlier fireworks of fervently undermining the Third Reich with decapitated flappers.

Abstraction, expanding post-war consumer culture, the fantastical and mass entertainment, are the themes that come into focus in Höch’s later work, proposing fugitive spaces in a continual state of flux, suggestions of synthesis and undoing, dislodging image from association and keeping their new found ambiguity perpetually in play. The work has not become less political, it has just altered its relationship to politics. There is a fainter sense of mistrust built in to her escapism, of the sinister in the seductive, of the fight in the fantasy. There are fewer emblems here, fewer symbols, but a nagging buzz beneath the beauty that often refuses to show itself in the starkness of her earlier work.

Little Sun, by Hannah Hoch

Little Sun (1969)

There are problems with this show of course, but they are not Höch’s responsibility. There is far too much work for a start. In focusing only on her collages, the Whitechapel has presented itself with the problem of making a dynamic exhibition out of a lot of similarly sized, quite small works. The answer is not to cram them in. These works demand close inspection and time. It could have done with a strict edit, not to give the show less space but to give each individual work far more. These pieces are, at their best, powerful propositions and jewel-like negotiations of gender, subjectivity, identity, politics, oppression and fantasy, and a truly remarkable show would be one that trusted those works to carry themselves with a presence beyond their scale. Having said that, in Höch’s words, “art is the daughter of the spirit” and the Whitechapel has presented a rare and valuable opportunity to commune with the ambiguity and the mystery of that spirit, not to simply rely on her reputation as a satirist and an activist.

The exhibition closes with one of her final works, Life Portrait 1972-3, a very large collage of collages in which Höch revisits her artistic legacy in a way that reminds us to ask why it has taken so long for a British gallery to do the same. Life Portrait is both amusingly grandiose and endearingly gauche, the repetitive punctuation of Höch’s face tapping its way evenly across the surface, jostling for space amongst a roll call of her trademark imagery. This could so easily have gone horribly wrong, but it doesn’t. Höch’s revisitation is an epic swansong as much as it is an act of creation. It is a contemplation of that “daughter of the spirit” present through a life’s work spent embracing ephemera just enough to intuit its evocations, before turning its back on itself.


Making Visible • Paul Klee

Making Visible  
Paul Klee
Tate Modern, Bankside, London – SE1 9TG • October 16 – March 9, 2014

Paul-Klee, Tate Modern

Paul Klee, Bauhaus in Weimar 1922  (Click Images to enlarge)

Tate Modern’s Paul Klee: Making Visible offers a substantial, chronological survey of the popular German painter’s work. If, like me, you are mostly familiar with Klee’s so-called ‘magic-square’ paintings then this show is full of surprises, brilliantly illustrating the variety and invention of Klee’s overall output. Throughout his life he was always developing, both as a painter-technician and as an inspirational teacher. In so many of the works displayed in this fantastically comprehensive exhibition, their power comes from a deeply considered and thoughtful approach to painting that is both formally experimental and dazzlingly creative. The exhibition’s title is taken from a statement Klee published in 1920, his ‘Creative Confession.’ In it, he says that “Art does not reproduce the visible; rather, it makes the visible.” In his work, Klee was a definite visionary.

One of the things this exhibition shows is Klee’s influences working very strongly upon him as he searched for his own artistic vocabulary. He was a friend of Kandinsky, and a fellow member of Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider), a group of Expressionist painters. In the energetic forms, liveliness and colour of his early work you can see a definite relationship between the two artists. Given that Klee was earning money as a professional musician at the time, and Kandinsky’s well-known engagement with music in his painting, that relationship is even more apparent. Similarly, you can detect the influence of Robert Delauney in Klee’s experiments with blocks of geometric colour that he was to continue to develop throughout his life and which are, to my mind, his most successful works (though the paintings are surprisingly small-scale – I’d always imagined them large enough to fill your field of vision without having to get up close). The combining of these colour experiments with elements of landscape, narrative and figuration also indicates Klee engaging with cubism, which he’d seen at exhibitions in Munich and Paris. But not for him the sludgy brown, green and grey palette of Picasso and Braque, rather his paintings shimmer and glow with beautifully rich greens, purples and reds.

Opened Mountain, Paul Klee, Tate Modern

Opened Mountain (1914)

Klee’s life and career spanned the most turbulent period of European history. In June 1914 he went to Tunisia and, while there, was able to develop further a free use of colour and form, inspired by the light and landscape enveloping him. A passage from his diary illustrates the pivotal effect this trip had on him:

Colour possesses me. I don’t have to pursue it. It will possess me always, I know. That is the meaning of this happy hour: colour and I are one. I am a painter.

The results can be seen in works like Opened Mountain (1914) and Translucencies Orange Blue (1914). Later that year, Europe was plunged into the nightmare of WWI, which Klee survived because of a policy, instigated in 1916, of exempting artists from front line duty. Klee had already lost some of his closest friends and this trauma precipitated further moves towards abstraction: “The more horrible this world, the more abstract our art,” he wrote.

After the war, buoyed by revolutionary spirit, his work became even bolder and more colourful. Paintings like With the Violet Pentagon (1919) and Redgreen and Violet/Yellow Rhythms (1920) have an incredible energy and vibrancy to them. The latter also includes trees in its fragmented plane and Klee never departed very far from his love of the natural world, even in his abstract one. In his Ways of Nature Study published in 1923 Klee wrote:

The artist of today is more than an improved camera; he is more complex, richer and wider. He is a creature on the earth and a creature within the whole, that is to say, a creature on a star amongst stars.

Redgreen and Violet-Yellow Rhythms, Paul Klee, Tate Modern

Redgreen and Violet-Yellow Rhythms (1920)

In so much of his work he combined the abstract with the figurative, the natural and the urban. Many of the ‘magic-square’ paintings depict or suggest landscapes, real or imagined and, just as the post-war world was changing irrevocably, so Klee wanted to create new harmonies of colour and relations between complex forms. In some of these he is explicitly attempting to create what he terms a ‘pictorial architecture.’ In Architecture (1923) and Pictorial Architecture Red, Yellow, Blue (1923) he is doing both that and responding to Russian Constructivist painters like Laszlo Maholy-Nagy. Klee was always learning, researching and teaching as he was practicing his art and he developed many theories and techniques that he passed on to his devoted students at the Bauhaus, many of whom elected to study there purely for Klee’s classes. A colleague of Klee’s wrote of him, “I have never seen a man who had such creative quiet. It radiated from him like the sun.”

In 1930 Klee was the first living European artist afforded a solo show at MOMA in New York. The Museum’s director had visited his studio a few years before and declared, “Nothing is more astonishing to the student of Klee than his extraordinary variety. Not even Picasso approaches him for inventiveness.” Following Hitler’s rise to power in 1933, Klee was one of those artists singled out by the Nazis as ‘degenerate’ and, after the Bauhaus was closed down and Klee was suspended from his teaching job at Dusseldorf Academy, he and his family fled to Switzerland. Works from this period in his life, such as Fire at Full Moon (1933), Fear (1934), and New Harmony (1936) show Klee’s ability to express the feelings of anxiety caused by the events in Europe, but also to carry on with his wider artistic mission regardless. This was also the case when, in 1935, he was diagnosed with a fatal, degenerative illness. Although his work rate slowed considerably it burns brightly in larger, colourfully illuminated works such as Park Near Lu (1938) and is also filled with despair, as in Catastrophe in a Dream (1940). He finally succumbed to his illness in 1940, aged just 60.

Ghost Of A Genius, Paul Klee, Tate Modern

Ghost of a Genius (1922)

One of my favourite paintings in the show is Ghost of a Genius (1922), thought by some to be a self-portrait of Klee as it has many of his facial characteristics. It was made using a method of transferring oil paint onto paper with a sharp instrument, rather like making a carbon copy. This gives it a smudgy, scratchy quality and, when combined with the puppet-like nature of the figure, the painting both engages and disturbs. His illness, as well as the events taking place in the world around him, made Klee acutely aware of the fragility of life and his own mortality. Perhaps this painting is indicative of how Klee saw himself; as controlling genius of his craft while being at the mercy of life’s trials, a ghost in the machine of art.

David Bowie Is

David Bowie Is  
David Bowie, Victoria Broackes and Geoffrey Marsh
The V&A, Cromwell Road, London SW7 2RL • March 23 – August 11, 2013

David Bowie Is, V&A

I grew up with David Bowie. My mother’s youngest brother, only ten years older than me, was Bowie-mad. He even had the crimson-dyed mullet to prove it. Every inch of his bedroom walls and ceiling plastered in pictures of his hero – huge posters, postage-stamp-size images cut from magazines and newspapers, no image too small not to merit a place. I’d visit my Nan each Saturday, bolt upstairs to Uncle Kev’s room, harass him from his hung-over slumber, and while I waited for him to get up, I’d sit on his bed drinking in the hundreds of Bowies …… the shaggy-haired fop reclining on a chaise longue in a silk dress …… gaunt Major Tom …… Aladdin Sane, that futuristic flash, bare chest and platinum tights, hips cocked forward, airbrushed crotch as sexless as Action Man’s yet overtly sexual …… a half-man half-canine whose sprawled thighs revealed the genitals of a Diamond Dog, not a ‘Queen Bitch’ ….. ’Star Man’, that golden circle painted on his forehead making him look like some Glam Rock Cyclops …… the trompe l’oeil cosmetic masks of Pinups – Bowie, one eye blue and the other hazel, staring with startled intent, while Twig The Wonder Kid gazed forlornly …… a Zoot-suited ‘Young American’ … an infant Zowie snuggled up to a thoroughly modern father, Bowie’s lipgloss and lurex light years away from my Brut-doused beige-clad dad …… not one Brylcreem-ed tangerine strand out of place despite the fact that this man had fallen to Earth from God-knows-where …… the robotic pose of ‘Heroes’. Then cancer took my beloved uncle in 1979, ironic that Bowie’s final incarnation to make it onto Uncle Kev’s wall-of-fame had been a poster of the cover of Lodger, Bowie’s dislocated corpse, prostrate against antiseptic tiles, seeming to symbolize the ravages terminal illness had wrought on Kevin who’d spent his twentieth year in and out of hospital. I don’t know what happened to those posters, but the records were bequeathed to me.

David Bowie Is, V&A

A few months after Kev’s death, Bowie unleashed Scary Monsters, and just as The Jean Genie had inspired Kev to dye his hair red, the ‘Ashes to Ashes’ promo, with its Blitz Kid co-stars, inspired me to raid my mother’s make-up – experimenting in private for the next couple of years until I was ready to go public, a fully-fledged New Romantic by age fourteen, with the sharpest lipline Birmingham had ever seen. Times change though, outré can become passé, ‘Let’s Dance’ those Conservative-with-a-capital-’C’  blues away, as the `80s inched on all of us guilty of growing a little duller. But Bowie’s legacy never let us down.

And that legacy, entwined so deep within the fabric of mine and millions of others’ formative psyches, has been woven into an exhibition which transcends being merely a meander through an icon’s golden years. We see a video installation of David Jones’ family home, sofa mutating into a jukebox, grainy black-and-white `50s grey Britain ripe to explode with the Pop Art `60s; we see the sculptural outfit from ‘Saturday Night Live’ displayed beside Dadaist Sonia Delaunay’s costume designs for the 1923 play ‘Le Coeur a Gaz’, contextualizing what inspired it; we see a photo of Dietrich, the embodiment for Bowie of Weimar pre-war decadence, her man-drag reworked in The Thin White Duke’s sharp-tailored suits; we see Eartha Kitt’s 1956 autobiography Thursday’s Child, the trigger for Bowie’s 1997 song of the same name; we see footage of space exploration; we see what Bowie wore in ‘Baal’, Brecht revived for a pop audience, a fan letter from Goodbye To Berlin author Christopher Isherwood; we see the set of keys, big as a jailor’s, to the Berlin apartment Bowie shared with Iggy Pop – keys that locked out the world on a thousand cocaine nights, nights which fuelled a trinity of Teutonic-cool albums that would inspire a New Wave generation; we see an original early-`70s make-up sketch – actual cosmetic daubs artfully contrived by an image-maker, an A4 paint-by-numbers map of what-goes-where, slavishly copied by legions of rebel rebels who’d get their mothers in a collective whirl; we see his handwritten lyrics – lyrics we’d memorize, decipher according to our own emotional needs, our anthems, rallying calls of rebellion, odes to heartbreak, our highs and lows on show. Then there are the stage costumes, iconic, as sacrosanct as the Turin shroud, as familiar to us as our own wardrobes, mannequins backed by live footage on ten-metre screens, sound and vision, extra-sensory overload, but so cleverly exhibited it never suffocates.

David Bowie Is, V&A

There are those a half-generation ahead of me who talk of the moment they saw Bowie’s first performance on Top of the Pops singing ‘Star Man’ as when it all began; but for me, still in Kindergarten when Ziggy first gate-crashed my consciousness, barely out of short trousers when ‘Boys Keep Swinging’ shook television sets with its video of Bowie dragged up as a latter-day Rita Hayworth, it really did all begin with Bowie – this wonderful retrospective more than a tribute to England’s greatest pop star, but a reminder of those Saturday mornings at Nan’s, of a sadly-missed uncle, of my New Romantic teenage wildlife, of the time I was booked to do Iman’s make-up and she made my year by saying when I was being my usual cheeky self “You’re just like my husband!” So drink, drink, drain your glass, raise your glass high – to the curators of The V&A’s ‘David Bowie Is’, Victoria Broackes and Geoffrey Marsh, and, of course, to the great man himself.

Habibi Problem • Cielaroque Dance Company

Habibi Problem
Cielaroque Dance Company
Bluecoat Chambers, Liverpool, L1 3BX  • November 14, 2012

Mahmoud Asgari and Ayaz Marhoni, Habibi Problem, Homotopia

In 2005, images of two Iranian teenagers, Mahmoud Asgari and Ayaz Marhoni, being publicly hanged caused shock and consternation around the world. Iranian authorities claimed that the two young men had been convicted of raping a 13-year old boy, whilst gay rights campaigners maintain that they were killed either for consensual sexual acts, or merely for the fact of being lovers. Whatever the details of the case, this barbaric act by a barbaric regime was a distressing one to bear witness to; photos showed them crying on the way to their execution, apparently resigned as nooses were placed around their necks, and finally dangling lifeless from ropes as the crowd look on. This incident and those emotive photographs have so far inspired poetry, an opera, a play and a forthcoming movie.

Habibi Problem, Cielaroque Dance, Homotopia

It was a lesser-known case that inspired the Austrian dance company, Cielaroque, to create their multi-media dance piece, Habibi Problem, in 2008, and its inclusion in the Homotopia festival marks its UK premiere. Mehdi Kazemi arrived in the UK on a student visa in 2004. While studying here, his boyfriend back home in Iran was arrested, charged with sodomy and, whilst under interrogation, gave up Kazemi’s name. Kazemi applied for, but was denied, asylum in the UK and so he fled to the Netherlands. His boyfriend was subsequently hanged in 2006. Thanks to fierce campaigning from MPs, MEPs and gay rights activists, the then Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith, promised to review his case on his return to London. In a letter to Smith, Kazemi wrote: “I wish to inform the Secretary of State that I did not come to the UK to claim asylum. I came here to study and return to my country. But in the past few months my situation back home has changed. The Iranian authorities have found out that I am a homosexual and they are looking for me.” He went on to say, “I cannot stop my attraction towards men. This is something that I will have to live with the rest of my life. I was born with the feeling and cannot change this fact but it is unfortunate that I cannot express my feeling in Iran. If I return to Iran I will be arrested and executed like my former boyfriend.” Thankfully, in May 2008, Mehdi Kazemi was finally granted asylum in the UK.

The Arabic word ‘Habibi’ is the male form of ‘darling’ or ‘my beloved.’ Cielaroque have devised a piece that, with its use of split screen filmed animation, is able to tell two stories at once – that of the escaped man and that of his imprisoned lover. On stage, the male soloist conveys through movement and stillness the repetitive and confining nature of confinement itself, the constant fear and trepidation of being under surveillance and, at one moment, the fierce act of defiance that dancing can be. The space he’s in could be a prison, a holding centre, or a hiding place, and the point is made that there are many countries in the world where gay men are persecuted, and many countries in the world carrying out different forms of execution. Our invitation to feel outrage is not confined to the narrow interpretation of Sharia law that the Iranian government indulges in, but it remains the focus of this telling of this particular story.

Habibi Problem, Cielaroque Dance, Homotopia

I did feel that there was a longer, more substantial piece, trying to escape from Habibi Problem. A larger exploration of the human effects of tyrannical attitudes towards homosexuality was waiting to be expressed and the dance vocabulary itself, whilst fascinating, concentrated too much on the minutiae of the individual and not enough on the universality of persecution. I understand that it is to individuals that these things happen, and it’s as individuals that we experience the artistic interpretation of them, but this was a missed opportunity, I thought, the raw material being too thinly applied. The story of Mehdi Kazemi and his executed boyfriend, like that of Mahmoud Asgari and Ayaz Marhoni, needs to be more widely told and in as many forms as possible, so that people understand what’s as stake across the world as gay rights becomes the latest human rights battleground.

Mark Morrisroe: Late Photograms

Late Photograms  
Mark Morrisroe (Open Eye Gallery)
19 Mann Island, Liverpool, L3 1BP  • September 15 – November 25, 2012

The performance artist, filmmaker and photographer Mark Morrisroe was an instrumental figure in the 1970s’ Boston punk scene. Mark Morrisroe’s brief life story – he died aged just 30 of an AIDS-related illness in 1989 – reads like a Dennis Cooper novel. Morrisroe became a male prostitue at 15, using the name Mark Dirt, and when he was 17 one of his clients shot him, leaving a fragment of bullet permanently lodged in his back. He used X-Rays of his torso throughout his work, the black spot of the bullet fragment creating a personal memento mori, which is also, perhaps, a shout of defiance in the face of death.

Mark Morrisroe, HomotopiaMark Morrisroe, Homotopia

© The Estate of Mark Morrisroe (Ringier Collection) at Fotomuseum Winterthur

At art school in Boston, Morrisroe was a prize-winning student as well as a drag performer and founder of the underground magazine Dirt. His photographic work continued and developed a punk aesthetic – his use of Polaroid as a medium that can be manipulated, scrawled upon, and drawn on, retains a particularly raw quality found in the work of artists such as Nan Goldin, a friend of Morrisroe’s. Like Goldin, Morrisroe took many photographs of himself, his friends, and people who just happened to drop by, documenting a milieu in New York and Boston that was wildly creative and not bound by commercial considerations.

The Homotopia festival, in partnership with the Liverpool Biennial and Open Eye Gallery, are presenting the first ever show of Morrisoe’s work in the UK. They have chosen to focus on photograms made in the last few years of Morrisoe’s life. Photograms are produced by placing objects on top of photographic paper, and exposing it to light. The quality of the resulting image depends on the transparency and layering of the objects. Morrisroe often chose to use the ephemera of everyday life – plastic bottles, pictures cut out of magazines and, most notably, images, adverts and text from porno mags.

Mark Morrisroe, HomotopiaMark Morrisroe, Homotopia

Apparently, Morrisroe sometimes worked in a makeshift darkroom set up in his hospital bathroom to create these photograms. Objects, bodies and text all become see-through, or silhouetted and reversed, even negativised, and, as a result, the vulnerability of things is emphasized. The colours are often garish, often degraded, like faded club flyers and vintage porn. The porn bodies, male and female, are written over and manipulated until they are both celebrated and degraded. Morrisroe seems to revel in the transgressive whilst also being aware of its transience.

In ‘Time to Fuck’ (1987) an advertisement for a watch is laid over thumbnails of gay porn: “Every 30 seconds,” the text reads, ”(2880 times a day) this unique and stylish watch will flash TIME TO FUCK on the dial face.” This stark division of time and its link with sex creates a uniquely modern memento mori, especially when you realise Morrisore was bravely documenting his own illness at the same time as making this work, exposing his now emaciated body to the same scrutiny as the beautiful body of his early twenties.

Mark Morrisroe, HomotopiaMark Morrisroe, Homotopia

On the 22nd November, there will be a special screening of Morrisoe’s rarely seen Super-8 films, The Laziest Girl in Town (1981), Hello from Bertha (1983) and Nymph-O-Maniac (1984). According to Homotopia, ‘These underground home movies are filled with thrift-store costumes, cheapo gore, trashy dialogue and gratuitous nudity, starring Morrisroe and his friends as performers”. If the photograms and photographs are anything to go by these films will be an invaluablerecord of a particular time and of individual lives that are long gone but well-worth remembering through exposure to a wider audience.

Mark Morrisroe: Super-8 Films
22 November, 7pm
FACT, Wood Street, L14DQ

Click here to visit the Open Eye Gallery website

Archetype at the Homotopia Festival

David Hoyle, Gerry Potter-Poet, Darren Pritchard, Julie ‘Psycho’ Jones & Rhyannon
Walker Art Gallery, William Brown St. Liverpool, L3 8EL  • Nov 11, 2012

As part of the Homotopia festival David Hoyle hosted Archetype at Liverpool’s extraordinary Walker Art Gallery – a grand Victorian edifice stuffed with incredible art and open to everyone. Over the course of an hour Hoyle introduced dance, music, poetry and comedy in grand surroundings and with breathtaking backdrops.

David Hoyle, Archetype Review, Homotopia

The event happening on Remembrance Sunday was something David Hoyle was particularly keen to extemporise on. This ‘celebration of brutality’ as he put it, and the dominance of the archetypal Alpha male’s philosophy as a mere excuse for fascism, contrasted sharply with the principle of art for all, art that could any day be sold to finance war and mass killing, and Hoyle lamented the current emphasis on carnage rather than creativity in our politics, our education, and our environment.

Darren Pritchard, Archetype Review, Homotopia

We were led by Hoyle into different rooms, bejeweled with bright pre-Raphaelite canvases, Victorian history paintings, Rembrandt portraits and medieval masterpieces, to be met with a performer in each. Rhyannon Styles created a repetitive-meditative piece of music and movement performed to a point of exhaustion, and Gerry Potter declaimed poetry celebrating the power of the effeminate male and the pleasures of a day on the lash. Darren Pritchard’s solo dance piece was thoughtful and compelling, questioning archetypes of identity and exploring notions of hiding and revealing. Finally, Julie ‘Psycho’ Jones’ comically and bitterly blurred the thin distinctions between archetype and stereotype – hers is a female identity not willing to be passive and pliant.

Julie 'Psycho' Jones, Archetype Review, Homotopia

David Hoyle has created other events like this in some of the UK’s leading public art institutions and long may he do so. He gives his audience his own unique take on these spaces and their collections, whilst obviously having a great deal of love and respect for the work and the artists who created them. His very presence is subversive – just witness the looks on the face of people as he strides round in his stilettos – and yet he seems to fit right in. Catch him at a gallery near you if you should get the chance.

New Paintings • Peter Doig

New Paintings  
Peter Doig
Michael Werner Gallery, 22 Upper Brook St, London, W1K 7PZ • September 27 – December 22, 2012

For a brief moment in 2007, when Charles Saatchi sold White Canoe for nearly six million pounds at Sotheby’s, the Scottish-born painter Peter Doig became Europe’s most expensive living artist. Prior to that Doig’s works had garnered modest prices and wide critical acclaim, having won first prize at the John Moores competition in 1993 and a nomination for the Turner Prize in 1994.

Fall in New York (Central Park) [2002-12] Peter Doig

Despite that, Doig has hardly become a household name, though Tate Britain afforded him the honour of a major retrospective exhibition in 2008. His current show of new work that opens the London branch of the prestigious Michael Werner Gallery (situated on the first floor of a beautiful Mayfair townhouse) confirms his position as one of the most significant painters working today.

Water and boats often feature in his landscapes, and they do here, with the human figure sometimes floating on or above water. The people are ghostly and ethereal, creating an air of mystery, of things just happened, or about to happen. Apparently Doig often works from found photographs, or film stills, though the relationship between his paintings and those found images feels like a tenuous one. It makes sense once you know it, rather than being apparent when you are looking at the paintings themselves. They definitely capture a moment, as photos often do, and frame a figure in space or a landscape so as to place them at a distance, as photos often do, but Doig is not bound by realist representation, as photos often are, but is more concerned with mood, tension, and atmosphere, stripping away the concrete, the real, to merge figuration with abstraction.

Walking Figure By Pool [2011] Peter Doig

Ultimately, it’s as a great colourist that Doig contributes to an examination of what painting is, or can be. In Figure by a Pool (2008-2012) and Walking Figure by Pool (2011), which are essentially the same image painted in different colours, I couldn’t help but see a slight nod to Hockney in subject matter, though whereas Hockney emphasises the harsh, bright surface of things in his swimming pool paintings, what makes Doig’s paintings so distinctive is what he does to the surface – how he draws attention to and manipulates the texture and palette of his surfaces; not flattening them out, or making them uniform, but dividing them up to create intriguing and, at times, unsettling contrasts.

These paintings, like most of the works in the show, are oil on linen, a material into which the colour soaks and bleeds, rather than resting on top of it. This softens the lines, and often mutes the tones, all of which are unlikely, if not downright unreal. Both are divided into three horizontal areas of colour, with the central one split by the floating walking figure who provides another opportunity for the placement of colour on either side, so that the paintings become, fundamentally, about the interplay of colours, as well as the relationships between the figure and the space, and the viewer and the painting.

This structural division into different colour bands is also referenced and played out more explicitly in Painting for Wall Painters (Prosperity P. o. S.) (2008 – 2010) an image of a wall painted with flags, in the capital city of Trinidad (where Doig is now permanently based). Here, the uniformity of the flags’ colours and the repetition of the limited palette is undermined by the use of distemper on linen, which makes distinct each individual, broad brushstroke and transforms the original wall painting into a painting about painting. The wall, the colours, the flags, the world itself, all become less tangible.

Cricket Painting (Paragrand) [2006-12] Peter Doig

Similarly, in Cricket Painting (Paragrand) (2006-12)oil paint is laid on the canvas in acid hues of orange, green and blue, the surface flecked in places with splashes of paint, so that action of the image – a girl lobbing a cricket ball that hangs in the centre of the canvas like a white, full moon towards a boy waiting at a wicket – becomes secondary; a compliment to the dynamism and energy of the colours’ relationship.

Many of the dates of Doig’s paintings indicate how long it takes for him to produce them and so, despite their vibrancy and energy, they are considered works containing a powerful quietness that goes beyond the purely decorative. Any amount of time looking, contemplating, and interacting with Doig’s work is well worth it.