The overlap of the Michelangelo Pistoletto exhibition Pistoletto Politico at Luxembourg & Dyan and Giuseppe Penone’s Spazio di Luce at the Whitechapel Art Gallery allowed formal and conceptual flickers of reflection to pass between the two. The burnished steel surfaces of Pistoletto’s Mirror Paintings from the 1960s, four of which featured in Pistoletto Politico, explore the mirror’s simultaneous incorporation and exclusion of the viewer, correlating its ability to unify, multiply, split and fragment with the contradictions of political consciousness. In Penone’s seminal 1970 action Rovesciare i Propri Occhi (To Reverse One’s Eyes), documented by the archival display contextualising Penone’s Bloomberg Commission, the artist obscured his vision with mirrored contact lenses that reconfigured his sensory relationship to the environment, while integrating glassy fragments of the landscape into his body.
The works in Rashid Johnson’s solo exhibition Shelter at the South London Gallery – the Chicago-born, New York-based artist’s first in the UK – operate like Rorschach ink-blots. Flickering between abstraction and representation, there is a strong sense of Johnson testing his viewer as to what they see, or think they see. While critics have previously alighted on Johnson’s compelling use of materials to ‘hijack the domestic’, reframing everyday substances including oyster shells, parquet flooring, books, record sleeves, wax, black soap and shea butter, Shelter reveals the centrality of painterly abstraction to his diverse practice. Throughout, Johnson exploits abstraction’s refusal to offer straightforward definition, simultaneously resisting identification and offering multiple potential interpretative avenues.
Shelter manifests this interest in the challenges and complexities of interpretation through reference to psychoanalysis, drawing on the discipline’s investment in unravelling the signs and symbols populating people’s minds. Four Daybeds (all 2012) dominate the central exhibition space: upholstered with flayed zebra skins, each hard, unforgiving-looking wooden couch sits squarely on an intricately patterned Persian rug. Sits, however, is the wrong word, as only one of the Daybeds assumes an upright position. The others lie flipped on their sides or rear backwards, exposing wounded flanks of pitted, scarred and paint-splashed wood, as if the Id of an unsuccessfully treated patient had gone on a rampage.
Frank Bowling’s paintings sing out from the walls in this Tate Britain In Focus display Drip, Roll, Slide, Drip…, tightly curated by Dr Courtney J. Martin. Bowling started creating his ‘poured paintings’ in New York during the 1970s, where he moved in 1966 after becoming increasingly frustrated with the London art world, and where came into contact with large-scale American abstraction. Laying the canvas on a constructed platform that he could tilt and move, Bowling would drop the paint onto it from heights of up to two metres, resulting in cataclysmic runs of bright colour that swirl dramatically together. Bowling has also described this process as ‘wet into wet’, and there’s a strong sense of the Romantic sublime to some of these works, with their thick rills of marbled paint evoking atmospheric weather effects and awe-inspiring geographical formations.
When is a sculpture not a sculpture? When it’s a drawing, might be an answer – but perhaps not one given by the sketches and designs among Donald Judd’s working papers, relating to various sculptural projects from the 1960s through to the 1990s. For the exhibition Donald Judd Drawings: 1963-93 curator Peter Ballantine (also one of Judd’s longest-serving fabricators, working with him on the production of his sculptures for over 20 years) grouped Judd’s drawings into three main sets: the first, sketches Judd made in relation to the twenty or so sculptures he produced himself by hand in his studio between 1962-4; the second highly detailed and annotated sets of drawings for and by the fabricators (professional artisans and industrial manufacturers) that Judd subsequently paid to construct his works; and the third a series of particularly fascinating post-fabrication ‘portrait’ studies of sculptures, executed by Judd sometimes long after the sculpture in question had actually been made.
At first glance, that’s all Tony Swain’s works at the Fruitmarket Gallery seem to require – a quick, cursory flick of the eyes. Entering Drowned Dust, Sudden Word, it’s hard to repress the psychology of Swain’s materials: newspaper pages, usually rifled through, filleted for a quick interest fix and discarded, become the basis for abstracted landscapes that emerge through the gradual overlay of further collaged newspaper imagery and acrylic paint. Up close, Swain’s palimpsests blossom with detail, snagging the imagination and countering that initial impulse with a demand for sustained attention. Swain claims that ‘one drop of paint completely trounces any amount of printed matter’ and refers to his pieces as ‘paintings’, but this feels disingenuous. It’s the politics of his source material – ostensibly disposable, burdened with heterogeneous, rapidly out-dated information – that power the work.
The National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) in Washington DC and the Musée du Quai Branly in Paris are two very different museums, but both similarly reflect long, complex histories of Western colonialism and imperialism with all their attendant violence, appropriation, cultural exchange and hybridity – and both have been highly controversial. Having had the chance to visit each within the last year, I was struck by the overlaps and divergences between the two enterprises, and by the possibilities the contrasts between them might offer Western institutions displaying works that were once – and often still are – hived off under the deeply unstable, problematic category of the ‘anthropological artefact’.
Patrick Keiller’s The Robinson Institute in Tate’s Duveen Galleries takes the visitor on a walk through the British countryside – but one that rapidly fragments and complicates the term ‘British’, and questions what on earth we mean by the word ‘countryside’. Keiller structures his installation around the metafictional conceit that researchers have located film canisters and notebooks belonging to Keiller’s fictional everyman, Robinson – the protagonist of his Robinson trilogy – in an abandoned caravan. The researchers have used these to re-construct Robinson’s last journey, interweaving stills and footage from Keiller’s final Robinson film (Robinson in Ruins, 2010) with a heterogeneous selection of items from Tate’s permanent collection, together with maps, borrowed artefacts such as a piece of the Wold Cottage meteorite, clips of film and pieces of archive footage. The result is a psychogeographic meander that refutes any notions of edenic (or nationalist) pastoral, and instead unfolds a vision of the landscape as a palimpsest of human usage, overwritten by economic and political concerns.
Walter De Maria, The New York Earth Room, 1977. Long-term installation at 141 Wooster Street, NYC. Photo John Cllett. c. Dia Art Foundation
It’s been nearly a year since I visited Walter De Maria’s Earth Room in New York, and although the experience has remained with me, it has returned with increased intensity over the past few weeks. Perhaps – without wanting to be too British about it – the recent weather back this side of the Atlantic has been having an effect: the pre-emptive autumnal heaviness of the summer air, soupy with moisture; the soggy, waterlogged ground; the pervasive scents of leaf mulch and something reminiscent of wet animal fur. This all combines to take me back, somewhat counter-intuitively, to several square feet of prime Manhattan real estate, basking under a September sun in 2011. It was hot, New York was slightly overwhelming, I couldn’t find the friends I was supposed to be finding De Maria’s Earth Room with – and I couldn’t find the room. After several minutes of fluster in this vein, the friends and the door appeared simultaneously, and we staggered up several sleek and rather corporate flights of apartment stairs. More fluster ensued in the attempt to find the right floor, the right door, and when we did there was an aloof man sitting at the entrance desk, like a doorman guarding the kind of hotel that is very much outside of your price range. But beyond him lay a thick, velvety expanse of earth, filling the building from front to back.
Mark Bradford excels at deploying adroit, highly expressive material and visual signifiers that mainline complex socio-cultural issues. Take the splay-feathered black crow suspended over the opening to his SFMoMA show, aimed slap-bang at the gallery wall, where its charcoal beak stages a pointed intersection with the blatantly white paint. As its title, Jim Crow (2003-9) makes unequivocal, the bird’s obstructed flight and the binary monotones it establishes embody the crude divisions of racism, specifically referencing their expression in the laws that segregated America in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. For those hoping Bradford’s crow is impaling itself, the tensely curled claws bespeak cruel life left in its legacy yet. Elsewhere, in Kobe I Got Your Back (2008), a basketball traced over with sinews of papier-mâché and painted black, becomes both a symbol for and a means of gently resisting stereotypes of black masculinity, particularly those generated through the commoditised image of the sports star (named here as Kobe Bryant of the LA Lakers), by allowing both for the possibility of failure and an acknowledgement of vulnerability shared.