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.
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.
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.
Is there an order in which it’s ‘best’ to encounter a series of artworks? Does such a question matter, or is it irrelevant? (And might the answer well depend on familiarity or expertise?) How do we, as viewers, respond to – and marshal coherently for others – the subjective associations that accumulate during individual paths through objects, images, sounds, events and performances presented as shared experiences? The 2012 Whitney Biennial with its subterranean theme of the labyrinth, the dark twists and turns of which thread through many of the works on display, gently formulates such questions, encouraging its audience to move around the space and pieces as they see fit, to meander, deviate, turn back and digress. Works by the participating artists are mixed across the five floors of the Whitney’s distinctive grey concrete monolith, often unmoored from their didactic wall texts, prompting either a little detective work or joyful release. One piece by Lutz Bacher, Selections from the Celestial Handbook (2011), comprises multiple small black-and-white photographs of nebulae, stars and planets scattered throughout the exhibition in a broken constellation, underlining the inherent risibility of attempts to map and catalogue. There is, of course, more than a hint of anxiety bestowed by such apparently total freedom, a fear of taking the wrong path, of getting lost or trapped.
It must be a lonely old life for Richard Long – all those solitary treks, the transitory marks of his trajectory through the landscape recorded in melancholy photographs and textworks. Melancholic, but elegiac; Long’s observations and arrangements are uplifting as well as meditative, involving deft visual, word and number play, conveying a mind that delights in exploring, documenting and assessing the natural world. Intriguing as the texts and photographs of Long’s land-sculpture are, they could become lost in a gallery by themselves – it is the strength and weakness of Long’s work that it is mediated through secondary sources – luckily, this survey includes gallery specific works. Stones arranged in circles pool across the floor, creating micro-terrains that encourage the eye to investigate. Particularly striking are the works created by splattering mud directly onto the walls, which express the bracing experience of striking out across country into the embrace of the elements. Although whoever has to clean up afterwards might not view them so poetically…
A piece written on a talk given by Cornelia Parker as part of Tate Modern’s Talking Art series in May 2008, originally published on the Tate Forum blog.
Cornelia Parker is obsessed with things: old things no-one wants any more, things salvaged from the dump, things unearthed in pawnshops, fleamarkets and dingy antique shops, things tarnished with a thick patina of accumulated history – things that have the ability to ‘make the hair on the back of your neck stand up’ with their sense of presence and past. Throughout her talk, the joyous and groundbreaking exhortation of the American Modernist poet William Carlos Williams – ‘say it: no ideas but in things’ – hummed through my mind. Parker may be working on the other side of the pond, decades later, and in a different medium, but like Williams she is attuned to and tremendously excited by the power that can be exerted by an old cup, a ring, some scrumpled up newspaper.
The science of space often resolves into polarised stereotypes: the intricacies of astrophysics, quantum mechanics, and string theory versus the lurid fantasises of sci-fi. German artist Bjorn Dahlem’s work balances delicately between these extremes. His deliberately low-fi creations, knocked together from cheap lengths of pine, raw neon tubes and chunks of Styrofoam, engender an endearingly creaky aesthetic reminiscent of early sci-fi film-sets. They are also clumsily elegant mappings of our exploratory imaginings and theorizings about the universe and humanity’s place in it. In Dahlem’s hands, the language of popular science – its black holes, high velocity stars, quarks and rays – is manipulated to demonstrate the narrative, mythical and lyrical qualities of supposedly ‘objective’ science. The earnest yet gently humorous vocabulary this results in is articulated by pieces such as ‘Milky Way’ (2007), where a bottle of milk sits within polymorphic evolutions of neon tubing: knowingly lame. In the ‘Black Hole’ series, clusters of wooden planks, spiked like iron filings around a magnet, are caught up with slapstick detritus; a rubber dinghy, a watering can.
The tragic-comic potential of the interface between the human subject and the larger cosmos is equally present in ‘Dream Tank’ (2008). The installation consists of a cabin housing a series of video monitors looping scenes inspired by Dahlem’s mental night-wanderings. These dreamscapes contemporize the tradition of German romanticism, where the hidden depths of the individual open up to reveal the structure of the cosmic order. Dahlem’s ‘soul landscapes’ or ‘mental habitats’, as he describes them, are determinedly works-in-progress – simultaneously bumbling and elegiac – which trace out humanity’s fascination with explaining the universe, whilst demonstrating that one model of explanation is no more authoritative than the next.