On 14th January Ioana and I went down to London to check out the current contemporary art exhibitions (or go round the charity shops in the former’s case). These are the shows we visited:

Philip Guston works on paper at Timothy Taylor
I’ve been a big fan of Guston for years, so this show was a treat. A constant in Guston’s mature work, from the drawings right through to the large-scale paintings, is a certain tremulous quality of line, but it is in the drawings that this comes to the fore. Forms are scratched in ink with a flat nib, or marked out in chunky strokes of a lithographic crayon. The exhibition contained work across a wide span of the artist’s career, from the days of his ‘abstract expressionism’ (the same constellations of quivering hatch-marks as in the paintings) to the end of his life (there were several lithographs from 1980, the year of his death). The most moving, for me personally, was a large lithograph showing Guston himself at his easel, from 1980. The bulbous head, seen in profile, is covered in sticking-plasters and criss-crossed with lines like scars. Lank hair falls down onto the artist’s shoulders in curls. I’m sure there was a smoking cigarette there (I’m describing it from memory). He is shoved right up against a comically tiny canvas, as if the canvas signified a kind of obstruction or impasse; as if the artist is what is smothering the man. (For some reason, writing this about it makes me think of the passage in Pilgrim’s Progress, where Christian stands on the Delectable Mountains and sees into the distance: the contrast between the cluttered myopia of the artist in his studio, banging his head against his own work (read: myself), and the clarity of vision and tranquillity which are the aspirations of a spiritual life. I don’t know how to situate the two in relation to one another).

Hartmuth Böhm at Bartha Contemporary
I’m glad I bothered to make the detour out to Ladbrooke Grove to visit this show. The space is tiny and the show only had three wall drawings (and a small framed piece on the back wall of the office) in it, but I got chatting to the guy who ran the gallery (Herr Bartha?), who was very friendly and told me a bit of interesting background about the artist. The work consisted of minimal drawings in graphite or red crayon directly on the wall, incorporating objects like lengths of angle-iron and a blank picture frame. Apparently, wall drawings have now started to sell. If you buy the piece with the angle-iron, you get a certificate telling you exactly how to install it, along with the four bits of angle-iron and a special red pencil to draw the lines. There is only one ‘original’ of the piece; it is not available as an edition. This is the third time that the piece has been ‘realised’ (Böhm has been around for quite a while, so it’s not new). It was a shame not to see more of his work – there were some in the catalogues on the desk that I really liked.

Herr Bartha recommended us to go to a small Portuguese café round the corner, where a cup of tea cost three quid and all the customers sat at one large central table. The tea was (almost) nice enough to justify the three quid, and the guy sitting next to me was talking about the music business with someone who gave me the impression that she was an agent or something – probably he was some kind of pop star. But that’s Notting Hill!

Ryan Mosley at Alison Jacques
I went along to this show not really expecting to like it, but wanting to make some kind of sense of a strand of the contemporary scene which bothers me. I found it quite alienating, which is not exactly what I expected. The paintings were larger than I thought they would be and there was something Young Turk-ish about them (I didn’t get that feeling from seeing them on the internet). I do tend to find that kind of confidence in young artists threatening (Mosley is three years younger than me), as my own beginnings as an artist seem marked by false starts and retreats by comparison. Looking beyond that reaction a little bit, there are some things of value which work like this seems to dismiss, such as humility, struggle, human-ness and smallness. In the presence of Mosley’s large paintings (there were some smaller ones as well), I felt like I was in a showroom selling things which were far too expensive for me to buy (which I was). Not all artwork, regardless of it’s price, has this effect. I can stand in front of a Rubens in the National Gallery and feel welcome in the presence of a friend. Trying to analyse what makes me feel alienated, I can think of three things. Sheer size is one. I imagine that this is the kind of effect that the vast swagger portraits you find in country houses were intended to convey: “You are an oik, a nothing, and I am so far above you that you could never aspire even to lick my boots!” Newness is another. The third is a certain inhumanity, which is the strand I find in some contemporary painting.
Mosley’s paintings depict distorted figures and dismembered body parts looped together like surreal doodles. A panoply of motifs mingle with them: snakes, skulls, faces (on hands, in gramophone trumpets and anywhere else), top hats, cacti and facial hair. Legs sport Afros and smoke pipes. Formally, the handling is extremely beautiful and assured. In an interview, Mosley cited Goya and Philip Guston as key influences. It is easy to see the link, but, at the same time, I struggle to place Mosley on the same stage as Goya and Guston (I don’t struggle to place Goya and Guston together, despite the time-gap between their lives). It could just be the newness of the work and the fact that Mosley is a young artist who has not been subject to the process of critical judgement and canonisation. However, there is something else, and that might have to do with the times we live in. Goya lived through the Peninsula War and turbulent political events that saw him eventually having to leave his homeland. He was a liberal in a land in which existed powerful forces of conservatism and popular superstition. Guston grew up in the America of Segregation (some of his early work was trashed by the Klan) and was deeply affected, as a Jew, by images of the Holocaust. He de-judaised his name as a young man, so anti-Semitism must have featured in his conscience from an early point. Part of the conflict in Guston’s life was that between ‘art for art’s sake’ and politcal commitment. Neither Guston nor Goya participated directly in the wars they lived through, or witnessed first hand (as far as we know in the case of Goya) the extremes of violence that effected their artistic visions. However, violence and madness became for both of them emblems for the darkness of the soul. There is an intensity of feeling there which comes from a deep empathic engagement. It may have been deeply internalised and driven by obsession (that’s what makes artists and not activists), but it still reached out to something ‘real’ (unfashionable word).
By contrast, what one sees in Mosley’s work is a profound disconnection from the ‘real’. His engagement is with the image, and it’s as if he regards it as something which has to be wrung like a dishcloth to squeeze out the last drops of…. what? Meaning? No, I don’t think that’s what he’s looking for, despite the Biblical derivation of some of his images (e.g. snakes in trees). There is too much playfulness and glee for that (‘glee’ – that’s a good word, and one it’s difficult to associate with Goya or Guston). None of this, of course, makes him unusual in today’s art world. This is Goya or Guston for hyperreality. Maybe the comparison with doodling is the best one and this lack of commitment is what leads back to the sense of the work’s ‘productness’.

Ian Kiaer at Bloomberg Space
Ian Kiaer was somewhat of an antidote to Ryan Mosley. His work reminds me of Heidegger’s concept of ‘sparing’; of allowing things to remain as they are and speak for themselves. Of sensitivity to things. He specialises in sparse installations of (usually somewhat scruffy) found objects, impossibly fragile models and paintings. They function in relation to complex webs of ideas and narratives; for example, a block of foam might stand in for a hill on which a house sits. (The facetious quip which comes to mind is, “Hey, Ian. Loved your show. Especially liked the block of polystyrene on the floor by the fire escape!”) This installation was based on Dumas’s novel The Black Tulip, but I haven’t read the novel and the gallery press release didn’t explain how the installation related to the book (except that each of the four corners of the gallery related to four colours which feature in the book). I did, however, enjoy looking at it. One part included a tall frame-like structure made from bought lengths of metal, still with B&Q barcodes on them and bolted together, which looked as if it might collapse with a gust of wind. I had to stare up at it to ascertain whether it was suspended by wires from the ceiling, but I don’t think it was. A tiny model of the same structure, made from conspicuously glued plastic, in the opposite corner of the gallery reminded me of an exercise we did at school to build the tallest tower we could out of dry spaghetti stuck together with a glue gun.