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Contemporary Visual Art

Pearlescence and Patience: some thoughts on writing for ‘The Flight of O’

I’ll start by introducing the background of my general approach to art-writing, prior to addressing how I dealt with the specific challenge of writing about Zoe Williams’ work. I came to creative and fictional writing from a background of writing criticism, and to critical writing from a background of making visual art, which I continue to do alongside my literary practice. I’m an unusual example of a visual artist who doesn’t mind writing and talking about art.  But whilst this is an advantage in some respects it can also be a challenge. The attraction to language in the context of visual art can, because of it’s association with explanation or interpretation, threaten to circumscribe the autonomous development of the visual outside functional or rational parameters. It can be hard to avoid making work that simply illustrates a preconceived idea or theory. One of the ways that I dealt with this conflict in my own practice was to subject language itself to an irrational transformation, drawing inspiration from literary and concrete poetry, as well as dadaist and surrealist experiments with language.  This approach has also informed my role as an art-writer when responding to other practices. Read more →

Iain Hetherington

Iain Hetherington’s advance press release for his solo show at the Glasgow Project Room was a tissue of facetious allusions. Describing his latest works as ‘portraits’, he undercut the humanist associations of that category with a punning reference to the language of market research. The works, he insisted ‘are not portraits in the traditional sense of “a good likeness” etc, but are instead misrepresentations of notional audiences, target audiences of the fictional type demanded by official cultural policy.’

The cynical tone is familiar from fanzines that the artist continues to produce in collaboration with Alex Pollard such as Mainstream and Radical Vans and Carriages – lampoons of the art world and New Labour social policies. But Hetherington’s paintings and wall-mounted assemblages could scarcely be described as institutional in style. The use of scrap materials related to studio practice such as nails, canvas, and bare wood stretchers – gives them an acetic somewhat rustic quality, punctuated here and there by zany elements like joke-shop eyes. A visceral absorption in Synthetic Cubism is also very evident. The forms are ostensibly prosaic, with rough-cut edges, and an incidental punk-like ornamentation of staples and hanging fixtures. Their beauty, where it arises, comes from a sense of balance in their compositions (which prove on close inspection to be quite graceful), a delicate manipulation of paint, and an ability to realise multi-layered statements through the most economical of means. Read more →

Nick Evans

The Glasgow-based sculptor Nick Evans’ recent solo show at Sorcha Dallas involved an unusual foray by that artist into – almost – total abstraction. Though the ‘Primitivist’ aesthetic of classical modernism had been strongly present in Evans’ past sculptures, his older works also incorporated conspicuous figurative elements (referencing Cubist-style nudes, for example).  Evans often evoked these narrative symbols in a way that suggested difficult genres of ‘politically conscious art’. Evans has been especially drawn to those predecessors who- in a resistance of merely polemical illustration- remained attentive to the formal aspects of their practice, and who acknowledged the discursive limits of visual art as an ironic structure within which to sharpen their critical purpose. Examples of this kind of approach might include Goya, Manet and – more recently – the collaborative practitioners of Art and Language. At least one of Evans’ titles at Sorcha Dallas evoked that wry, esoteric – yet darkly imaginative – tradition.

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Divine Hangers: on the critical rigour of the Q-Q

Clare Stephenson, Genet Portrait, 2003, pencil on paper, 43.5 x 32 cm

Clare Stephenson, Genet Portrait, 2003, pencil on paper, 43.5 x 32 cm

They are lifeless lay figures pulled about by wire; they are cleverly put together, but the wood and the steel skeletons support merely stuffed puppets with whom the author deals most cruelly, jerking them into the strangest poses, contorting them…cutting up their bodies and souls – but because they have no flesh and blood all he can do is tear up the rags out of which they are made; all this is done with considerable historical and rhetorical talent and a vivid imagination; without these qualities he could not have produced these abominations. (qtd. Lukács, 1978: 94)

Goethe

Lukács, sceptical of the extent to which Zola had adhered to the ‘scientific’ model in the realisation of his greatest fictions ultimately welcomed the failure.  The ‘scientific” method’, he insisted, ‘always seeks the average, and this grey statistical mean, the point at which all internal contradictions are blunted, spells the doom of great literature’ (Lukács, 1978: 91). Nevertheless he called it “a strange element of tragedy’ that ‘Zola, who criticised so vehemently the romantic lapses of his peers could only escape the counter artistic consequences’ of his own dogma through a romanticism of the ‘Victor Hugo stamp’ (Lukács, 1978: 91). Read more →