The years 1966 to 1970, which formed and devastated much of a generation, marked a definitive cultural break during the postwar period in Europe and the United States. The widespread counterculture movement that united London and San Francisco generated a revolution in music, graphic design, fashion, and social behavior. In a lively, multifaceted setting, there was youthful rebellion, lots of great recreational drugs, sexual freedom, feminism, underground publications, anti–Vietnam War protests, the Monterey Pop Festival, and Woodstock.
This exhibition deftly illustrates those five years, without nostalgia, to reconstruct an exemplary historical path via album covers, musical instruments, costumes, song lyrics, books, posters, comics; a spacesuit worn by astronaut William Anders, who orbited the moon; outfits worn by the Beatles, a copy of Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-tung (1964), and dresses by designers such as Mary Quant and Foale and Tuffin, originally modeled by Twiggy. An extraordinary sound track accompanies the show as well, overwhelming visitors with music that is not only sonorously exceptional but in its time expressed a desire to dismantle mainstream thinking. Everything was consumed quickly, as pop always is, but it was nourishing, replete. And the legacy of that era—aesthetically, politically, poetically—is still fascinating and influential.
But then reality intervened, smashing everything. I saw the show in London the day after Donald Trump won the election. I was dealt a cruel blow in the last room of the exhibition, where the now-iconic Woodstock festival was projected, diorama-like, onto three walls. The gallery space was completely full, with people of all ages. I entered while Jimi Hendrix was playing the “Star-Spangled Banner”—everyone was crying. Hendrix’s distorted rendition, and my wistfulness for this bygone age, concretized something quite terrible for our collective future.
Translated from Italian by Marguerite Shore.
Titled “Early Paintings and Drawings,” this sizable collection of almost fifty two-dimensional works by the recently deceased starchitect Zaha Hadid is a celebration of her noteworthy contributions at the crossover of fine art and design. Housed in a building that Hadid expanded and remodeled with Patrik Schumacher in 2013, the exhibition highlights drawings, paintings, and notebook sketches initially created prior to the construction of her first building in 1993. Citing Kazimir Malevich as her main influence, Hadid’s output does take its cues from Suprematism. Constructivism, however, with its hybridity of form and function, would seem more fitting.
The knockout large-scale canvas Metropolis, 1988/2014, is made up of abstract shapes in a limited palette with sinuous white lines hovering over a vast red field that could be read as a landscape. It greets viewers upon entry and sets a utopian tone, where fluid forms create adaptable habitats for humans. Hommage ŕ Verner Panton and Blue and Green Scrapers, both 1990, are arranged vertically. The works create a rhythmic interplay between colorful, undulating shapes on a black ground: The forms exist in a nebulous expanse in Hommage, and they drift through a subterranean plaza in Blue and Green. An even more traditional ink-on-Mylar drawing such as The Ambulatory and its Connection, 1991, which was a proposal for an extension of the Dutch Parliament in the Hague, resembles a heroic space station or a tricked-out Erector Set, of which mere mortals are unworthy. Donning goggles and headphones, visitors are also given a chance to see Hadid’s paintings in an immersive environmentwith an accompanying atmospheric electronic sound trackas an alluring virtual-reality experience. You stare at a white dot on one of four floating works, only to have it plunge you into an animated realm where flying shapes above and below the surface allow you to live out a fantasy of actually being in the future, if only for a few minutes.
We live in interesting times—something Giorgio de Chirico signaled to us long ago when he painted Revolt of the Sage, 1916. In this exhibition, that painting’s metaphysical interior is explored through the works of sixteen artists who probe the old T.S. Eliotism of “time present and time past,” mortality, and transcendentalism. One can feel a dark spirit in front of Michael Simpson’s large oil on canvas Squint 33, 2016. At first it appears serene, a pared-back altar, a road to enlightenment. It is, however, the view from a leper’s squint—an aperture built into the wall of a church so that the sick or other “undesirables” wouldn’t come into physical proximity with parishioners. Paloma Varga Weisz’s icon-like Woman, boarded, 2016, carries on this disturbing holy dynamic before we encounter a profusion of images, via John Stezaker’s collages and Sigmar Polke’s manipulated photocopies, that seem to hint at obscure, unreliable truths. Hanne Darboven’s Ohne Titel Monate mit Postkarten (Januar 1990) (Untitled Months with Postcards [January 1990]), 1990, as well as Horst Ademeit’s inscribed Polaroids, play with writing—the information is out of reach, difficult to decipher.
The Night Gallery, 2014, one of three digital projections by Mark Lewis, depicts ancient marble statues tinged with an eerie, alchemical green. David Noonan’s monochromatic silkscreen, Untitled, 2013, is full of James Whale flair, calling to mind the laboratory of a demented inventor. Facing it, Weisz’s Still Life, 2016, presents a body in repose beneath a glass chemistry set. It resembles the morbid double-decker tombs of the Middle Ages. Is he our sage, resplendent in death? Is his final revolt to lie in silence, keeping his secrets from those hungry for wisdom in this time of precariousness? Or has he simply gone to some higher, otherworldly realm? Lewis’s filmic statues smirk silently nearby—they know, but they won’t tell you.
John Currin’s sixth solo show here sees him revisiting old territory. Five paintings each depict a woman or a couple. Two of the couples are elderly and heterosexual (Newspaper Couple and Pistachio, all works 2016); one consists of two middle-aged women taking a break while housepainting (Happy House Painters). The figures all inhabit more or less undefined beige space.
There should no longer be controversy over whether Currin can paint as well as he wants us to think he can. While his work from the 1990s occupied an uncomfortable position between self-conscious badness and an approximation of sumptuous painterliness, since about 2003 the interplay between the aesthetic and emotional registers in his work (beauty and vulgarity, empathy and cruelty) has often been very effective.
Michael Fried observed that the stylistic self-involvement of modernist painting was foreshadowed by the eighteenth-century French taste for scenes depicting figures in various states of absorption. The two elderly couples’ absorption is offset by a device Currin first employed in the late 1990s, whereby objects from traditional still-life paintings, such as candlesticks and porcelain jugs, are piled on top of the figures’ heads. The couples seem unaware of their burdens or have learned to live with them. (The upturned ice-cream cone on the gentleman blissfully ensconced in his wife’s embrace is a poignant touch.) Perhaps they speak to Currin’s feelings about premodernist European painting, a historical burden American art supposedly rejected or overcame decades ago but which Currin has happily, perversely embraced—or learned to live with.
“Love Life: Act 1,” Jonathan Baldock and Emma Hart’s new commission for PEER in conjunction with Grundy Art Gallery and the De La Warr Pavilion, will play out in three parts, the first beginning here. For this exhibition, the artists have refashioned the gallery as a surreal Punch-and-Judy set littered with bizarre handcrafted objects. The two conjoined rooms of the candy-striped space become a gigantic theater for Mr. Punch’s family to perform their cheerfully violent hijinks. Everything is suffused with an air of menace, as though Punch could pop out at any time and brutally beat you with his stick.
In the first room, Baldock has constructed a baby’s high chair out of sickly pink felt and thin metal rods (A Guiding Hand, all works 2016). In the chair sits a grotesque stuffed head, perhaps a child’s, carrying a digital screen that displays a single eye. The eye just stares, occasionally blinking and tearing up, as though it’s witnessed something terrible. On a nearby wall is Hart’s ceramic breasts with bright-red nipples, which seem to have been squeezed to resemble used-up tubes of toothpaste (BooHoo Boob Tube). Jon and Emma is a collaborative recording of the artists shrieking out each other’s names hysterically, orgasmically—a sound track for their sexually aggressive tableau. In the adjoining room, Hart’s trio of ceramic comic-book speech bubbles protrudes from a wall, their silhouettes imitating the aquiline profile of Punch (“You two-faced lying motherfucker”). Their texts yell out phrases such as “the way you use a knife” and “cross your legs”—evoking a feeling not too unlike like that of being trapped in the crossfire of a lovers’ quarrel. Through black humor and innuendo, Hart and Baldock create an engrossingly sad tale where the viewer can decide the finale.
The air has a slightly metallic scent in the dimly lit corridor that is Anselm Kiefer’s Walhalla, 1992–2016, named for what is known in Norse mythology as the “hall of the slain.” It is nostalgic, elemental, and hauntingly beautiful. Oxidized lead lines the walls, encasing wrecked camp beds arranged in a haphazard dormitory fashion. The beds are labeled with the names of figures significant to Kiefer, as well as Valkyries—women who, according to lore, determined the fate of soldiers in battle and escorted the dead to Valhalla. The leaden sheets retain the imprints of bodies, and the casual disarray of a sudden departure, perhaps moments ago, perhaps centuries. The far wall bears the image of a soldier walking toward a stark horizon.
Galleries lead off of the hall in both directions. To the right, they are somber and archival. Arsenal, 1983–2016, is a trove of artifacts, unspooled reams of photographs, disheveled files, and charred stacks of paper spilling from corroded safes. To the left, there is light and color that glows with a heightened intensity after emerging from the shadowed hall. Enormous paintings render the forgotten architecture of Valhalla under billowing, saturated skies. Immaculate glass vitrines house assemblages of objects like reliquaries: bleached clothing, small trees, broken bicycles, and sections of earth.
The poetry of Kiefer’s work lies in his alchemical ability to strike a balance between the intimate and the universal, the moment at hand and the vast, cyclical expanse of history. Often exposing his work to the elements, he allows his materials to speak for themselves. Together, they sound a chord of melancholic and peculiar beauty, impermanent yet somehow resounding beyond the bounds of time.
Andrew Kerr’s exhibition is situated in the Modern Institute’s new Bricks Space, a single-room venue on Aird’s Lane which, unlike the gallery’s other white spaces, exists in a semi-dilapidated state, made up of a patchwork of painted walls, wooden flooring, exposed concrete, and tiling.
The atmosphere of the show is sober and scholastic, with the room’s contents resembling the trappings of an art-school classroom or a studio past its prime. Each of Kerr’s five installations is composed of a variety of recycled materials and often hosts the artist’s paintings in muted hues. The works play on and extend the collage-like qualities of their environment. Towamba v St George’s (all works 2016) consists of a board standing haphazardly on black metal table legs. Painted on one side is a caricatured screenshot from the British television program University Challenge, in which teams of four from two universities answer questions on various academic topics.
The television reference lends the other works a particular British flavor. Pasmova comprises a paper saw resembling a cricket bat, on which the word “pasmova” is printed, lying on a cut divan base. A large wall-mounted sea of blue fabric with a small island-like painting pinned centrally to it provides a backdrop to this. Elsewhere, a series of paintings on paper lie at floor level on a cardboard and wooden structure with a white paper fin, as if being shown in a critique.
“Wyndham School of Dancing,” as the show is titled, is an objection to slickness or finish, and the finality and authority they suggest. Bricks Space (a former glass factory) is the perfect complement to Kerr’s installations, as it too comes with a material history to acknowledge and employ. The exhibition’s enigmatic title itself alludes to a space for practice, development, and gestation. The works are obscure and often sad, speaking to both traditional British pastimes and an odd post-Brexit sense of isolation.
Like a nightmarish excrescence, an eight-foot-high oak chest of drawers, with twenty-foot sides, is crammed into one half of an ornately paneled boardroom lined with carved crests and lit by a resplendent chandelier. A cluster of brass organ pipes protrudes from the top of the chest, which supports a six-legged platform for an octagonal windmill that brushes the ceiling some twenty feet up. Most bizarrely, the cabinet seems operated by levers jutting out on one side and is connected by elephantine tubes to three hooped barrels that sit on the floor.
Meticulously fabricated, Rod Dickinson’s Air Loom, 2002, is a re-creation of the paranoid vision of James Tilly Matthews, who in the early nineteenth century was a patient at Bedlam, the infamous psychiatric hospital now converted into the museum where this work currently stands. Many schizophrenics imagine that their delusions are externally manipulated. In Matthews’s case, it was French spies—determined to lead Britain into war with Napoleon—who were poisoning his mind, and those of politicians, by pumping vapors through “air looms” hidden in basements across London. In a corner of the gallery, Dickinson has installed twelve glass flasks labeled with substances including “Putrid Effluvia” and “Seminal Fluid (Male),” the base ingredients from which Matthews’s fictitious operatives concocted their pestilential recipes.
Dickinson’s installation is timely given Edward Snowden’s revelations, the sudden accusations of rigged elections, and shock referendum results. The absurd mother lode for spook fantasists and conspiracy theorists, Matthews’s contraption, brought to vivid life by Dickinson, suits a time when we might wonder anew at voters’ susceptibilities to mind control.