The German painter Richard Oelze spent part of the 1930s in Paris, where he first encountered the Surrealists. His eccentric personality (he lived in squalor, rarely left his apartment, and destroyed much of his work) inspired the title character in Mina Loy’s novel Insel—published posthumously in 1991 then republished in 2014—contributing to a revival of interest in this neglected artist.
On first encounter, it’s tempting to see Oelze as an epigone of Max Ernst. Ernst’s use of decalcomania, where paint is pressed between surfaces to create random patterns, out of which the artist then elicits forms through a process of free association, inspired Oelze to adopt a somewhat similar process. But while Ernst, like the majority of canonical Surrealists, was essentially a picture-maker, Oelze’s commitment to a little varied painterly process aligns him with Yves Tanguy or with such abstract Surrealists as Roberto Matta. The eighteen paintings on display all evoke the experience of pareidolia—the perception of familiar shapes in random textures. But incipient biomorphism is constantly regressing into a kind of studied formlessness, creating a sense of intense ambivalence. We are confronted, to borrow a thought from Insel, with the “procreational chaotic vapor in which all things may begin to grow.”
Twenty-four untitled figurative scrapbook drawings, ca. 1956–78, reveal a preoccupation with eyes, most of which are rendered over-large and oddly empty. Oelze compared himself to a character out of Franz Kafka, but in his attachment to gray abjection and a depopulated world of ash and mud, the more obvious affinity is with Samuel Beckett.
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.
A giant spider is trapped under a glass, its legs feeling around for a way out; someone talks about a nest of baby pigeons, bleached and discarded in a black garbage bag. These are two of the disturbing images from Patrick Goddard’s mockumentary-style film, Looking for the Ocean Estate, 2016, a looping video that you settle down to watch on something akin to your parent’s sofa. Goddard’s narrative focuses on a self-conscious artist—a fictionalized version of himself—seeking “authenticity.” He returns to a poorer area of London where he briefly lived, only to find it gentrifying. The artist worries that “off-piste” London is dying and becoming sanitized. He interviews a number of characters about this. One denizen responds that for him, these areas were never off-piste. At a PFC (Perfect Fried Chicken), the artist eats a veggie burger, and his interviewee comments on this choice, “Being snobby about food is a devious way of being snobby about the people who eat it.” Goddard’s film simultaneously critiques urban renewal, social alienation, and the hipster fetishization of poverty and decay.
Nearby, Goddard’s series “Seascapes,” 2010–, assemblages made from perforated security shutters, recalls the horizon line between sky and sea. A blue monochrome, The Mediterranean (View to the North), 2016, carries a ripped warning sticker that states, “This property is alarmed.” Early pieces from “Seascapes” were made with window grilles that Goddard found while squatting in abandoned buildings.
This show draws attention to the social issues arising from the current UK Conservative government’s policy on affordable housing, which is steeped in classism, as well as to the sometimes problematic role artists take on in critiquing sociopolitical subjects, as they often sit within the same insidious social hierarchies that they protest.
Light up a cigarette and enjoy the party—the title of France-Lise McGurn’s solo exhibition here, “Mondo Throb,” signifies a rhythmic, vibrating, and discotheque-style environment. Mondo, which means “world” in Italian, is highlighted through the visceral connotations produced by the strong sound of something throbbing.
Utilizing a mix of gesso, oil, acrylic, markers, and spray paint, McGurn constructed much of the show in situ, producing Soft, psychic, sweet surprise (all works cited, 2016) a wall mural, and several untitled floor drawings. They cavort and intersect with a number of (mostly) studio-made paintings, two of which are Aerobics gives you herpes and Puttanesca, where we take in the soft lines of hair, naked limbs, and genitals intersecting and fusing with one another. The artist’s renderings of freedom and licentiousness create an immersive, eroticized environment. The consistency of McGurn’s repeated imagery and palette, alongside the evocation of a time-based and performative practice, intersects with her club-night residency called DAISIES at Jim Lambie’s Poetry Club in Glasgow. Co-run with Katie Shannon, they invite associated artists and DJs to add to the establishment’s ever-evolving decor.
The predominant sensation explored in McGurn’s disobedient, sensuous, and unruly exhibition is ecstasy, in all of its marvelous and multifarious guises—carnal, divine, euphoric. By eschewing didacticism or formal interpretation, McGurn has created an evocative and extended sense of time and place that appeals to a common sense of vital force.
Bedwyr Williams’s installation The Gulch, 2016, transforms this institution’s Curve gallery with a path that unfolds in stages, recalling the experience of traversing a theme park. Each environment is a chapter in a narrative that disorients the viewer, annulling the previous segment and simultaneously presaging the next one. Every passage is a reversal of perspective, a transfiguration of the glance. The mise-en-scčne of a full moon over the sea—with the noise of breaking waves, the nearly imperceptible sounds of gently rippling water, reassuring background music, the crackling of a bonfire, and an abandoned running shoe—pulls us into Williams’s grand illusion.
As we proceed into the shadows, we come upon an assortment of sculptural tableaux: a self-portrait statuette of Williams standing on a rock with a heap of wooden pallets at his feet; a broken wooden spoon; and the upper half of a mannequin wearing a jacket emblazoned with the title of this immersive work. In another area, we encounter a nonfunctional beverage-vending machine. Cushions and bongo drums nearby encourage audience participation. Suddenly, there’s a conference room with a video on a screen and an invitation to talk through a microphone connected to a speaker on a taxidermied goat. A glittering curtain opens onto the journey’s end, where we locate the second discarded sneaker, lying along the edge of a running track. Japanese maneki-neko—beckoning cat figures—on floating Ikea bookcases greet us as we are ushered out beneath an enormous group portrait.
Williams has constructed an engaging and audacious story—a “process-based” artwork that is also deeply theatrical. It infects the Curve with a high-minded cheekiness and rich poetry.
Translated from Italian by Marguerite Shore.
Italian artist Rodolfo Aricň resisted the primary aesthetic trend of his milieu—Arte Povera—and instead took to the developments in painting happening across the Atlantic. Indeed, his shaped canvases call to mind Frank Stella, Robert Mangold. But this former student of architecture didn’t entirely fall in line with the kind of pictorial logic espoused by those Americans. In the pieces on display here, dating from 1966 to 1974, Aricň turned to history—specifically, the arches of ecclesiastical painting and the fundamentals of perspective—to generate his geometric structures.
For example, the deep-blue triptych Prospettiva (Perspective), 1970, the exhibition’s centerpiece, is a hexagonal canvas depicting three isometric shafts converging in an off-center vanishing point. This Renaissance method of creating illusionistic space implied notions of rationality. Yet Prospettiva, with its painted lines in white and blue, delineating all this dimensional form, is not an entirely rational thing. The imagery, while quite static, also suggests a kind of speed—as if what we’re looking at is somehow booming forth.
Part of Aricň’s appeal is in the contradictory nature of his objects. His paintings flip-flop between flat, abstract spatial representations and chunky physical entities that are, in his words, “object paintings.” Whether they’re rhomboids, hexagons, or notched rectangles, his works yield almost nothing conceptually. But they are odd images that deserve to be pondered—and therein lies their endless charm.
Central to Candice Lin’s current exhibition, “A Body Reduced to Brilliant Colour,” is System for a Stain (all works cited, 2016), a distillation apparatus where popular colonial commodities, such as tea and cochineal, form a dark-red liquid in a shallow wooden tank. Slim plastic tubing emerges, snaking its way to a neighboring room, where it coils onto a floor covered with white marble laminate. As the red fluid gathers in puddles, an audio work, A Memory Blushing with Innocence, reveals the physiological and psychological effects of colonialism for both master and slave, as told through the macabre memories of a plantation owner’s daughter. On the fate of Indians working in the mines, for example, she recalls their skin turning white, their veins silver, and their eyes blue. “They believed they finally understood what it was to be European,” she notes, “as they crawled out of the earth . . . sick and slowly dying.”
But the critique of the capitalist system that facilitated this history does not remain in the realm of abstract representation. A Warner for Survivalists: White Gold presents a small fish tank in which about fifteen giant Madagascar hissing cockroaches are offered only candied fruit and a Chinese vase made of sugar to feed on—sugar being a colonial commodity that some breeds have evolved to avoid, given its use in traps and its detrimental health effects. Horrifically, this controlled environment thus offers a limited set of choices to its inhabitants—submit, starve, or cannibalize. (When I visited, the majority appeared either dead or comatose.) In this microcosm of violence, the viewer is implicated in the cruelty: guilty of seeing something wrong within a locked structure and incapable of breaking it.
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.
Michelangelo Pistoletto describes his newest work as coming to him like a mirage. And indeed, the half-submerged golden car, Miraggio (Mirage), 2016, serenely located in a fountain of Blenheim Palace, pops out like a surreal prop from a Fellini movie. For Pistoletto, this work sits at the juncture of the natural and man-made—much like Blenheim’s manicured gardens. But it also points to another clash: Arte Povera. Or rather, the collision of blue-chip status with an art that valued the humble and quotidian. One palpably feels this irony in the octogenarian artist’s unusual retrospective, distributed throughout Winston Churchill’s birthplace.
Starting with his mica paintings, 100 Mostre nel mese di Ottobre (100 Exhibitions in the Month of October), 1976—found antique paintings covered with the silicate mineral, situated among the Churchill family’s art collection—to his famous Venere degli stracci (Venus of the Rags), 1967–2013, a large statue of the titular goddess gazing into a mountain of tatters in the manor’s chapel, Pistoletto’s art stuns with its juxtapositions of antiquity and modern waste. But these pieces do fit quite beautifully with their lavish surroundings, suggesting that time—and success—have somewhat softened the artist’s original vision.
Miraggio’s watery reflection also connects to Pistoletto’s mirror paintings, a selection of which fills the palace’s vast library. Thirty-two pieces, collectively titled Self-Portraits (Il Presente/The Present) to Quadri specchianti/Mirror Paintings, 1961–2016, are installed back to back and face to face, creating a veritable hall of mirrors ŕ la Versailles. Here, Pistoletto creates a melancholy sense of time unfolding, where his images meet and merge into one another, seeping forever into our present.