Elad Lassry: Woman (Camera).

I love this photograph and I kind of like what I’ve seen of Elad Lassry generally, though I sometimes wonder what it’d be without those magic frames, and I wonder also why contemporary art is content to come across so small - but that’s a separate thing.

What’s made this woman leap onto that shelf? My guess is that it’s nothing more urgent than a priceless expression on her son or daughter’s face (I’m convinced this is a portrait of a mother, and if I’m wrong it makes no difference anyway). But there she is, in one of those feats of everyday superness, balancing on a tightrope between domesticity and high adventure. Her concentration is so intense that she hasn’t even noticed what she’s up to - it almost makes me laugh. Of course there’s another photographer here, equally stealthy, though I imagine this photograph was more “found” than composed. Nobody could have foreseen the little rhyme between the extended arm and the neck of the lamp. And the woman - is it an actress? - in the black and white photograph: another photographer and photographee, and another version of feminine glamour, maybe, to contrast with this newer kind. You have to look harder for it, the newer kind, and its attributes have changed (from lofty passivity to something catlike cloaked in frumpy), but it’s there. This picture is one degree and a frame away from the photos all families accumulate and never really look at, but there’s a difference, and I’m glad somebody noticed it.

Artists in pictures: Sean Scully

Here’s Sean Scully with two of his gigantic paintings, a good abstract expressionist soldier back from battle, covered in the blood of his victims. You’d think this rather obsolete content would upstage the paintings, but it doesn’t (and I don’t necessarily have a problem with that content anyway). In fact, you get a real sense of the physicality of the paintings here, a sense you don’t really get, by the way, looking at them in reproduction. (Apparently the sides of Scully’s canvases are also painted; this too would add to their monolithic solidity.) The paintings, though they really do bear those old-fashioned qualities, sought and admired by the abstract expressionists but laughed out of town today, toughness and masculinity, come off pretty well, not nearly as cold, or as easily pigeonholed, as you’d expect given their ancestry. Scully himself looks somewhat more anachronistic than his paintings do. I feel like he may accidentally have gotten himself pressed into that mold in the photo.

In other photos, some in which Scully is seated, we see an artist applying paint not with a Herculean trowel, but carefully, with a relatively small brush - and check out that posture in the photo on the right: that’s a guy who has to be careful about his back if I ever saw one. There. Fine. But I still like the first photo, just like I do pictures of Jackson Pollock in his barn or, heck, Nick Nolte in Scorsese’s Life Lessons, where no artist cliché is spared. As long as painting is an art and not a science, as long as painters start a painting not knowing what they’re after, there will always be some air of romance in it. And whatever the nature of the attraction to getting messily engrossed in useless work, I don’t think I’m the only one who’s feels it.

Artists in pictures: Kurt Schwitters

He’s very clean, isn’t he? This photo has occupied a talismanic place on my computer desktop for several years. I like Schwitters the artist - I think Schwitters the collagist was a virtuoso, but I’m just about obsessed with Schwitters the subject of portraits. There isn’t, among all the pictures I’ve seen of him, one that isn’t remarkable for some reason. I like this one the most - him showing everyone how sublimely, incongruously well-adjusted he was, totally comfortable with himself and totally at ease having his picture taken. I don’t think Schwitters had the easiest life; I sometimes wonder what made him such a good smiler (if it wasn’t just dada tomfoolery to him, posing for pictures): he had a sickly childhood and rough young adulthood, took a while to find come into his own as an artist, was chased around Europe during the war, his work always having to be abandoned, he suffered life-long poor health including epilepsy, strokes in later life, and temporary blindness, and ended up, after the war, in England’s Lake District, where, far away from all the artists he knew, he went ahead and tried to build again that thing he could never get built, his Merzbau. I wish I could have met him. I don’t usually feel that way about artists, but I’d like to have known Schwitters.

Music: Aphex Twin
Picture: David Hamilton

Compare and Contrast (11)

1. Alex Prager: Desiree.
2. Cindy Sherman: untitled 96.

C’mon Alex. Homage is one thing, but when every third photograph cites a Cindy photograph, parodies a Cindy photograph, or looks openly imitative of a Cindy photograph, which photographs were also citing, parodying, and imitating things, 1) you might be heading into a creative cul-de-sac and 2) we might be tempted to overlook your more interesting, more unique work.

(…and let me get in a shout out to everyone who, like me, had that linoleum (bottom) in their house or knew someone close to them who did. Never forget.)

A puss moth caterpillar. Photo by John Hallmén. One of the Telegraph's Pictures of the Day.

Thomas Struth: Stellarator Wendelstein 7-x detail max planck ipp, Greifswald.

There are people for whom this picture doesn’t represent a new wilderness, probably several decimal points less than one percent of the world’s population. Who knows that it doesn’t amount to a beautiful feat of engineering for those few? For the rest of us, it can only be a big heap of nonsense, complexity with a capital C. But it doesn’t take a luddite to ask, looking at this image, just what exactly we’re playing at. Presumably, this mass of circuitry performs untold numbers of minute functions, but maybe - because most of us don’t get it - its real significance, its human-scale legacy, is purely visual-physical, not what it does but what it is when it just sits there for a photograph, a metallic bramble propagating in a lab somewhere, rather than a means to an appreciable end. 

Gerhard Richter: Nine Objects

I was looking through a book of Gerhard Richter Editions the other day and a few things really caught my eye. This series of Nine Objects is, I think, particularly cool, not least because it reminds me of work by Fischli and Weiss, whose work I have a strong attachment to. Richter designed and built these geometric wooden objects, photographed them and had the photos “professionally retouched according to [his] instructions,” ie. made Escherian. And after that they were printed on cardboard, perhaps as a group as pictured below, or perhaps just as singles. That’s a lot of process and, we might say, a lot of distantiations.

Why does this set of pictures work? I ask myself this question a lot with Richter, but always, thankfully, after sensing something about them obviously working. I guess it’s the geometry reigning in the unlike, first of all (although, like I said, I’m not really sure if they were intended as a group or not - in the book I looked at they were grouped like they are above, and I think they look good arranged as a set like that). Then I start to thinking that the sculptures themselves are quite interesting, illusory or not, as is the idea of photographing sculpture (again reminding me a lot of the Fischli & Weiss Equilibres)Next, there is something of a sour humour to these pictures. There’s something funny, first off, about the process itself, so involved and unnecessary. Then, there’s the funny that transverses into the grotesque: those slightly anthropomorphic, slightly alien figures, physically impoderable and irrationally set - a cube frame on a lawn chair, that strange assemblage in among those forlorn cups and saucers… But there’s also something ominously funny about the documentary feel as it’s applied here, especially in light of some of Richter’s other more politically charged work where that kind of stylization has perhaps a more defined effect. And what is the effect here, of the Weegee spotlighting, the blurry surfaces, and, again, those cups and saucers amongst which that strange Odradek of a creature eerily sits, caught in the act of having tea! Guilty by way of flashbulb! Is this over-familiar grammar the thing being explored and parodied here, with these assemblages as stand-ins for the human element? Were some constructivists plotting a conspiracy in a basement somewhere? Are these the crosses the man of the future will have to bear upon his back? Or is this the unfathomable future itself, incohate and monstrous, filling the vacant spaces of the post-human world, with its kindling?

What I like about Richter is his tireless, piecemeal investigation of what’s left to do in art. Even in a little corner like this he can turn up something rich and strange.

Wolfgang Tillmans: New Family

My mom’s photography never ceases to amaze me. I have a feeling it’s going unnoticed by her contemporaries though, and it’s not hard to see why: as an artist, she’s evidently positioned herself in such a way that only a very thin aesthetic hairline separates her photos from the millions upon millions produced around the world everyday without a thought given to the reasons not to bother. (For all I know her ultimate goal may be the total erasure of the line.) Nonetheless, her unsparing, tragicomic take on rural captivity has its admirers.

Fischli & Weiss: from Equilibriums.

"Gerhard Richter once said something I really liked: a lottery ticket with six out of six winning numbers marked on it can only be good. Only an idiot would say. ‘But the crosses aren’t nicely distributed’. And the same is true with the ‘Equilibriums’: if it stays up, then it can only be good."

- Peter Fischli

Bruce Nauman: Self-Portrait as Fountain.

"I was trying to understand what art was and what artists do," he told me, "and a lot of that, for me, seemed to involve watching and waiting to see what would happen. When I’m desperate enough just to do anything, even if it seems completely stupid, it’s such a relief." In those days, he hoped that sooner of later he’d figure out how to make art without such a struggle, but it never happened. "My dad once said, ‘You don’t have to reinvent the wheel every day,’ but I think you do," he told me. "Maybe not every day, but pretty often."

- Nauman, from a profile by Calvin Tomkins in the June 1st issue of the New Yorker

Fischli and Weiss: How to Work Better and Flowers, Mushrooms.

Some people put it on their fridge or tape it to their studio wall. Others write it off as self-help parody. For me, appreciating How to Work Better, a list of ten work strategies by Fischli and Weiss, means knowing the irony is there but being able to see the inspirational logic in it at the same time, being able to tack it to your wall and apply the efficiency tips to your life even though you know it’s problematic and not to be taken entirely seriously. The rules are all too simple and have the insipid ring of managerial cant to them, but who, on the other hand, wouldn’t benefit from putting them into practice? Like the insufferable AA cliches in David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, they are cliches because they are, time and again, proven true, proven useful. Flexibility (to use another reliable business meeting byword), being able to live on both sides of the divide between irony and sincerity at once and somehow commit to both, seems like a very contemporary survival skill.

How to Work Better

1. Do one thing at a time

2. Know the problem

3. Learn to listen

4. Learn to ask questions

5. Distinguish sense from nonsense

6. Accept change as inevitable

7. Admit mistakes

8. Say it simple

9. Be calm

10. Smile

The same ambiguity is present in most all of Fischli and Weiss’ work. Their Flowers, Mushrooms, a series of double-exposures, seems more and more masterly (and funnier) all the time.

The idea, as usual, is so simple that the (negative?) comparisons to design seem relevant, the results so unabashedly pretty as to prompt knee-jerk skepticism; we question it for what seems like a lack of difficulty, even childishness. And it’s true - the whole family could enjoy these pictures, which bothers some of us. The point, again, seems to be to fully embrace both the sickly-sweet vileness and the almost comical explosion of anti-intellectual beauty in the imagery, rather than, like a child or cynic, just one of those sides. It’s a work that asks a particularly timely question: What is it like to live in a world weary and wary of pleasure?

Saint Passionate


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