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monday inspirations: charley harper

It’s Monday again… and Monday is the time for brightly-coloured, cheering things, especially when it’s February and toes are cold, and spring still feels an unfeasibly long time away.

Today, I am admiring these beautiful illustrations by artist Charley Harper. Inspired by the simplicity of Inuit art and movements like Cubism and Minimalism, as well as the mathematics, geometry and physics, Harper developed a style he termed “minimal realism” which aimed to capture the elements of his subjects (usually animals and birds), reducing them to a series of simple visual elements such as shapes, patterns and colours. Working in direct opposition to conventional “superrealistic” illustrations of nature and wildlife, he characterised his unique approach as follows:

When I look at a wildlife or nature subject, I don’t see the feathers in the wings, I just count the wings. I see exciting shapes, color combinations, patterns, textures, fascinating behavior and endless possibilities for making interesting pictures. I regard the picture as an ecosystem in which all the elements are interrelated, interdependent, perfectly balanced, without trimming or unutilized parts; and herein lies the lure of painting; in a world of chaos, the picture is one small rectangle in which the artist can create an ordered universe.

I am currently coveting this fabulous (and enormous) monograph of Harper’s work, entitled Charley Harper: An Illustrated Life, which brings together images from all five decades of his career – however with an RRP of £99.95 I think it’s going to have to stay on the wish list only!

Other things that have cheered up my Monday include: the first spring daffodils; blueberries and strawberries in my fruit salad; fleeting moments of sunshine; my growing addiction to we heart it; button earrings and black satin bows; soya hot chocolate as a mid-morning treat; the excellent Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl; and the prospect of maybe checking out this when I go down to London later this week.

What has brightened up your Monday?

subversive spaces

On Friday night, I went along to the opening of the new Subversive Spaces exhibition at the Whitworth Art Gallery. I’m not sure whether it was the opening speech from Tate Director Sir Nicholas Serota, the free bubbly and chocolate cakes (decorated with appropriately surreal slogans) or the work itself that was drawing the crowds, but whatever the reason, it was great to see a preview as busy and lively as this one. Unfortunately though, it did become a little difficult to get a really good look at the exhibition, so I’ll have to go back another time. I also want to venture into the (by all accounts, very spooky) installation by Gregor Schneider: specially commissioned for this exhibition, Kinderzimmer is a replica of a child’s nursery from Garzweiler, a German town which was destroyed as part of a massive open-cast mining operation, becoming “a double of a space that no longer exists… a strange repository for real past lives lived in identical spaces.”

Curated by Anna Dezeuze and David Lomas, Subversive Spaces: Surrealism & Contemporary Art is the result of a collaboration between the AHRC Research Centre for the Studies of Surrealism and its Legacies, and The Whitworth Art Gallery. This ambitious exhibition sets out to explore the legacy of the Surrealist project, bringing together work by artists such as Dali, Magritte, Ernst and Atet, and setting it alongside works by contemporary artists exploring similar territories. The exhibition is organised into two distinct spaces: Psychic Interiors investigates and destabilises the domestic space of the home, exploring themes such as female hysteria, anxiety, claustrophobia and the unheimlich; whilst Wandering the City follows the Surrealist’s interest in exploring the city streets to discover hidden social spaces and the secret territories where our unconscious fears and desires reside. These locations, both private and public, personal and social, are the “subversive spaces” of the exhibition title – the familiar, everyday places that the Surrealists attempted to disturb and reconfigure, exposing the hidden narratives at work within the spaces we inhabit.

Ambitious it may be, but from what I have seen of this exhibition so far, it certainly delivers a lot. Whilst some of the connections made between historical and contemporary works were undoubtedly more interesting and revealing than others, the exhibition is beautifully presented and very well thought through: exploring the twisty network of rooms and passages is itself an appropriately destabilising and disturbing experience. Of the contemporary works, some highlights for me were Lucy Gunning’s strangely atmospheric video of a woman in a red dress crawling around the walls of the room without touching the floor (pictured above) evoking the archetype of female psychic disturbance (Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper particularly came to mind) whilst simultaneously re-visioning children’s games. Robert Gober’s unexpected sculpture of a very realistic male leg apparently emerging from a wall was pleasingly unsettling, as were some satisfyingly unheimlich works by Tony Ousler, Sarah Lucas and Tacita Dean, whilst Katie Houlten’s crotchet wall-patterns, Francis Alys’s Railings and William Anastasi’s Subway Drawings represented playful attempts to map the apparently random and ephemeral traces of urban life. It was also interesting to get close to some classic works including original illustrations for André Breton’s Surrealist novel Nadja, Ralph Rumney’s 1958 “study” of his wanderings in Venice and Guy Debord’s psychogeographic “map” of Paris. Overall, this exhibition is an interesting assemblage of a variety of work related to the Surrealist movement and its themes: whilst the connection with some of the contemporary works occasionally feels a little tenuous, overall it makes a compelling case for the continuing relevance of the Surrealist project in all its complexities, emphasising the revolutionary intent at the movement’s heart.

Subversive Spaces is showing until 4 May, and there’s also an accompanying conference taking place next Friday and Saturday which I’d love to go along to if I can make it. You can read some other responses to the show here and here and also here there’s a flickr set of work from the show here.

monday inspirations: rene gruau

Monday is a day to look at pretty things… especially when you’re still full of illness and have very cold toes and need something colourful to brighten up your day.

Today I’m loving these fabulous illustrations by Rene Gruau, which capture so perfectly the spirit of late 1940s and early 1950s fashion and design, evoking all the glamour and elegance of the post-war “New Look”. Famously self-taught, Gruau took inspiration from diverse sources, looking to art nouveau, traditional Japanese prints, and the work of artists such as Toulouse-Lautrec to develop his distinctive graphic style and colour palette. Today, he is probably best remembered for his fashion illustrations for Dior, which epitomise Parisian chic: Dior first commissioned him back in 1947 for the launch of the Miss Dior fragrance. However, he also worked for a range of other “grands couturiers” including Pierrre Balamin, Marcel Rochas and Givenchy, illustrated for magazines including Harper’s, Vogue and Elle and designed posters for Paris institutions such as the Lido and the Moulin Rouge cabarets, as well as iconic French brands including Cinzano, Martini and Air France.

Other things which have cheered up my Monday include: perfect orange tulips; leopard print socks; a new blog find, little brown pen; dairy-free chocolate brownies; and of course, watching the snow fall – the view from my window has been transformed into a white fairytale world. (So much better of course when you don’t have to go anywhere and can sit at home under the blanket, listening to reports of snow related chaos on Radio 4)

What has brightened up your Monday?

art + pig

Yesterday I went along to the opening of Interspecies, a new exhibition at Cornerhouse. The show has been organised by The Arts Catalyst , an organisation who commission art that, in their own words, “experimentally and critically engages with science”: it marks the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth, bringing together a group of artists who explore and question the relationships which exist between humans and animals. Now, the notion of “art about animals” may be sending off a few alarm bells, but the works in this show are emphatically not on the “pet portraits” side of things. Instead, Interspecies offers us works such as Rachel Mayeri’s Primate Cinema, which casts human actors in the role of erm… monkeys, and Beatriz da Costa’s PigeonBlog accompanied by some surprisingly perky-looking taxidermied pigeons. There are also a number of specially commissioned projects including Anthony Hall’s interactive work ENKI experiment 3, which explores the communication between gallery visitors and the rather fabulously named Black Ghost Knife Fish: the opening night also included a special performance from Kira O’Reilly entitled Falling Asleep with a Pig, which brought an Actual Real Life Pig into the top floor gallery. Whilst the piece itself wasn’t an especial favourite, I have to admit that the pig was the highlight of my evening. Friendly, happy-looking little black pigs investigating some straw in a specially-built gallery pigsty – that’s the sort of thing contemporary art should really be all about.

Yesterday night was also the opening of a new solo show by Rachel Goodyear at International 3, They Never Run, Only Call. Following on from a very successful 2008 for the Manchester-based artist, this show presents a number of new and mostly unseen drawings, which continue to explore the rather ambiguous borderlands between reality and imagination. These delicate drawings are peopled with re-imagined creatures from myth, fairy-tale figures given a nightmarish twist, but also take inspiration from natural history and zoological illustrations, developing out of an ongoing process of collecting and scrapbooking found images.

I’ve also been hoping to catch another interesting new Manchester exhibition: I don’t know about community networks but I know what I like. Curated by Alison Kershaw, this innovative project brings together seven contemporary artists from the north west, including Grennan & Sperandio and Joe Richardson amongst others, to examine and respond to the themes, environments, structures and networks of community and voluntary engagement in Manchester through Community Network for Manchester. Work is shown in a variety of locations across the city: the exhibition becomes a kind of treasure hunt leading the viewer through a number of Manchester’s centres of community activity. Unfortunately the exhibition closes on Sunday, and since I’m down in London for the weekend I won’t have time to get to see it now: but luckily work from the project will also be exhibited at Castlefield Gallery in April.

Another new show I’m hoping to catch is the Learning to Love You More exhibition up at the BALTIC centre, which runs until 8th March. Learning to Love You More is an ever-changing series of participatory exhibitions, screenings and broadcasts that evolve and develop as new submissions are added. Since the project started back in 2002, over 5000 people have joined in, responding to a series of art challenges ranging from “make an encouraging banner” to “take a flash photo under your bed.” Each response is submitted via the website, and becomes a submission for possible inclusions in presentations like this one – visitors to the BALTIC will also be able to join in and make work to submit to the exhibition. I’ve been a fan of this excellent collaborative project ever since I discovered their website (where you can see all the challenges and lots of submissions)- and do hope I’ll be able to get up to Gateshead to catch the show!

Whilst I’m there I’d also have to check out the Fluxus show, and I would also be quite intrigued to see Antonio Riello’s work B.SQUARE. The Italian artist has created a series of unique outfits to be worn by all staff, with front of house, office staff and directors all taking part. This unique “exhibition” will move outside the boundaries of the gallery spaces, infiltrating all parts of the building, with manifestations of his work spilling out into meetings, discussions and staff recreational areas as well as all public spaces. B.SQUARE will take place in several contemporary art galleries throughout the work – this is its second incarnation following the launch of the project at Kunsthalle Weine in 2007.

Also on my list of must-see shows is DING>>D0NG at FACT which I still have yet to see. I’m a little disappointed I missed the chance to sleep over in the galleries as part of the Dream Director event with artist Luke Jerram earlier this month. The event saw twenty volunteers sleeping in specially designed pods wearing eye-masks: once people reached “dream state” a computer triggered ambient sounds in an attempt to affect their dreams.

First on the list though for this weekend is the Rothko show at Tate Modern which I absolutely must go and see before it closes on 1st February. Phew!

(This excellent picture of the pig is by Duncan)

marie antoinette

This week I took a much-needed break from Woolf’s (at times rather bleak) 1920s London and ventured into a very different imaginative landscape – the gorgeously glittering, candy-coloured and utterly decadent Versailles of Sophia Coppola’s much-maligned 2006 biopic Marie Antoinette. I’d never seen the film before, though I had read Antonia Fraser’s biography of Marie Antoinette upon which the film was loosely based. I also love both of Coppola’s previous films (her debut, The Virgin Suicides, which I remember going to see by myself at my local arthouse cinema at the age of about 16, toting my dog-eared copy of Jeffrey Eugenides’ novel under my arm like some kind of clutch-bag; and of course, the popular Lost in Translation) so I was intrigued to see what Coppola would make of the iconic story of the ill-fated French Queen.

The film hadn’t exactly ‘wowed’ audiences: Marie Antoinette was booed at Cannes, and many reviewers dismissed it as mere shallow, vacuous fluff, characterising it as a sort of lightweight costume drama for the MTV generation. Coppola was widely criticised for her decision to portray Marie Antoinette as “a real girl… just a teenager [who] wanted to stay out late and go to parties”, which critics suggested represented a failure to take seriously the political and historical context of the young queen’s story – the demise of the French monarchy and the subsequent revolution. Broadly speaking, Marie Antoinette was written off as little better than a glorified music video – a few pretty pictures, a funky soundtrack, but no real substance, meaningful content or historical validity.

For me, the music video comparison is probably valid enough – after all, the film is characterised by atmospheric sequences that wouldn’t be out of place in a beautifully-shot music video, dialogue is kept to a minimum, the narrative is meandering rather than tightly-plotted, and as so often with Coppola’s work, the soundtrack plays a key role – but to dismiss it as such really misses the fundamental point.

There are a number of issues in play here, but firstly such an interpretation fails to take into account the fact that the “music video” approach is obviously a very deliberate creative choice, reflecting Coppola’s conception of the queen as simply a teenager who liked a good party. The controversial decision to feature new wave and punk on the soundtrack alongside the more conventional orchestral music we might expect from a period piece underlines the sense that this film is not an attempt at historical realism and accuracy, but (as to some extent with The Virgin Suicides which also blends period and contemporary music on its soundtrack) is rather interested in creating a certain sense of timelessness, bringing together fact and fiction to imaginatively re-vision the identity of the central character, who consequently comes to function as a kind of ‘universal’ teenage girl.

In this way, Coppola plays with the idea of history itself as a series of stories that are told and retold, themselves coming to occupy the territory of fiction – the ‘myth’ of Marie Antoinette perhaps as much as any other. Her famous “let them eat cake” remark itself has long been proved apocryphal, but nevertheless seems to endure – Coppola loves playing with this throughout the film, depicting the queen as a compulsive nibbler of fancy pastries and pastel macaroons. In this, she demonstrates that Marie Antoinette has increasingly become a figure of legend, not so dissimilar in many ways to Robin Hood or King Arthur, both themselves figures who existed in historical reality, but who have transformed into semi-fictional characters, whose stories are continually retold and reinvented in new forms to suit the specific needs of new generations, new contexts. Consequently, in this very specific ‘re-telling’ or even ‘reappropriation’ of her story, Marie Antoinette seems to exist outside the conventional boundaries of history in her own playfully anachronistic, imagined world, appearing at one moment in an 18th century gown, the next in goth-inspired make up – at one point we even glimpse a pair of Converse shoes.

For me, it’s precisely this quirky, playful approach to the story that gives the film its distinctive freshness. I also liked the slightly idiosyncratic, sideways view of the political context: whilst its fair to say the film doesn’t explore the historical events in much depth – Coppola’s focus seems to be on the personal rather than the political – it simultaneously avoids offering us any simple answers. Kirsten Dunst’s nuanced portrayal of Marie Antoinette resists depicting her as either a straightforward innocent victim or the spoilt and extravagant stereotype of 18th century propaganda, whilst Jason Schwartzman’s doe-eyed King Louis XVI delicately treads the line between sweetly naive and unappealingly odd. Coppola does not depict Marie Antoinette’s final grisly fate, yet the last shot of the Queen’s ransacked bedroom is surprisingly moving, perhaps not for what we do see, but precisely for what we do not – she allows Marie Antoinette’s myth speak to us in silence.

Daniel Mendelsohn, writing in The New York Review of Books, criticises Coppola for precisely this reason: “You’d never guess from this that men’s lives—those of the Queen’s guards—were also destroyed in that violence; their severed heads, stuck on pikes, were gleefully paraded before the procession bearing the royal family to Paris… Coppola forlornly catalogs only the ruined bric-a-brac. As with the teenaged girls for whom she has such sympathy, her worst imagination of disaster, it would seem, is a messy bedroom.” But for me, this image was both powerful and resonant. The bedroom at Versailles seemed throughout the film to be a physical representation of Marie Antoinette’s inner space, and so this final sense of disorder, subtle though it may be, ultimately has more impact than any scene of violence or bloodshed.

Watching the film left me wondering exactly what it was about it that offended so many critics and audiences. Marie Antoinette is certainly historically obtuse – but is that in itself so much of an issue? The film does not prioritise historical accuracy or realism – instead it’s driven by mood, atmosphere, aesthetics, taking unapologetic pleasure in cataloguing the decadence and extravagance of the French court in endless, dreamy shots of exquisite delicacies, magnificent interiors, and of course, clothes – unsurprisingly given her own interests in fashion, Coppola takes particular delight in exploring Marie Antoinette’s role as a fashion icon of her times, with scene after scene featuring new and beautiful shoes and gowns, not to mention increasingly outrageous hairstyles. Yes, it may be totally anachronistic, but in the end, isn’t that part of the point, part of the fun?
Perhaps what is really at the bottom of all this is the (to me, slightly bizarre) notion that weighty or worthy ‘serious’ art is somehow superior to any other. Personally, I don’t understand why something cannot be considered interesting or high quality simply because it is beautiful, affecting, or engaging in some other way – even simply just good fun. True, an entirely vacuous film might be a bit boring, but whilst it is playful and whimsical, perhaps even frivolous, there’s plenty to engage with and think about in a film like Marie Antoinette. The decision to explore surface aesthetics, as Coppola does so adeptly in this film can, after all, be a valid creative choice, and can result in a final piece of work that is challenging and intriguing in its own way. I don’t think critics would be quite so quick to dismiss a book simply because it foregrounds creating a powerful ambiance at the expense of so-called “deep and meaningful” political content, Maybe some would even applaud the courage of the writer in taking an alternative approach – after all, the ability to break rules, explore new angles and experiment with new perspectives is something we look for from artists.

This seems to have turned into quite a long ramble, and I’m not entirely sure what it is I want to say, except perhaps that in the end, I both enjoyed the film in an entirely frivolous way (champagne, fabulous gowns, cute puppies and cakes – erm, yes please) and found it very interesting – it is after all, possible to do both. Whether or not Coppola’s take on history is for you, there’s no doubt she manages to create a vivid sense of her character’s inner life and imagination. And maybe, in the end, in spite of her determination to sidestep the political, (indeed perhaps because of it), in its distinctive and offbeat approach to the topic, I suspect that, far from being just “fluff”, Marie Antoinette is secretly a little bit anarchic after all…