Best of January 2010


Tyra is back  with her master-classes 0n the intricacies of how the mainstream image-world works. Of course AMERICA’S NEXT TOP MODEL shamelessly promotes those mainstream values — for instance, this series (13), is focused exclusively on models generally thought to be too short, particularly for the catwalk, but their brief is to learn how to compensate for this so that they nonetheless emanate length. And of course ANTM is shamelessly seductive. But through its strategically edited look behind the scenes, it can inevitably also sharpen our critical faculties where questions of visual display and self-display are concerned.  Key here are the ways in which extreme stylization and artifice (not only of dress and of bodies in space, but also of speech) keep getting re-combined and contrasted with elements that we are meant to read as unstaged or natural. In fact, where the models themselves are concerned, a consistent  make-or-breaker revolves precisely around their own ability to get the balance right in this regard. Here, the eyes are taken to be central. The issue is whether, and if so how effectively, a model is able to penetrate — or activate and enhance? —  the artifice of the scene revolving around her by letting her eyes communicate  life, warmth, energy, or character.


Still from S1 Ep 17 The Big Bank Robbery - opening credits Still from S1 Ep 17 The Big Bank Robbery - Wilma sewing

THE FLINTSTONES are 50 years old this year. Episodes from the first season (1960) are available on Virgin’s TV On Demand. Often described as an animated variation of the US sitcom The Honeymooners, here 1950’s/early 60’s gender politics are transposed from the Brooklyn apartment of the former to stone age Bedrock.  The nature and, in turn, the politics of this, and other such transpositions provide much food for thought.  Absent from these episodes, of course, is the famous Flintstones’ theme song penned by Hoyt Curtin. It wasn’t introduced until season three. But I prefer the soundtrack here — also by Curtin, I believe — and the title sequences by Lawrence Goble. Particularly sublime is the mix of music, visuals, action, and reaction in the closing credits (the ruckus that builds when, contrary to plan, it is the cat that locks Fred out for the night). On a weirder note — linking back to, and inverting, my final observations about  ANTM — what to make of Wilma’s flat, cavernous “eyes so black, like frying pans” (Fred’s words, in the courtship love letter featured in episode  21)? For even with their intrinsic lack of expression, Wilma remains the Series’ sparkiest character.


ROROTOKO — an online ‘ideas’ site in which some of the most challenging authors around are interviewed, and summarize, recent books. For lovers of photography, in this case, un-lovely disaster photography, see Ariella Azoulay’s entry on her book The Civil Contract of Photography, MIT, 2008.

Screenshot from Rorotoko Site

Balka, How it Is, 2009, Unilever Series, Tate Modern 2010


Now, a  montage of art-moments savoured in TATE MODERN this month. First, Miroslaw Balka’s Turbine Hall installation ‘How it is’, 2009 — to say anything more would be to spoil the experience for anyone who hasn’t been yet. Although I could add that for me the work’s appeal did not necessarily match up with the artist’s stated intentions for it (in part to recall dark horrors associated with Poland’s WW2 concentration camps).  As has been noted often enough by others, the fact of such differences between intention and viewing experience are not necessarily in the artist’s hands. For as has been argued by others, it is difficult for even the most imposing and spectacular art-works installed in the large-scale but informal and interactional space of Turbine Hall not to become somewhat domesticated. While this might be seen to undermine their gravitas (if gravitas is their aim), this doesn’t invalidate them. It just opens up additional questions, including, again, questions about visual display and audience-artwork encounter.

Second, in Pop Life: Art in a Material World which ended on 17 January, a chance to see Warhol’s Gems series, works which, as Tate puts it “playfully spoof the artist’s own awestruck fascination with the trappings of wealth.” Installed in a narrow room to themselves, each full-frontal, phosphorescent-paint image glowed ethereally under ultraviolet light, as did we, upon passing through. As is usual, with Warhol, iconic simplicity turns out to be rich in socio-cultural, pop-cultural, consumerist associations. Another of his takes, too, on the traditional ‘vanitas’ theme in western art. One that could be said to share, particularly with certain examples of Dutch 17th and 18th century still life painting, a refusal to take on an explicitly moral tone.

Third, in Tate’s Material Gestures gallery, Cy Twombly’s red-loopy paintings are energetic and melancholic at the same time. The curving lines are loose and free but have left a fragile mass of dripping, trailing lines. You can’t see and feel one, without the other. Likewise, their formal simplicity and enormous emotional space that they open up seem to go hand in hand.  And then there are the further artistic and cultural dimensions indicated by their titles and organisation into a themed set. The image here is his Untitled VII from the Bacchus Series 2005.

Cy Twombly, Untitled VII from Bacchus Series 2005, Oil on canvas. Courtesy Gagosian Gallery © Cy Twombly


“VIDEO PAINTING.” At the recent London Art Fair (at the Business Design Centre from 13th-17th January) I almost missed seeing the Open Gallery’s showing of Alys Williams’ quietly stunning works. The definition on Williams’ website puts it beautifully: “Video paintings explore the notion of non-narrative. There is no dialogue, no sound. The camera is static and there is no subsequent editing or manipulation of the material. Through the video painting, usually between five and twenty minutes in length, the artist leads us into a way of seeing which has no determinable meaning but which carries a unique emotional hue. Video paintings challenge us to let go of the endless search for closure or understanding and approach instead what it is to experience the world.” What I value, too, is the way in which it challenges us to rethink our conditioned assumptions about video as a medium. For what is normally defined as characteristically time-based, fleeting, and in some cases also somewhat ‘throw-away’, becomes spatial, a densely textured environment in which we are invited to linger.



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