Late at Tate Britain

2013-06-07 17.37.53I’ve discovered that I really enjoy drawing in museums.  This is surprising in that I don’t worry about the people who peer over my shoulder while I’m doing it, and that I can become quite immersed in the activity of looking and drawing even in quite a busy place; but it’s even more surprising because the ‘artistic trauma’ that led me to believe I couldn’t draw also took place in a museum, when I was entered into a regional competition by my school and spent an entirely miserable day at Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum failing to draw a stuffed deer.

I hadn’t thought about my nemesis, the deer, for some time, but for some reason he came to mind on Friday evening, when I was 2013-06-07 21.41.32sitting in front of a Henry Moore bronze making a stab at capturing its form on paper.  Maybe it was because, even though I struggled to create much sense of the shape of the Moore sculpture, I did at least know where to start (sort of).

We spent two and a half hours at Tate Britain last evening, and it is perhaps the first time that time has expired and I wished there had been more so that I could finish my sketch; usually I am more than happy to abandon something half complete and move onto the next.

Tate Britain is open late into the evening only very infrequently, but when it is, they go full out for a big do.  The place was humming with art and fashion students curating their own performances and displays, including music, projections and catwalk.

Before it all kicked off, I had spent a while sitting in the Duveen Gallery watching the Simon Starling film installation.  It’s a swooping run through of past exhibitions in the same space, accompanied by an echoing, reverberating soundtrack, a sort of amplified white noise.  While the film felt a little bit like a ‘greatest hits’ montage during which I mentally ticked off the installations I had seen, I enjoyed listening much more because it felt like an amplification of all the echoing air and footsteps of time passing through the neo classical nearly empty space.  It has a certain synchronicity with the notion that has been occupying me recently that there is nowhere in Britain which has not already been occupied by people many times over.  (Evidently it’s the sound of a camera, so I may have missed the point…. but I enjoyed it nonetheless, especially when it was unintentionally augmented by the catering trolley rolling by on its way to the set up of the temporary cafe for the Late Tate party).

2013-06-07 21.41.12Later, away from the hubbub of the Late activities, we sat in the 1910 Gallery and looked at the paintings.  Told to study the shapes employed in one work, I chose one by Dora Carrington.  A very simple looking landscape of a farm set in rolling hills, studying it to draw  did reveal much more to me of how it was put together than I would ever have noticed if I’d simply walked by.  The curves of the hilltops, pathways and slopes, are repeated, and the sweep of a circle is completed by two rows of washing hanging out to dry.  And because we were focussing on basic shape, I didn’t have to worry about making the trees look like trees; diamond shapes for the shrubs by the farmhouse door and curly cloud shapes on tops of sticks did for the tall ones.

And I noticed that I always choose a different artwork to everyone else in the class.  Am I just contrary?  It’s possible.  Sometimes I do it consciously, especially if a couple of people are already sitting in front of one thing, a third, would simply create an obstruction in the gallery, but mostly the choice is unconscious…..

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Patrick Caulfield and Gary Hume at Tate Britain

2013-06-05 14.44.33Oh Lordy, this was another one of those art exhibitions that I have wandered around thinking that everyone else must know something I don’t.

For a start, it’s not even one exhibition; it’s two in parallel, but for which only one ticket is required.  There is a communicating door between the two show spaces, but we were told not to use it by one of the Tate custodians.  Instead we had to go from one show to the other via the main lobby area, and subsequently suppress a desire to tell those people who did manage to sneak through the forbidden door that they should count themselves lucky not to have been caught.

We went around the Hume rooms first.  Most are large pieces, flat colour on sheets of shining metal.  I couldn’t work out what it was I was meant to be looking at.  Nasty colour combinations with the same sheen and finish as the bonnet of a recently polished car.  Some pieces, like Tulips and The Whole World have raised textured areas, underneath the gloss paint.

Since visiting the exhibition, I’ve read the newspaper reviews to try to understand why these things warranted a show at the Tate, because the show itself gave me no clue.  The reviews of Hume are mixed, but many are glowing about the enigmatic works and the use of colour in them.  Few of these words corresponded to my experience.

The Patrick Caulfield rooms were more interesting.  The style, areas of flat colour, strong black outlined shapes, has become familiar through its adoption by advertising graphic designers, so I think it would have been helpful to me to have had more information about his historical context, to get over that rather decorative first impression.

The black lines play with perspective, so that each painting takes a few moments to understand, and they are focussed on the banal places we inhabit: cinema foyers, bars and restaurants.  Each place is portrayed after all the people have left, abandoning unwanted remnants behind them.  There’s quite a lot of 1970s wallpaper in backgrounds and the common tropes of still lives in the foreground; so there are Matisse’s goldfish in After Lunch, and Picasso’s bull’s head in Hemingway Never Ate Here.  

I did enjoy the bold colours in these paintings, and could appreciate the great skill employed in creating the smooth surface, by largely eliminating the idea of the gestural brush stroke; making it even more noticeable when in, After Lunch the landscape view seen through the window (or painted on the back wall) of the restaurant, is rendered in a more realistic fashion, challenging, I suppose, our way of looking at painted representations of the world.

As I’ve been writing this, I’ve resolved that I should probably revisit the Caulfield to see if I can get more out of it on a second attempt, because I know I’ll be back at Tate Britain to spend more time with Simon Starling‘s current installation in the main central hallway.  Images of past exhibitions are shown on large screens while around you ambient sound is broadcast, the murmuring suserating  of large spaces, and the echo of footsteps from the past.

One mystery remains: how does Tate decide where to exhibit modern British artists?  Why was Hirst at Tate Modern, while Hume is at Tate Britain?

Lichtenstein – A Retrospective at Tate Modern

IMG_3001 Lichtenstein is best known for his paintings of comic strip type images. The canvasses are large, the images of weeping blondes and lantern jawed fighter pilots are close ups in bright primary colours, with areas of flat colour delineated by black outlines juxtaposed with dots of colour, simulating the way cheap comics are printed, but magnified so that they are a challenge to the way we look at the works.  There are speech bubbles telling us the thoughts of the characters, and descriptions of the narrative in the picture, and every element is a cliché of the all America action hero comic books.

 The challenge is there to consider where popular and ‘high’ culture meet.  Is he endorsing the stereotypical images, or has he put them in high relief to make us look at them more closely?  It’s a very dispassionate, analytical way of looking at the world.

The large retrospective at the Tate Modern starts with his first pop art works, and although there are a couple of examples of his earlier works shown towards the end of the show alongside some reworkings of abstract pieces he did at the end of his life, it is as if he arrived at his distinctive style fully formed.

I feel as if I’ve seen a lot of dots and spots at Tate Modern in the last couple of years; first there was Yayoi Kusama with her obsessive application of dots to whole scenes and three dimensional installations, then the repetitive, factory produced spots from  Damien Hirst.  Lichtenstein has  his own style of dots, produced, I’ve now learnt, using something called Ben-day, a sort of stencilling process, to mimic the printing process used in pulp fiction.

I’ve seen some of the comic strip paintings before, but what I enjoyed mist about this exhibition was seeing the other groups of works he created: a series of monochrome still lives, a golf ball,  a tire, a dissolving alka selter, all sharp lines and shapes making strong graphic images, making me think about how little in line and shape are necessary to construct an image.

The next rooms contained pastiches or parodies of other great works, a sort of conversation with other artists and paintings about paintings.  It becomes clear that once he’d established his visual language, and we have become familiar with it, we can recognise it anywhere.  I enjoyed the wit and humour of these works.   His playing with the ideas of Chinese landscape where he captured a sense of perspective by using different sized dots, were a surprise too.

By the end of the exhibition, I had a much better understanding of the range of things which had interested him, and the conversation he had through his work with the history of painting.

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