Basil Beattie: Seething with Invention

[Installation view of Basil Beattie, Recalling Echoes, Hales London, 19 May – 1 July 2023. Image courtesy the Artist and Hales Gallery. © Basil Beattie. All Rights Reserved, DACS 2023 L-R: Beyond the Ladder, In the Ascendancy, Outreach.]

Recalling Echoes (19 May-1 July 2023, Hales Gallery, London, E1) is the current exhibition of art by Basil Beattie (b. 1935). It is his third solo exhibition at Hales, his London representative. The large works, all made over the last ten years, display new elements as well as familiar ones. The floating steps, rudimentary ladders, roads, caverns and simple tower blocks come from the last 25 years. They show no sign of tiredness nor complacency; the retain their freshness because they are so primal and universal, notwithstanding the personal significance the artist attaches to the motifs. There is plenty of risk here; the exhibition is seething with invention, motival and technical.  

The exhibition consists of seven large canvases and 18 untitled charcoal drawings, made over the period 2020-3, using wash, arranged in a block six sheets high and three wide. This assemblage of identically sized sheets (all 14” x 10”/35.5 x 25.5 cm) acts as a treasury of compositions and motifs already established, as well as recording new ones, such as pseudo-hieroglyphs. There are new leads and (perhaps) the promise of firmer, more complicated drawings of definite things in the world, as indicated by the largest canvas in the display. There are also foreboding hints. Ladders here have broken rungs or appear ramshackle; one ladder has split completely asunder. These sturdy primal frames become catastrophically unreliable imply awareness of bodily frailty and ultimate mortality.

A drawing with a meandering, looping heavy line recalls Brice Marden; the buildings echo the paintings of the Metaphysical artists and Guston’s termite-built slabs. Beattie is an admirer of Guston and may be taking from his own memories of a residency in New York City. Other drawn forms stand more aloof, ur-images of steps, ladder, buildings, passages, caverns, roads, grids. In one drawing, a set of stairs enters a welter of dashes, which hangs like a cloud. At least three drawings relate directly to Ladder Red (2021), which is, along with In the Ascendancy (2015), are the most powerful and satisfying paintings here. Ladder Red features grey over painting on a diagrammatic frame, similar to sprues designed for casting. It recalls the paintings Beattie was making in the late 1990s.

Painted over two large canvases placed together, the large In the Ascendancy features a platform – for hunters or perhaps as one finds in railway signal boxes. (The artist’s father worked in the railways.) That structure surmounts a network of bricks/mesh, recalling sturdy constructions, lushly painted, tactile; they are the sorts of forms that the mind’s imaginary hand can reach out and grasp firmly. The tightness of the draughtsmanship of the platform is counterpointed by the janky, skewed outlines of bricks below. The crisp asperity and confidence of the tight drawing makes one wish to have more of such drawing in the paintings. Beattie is such a fluent master of the cursive description that he never needs to be literal or pedantic; however, In the Ascendancy shows that when he chooses to be, he can build wonderful linear structures.

[Basil Beattie, In the Ascendancy (2015). Image courtesy the Artist and Hales Gallery. © Basil Beattie. All Rights Reserved, DACS 2023]

Steps over Fiery Waters (2022) has his sequence of ascending (descending?) grey steps crossing an aerial view of magma-like pools of orange and red. This was perhaps created under the influence of reports of extreme summer weather of high temperature and drought, broadcast last year. The psychedelic light show of puddles of acrylic soaked into the cotton duck links to Beattie’s past – he used colour-field technique in the 1960s and 1970s, with its ethos of soaking, organic forms and absence of distinctive brushwork.

The gestural space-filling scribbles in oil stick (of Close to Beyond (2014)) seem a nod to Pollock’s Stenographic Figure (1942). Beattie was greatly excited to encounter American Abstract Expressionist painting when it reached London in the 1958-62 period, something that would see him begin the first half of his career as an abstract painter working on a large size. Top Up (2013) is a classic example of Beattie juxtaposing fields of a single colour, repeated motifs and outlines. The interaction between solid and hollow forms, recognisable images and abstract elements provides a clear demonstration of Beattie’s pictorial thinking.

Sgraffito incisions in the black overpainting of Outreach (2017) creates a neon effect by revealing pink-and-ochre underpainting, making a wire-like drawn form to balance the impasto. Elsewhere in the painting, black spray paint is used extensively. The qualities of aerosol paint (diffuse, flat, matt) make it often disappointingly insubstantial and difficult to integrate into the facture of an oil painting on canvas. It is best used sparingly (a la Bacon) or used delicately in very controlled compositions (a la Pasmore). Beattie does not seem to have overcome (or at least harnessed it) the void-like effect of black aerosol paint in two paintings where it is deployed (the other is Beyond the Ladder (2022)), as it tends to drain the paintings’ surfaces of liveliness and tension.

[Basil Beattie, Ladder Red (2021). Image courtesy the Artist and Hales Gallery. © Basil Beattie. All Rights Reserved, DACS 2023]

A third canvas, Close to Beyond (2014) has less intrusive use of spray paint, not noted on gallery label. Artists often use their corpus as a larder from which they take liberally. Beyond the Ladder is perhaps the only misfire in the show – it is not bad in itself but a recollection of the Circus series of the 1980s. That series, full of geometric forms and primary colours, often floating untethered, always seems less weighty, less profound and irksomely jaunty compared to the art that followed, with its muted colours and earth hues. The floating dab of cadmium yellow and the black triangle feel applied to the surface, not animating or directing the rest of the elements. The playfulness of the Circus paintings is adjacent to arbitrariness and Close to Beyond comes perilously close to that.    

The only disappointment is that this exhibition is limited by the relatively modest confines of Hales Gallery and is not the full retrospective at a major venue that the artist’s stature deserves. Given the politics and blind spots of administrators of major metropolitan public galleries today, this is sad but unsurprising. Beattie’s achievements have long been denied the respect and exposure they are due. In any other European country, a painter as great as Beattie would a towering public figure. The urgency, rawness and plangent poetry of Beattie’s images are too potent for apparatchiks who direct our public art spaces – which is exactly what commends his powerful art to all who have eyes to see.

This exhibition – a masterclass in invention and vigorous execution – is highly recommended.

“Ignacy Czwartos”, Zacheta, Warsaw

A weighty and disturbing exhibition is The Painter was Kneeling When Painting, a solo exhibition of paintings by Ignacy Czwartos (b. 1966) (24 January-28 May 2023). Czwartos works as both an abstract painter and as a painter of the figure using highly schematised settings for semi-realistic figures. The two areas use the same grounds and devices: muted colours, symmetry, geometric devices, smooth surfaces. The figures are generally taken from photographic sources, rendered accurately but without illusionism, the bodies generic. The first gallery is given to portraits of artists, friends and Czwartos and are modest in ambition and effect, but they prepare us for the following galleries.

The next gallery includes more complex allegorical paintings, again featuring artists such Malevich and Rothko. There are also figures from World War II and references to the German occupation and the death camps. There is a certain amount of queasy wit apparent, with disparate figures juxtaposed to create scenes the resemble Nineteenth Century folk art. Soldiers are painted with bases that are given to toy soldiers. Declarations in German in the Gothic script welcome viewers to the (death-camp) showers. Czwartos takes care with abstract elements to frame his paintings in the manner of devotional prints or altarpieces. It is as if Czwartos had unconsciously prepared himself to become a painter of the images in the final gallery.  

The culmination of the exhibition is where Czwartos hits his stride. In the newest paintings the artist blends strikingly stark imagery, Polish history and the iconography of saints, martyrs and Christ. The final room is dedicated to a set of recent paintings about the “cursed soldiers”. These were Poles who fought not only the Germans but also the Soviet and Polish Communists, seeking an independent non-socialist country. As it was, they were not only cursed by Polish Communists and Soviet occupying forces but also by history. So, Polish nationalists supportive of democracy, monarchy, Church and Polish nationhood, became “enemies of the people”. The last resistor was captured and beheaded in 1963; thereafter, all mention of them was deleted from Polish history. Only in recent years has action taken place to research the episode and inform the public about this history – this re-examination is facing entrenched opposition from Communists and descendants of Communists today.

The resistance fighters are painted from passport or service photographs, treated as family trees in a Nineteenth Century book, in oval frames with dates written below. The last fighter is shown carrying his own head, like a martyred saint, flanked by his executioners. Other fighters are depicted chopped into pieces; the faces are accurate depictions based on photographs the Communists took after the executions. These paintings relate to a history not yet absorbed by the population and involves the apparent rehabilitation of “enemies of the people” and so are tremendously controversial. It is in effect, history still in the making. No wonder the paintings, stark and vivid as they are, provoke strong reactions. The earlier paintings are perhaps a little too ludic and caught up in questions of art-world taste and the biographies of artists to be of lasting interest to the average viewer, but the last group is shocking and profound.

Has Czwartos solved the problem that faces any modern History painter in the era of irony? Namely, how can one paint a didactic and narrative account of a historical event in a language that is appropriate, effective, moving, articulate and not anachronistic? Assuming one cannot simply adopt the style of Rubens and start making a traditional narrative painting à la Paul Delaroche, one has to find a way of making art that is true to oneself and one’s time whilst dealing frankly with iconography and morals that conveys clear meaning. This is exactly what has been forbidden us by the norms of contemporary art, which dictate non-narrative art and lack of engagement.

Czwartos has made his History paintings frank it by not hiding his debt to photographic sources, his love of abstract art and his admiration for the effects of devotional painting. He can speak about history in ways that use historical devices (Nineteenth Century photographic presentation, religious art, folk art, documentary photographs) and these become part of the meaning; on top of which, he can push us towards pity, condemnation, curiosity, anger, sadness, all without falling into the trap of ironic distance. For no History painter can eschew the moral message, even if that message is just to enjoin the viewer to look, remember and consider an image. There is distance in Czwartos’s approach – a distance he acknowledges – but not one that makes his involvement with the subject and his whole-hearted engagement with the topics any less true.

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Zdzislaw Beksiński and the Tyranny of Taste

[Zdzislaw Beksiński, oil on panel, not exhibited]

Last week I visited the Museum of the Archdiocese of Warsaw (, which has a varied and interesting collection of art, antiques, liturgical regalia and church-related archive material. This is a review of only two temporary exhibitions at the museum.

Beksiński from the Anny and Piotra Dmochowskich Collection (June 2021-June 2024) is the group of notable paintings by Zdzislaw Beksiński (1929-2005) paintings, owned by his French dealers. The paintings range from 1970 to the year before the artist’s murder, which was a senseless impulsive killing of an elderly man over a trivial sum. It is hard to detach appreciation of Beksiński’s paintings with the difficult life of the painter. The death of the artist’s wife, the suicide of the artist’s son and the trauma of war, economic decline and social turmoil, which spanned Beksiński’s adult life – as well as his violent death – all seem in congruence with his images of suffering, desolation and entropy. Crucifixes abound, as do mummified personages, bandaged figures. Bones of strange creatures litter misty plains, tendrils of crimson vegetation expand like bloody stains, as powerful winds shred cloths as large as buildings. Bodies exist but we have no inkling of their existence outside of the singular images. Do they have language? What do they eat and how do they reproduce? Are they in pain? Is what we see normal in their world? Who built the strange structures that fill the vistas? So alien are these personages that we cannot map on to them motivation or even agency.

Beksiński loved to describe surfaces in intricate detail, especially the vegetable, textile and petrological. The flatness of figures in the 1990s is an affinity with the immediate post-war style of Modernists, found in Poland and elsewhere. Lighting effects can be somewhat cursory and the ubiquitous smoke/cloud/mist effects are an easy way of concentrating attention on to motifs, which are the sole objects within some paintings. With Magritte, we get the mundane made magical; with Beksiński, we get the macabre made real. The fantastic has wrinkles, texture and discoloration.

Beksiński trained in architecture and the interface between buildings, plants and bodies are a staple of the paintings; they are in some ways close to his contemporary H.R. Giger, best known for his visual conceptualisation of the creatures and environments of the original Alien movie (1979). Beksiński is drawn to the monumental, with the inclusion of tiny figures or trees that turn the central personage into a giant or a structure into a colossal edifice, tall as a mountain. These are scenes that defy reason and explanation, which adds to their cheerless quality, although we may be thrilled at the sublime spectacle of strangeness and massiveness.

[Zdzislaw Beksiński, oil on panel, 1985, 100 x 98 cm, exhibited]

When intimacy appears in Beksiński’s oeuvre, it is of a particularly poignant sort. A 1984 painting here shows two humanoids embracing; they are gnarled, naked and vulnerable, finding solace in one another. We cannot help but think of them as outcasts, using our own bodies as references points. A point of comparison might be the graphic art of Hans Bellmer, whose art featured figures with rearranged anatomies engaging in sexual congress. We do best to class Beksiński as a latter-day Surrealist, as his art involves the incongruous, the fantastic, the sexual and impossible; it is troubling and opens up to us alternative worlds, drawing out unobvious connections. Connections between Beksiński and Bellmer are numerous, ones I would like to discuss at length in future.   

[Zdzislaw Beksiński, oil on panel, 1984, 100 x 97 cm, exhibited]

Beksiński’s fantastic faces with deformities or odd combinations are generally the weakest of his art; they seem five-finger exercises in variant making, with relatively little thought given to the impression of the finished painting. What are his weaknesses? Cheap sensationalism, reversion to the familiar, the tendency to obscure as a way as avoiding problem solving, a jejune proclivity to provoke. There is entropy and decay but little we can see that could be called action or dynamic energy. However, the better qualities of his art – its emotional force, inventiveness, memorability, originality, consistency of worldview, congruence of technique, image and mood – surpass those failings.

[Zdzislaw Beksiński, oil on panel, 1979, 73 x 87 cm, exhibited]

These 27 paintings are all oil on board, mainly rectangular, roughly 80 x 60 cm to 130 x 100 cm. The surfaces are quite smooth, in contrast with Beksiński’s early paintings, which were standard Modernist painterly pictures with sgraffito. The surfaces are not inert, as image-driven (rather than material-driven) art often is, with a pleasing attention to the qualities of paint – smooth but not slick. His palette is effectively varied, with earth and cold hues predominating. It is never lively or pretty. Beksiński’s art lacking all humour or wit, but that comes with a refreshing earnestness and absence of irony.

The paintings are accompanied by an exhibition of photographs, taken by Beksiński early in his career, mainly in the 1950s and 1960s (9 March-11 June 2023). These range from the quirky to bleak. There are portraits, some using special effects and montage, some head shots set against large areas on blank space. There are some female nude torsos and some images of industrial entropy, such a mangled chain-link fence. It is not difficult to discern continuation of themes, images and mood from these photographs in the later paintings. I do not know photography well enough to state whether these examples are very distinguished but they do seem typical of mid-century avant-garde photography and reference points for Beksiński’s visual thinking and preferences.  

Beksiński was relatively reclusive and did not travel much. Much of his work was sold via his Paris gallery. None of the paintings have titles and Beksiński was reluctant to discuss the interpretation of his art and here we encounter a fault line in the reception. Art critics are wary about discussing what they call art that is not truly fine art because it is too popular, too involved with traditional technique, too close to genre culture in terms of imagery (and fanbase). The interiority of Beksiński’s world – and the very fact it does seem a world – places Beksiński outside the arena of fine art. There are a number a reasons why Bosch is taken seriously but Beksiński is not. One is simply time; Beksiński is simply too close to us to have artistic weight. Another reason is that Bosch’s visions are connected to an obscure aspect of Christian theology, whereas Beksiński’s cosmology (if he has one) is private and unarticulated, without the sanction of religion or spirituality. Also, it has to be said that Beksiński’s art is limited by its lack of potential redemption, joy and emotional range.  

This is the first time I have seen Beksiński’s paintings or photographs face to face, despite him being a well-known and influential contemporary artist for decades. You would not encounter this art in any ACE-funded venue in Great Britain. The tyranny of good taste keeps from us art that has been pigeonholed as popular and genre. That might be unremarkable where you had thriving independent venues that bucked such standards and was willing to explore art not approved by the curatorial class, but in our country there is little independence, outside of some commercial galleries and a handful of co-operative spaces. Yet, viewed in its own terms, why should Beksiński be beyond the pale? I take Glenn Brown to be one of the best of living painters and there are more than a few parallels between his painting and that of Beksiński: the technical accomplishment, faultless technique, a preference for smooth grounds, a use of indeterminate pictorial depth, lack of ironic distance, a taste for the bizarre. Is it so gauche to compare the pair? Personally, I would rather spend an hour with Brown or Beksiński’s paintings than with that by any of the Turner Prize nominees of the last decade.

[Zdzislaw Beksiński, oil on panel, not exhibited]

Why should a conceptual stunt be any more highly regarded than the powerful images and strange worlds of Beksiński? Accepting the seriousness of Beksiński and H.R. Giger does not mean accepting Beryl Cook and Jack Vettriano. We should not automatically accord to the painter of fear and bleakness a greater degree of respect than that to a satirical, decorative or comfort-producing painter, that would be just another form of unthinking snobbery. We should not shy away from being discriminating and from shunning and ridiculing art that we find execrable, but only acting like so once we have thought through our objections. It is commonly assumed that we act on emotion and deep affinity and that we rationalise our taste only post hoc with intellectual explanations. That may be so, but such discussion at least helps us (and others) to comprehend what might be our values and taste, even if we come to such understanding in a veiled indirect manner.   

Is Beksiński taken less seriously as an artist because he is classed as a horror or sci-fi artist than a fine artist? Does his lack of formal training – especially when coupled with his masterful technique – irk mainstream critics? Doubtless the advent of the internet was both the best and worst thing that happened to the reception of Beksiński’s work. It allowed his imagery to circulate widely and led to recognition, but it also spawned a host of inferior imitators, most amateur (all distributing their work on social-media and art-sharing website) which led to fatigue with Beksiński-type imagery.  

It seems that not only snobbery but the self-consciousness of critics that prevents us from expanding our definitions of fine art to encompass the popular painter. “Fine Art” is now in the hands of administrators who loath technical accomplishments and consider aesthetics an imaginary game played by connoisseurs. Why not look to image makers of distinction now that State Art has adopted Amnesiac Art as its vehicle for soft diplomatic power (abroad) and demoralisation of the population (domestically)? We are despised by this cadre. We have nothing to lose in throwing off the shackles of “good taste” of those apparatchiks, if compliance means denying the better part of what art is capable, namely, its capacity to transport us emotionally, the aspiration towards beauty, the development of craftsmanship, the value of the canon, the primacy of the art not the artist (and his skin colour). All these things delighted our forebears and draw derisive coldness from apparatchiks. Keeping the self-conscious, conspicuously educated art-appreciators corralled in this zone of Fine Art (one subject to constant adjustment) is a way of preventing them from forming their own taste, expressing their values, rejecting arbitrary administrative authority and laughing at what appears in State Art venues.

We art lovers are now unpersons; it is time we took up the freedom of the unperson, that is, to have our own standards and be unafraid to express them. After all, who among us will be invited to teach at university, helm a civic museum, advise a government body or become a director of the Arts Council? Why should we care what such officials think about our views? Shouldn’t we want to distance ourselves as much as possible from those gimlet-eyed fanatics and thoughtless drones? Refusing to become independent even after the ritual humiliation of our craft and tradition is the sign of a broken hopeless people. Against all evidence, I hope we are not at that debased level.

Image as Protest: Joy Gerrard, Paula Rego

[Image: Joy Gerrard, Abortion Rights Protest after Roe versus Wade falls, (Philadelphia. June 24 2022), 2022 / Ink on paper / 24.4 x 37.5 cm. Courtesy Joy Gerrard and Cristea Roberts Gallery, London © Joy Gerrard]

Art grounded on political protest by Irish artist Joy Gerrard (b. 1971) and Dame Paula Rego RA (1935-2022) is being exhibited in Image as Protest, at Cristea Roberts Gallery, London. Rego’s prints are on the subject of back-street abortions and female genital mutilation (FGM or female circumcision). Gerrard’s paintings in black and white are of crowds, after source photographs that are taken from a high vantage point, including aerial photography. At a distance, the multitudes become cloud-like or similar to pebbles on a beach, occupying a street, scattered over a road junction or public square. Only when the fray at the edges do they gain more recognisably human form. Otherwise, the group remains a pullulating mass, dehumanised at a distance.

In some, we get to see simple faces, mouths caught open in the act of chanting. Her technique is effective. Colour would distract and confuse us. The care taken to depict the settings (buildings, street markings, skies) gives the crowds greater veracity, as we see the phenomenon occurring in a convincing setting. There is talk in a recent catalogue of the influence of Constable. That is not convincing. What happens is that any skilled artist who lavishes care and time on making art must seem to have some commonalities with preceding artists. There are large paintings on canvas and some articulated screens, called “barriers”. These larger paintings are less effective. Ink-wash/watercolour always works better in a reduced field and compressed space; on a large scale, its unsubstantiality is unsatisfying. It is something to do with the ratio of medium presence to ground presence.  

Gerrard’s art reminds us of the surveillance of the state (official as well as covert), as well as the medium of the mass broadcast media, which is how the spectacle of the crowd is recorded and transmitted nationally and internationally. It is primarily through spectacle that the mass gathering operates and that is done through recorded media of the photograph and video recording. The disruption, violence, graffiti and closure of thoroughfares is an additional element but it is impact of the visual that lasts longest and becomes an argumentation element. For example, the nationwide demonstration against the proposed allied invasion of Iraq in 2003 is cited as the largest ever public demonstration (dispersed over numerous locations) and the force of the argument is amplified by the sheer numbers present at those events, supported by pictorial representations of it. It supports the argument that the legitimacy of a cause is indicated by the number of supporters, the visual density of the crowd, its capacity to fill and immobilise major streets and squares in a modern city. It is rhetorical device, as are these paintings of crowds and Rego prints centred on lone figures.  

[Image: Joy Gerrard, Women, Rights, Freedom, Rally for protestors in Iran (Berlin, October 22, 2022), 2022 / Ink on paper / 29 x 34 cm. Courtesy Joy Gerrard and Cristea Roberts Gallery, London © Joy Gerrard.]

Gerrard’s images of crowds often lack pictorial context. At a great distance, an aerial photograph cannot distinguish between an anti-lockdown protest and the Capitol Building 6 January gathering from a pro-abortion rally or BLM protest. Unless slogans are placed in the painting on visible placards or banners or identifiable flags are shown, context only emerges in titles or captions. So the art is visually ambiguous. It is not generally inherent in the composition of the elements or their handling. In a painting without visible slogans, flags, symbols or individual personnel, the meaning of the gathering is not only ambiguous, it is actually irrelevant. More than that, it is interchangeable and manipulatable. There is a reliance of title to supply meaning. (‘Our Abortions’ (Brooklyn Bridge, New York. May 14, 2022); Women, Rights, Freedom, Rally for protestors in Iran (Berlin, October 22, 2022), etc.) Change the caption from “pro-BLM rally” to “anti-lockdown protest” and you have changed the connotations of the event depicted. Only with careful research (by comparing the painting with source photographs) would the deception be detectable. Art, rather than holding up a true mirror to reality – the verum speculum advocated by the Schoolmen philosophers – becomes a tool for lying.

[Image: Paula Rego, Untitled 5, 1999, Etching / Paper and Image 38 x 48.0 cm / Edition of 17. © Ostrich Arts Ltd. Courtesy Ostrich Arts Ltd and Cristea Roberts Gallery, London]

Rego’s eight Untitled etchings (1999-2000) are small and show pregnant women posed in position they would adopt while trying to induce a miscarriage. Women spread their legs around chair, squat over bowls, lie awkwardly with a wristwatch nearby. Blood trickles from their vagina. The squalor of the women and the indomitability of the metal pail awaiting its contents makes a strong impression. Rego elicits sympathy by showing the rough indignities of approximations of back-street abortions. This is done by portraying the suffering as wholly the mothers’. The blood is her blood, the pain is her pain, she is made ugly and animal like by these processes. The child’s suffering is not quantified because it is invisible, literally hidden within the woman. Visually, it does not exist, therefore is hard to care because of the leap of imagination that would be required. The counter argument – that the injustice is not illegal abortion but abortion itself – is not approached. This partial argument (concealing the full consequences or the other parts of the consideration) extends to the unseen undepicted corollary of clean, clinical, anaesthetised abortions – something that requires no fewer pails of blood and body parts than illegal abortions do.

The series was made to be reproduced in the Portuguese press in the run up to the referendum on the legalisation of abortion. It is claimed that the illustrations were powerful enough to sway the electorate, who voted in favour of legalisation. It would take a tough opponent of abortion not to feel pity for the subjects here. In other prints, the danger to women’s lives from botched abortions is presented in the form of puppet theatres, with caricatural figures and dolls, including real people. The series is joined by two large colour aquatint etchings. In one, a group of grotesque figures, some based on dolls or puppets, is heaped up in a nocturnal scene. One female figure has her legs cruelly trussed together. The artist has dripped red watercolour on it to imply blood.

[Image: Paula Rego, Little Brides with their mother, 2009-2010, Etching with aquatint and spit-bite, Paper and Image 46.4 x 55.4 cm / Edition of 35. © Ostrich Arts Ltd. Courtesy Ostrich Arts Ltd and Cristea Roberts Gallery, London]

Circumcision (2009) is Rego’s depiction of a child undergoing FGM shows the girl being held down while the three women impassively undertake their task. The characters’ expressions are akin to those of women doing the unpleasant but necessary acts of slaughtering of an animal or gutting a carcase. It is an image that provokes a reaction of repulsion and anger, doing so because it refuses to directly depict the bloody violence, which would repulse the viewer into averting their gaze. Through modulation Rego implies but does not describe. However, notice a telling sleight of hand. In Great Britain, FGM is a practice primarily carried out by migrants of sub-Saharan African descent. The child is black but the three women holding her and damaging her genitals are white. In truth, these women would almost always be black. Yet, Rego must have realised that picture of a black child being mutilated by black woman would have presented FGM as an act done by black African adults to black African children, which (in statistical terms) it is. Rego’s liberal conscious prevented her from showing the truth – that FGM (by geographic and religious distribution) is overwhelmingly a black African practice. Rego’s deliberate distortion unwittingly reveals a truth. Namely, that it is precisely the fact that it is migrant groups and non-white individuals who perpetrate this crime that has meant that there are so few prosecutions by the English system where white liberals (who staff the majority of positions in public education, social services and the judiciary) are terrified of being accused of racial insensitivity.

Long practice instilled in Rego absolute confidence in herself and in the commanding presence that well-executed figure drawing has. She had limitations, but within her chosen field she was successful. Gerrard’s paintings also work but obliquely and in ways that are more out of the control of the artist. Whereas Rego made her images from nothing other than her imagination and good use of experience, models and materials, Gerrard finds her images and recognises their potential, perhaps not understanding the mechanisms that operate upon her instincts. Either approach – to summon out of nothing or to find and adapt something pre-existing – is legitimate for an artist, though it tends to impart different qualities.  

I would urge everyone interested in rhetoric in the visual arts to visit the exhibition, setting aside their personal views on the subject of abortion. Cristea Roberts Gallery are to be commended for putting on such a show, which is a touch more controversial than perhaps the staff realised in the planning.

Image as Protest: Joy Gerrard & Paula Rego, Cristea Roberts Gallery, London (27 January-4 March 2023)

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Street Art comes in from the cold 

[Image: Cosimo Casoni, Untitled, 2021, oil, acrylic, spray paint, fingerprints on canvas, 230 x 200 cm (90 x 78 in)]

New exhibition “Post-Vandalism” blends Street Art and fine art in a vigorous, discordant blend.

As Matt McMurry shows me around the gallery he co-founded, he speaks passionately and eloquently about the art around us, which blend fine-art detachment and Street-Art attitude. McMurry talks about the boldness and grasp of colour that graffiti artists acquire and says this is what excited him about the work he chose for Post-Vandalism (Omni Gallery, 56-7 Eastcastle Street, London, W1, 20 October-12 November 2022).

“These artists have gone beyond the street. They’ve left that behind but you can see it even though these are definitely gallery pieces.” We are standing in front of Moses & Taps’s spraypainted tarpaulin concertinaed over a metal footstep that you would find on a van. It has the appearance of a graffer’s intervention in a haulage yard but after contemplation seems more of a knowing reference to John Chamberlain’s crushed-car sculptures of the Sixties.

[Image: Moses & Taps, Shimms XXV, 2022, steel and spray paint, 212 x 120 cm (83 x 47 in)]

Occupying territory, promoting personal brands

McCurry talks about Street Artists occupying territory and promoting personal brands. In his previously gallery (in Seattle) he collaborated with Street Artists; in Omni, located just north of Oxford Street and split over two floors, he sees the opportunity to display art that is more ambitious and considered than what is usually found on the street.

The artists selected here carry a punchy no-holds-barred attitude but apply it to work that is more reflective and allusive than what is limited by temporary surface or hasty execution. Openness to material is apparent in the use of found objects and repurposed grounds. Most of the work bridges the space between sculpture and painting. Bram Bram has taken a slice of wall with bathroom tiles and applied paint and stickers; the printed text has degraded to the equivalent of visual static or Francis Bacon’s meaningless Letraset characters. In this piece – as in many of the others – there is a wilful distancing effect. The artists do not hit you with messages or theses, preferring to remain indirect. There is as much obscured, scoured and eroded on these surfaces as there is assertive paintwork.     

When political references come, they are oblique. Ricardo Passaporte’s spraypainted scene of politicians fighting in parliament takes the specificity out of the situation, laconically reducing the struggling figures to fuzzy flat shapes. This instance of sordid degeneration of civic life acquires a comforting decorative quality. His painting of cartoon children dancing in a circle appears like a food dye sprayed on to cake icing. Distanced by not diminished, it still has the charm of an illustration of an idealised childhood. A ceramic bust of a Putin-like figure sports a Pinocchio liar’s nose. Perhaps an understandable swipe – the artist is a Ukrainian refugee, now based in France.

Industrial Rococo

Alexandre Mosa Bavard’s Double Goose (2019) is a cement and resin cast of a puffer jacket, part-horror-movie effect, part rococo ceramic. The rococo comes to the fore in Stephen Burke’s freestanding painting-sculpture This Guy Loves His Job 2 (2022), which is equally playful and aggressive. A simple geometric painting is mounted in a section of railing; around the outside are different repelling devices (spikes, hooks, bladed wheels) that act like decorative flourishes one can find in rococo panels or picture frames. McMurry could have easily named this exhibition “Industrial Rococo”.  

[Image: Stephen Burke, This Guy Loves His Job 2, 2022, Steel, oil, spray paint, canvas and anti-climb guards, 200 x 400 cm (78 x 157 in)]

In another wall piece by Bram Bram – chain-link and tubular steel enlivened with applied stickers – seems a raffish take-off of 1980s Neo-Geo abstraction. More patterning comes in Bavard’s Auber (2022), which has sprayed paint recording where a (now absent) mesh had been draped as a distorted stencil over the canvas surface. Christopher Stead (part of a South London collective) appropriates Jackson Pollock’s spatter in an assemblage that affixes swatches of linen to the support canvas with eyelets. It is as if the artist is making survival raft out of the revered wreckage of Abstract Expressionism, not at all mocking.

Matt McCormick’s 2001 short film The Subconscious Art of Graffiti Removal presents us with a proposition more outright humorous. The film follows the work of municipal workmen overpainting graffiti in Portland, Oregon. The simple effacement of vandalism is presented as an art movement, which – in its deployment of rough, floating patches of paint – echoes the High Modernism of Mark Rothko, Hans Hofmann and the Russian Constructivists. It is thought-provoking in its thesis that the creative drive emerges unconsciously even in the act of covering vandalism and that these blocks of colour have their own muted poetry.

[Image: Nils Jendri, Ying Ying (2022), spray paint, acrylic on canvas, 155 x 120 cm (60 x 47 in) ]

Abstract Expressionism echoed

A more involved engagement with the Abstract Expressionism (in particular, Willem de Kooning’s black period of the 1940s) comes in Nils Jendri’s Ying Ying (2022). Jendri has used areas of black-and-white spray paint, partially masked to introduce unsettling optical effects. The patches, similarity of marks and consistent palette of black and white combine to fool the mind and eye. The calligraphic tautness and austerity make this the most rewarding picture in the exhibition.

Moritz Neuhoff’s large canvas of gestural space-filling is the least successful piece here, precisely because it seems preoccupied with the abstract painting of the 1990s and 2000s. It fills space rather than occupying it.

Post-Vandalism gathers a very wide array of artists from many countries, including Germany, France, Italy, the USA, Ukraine and the UK. It may not be a movement but it has real vitality and edge and that alone is valuable. On top of which, the art itself is playful and striking. It makes a strong overall impression, one not of unity but of shared attitudes. Omni is a gallery to keep an eye on.

“Henry Fuseli at the Courtauld”

“People talk about the increased moralism of the Victorian age. What often goes unsaid is that there must have been – and was – quite a lot of decadence and debauchery in the preceding era: the Georgian period. If you want evidence of that depravity, there is no better place to go this winter than the Courtauld Institute, London. Swiss artist Henry Fuseli (1741-1825) spent most of his professional life in London. A figure of controversy – acclaimed a genius, denounced as a madman, dismissed as a technical incompetent – Fuseli was a prominent artist in the Romantic movement.

Fuseli and the Modern Woman: Fashion, Fantasy, Fetishism (ends 8 January 2023) is the first exhibition of Fuseli’s drawings of women, specifically the modern Georgian-period woman. Fuseli’s women can be depraved but are always elegantly attired. His witches are exquisitely costumed as they participate in unspeakable atrocities that Fuseli never reveals.

“At the heart of the exhibition is Sophia Rawlins (1762/3-1832), the artist’s English wife. When they met, she was already an artist’s model, a shady profession at this time. When they married in 1788, she was 25; he was 47. She continued to pose for him, and it seems they developed a collaborative relationship, with her spending hours on her appearance, at least partly to provide a vision of artificial female beauty for her husband to turn into art.”

Read the review for free on whynow here:

“Denis Wirth-Miller: Bohemian in the Bullrushes”

“What was going through Denis’s mind as he waited for his friend Francis Bacon to visit his solo exhibition? Trepidation, anticipation, pride? Bacon was an artistic superstar, a fierce wit and notoriously capricious. Denis had been his friend since the 1940s and had a hand in some of Bacon’s best early works. By 1977 Denis’s profile was dwarfed by Bacon’s, and the display of his landscape paintings (in a modest East Anglian venue) was only a small affair. Knowing Bacon’s volatility, Denis must have been a little apprehensive.

From Soho to East Anglia   

“The extraordinary life of British painter Denis Wirth-Miller (1915-2010) is like a history of the last century. The new exhibition Denis Wirth-Miller: Landscapes and Beasts (Firstsite, Colchester, 1 October until 22 January 2023) presents the best of his art and sheds light on three remarkable men: Denis Wirth-Miller, Francis Bacon and Richard “Dickie” Chopping, Wirth-Miller’s partner.

“Born in the First World War, Denis worked in textiles and window dressing before following his vocation as a painter. The exhibition includes paintings in Cubist and Neo-Romantic styles from the 1930s and 1940s when he studied alongside Lucian Freud. (They did not get on, then or later.)

“During the Second World War, Wirth-Miller met Chopping, and they became lovers. Despite constant rows – often fuelled by heavy drinking – “Dickie and Denis” remained devoted to each other for the next 60 years. In 2005, they became one of the first gay couples to enter a civil partnership. Chopping was a brilliant illustrator, beloved tutor at the Royal College and sometime novelist. His covers for James Bond novels are still hailed as classics. One layout for a Bond novel jacket is exhibited here…”

Read my full review for free here on whynow website:

“Pre-Raphaelite Artists Were Actually Very Modern”

“Visitors to the current exhibition Pre-Raphaelites: Drawings & Watercolours (Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, closes 27 November) will encounter some surprisingly contemporary sides to these Victorian artists. Having affairs, taking drugs, chasing famous actresses, developing new fashion and spending long hours outdoing each other with the most outré interior design, these Victorians were like the denizens of today’s coolest districts.

“The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (PRB) were a group of British artists who worked from the 1850s to around 1900 who used different styles that resembled England’s pre-Renaissance (hence “before Raphael”) aesthetic. The throng of artists had varied interests but came together in a loose association as the PRB under the guiding influence of author, art critic and (extremely skilled) amateur artist John Ruskin (1819-1900).

“The works on paper in this Ashmolean’s exhibition are rarely shown due to the light sensitivity of the delicate pieces. The display includes art by all the most well-known of the PRB: Gabriel Dante Rossetti, John Everett Millais, Edward Burne-Jones, Ford Madox Brown, William Morris, John William Waterhouse, and William Holman Hunt. There are many pieces by less famous artists too, including women…”

Read the full review at whynow? here:

“Edvard Munch at the Courtauld”

“In a dramatic self-portrait, Edvard Munch (1863-1944) stares out at us, looking both grand and cautious. Self-Portrait in the Clinic (1909) was painted while the painter was in a clinic, as he was treated for a nervous breakdown. After years of working strain, public derision, disastrous affairs and heavy drinking, Munch had hallucinations and collapsed. He committed himself to a Danish clinic, where he was one of the first patients to receive electro-convulsive therapy.

The current exhibition Edvard Munch: Masterpieces from Bergen at the Courtauld Institute, London (27th May–5th September) shows aspects of the Norwegian artist’s turbulent life. The exhibition includes all Munch’s major genres. These paintings are loaned from a museum in Norway, all collected by Rasmus Meyer.

Meyer knew the artist personally and bought pictures directly from his studio. He selected the best paintings, ones that showcased Munch’s core themes and stages of his development. That provides an ideal selection for this small exhibition (only 20 paintings), which distils the essence of the Norwegian genius…”

To read the full review free visit whynow? website here:

Helen Frankenthaler’s Woodcuts

[Image: Helen Frankenthaler, Freefall, 1993. Twelve color woodcut from 1 plate of 21 Philippine
Ribbon mahogany plywood blocks on hand-dyed paper in 15 colors, 199.4 x 153.7 cm ©
2021 Helen Frankenthaler Foundation, Inc. / ARS, NY and DACS, London / Tyler Graphics Ltd.,
Mount Kisco, NY]

The exhibition Helen Frankenthaler: Radical Beauty (Dulwich Picture Gallery, 11 September 2021-18 April 2022) displays in the UK for the first time the woodcuts of Abstract Expressionist Helen Frankenthaler (1928-2011), on the tenth anniversary of her death.

During the 1950s-70s there was a boom in American printmaking, especially in the fields of lithography, screenprinting and etching. The development of new techniques and the rise of styles that were well matched to printmaking (Pop Art, Op Art, Minimalism, geometric abstraction) all contributed to a golden age of Late Modernist printmaking. Woodcuts – aside from the related wood engravings, which also had a lesser revival – did not receive much attention but for a painter who always responded strongly to the surface qualities of her supports, Frankenthaler realised the potential of woodcuts. In the use of plates which displayed grain, Frankenthaler saw an equivalence between the grain of canvas (usually cotton duck) and the more irregular and organic grain of the wood block. Additionally, she was used to staining canvases irregularly and these wash, tide or drying edges resemble the swaying swoops of woodgrain. Nature had ready prepared her supports for her.

Tatyana Grosman of Universal Limited Art Editions, New York introduced Frankenthaler to the experience of making woodcut prints in 1973. She would go on to make 29 editioned woodcut prints. Kenneth Tyler of Tyler Graphics, New York proved to be the perfect collaborator for Frankenthaler, expanding the scope and ambition of Frankenthaler as a printmaker. The large size of Freefall (1993) (199 x 153 cm) and its delicately graduated inking providing an intense ultramarine void at its centre, would have been beyond the ability of less experienced printmakers. The graduated colour comes from Japanese woodblock prints, the abrasions to the plate partly come from Surrealism and pre-war abstract art. The use of jigsaw plates for different colours, each revealing the grain of the wood (it would been possible to use cross-cut wood, which would not have displayed grain) inevitably evokes the radical woodcuts of Edvard Munch. However, Munch printed his proofs in one pull with the separately inked blocks assembled, whereas Frankenthaler had her colours separately applied, each carefully registered to make sure the blocks were in position. Munch was not perturbed by the inevitably outlines with no ink that bounded each block. For Frankenthaler, the joints had to be crisp or deliberately overlapping to generate composite colours. Munch’s aesthetic is primal and figurative; Frankenthaler’s is reflective and abstract. Munch reused blocks until they wore out, becoming distressed. (Against standard practice, Munch used to weather his paintings by placing them outside to remove their newness by introducing fading, cracking, staining.)

The exhibition includes finished impressions and some test proofs, along with a couple of paintings. The prints vary in effectiveness. The earliest print is East and Beyond (1973), an 8-colour print which beautifully combined the large organic swatches of delicate colour with slivers and nodes of more intense hues. They work well on the Nepalese handmade paper, with its organic fragments complimenting the grain of the wood. Machine-made paper, especially stark white, often has a deadening or sterilising effect on art. The gentle natural tinting of the paper allows the print to rest easily, whereas a harsh white would fix the edges more, acting as a sharp (almost reproving) demarcation. Similarly, inside the prints, lightly inked plates with fine grain act like veils or muslin, with connotations of delicacy. The weakness of wood – the cracks and splintering – add a human element of flaws and of individual character in a way that the regularity of cotton duck and dilute acrylic paint do not. A certain obduracy obtains and Frankenthaler’s art benefits thereby. Had Frankenthaler ever tackled stone carving, she would have faced such flaws and strengths and had to adapt herself to these qualities. Frankenthaler does seem at her best when she has to negotiate or struggle, which is why her woodcuts are even more rewarding than her paintings.  

[Image: Helen Frankenthaler, Snow Pines, 2004. Thirty-four color Ukiyo-e style woodcut from 16
blocks on Torinoko paper and mounted onto Fabriano Classico paper, 95.3 x 66 cm © 2021
Helen Frankenthaler Foundation, Inc. / ARS, NY and DACS, London / Pace Editions, Inc., NY]

Essence Mulberry (1977) shows a sequence of trial proofs where artist experimented with colour combinations. The edition itself incorporated blank space at the bottom of the elongated vertical-format sheet. Tales of Genji I and II (1998) are less successful. The introduction of graphic lines is a mistake as they are too assertive and intrusive. III is very much more effective, lacking that graphic intervention and relying much more on modulation of intense colour. IV and V are compromises between the two compositions, prettier, more detached in character. Radius (1993) feels both inconsequential and too self-consciously made, redolent of performance. The Grove (1991) and The Clearing (1991) are rougher, closer to Munch, not aiming to please or delight or dazzle. Freefall (1993) is a showstopper, a grand spectacle both visually and technically impressive.

[Image: Helen Frankenthaler, Madame Butterfly, 2000. One-hundred-two color woodcut from 46
blocks of birch, maple, lauan, and fir on 1 sheet of light sienna (center sheet) and 2 sheets of
sienna (left and right sheet) TGL handmade paper, triptych 106 x 201.9 cm, each sheet 106 x
67.3 cm © 2021 Helen Frankenthaler Foundation, Inc. / ARS, NY and DACS, London / Tyler
Graphic Ltd., Mount Kisco, NY]

Madame Butterfly (2000) required 46 blocks, producing 102 colours in an extended printing process that required one year. It straddles Abstract Expressionism, Colour-Field Painting and the Aesthetic Movement. Whistler’s japonaiserie and limpid smoky evocations of water and sky are not too far distant from Frankenthaler’s expansive print, composed of three sheets assembled. It has a landscape format and (like many of her woodcuts) evokes the landscape. Japanese Maple (2005) conjures a landscape in its dark central form lying horizontal in a horizontally oriented sheet, with the suggestion of a reflection of mountains on placid water. Madame Butterfly is shown in a room with the original painting on plywood that inspired that painting and a working proof, adjusted by the artist. The final print is beautiful and a fitting end to the exhibition. Personally, I feel Geisha (2003) (23 colours from 15 blocks) surpasses it by a touch, due to its compactness and the vivid conjunction of yellow and crimson. It has a firmness not found in the paintings. The quasi-knotholes act as motifs in disguise, while the jagged parapets do Clyfford Still-style work, imparting a rugged grandiosity to the print. This was made with Yasuyuki Shibata at Pace Editions, who had participated in the creation of Madame Butterfly at Tyler’s workshop. It would be the print I would most like to live with.    

The collaborative process and the lengthy indirect means by which the proofs came into being – and came into being piecemeal in a highly artificial manner – was quite different to Frankenthaler’s painting. Most Colour-Field and Abstract Expressionist painting is direct, with material being added or covered over in a sequential, direct and spontaneous manner. It is alla prima and it is observable as it is made. Print-making is highly organised, indirect, slow, technical, sometimes working through composite means which cannot intuitively understood during the making process. Printmaking is also conceptual, because it requires artist, master printmaker and technicians to envisage something that does not exist and cannot be made directly. Shapes are inverted, colour and tonal values reversed, stencils are used for their negative space not positive space and so forth. It requires thinking ahead and deducing from that projection the steps that will be required. The fact that Frankenthaler managed these challenges shows her versatility and her ability to work in collaboration with technicians, a system that required accepting as well as giving advice and responding to technical difficulties. Few Abstract Expressionists and Colour-Field painters made good prints, probably due to these issues.    

[Image: Helen Frankenthaler, Cedar Hill, 1983. Ten color woodcut from 13 blocks, 5 mahogany and 8
linden, on light pink Mingei Momo handmade paper, 51.4 x 62.9 cm © 2021 Helen
Frankenthaler Foundation, Inc. / ARS, NY and DACS, London / Crown Point Press, Oakland, CA]

In a different room, Frankenthaler’s acrylic painting Feather (1979) is paired with Claude Monet’s Water Lilies and Agapanthus (c. 1916-7), lent from Musée Marmottan, Paris. The Frankenthaler canvas does seem a legitimate successor (or offspring) of the Impressionist expanse of colour holding painting motifs. It is an intelligent comparison, out of which Frankenthaler emerges unscathed. Both paintings benefit from the encounter.    

Sometimes in Frankenthaler’s paintings there is problematic disjuncture of the stained surface and the impasto paint. These often conflict visually and physically. It is as if one is trying to understand a poem written in two different languages, both of which the audience speaks but one tongue is more comfortable for each member. One comprehends both the physically distant ethereal staining and physically assertive tangible impasto, but seeing them together forces the viewer to switch between these modes in a way that can be difficult or require conscious effort. This is not the case with art by Mark Tobey or Jackson Pollock, where areas of stain and impasto are broken up into pattern, thus dissolving the boundary between ground and motif, staining and impasto. The regularity of the fat paint (vis a vis the lean paint) forms a net, which acts a totalising device, making any single impasto mark uninformative and not singly significant. With Frankenthaler (and Feather is a good example of this), motifs or marks over the ground retain significance. They are large enough and small enough to act as devices and are given space to gain attention; they are not part of a surface covering repetition. This is probably the single greatest obstacle to the acceptance and enjoyment of Frankenthaler’s painting, even though individual viewers might not understand why they do not feel as at home with a Frankenthaler compared to a Lee Krasner Little Image painting or a painting by Pollock or Tobey (or Sam Francis, in his early classic style).

In the woodcut prints, this inherent tension between ground and motif in Frankenthaler’s painting is resolved. The applied ground and motif – and intermediary areas of expansive motifs or shapes – are all on the surface in the prints. Ground and motif have the same optical qualities and density and they lie flatly on surface of the paper. Absorption of applied pigment into the support does not occur, so there is no ambiguity between applied pigment and pre-existing support. In the prints, there is no recession, with pigment mingling with the material of the canvas (or, in this case, paper). Hence, there is no division between the visual qualities of stain and impasto, ground and motif and therefore no need for viewers to struggle assimilating different pictorial and optical languages. This sense of completeness, of containment and parity between elements in a Frankenthaler woodcut makes them easier viewing than her paintings; for some, this make the woodcuts better art than her paintings.

The exhibition is carefully designed, lit and set out, the catalogue is informative and the video presentation is to the point and not intrusive visually or aurally. Best of all, the art is often beautiful and sometimes genuinely great – comparable to the best works in the genre by artists of different eras, traditions and countries. This exhibition is open until April next year and is highly recommended.

Edit: To read my perspective on the interaction between female artists, feminism, the art market and art criticism/history, read my book “Women and Art: A Post-Feminist View”. Details given here

© 2021 Alexander Adams

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