'our creation is that guru; the duration of our lives is that guru; our trials, illnesses and calamaties is that guru. There is a guru that is nearby and a guru that is beyond the beyond. I humbly make my offering to the guru, the beautiful remover of ignorance, the enlightenment principle that is within me and surrounds me at all times.'
Guru Stotram

Monday, 17 May 2010

I’m struggling to understand what it is I find so moving about Lisa Yuskavage’s paintings. This Sunday afternoon I’ve read everything I can get my hands on about her work, I’ve trawled my reserves of art historical reference points, I’ve gone through the obligatory writers pass time of staring at the blank computer screen for hours followed by calling around all my friends and wondering what to cook for supper, but still I don’t know what it is about them that speaks to me so vitally. Given their subject matter, I’m finding my response to them even a bit concerning. Until eventually I remember that the way in is always through the wound.

The truth is I see something of myself in these paintings. That’s what I’m wanting to avoid - the unpalatable conclusion that these women remind me of myself. Bizarre, hyper-sexualised, uber-boobed girls, innocently playful and agonisingly destructive at the same time. Their devil may care performed immodesty; the coquettishly dishevelled hair; the complete absence of balance; the sense of nihilism and confusion and the fact that, however you dress it up, it always comes back to the same thing. And of course, those socks. Everybody mentions the socks. What is it about the socks?

Contemporary painting involving the female nude usually makes me want to poke my own eyes out. Centuries of male dominated art history, followed by decades of feminist backlash have rammed it, as a source of painterly inspiration, well and truly into the back of a very tricky pigeon hole. Many have tried to resuscitate it. Many have failed. Some dismally. Most don’t have the first idea what they’re grappling with. Yuskavage on the other hand, certainly does. Which makes this ballsy stuff.

Despite the fact that her canvases now sell for hundreds of thousands, she hasn’t come out of it completely unscathed. Controversy abounds. But there’s nothing wrong with that. Controversy in art, contrary to how it’s commonly understood, is not a sign of childish attention seeking, but of presenting things in a way that rejects delusions we’ve collectively and silently agreed to adopt in order to ease our trajectory through what would otherwise be a hellish traumatic existence. When you challenge people’s dearly held delusions they tend to get a bit cross. The more they see you might have a point the crosser they get. Ergo everyone loves to hate contemporary art.

Over and above the brilliantly managed subject matter and the ability to describe disconcerting truths about humanity and femininity, the other thing that stands out about Lisa Yuskavage is that she’s one of the extremely rare breed of twenty-first century painters who know how to paint. There’s no reason why artists these days should know how to paint. They’re not taught how to paint. Which is not necessarily such a bad thing as it might sound. Removing the default opens up possibilities. As a result we’ve got this wonderfully rich multi-disciplinary creativity going on, wherein nothing is beyond investigation. In creative terms it’s a very life giving place to be.

But of course there’ll always be people who want to paint. For them the absence of painting from the art college curricula generally means having to make a feature of painting badly. Which is well enough but it does leave a gap in the market. A gap that Lisa Yuskavage, and one or two others, have been able to fill. It also means that when one does stumble upon contemporary painting that’s technically skilled it’s a joy, despite the awareness that that joy is largely driven by a sense of the unexpected inherent in the discovery of painting that doesn’t need to make a deliberately confusing bluff-cum-double-bluff performance of its own lack of proficiency.

Bluster, feminist and otherwise, is thick on the ground. Her work has been described as everything from a “critique of prurient sexuality” to a “disingenuous peddling of soft-porn”. Yuskavage herself has been heard to remark: “I only load the gun.” The weapon with the most powerful ammunition though is not the female form, but that of the darkest recesses of the female psyche. The place few of us are prepared, with such honesty at least, to go.

Lisa Yuskavage
until end June 2010

Tuesday, 4 May 2010

"Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It's not just in some of us; it's in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others."
Marianne Williamson

"Until we realize the unity of life, we live in fear."
The Upanishads
The vicar’s got a puncture. On bank holiday Monday. What this seems to mean is that we can’t go to the movies. Or rather he can’t go to the movies. Beezie’s got a friend over from Milan. Nicky’s in France. So I thought I might go on my own. I always forget how enjoyable going to the movies on your own is. A bit like a baked potato. The simple things in life.

It’s a very personal thing I always think. Like travelling. It’s one of those things you only want to do with certain people, or on your own. It affects your consciousness you see, so you’ve got to be careful. Plus, other than a bunch of strangers, who exactly do you want to sit in a darkened room with and watch something that, if you’re lucky, might enlighten you as to the nature of reality?

Dogtooth - that’s an awesome movie for revelations on the nature of reality. Retrospectively reading the reviews it seems some critics think it’s about a warped family over whom we have the opportunity to stand in shocked judgement and, as usual, get to feel superior about the fact that we are not they. This whole shocked judgement thing is wearing a bit thin frankly.

Dogtooth is not about that at all. It’s about you and me and the mad way in which we all live and the fact that we just don’t see it. What we see is ration and reason - a place for everything and everything in its place. But if you look more closely, it’s not rational or reasonable, it’s totally bonkers and we’re all in denial about that fact. That’s what the movie is saying. It’s saying we’re all living in a state of paralysing fear that makes us do strange and damaging things that we can’t see and that we wouldn’t do if we could see them. It’s a parable. People do seem to miss the point about things. Or maybe it’s me. Maybe I’m missing the point the whole time? Oh whatever, who cares. There’s probably something with Matt Damon coming out soon. Matt Damon puts the baddies where they deserve to be and saves us all from yet another near disaster. A place for everything and everything in its place.

Post-Dogtooth I made the mistake of watching Goldsmiths’ – But is it Art? School of Saatchi was bad, but this is taking rubbish art related TV to a whole new level. School of Saatchi did at least have a certain page turning quality to it and a bit of something woof in the form of Matt Clark. But is it Art? did not have any such qualities, not even in the tiniest measure. It did of course have bucket-loads of that exhausted old cliché “let’s all take the piss out of these half witted idiots calling themselves contemporary artists.” Yes, very funny.

The one thing I do find surprising about this otherwise deeply unsurprising TV programme is the degree of venom it seems to have unleashed that’s now being directed towards these artists on various blogs and things. The one who seems to be coming in for the greatest degree of completely unwarranted and offence giving aggression is Roisin Byrne. One feedback comment on her website reads simply: “slut”. As much as anything for the sake of re-dressing the balance in favour of this poor harangued woman who’s just trying to do an art degree for the love of God, I’d like to say that for me at least, Roisin Byrne’s work raised questions and provoked thought:

Roisin Byrne basically steals stuff. She steals stuff and then calls it art. Appropriates is her term. At her most ‘controversial’ she steals elements of art works by other, more established contemporary artists and creates her own art work out of the embezzled item, along with the correspondence she’s undergone with the ‘original’ artist in regard to this pilfering.

In 2000, in a work entitled Rescuing Rhododendrons, future Turner Prize winner Simon Starling took seven rhododendrons from Northern Scotland and drove them, in his Volvo estate, to Southern Spain from whence rhododendrons were first introduced to Scotland by Claes Alestroemer, a Swedish botanist, in 1763. The plants were to have been destroyed and Starling saved them and that’s very nice.

Technically though, if one were to be a pedant - not something I’d recommend for the most part, but just for a minute let’s indulge ourselves - the rhododendrons weren’t really Starling’s to begin with. Sharp intake of breathe… Starling STOLE them! OMG. But he was stealing them in order to save them. Phew. So that’s all fluffy and OK. Case closed.

But when Byrne took one of them from Spain, brought it back into the UK on an EasyJet flight and incorporated it into her degree show along with a series of emails between herself and Starling, for some reason, that wasn’t OK. That was… STEALING. But stealing what exactly? Is it a hedge that we’re objecting to the appropriation of? Is it an art work? Is it an idea? Is it the (long shot folks!) potential to earn money? And which of these elements was technically owned by Starling in the first place?

So, we could make the questions all about technicalities of ownership. Intellectual property, hedge snatching, when is it OK to steal and when is it not OK to steal? And other ethical brainteasers.

But a larger, and to my mind rather more pertinent question is where does art come from in the first place? Are we fully satisfied with the idea that an art work is created by an artist? Can we answer that question without querying whether it’s possible for an art work to be created by any one person in isolation? Where does influence end and originality begin? Not many people would likely dispute the suggestion that every artist worth their salt studies other artists work in great depth. Hmmm, tricky one.

Then there’s the really interesting stuff - the question of what exactly this alchemical process of creativity is. Before we can assign ownership of the creative act surely we need to know what it is. Does the possibility not exist that there might be something else at work, something beyond the rationalising mind, beyond the ego, even perhaps completely beyond the capacity of human endeavour? And if the creative process is fundamentally beyond the capacity of human endeavour, does that make claims upon its ownership redundant to some extent?

What I’m talking about is the thing that lies at the heart of post-Renaissance Western culture, namely, the appropriation of the divine by the ego. Not my words I have to confess, I ‘stole’ them from the vicar. Although whether he owned them once he’d spoken them across… OK enough.

Basically what I’m talking about is the idea that the artist is more than anything else a conduit of some sort and that the ‘best’ artists are the ones who are able to impose their egos to the least degree during the creative act, thus opening up the channel with the least interference to the forces beyond the material. I don’t pretend to understand it beyond that. It’s just a thought really. I’m just putting it out there. Probably it’s a load of old twaddle and the long and the short of it is that Simon Starling’s a twenty-first century horticultural super hero, an eco-Robin Hood, whilst Roisin Byrne’s the devil in a skirt. Anyway, when’s the next Bourne movie coming out with that nice Matt Damon?