Monday, April 23, 2007

The Art of Being There: Harry Benson at The Smithsonian

The Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery will exhibit the work of world renowned photographer Harry Benson from April 27 to September 3. Harry Benson, of Scottish descent, captured many memorable moments as a photojournalist that included documenting various celebrated personalities ranging from Muhammad Ali (aka Cassius Clay) to the Beatles. An exhibition one should see if in the Washington D.C. area during that time. But when is it ever a bad time to visit the Smithsonian? Make it a point to be there.

"Harry Benson: Being There"
April 27 through September 3, 2007
The National Portrait Gallery

Thursday, April 19, 2007


By Ashley Eldridge-Ford in London

As a treat to myself on my birthday weekend and to, I must confess, escape the heat of our London streets, I retreated into the hallowed halls of the National Gallery on Trafalgar Square to see the "Renoir Landscapes 1865 - 1883" exhibition. Swivelling one's head left and right upon entry into the first gallery, what stands out is the scintillating luminescence of the paintings within the room, not every painting, but the odd few that really stand out. They are of a varied subject matter - two couples within in a landscape, a regatta, a wheatfield. Drawn instantly to them, I restrained myself and began at the beginning, as is the flaw of an art historian.


The first painting that I chose for close scrutiny, one of Renoir's earliest ('A Clearing in the Woods', 1865), is instantly reminiscent of the landscape painters of the 18th century, such as the British painter, John Constable. It is the flattened use of colour, heavy on the side of brown, the rather plain use of paint smoothed across the canvas and a very obviously meticulous construction of the scene that creates this comparison. The second work, 'Jules Le Coeur and his Dogs walking in the Forest of Fontainbleau', 1866,, it is fascinating to see Renoir's first attempt to portray light as more than a wash across a scene. What is instantly recongnisable as 'Renoir' is the beard of the figure in the scene, who stands still within a canopy of trees above and around him. He stands, lord of the forest, looking up and away from the viewer towards where the forest path is to take him. The beard is soft and, for want of a better descriptive word, fuzzy, in that charachteristically Renoir fashion but the figure is painted with plain featureless strokes that render him nothing more than a shape in the forest's shadows. What you see breaking through the trees and Renoir's style is the attempted creation of lambenting light flickering from between the trees' leaves. The paint here is carefully dabbed and are looser, there is a softness to the landscape in the grass with touches of rust coloured paint and pale dappled greens. These remind me very much of the early works of Monet (in the exhibition still on at the Royal Academy) as he explored the styles and means of representation open to him.

The next piece ('Country Road near Marlotte', 1865 - 6) is smaller and instantly looks towards the work of Henri Rousseau; it is stylised, flat, the colours are pale and featureless. It is interesting to know that this piece was admitted to and accepted by the Paris Salon on 1866 but subsequently withdrawn when the jury refused another of his entries. And then the curators did a wonderful thing, they hung Monet's 'Bathers at La Grenouillere' alongside Renoir's 'La Grenouillere' both of 1869 when the artists were painting shoulder to shoulder. The two pieces are hard to tell apart at first without knowledge of which is whoms but slowly, upon close inspection, certain unmistakable examples of the two artists different style stand out. Where Monet's treatment of the trees in the background and the figures in the foreground are reduced to flattened brushstrokes of colour, whereby they appear to float from the canvas' surface, Renoir's trees are painted in his signature soft and diffused fashion (which one can see has developed rapidly from the second work in the exhibition over three years) and the figures are delicately represented with attention to detail.

As becomes clear during the remainder of the exhibition, Renoir is extremely adept at creating a dance of light on the figures who populate his paintings, more so than of light itself on a landscape. This is the start, in terms of the painterly record, of what is to be an extremely fruitful friendship between the two artists, which leaves one feeling that many of the paintings are familiar and that the scenes recognisable from those painted also by Monet. It's a strange feeling of deja vu. Two charming additions to Renoir's 'La Grenouillere' is of a dog lying stretched out on his side on the circular jetty at the feet of those who stand around him, whilst another paws at a docked rowboat as he weighs up the prospect of jumping into it. They add a touch of life to the scene where Monet's is without. 'La Promenade', 1870, has the figure of a girl who is attempting to look coyly away from the gentleman holding her hand with one of his whilst with the other he holds aside some of the foliage surrounding them. It is in this painting that Renoir's use of white in the representation of light appears fully developed. The light flickers and moves across the woman's dress and gentleman's shoulders and adds a vitality to the scene. As with many of Renoir's paintings, however, standing up close to them reduces the full effect and it is really only upon standing back some distance that the full effect of light and movement can be seen. There is a wonderful record of Monet and Renoir's friendship in 'Claude Monet painting in his Garden at Argenteuil', around 1873. Monet is surrounded by a dense foliage of roses in heavy pinks, yellow and red; the heads of these hang so droopily so as to give the impression of a lazy warm summer's evening. The brushstrokes here are flickering and gentle and break up the light dollops of applied paint. There is an air of harmony between them and in the garden itself.


Stepping into gallery 2 it becomes clear that Renoir's style has reached maturity. The figures are used to express light and as the centre point for his chosen landscape. Figures appear to hold his landscapes together, like a nucleus, such as in 'Confidences (La Tonnelle)', about 1874 and 'Woman with a Parasol and a Small Child on a Sunlit Hillside', 1874. In this gallery we see for the first time scenes painted in the city - 'La Place St-Georges', 'Les Grands Boulevards' and 'Le Square de La Trinite' all of 1875. Despite his feeling that the mid-19th century redevelopment of Paris has been insensitive, he communicates through his paintings an air of excitement and modernity, of movement and bustle. One piece that stood out for me was 'Woman at the Seaside, Seascape', 1879 - 80. A female figure sits in the middle distance looking away from the viewer. Gently rolling hills surrounding her on every side, they seems to undulate like a waterbed. Despite her being still, she could be gently bobbing as though on water. The division between land and water is hard to discerne for the colours are similar shades of pale green and blue. Boats hang weightless in what appears to be the sea, although it could well be an extension of the foreground, they seem to slowly pace across the scene. They and the female figure are as much a part of the landscape as the land and the water.


Gallery 3 explodes with colour. These paintings date from the period when Renoir spent time in Algiers and in Venice (1881). 'The Jardin d'Essai, Algiers', 1881, is a brightly coloured firework display of oranges, reds, blues and greens in the representation of a lush, tropical garden. It becomes rather instantly obvious that the light and colours that influence Renoir differ largely from what and where he is painting - seascapes contain exploration of tones (greens, blues, purples), French landscapes are diffused, muted but delicate and these paintings from Algiers and Venice are vibrant, striking, and even joyous. In 'Arab Festival', 1881, an immense crowd teems across the scene swirling themselves around a small group of dancing figures. There is a mass of movement that is in direct comparison to the still unmoving solid white structures of the native's very Arabic dwellings. The whites of these buildings echo the whites circulating across those in the crowd. The scene is one of disorder and vibrancy tempered with the calm order of the buildings. The paintings from Venice are strongly reminiscent of those of Monet but also of Canaletto (although this could be because it is difficult to look at painted versions of familiar Venetian landmarks without thinking of Canaletto) - 'Venice, the Doge's Palace', 'Piazza San Marco, Venice' and 'Gondola, Venice', all 1881. One piece that stands out strongly is 'The Bay of Naples (Morning)', 1881. The broad sweep of the bay is looked over by what is meant to be Vesuvius but which looks rather remarkably like Mount Fuji. The pale colours and this rather oddly familiar but unfamiliar mountain brings to mind 19th century Japanese prints. The painting is constructed of strong diagonals created by the masts and sails of the boats docked in the bay at the harbour and the bay swarms with figures who go about their early morning business on foot, carriage or on horse. A light haze is poised over the scene.


In gallery 4 'Rocky Crags at L'Estaque', 1882, lead me to draw instant comparisons to the work of Cezanne, not just from the title, but from the structure of the blocky rocks and the flattened brushstrokes. The foreground and background are reversed through use of warm colours in the background and cooler in the foreground. The painting technique, use of colour and light is indeed more restrained, which is perhaps representative of the sun and its effect on the white rock of the landscape but perhaps more so of the influence of Cezanne with whom he spent time in 1882. Another rather striking piece is 'The Wave', 1882, which is composed of prime colours embedded in the white thick impasto building up the swirls and foam of a wave. Bright strokes of turquoise and blue in the wave are placed against the purples in the sky. The skyline is broken and punctuated by a variety of blue sailboats. There is turmoil in the waves and in the colours, and a violence in the thickly impasto, unmixed white that appears to have been applied directly onto the canvas with a palette knife, which was a technique Renoir had recently begun to practice. The remainder of works in gallery 4 are very typical of Renoir's style and are beautiful for their technique but perhaps a little less inventive and exploratory.

Despite being an extremely well-hung exhibition with some wonderfully chosen works, one confusing element throughout the exhibition was the numbering of pieces which jumped between chronological placement and a numbering system all its own. For those endowed with the very helpful guidebook, this was confusing. There are many things to be seen from this show, in particular the development of Renoir's style and use of light, the influence on these elements of the scene he was painting or the country in which he was painting them, his friendship with Monet and perhaps, most importantly and more interestingly, his unceasing exploration and experimentation during this period in styles, brushstrokes, representation of light and strikingly, of colour. It was after 1883 that he focused on his portraiture and when his work, in my opinion, lost a lot of its edge and gives them impression, after seeing this dynamic period of his work, that perhaps Renoir sold out in the end. His later more stylised 'prettier' work is the poorer for it.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

ALBION'S Politics of Fear in London

By Ashley Eldridge-Ford in London

Heading over to Battersea always feels to be an insurmountable challenge to those based north of the Thames but, nevertheless, over I went for the opening of ALBION's Politics of Fear exhibition, which opened last Tuesday evening. Based within the Norman Foster-designed riverside development, ALBION is the largest commercial gallery space in London or, rather, it was until Larry Gagosian opened his newest gallery in London recently. The exhibition brings together art and politics, creating a really contentious show that brings young artists, who work in or are nationals of Pakistan, India, Algeria, China, among other countries, to comment on issues that deal with their personal, immediate or global surroundings. The artists (Xu Bing, Rashid Rana, Avishek Sen, Shilpa Gupta, Kader Attia, Sophie Ernst, Jorge and Lucty Orta, Reza Aramesh and Jennifer Wen Ma) have created artworks that raise our awareness of issues not often discussed by the press, or if brought up, are often relegated to the comments pages, or in editorials.

Art being the immediate communicator that it is, this exhibition is particularly effective in challenging us to re-evaluate the manner in which we look at things, and at the opinions we hold. This is--and always has been--the power of art. This exhibition makes me view so much contemporary art as self-indulgent or, at least, self-indulgent on the artists' part. One could argue that art exists for its own sake, but I feel that this idea is antiquated, relevant to a certain period in art history, and that in today's world, it is the deft contemporary artist who should stand up to the viewers' complacency--and yes, let's face it, boredom--who are creating something more important and with greater longevity. It is all too often that one visits a gallery and leaves feeling numbed, perhaps a little more indifferent than how one felt before entering the space. The Politics of Fear exhibition makes me wish that more exhibitions and galleries were brave enough to open their doors to a little contention, a little criticism and a group of very talented and subtly political commentators. And I'm talking about the galleries and curators giving freedom to the artists to voice contrarian views of current affairs, not the visitors.

At the front of the gallery, Hamra Abbas "Battle Scenes" (2007) hang parallel to one another. These works, lenticulars, are based on two battle scenes from the 16th century miniature album, Akbarnama. Abbas showed selected battle scenes from this miniature to people in London parks and asked them to pose for her as the warriors depicted therein. The results, shown in hologram so that as one walks from one side of the works to the other, the figures shift position, bringing a sword down or across their body. One is faced, across from the entrance, with five large-scale photographs of Shilpa Gupta's, "See no evil, Hear no evil, Speak no evil" (2006). In these photographs one female figure is dressed in olive green khakis and has donned a military peak. The figure stands with three sets of hands (including her own) placed over her mouth, eyes, and ears in varying positions, completely obscuring the features of the face below her hands.

courtesy of the Shilpa Gupta and ALBION, London

To the right of the entrance, in gallery 4, hangs a series of paintings by Avishek Sen ( all "Untitled," 2007). Sen spent the formative years of his life in a remote village in India. He uses water-based media for a light and lyrical impact. These paintings have delicate additions of detail: the scales of the crocodile with opened jaws are painstakingly rendered; a figure, carefully portrayed; a flower's petals, lusciously fat. Gallery 5 contains what at first seems a light-hearted fitness video with figures running in place or doing squats, in accordance with the viewer's movements and click of the mouse that is placed on a pedestal in the center of the darkened room. A series of voices call out in unison, distorting the clarity of the word "eat, eat, eat, eat eat..." The words are projected in a running commentary across the base of the video projection in green text. This chant, alongside the fact that these girls each wear fashion camouflage gear, from small minis to longer trousers, playing with distorted ideas of fashion chic and whether the girls are training to get fit or training in a subversive camp. The piece plays with gender, fashion and preconceptions - could they be a new breed of (training) guerrilla freedom fighters or suicide bombers? As easily as fashion went mainstream, surely military tactics are no more than a couple of steps from that?

Untitled, 2006, Avishek Sen
Photograph courtesy of the artist and ALBION, London

Returning to the main entrance, one enters into galleries 1 and 2. In an exhibition that is predominantly video heavy, the pieces that stand out are Reza Aramesh's "I am a believer (2006)," which is a video projection on an ICA funded project to re-enact the Changing of the Guards with a group of volunteers who trained for months for the performance on Trafalgar Square, Hadrian's Wall, Steel Rig, Cumbria and George Loveless House, London. The volunteers wear smart black suits with a white shirt and handkerchief and move seamlessly together. More particularly of note is Sophie Ernst's "Dying Gauls (2007)." These white plaster cast heads act as monuments to the heroes of the past. Onto their frozen faces are projected film footage of young men in Lahore, Pakistan who were asked questions about heaven, death and dying. They evoke footage shot of suicide bombers discussing their opinion of heaven and martyrdom. As they talk animatedly, their faces bring to life those frozen casts and the sculptures appear to be speaking. Next to this is Kader Attia's "Oil and Sugar (2007)." This video projection uses sugar as a metaphor for a white cube but by pouring oil over the cubes it is transformed into a black cube, referencing the Kaaba, the sacred stone in Mecca towards which Muslims must face when praying. Attia draws attention to the relationship between sugar and oil where for centuries it was oil sugar that symbolised wealth whereas now it is oil.

Oil and Sugar, Kader Attia, 2007
Photograph courtesy of the artist and ALBION, London
The cavernous gallery 2 leads off from gallery 1 on either side. There are herein a fantastic selection of works. The first is Xu Bing's three Magic Carpets (numbers 1 - 3) (2007). The first was created for a Buddhist temple and has had selected passages from four significant faith-based texts (one Buddhist, one Gnostic, one Jewish and one passage from Karl Marx), which Xu then transcribed as square word calligraphy and then synthesised into one text. The Chinese authorities thought he was being subversive and have banned him from returning to China. The Buddhist monks felt that they could not walk or pray on sacred texts and they refused the carpet. Xu went on to pixilate the original. The monks felt that this changed nothing of the essence of the piece. Not to be disheartened, Xu took one word, 'belief', which he wrote in square word calligraphy. It is an elegant script that encompasses both Chinese script and English. Sadly, at this stage, the monks had chosen another carpet. These three pieces are more beautiful once the history behind them has been told and they are definitely not to be walked on. Kader Attia's two works are hung to the other side of the carpets; they are created from the debris left behind, or representative of, the student riots in Paris in 2006. The two blackened squares of burnt wood and metal are of more interest conceptually than they are visually. Rashid Rana's "Veil (2007)," is extremely evocative. Five women stand shoulder to shoulder, their faces and bodies hidden beneath heavy hanging dark grey veils. The works appear pointillist and, stepping closer, it becomes apparent that the image has been constructed by smaller centimetre cubes of photographs of naked women in a variety of provocative poses. It is a surprising and very clever piece that plays on our expectations on two levels - how it has been constructed and what we really expect to see below the veil. I personally do not think to imagine the burkha'd figures as containing sexualised female bodies (for a host of reasons, namely my gender and my country's customs), I see them rather as complete forms encompassing their sexuality and their faith. Rana's works tear back the faith and put focus on the women's sexuality.
Luce and Jorge Orta's pieces are powerful, "Fallujah - In the Name of God (2007)," consists of two Red Cross ambulance doors and a selection of emotive photographs. As the Orta's have noted, the siege of Fallujah constitutes one of the most extensive human rights violations of recent times, breaching over 70 articles of the Geneva Convention. US forces bombed schools and hospitals, sniped civilians holding white flags, cut off water and medical supplies and instigated a chemical weapons assault, deploying napalm and white phosphorous - both banned by the UN. The photographs have been taken off the websites of journalists based in Afghanistan whose photographs were banned from leaving the country and from being published. The Orta's have taken images from the websites on which the photographs were in due course posted. The inclusion of their work in this show precedes a larger exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Art, London, in May.
Gallery 3 contains Rashid Rana's video projection, Meeting Point (2007); the gallery reverberates with the roar of two identical airplanes as they fly towards one another. The two planes are perpetually suspended and permanently racing towards one another but they never meet. They are of course highly evocative of 9/11 but can also represent the conflicts we encounter in our social, religious, political and emotional lives; issues that are never resolved or solved.

Meeting Point, 2006, Rashid Rana
Image courtesy of the artist and ALBION, London

Sitting in the sun here in Edinburgh, writing about the exhibition, it surprises me how clear my memory of both the individual works of art are and the exhibition is. I find it inspiring that an exhibition has stayed with me and provoked me to discuss it with so many. Art acts as a neutralising factor, told in the third person, but it gives birth to us as the viewers to ponder and take up some of the issues raised as we so choose. I hope that this show, alongside Mark Wallinger's State Britain (2006) currently showing at Tate Britain in which he has meticulously recreated peace campaigner Brian Haw's Parliament Square protest (which he began after the economic sanction in Iraq in 2001), heralds a new focus for the artists of our time and that they will perhaps be able to say more than us mere voters are able to. I hope that it is through their co-joined voices that, if nothing else, they will act as a record for the generations to come, that there were some of us who, despite being seemingly mute, could find voice in the art of others and who did not all endorse what our governments are calling our international policy overseas.

Exhibition dates: 27 March - 18 May 2007
8 Hester Road
London SW11 4AX

0207 801 2480