Exasperational Activities

If you read the last blog then you’ll know that, irrespective of the dateline above, I am, in fact, still in Oxford and it’s still yesterday – at least, they’re the space-time co-ordinates for where I’m starting off from, although it is going to turn into tomorrow somewhere towards the end of the posting.

Anyway, having already given the poor old Ashmolean a bit of a kicking – for the Museum in general and their Warhol exhibition in particular – I’m tempted now to just tiptoe quietly away from the place but, on the other hand, or maybe that should be foot, I feel duty bound by the Unvarnished blogging code of honour to carry on and put the boot in a bit more. Well, not exactly, but I think it might be worth making a few specific comments on their permanent art collection. And, it’s not all bad – there are definitely some good pieces here from Titian, Veronese, Poussin, Rembrandt, and the like, but I found going round the galleries all a bit confusing. Maybe it was just my own personal cultural compass that was having a problem but the layout didn’t seem very logical and I kept making wrong turns, finding myself suddenly stranded in a room full of musical instruments or ceramics or ranks of spoons, tankards and other examples of gleaming silver metalwork, none of which I was really interested in.

As for the more modern work, unfortunately I think most of the Pre-Raphaelites may have been out of sight, undergoing a little light dusting in the couple of rooms that were closed for rehanging during my visit. Millais’ famous portrait of Ruskin is, however, on show although I find it baffling as to why the Museum doesn’t make more of a feature of this most extraordinary work and the background story that accompanied its production. Equally baffling to me is why the Museum bothered to spend such an effort a few years ago fundraising to acquire Manet’s half-finished portrait of Fanny Claus. It looks ok but cannot stand alone as a great artistic work, suffering as it does from the fact that it is – as I may have mentioned – only half-finished. Common sense suggests to me that this painting should be across the channel at the Musee d’Orsay, keeping company with Le Balcon, for which it was a preparatory sketch.

Aside from all that, what else is there to see amongst the moderns? I quite liked the small nude by Freud, from that period before he started to get a bit complacent and sloppy with his painting. There are a couple of good, crazy works by Stanley Spencer, two small but tasteful Renoirs and some reasonable Sickerts (alongside a few decidedly unreasonable ones). By way of balance, both the Bonnard and the Matisse look a bit weak and Picasso’s study of the flat Parisian rooftops is distinctly uninspired, in both senses of the word. In short, most of the collection is ok but just a little bit second division, although it might go up a few places if it was displayed more sensibly. I’d certainly be willing to lend a hand if someone wants to organise a flash mob to try to budge the big Barbara Hepworth lump away from its current position, that distracts from the Bacon and everything else around it.

Enough. It definitely feels like time to move on. So, a quick reverse down Magdalen Street and then left into Broad Street to take a look in the Aidan Meller Gallery which specialises in staging small but attractive exhibitions of prints. The usual fare here is tasteful examples of British and Continental Modernists like Picasso, Miro, Moore and various members of the Bloomsbury sect but currently they seem to have taken their lead from the Ashmolean and, yes, it’s that man again. There’s another bunch of prints by Warhol to see, albeit interspersed with a couple works from his contemporaries Robert Indiana and Roy Lichtenstein. Mao and Marilyn are present as are Mick and Keith and it’s all good quality stuff with everything up for sale so, if you feel like emulating that nice Mr Hall, now is the time to get the cheque book out and be prepared to start writing a few zeroes. I may have mentioned that Andy doesn’t come cheap and a typical work here will set you back about £50,000 though there are some for as little as £30,000. And if that’s still just a little bit rich well, you can always just window shop and then go down a few doors to Blackwell’s Art and Poster Shop where you’ll probably be able to find something a little more practical to blue-tack to your walls. And I’m sure Andy won’t mind.

A little further on down Broad Street is the Weston Library, an offshoot of the famous Bodleian, that doesn’t just stack books but also puts on a series of changing exhibitions with book-related themes. A while ago I saw a marvelous show here in which they were displaying some of their very early rarities including Fred and Barney’s Neolithic Motor Manual and the Genghis Khan Guide to Good Management – well, maybe not those exact works but similar sorts of incredible things. Unfortunately, the current show consists of treasures from Armenian history which, while I’m sure would be fascinating for any Armenian tourists visiting Oxford, is just a little too arcane for my tastes.

Consequently I make a quick departure and head south to get to Pembroke Street and Modern Art Oxford, which is currently celebrating its fiftieth anniversary with The Indivisible Present. The exhibition asks us to consider how time affects our perception. And, since I’m in a bit of a hurry, I suppose the answer to that question is that it forces me to make a snap judgement, to whit – I suppose I thought the show was, on the whole, quite interesting. I’m not sure that Pierre Huyghe’s detailed video examination of a couple of insects caught in flagrante in amber required quite so much time and space and I preferred the more discreet charms of Yoko Ono’s Eye Blink and Douglas Gordon’s slow motion 24 Hour Psycho, in which the Hitchcock classic is screened one frame at a time over the course of a day. Viola Yesiltac’s photographs of precariously balanced sheets of pastel papers were quite pretty and Elizabeth Price’s video stream of text, hand claps and sun spots was reasonably diverting, and I suppose both were sort of time related. But I’m not too sure what John Latham’s burned, battered and bisected books had to do with the exhibition theme, unless it was to confirm that time has not diminished the ability of his sculptures to make the viewer feel awkward, contemplating the obvious delight the artist took in constructing such examples of cultural vandalism. Which, I suppose, provides me with the ideal cue to go and take a look at the infamous statue of Cecil Rhodes, which some students have recently become very determined to dismantle. But time is pressing and I decide to give it a miss and instead return home and back to civilisation.

Having reached there it’s also now the point to reset the clocks and jump forward in time and space, resynchronizing the next day at Tate Modern, just in time for the members’ show preview of the Gallery’s new exhibition, Performing for the Camera. This is essentially an enormous documentary show concerned with recording the curious actions undertaken by various performance artists (plus a few actors and dancers) over the past few decades. I suppose it confirms what most of us already know, that artist exhibitionists have engaged in all manner of weird and wonderful, outrageous and appalling, dangerous and humourous, inspirational and exasperational activities, unified solely by the fact that their efforts are completely without any sensible utilitarian purpose. Which, I suppose, might be a reasonable enough definition of what a lot of post-war art has been all about. Anyway, there are an awful lot of black and white, ten-by-eights to look at and, I suppose it’s fair to say, they do provide a reasonable overview of the ideas and actions that have emanated from the Performance Art community. And if you think that the practice tends to involve trying to make its audience either bored stiff, scared stiff or embarrassed through, inter alia, the use of chalk boards, fire or nudity, then you may well find confirmation here. I confess, this kind of artistic activity has never really appealed to me.

The show is vast, occupying 14 rooms, which makes it a bit disappointing that while there is extensive representation of artists from America and Japan (perhaps encouraged by the exhibition’s Korean sponsor, Hyundai Card), there are so few British artists on display. Stuart Brisley is there, smearing his naked body with paint, but there’s no Bruce McLean, David Medalla, Ian Hinchliffe, Mona Hatoum or Kerry Trengove, just to list some of the performance artists I’ve met over the past 30 years and whose performances I’ve successfully managed to avoid during that time. Hopefully, they’ll all get featured in the Tate Modern extension which opens later in the year and which is going to make a feature of examining these kinds of non-traditional forms of art.

One response to “Exasperational Activities

  1. Ah!—a sweeping, magisterial statement for me to quibble with! I mean your comment on ”post-war” art in the penultimate paragraph. A striking thesis with which I may or may not agree, but what I really found myself thinking was: is the term ”post-war” sounding a bit outdated nowadays? Does it entail an unconscious cultural perspective? Would ”twentieth century” or ”late twentieth century” be better here?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *