To Charing Cross tube station and exit into Trafalgar Square to take a look at the latest lump of sculpture that’s been plonked down on to that most famous of all transient artistic staging posts: the so-called fourth plinth. Rather like the annual commission to fill the Tate’s Turbine Hall, this is another great potential opportunity for some artist to hit the zeitgeist right on the nose, make a grand gestural statement, reach a massive audience, gain a whole heap of publicity, become rich and famous and live happily ever after. Except, of course, in the past, that has seldom happened and instead a series of hopefuls – some well-known names and other comparatively unfamiliar newcomers – have eagerly grasped each of these poisoned chalices, taken a good swig and then only managed to half-heartedly burp up some pitiful pieces of inconsequential trivia or silliness. David Shrigley’s embarrassingly awful elongated thumb’s up thumb, that has recently vacated the plinth (and hopefully been melted down to produce a couple of girders, a few tons of nails or something else more worthwhile), was perhaps one of the most depressingly feeble pieces of nonsense to have filled the space in recent years so just about anything that follows has to be an improvement on that and indeed, thankfully, it is.
In fact, Mark Rakowitz’s replacement – an impressively solid looking, if aerodynamically dubious, chimeric winged bull – fits very comfortably on the plinth and appears entirely at home and unfazed by having been placed in such a prominent position. Although, perhaps, this shouldn’t really be so much of a surprise since it’s been auditioning for this current role by standing guard outside the Nergal Gate entrance to King Sennacherib’s Palace in Nineveh for the previous two-and-a-half thousand years. Or, rather, the original heavyweight limestone version was until shamefully defaced and generally hacked about by a bunch of Isis fanatics back in 2015. But this new recreation made from discarded date tins – presumably the budget didn’t stretch to chiselling out a whole new proper rock version – is not just a fitting rebuke to the dismal iconoclastic nutters who went round trying to erase Iraq’s ancient historical past. In its current setting, near to Nelson’s Column, this beacon from a long lost world also inevitably resonates with deeper romantic themes about the rise and fall of empires throughout he ages, from Shelley’s sonnet about Ozymandias to Charlton Heston’s discovery of the beached Statue of Liberty at the end of the original Planet of the Apes film.
All of which provides rather a neat segue into a pair of twinned shows that have just opened across the road at the National Gallery and which continue, at least in part, to ponder upon the theme of imperial redundancy and collapse. Perhaps not quite as heroic or thorough an investigation of the phenomenon as encompassed by Gibbons’ famous six-volume ripper concerning the History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Ed Ruscha’s suite of large paintings, collectively known as the Course of Empire are still a rather poignant evocation of some of the unhappy changes that American society has been undergoing during the past couple of decades. All ten paintings in the series show scenes from the industrial estates situated close to Ruscha’s home in Los Angeles, with each rendered in the artist’s characteristically bland and idiosyncratically understated manner, and all but one also including an example of the simple textual signage that stands as the chronichler’s other famous stylistic trademark. What adds interest to this set of otherwise fairly dull urban landscapes is that the works come in pairs, with sites originally recorded in 1993 revisited and repainted some twenty years later. And, as Ruscha reveals with his typical dispassionate precision, each of the later pendants tells the same fairly depressing story. So that bold factory signs that once proudly boasted names like Tech-Chem and Tool & Die, and seemed symbolic of a healthy manufacturing economy, are all now faded, painted over or replaced by Korean ideograms. Windows are boarded up and barbed wire fencing has been erected to keep out the vandals and only the scene where an old-fashioned Telephone booth has been superseded by a lamppost and the slim silver trunk of a birch tree suggests anything other than an approaching desolation and utterly pessimistic future. Of course, whether these images truly represent the uncomfortable auguries presaging an eastwards shift in the tectonic plates of global hegemonic authority, or maybe an even greater paradigmatic realignment booting us all into an entirely new dystopian globalised cyberworld future, is anybody’s guess but one thing’s for sure: nothing stays the same forever no matter how solid it sometimes seems.
And it’s the similar cyclical nature of civilisational development that forms the subject matter at the heart of the show that come paired with Ruscha’s more recent investigations. Eden to Empire is a small but comprehensive survey of the work of the 19th century painter Thomas Cole, one of the first artists to set out to record views of the landscapes of North America and, by presenting versions of the great untamed wildernesses that he saw, aimed to help define an appropriate new aesthetic for that excitingly uncharted new world. At least that, I think, was what he was probably trying to do, although I’m not sure that Cole’s vision really strayed all that far from the old European paths of Claude’s arcadias or Turner’s romantic dramas. And so, while he’s undoubtedly a competent enough draftsman, he does perhaps lack some of the originality and sparkle of his more celebrated and better known peers and predecessors. Having said that, it’s easy to imagine that a contemporary audience would have been thrilled and intrigued to see examples of his exotic scenes from across the Atlantic with their wide open spaces filled with forest-lined hills, soaring mountains and swirling rivers.
As for myself, I suppose I find the works attractive but unexceptional until, that is, Cole suddenly hits on the clever conceptual conceit that gains him a deserved place amongst the footnotes in the ledgers of the art historical record. Basically, the rather nifty idea that Cole came up with was to produce a series of paintings ostensibly showing the same geographical location but set during five specifically different time periods which, taken together, chart the rise and fall of a Greco-Roman style civilisation. So, the opening Edenic wilderness, where a nomadic hunter wearing animal skins fires an arrow at a fleeing stag, is supplanted by a toga-clad sage drawing Euclidian geometric sketches in the sand while his daughters dance to the sound of a pan-pipe gavotte. After which the innocent verdant bucolic idyll gives way to the rise of the colonnaded marble halls, gilded boats, trumpets, fountains a massive statue of Athena…and, of course, the hubristic sense of decadence and confident self-assurance that inevitably beckons nemesis and destruction. And Cole captures this particular episode with all the verve, horror and excitement of a modern day disaster movie as statues topple, a bridge breaks apart spilling pedestrians into the sea, and maidens flee the approaches of pillaging marauders. Then, finally, quiescence returns and nature slowly overruns the rubble and ruins of the previous tarnished golden age, with ivy wrapping itself around a lonely column and a solitary heron pecking peacefully at the cockroaches, or whatever else has managed to survive the apocalypse.
Ok, so it’s perhaps a bit of a hackneyed story but Cole tells it well and, frankly, it’s something of a shame that he didn’t get round to producing anything else nearly as entertaining as this great narrative epic during the rest of his sadly brief career – unfortunately he died of a fever aged 46. The only other really notable work in the show here is his Oxbow painting which starkly contrasts the virgin American landscape of rugged trees and random foliage, on the left hand side of the canvas, with the controlled and cultivated fields and pastures, on the right. It’s a reasonable enough idea but looks just a little bit too contrived and can’t compete with the extravagant excitement of the earlier work that justifiably ensures Cole’s name will live on, albeit as a bit of a one-hit wonder.
Which doesn’t really leave me sufficient space to write about the other somewhat more major exhibition also now running at the National Gallery. Monet and Architecture is a roughly chronological survey of the famous French artist centered around eighty or so works that feature – or maybe that’s a bit too specific, so let’s say include – a building or two or more. I’m not sure that the exhibition reveals anything very much at all about the artists relationship with houses, huts and hotels; churches, cafes and windmills; railway stations, store fronts and Venetian palazzi, other than the fact that at the start of his career he sometimes struggled with their perspectival angles. And that by the end of his career he’d solved the problem by fuzzifying everything into an extraordinary cataracticalistic blur that makes the Houses of Parliament shimmer like a shivering blancmange and Rouen Cathedral look like it’s carved out of fudge. Tres delicieux.