Age of Absurdity

Head down to Charing Cross Road tube station and then slide along the side of Trafalgar Square that gets me to the revolving doors through which I can then revolve into the National Portrait Gallery.  The main special temporary exhibition here today is a sort of tribute to the talents of; or celebration of the skills of; or commemoration of the phenomenon of; or acknowledgement of the cultural influence of; or maybe just an attempt to cash in on the name-fame pop stardom of Michael Jackson.  Now, I suppose that I can just about sing along to the catchy opening few bars of some of the songs to which he contributed when he was but 20 per cent of the Jackson Five, and I think I’d be able to recognise excerpts from the famous Thriller  video – although, for the life of me, I can’t now recall it’s tune, lyrics or dance steps – but I admit that I was never much of a fan of his and while happy to accepted the superstar status bestowed upon him, I’m not sure he ever had much influence on me.  I’ve certainly never grabbed my own crotch when on the dance floor nor exited the house wearing a single leather glove (at last, not intentionally).

Aside from his professional musical and terpsichorean career, and his role as fashion cynosure, when it come to the more tabloid side of his fame – though naturally I try to avoid being distracted by the trivially titillating tittle tattle that seems to be such an increasingly important part of all pop star biographies – even I know that he was a big pal of Elizabeth Taylor; was father to a child whom he dangerously dangled over a balcony; that he underwent a curious physical transformation that appeared to be an attempt to deny his black heritage; that he had rather strange relationships with some of his younger fans which many deemed entirely inappropriate; and that he died relatively young of some kind of inadvertent drug overdose.  In short, he seems to have been a talented but tortured individual and so, in our current age of absurdity, one definitely deserving the honorary title of icon.  And, as such, he certainly seems worthy of some kind of sociological post-mortem and investigation but I can’t help thinking that attempting to pursue this through the format of an art exhibition may be misguided and that either a proper literary biography or semi-serious TV film documentary would offer better opportunity for a more sensible and thorough evaluation and re-evaluation – or maybe that should be deconstruction and reconstruction – of the man, the myth and his mythtakes.

Presumably, the curatorial counter-argument is that the current star-centered show allows for an additional and useful consideration of the changing ways in which the artists of the day have viewed and reviewed their envisioning of pop iconography.  But while I concede that this might hold true for the works on show here by American contemporaries like Andy Warhol and Keith Haring, who were immersed in a similar cultural milieu to that of Jackson, I’m less convinced that British oldies like Michael Craig Martin, Grayson Ubiquitous Perry or Maggi Rambling Hambling are likely to have anything very revelatory or insightful to offer (and apologies to this distinguished trio if they were, in fact, very dear and close personal friends of Jacko).  As for the forty or so other artists whose work has been gathered together to make up the exhibition, I suppose I only recognised about half a dozen names, which suggests that I’m either totally out of touch with important segments of the international art scene (which might well be the case) or that the NPG has dropped its standards and padded out the show with a lot of decorative second division stuff.

Frankly, I fear that the latter may well be the case since the Gallery has evidently been unable to borrow what I’m sure would be universally accepted by the cognoscenti as the one truly exceptional iconographic representation of the man.  Jeff Koons’ famous ceramic portrait of a recumbent Jackson aside his pet monkey Bubbles is one of those uncomfortable objets d’art which remains awkwardly fascinating and more than a little disturbing and really does have the potential to spark serious thinking about questions of identity, representation, the value of kitsch and all manner of other quandaries and conundra of contemporary critical consideration.  Anyway, taking the omission of this work to be an inauspicious omen – combined with the more quotidian consideration that a full price entry ticket costs £20 – I decide to give the exhibition a miss and instead settle for a quick flick through the catalogue in the shop.  And I think I made the right decision because, pretty much as expected, this seems to be filled with a whole bunch of parodic portraits, collagistic homages and designer tributes that appear to me to be more like examples of commercial, rather than fine, art and so better presented through the pages of a glossy A4 format than stuck on a gallery wall.  Having said that, if anyone out there has actually seen the artworks in the flesh, so to speak, then I’d definitely be interested to know what they thought of it and whether they felt it worth paying to go in to see.

In the meantime, I stroll off to take a look at another couple of the Gallery’s displays that are fortunately free to see.  And the first of these ties rather neatly in with last week’s blog which centered on the mini-retrospective of works by David Bomberg at the Ben Uri gallery.  During the course of those previous pontifications I seem to recall making reference to the initial stylistic debt that the artist owed to his one-time tutor, Walter Sickert, whose own works were, in turn, heavily informed by the friendship shared with his informal mentor the great Impressionist Edgar Degas.  Well, the NPG has decided to devote a small stretch of wall space to illustrating the story of this artistic interconnectedness and generational baton-passing by showing a single work from each member of this august triumvirate and then extending the chain with an additional link at either end.  Hence, the display starts with a small portrait by Ingres (or at least from his studio to which Degas once paid a visit and chatted with the master) and then concludes with a large charcoal sketch from Frank Auerbach (who attended Bomberg’s teaching classes at Borough Polytechnic).  Of the five works on display, the Degas portrait of Princess Metternich is certainly rather pretty but it’s the Auerbach self-portrait that comes out best and it really is an impressive example of the artist’s characteristically convincing accumulation of quirky hard-worn scribbles and quarky hard-won scratches.  As for the other works, well, they’re all decidedly disappointing and it’s a pity the Gallery wasn’t able to come up with more substantial and representative exemplars.  Nevertheless, hanging them all in a neat line together (in the same chronological order which I’ve shown them above and then below) does reveal a rather amusing game of Chinese whispers that moves in five short steps from the elegant surety of the early 19th French salon to the gritty grimy uncertainties of a Southwark studio setting.

The final port of call here at the NPG today involves returning to the ground floor to take a look at the selected entries to this year’s BP Portrait Award.  It’s a show that’s very popular with the general public, a fact signaled by the fact that all three rooms of the display are crowded with interested visitors straining to get a view of the ranks of the 2-D faces that are unblinkingly peering back from their own stationary positions.  The technical virtuosity of the painters is, as always, consistently high although, of course, without knowing any of the sitters or models, it’s impossible to judge how accurately the artists have managed to capture their physical likenesses let alone delved into their psychological souls and recorded a precision vision of what they may have found lurking therein.

If there is one minor gripe then perhaps the show does err a little too heavily towards the conservative end of the spectrum of possible artistic expression and the display as a whole might benefit from being leavened by the inclusion of examples of a slightly more experimental nature.  I think I spotted just two works from the total of ninety or so on display that were anything other than just very straightforward attempts at traditional realistic mimetic reproductions.  Which is a pity since much of the history of Modern Art has been propelled by experiments in portraiture from the manic imaginings of Van Gogh and the Expressionistic explosions of Soutine, through the Fauvist colour crashes of Matisse and the Cubist crunches of Picasso, right up to the graphic Pop flattenings of Warhol and Wesselmann.  On current form, I’m not sure that works from any of this half dozen would have got through the selection process and found their way onto the walls of the current show.  No matter, even if no geniuses made it through to the final this year, there are still plenty of good things to look at and since it’s a prize competition I may as well pick the pair I most liked which were, in alphabetical order, by Ania Hobson (shown above) and Eva Csanyi-Hurskin (shown below).



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