Tsunamic Swell

By way of a slight change away from the usual discursive essay describing thoughts, analysing insights and propounding the propositions prompted by a walkabout around some single large exhibition or selection of other smaller gallery shows, I thought I’d make the current blog a special variant double-header, featuring two separate arty outings, all for the pricelessness of one. So, instead of offering up another descriptive day’s ramble round the capital, this time I’m melding together a combination of two different day trips to two different out-of-town locations or, to try to be a bit more precisely correct, two half-day trips to tell the tale of one-and-a-half cities. Which tempts me to start off by saying it was the best of times and almost the worst of times. Well, not exactly. Suffice to say that I’ve been in two minds as to whether to try to write up a visit made to the city of Oxford a couple of week’s ago. But now, having just returned from an excursion to the not-quite a city of Milton Keynes, and feeling similarly unsure of being sufficiently confident or inspired enough to be able to squeeze out a suitably interesting and entertaining commentary, the idea occurred to me to conjoin these two potentially half-hearted scripts into one more satisfactory whole-hearted summarising critique. Especially as the format might allow for the construction of a framework of contrasting metaphorical, psycho-geographical and syntactical scaffolding units within which my meandering musings might be given a more solid structural siting.

So, to start with, it’s off to Oxford, the general topographical charms and challenges of which I’m sure I’ve already detailed at length in the previous essays written to mark visits made on the three or four other blogging occasions that have caused me to tramp round its well-trodden streets. Meaning that this time I think that I’ll leave unremarked the attractions of the architecture or the irritations of bumping into the tsunamic swell of other visitors who always seem to crowd up the place. Instead, it’s straight over to the Ashmolean Museum where today the main pay-for-entry exhibition is a treasure trove of pots and pictures, mosaics and mementoes from Pompeii, that most famous of all historical sites and the one most perfectly preserved for posterity. And I’ve been reliably informed that the display here of antiquarian and archaeological artefacts is indeed a marvel to behold and highly recommended and…well, I almost wish now that I ‘d taken the time to go and have a look at it. But, I confess, I didn’t. Well, I’ve seen a dozen TV documentaries about the place and feel that I’ve already pored over enough shards of chipped ancient crockery and twisted bits of glass and metal fragments to last me a lifetime. Those in the know, however, say that I’m wrong and that this particular show is a revelatory display of such visionary magnificence and awe-inspiring excellence that it really does warrant a special trip…and maybe they’re right.

Anyway, no point crying over spilt milk or pyroclastic eruptions and so, instead, let’s move on to the somewhat smaller show that was my main reason for calling in to the Museum in the first place. And this comes in the form of a compact, one-room introduction and commemoratory celebration of the works of AR Penck, an artist whose work I’ve bumped into quite a few times in the past in shows at the old Waddington galleries in Cork Street and occasionally as part of more general thematic shows in public galleries. Now, while Penck had a very distinctive style and one that was almost instantly recognisable – a sort of crude figurative, almost cartoon like style of presentation, frequently featuring black, stick-like figures – I’ve never found his works all that aesthetically appealing. Then again, I’m sure they weren’t really meant to be. In fact, it seems clear that Penck ‘s intention was to try to offer up a sort of contemporary continuation of the brutally harsh tradition of German Expressionistic paintings and printworks that first erupted during the early years of the last century when it was designed to present a fearsome reflective critique of that troubled country and those troubled times. Doubtless for Penck, who spent the first half of his life battling against the oppressive state taste censors of East Germany, before finally managing to cross over to enjoy the freedoms of the West in 1980, the style seemed entirely appropriate. And yet, while it always seems clear from Penck‘s paintings that he’s angry and passionate about something, it’s never been entirely clear to me what the shadows are that his silhouettes are punching against. And I have to admit that even after having seen the current show and read all the accompanying labels and wall panel explanations, that problem remain unsolved, at least it does for me.

The work is undeniably strong and dramatic but is it just the visual equivalent of the random rantings of a unreformable rebel? As well as a series of smallish sketches there is one major work, a vast mural-sized piece entitled Edinburgh (Northern DarknessIII). Top left I can recognise a crude caricature of Gorbachev and elsewhere there are skeltons, stickmen, a large naked lady and (according to the label, though I’m not sure I could find it) bits of Stonehenge. It’s obvious from the dynamic brushwork that Penck is desperately shouting out a message about something but I feel I’m standing on other side of a wall of sound-proof glass as, however hard I try, I just can’t hear what he’s trying to say. Most the works in the show come from the period after Penck left the sad dictatorship of Eastern Germany and perhaps he found it harder to be completely coherently focussed without the inspiration of having that vast target of state oppression to push against. Either way, while I’m pleased to have had the opportunity to re-engage with an artist who I’m sure was utterly dedicated to his craft, totally sincere in his beliefs and compulsively compelled to try to propagate his ideas – I’ve still no ideas as to what they were all about.

Which leads on to the other reason for getting out of London for the day and that’s to check out the exhibition at the Modern Art Oxford gallery where Claudette Johnson has a one-woman show of her large scale pastel drawings. And here is another name that, as someone who has always had an interest in the work of Black British artists, I’m quite familiar with but whose work, by contrast, is not at all well known to me. As to the reasons for the lack of exposure that the artist has received over the past thirty years of her professional career, well, there’s not enough space here to go into the possible prejudices or other artworld idiosyncracies that have caused that to happen. But such is the strength of the work in this show that surely that’s a situation that should now start to change for the better. The drawings – portraits of family and friends – show a truly impressive facility intheir construction, not just technically masterful in the handling of the medium but also an acute sensitivity in capturing of the expressions and personalities of the sitters.

Rather than me bumbling on with my own interpretations of her work, its relevance and meaning, I think it’s perhaps makes more sense to simply offer up a direct quote from Johnson that comes in the accompanying gallery leaflet and which has an honesty, nobility and integrity that matches the expression of her art. ‘I’m not interested in portraiture or its tradition. I’m interested in giving space to Blackwoman presence. A presence which has been distorted, hidden and denied. I’m interested in our humanity, our feelings and our politics.’

And so, having been initially confused and unenlightened and then inspired and uplifted in Oxford, in the course of that last paragraph break I have now lurched forward a couple of weeks in time and quite a few miles in an Easterly diection. And, of course, there could hardly be a greater contrast between the elegant brick and stone surroundings of the ancient university city from which I have now just departed and the sterile glass and plastic d├ęcor of the great long shopping mall that forms the soulless centrepiece of central Milton Keynes – and along which I am now progressing. It really is a most peculiar place and somewhere that I would certainly never have cause to visit except for the bizarre incongruity that this lengthy dreary trudge terminates in the recently refurbished and extended MK Gallery. And this, surprisingly, is a really rather attractive building that seems determined to rebel against its surroundings, not least in its determination to stage exhibitions of a thoughtfulness and quality quite out of keeping with anything else in its vicinity.

The space is light, airy and larger than one would expect and today offers a substantial exhibition of works by Paula Rego, an artist who, I think, has a fair claim to being considered by far the best figurative artist working in this country today. It’s not just that she has a truly exquisite skill, whether painting in acrylics or drawing in pastels; or that she seems to be endlessly prolific, and has no difficulty whatsoever in filling up the gallery wall space here; but that the narratives threads that she weaves together in her works, whether decidedly documentary or complicatedly fictional, produce results that are consistently compelling and unceasingly intriguing. Indeed, if there is one criticism to make of this current exhibition is that the vast number of vast works that have been brought together, create an exhibition that is just too full of detail and storylines that make it all but overwhelming for the viewer to be able to adequately process everything in one go.

I was already mentally exhausted having walked through the first two or three rooms that deal with her early works – the chaotically collaged, heavily abstracted and semi-Surreal commentaries about growing up in Portugal when it was still subdued under Salazar‘s unpleasant dictatorship – and mid-period pieces – cartoonistic commentaries on the awkward fraught relationship she had with her tragically debilitated husband, the artist Victor Willing. But then follows what might be called the works from her current seasoned maturity – a whole sequence of series of paintings, or extracts from series, that are rendered in a realistic detail that shocks when it’s used to emphasise the truth of an ugly situation – most notably in relation to the debate about abortion before it was legalised in Portugal – or increases the edginess when it’s used to describe some imaginary narrative – illustrating episodes from classic literature or ruminating on her own personal symbolistic reveries.

There’s such a lot to see in the show – too much for one single viewing – that it really does require a second or third visit to do it justice. But then the thought of having to return so soon to Milton Keynes doesn’t particularly appeal and then there’s also the Oxfordian review of the sites of Pompeii that should really be seen…

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