Archive for January 31st, 2014

Exhibition: Yoko Ono. War is Over! …

ono_bannerI visited this exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney this week. Click here for the exhibition webpage.

The fine print below the title, not readable on the banner is if you want it.

I went to a talk about the exhibition last November, together with other OCA students Kath, Claire (her post on the exhibition here), and Jackie (exhibition posts here and here). The ticket I purchased then has been sitting in my wallet for over two months. I finally got there in the last weeks of the exhibition because I thought I “ought” to.

I resisted it. I expected to be irritated by it. I was right.

At least in part this was a self-fulfilling prophecy. I went in with reservations, negative expectations – and I found / interpreted material to confirm them. This is a Very Bad Thing for an art history student to do. I didn’t go down without a fight (nice word in this context!). I tried to challenge myself, tried to try to find things interesting, thought provoking, enlightening – but there it is. If I had to sum up this exhibition in three words they would be “pretentious, sanctimonious twaddle”.

My first concerns related to the celebrity / John Lennon thing and the age of much of the material. This is at least in part the result of decisions by the MCA curator. There was quite a bit of John Lennon to be seen in the exhibition and quite a lot of the works had their origins in the late 1960s. Condemning war, promoting peace and understanding are still good messages, but can’t we expect a little more nuance, a little more depth, some development after 40+ years? It just looks a bit dated and … stuck. There was a really intense period in Ono’s life and she can’t leave it behind. Of course with the celebrity thing, we won’t let her.

Yoko Ono Glass keys to open the skies 1967.  Four glass keys in perspex box with brass hinges

Yoko Ono
Glass keys to open the skies
1967. Four glass keys in perspex box with brass hinges

An example. A 1967 work with a title that means … what? Open the skies??

(Apologies as always about the rubbish photo. Shots of clear glass and perspex are not straightforward.)

This was one of a series of work displayed together, and on a nearby wall was a later series.

Yoko Ono Bronze Age: Keys to open the skies 1966/1988 Artwork painted bronze

Yoko Ono
Bronze Age: Keys to open the skies
1966/1988 Artwork painted bronze

The basic form and scale of the keys was the same. The associated signage included a little story, where in 1987 Ono had been distressed when someone suggested she work in bronze. Then she realized that the air had a “special shimmer” in the 60s. She was still holding on to that. She had to move into the 80s – bronze could become a “warm shimmer instead of the dead weight”. “Eighties is OK. It has to do.”

That sense of nostalgia, of holding on despite herself to past glory days, felt to me a dead weight in the exhibition.

Yoko Ono Helmets - Pieces of sky 2001 / 2013

Yoko Ono
Helmets – Pieces of sky (detail)
2001 / 2013

Another of my concerns was fuzzy logic and pious, portentous phrases with no actual content.

In this work we are presented with military helmets (apparently different origins in different installations) suspended from the ceiling. In each helmet are jigsaw pieces showing areas of sky.

ono_04There is a little note from Ono – “Take a piece of sky. Know that we are all part of each other”. Apparently the hope is that on some unspecified future day in some unspecified future way we will all get together and somehow make the pieces fit together “to build a beautiful new sky.”

I chose not to take a jigsaw piece.
I had more time for this participatory work. As the game progresses, if you can’t tell who owns each piece how can you compete? I still find the commentary from Ono stilted: “Ideally this leads to a shared understanding of (our) mutual concerns and a new relationship based on empathy rather than opposition. Peace is then attained on a small scale.”

Some of the other issues I can point to curator selection, language differences… This one I found squirmingly awful.

The message: We’re all the same. In the end we all amount to a bottle of water. Look at this shelf of bottles of water all the same.

Except the artist has chosen to name her bottles of water. Mary Shelley, Osama bin Laden, Virgin Mary, Nikolai Gogol, Isaac Newton, John Cage… There was a long row and given the number of names I recognized it seems reasonably likely that the rest are my ignorance rather than their obscurity. If the artist had named the bottles John and Mary or equivalents in every language and alphabet available the work might have resonated. Instead she chose to restrict her choices to a certain class of people – we’re all equal but some are more equal than others. (thank you Mr Orwell – I didn’t see his name but it could have been there somewhere).

It’s a long time since the 1960s. We can’t get things just by wanting them. I’m sorry I wasn’t proved wrong by this exhibition.

UA1-WA:P3-p4-Exercise: Notes about still life

The course notes ask for comments on anything I found particularly interesting or surprising about this genre.

Generalising (since of course there are always individual exceptions), I love the human scale and interest, the sense of the person. The artist has chosen this particular group of objects to observe carefully, to spend time with. There’s often a meditative feel, giving a moment to stop rushing about and to see what is around us all the time.

Given what I saw in Cézanne (see 30-Jan-2014), still life also gives a lot of scope to bring in theory, to experiment. In a sense it is the most obvious non-abstract form which reduces the importance of the subject of the painting – a key element in the movement towards abstraction. In that light still life was a bridge to many the developments of the twentieth century, but it remains an important area of work in its own right.

I want to show a few still life works I’ve seen in recent months and found particularly interesting.

Matthew Smith Jugs against vermillion background

Matthew Smith
Jugs against vermillion background
1936 – 30. Oil on canvas

This painting is just pure excitement. That incredible strong colour! And to put that little strip of green top centre!! The table top is tilted and unsupported, there are red shadows but not for the blue jug. ‘Most’ still life pictures are their own little world, but the one I looked at by Cézanne showed a little of the studio around him, and here Smith shows just part of a nude woman. Smith plays with the seen and unseen, and with space – is that a mirror frame at the back, suggesting depth and a wall? In person the direction of brush strokes and the paint texture is very important. The most surprising thing in viewing this picture is the balance. There is so much information and action on the right, and on the left… I’m not sure how well it shows in the photograph, but that red on the right is so intense, so solid, while the red on the right hand side is just a bit darker, not quite so saturated – and it works.

Giorgio Morandi Still life

Giorgio Morandi
Still life
1957. Oil on canvas

This work by Morandi is such a contrast, but once again colour is so important. I don’t know if it was the artist’s choice or later framing (I notice it’s not included in the photo on the gallery’s website), but that little surround of orange brings a glow and life to the painting and really emphasizes that patch of orange inside. This work feels deeply contemplative, austere and refined. That division line – the edge of the table? – is quite high, and doesn’t seem to quite line up from side to side, while in the centre lines on the largest jug/bottle almost continue it. There is careful, subtle shading, perhaps only one highlight. Colours are subdued, but still give me a sense of richness. It looks timeless.

John Brack The Breakfast Table

John Brack
The Breakfast Table
1958. Oil on canvas

The colour and patterning of this work draws you across the room. The thin vertical format of the picture combines with the wobbly vertical trail of the knives and the long shadows of the glassware, and is held in place by just a couple of strong horizontals at the top. The table is so colourful – that amazing yellow, even more amazing with the spots of colour from the jam jars. I like the sly little glimpse of the black and white floor, linking to the black and white which I think is reflections in the window. The scene is domestic and lively and energetic – I can imagine the family who just shared a noisy breakfast and are now racing off to their busy days.

John Bokor Kitchen table

John Bokor
Kitchen table
2011. Pencil, gesso wash on thick textured white paper (oil paper)

Another exciting table! This feels much more spontaneous, unlike the careful compositions of most still life. The layers of wash and drawing create movement and life and urgency. Bokor keeps building and constructing layer upon layer. This drawing and others in the series feel fresh and young and invigorating.

The multiple lines and layers made me think of pentimenti (traces of alteration) in older works where the artist may have changed his/her mind, then the multiple lines in Cézanne’s work where he kept seeing slightly different parts of an object, and the tail of the bull in Matisse’s L’Enlevement d’Europe (see that I wanted in my bedroom in the Finding Affinities exercise (see 9-Dec-2013). I haven’t got to the end of this train of thought, but it feels like something I want to explore further.

Emma White Still life with objects

Emma White
Still life with objects
2011. Archival inkjet print

This is a truly dreadful photo, taken in low light with lots of reflections in the glass, so please, Please, PLEASE click on the link below the photo or the photo itself to go to the gallery website. This is another recent and exciting work exploring the world of still life today. The artist’s methods and materials are right up to date and I love the way this still life is right back on the edge of abstraction.

George Baldessin Pear - version number 2

George Baldessin
Pear – version number 2
1973. Sculpture, corten steel: 7 forms

I saw this work by George Baldessin when I visited Canberra late last year. Cézanne played with the artificiality of a three dimensional form on a two dimensional canvas. Here the fruit is once again three dimensional – but at huge scale, rigid and hard, so unlike a juicy, ripe, easily bruised pear. It’s wonderful to walk up to and around what seems like a classic still life composition.

20140120_posterI’m continuing my personal attempts with still life. I like this best of what I’ve done so far. I like some of the textures created by the posterizing of the image. I think perhaps it needs some other little thing with a hard reflection like the ginger beer bottle – maybe a little hard round reflective shape catching the light just in front of the deeply shadowed side of the bowl. You can see more of my struggles in my sketchbook (click here).

UA1-WA:P3-p4-Exercise: Notes about still life
Understanding Art 1 – Western Art.
Part three: Modern art and still life
Project four: Still life after 1900
Exercise: Notes about still life


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January 2014

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