Review: Rob Kennedy, acts of dis play, Talbot Rice Gallery until 17 December 2016

Rob Kennedy’s ‘acts of dis play’, currently on view at the Talbot Rice Gallery, presents visitors with a chaotic and jarring series of encounters with material culture, challenging the ‘typical’ exhibition experience in every way. Upon entering the gallery, viewers are plunged into what appears to be the debris from a working building site. Scaffolding juts out into the space and chunks of wood lean precariously against the walls. At the heart of the room, an enormous living tree springs out of a pile of rubble on the ground and stretches right up to the ceiling, forming a central axis around which visitors circumambulate nervously. Several people have asked me whether the exhibition is still in the process of being constructed or whether it has already finished. 

Quotes painted on the walls throughout the gallery warn the viewer that “true life takes place when we're alone, thinking, feeling, lost in memory, dreamingly self aware, the sub microscopic moments…”, D. DeLilla, 2010. They seem to be telling us to embrace the mundane as we walk amongst this scattered collection of everyday objects. ‘acts of dis play’ questions the very nature of both art and exhibition culture by providing a new context for cardboard boxes, packaging, and litter. The functional by-products of everyday living, the aesthetics of which are normally ignored, are here placed in a space which allows them to be reconsidered.

Broken television sets flicker on the gallery floor like wounded animals. A faint electrical current still pulses through them, creating shimmering petrol patterns on the screens. It is strange to see objects, which are generally treated with so much care, deliberately smashed and lifeless. Kennedy talks with disdain about the low quality technology with which they are manufactured and describes how putting them into a new context allows them to be viewed as beautiful visual artefacts in their own right.

Two paintings from the gallery’s Torrie collection lean against makeshift walls in the main gallery space, a seventeenth century genre scene by David Teniers – Peasants Playing Bowls – and a copy of this work. Kennedy describes his intrigue in identifying the absence of a number of elements from the original in the copy: a tree, a plume of smoke, and a shadowy figure urinating against a house at the back of the image. He has taken these missing elements and drawn our attention to them by physically manifesting them within the gallery space. On Saturdays the shadowy figure comes to life in the form of a dancer, comedian or actor and roams around the exhibition in costume, interacting with the public. 

Upstairs, a disjointed film plays in a dark room where a series of chairs lie flung around for viewers to reposition. A series of amateur videos provides illustration for sections of abstract text, hesitantly narrated by a group of non-native English speakers. Kennedy explains that he gave the texts to his participants only a day or so before filming in order that they, and the listening viewer, would learn them as they are spoken. As they repeat the words with growing certainty, our understanding of the concepts expressed strengthens. The slow-dawning clarity, which emerges out of the video’s initial ambiguity, works as an apt metaphor for Kennedy’s vision for the whole show. Discussing his hopes about the impact of the exhibition, he talks about his own experiences of reading philosophy, describing how his understanding of complex concepts solidifies as he repeatedly reads over them. In the same way, this show, whilst initially confusing and potentially alienating, should gradually settle in the viewer’s mind as they move through it.

This exhibition is an attack on the senses. Precarious piles of cardboard boxes which threaten to fall to the gallery floor at any moment, an enormous video screen merges fast moving blocks of brash neon colour, disjointed phrases and patterns of strobe lighting emanate from signs around the space and an intrusive electronic sound-track permeates throughout the gallery, spliced with the loud banging of steel workers. Kennedy’s aim is clear: to force us to reexamine our relationship with gallery culture. Kennedy criticises exhibition culture for its insistence on “filtering the idea of experience through a series of coded instructions relating to historical or cultural frameworks.” The pamphlet for ‘acts of dis play’, a satirical intellectual discussion between the artist and curator, pokes fun at museum culture. The work itself however, refuses to exist within the confines of the traditional exhibition, neither imposing nor expecting any art historical knowledge or academic understanding of the viewer.

Kennedy wants to encourage viewers to interact with art in new ways and form personal responses to it. Many seem cautious and unsure of how to act in the space. Here is a show to take non-art lovers to – those for whom traditional gallery settings may appear stuffy and intimidating. Here, art is fun, free and whatever you want it to be. The power of the show comes less from any individual work and more from the experience it provides. There are no preconceptions, no prescribed responses or experiences. What counts are instinctive reactions and personal encounters. A refreshing change – not your typical exhibition.

Rob Kennedy (2016) and David Teniers the Younger, 'Peasants Playing Bowls', c.1635. Credit: Talbot Rice Gallery

Exhibition review by Rebecca Heselton

Review: Ella Kruglyanskaya at Tramway, Glasgow October 8th - December 11th 2016

Upon stepping into the gallery space of Tramway, Glasgow the viewer is thrust into Ella Kruglyanskaya boldly saturated world. Acutely conscious of the representation of women in art, Kruglyanskaya’s practice takes a very tongue-in-cheek approach to confrontational femininity. Born in Latvia in 1978, Kruglyanskaya studied art from a young age. She moved to New York to study at the Cooper Union school, later receiving an MFA from Yale School of Art in 2006.

Drawing upon a wide range of source material, Kruglyanskaya pulls pieces from a long lineage of drawing and gestural mark-making to reinvent the notion of woman as an artistic subject. Her paintings of women are loud, bold, and often confrontational, threatening the boundaries of the canvas. The mark is immediate and aggressive, but the stars of the works are equally forceful. Depicted as curvaceous bombshells, Kruglyanskaya’s women are reminiscent of the 1950s pinup stars. Wearing tight tops and patterned skirts they are bursting out of their garments, while the greater scene is bursting from the edges of the frame. Kruglyanskaya’s style is not subtle, it is very much a shock, yet it is extremely self-aware and thoughtful. The gestural stroke is immediate and forceful, but it carries the weight of an artist who is conscious of the art historical canon that precedes her.

The bright colour palette and sense of action are visually fun to look at, and the cartoony aspect of rendering acts as a playful channel to enter into a greater dialogue about the act of looking. There has been a great deal of literature on the notion of gaze— the male gaze on the female subject, and more recently the reclaiming of the female gaze and subject by the female artist. Many female subjects exist as a projection of their creator, and in that sense Kruglyanskaya seeks to ‘imbue [them] with some agency, making [them] the protagonist’ of the scene. In her world the women aren’t merely pretty things to be gazed upon, but rather capable beings that act. Kruglyanskaya creates a theatrical world in which the paired women engage in gossip, leisure activities, and outward argument, or they stand solo and confront the viewer. In Lemons and Lips (2011) two figures are disagreeing, with the woman on the right scolding her distressed contemporary. The inclusion of lemons over the breasts, coupled with phallic-shaped bananas, and bright red lips on the shirt makes the image sexually charged. In clashing prints and loud colours, the figures are outlined in white and reminiscent of cartoon strips.

The theatricality of the encounters are loaded with cinematic meaning. Kruglyanskaya speaks in a cinematic language, stressing the importance of atmosphere and dialogue. She is very interested in the notion of a close-up, where the face is a platform for expression. The sense of seduction, suspense, and conflict is tied to films of the 1950s and 1960s. Equally important is Kruglyanskaya’s attention to fashion and textiles and her visual reinvention of the sexy film vixen and fashionista. Her women are often layered in flashy patterns or exposed in a suggestive manner. In Bathers (2006) the protagonist scowls over her shoulder. Dressed in a cheeky swimsuit, the attention is drawn to her back and the breasts of her fellow bathers. With a fashionable haircut the figure is depicted as a strong, savvy woman who will confront whoever gazes upon her. With the abundance of women it becomes obvious that men have been placed in the inferior position. With women at the forefront, the only depiction of men is either as a distorted body or a mere silhouette in the corner.

As important as narrative is to Kruglyanskaya’s practice, the physical aspects of painting such as materials, scale, and technique are equally significant. The large size of her canvases make the works confrontational, but they are still approachable. The artist uses a mixture of painterly styles, often working with oil paint which has been a dominant mode for centuries, but also plays around with egg tempura. This medium is often associated with medieval and early renaissance works, and is not an obvious choice for a contemporary artist: it gives the art a shiny lustre and ties her into the context of a wider visual history. Simultaneously fluid and choppy, Kruglyanskaya’s psychological works preface the importance of drawing. As a source material, a note, and a way to work out painterly qualms drawing is instrumental in Kruglyanskaya’s practice. Beginning with gestural marks, if the work has enough substance she will transform it into a painting. Putting drawing higher up on the hierarchy of artistic mediums she often includes drawings into her works. She also alludes to previous sketches through her loose mark and often her works are reminiscent of contour-line drawings. With parallels to German Expressionism and Pop Art, her style is a reinvention of a strong mark that has calculated immediacy.

Ella Kruglyanskaya, 'Gossip Girls', 2010

Exhibition Review by Samantha Ozer, third year History of Art student

Hidden Worlds: Agnes Martin and the Unrepresentable

The Agnes Martin exhibitions at the Tate Modern in 2015 and at the LACMA in 2016 showed two explorations of the abstract artist, while both exploring questions of beauty and expression. Martin only decided to become an artist when she was around thirty years old and although her earlier works are more figurative, her development in abstract expressionism and a more minimalist style characterised her later and most iconic work. In 1967, Martin left her home in New York to travel across North America in hope of finding solitude and reflection, and later lived completely alone in a log house in New Mexico. This extreme reclusiveness largely influenced Martin’s art. In the 1960s she began to draw and paint grids: softly pencilled lines, mathematically proportioned on pieces of paper and then on larger canvases. But what did these repetitive lines mean?

Through lines like these, Martin expresses a kind of metamorphosis where simple depictions grow to have expansive meanings. Martin said that she had been thinking of the innocence of trees when the vision of the grid came into her mind. Although she was influenced by nature, her paintings don’t represent anything in the natural world; instead they are responses to how she saw her surroundings. Martin’s paintings do not represent concrete objects, rather she interprets her surroundings and transforms them into abstract concepts such as ‘summer,’ ‘aspirations’, emotions, and ideas that are made manifest through visual depictions.

For a newcomer to her work,‘The Islands’ room at the Tate, painted in 1979, can be the most impactful. The group of paintings consists of twelve large canvases of white acrylic and varying horizontal lines in graphite. The paintings demonstrate her transition of form to bands of parallel horizontal lines rather than the softer grids of her earlier work. The almost indistinguishable pencil marks and subtle palette of white and grey in the paintings defy interpretation. The paintings work together in the single room to hint at something ungraspable, like a fleeting emotion or memory.

Martin constantly questioned the objectivity of beauty. She asked if a rose was beautiful, and then asked if a rose was still beautiful if hidden from view behind her back. She then stated ‘it is not the rose that is beautiful, the beauty is in your mind.’ In her painting ‘The Rose’, the viewer must search their own imagination for what they think a rose should be to fill the blank canvas before them. This work, as well as the twelve paintings in ‘The Islands’ series demonstrates the notion of subjective beauty.

When looking at Martin’s paintings and drawings almost a year later at LACMA, the transformative nature of her work again struck me. Martin’s paintings may appear to be merely horizontal lines, yet they are subtle, beautiful, powerful, and honest all at the same time. Martin’s work represents her spiritual journey, her perception of nature and human happiness being pulled along by the horizontal pencil strokes on the beam of life. They show that beauty is an awareness in the mind and not created in the terms of the aesthetic standard of a public gallery. Both in the Tate Modern and LACMA the paintings work together to surround the viewer with emotion. Martin talks about her work as a combination of ‘merging and formlessness,’ images that connect with the viewer and that transcend constructs and form. Her works are ultimately a liberation; they make the viewer realise the ability to see anything as beautiful.

Agnes Martin, 'Rose', 1966. Credit: Guggenheim Foundation

Exhibition Review by Lili Fletcher, first year History of Art

Exhibition Review: ‘Menu’ – Teviot Row House Gallery

A quirky but overpriced gallery, with small flashes of ingenuity in their frankly mediocre permanent collection

Much has been said about Teviot Row House Gallery’s popular permanent collection ‘Menu’, a favourite of Edinburgh students who seem to particularly enjoy the gallery’s late opening times.  It was my aim to try and get a sense of a gallery that has long been a cultural hub for the student city.

Upon entering I was told that I should go to the ground floor, where a receptionist asked which piece I would like to view.  I first asked to see ‘Chicken Nachos’ by an unnamed artist, and although slightly taken aback by the £4.50 charge to view a single piece I figured that it must be something rather special and obediently took my seat and waited for its retrieval from the vaults.  While waiting it came to my attention that only free water is provided, rather disappointing for a reviewer who has grown accustomed to complimentary ‘vino’. 

When the piece arrived I enquired as to the creator, but was only told his first name ‘Dave’ and that he went by the pseudonym ‘The Chef’.  My initial reaction was to draw parallels with Jeff Koons’ ‘Play-Doh’, with the masses of red, green and white but on closer inspection flashes of Kandinskyan chaos became apparent with the scattered broken triangles framing the colours, along with angular yellow lines and apparently random green circles.  The merging and contrasting of the light and dark greens harked back to Matisse’s “Girl with a Hat” not detracting from the dominance of the central white.  This being said, the weakness of what should have been a strong, prominent deep red meant that “Chicken nachos” began to loose its appeal exponentially with time spent viewing, with the bland-ness of the pale green, white and yellows becoming overbearing, verging on sickening.

Once I had viewed the piece for long enough I called for it to be taken away, but despite having spent 20 minutes with this single work the gallery staff seemed confused, repeatedly asking whether anything was wrong.  I would have liked to look at more of their permanent collection but I stubbornly refused to get further sucked in by their pay-per-piece pricing.  A young lady at the table next to me was viewing “Balmoral Burger”, a more formulaic piece, which she told me was also a product of “The Chef”.  Initially, she reluctantly allowed me to view it with her to save on the price of purchasing observation time but had me removed by staff when I tried to take a picture of the artwork, and as I was being dragged out no-one else seemed concerned at her liberal application of red and white paint to the piece or even when she began to dissect the main body of the work. 

Overall, I would commend the Teviot Row House gallery for attempting to create an alternative gallery experience, but would say that it has ultimately failed.  The confusing pricing structure, occasionally unpleasant staff and frankly mediocre pieces serve up an underwhelming experience.

 

By Chris Savage, 4th year Geography student at the University of Edinburgh