One man lays a noose over the head of another man; small labels dangling off each of the figures indicate that the doomed victim is the ‘Artist’, the knotted rope represents ‘Platitudinous Phrases’ being placed on him by the ‘Art Critic’ and ‘Word Mongerer’. This sceptical moment is just a small corner from Ad Reinhardt’s collage comic How to Look at Art Talk. Tucked into London ICA’s Fox Reading Room was a collection of 27 of his ‘How to Look at…’ series of mock lectures that appeared from the 1940s to the 60s in the New York publications PM, ArtNews and Transformations. Self-described as ‘a nosegay for the art-schmeckers’, Reinhardt’s comics are a refreshing antidote and timely reminder to current debates droning on about supposed crises in criticism.
Chaotically diagrammatic and ironically explanatory, the series actually represents informal criticism disguised variously as introductions to iconography, cubist paintings, surrealist art and any number of Reinhardt targets felt like taking a shot at. It is something like Max Ernst’s 1934 graphic novel Une Semaine De Bonté (A Week of Grace) on semantic speed, using old etchings and cramming type into every corner to collect quotes, art world inanities, style surveys and quick scenester reviews. The central kernel might be the recurring scene of a man mockingly pointing at an abstract painting – ‘Ha ha what does this represent?’ – followed by the painting angrily jabbing a finger at the frightened man and demanding, ‘What do you represent?’ For all its jaunty aesthetic philosophising, Reinhardt makes it clear that, for him, abstract painting is where it’s at. In How to View High (Abstract) Art, the ‘picture artist’ is compared with a reactionary who breeds illusion, imitation and hack skills while the abstract painter carries the qualities of honesty, dignity and decency.
Reinhardt might have nodded with approval at the white and silvery canvases Jacob Kassay is showing in the ICA galleries, but you wonder what the progressive but staunch and reluctant modernist might have made of the hazy digital abstractions currently abounding in the more contemporary medium of video. The leading example might be James Richards’s double-screen video installation Not Blacking Out, Just Turning the Lights Off, 2011, which turned the Chisenhale Gallery into an odd sort of dentist’s waiting room, dimly lit with black panels on the wall and toothpaste-green carpeting. If you are here waiting for a film or any form of narrative, it doesn’t arrive. At the start of one sequence, the scene of a lit cigarette falling on leaf-covered ground looped over a dozen times leads you to almost forget the visual and listen to its quiet rhythms. We cut between scenes of hypnosis, digital images of light bulbs and running reindeer, matched with incidental sounds of footsteps, mobile phone interference and a slowed-down section of the Incredible String Band’s 1968 epic A Very Cellular Song: ‘absolutely no strife/ living the timeless life’. There is the hint of the themes of mortality and the split self if you try and bind together the disparate elements, from an X-rayed rib cage to the striking recording of Judy Grahn reading her poem Slowly: a plainsong from a younger woman to an older woman, 1971, intoning, ‘Am I not olden, olden, olden?’ Richards’s textures might sound on paper like the audiovisual outcome of Dadaist cut-up technique, but its intimacies and hidden rationale give it the feeling of something more like an ambient electronica album produced in someone’s bedroom – that peculiar mixture of the assurances of the skillful forager altered through the uncertain but acute connections of the private imaginary life.
Richards’s short video Practice Theory, 2006, included in the concurrent group show ‘On Value’ at Seventeen, is a similar skipping musing, though here more explicitly led by a droning computer-voiced narrator lecturing on aesthetic experience. We see marines, dancers and close-ups of hands before he stops in a flat realisation: ‘Ah, so that’s how it works, I now have a more thorough understanding because each ingredient has been shown to me.’ We never get to know what that understanding might be as the narrator’s voice is drowned out by the bangs and ricochets of a shoot-out. Curated by Gil Leung, ‘On Value’ is a dense, disjointed and playful video show with slight sculptural interludes that explore the different meanings of the word ‘value’ as it moves from the pragmatic to the economic to the emotional. Going into the gallery’s basement space, a burst of laughter apparently cuts through Chris Saunders’s video Untitled (Chat Show Faces), 1993, at the point where it focuses on a series of faces from chat-show audiences on their blank, faux-innocent expressions. It turned out, though, that the laughter is coming from Stuart Baker’s Minimum Salaries, 1988, which was playing on a monitor tucked into a corner. In his video, moments of cued laughter from old sitcoms are intercut with intertitles of the job titles and earnings of each person involved in the making of such a show. The laughter is unmoored from the comedy and becomes an unsettling presence that mocks both the workers and the participants. Though Leung emphasises the exercise of judgement as the central act of creating value, the works in the show seem to point more towards an imaginative confusion, a productive blurring between the forms of ‘value’ that gives the concept its potency. This is spelled out most clearly in the conclusion of Charles Lofton’s I Like Dreaming, 1994, where the narrator details initiating a sexual encounter with a supposedly straight man: ‘his imagination and my imagination were about to have really good sex.’
Hidden in plain sight on the dimly lit black wall in Seventeen is a piece of black fabric with a coin printed on it in black. Ben Vickers’s Bitcoin, 2011, was a Euro-style coin with 0s and 1s circling a large B which, by the time you figure out what it represents, feels like a one-liner – information is the new currency. The current Euro crisis only makes the joke louder. No doubt we will be facing many more economics-themed artworks for some time to come. However, Duncan Campbell’s film Arbeit, 2011, at Hotel’s new space does feel, in its subject and rambling detail, on the money, so to speak. A 40-minute second-person monologue in black and white, it is delivered like a eulogy to economist Hans Tietmeyer. Tietmeyer is currently Vice-Chariman at the Bank for International Settlements, but had a key role in integrating the Deutsche mark following Germany’s reunification and was one of the main architects of the Euro currency. The narrator, a former colleague or some acquaintance – we never learn which – has an almost encyclopedic knowledge of his subject, as we go from Tietmeyer’s mining background, his attempted assassination by the Red Army Faction and his later bureaucratic rise. But we don’t really get to know Tietmeyer better. Campbell’s previous self-conscious biopics of Bernadette Devlin and John De Lorean relied on more apparent fictions and stylistic devices intercut with archive material. Here, it is woven more seamlessly into the film itself, Campbell voicing his unease with both the fiction of presenting his findings and claiming authority over his subject in other ways. The narrator constantly apologises for his diversions and the potential inaccuracy of his portrayal but at the end makes a long and extremely detailed list of things relating to current economic crisis in which Tietmeyer might well be implicated, but he insists that we should ignore and forget. ‘Your life belongs to you, Hans’, he says, but we don’t quite believe it.
A more willing or conscious dispossession takes place in ‘The Peripatetic School’ at the Drawing Room, bringing together nine artists from across South America. Each artist deals with a certain kind of movement or travel as the basis for their work. In Nicolas Paris’s series of 19 drawings of himself running, each drawing differs according what he found on his run that day so that next to a purple shoe heel his running man wears high heels; next to a comb he has careful lines of well-combed hair. Mateo López’s installation Nowhere Man, 2011, is a temporary room with a bed and desk shoved into a corner, the latter filled with notebooks, tape and drawing tools – all convincing stand-ins made out of paper. From a European context, ‘The Peripatetic School’ might sound like it relates more to the anarchic possibilities of the Situationist dérive. But here, responding to the particular political and economic situations in São Pãulo, Buenos Aires and the Peruvian Amazon, it feels like a case of picking up the pieces – the flipside of the diffusely economic anxieties and crises brought up in Seventeen and Hotel. The best response to a crisis, the artists seem to suggest, is to just keep on moving.
Published in Art Monthly, December 2011 – January 2012, No. 352