Two skeletons fighting over a pickled herring is just what I needed to regain peace of mind.
I had spent too long without shape and form.
There had been shapes and forms, but they could not be ordered into a reflected reality in my head.
The Royal Academy’s Abstract Expressionism exhibition has been broadly lauded. With under two weeks to go, I was haphazard with my morning paperwork so that I could get to the Pollocks and de Koonings. By room three, I was overwhelmed.
My savannah brain was seeking recognisable pattern in all this colour, but without a gazelle in the grassland to be seen, it was dumbfounded. With my limitations, I think two rooms a day would have been more manageable. The conversations around me were the most academically analytical I heard in a gallery this year.
My favourite views were not close up, not that you need to get too close to this grandiose, yet often sparse, paintings. It was looking through the arches from one end of the gallery o the other, to Lee Krasner’s The Eyes in the First Circle.
It looked like a repeatedly overwritten cave wall, a sandstone palimpsest.
In room one, I decided to try an experiment. I would look at the paintings both with my glasses on and off. My inner optician would ask, “and does this look better with…or without. With…or without”. Most looked better with, but I was interested to note that the central focal point of the paintings sometimes changed when blurry. With my glasses off, Ashile Gorky’s Diary of a Seducer could have almost been a Renoir, with them on, it was nothing of the sort.
More than any other form of painting, I want to know the state of the artist’s mind as they paint.
Does it come from anger or joy? What do they imagine an audience will make of that work? Do they imagine it all?
As I can’t see a story in the image on the wall, my reaction becomes baser. It is just down to colour and shape. I like at one de Kooning and think, “what a spectacle!”, right next to it, I see another and think, “there is nothing for me here, it looks too much like yoghurt.” We are sent further adrift when we lose the lifebelt of at least being able to say, “oh I see, he was trying to draw a horse”.
There was a time that if I read on the wall, “In Barnett Newman’s galaxy austere verticals suggest an embryonic galaxy, while William de Kooning’s biomorphism lends a strange sentience to erstwhile abstract motifs”, I would have reeled disconsolately. “Why can I not see it?” I would have yelped before being led from the gallery by a strong hand. I used to see less and less because I was looking so hard to see “the right meaning”. Now I am not so insecure, or I am stupid enough to gain satisfaction from my own reaction, however simplistic or wrong-headed it might be.
I particularly enjoyed seeing Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock’s earlier work, before they found the style that is renowned.
I enjoyed listening to people agonising over which canvases were really figurative. I liked the de Koonings which were just anchored enough in a reality that had almost lost all its shape.
And the Pollock canvases become harder to leave once you see his statement, “no chaos, damn it.” The room is busy, so your staring is interrupted, but the more you look, the more you see a plan, and the more you see the intensity of a man stood above a canvas working out the path of thick streams of paint.
“That’s just a black dot”, said the boy, as he walked past Adolphe Gottlieb’s Penumbra (one of my favourites in the later rooms, with Robert Motherwell’s In Plato’s Cave no.1).
Without judgement, scorn or scalding, she replied, “it’s art isn’t it”.
The café was hectic and the cake was £5, so I decided not to return to the lemon drizzle until I was ravenous.
The James Ensor exhibition, curated by Luc Tuymans, is a sadistic, deathly, funny delight. It is Edward Gorey, Walter Sickert and David Lynch. Tuymans describes James Ensor as “a scenographer, depicting a strange world that was neither tangible nor imaginary, populated by inscrutable beings.” This is a turn of the century Royston Vasey. As well as numerous skulls and skeletons fighting over pilchards and the bodies of hanged men, there are bad doctors pulling out the tubular offal of an outraged man, with the grim reaper stage right, walking in to collect his soul. These are video nasty Punch cartoons. The style changes from cartoonish to painterly, from front room to biblical epic. I bought a biography immediately. Chapter One – Outsider and Loner , this is no surprise. If you are attending Abstract Expressionism, I would make sure there is time to enjoy the macabre sorbet of James Ensor’s Intrigue.
Dead Funny Encore, new horror stories by Stewart Lee, Alan Moore, Isy Suttie, Alice Lowe and many more is out NOW.
My final DVD (with 4 shows) is available here (and download version too)