The Easel

19th October 2021

‘It’s almost confessional’ — massimiliano gioni on ed atkins exhibition at the new museum

Ed Atkins is widely regarded as a leading figure in video art. One of his recurring themes is how the self is transformed in the digital realm. His most recent work (preview is here) is a conversation with his mother where the artist is represented by an avatar. “As I was watching the video, I kept thinking of what it really meant to see a digital creature speak to its mother … [this is] an essay about distance … technology promises the comfort of presence but often just delivers ghosts.”

A new look at Walker Evans

Evans’ crystal clear, elegant images helped establish documentary photography. Who was the person behind these “deadpan, yet astonishing” pictures? He portrayed his subjects with dignity, but seems not to have harboured any activism – one critic notes he had little of “either politics or empathy”. His interest was just the aesthetics of buildings and people. Yet that subject matter was enough for him to help “define the contours of a uniquely American culture”.

Ceaseless Porousness

Installing your work in the Turbine Hall of Tate Modern is a sought-after commission. Given her chance, Yi has created a swarm of aquatic-inspired interactive balloons (“aerobes”), illustrating her interest in the way art and science interact. It’s pretty cerebral stuff, Yi’s representation of “humans and the ecosystems we live in”. As to the installation itself, the museum calls it “unforgettable”. In that vast hall, however, critics are less sure, one calling it “all a bit ho-hum”.

Theaster Gates: London, urban reform and exemplars of Black excellence

Gates has travelled far from his roots as a ceramic artist, being also a musician, an urban community activist and more. Demonstrating how he has the art world “at his feet”, he has three concurrent pottery shows in London. Mostly the reviews gush – this is not the only one to use the word ‘magnificent’ – but they struggle to keep separate the artist from his multiple other activities. One way or another, though, they support the comment that “this is a man who does not stay still”.

Surrealism Beyond Europe: 5 Essential Artists Getting Recognition at New Met Show

Surrealism started with a bunch of Paris bros. In time, they conceded that others (women) were involved. Now, a New York show demonstrates just how much happened outside Europe. Surrealism was never a single idea. It may be better thought of as an inclination to find the uncanny amidst the day-to-day. Or, as one critic puts it, surrealism is ideas “blowing across the globe like trade winds of the subconscious”.

What quilts mean now

Despite too much jargon, this piece covers an interesting issue. American quilts were first presented as works of art in a 1971 exhibition. What kind of art are they – objects of beauty, autobiography, symbols of exploitation? Although better scholarship has dispelled the more nostalgic interpretations, quilts remain hard to read. Given their complex history, they are “multivalent things; they speak different words to different ears”.

12th October 2021

Poussin and the Dance review, National Gallery: A youthful, light-hearted look at the French painter

Poussin, the “father of French painting”, has a reputation for “emotionally remote”, even “stuffy” works. Well, that’s not the whole story. At age 30, Poussin went to Rome. Inspired by its ancient statues and sensual lifestyle, he suddenly started painting lighthearted – even bawdy – dance scenes. His later career returned to serious and sombre but, for a decade, Poussin painted “post-Renaissance rave art”. His “austerely beautiful” art was, for a time, not quite so inscrutable.

Jenny Saville’s Nudes Bring Renaissance Masters Down to Earth

The Renaissance was dominated by men. Florence has cleverly responded with a show that puts those works next to Jenny Saville’s acclaimed portraits of fleshy, imperfect female bodies. With their emphasis on emotion and vulnerability they differ radically from Renaissance ideals of womanhood. Still, at some level, all these artists are motivated by concepts of humanism. In different ways, they all put “the figure at the center of the history of art”.

Man Ray’s Slow Fade From the Limelight

A new biography of Man Ray does little to bolster his fading reputation. Philadelphia born, he moved to Paris in 1921, drawn by its creative buzz. Aspirations to be a painter came to nothing but in photography his exploration of “technical epiphanies” made his name. These images never gelled into a signature style, suggestive of the “pinched radius of Ray’s genius”. Ray’s stylistic fingerprints can still be seen in fashion photography but elsewhere his cultural impact is “unnoticed”.

Gilbert & George, Full of Themselves Again

Gilbert & George aim to provoke. In their coupledom, their opinions, their art, it has been a 50-year effort. Does it still ring true? The affirmative view highlights their message of inclusion, set against the harsher realities of urban London.  The linked piece, however, hints at a certain weariness. These “scalawags … are past masters of the titillating, half-meaningful, half-nonsensical, verbal provocation …What better place to enjoy all this spectacle than a well-appointed gallery in Mayfair?”

The Artist Paints Herself

From a recent book, three self-portraits by women artists active in the 17th century. Before her early death, Sirani’s self portraits showed her beauty – less self-flattery than a way to emphasise agency. Anguissola fearlessly showed herself in old age, a pushback against expectations that she portray idealized feminine youth. Carriera’s “brutally honest” image of herself in middle age is an “embodiment of the passing of the seasons, as if she were not only a woman but a landscape as well.”.