Essays & Missives

Can you see what it is yet?

This summer, visitors to the Scottish National Gallery are being treated to an eye-blistering display of works that encopmpass more than 70 years of Bridget Riley's career. According to National Galleries of Scotland, "through her observations of nature and the world around us, and careful study of the work of other painters (Seurat, Monet, Cézanne, Matisse, Mondrian and Klee) the artist has made a penetrating investigation into the art of picture-making, and how we see. David Lee offers a head start on the Riley reveleries here, focussing on the recent Bridget Riley work that was visited upon The National Gallery (London), earlier this year – and he finds it rather wanting.

Except as an example of how to illustrate the collapse in standards caused by the worst excesses of Modernism, and the concomitant low expectations of easily pleased critics, I can’t explain why London’s National Gallery would have commissioned a wall painting for its newish entrance lobby by the 88-year-old Bridget Riley. For those of us schooled in the decorative cycles of Pompeii, San Vitale and the Renaissance, Riley’s spots are a disappointment for being a tad short on content. The obligatory accompanying sales pitch for this misguided project – lest we should not immediately recognise its significance for ourselves – includes the description of Riley as “one of Britain’s most distinguished artists”. Well, if you saw this and you didn’t know you certainly wouldn’t suspect it.

Bridget Riley ’s  Messengers , 2019 at The National Gallery (London), Annenberg Court.

Bridget Riley’s Messengers, 2019 at The National Gallery (London), Annenberg Court.


I’ve had to watch Riley’s career develop. The first proper exhibition I ever visited, Op Art at the Tate (c.1966) on a school trip, featured her work. She was by then already a Swinging celebrity, her dazzle designs everywhere counterfeited on skirts and curtains. This cultural trip, allowed only to the most artistically inclined of Lancashire’s Iouts, was memorable mainly because on our return to school we were publicly dressed down by the head for strafing pedestrians with lemon curd butties from the chara. We young blades cased the show using our self-invented yardstick that the best pictures must be those which made us feel the dizziest. It was, unanimously agreed that the King of Op was not Riley but one Jesus Raphael Soto, an ace Venezuelan with a cracking name.

From wiggly black and white stripes, through Pantone charts and multi-coloured harlequin diamonds, Riley has now graduated to spots, while still trying to fiddle with our eyes. There’s nothing wrong with this except that it no longer enjoys the limited appeal of novelty her works once had. It’s something she can do, so she does it. Her spots at the National Gallery London are a massive design of dull matte green, blue and brown, ten inches in diameter and set in diagonal lines, all of which are lovingly painted – as with the rest of her work – by someone else. As braille, we are informed, the wall reads “The blind leading the blind”, while as morse code it translates as “I’m very influenced by Old Masters therefore I must be as good as them”. So, there’s more to it than meets the eye – oh yes, far more than just an arrangement of flickering discs. It’s all to do with Constable and his clouds, apparently. And don’t forget Seurat; oh no, young Boy Georges, as we all know, was a devil for dots. Heavy stuff then.

Bridget Riley  & National Gallery (London) Director Gabriele Finaldi looking at  Messengers . © 2019 Bridget Riley (All rights reserved) Photo: The National Gallery, London.

Bridget Riley & National Gallery (London) Director Gabriele Finaldi looking at Messengers. © 2019 Bridget Riley (All rights reserved) Photo: The National Gallery, London.


Curiously (or not) Riley’s spots in London have their ‘own ‘curator’, or at least some self-important fool who calls themself by that name. How can something not yet in existence be ‘curated’? As usual with State Art and its army of charlatan hangers-on we enter Wonderland, where words mean… whatever. Once upon a time a curator was a scholar who researched and explained an object, and used a breadth of knowledge to situate it precisely inside an oeuvre. It was never a jobsworth who orders the Prosecco and makes sure the ladder’s held properly before sitting down to scribble a page of bollocks about it.

By the way, among the first examples of a ‘curator’ I’ve recently come across was Julius Caesar. As a young man he was appointed curator (carer, steward) of the via Appia, the revolutionary all-weather highway (already two centuries old in his day) from Rome to Brindisi. He did a fine job. Long lengths of it can still be walked a mere 2,400 years after it was first laid. I wonder where Riley’s ‘curated’ spots will be in 2,400 years?

On the scale of artistic quality in which zero is a Formula 1 trophy, and ten the Kenwood Rembrandt, Bridget Riley doesn’t even make the subs’ bench. Astonishing really for one who sounds and writes so sensibly, that she should herself produce such empty work. It’s not as though these spots are attractive or entertaining even as a pattern. As with most of state-sponsored contemporary art we are here, yet again, asked to play a game of ‘Let’s Pretend’.

Bridget Riley

Scottish National Gallery
Sat 15 Jun 2019 - Sun 22 September 2019
Open daily, 10am-5pm, Thursdays until 7pm
£15 – £13 (concessions available)
25 & under £10 – £8.50

David Lee is Editor of The Jackdaw, an Independent bi-monthly paper on the visual arts with a rarely updated website. Former Editor of Art Review magazine, he also supports Manchester City, and occasionally contributes content to Art North magazine.

At heart, I am an internationalist

The following essay is extracted from Peter Hill's recently completed book: 'Curious About Art: Encounters with 50 Contemporary Artists from Marina Abramović to Rachel Maclean.'

Marina Abramović  at MONA, Tasmania. Photo: Peter Hill

Marina Abramović at MONA, Tasmania. Photo: Peter Hill


When I met Marina Abramović in Tasmania, in one of the luxury garden cabins at MONA – the Museum of Old and New Art, owned by billionaire gambler and art collector David Walsh – she told me several extraordinary things about herself. One of those things – which I’ve often thought would apply to many of the artists I’ve met and interviewed over the years – was her matter-of-fact statement that, “There are at least three people inside my head. Part of me is very regimented and drawn to rules and instructions. It comes from my parents, both high-ranking army personnel in the Yugoslavian army. Secondly, there is the part of me that likes to have fun and adventure and try new things. Finally, there is the lazy me, who lies around eating chocolate and ice cream, and watching box sets of DVDs.”

Other artists I’ve encountered could similarly switch in an instant from talking about the complex processes involved in a video shoot, or the precision needed to make a lost wax casting, to enquiring of a studio assistant about the half-time score in a World Cup qualifier between England and Spain, or The Netherlands and Argentina. And if football (and I must confess I’ve never been to a game) is the global sport of the art world, then the art world itself, in the late-twentieth and early-twentyfirst centuries, operates on a global level, with its biennales, documentas, commercial art fairs, auction houses, museum franchises, and networks of commercial galleries: Gagosian, Spruth Magers, Pace, and Blain|Southern. All agents for change.

But – and this is the important point – it usually all begins in a cluttered studio, in an inner-city warehouse conversion, such as the one where I met and interviewed London artist Steven Claydon for Vault magazine. We talked about the underwater compression of objects, used in his recent work, from research done by the oil industry in Aberdeen, beneath the North Sea. And the recent residency he had just completed in Scotland. 

Michael Candy  in his Gold Coast studio (Australia) working with robotics and empathy. March 2019. Photo: Peter Hill

Michael Candy in his Gold Coast studio (Australia) working with robotics and empathy. March 2019. Photo: Peter Hill


Or on Australia’s Gold Coast, it begins here too with a lone artist, where I spent an afternoon recently with Michael Candy, talking about robotics and empathy, in his studio-cum-workshop with its add-on sleeping space, deep in the heart of an industrial zone, far from the sand and the surf. And that is where I most want to be – not at a sporting event or by a beach – but with another artist, in that space, the studio, that is a physical extension of their very selves – enthusing about their art and their ideas. Sating my curiosity.

Other encounters take place in galleries or museums, where artists are showing the end results of all the long hours battling in those studios with the physicality of “matter” – be it paint, welded steel, or computer algorithms and the hardware that contains them.  

That was how I met Jorg Immendorff in 1983, sitting in the office of Edinburgh’s legendary New 57 Gallery. He telling me about “the monkey on my back”, a reference to his conflicted self, torn between his recent youth in a German Maoist group, and his new-found wealth in the nascent casino economy of the early-eighties’ art market. Overnight, he found himself in a position of privilege that allowed him to buy a studio in Dusseldorf the size of a city block. This would later bankroll an addiction to cocaine and prostitutes, both of which almost landed him in jail. They would have, were it not for his friendship with the German Chancellor Gerhard Schroder. Immendorff was his favourite artist. The politician collected his work. He did not go to jail.

Or Ai Weiwei. I encountered him in the basement of Gene Sherman’s art foundation in Sydney, the day he announced that “I am not a dissident artist. I have a dissident government.” I finished by asking him about future projects, hoping for a scoop. He merely said “I want to eat. That is my next project. I love food. Let’s go upstairs and eat.” I guess most of us have a few different people banging around in our heads. In my own case, it’s a head torn between attempting to make my own art, and trying to write about the art and lives of other artists.  

And generally, artists are extremely good company. Curious about the universe, yet viewing it askance. And often with an amazing sense of humour. To spend a few hours with fellow Scots Steven Campbell, Bruce Maclean, or George Wyllie was to be entertained. Crying with laughter, as if having a private audience with Billy Connolly, with the shades of Marcel Duchamp and Max Beckmann looking over our shoulders.

And if there seems to be a disproportionate number of Scottish and Australian artists who I’ve encountered, that is a deliberate attempt to redress the usually skewed balance. In Australia especially – and you can tell from the surnames – many of these artists were born overseas, or have European or Asian heritage: Patricia Piccinini, Guan Wei, Laresa Kosloff, Peter Booth, and Mathieu Briand. The Indigenous artists, such as Tracey Moffatt and Brook Andrew, also make work about their mixed heritage. When I met Brook – again for Vault magazine – he told me he wanted to “reclaim the word ‘half-caste’ in a positive sense”, just as “queer” was turned into a respectful descriptor. He was proud of the black and white sides of his family, and if he embraced only one strand of his DNA he would be denying the other.

Peter Hill  arrives in Australia disguised as assistant press officer from New York’s Museum of Contemporary Ideas (1994).

Peter Hill arrives in Australia disguised as assistant press officer from New York’s Museum of Contemporary Ideas (1994).


As someone who was born to an Australian mother and a Scottish father I have, from as early an age as I can remember, embraced both countries and their histories as my own, while not always agreeing with all that was done in their name. At heart, I am an internationalist. So both hemispheres of the planet are as important to me as both hemispheres of my head. That great line by poet Les Murray, about jet travel (from one hemisphere to the other), suddenly comes to mind… “Ascending the left cheek of earth...”

Lynn Barber, doyen of the interview form (she has communed with film stars, captains of industry, politicians, and novelists, mostly for The Observer newspaper) sums up just why she likes interviewing visual artists more than those from any other profession. She writes in her memoir A Curious Career, “I like artists. It is quite rare for me to meet one I don’t like. And, for interviewing purposes, I like the fact that they don’t come laden with PRs – you can usually approach them directly or through their gallery and nobody sits in on the interview to make sure they don’t say anything that might damage their image. Artists don’t have images, thank God. And most of them drink, and smoke, and give good parties so being around them is fun.”

Not all artists are as Hydra-headed as Marina Abramović. Sitting in the kitchen of Little Sparta with Ian Hamilton Finlay, in the middle of the Scottish moorland that he had called home for many decades – never leaving it on account of what he described to me as his “nervous condition”, never attending any of his openings, whether at Tate or documenta – there was no side of his personality that I could discern that would be at all interested in eating ice cream, or watching box sets of The Sopranos. He was totally focused. Totally serious. He was about to go to war with France, after all. This was over the cancellation of a commission to mark the 1989 bicentenary of the French Revolution. Artpress magazine in Paris, for whom I made the Marina Abramović interview, claimed Ian had recently exhibited a Fascist artwork and should be stripped of the commission. In fact, he had made an anti-fascist statement as part of a concrete artwork, by incorporating the lightning flashes of Hitler’s SS as the two central letters in the word OSSO (meaning bone – from the Latin and Portuguese). 

A few years earlier, Ian and I sat in the very same kitchen while his Saint-Juste Vigilantes gathered outside, all of us there to support him against the removal of artworks by a bailiff and sheriff’s officer, in lieu of rates that the local authorities spuriously said were owed. One work had been sold directly from his studio, to a museum or a private collector, at a time when he and Sue were living as close to abject poverty as you can get. And these mean-spirited bureaucrats at the Hamilton Rates Authority said that because of this sale his studio had to be rated as a commercial gallery, at ten times the current rates, something he could in no way afford. Later that afternoon, we all signed a declaration that was sent to the United Nations demanding peace-keeping troops be parachuted into Little Sparta. He may not have been “fun to be around” in the Lynn Barber sense of the phrase, but my God, you were never bored!

I will finish with a reflection on Rachel Maclean, and one of many circularities that have joyfully ambushed me over forty years of interviewing artists. In this case it links Stephen Campbell to Rachel’s generation. It is also an example of the generosity of spirit that I most admire about those who inhabit the art world.  She and Charlotte Prodger are the latest artists to emerge internationally from the Scottish art scene, and subsequently both have a growing reputation. Rachel trained as a painter at Edinburgh College of Art, but since childhood had always made videos using her father’s borrowed VHS camera. “I made lots of totally banal, rubbish stuff. Mostly horror films, with my brothers and cousins acting in them, heavily influenced by Blair Witch Project and things like that.”

Rachel Maclean  before the opening of her installation  Spite Your Face  from 2017 Venice Biennale, at Talbot Rice Art Centre, February 2018. Photo: Peter Hill

Rachel Maclean before the opening of her installation Spite Your Face from 2017 Venice Biennale, at Talbot Rice Art Centre, February 2018. Photo: Peter Hill


On my way to meet Rachel, three hours before her Venice project Spite Your Face opened at the Talbot Rice Art Centre in February 2018, I’d worked out in my head that at thirty-one she was already a year older than Steven Campbell was in 1983, when I stayed with him in New York and he had his two sell-out shows at the Barbara Toll and John Weber galleries. Walking across to Spoon Cafe from the Talbot Rice, and quite unprompted by me, she suddenly started talking about Steven.

“He was the most amazing influence on artists of my generation. He made visits to schools all over Scotland and really enthused all these young kids about art, and how they could all go to art school if they really wanted to. He never actually came to my own school, but when I started at Edinburgh College of Art, so many of my classmates told me that it was because Steven visited their schools that they decided to become artists. His message seemed to be, ‘If I can do it, so can you’.”

In Issue 3 of Art North magazine, Peter Hill will be contributing a feature article on the work of artists Annie Cattrell, Anne Petters, Anne Vibeke Mou, and Jeff Zimmer. (Peter Hill –

Car-and-Bacon-Loving Parties, Porn Philanthropy, & Kid Critics

I’ll not pretend that I have a good grasp of Danish politics, but since last week’s General Election in Denmark I’ve been picking up some conflicting reports about the state of Danish cultural policy (and the future of) in relation to other pressing matters that are occupying the attention of the Danish people as attempts continue to form a new government. Plus ça change? Well, yes, no, and maybe, are the answers on that score, it seems.

Art critic Pernille Albrethsen reported from Denmark last week (in the immediate run up to the election) with a brief survey of what’s upcoming in terms of contemporary art over the coming months, but her report was as much about her concern with regard the political parties that, at that point, all seemed to be spinning their way to notoriety to some greater or lesser extent. Understandable, I guess, for it was a long haul as far as political campaigning went.

With regard to this summer’s art exhibitions in Denmark, Albrethsen briefed that they will include, “an extraterrestrial ‘breast creature’ with a built-in fountain in Vejle Fjord, and a huge Congolese tree trunk in a sculpture park,” but culture wasn’t very high on the agenda as far as the the Danish general election went; at least from Pernille Albrethsen’s perspective.

Writing on 5 June, the day of polling to elect all 179 members of the Folketing, Albrethsen stated, “one of the most nerve-wracking parliamentary elections I have ever witnessed in Denmark is taking place. The campaigning period has been particularly long this time, and on the positive side, the climate issue actually ended up being one of the election’s main topics.”  ‘Car-and-bacon-loving parties’, she said, (I’m not making that up) had been frantically trying to outbid each other in “their eagerness to look greener than anyone else.” Sound familiar?

This new development follows several decades of elections where the issue of refugees and immigration has been the overriding topic by far; it’s an issue that has also been given far too much emphasis after the elections. If we can deduce from this that the climate crisis will dominate agendas for the next four years, you’ll hear no complaints from me. Sadly, we Danes haven’t quite finished shaming and marginalising those with skin colours other than white, prompting new right-wing parties to be featured on the ballot.

At the time of writing, the ‘refugee issue’ in particular still seems to be getting bumped back up the agenda again, with refugee quotas being just one of several issues being what thwarts a satisfactory outcome for many. Childcare, social welfare, and a raft of other issues feature in the process, too, but where is culture?

The fact is, that in any polarised society where extremes are the spectacle that diverts our attention away from the realities of everyday life (to misquote some near-forgotten radical of the 1960s – was it Debord or Vaneigem?), cultural policy is that which suffers first, as always. As Pernille Albrethsen put it last week, in Denmark:

…as usual, cultural policy has received scant attention during the election campaign. It is quite simply too small a sector for the particular psycho-geological age we currently find ourselves in (and apparently cannot get out of) – an age where everything is judged in economic terms. The days when culture had some form of automatic legitimacy in Danish welfare society are long gone, and the cultural scene seems to have finally realised this on a more fundamental level.

As Hunter S. Thompson so aptly put it, ‘“When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro!” But what is weird, now? Can we even tell anymore? It was hard to discern from Albrethsen’s report due to a typo that, for a while, I believed was a new word. In the run up to the polls closing, apparently, the extreme right parties that concerned her most were parties of ‘withattitudesso extreme’, and Albrethsen found it hard to witness them in action. Withattitudesso extreme? The typo tripped me up as I scanned the article (I actually tried to Google it – though, in my defence, it had been a long day) before I realised that it wasn’t a new word or phrase at all!

Sometimes such errors are just irritating, but ‘withattitudesso’ seems an apt word for our times, and probably works in several languages, too. Indeed, ‘With attitudes so extreme’ (as it should have read!) the phrase doesn’t really have the same ring to it, and so I’m actually tempted to adopt the typo I encountered as an affectation of my own. “Nigel Farage? Oh yes! Such withattitudesso!” …”Boris Johnson? Hmm… Withattitudesso extremo!” Sure, it has a romance language ring to it, lying somewhere between Spanglish and Englanitano, but all the more fitting for our times, maybe.

When the Withattitudesso extremos get going, it becomes ever harder for cultural pundits to make a sound assessment of weird, though. What we end up with is a pluralistic mélange a trois! The Good, the Bad, the Ugly? Who can judge anymore? Value judgements get jettisoned in favour of an ‘anything goes’ attitude, which is maybe why porn + culture have achieved level pegging in what Albrethsen reports is an upcoming exhibition (aptly titled) Art & Porn that, in Denmark, will coincide with the fiftieth anniversary of the abolition of the ban on visual pornography in the country.

The list of participating artists is apparently as open-ended as the title of the exhibition itself, from Wilhelm Freddie to Anna Uddenberg; from Jeff Koons to Suzette Gemzøe’s humorous video about the ‘exotic life’ of a single mother. Kunsthal Charlottenborg will host the show in the autumn, but at present that same institution is staging the exhibition Europa Endios, which is billed as marking the two central events in EU politics: Brexit and the now completed European Parliament elections.

Germaine Greer once referred to the male member as the ‘pork sword’ but pork isn’t Denmark’s only export, for sure. Artist Asger Jorn was another and, fortuitously for my purposes here, he was connected to the same 60s radicals of which (above) one name eluded me, but now I recall it. It was Raoul Vaneigem who once wrote that Power,

in a caricature of antagonism […] urges everyone to be for or against Brigitte Bardot, the nouveau roman, the 4-horse Citroën, spaghetti, mescal, miniskirts, the UN, the classics, nationalisation, thermonuclear war and hitchhiking. Everyone is asked their opinion about every detail in order to prevent them from having one about the totality.

It’s a dated list today, of course – he was writing in the early-1960s, after all – but it’s easily updated. By its very nature neoliberalism requires that such lists are regularly updated, right? In Britain today, Vaneigem’s list would read something like;

In a caricature of antagonism, Power urges everyone to be for or against Meghan Markle, literary transrealism, self-drive cars, tahini desserts, orange wine, animal print frocks (again), the EU, Piers Morgan, Re-nationalisation, Huawei, and the lofty art of cycling to work when you can’t afford a Hyrid. Everyone is still asked their opinion about every detail in order to prevent them from having one about the totality.”

As I began – Plus ça change!

Pernille Albrethsen summed up the current situation in Denmark thus: “among creatives and administrators alike, we now sense a general understanding that the cultural scene needs to gird itself for battle.” When has it not, though? With the UK’s Creative Review magazine last week reporting that ‘ is a surprising creative force at the moment,’ you know something is up. Apparently, ‘in recent years the company has earned headlines in the press not just for progressive campaigns, but for supporting young, and often marginalised, creative talent.’ Ok, then. And there was me thinking it was just another internet porn-portal.

A spokesperson for Porhub was further quoted as saying, “we love getting involved in different facets of the community, and our creative campaigns have helped us do just that.” Pornhub’s Vice-President told Creative Review, “We’ve worked tirelessly to penetrate a number of verticals, ranging from fashion to music to philanthropy, which has ultimately helped us bring the brand in front of the general public.” Spin it anyway you like, but it seems Denmark is one step ahead in that regard, based upon Pernille Albrethsen’s report from the cultural frontline, anyway.

Whatever the new Danish government’s position on cultural policy turns out to be, as far as Art North contributor and Danish art critic Bo Gorzelak Pedersen was concerned when I asked him, “in all honesty, cultural politics has played no role in the recent election. The only major proposal put forth was one by DF [the far-right populist Dansk Folkeparti], suggesting the abolition of our current Arts Council, replacing it with regional councils.” The UK has been there before with the Green Party arts manifestoes of the 1980s, but I’ll save that revelation for another day.

As Bo Gorzelak Pedersen put it to me, the DF “feel that the current Arts Council is too elitist, but then DF suffered a historical blow at the election, losing more than half of their seats, and so I think it's fair to say that that idea is now dead and buried. There is pretty much agreement on culture politics across the political spectrum (apart from the extremes, to which DF belongs) and so I doubt that much will change.”

Elsewhere, however, I was reading that the Danish Art Critics’ Award, has been cancelled, with members of AICA Denmark, the Association of Danish Art Critics, being informed by their board via email. The reason behind the decision was given as the withdrawal of financial support from the the Visual Arts Committee of the Danish Arts Foundation, which has supported the prize for a quarter of a century. Certainly that seems like a shift of quite seismic proportions but it seems to have gone unnoticed. As Bo stated when I asked him about it, “I hadn't heard about that and I seem unable to find anything about it in the Danish news.” That’s what happens when all eyes are on who will be able to form a new government, and with whom, maybe. Cultural policy just gets buried in the general slush of rolling political news.

Alternatively, I may not be getting the full picture here however, for as Bo was quick to point out, and I think rightly so, “the Danish Arts Council has just announced a new initiative aiming at getting art critics into schools.” Now that IS radical! According to Staten Kunstfund (the Danish Arts Foundation), “the new initiative for children and young people must put art criticism on the school curriculum,” and schools and colleges can “now seek the support of a professional critic who, together with the students, talks about art in new ways.”

I wonder how that would have gone down with DF had they had a better showing at the poll? In fact, I wonder how it would be received here, too. The very idea of children developing critical judgement in anything other than the most rudimentary ways has, for a long time now, seemed anathema to the aspirations of repeated governments in Westminster. Whatever the final outcome of the Danish election, this is one initiative that would be a great loss if not seen through to its natural conclusion: a society of young adults able to think freely, and in new ways; a legacy spawned by a thorough grounding in art critical thinking. What a world that would be?

On Taste

I own some fifty Frank Zappa CDs. I do not own any Frank Auerbach paintings but there is a perfectly good reason for that, which is that I would never be able to afford one. Zappa CDs are about $5 each on Amazon. 50 times $5, that's $250, and then I probably paid around $50 for postage, so that's $300 in total. However, an Auberbach painting would still be considerably more. E.O.W. on her Blue Eiderdown V (1963) was sold by Bonhams in 2016 and went for $2.29 million (£ 2,042,500). And already this might seem to have turned a bit silly. Zappa and Auerbach have absolutely nothing in common and there is nothing connecting them, at least not that I am aware of. But, there is to me.

Frank Auerbach, E.O.W. on her Blue Eiderdown V, 1963, oil on board 57.5 by 83 cm.

The reason why I started listening to Frank Zappa's music in the first place was that I hated it. I really did. Percussionist Ruth Underwood might be a complete genius and all that, but I couldn't stand those weird xylophone breaks or the sudden changes of rhythm. I used to have a friend who was a major Zappa fan and he would make me listen, over and over. It's not like I didn't know the music, it's just that I thought it was awful. Not―and this is important―without talent or artistic merit, but awful nevertheless. I thought it was ugly. So about nine or ten years ago I started buying Zappa CDs. It wasn't a case of me buying one of two CDs to give it another chance or just to check if it really was as hideous as I thought. I made a conscious decision to buy all of his albums, or at least all of the official ones, and to listen to them. And I did.

When I got the CDs I would transfer the music to an MP3 player and then I would listen to it each morning and each afternoon when riding on the bus to and from work. I would listen to the music when taking walks and so on, and gradually my ears began to tune in. I hated it but after a while I hated it less. Then I stopped hating it and started to like it, and eventually I became quite excited about it. I read some biographies and I listened to all of the interviews with him that I could find on YouTube. I went from thinking that Zappa was just about the worst there was to being ‘a Zappa fan’. Ask me today and I will tell you that Frank Zappa was some kind of musical genius, and I really think that he was. There's no reason to suspect that he was a particularly nice guy to hang out with, and many of his lyrics are rather rude and some of them clearly misogynistic.

Zappa with the Mothers, 1971 . Publicity photo of Frank Zappa and The Mothers of Invention, Herb Cohen Management. (Public domain).

Zappa with the Mothers, 1971. Publicity photo of Frank Zappa and The Mothers of Invention, Herb Cohen Management. (Public domain).

Contrary to what some might think, Zappa was not all about drugs or left-wing rebellion against the establishment. He was in fact very much against drugs, and if anything Zappa was an old school conservative with an old school perception of the sexes. Not a Christian conservative, obviously, but one who believed in hard work and in always doing your best. He also suffered from a huge inferiority complex, which (as with all such people) at times caused him to act tediously and to make really annoying things. I can see all of that and I accept it, but in all honesty it doesn't matter much to me. The fact that I can see it means that I can weed it out, and what remains, then, is his brilliance. But like I said, I used to really hate it.

And, similarly with Frank Auerbach. I used to hate Frank Auerbach's paintings. They had to be some of the ugliest paintings ever made, I thought. All of those fat layers and sickly combinations of colours, like dirt brown and red or orange with turquoise. And first of all: the lack of distinction. No clear seperation of elements on the surface, nothing hard or solid popping out and nothing to create a sense of Verfremdung. This was the kind of painting that I liked, Jasper Johns and the colour field painters, and Robert Rauschenberg who, despite all of his messiness, always managed to keep things tight. Also, I thought, aesthetically Auerbach was just old. Decades after Picasso and Pollock, Auerbach was still doing portrait painting, and not just portrait painting but the kind where you have a face in the middle and then the rest is basically just filling in the blanks, the background and the corners. It went against everything that I thought I knew about painting.

The lesson from Pollock was, I believed, that what's in the top right corner is exactly as important as what's in the middle. A canvas is a surface and no point on the surface is more important than any other because it's a field, and the purpose of making a painting is to make the field as charged with energy as possible. This was what I had come to think and this was what painting meant to me. Just doing a face in the middle of a canvas wasn't painting, it was (at best) illustration. And as if that wasn't enough, Auerbach made it look horrid. I thoroughly disliked it, all of it. And so I turned him into a project. I looked at as many of his paintings as I could find, I read books about him and watched documentaries―and then I looked at his paintings again. And again. Then I watched the documentaries again, and so on.

Auerbach is famously guarded when it comes to talking about his art and so there aren't all that many good interviews available. I highly recommend Hannah Rothschild's documentary from 2001, To the Studio: Frank Auerbach, which is available on DVD from a company called Demand Media. It is terrific. Not only did I come to appreciate Frank Auerbach's work, I came to admire it tremendously. With a friend of mine, at one time I went to Mornington Crescent, which is where Auerbach has his studio, just to soak up the atmosphere and to see some of the places that he'd painted. Apart from portraits, Auerbach also does cityscapes.

I don't think that my previous understanding of what painting meant was wrong, or rather: I think that it would probably be wrong to call it wrong. However, it was in a sense infantile or incomplete, and there was something preventing my understanding from developing further in a natural way. That's why I had to turn both Zappa and Auerbach into deliberate projects, to force it. And what was preventing me was taste. For an artist, I believe, taste is a blessing but it is also The Great Enemy. It's a blessing, initially, because it can serve as a guide. You see something you like and you are drawn to it. You learn about the artist and maybe you learn about other artists who influenced him or her, or maybe he or she was part of a group. Maybe it's an ism. Thus you learn about even more artists and you get to see even more art, and you will find more works that appeal to your particular taste. It's all good.

The problem is, however, that taste also works like an echo chamber. British comedian Stewart Lee does a routine where he talks about dolphins and how one should never keep dolphins in a tank with concrete walls because eventually the sound of their own echos will drive them insane. I think most artists would be able to relate to that. You can only do so many tasteful paintings or pieces of music before you start hearing the echoes, and you realise how limited you are. You start looking at, or listening to, other people's work, and you single out stuff that's much more messy than your own, and you think to yourself "I wish I could do something like that!" But you can't. There is reason to suspect, I think, that just like with morality, aesthetics is a superego thing. People keep telling me that Freud is dead, and it's nonsense.

Even when we know with 100% certainty that we are all alone and that no one is looking, every reasonable normal human being knows how hard it is to do something morally wrong or (perhaps even worse) something really stupid, like dancing in your underpants whilst clutching a raw chicken. Or maybe just sitting in front of a mirror, making funny faces. Things like that tend to make us extremely self-aware. It's like there's a secret eye in the sky watching us, which is the superego kicking in. It is the same thing with art and taste. Even when no one's ever going to see the painting, every painter knows how almost impossible it is to just do something ugly and then leave it like that. Personally, when I first started painting, I spent sleepless nights agonising about how to 'correct' things in order to make them look good. Taste isn't a harmless buttering on top of our intellect, our personality, or any such thing; it's deeply ingrained in us and it very much determines what we can and cannot do.

Making art is an attempt to continuously widen, deepen and enlarge the space that we live in, the experience-space, what Charles Olson has called "the human universe". Olson said something very apt with regard to me and Frank Zappa: "Which is why the man said, he who possesses rhythm possesses the universe" (The Human Universe, in: Selected Writings. New Directions, 1997). Clearly, with Zappa, I did not. The more different kinds of rhythms, the more complicated, etc, that one is capable of appreciating, the larger the world one lives in. What prevents us from enlarging our world is taste. Which is to say that no matter how good a guide taste might be, it is essentially anti-art because it has the completely opposite agenda. The purpose of taste is not to extend but to exclude in order to uphold. In political terms, taste is nationalism. Because it's psychologically so deeply rooted in us. it's not something we can just shed. It requires a kind of therapy.

Much ill has (often rightfully) been said about the amount of talking and writing in art, but this is one place where I feel it has some justification. Like people used to say about porn, this is where it has redeeming value. It's simply not enough just to look at things or listen to things that one finds ugly and/or to try to copy them, for it won't work. One has to persuade the superego to go along with it, and the way to do that is to appeal to it intellectually. By reading, by watching documentaries and so on. By studying and turning it into a project. One also has to look or listen, obviously, but one needs language to accompany it, arguments and insights. Only then will things begin to change. On February 18th 1949, Willem de Kooning gave a talk in New York, and he talked about desperation and he said, "Style is a fraud. I always felt that the Greeks were hiding behind their columns" (A Desperate View: Subjects of the Artist: A New Art School). Taste, in a way, is us hiding behind ourselves. It needs persuasion.


Bo Gorzelak Pedersen is a Danish writer, art critic, and visual artist who has exhibited in Europe and in the United States. He has self published more than thirty-five small collections of poetry and essays. His art criticism appears in the Danish monthly art magazine, Kunstavisen. The above text first appeared in his collection of writings titled How To Begin and Other Essays on Art. He is also a contributor to Art North magazine. His essay on Joseph Beuys appears in Art North no.1 (Spring 2019).

Like a Whisper in Your Ear…

There are some of us, of a certain age, who remember the impact that the quarterly magazine Modern Painters had on the visual arts in Britain. Founded by the late art critic Peter Fuller in the mid-1980s, Modern Painters did much to bring a certain kind of art to the attention of a wide public, and some of the work Fuller did in this respect was commendable, for sure. Personally I owe much to Peter Fuller for him giving me my first real break in writing on the visual arts in the second issue of his magazine that had quickly captured the imagination of many who felt marginalised by the internationalist trend at that time. Though Fuller was to tragically die in a road accident on the M4 motorway in 1990, his influence was still felt for a while following his death, though it waned. Some were glad of that, and others not, for he was certainly very good at dividing opinion.

Fuller divided opinion in a way that was often fascinating, and at time infuriating, though. In 1988 he was quick to warn against the ignorance or xenophobia yet argued passionately for an “informed provincialism in art, which looks for immediate meaning in local forms, and finds its larger sense through affiliation to a national tradition” (Seeing Through Berger, 1988). I remember writing around that time, that Peter Fuller’s ‘take’ on art was similar to that of the composer Ralph Vaughan Williams. As far back as 1942, Vaughan Williams had warned (long before the European Union was conceived, and long before it faced the current threat of disintegration), that when “the United States of Europe becomes a fact, each nation must have something to bring to the common stock of good.” Opposed to a Europe populated by “good Europeans, sharing a universal language in the arts”, Vaughan Williams had asserted, “what we have to offer must derive essentially from our own life. It must not be a bad imitation of what other nations do better” (National Music and Other Essays, 1963).

For some, Peter Fuller, represented a similar position with regard fine art in the 1980s. The composer David Mathews has said of Vaughan Williams that his “understanding of […] musical tradition and his love of his native landscape came together at a particular moment during the Second World War when everything he most cherished was under threat of destruction” (in: Towards a New Landscape, 1993). Fuller, meanwhile, became most vocal about a traditional aesthetic in the visual arts during a period remarkable for the emergence of a brash materialism that was a signature of life in the financial sector prior to the economic crisis of 1987. In such a pre-crash climate, Fuller perceived a different kind of destructive influence: “the Young Turks with their Saatchi-style values and trans­atlantic air­ tickets” were, as he put it, “taking over the Parthenon,” (Interview with Matthew Collings: 'Onward Christian Soldiers', Artscribe No.52). They were, eroding traditional values to such an extent that our culture was becoming “so warped it could sustain no widely shared artistic language, nor give rise to a style that was any more deep-rooted than a passing fashion” (in Images of God, 1990)

The Problem for many was that Fuller was a Tub-Thumping Little Englander, propagandising in method and (in the latter part of his life) deliberately divisive in his tactics. It is important to clarify that Fuller, like Vaughan Williams, was pleading a case for an informed provincialism which avoided at all costs what was once the art historian Kenneth Clark's worst fear: as Clark had argued, provincial artists are often “complacent” and “out of mere ignorance […] refuse to look beyond the circle of their fellow mediocrities” (Moments of Vision, 1981). Vaughan Williams believed that he avoided such traits in seeking a political internationalism and a personal individualism, but the jury may still be out on Fuller’s agenda, for following his death his contribution was rather quickly erased, and the magazine he had founded soon withered and morphed into something quite other (ironically, yet another organ of a brash materialism in the art world). To the surprise of many, his legacy did prove quite short lived, therefore.

Fuller – always so fond of absolutes – also got it wrong quite often. At his home in Stowlangtoft shortly before his death, I once asked him about a Turner Society lecture he had delivered at London’s ICA, at which he had announced to the assembled audience that the Tate Gallery was, “attempting to impose the taste of an arid and bankrupt aesthetic” in the guise of the Turner Prize. Perhaps there was something in that but Fuller, for those who remember his thoughts on the art of those times, will no doubt recall his belief that any support for the Turner Prize revealed a paucity of critical perspicacity, and artists he had once championed he later shunned when they became Turner Prize nominees (a notable case being the painter Thérèse Oulton). He was, in short, ferociously opposed to what he perennially referred to as BICCA (an acronym he had invented that referred to what he thought of as Biennale International Club Class Art) but those he shunned did not always deserve to be thrown into the camp he had devised for them.

Many of us back then could be forgiven for losing count of just how many times Fuller was heard to argue that we should not confuse the bombastic bigness of German painting (a favourite bête noire in his propagandising mission) with the greatness of smaller pictures emanating from what he thought of as a ‘British Tradition’. As Fuller argued with regard to those who took their lead from the wider European scene back then, they were sliding down a slope towards cultural pluralism, the corollary of which would be a homogenous European art that is corrupt and bland. Of course he was wrong, but not because his critics and adversaries were necessarily right. Fuller was very much of his time, as I have noted. He was obsessed with the international art market and, although not without a sense of humour at times, always keen to polarise opinion on this if he could. His reputation rested on it to some degree, after all. He was good TV. He wrote compellingly, too, and could drum up an audience for sure, and yet ultimately his influence, with the benefit of hindsight now, was ultimately destructive.

Of Fuller’s tendency to argue his case via the discourse of propaganda, Julian Stallabrass has alluded to what he calls Fuller’s moral McCarthyism, in which the critic could often be seen to condemn those that stood in his way with accusations that they had no affection for either their nation, its people, its traditions, its customs, or its landscape – sometimes all of these things at once. Stallabrass has also (I think convincingly), shown that Fuller’s essays often followed a format that depended upon the techniques of propaganda to establish his own moral rectitude, and then wear his readers down by sheer repetitive output too. If you read Fuller through a Stallabrassian lens, this makes perfect sense. The fact is, however, that he was so much of his time, and his death came so early (he was in his early forties when he died) that in a tragic twist of fate, he was thus deprived of seeing art that he may have approved of, or may even have changed his sometimes Stalinist position on what did and did not represent good art.

That painters of the kind he ordinarily approved of could produce work that revealed a new form of post-conceptual painterly aesthetic, would have perhaps been unthinkable to him. Who can tell what he would have made of it? I don’t know. Looking at Fuller’s criticism today is rather like looking through a telescope from the wrong end. It has become diminished and so, so small, and yet at the time he was writing it seemed so huge. There is obviously a cruel irony to this. While Fuller championed artists such as John Bellany and Arthur Boyd for their imaginative transformation of materials into hard-won, high-calibre works deserving of wide attention, he missed out on a new generation of artists who today paint with great economy and equal conviction to elucidate their thoughts on pressing matters that were only just entering the public consciousness at the time Fuller died.

Take, for example, this single work by David Cass (below). Of what does it comprise? It is titled Arctic (2017) and is a painting in oil on a pill tin attached to a thread spool. It measures just 10cm by 4cm. And yet, look at it! Cass too seems to be asking us to look through the wrong end of a telescope here too, but what he depicts is not diminished. In some strange way it seems magnified.

David Cass, Arctic (2017) oil on stacked cylindrical pill tin and thread spool, H:10cm W:4cm

While so many artists who express their ‘environmentalist’ concerns do indeed force their argument in bold gestures that could easily be mistaken for confusing bigness with greatness, Cass instead seems to unassumingly (though no less importantly) offer us the antidote to that – by which I mean, he appears to present an urgent request to come in close, quietly, personally, and in our own time, to consider just what it is that he is addressing. Here is an art that is truly intimate. It asks big questions, yes, but it asks them of the individual, drawn in close by the diminutive size of the work.

I may be wrong, but it seems to me that this work titled Arctic (one of several from a series) asks each of us who encounters it; Look at me, attend to me, I am here for your personal attention. This work is is, above all, discrete. It certainly does not shout. It is not tub-thumping in its attempt to make a statement. With great economy on the part of its maker, it puts a question to us; one that demands our attention in a way that far bigger statements often fail to do (and maybe there is something in this that Fuller did get right). In a dozen or so deft marks in oil paint, we see the future – or at least an allusion to it – albeit in the wider context of Cass’s larger works, as well. While there are much larger works in Cass’s exhibition Rising Horizon, this single work titled Arctic is no less important for its size.

But where am I going with this? To return to Peter Fuller for a moment, what occupied much of his concern as a critic was not the art he liked, but the art he didn’t like. Certainly what raised his ire most was the frequent dismissal of painting as irrelevant for our age (or at least the age in which he was writing) and I understand why. Not long after Fuller’s death, I once found myself proposing an article for the pages of Art Monthly to that magazine’s editor, Patricia Bickers. The work in question, I put to her, owed much to a tradition that stretched back through the School of London to Sickert, but was thoroughly contemporary in its ‘post-conceptual’ execution (Oh! how critics so loved style labels back then). Without seeing the work or asking to, however, my proposal was dismissed with Bickers simply announcing, “I’m sorry Ian, but Art Monthly doesn’t really cover painting any more”! Such an editorial policy, to me at least, seemed ludicrous, and it still does, for it was just as Stalinist in outlook as Peter Fuller ever was.

More than that, though, today it seems all the more ludicrous because I don’t give a fig about the medium, it is the message I’m concerned with. Things have moved on. We are no longer living in a world in which the threat of a pluralist aesthetic can result in a bland homogenous art (or at least that no longer feels like a pressing concern that requires much of our attention). Give me film, video, painting, sculpture, land art, whatever it may be, and from wherever it arises – geographically and/or theoretically – and attribute to it whatever style label you like. Only give it to me straight and make sure that it addresses the most pressing issues of our day. While I am not averse to losing myself in art that offers me just that (the losing of self, a moment for escape, for we all need that) I also need to feel the sharp end of life as it is experienced today, too.

Most of all, though, I need to see it addressed to me personally, and asking me what am I going to do? How will I respond to this work? I want to see it asking every other person who approaches that same work, what are they going to do, too. How will they respond? I’m done with big gestures and propagandising art that is often just as divisive and overbearing as anything Fuller ever wrote. Art (and the culture industries generally – as I have previously written in this series of posts), can play an important part in forming opinion and galvanising an audience; equipping them for what was is to come and the part they may choose to play if the will is there. Cass may be a maker of works that deploy a variety of media, but his work has a message, also; although it would be foolish to reduce it to a one-dimensional argument concerning our rapidly changing climate and all that goes with that.

Nonetheless, in this one work by David Cass that I have selected, above, this time it seems it is personal. The debate has shifted. What were concerns for art criticism in the 1980s may still remain and for some sound reasons, but the times that we are now living through (particularly with regard the state of the planet and our failed stewardship of it) has become a pressing subject for our arts, and not least Cass himself. The argument is no longer about the threat of internationalism, or an “informed provincialism in art, which looks for immediate meaning in local forms, and finds its larger sense through affiliation to a national tradition.” Instead it has become for some of us about how we can reach out internationally and forge links around issues such as climate change, leaving behind us the partisan squabbling over the threats posed by pluralism and internationalist ‘trends’.

Perhaps I am wrongheaded in extracting Arctic from the series of which it is a part, but, to co-opt that maxim of late-1960s Feminism… The Personal is Political… and although I’m not sure if David Cass would agree with me, I can’t help but feel that in his dozen or so painted marks upon a single pill tin that is attached to a thread spool, we find an intimate form of didactic art for our times – a ‘thing’, that is, that shows rather than tells, drawing the viewer in and asking a few very simple, personal questions: You see this here? This minute glimpse of the horizon far to the north of you, as if you are looking through the wrong end of a telescope? How do you relate to that? Can you? Will you? This is for you, like a whisper in your ear, and it is beautiful – Don’t you think?

NOTE: The stack series, from which Arctic (2017) is taken, earned David Cass the 2018 RSA Benno Schotz prize (most promising work by a Scottish artist under 35). (All images used with kind permission, courtesy of the artist, © copyright David Cass)


16 Dundas Street

30 January 2019 - 23 February 2019