Anna Maria Maiolino: Making Love Revolutionary @ Whitechapel Gallery

Sometimes with an artist you just get a feel – you know their work feels right – even when there’s stuff you don’t like you somehow feel that, deep down, you’re on the same wavelength.

I loved this exhibition, the first major exhibition in the UK to present a survey of Brazilian artist Anna Maria Maiolino, who was born in 1942 and so is nearly 80 years old. Here’s the Whitechapel’s promo video:

Born in Calabria Italy during the war, young Anna Maria emigrated with her family to Venezuela in 1954 and then onto Brazil in 1960 and it was here that she completed the art studies she had begun in Caracas.  In 1963 she married the artist Rubens Gerchman and the following year the military seized power in Brazil, imposing a repressive, fiercely conservative regime which lasted twenty years.

The Whitechapel’s main gallery space is spread across two floors, and they made the decision to put Maiolino’s big and impactful, more recent works on the ground floor and the older, earlier stuff up on the first floor: but I’m going to reverse the order.

Upstairs – politics, woodcuts and paper

She and Gerchman were, of course, part of the artistic resistance to the regime. The earliest works are woodcuts deliberately made in a popular accessible style and drawing on the wood engraving tradition of north-east Brazil. I liked the good humour in these immediately.

ANNA by Anna Maria Maiolino (1967) Photo by Vicente de Mello

They describe universal experiences – birth, eating, talking – in this simple, woodcut style but still imbued with a combination of teasing humour but also something quite profound.

In 1968 the couple moved to New York and Maiolino, though much of her time was spent bringing up their two children, found time to make a whole series of deliberately primitive drawings, verging on cartoons, which I really liked.

Untitled from the series Between Pauses by Anna Maria Maiolino (1968-9) Courtesy collection of Lisa and Tom Blumenthal

There is a big section about her experiments with paper in the 1970s, experimenting with its use as a sculptural material in all kinds of ways, cutting, folding, tearing and burning paper to animate both sides. She created series with multiple levels of paper, the top level with holes or shapes or patterns cut out.

There are a number of these paper cutout maps, sometimes with scorched edges. One of the best was a big big black sheet of cartridge paper in which she had cut out the silhouette of Brazil to reveal another sheet of black cartridge paper a few inches further down.

Black Soul of Latin America (1973-96) from the series Mental Maps by Anna Maria Maiolino

Photos

Then there’s a room devoted to her photos. Without exception they are black and white art photos and they are all brilliant – funny deadpan, surreal. There are ones of her in simple art poses, pretending to cut off her nose with scissors, a classic image of her, her mother and her daughter facing the camera and linked by a loop of string from their mouths.

By a thread from the series Photopoemaction (1976) by Anna Maria Maiolino, photo by Regina Vater

There is a brilliant series of photos with eggs – a rough male hand holding a white egg, an egg in a scrunched up newspaper, an egg nestled between someone’s thighs, a number of eggs carefully placed across a mattress, and a brilliant triptych of white eggs placed on a cobbled pavement and someone walking carefully between them bare-legged.

Between Lives from the series Photopoemaction (1981/2010) by Anna Maria Maiolino, photo by Henri Virgil Stahl

Frankly, they could have had a room or two of just her photos and I’d have paid to see them.

Downstairs – clay, sculpture, prints

Downstairs is the main gallery space, the one you walk into when you first enter, one big space in which the curators have very tastefully and effectively arranged series of more recent works made by Maiolino in clay, sculpture, drawing and indicios.

Clay

The most striking genre or type of work are the big coils of clay sausages. Remember making long sausages or snakes out of plasticine as a kid? Maiolino used her hands to turn nearly one ton of red clay into a huge heap of intertwining sausage shapes specially for this exhibition. The idea is that the loops will dry out, turn to dust and eventually return to the earth, in line with a long-standing interest she has in eating and excreting.

Anna Maria Maiolino with her unfired clay sculptures Anna Maria Maiolino: Making Love Revolutionary at Whitechapel Gallery. Press Association

Sculpture

Rolling on from the clay sausage snakes, is a series of fired clay works which stick clay shapes – such as a load of bonbon shapes or curves or sections of tube – onto square clay bases and then hanging these on the wall. It was about this point when I realised that I just like her stuff. Whether it’s woodcuts or experiments with paper or wonderful photos or fun with clay – something deep down connects with everything she’s done. It all seems just fine.

From the series Codicils by Anna Maria Maiolino. Photo by the author

Another series is of very distinctive cubs of clay which have been eaten away. The visitor assistant explained that slabs of clay are placed within cube-shaped metal containers and then Maiolino uses water to eat away at them, lets them dry, then removes the metal frames to reveal strange underwater grotto shapes.

Installation view of Anna Maria Maiolino: Making Love Revolutionary at Whitechapel Gallery. Photo by the author

Drawings

Upstairs we saw how Maiolino produced numerous drawings start with her stint in New York in the late 1960s, then evolving to all kinds of experiments with cutting, folding, piercing and tying together paper.

Continuing her experiments with paper, downstairs there are quite a few abstract works made by simple actions and chance. She drops the ink onto a blank sheet and then moves the sheet around to make the ink roll and curve, forming all kinds of shapes.

Untitled from the series Phylogenetics (2015) Anna by Maria Maiolino, photo by Everton Ballardin

Many of these are standalone works, which are all appealing in their way, but the most impressive thing is where they’ve assembled 30 or so of them into a huge wall of abstract shapes – you can see it in the background of this general view, a series titled Drop Marks, suggesting an alphabet but one that is too large, abstract and interrupted…

Installation view of Anna Maria Maiolino: Making Love Revolutionary at Whitechapel Gallery

Indicios

Another way of experimenting with paper is to stitch onto it. Maiolino created a series titled Indicios by stitching through paper and drawing a line through the stitch pints, and filling the resulting ‘drawings’ with lines crosses and webs. What is interesting about these is the gaps between the stitches – they all look unfinished and suggestive of something, as if memory is straining to join the dots and complete the image of a picture which isn’t quite there.

Installation view of Anna Maria Maiolino: Making Love Revolutionary at Whitechapel Gallery showing Indicios

This is a lovely, peaceful, beautifully laid out exhibition full of lots of beautiful, humorous and inventive wonders.


Related links

Reviews of other Whitechapel Gallery exhibitions

Bill Woodrow @ the Royal Academy of Arts

As the promotional material says:

‘This exhibition presents the first comprehensive survey of work by the sculptor Bill Woodrow RA. Comprising around 50 works, the exhibition spans Woodrow’s entire career and explores the themes of his oeuvre from the early 1970s to the present day, highlighting his humour and inventiveness and underpinning his influential role in contemporary sculpture. The exhibition is held in Burlington Gardens, the Royal Academy’s new venue for contemporary art.’

This is not a sell-out exhibition which is a shame. When I got there at 11am it was empty, which meant it was lovely and peaceful to wonder around and let your imagination respond and be inspired by Woodrow’s wonderful creations.

A fairly simple story emerged: In the 50s and 60s there grew up an orthodox school of Modernist sculpture represented by Anthony Caro who made big sculptures in bronze or welded steel, although abstract and Modernist in design, they clearly came from the tradition that sculpture be big and impressive.

1. Early works Woodrow arrived at St Martin’s School of Art in 1968 just after Richard Long and Gilbert and George had graduated and begun to create a movement against the previous generation, invoking conceptual art to find material in the everyday world of the East End (G&G) or on epic walks through strange landscapes (Long). Initially Woodrow followed this line of thinking, in his earliest works such as Untitled 1971 and Corral which feature sticks and images of the countryside. I also liked Babylon, two rows of a dozen ancient bricks holding down a long scroll-like photo of, presumably, the ruins of Babylon.

2. Cutouts and Breakdowns The next and biggest room in the exhibition contained some dozen of the works for which he’s best known. Woodrow seems to be happy to group his works into series with thematic connections. So the cutouts series emerged as he took aviation shears (!) to household white goods and cut out of them strange shapes. Imagine an enormous artillery shell, as tall as a man, a beautifully designed industrial  artefact – and half way down the metal  has uncurled, has been cut away and the shards reworked to for a swallow, painted realistic colours, a natural lifeform emerging from a mass-produced industrial product (nature v man; peace v war) – The Swallow (1984). A kettle has had the bottom cut open an the strands of metal shaped into a giant scarab beetle – The Glass Jar (1983).  Hanging from the ceiling is the fabulous Twintub with Satellite (1982). An elaborate version has a series of wires running from a dismantled filing cabinet yards and yards across the floor to the detached drawers while a a metal monkey leans down to grasp a revolver attached to a hanging  bowling ball (!) – Red Monkey (1985).

Alongside this are examples of the Breakdown series in which he dismantled common white goods and arranged every component in a mat in front. Hence Tape Recorder (1979) and Hoover Breakdown (1979) which made me laugh out loud, and Spin Dryer with Bicycle Frame including Handlebars (1981). A florid example is TV Blind (1979) where the elements derived from smashing in the screens of seven televisions are arranged to spell out the words ‘TV Blind’. Ah the good old days when smashing up a TV was an act of rebellion against the culture industry, or something. A long time ago, a quaint gesture in these days of smartphones, ipads, laptops and desktops which stream TV live or recorded everywhere, to everyone, night and day.

This room put me in a brilliant mood: every artefact was funny, clever, shrewd, well-made, doing what I love most about modern art, showing the incalculable depths of beauty in the everyday. I stood in front of a vast wall-sized sculpture made of bicycle frames arranged into a cross between a family tree and a totem pole and felt glad to be alive and in a world so bursting with opportunities for beauty and invention – Bicycle Frames (1980).

3. Back to sculpture Apparently, his tremendous output during these years, and the inventiveness and originality of these series cemented his reputation, when he made a surprising career move. With success comes money and the ability to experiment in new media and Woodrow took the opportunity to learn more about bronze and steel, precisely the materials used by the previous generation of monumental sculptors and which his generation, born in the 40s and 50s had rebelled against. Along with the more ‘finished’ feel of these constructed works goes a move towards narrative: the pieces tend to be telling some kind of story.

Future Perfect (1988) For Queen and Country (1989) Regardless of History (1998) Cell (1997). The key element in the earlier work was their ‘foundness’ – the viewer shares the imaginative leap of seeing a swallow in a shell, a beetle in a teapot, a satellite in a spin dryer – and the roughness of finish, their punk ethos. Both elements disappear in the later work, which is designed, planned and ‘constructed’ not found – and has a high degree of finish, immaculate metalwork covered in immaculate paintwork which gives many of them an antiseptic, sterile feel.

The sterile feel is worst in the NavigatorEvaluatorRevelator series. Here the white skulls of large animals are placed on smooth blocks of woods, each painted a nice Farrow & Ball colour. Completely failed to engage me, it felt like walking around a  display room in John Lewis or Ikea. Revelator series (2006), Ultramarine Navigator (2005), Kimono Navigator (2005).

Also, in the earlier work the ‘political’ aspect, or the social comment, was implicit in the works: the mere act of dismantling consumer goods is a statement, but a statement implicit in the act. In the later works the social comment or author’s message becomes more obtrusive, and the more obvious it is, the more it risks appearing trite.

There is a beekeeper series, designed to show the delicate balance between nature and man or something – hence Beekeeper and Four Hives (1997). The images, the work, don’t justify the message. Something like Rack 14 (2007) is very well-made but, like the immaculate later Damien Hirst, who cares.

In the final room were a number of new series, the most striking of which were the Inuit series and the Anaconda series. Anyone who labours to tell us that the eskimo way of life is under threat from rapacious western oil companies is on a level with the people telling us the Amazon rainforest is under threat. It is not so much art as visual slogans, the art equivalent of a Guardian pullout or Channel 4 documentary. Far from filling me with a sense of wonder and surprise, as the cutouts did, these works gave me a heavy sense of thumping inevitability.

On this page of the BW website you can click to see the six works from the Black and white series which feature 3-inch high models of Inuit eskimo (made of bronze, painted white) going about their business thumping seals or building igloos or steering sleds, on layers of white ice based in pools of black. That’s the oil sitting under their habitat which wicked western companies want to tap. Geddit?

The Anaconda series from 2009-11 is more inspiring. These also use realistic human figures, these ones a foot or so in height, looking like native tribesmen and, in the various pieces, carrying either a very long anaconda or individual anacondas wrapped round their bodies – Anaconda (2009). For me these had real mystery and strangeness about them and one in particular, of figures carrying snakes waist-deep in water between big lilypads, seemed rather marvellous – Victoria Amazonicanaconda (2011).

Conclusion Bill Woodrow continues to create new works. Go see the show or any new shows you hear about. Check out his website. And make your own mind up.

Bill Woodrow talks to Studio International about his exhibition at The Royal Academy of Arts, London from studio international on Vimeo.

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