Imperfect Chronology: Debating Modernism II @ The Whitechapel Gallery

The Barjeel Art Foundation

In 2010 the Barjeel Art Foundation was opened, a museum and cultural institution in the United Arab Emirates created to manage, preserve and exhibit the personal art collection of Sultan Sooud Al-Qassemi.

Last December the first of four exhibitions opened at the Whitechapel Art Gallery next to Aldgate tube, showcasing highlights from the BAF collection. As the wall panel reminds us, the 22 nations of the Arab League are home to some 350 million people (same population as the USA). The aim is that the exhibitions, as a whole, will tell the story of Arab art over the past hundred years. It will feature over 100 paintings by 60 artists.

This is the second instalment – on show until 17 April 2017 – and it explores the development of abstract and figurative art in the twenty years after the fateful Six-Day War in 1967.

The first instalment featured forty oil paintings in one medium sized room. This one has only 24 paintings and immediately feels more relaxed and accessible.

The paintings

But as with part one, it still feels like a very mixed bunch, with all kinds of styles and subject matter hanging side by side. Again, it was difficult to get an overall view.

Central to the room is this large painting by Syrian artist Marwan. I thought it was a novel and interesting way to depict the human figure and face. Not much emotion. The oddity of being human.

The Three Palestinian Boys by Marwan Kassab Bachi (1970) Barjeel Art Foundation, Sharjah

The Three Palestinian Boys by Marwan Kassab Bachi (1970) Barjeel Art Foundation

Marwan had been represented in the first show by two of his characteristic, very big lampoon portraits, distortions, caricatures, Munif al-Razzaz (1965) and Der Gemahl (1966), now this. He is still alive and a quick google search shows that his later style changed out of all recognition since then.

Five silk screens from the 1980s by the influential artist Kamal Boullata (born Jerusalem) based on Islamic calligraphy – which is traditionally curled and flowing – abstracted and turned into geometric designs. I didn’t massively like them but they were the most distinctive works here. The Visitor Assistant in the room explained how Arabic letters had been reduced to primal elements, and also that they play with Islamic tenets, hence ‘There Is No ‘I’ But ‘I’’, an obvious play on the basic Muslim creed, There is no God but God.

La Ana Illa Ana (There Is No ‘I’ But ‘I’) by Kamal Boullata (1983) Silkscreen. Image Courtesy of Meem Gallery. Barjeel Art Foundation, Sharjah

La Ana Illa Ana (There Is No ‘I’ But ‘I’) by Kamal Boullata (1983) Silkscreen. Image Courtesy of Meem Gallery. Barjeel Art Foundation, Sharjah

Dia Al-Azzawi (b.1939), Iraq’s most influential artist, also featured in the first show with the powerful Mask of the Pretenders. He was a co-founder of the New Visions group in Baghdad but fled the regime in 1976 and settled in London. Here we have three works (only two of which I can find online):

  • Untitled 1976
  • Composition 1980 Maybe my favourite piece in the show. I liked the ragged outline of the work, made of two sections as if cut out by scissors, the way the tongue of colour hangs down at the bottom, and yet it is all finished with a strong sense of design and colour.

Azzawi is obviously a big figure with a major career and a large body of interesting work, but that doesn’t come across here, you have to visit his websites to see this.

Sulemein Mansour (Palestine 1947): Olive field

Abdul Qader Al Rais (United Arab Emirates) Untitled (1970). Surely this is very bad, the kind of thing you see lined up against the railings of London parks to be flogged off to undiscriminating tourists.

Walid Shami (b. Syria 1949): Maryam 1972

Hamed Nada (Egypt): Fortune teller and cat Superficially scratchy and angley like George Grosz, but really something different.

Tayseer Barakat (b. Palestine 1959): Untitled 1983

Fateh al-Moudarres (Syria 1922 to 1996): Al-Wahesh wal Muskeen, 1987. A red dog on the left is menacing some blue meanies in the centre.

Abdelkader Guermaz (Syria 1919 to 1996): Rêve 1975

Miloud Labeid (Morocco) Composition 1973

Shafic Abboud (Lebanon 1926 to 2004): Relief 1977

Farid Belkahia (Morocco 1934 to 2014): Aube

Huguette (b. Lebanon 1931) A very well known Arab woman artist, apparently. According to the wall label she is ‘drawn to nuanced representations of her own body’, and Erotic composition ‘focuses on the sensitivity of her own body.’ Compare and contrast with the women photographing their own naked bodies at Tate Modern’s Performing for the camera exhibition, from the same time (late 60s, early 70s).

  • City II (1968)
  • Erotic composition (1967) Googling this, you find out it’s only one of scores of similar drawings and paintings which refer very allusively to the body. Would have been nice to see a series of them to put them in the context of her work.

Jafar Islah (b. Kuwait 1946): Colour with black and grey (1968)

Ibrahim el-Salahi (b. Sudan 1930) In the present, 1987. One of the leading figures in Arab and African modernism, el-Salahi mingles traditional and Western depictions of the human figure. Like so many of these artists, he left his homeland and settled in England in the 1990s. Again, googling this image, I discovered there are scores more done in the same style. Displayed on its own it looks isolated and inexplicable. Set in the context of lots of other images done in the same style would help you understand how it is a complete way of seeing.

Hassan Sharif (b. UAE 1951): Man, 1980


It’s not a great exhibition, and only worth visiting for a few pieces (the Marwan, Boullata’s silks, the Dia al-Awazzi). Basically, for making a detour upstairs if you were visiting the Whitechapel anyway, for the Electronic Superhighway show. Mostly it looks like the undistinguished kind of provincial modernism my parents used to buy as posters or framed prints from Ikea in the 1970s. Lots of brown.

In conversation with the Visitor Assistant, we agreed we’d both seen more interesting, in fact some dazzling work, by some of the artists on display here. Most of the pleasure has come from googling these artists and discovering a world of achievement. It’s only by doing this that I’ve discovered how eminent (and great) some of them are.

Which leads to two thoughts:

  1. Four consecutive shows spread over the year, each dedicated to one of the obviously major artists here, would have had more impact. ‘An Arab Year’ would have been a real event. Tricky to choose which four, though…
  2. Maybe the Barjeel foundation, no matter how good its intentions, in fact only has a very average collection. Maybe what we’re seeing here is a misleadingly second-rate snapshot of Arab art, for the sake of comprehensiveness including works which are definitely not up to snuff, and even of the leading figures like Marwan or Dia Al-Azzawi only showing very average examples.

It’s whetted my appetite to see more of the better artists, just got to figure out where…

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Emily Jacir: Europa @ Whitechapel Art Gallery

The first UK retrospective of Emily Jacir, the Palestinian artist and film-maker, born in Bethlehem in 1972, raised in Saudi Arabia, and now based in Italy, a matrix of locations and identities reflected in her work. According to the introductory wall panel the show ‘investigates movement, exchange, transformation, resistance and silenced historical narratives.’

The exhibition is very white, with large expanses of white wall supporting often very small photos, letters, texts. Or very black, as you enter womb-like rooms to watch the four or five videos included in the show.

Emily Jacir - Europa (Material for a film) (, 2004 - ) Courtesy of the artist. Photo: Dan Weill.

Emily Jacir: Europa (Material for a film) (2004 to…) Courtesy of the artist. Photo: Dan Weill.

In the year of Jacir’s birth, 1972, Palestinian intellectual Wael Zuaiter was gunned down by Israeli Mossad agents outside his Rome apartment after being wrongly identified as one of the terrorists reponsible for the murder of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics.

Material for a film (2004 to… )

large installation in several rooms bringing together documents, letters, photographs, newspaper cuttings associated with Zuaiter, as well as audio clips of Mahler’s 9th symphony, a transcription of which was found on his desk, and photos of the neighbourhood which Jacir got friends of the murdered man to walk her around while reminiscing about him. There’s a grim photo of the copy of 1001 Nights which he wanted to translate into Italian: 12 of the bullets fired at him entered his body, a 13th wedged in the spine of this book, as you can actually see.

Emily Jacir Material for a film (detail) (Wael Zuaiter's 1001 Nights) 2004 – Multimedia installation, 3 sound pieces, 1 video, texts, photos, archival material, devised in part with the support of La Biennale di Venezia. © Emily Jacir.

Emily Jacir Material for a film (detail) (Wael Zuaiter’s 1001 Nights) 2004 © Emily Jacir.

My opinion: Initially rather scrappy and patchy, slowly these fragments coalesce to give a sense of the possibilities inherent in a documentary film about Zuaiter and the shooting; the disparate elements create a sense of potentiality, of numerous ways the visuals, the texts and the music could be combined to create different flavours, shed different lights, tell different narratives.

linz diary (2003)

Jacir posed at 6pm for 26 days in a row by a fountain in a public square in Linz, then got stills of her pose, in rain or shine, in sickness and in health, from a webcam positioned on a rooftop looking down at the square. Result: 26 x 6-inch-square, colour photographs with winningly banal comments underneath (‘posing with umbrella in the rain’, ‘here despite flu’ etc).

My opinion: So-so snaps. Didn’t light my fire.

from Paris to Riyadh (1998 to 2001)

Throughout her girlhood Jacir regularly flew with her mother from Europe to Saudi Arabia. En route her mother took a marker pen and blacked out every scrap of female flesh in her copy of Vogue magazine in order for it to clear Saudi customs. Now Jacir has gone back over library copies of every Vogue between 1977 and 1997, selected one page, and re-enacted her mother’s action, but first placing transparent sheets of vellum over the pages. Result: 249 page-size sheets of vellum pinned to the wall in two massive rectangular blocks, each one covered in apparently random black shapes. Except they are not random, they are the traces of the images of women’s bodies. Thus Jacir can claim the work ‘speaks about traversing the space in between two forms of repressing women; a space in which the image of women is commodified and a space in which the image of women is banned’.

My opinion: The more I looked, the more I liked it. The more the two poles made sense, the more the polarity of black and white exemplified it. The more the randomness of the shapes took on several layers of meaning, not least the personal homage to her mother’s memory.

stazione (2008 to 2009)

Created for the 53rd Venice Biennale, Jacir translated the names of each vaporetto station along Route 1 of the Grand Canal in Venice into Arabic and placed her translations alongside the official signs. Result: 30 or so colour photos of the bilingual signs. As if on cue, the municipal authorities stepped in and curtailed the ‘project’ ordering them to be removed.

Emily Jacir stazione (2008 – 2009) Public intervention on Line 1 vaporetto stops (Arsenale) Commissioned for Palestine c/o Venice, Collateral event of the 53rd International Art Exhibition La Biennale di Veneza. © Emily Jacir.

Emily Jacir stazione (2008 to 2009) Public intervention on Line 1 vaporetto stops (Arsenale) © Emily Jacir

My opinion: 20 or so very average colour photos of boat stops along the canal with Arabic next to the Italian. Not earth-shattering.

ex libris (2010 to 2012)

160 photos in various sizes, ranged around the walls of a medium size room, just some examples of the thousands of books belonging to Palestinians which were looted in 1948 and have ended up in the Jewish National Library in Jerusalem.

My opinion: So-so photos. Poignant subject matter.

ENTRY DENIED (a concert in Jerusalem) (2003)

Austrian musicians Marwan Abado, Peter Rosmanith and Frantz Hautzinger were invited to stage a concert in Jerusalem. Marwan was arrested on arrival at Tel Aviv airport on 20 July 2003, held for 24 hours, and then expelled on grounds of ‘security’. Jacir invited the trio to stage the concert they would have put on in Israel, in an empty theatre in Vienna and filmed it. You can watch the whole concert projected on a large screen in a blacked out room.

My opinion: By now I was getting a feel for how Jacir’s works are about silencing and repressing – voices, thought and, here, music. The music is brilliant, by the way, two guys playing traditional drums and a stringed instrument, the third playing mellow jazzy trumpet in a wonderful world music fusion. But in an empty theatre. And deprived of its intended audience in Palestine.

Change/Exchange (1998)

Jacir set out with a hundred dollar bill and changed it into francs. Then back into dollars. then into francs. And so on. After 60 exchanges she was left with just small change which no shop would accept. The work is a series of colour photos of the money change booths and shops she used, with each receipt tacked underneath.

My opinion: As photos these are nothing special, but I like the flappy, blu-tacked receipts underneath them (I like sculpture or artifacts made from day-to-day objects). And I liked the basic idea of watching capital whittled down to nothing. Another example of the movement towards the silence, dwindling, reduction, which is a core theme of Jacir’s.

Lydda airport (2009)

The old Lydda airport was a stopping off point for British Imperial airways. This five minute black and white film uses an old Handley Page propeller plane from the time to create a nostalgic sense of a vanished age. Lydda airport itself has disappeared, built over by the renamed Ben Gurion airport (repression). And the film also tells the story of a man tasked with meeting world famous flyer Amelia Earheart off a plane with a bunch of flowers but the flight never arrived. (Theme of silence).

Emily Jacir Lydda Airport (2009) Photo: Jason Mandella © Emily Jacir, courtesy Alexander and Bonin, New York.

Emily Jacir Lydda Airport (2009) Photo: Jason Mandella © Emily Jacir, courtesy Alexander and Bonin, New York.

Four layers of sadness and absence – the vanished empire, the beautiful old planes, the renamed airport, the disappeared woman flyer. This is in a way the most incharacteristic of all the works because it has the sentimentality of an actual movie – the gallery chose a still from it for the poster advertising the show as if she were a fashion photographer from the 1940s, which couldn’t be further from the truth.

embrace (2005)

A circular motorised sculpture which looks like an empty luggage conveyor system reduced to the size of a circular sofa, going round in circles, going nowhere.

la mia mappa (2013)

A large colour photo of a blue puddle with the reflection of an Italian building.

luggage (1998)

A colour photo of paper in a river, with a small duck.

nothing will happen (eight normal days in Linz) (2003)

Colour video from a static camera positioned on a rooftop overlooking a square in Linz watching people walk around, trams come and go, church bells ring, a siren go off…

Installation view: Emily Jacir: Europa (Nothing Will Happen (eight normal Saturdays in Linz) (2003) Courtesy of the artist. Photo: Dan Weill.

Installation view: Emily Jacir: Europa: Nothing Will Happen (eight normal Saturdays in Linz) (2003) Courtesy of the artist. Photo: Dan Weill.

Maybe I missed a key moment, but this seemed very dull.

Tal al Zaater (1977/2014)

In another act of reclamation or republishing, Jacir has been heavily involved in reconstructing footage of a black and white documentary made about the August 12 1976 massacre which took place in the Tal al Zaatar Palestinian refugee camp north east of Beirut during the Lebanese civil war.

My opinion: Obviously the events themselves are horrific but the viewer judges it as film and it has a cool, non-European, black-and-white stylishness of, say, The Battle of Algiers, the unfamiliar street sounds and language intercut with posturing politicians and the sound of gunfire and screaming. I didn’t wait or want to find out if we actually see people being machine gunned or shots of bloody bodies. This happened, but in the 20th century so many disgusting things happened that it is impossible to even list them all, let alone have any emotional reaction. But Jacir is putting it back on the map, the big, bloody, horrible map of twentieth century atrocities.

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Adventures of the Black Square @ Whitechapel Art Gallery

I wrote about the big retrospective of Malevich at Tate Modern in August last year. This is rather like the sequel: Malevich II – The Square Goes Global.

Kazimir Malevich (1879 to 1935) was a Russian avant-garde artist, architect, designer and writer. From early naturalistic paintings of peasants, farm scenes etc he evolved quickly towards the legendary exhibition – titled The Last Futurist Exhibition of Paintings 0.10 – in 1915 which exhibited 39 paintings of black squares, rectangles and other geometric shapes on a pale cream background.

Up in the corner of the room, where the Russian icon was traditionally situated, was placed the famous black square painting. Famous because it declared the end of four or five centuries of Western art struggling to create and exploit the idea of depth and perspective in an oil painting. Malevich tore up the entire notion that a painting is a realistic window onto the world. Painting is shapes on a flat plane. Shapes, colours, whatever you want. They can do anything. There is infinite scope. Painting set free. He called his version of the new, geometric art, Suprematism.

(The work below isn’t the black square, but one of Malevich’s other black and white geometric works which featured in the famous show.)

Kazimir Malevich Black and White. Suprematist Composition 1915 Oil on canvas 80 x 80 cm Moderna Museet, Stockholm Donation 2004 from Bengt and Jelena Jangfeldt

Black and White. Suprematist Composition by Kazimir Malevich (1915) Moderna Museet, Stockholmonation 2004 from Bengt and Jelena Jangfeldt

This exhibition at the lovely, airy Whitechapel Gallery, right next to Aldgate East tube, takes Malevich’s iconic square and tracks its influence through the hundred years since its début, right up to the present day. 1915 to 2015. The catalogue says the show is divided into four themes:

  • ‘Utopia’: the black square as founder of new aesthetic and political horizons
  • ‘Architectonics’: floating geometries that suggest new social spaces as imagined by Lyubov Popova or Piet Mondrian
  • ‘Communication’: the flood of early 20th century manifestos and avant-garde graphics
  • The ‘Everyday’: the square around us, for example in textiles by Sophie Taeuber-Arp, in abstract motifs painted on Peruvian lorries, in random white squares photographed in cities around the world etc

In practice the show consists of one or two works each by over a hundred artists. A hundred! From the past hundred years. From all around the world (Europe, America, Brazil, China). That’s a lot of names, a lot of countries, a lot of styles, to get anywhere near grasping.

Therefore, I found it easier to manage – and I found the division of four rooms fell easily into – a simpler, binary schema: the first room shows the Early Modernism of Malevich and his generation of likeminded experimenters, in painting, sculpture, architecture, photography, ballet and music, in Europe (and Russia).

The other three rooms show geometric art from The Rest of the Twentieth Century, from around the world, in all its bewildering variety.

Part 1. Early Modernism

Malevich’s name is one among a flood of other innovators from the period just before the Great War to the mid-1930s. Other pioneers given passing mention or featured by one choice work here include El Lissitsky and the Hungarian-born Laszlo Moholy-Nagy (who took up a post at the Bauhaus when it was formed in 1919) and Wassily Kandinsky – breath-taking experimenters, as well as the often overlooked woman artist Lyubov Popova.

Lyubov Popova Painterly Architectonic 1916 Oil on board 59.4 × 39.4 cm Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh

Painterly Architectonic by Lyubov Popova (1916) Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh

Gustav Klutsis produced a number of designs and images which make clear the avant-garde’s association with revolutionary politics, with the wish to use new ways of seeing, building and designing to create a new society, whose socialist mechanistic schemas have been revived periodically ever since, in posters, and album covers, and other art school-inspired media.

Gustav Klutsis Design for Loudspeaker No.5 1922 Coloured ink and pencil on paper 26.6 × 14.7 cm Greek State Museum of Contemporary Art – Costakis Collection, Thessaloniki © ARS, New York and DACS, London 2014

Design for Loudspeaker No.5 by Gustav Klutsis (1922) Greek State Museum of Contemporary Art – Costakis Collection, Thessaloniki © ARS, New York and DACS, London 2014

Surprisingly, maybe, alongside the German and Russian avant-garde was a thriving Dutch one, epitomised in De Stijl, founded in 1917. Its most famous member was indubitably Piet Mondrian, who developed the grid paintings of rectangles of white, yellow, red or blue which are one of Modernism’s most immediately recognisable achievements.

Piet Mondrian Composition with Yellow, Blue and Red 1937–42 Oil paint on canvas 72.7 × 69.2 cm © DACS, London/VAGA, New York 2014 Courtesy Tate Collection: Purchased 1964

Composition with Yellow, Blue and Red by Piet Mondrian (1937 to 1942) © DACS, London/VAGA, New York 2014. Courtesy Tate Collection

Modernist magazines

The show features quite an array of magazines from Germany, Russia, France, Britain, from the Modernist moment during the Great War until well into the 1930s, including Ezra Pound’s Blast, which I reverenced at school in the 1970s; the Little Review, home to Eliot and Pound; transition, containing another instalment of the long experimental work by James Joyce which became Finnegan’s Wake – these I know from their literary associations – but also on display were a lot of others I’d never heard of from across Europe, featuring the trademark experimental typefaces, designs and layouts of the period.

Modernist photos

As well as paintings and magazines, the exhibition has a fine selection of photos pinned to the wall as well as a large video screen showing a large slideshow selection of early modernist pioneers at work. the visitor can spend a happy 6 or 7 minutes just standing watching the procession of wonderful black and white photos from the 1910s, 20s, and 30s. Most memorable from the slideshow were shots of Piet Mondrian’s apartment-cum-studio and Wassily Kandinsky supervising students at the Bauhaus painting sets for a theatrical production.

But it also made me think all over again (like the Malevich exhibition, like the Bauhaus exhibition did) that whereas a lot of these super-famous paintings turn out to be quite small and quite amateurish, and a lot of the buildings were never built or are crumbling Art Deco ruins that you’d walk past without a second look, and all the magazines seem surprisingly small, plain and dusty – the photographs of the period still pack a tremendous punch and are maybe the best medium for conveying the unbridled energy and experimentalism of the 1920s and 1930s.

I especially liked three by Werner Mantz, who I’d never heard of before. ‘During the 1920s and ’30s Mantz photographed functionalist architecture such as houses, factories, bridge constructions and motorways. The pictures are extremely detailed with .. bold cropping and angles.’ Wonderful.

Photos like this made architecture far more exciting than it could possibly be in real life, and helped to encourage the notion that architecture could create new societies, new politics, new human nature. All of which turned out to be desperately wrong.

Room 1 with its priceless examples of early Modernist geometric art

Room 1 with its priceless examples of early Modernist geometric art

Part 2. The rest of the century

So far the show is a highly enjoyable refresher course in Modernist Art. You could leave now, pick up a book on the subject in the airy bookshop, and spend the rest of the day reminding yourself of the glories of European Modernist art.

But the real point of the show is the remaining rooms, which contain a bewildering smörgåsbord of styles and approaches and media and artists, old and young, male and female, from Europe, the Middle East, South America, from schools and movements I had never heard of, from the 60 plethoric years since the end of World War Two.

Quite overwhelmed and spoilt for choice, I could only give them each a fair crack of the whip and see what made an impact, what lingered. I’ve placed the following in chronological order:

Hélio Oiticica Metaesquema 464 1958 Gouache on board 29.8 x 33cm Courtesy of Catherine & Franck Petitgas Photo: Todd White Photography © the Artist. All rights reserved

Metaesquema 464 by Hélio Oiticica (1958) Photo: Todd White Photography © The Artist.

  • Swatch of Snap Fasteners by Běla Kolářová (1964) Very funny, very striking, very light and imaginative and visual.
  • Third Syntagmatic by Jeffrey Steele (1965): his career has been spent creating geometric images according to complex mathematical formulae. BBC slideshow of Jeffrey Steele paintings
  • Poem by Saloua Raouda Choucair (1965): Simple. Brilliant. Yes. A rounded geometry.
  • Homage to the Square by Joseph Albers: Albers appears to have done quite a few homages to the square, the one exhibited here being in shades of orange.
  • Roberto Burle Marx: never heard of him before, and why not, when he appears to have made wonderfully colourful paintings of abstract but sinuous and organic shapes, very life-full, very Brazilian.
  • 10 x 10 by Carl André (1967): slender square slate tiles laid out in a square and which we are allowed to walk on (unless we are wearing stilletos). Minimalism. Flat. Open. There. No secrets.
  • Monument for Tatlin (1969) by Dan Flavin: a tribute to the famous ideal Russian avant-garde plan for a vast building-cum-radio transmitter for the new Soviet state, cast in Flavin’s trademark ‘minimalist’ fluorescent tubing. Though a properly trained art student might be able to argue this is subversive of something, from our perspective in 2015 it looks a lot like the real political threat of Tatlin’s building (broadcasting revolutionary propaganda to Europe) has been completely subsumed into the fluorescent department store and office lighting of consumer capitalism.
Dóra Maurer Seven Rotations 1–6 1979 Six gelatin silver prints 20 × 20 cm each Collection of Zsolt Somlói and Katalin Spengler © Dóra Maurer

Seven Rotations 1 to 6 by Dóra Maurer (1979) © Dóra Maurer

This striking image from the eminent Hungarian artist Dóra Maurer consists of seven iterations of her holding a large photo in front of her face, and in each iteration it has become populated by versions of the photo, increasing in number and density. So striking it is used for the poster of the entire exhibition, not Malevich’s square. Another reminder of the power of black and white photography.

  • Dmitri Prigov: locked up in an insane asylum in 1986, Prigov was a post-War dissident Russian artist, represented here by images of books in the cold Russian snow, an image I can’t find on Google.
  • Shrunk by Angela de la Cruz: experiments with breaking up the wooden frames which hold canvases in a rigid rectangle, preserving and sometimes painting the resultant wreckage of the traditional mechanism of Western art.
  • Sceaux Gardens Estate by Keith Coventry (1995) One of less well-known of the 1997 Sensation artists, Coventry has made paintings out of the architect’s designs for big housing estates in London, implicitly satirising the utopian hopes of the early Modernist architects who intended to make Ideals For Living and socialist paradises for the workers with their concrete and steel tower blocks.
Gabriel Orozco Light Signs #1 (Korea) 1995 Synthetic polymer plastic sheet and light box 100 × 100 × 19.7 cm Courtesy Marian Goodman Gallery, New York © the Artist

Light Signs #1 (Korea) by Gabriel Orozco (1995) © The Artist

  • I Don’t Remember by Clay Ketter (2006) There appear to be numerous works with this title, so I’ve linked to a bunch of them on Google Images: I always like painting which is rough-finished, the canvas frayed round the edges like Paul Klee’s, or the readymade painting surfaces of Alfred Wallis, which featured the St Ives exhibition at Dulwich Picture Gallery, or Jasper John’s works with stencils and bits of flag or crate or found material stuck to the surface. Ketter’s are large photographs of the walls of derelict or half-demolished buildings with panels of real world materials stuck on, to create a mix of naturalism and collage. Big. Striking.
  • Rings by Sarah Morris (2008) Now I google it I find Morris seems to have done numerous works featuring rings and titled rings. To be honest, I didn’t like the shiny Duluz gloss finish of what could, possibly, be 1960s Pop Art paintings, but there’s no denying their vigour and impact.
  • Top Secret 32 by Jenny Holzer (2010) a satire on the numerous ‘redacted’ documents which have featured in public life in recent years, from dodgy Iraq dossiers to the Edward Snowden revelations, as well as vast troves of documents involved in bank scandals
  • Leadlight by Adrian Esparza (2012) Esparza appears to have created a mode of art from disassembling woven tapestries and displaying the constituent threads into shapes, squares and so on, displayed across whole walls of galleries.
Zhao Yao Spirit Above All 1-93A 2012 Acrylic on denim 200 × 222 × 8 cm Private Collection © Zhao Yao Courtesy Pace London

Spirit Above All 1-93A by Zhao Yao (2012) © Zhao Yao. Courtesy Pace London

  • October Colouring-In Book by David Batchelor (2012) The art magazine October has been published since 1976 but never featured an illustration in colour. To take ‘revenge’, British artist David Batchelor dismantled an edition of the magazine and coloured every page with different shapes and outlines and colours, and the 20 or so separate framed pages take up one wall of a room, and are lovely and bright and inventive and unthreatening and funny.
Gallery 8, including works by Keith Coventry, Clay Ketter and Angela de la Cruz.<br /> Photo Stephen White

Gallery 8, including works by Keith Coventry, Clay Ketter and Angela de la Cruz. Photo Stephen White

Thoughts and reflections

1. Stepping out into the gritty diesel sunlight of Commercial Road and then strolling along the backstreets to Petticoat Lane and so between the forest of tall, commercial buildings towards Liverpool Street Station, made me notice how modern architecture, in particular, is made up of squares and rectangles, whether of glass or concrete slabs, squares and rectangles everywhere. How so much of the hard-edged geometry of the vision of Modernist architecture has been completely assimilated into the buildings that surround us.

2. BUT – as in Hannah Starkey’s large photos of women alienated in the stark steel and glass atriums and waiting rooms of modern commercial buildings – how that Modernist vision of soaring glass and steel buildings, far from offering the liberation from bourgeois convention and society which the early Modernists envisioned, turned out to be the perfect style for fascism, communism or, in our time, corporate capitalism. In all its guises, a style equated with power and control. Sure it successfully replaced the fussy decorativeness of Victorian and Edwardian architecture – with a new brutalism, a physical setting for the worship of youth, power, money, control.

3. One of the last items was a video by Karthik Pandian, bang up to date as it was completed this very year. Reversal Red Square Video (2015) is a highly finished sequence of photos of cool looking dudes in darkened bars or studio spaces, across which float red rectangles of varying sizes and shapes with a minimal humming soundtrack. Simple idea, but with production values much higher than your usual art video, and calmingly mesmeric in effect.

As I sat watching these red shapes drift across the screen I thought, What about the biggest and most blindingly obvious embedding of the black square in our lives today – the screen? Most of us spend most of our day looking at the screens of desktop computers, laptops, ipads, ipods, or our smart phones (as I am as I write this, as you are as you read this).

I was surprised there didn’t appear to be a single work reflecting on the omnipresence of the rectangular screen in every aspect of modern life, and all the issues of power, control, connectivity, superficiality versus depth, speed versus reflection, and so on which we are all having to engage with whether we want to or not.

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