Friday, 07 September 2018 15:51

McQueen (Bleecker Street)

In old interview footage included in the documentary McQueen, the late British designer Lee Alexander McQueen states, ‘If you want to know me, just look at my work.’ Relatively few had the privilege of seeing his extraordinary designs on the runway firsthand. Many more got to witness the results of his impeccable craftsmanship and raw, romantic vision at Savage Beauty, the landmark exhibition presented at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2011 and at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London in 2015. With this new documentary, the filmmakers Ian Bonhôte and Peter Ettedgui provide another, more far-reaching opportunity to view McQueen’s work, but also to learn that bit more about Lee McQueen, the man whose imaginative genius revolutionised the fashion industry.

The film is structured as a series of videotapes that chart McQueen’s life through the lens of some of his most important collections. These ‘McQueen Tapes’ cut between archival footage of his runway shows, interviews with the designer, old home video recordings, and recent interviews with family, friends, colleagues, and ex-boyfriends. Specially created animations of skulls, a common McQueen motif, divide the chapters, replicating the gothic drama of many of his shows. The musical score by Michael Nyman furthers this sense of the dramatic, though its use is at times rather overwrought. (Nyman’s music also accompanies part of The Met’s current Costume Institute exhibition, Heavenly Bodies, another stupendous opportunity for those in New York to see some of McQueen’s religiously inspired designs.)

Born in 1969, Lee McQueen grew up in a loving, working-class family in the East End of London. By his own account, he wasn’t very good at school and spent much of his time drawing clothes. With the support of his family, particularly his mother, to whom he was very close, he left school at fifteen to apprentice on Savile Row. Here, this scruffy-looking lad with a wicked sense of humour learnt the precise tailoring skills that would define his clothing. Subsequently, after working as an assistant to designer Romeo Gigli in Milan, McQueen enrolled in the Master of Arts Fashion programme at London’s Central Saint Martins.

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    In old interview footage included in the documentary McQueen, the late British designer Lee Alexander McQueen states, ‘If you want to know me, just look at my work.’ Relatively few had the privilege of seeing his extraordinary designs on the runway firsthand. Many more got to witness ...

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Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers should be aware that this review contains images or names of people who have since passed away.

During 2015 and 2016 the exhibition No Boundaries: Aboriginal Australian Contemporary Abstract Painting travelled to different venues in the United States. Drawn from the collection of an American couple, Debra and Dennis Scholl, the featured works were by nine senior Australian Aboriginal men. The exhibition presented the paintings of these male artists, and Indigenous Australian art more broadly, as vital examples of contemporary art conceived of on the most global scale.

Now another travelling exhibition, Marking the Infinite: Contemporary Women Artists from Aboriginal Australia, which is currently on view at the Phillips Collection in Washington, DC, does the same for nine female artists. Like No Boundaries, the Marking the Infinite exhibition consists of works from the Scholls’ collection. This time around, however, roughly half of these were commissioned directly from the artists, and many of the pieces are on a larger scale than the artists had previously executed. The results are striking.

Both exhibitions were organised by William L. Fox, director of the Center for Art + Environment at the Nevada Museum of Art, and Henry F. Skerritt, an Australian art historian who is the curator of the Indigenous Arts of Australia at the Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection of the University of Virginia. The title of the current show references a theme that unites the included artworks: that human mark-making can at one and the same time conjure an intense palpability of place and address the universal. As Skerritt observes in the opening essay of the informative accompanying catalogue, ‘over the past three decades, women artists from Aboriginal Australia have provided some of the most compelling and prescient examples of this type of world-picturing’.

The Phillips version of Marking the Infinite was arranged by Klaus Ottmann, the museum’s Deputy Director for Curatorial and Academic Affairs, and the installation frames this thematic connection well. Wall panels contextualise the works in relation to ancient Aboriginal Australian traditions and to global contemporary society (though more explanations of such complex cultural concepts as the Dreaming and songlines would have been helpful). Ottmann’s decision to present the works on walls of various colours, in largely warm, earthy hues, was particularly inspired, for it lends the show a grounded quietness, recalling the colours of the remote Australian landscapes where the women live and work. Against this unifying physical and thematic background, each artist’s distinct formal inventiveness lends the exhibition an exhilarating aesthetic liveliness.

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    During 2015 and 2016 the exhibition No Boundaries: Aboriginal Australian Contemporary Abstract Painting travelled to different venues in the United States. Drawn from the collection of an American couple, Debra and Dennis Scholl, the featured works were by nine senior Australian Aboriginal ...

Tuesday, 31 July 2018 12:11

Letter from New York

Obsession: Nudes by Klimt, Schiele, and Picasso from the Scofield Thayer Collection (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele: 1918 Centenary (Neue Galerie)

 

In 1993 Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library held an exhibition entitled Nothing but Degeneracy: Modernism at The Dial, which consisted of documents from the library’s archival holdings of the influential American literary magazine The Dial. While the magazine was established in the 1840s as a periodical for the Transcendentalism movement, in the 1920s The Dial was relaunched. Under the new ownership of James Sibley Watson Jr and Scofield Thayer, it became an important publisher of now-canonical modernist art and literature. It was in the pages of The Dial, for instance, that first appeared works such as W.B. Yeats’s poem ‘The Second Coming’ (1920), and Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway in Bond Street (1923), the short story precursor to her more famous novel. The title of the Yale exhibition referenced a letter from a contemporary subscriber of The Dial who objected to these new artistic forms as ‘nothing but degeneracy’.

As The Dial’s editor from 1919 to 1926, Scofield Thayer (1889–1982), the heir of a wealthy Massachusetts family, was the modernist magazine’s shaping influence. Alongside literature and criticism, he published reproductions of contemporary art. By including works by the likes of Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, and Henri Rousseau, he introduced the American public to the European vanguard which was then defining a new artistic style (such images likely contributed to the subscriber’s accusation of ‘degeneracy’). When Thayer died in 1982 at the age of ninety-two, he left his own vast art collection to New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, where part of it is currently being shown in the exhibition Obsession: Nudes by Klimt, Schiele, and Picasso from the Scofield Thayer Collection.

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    In 1993 Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library held an exhibition entitled Nothing but Degeneracy: Modernism at The Dial, which consisted of documents from the library’s archival holdings of the influential American literary magazine The Dial ...

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Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination, the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s latest blockbuster, is dazzling. Organised by Andrew Bolton, the curator in charge of the museum’s Costume Institute, the exhibition brings together contemporary fashion designs with the imagery of the Roman Catholic Church by which they were inspired. The featured outfits are presented on mannequins interspersed among the permanent artworks of the museum’s Byzantine and medieval art galleries, the Robert Lehman Wing, and The Met Cloisters, its branch in uptown Manhattan. Also included, something of a curatorial feat, are around forty vestments from the Sistine Chapel sacristy, which are on separate display in the Anna Wintour Costume Center. By way of this organising principle, the exhibition enacts a fashion-inflected storytelling pilgrimage.

Beginning in the Byzantine art galleries, five evening dresses from 2013–14 by Dolce & Gabbana, and five by Gianni Versace from 1997–98, are held aloft on pedestals in two separate hallways that display mosaics and other artefacts from the Byzantine world. The dresses’ glittering materials recall the tesserae of these ancient mosaics and both design houses drew inspiration directly from Byzantine religious sites, in Sicily and Ravenna respectively. While it feels somewhat incongruous to encounter these dazzling, high fashion garments in such a setting, their beauty, like the objects that surround them, is ravishing. This apparent inappropriateness aids the exhibition’s delight, drawing attention to the centuries-old artworks as much as to the recent fashions.

These runway-type displays give an indication of some of the juxtapositions that follow, but Heavenly Bodies as theatrical spectacle reaches its apex in the Medieval Sculpture Hall. In a space dedicated to the display of religious tapestries and statues of the saints and of the Virgin and Child, a haute couture fashion show, albeit one conflated with Roman Catholic ceremony, takes its place. The scenography here is breathtaking, with mannequins bathed in raking light while music by Michael Nyman adds to the dramatic, processional effect. Framed by a magnificent eighteenth-century choir screen, the clothing on display reflects that worn by different sectors of the Catholic Church here on earth, and by the angels and Virgin Mary of heaven as depicted in art.

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    Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination, the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s latest blockbuster, is dazzling. Organised by Andrew Bolton, the curator in charge of the museum’s Costume Institute, the exhibition brings together contemporary fashion designs with the imagery of the Roman Catholic Church by ...

I don’t remember how old I was when I first saw the film version of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie . As a young girl growing up in north-east Scotland, I didn’t know that it had been adapted from a 1961 novel of the same name by a writer known for her keen observational skills and biting wit called Muriel Spark, or that the story had first appeared, almost word for word, in the pages of The New Yorker. Indeed, I highly doubt I had heard of that august publication, let alone understood the writerly prestige of having an issue of The New Yorker devoted to one story.

But I do remember that when the indomitable schoolteacher Miss Brodie, as channelled by the equally formidable Maggie Smith, said this to her pupils, in her distinctive Edinburgh burr, I was smitten:

Little girls, I am in the business of putting old heads on young shoulders, and all my pupils are the crème de la crème. Give me a girl at an impressionable age, and she is mine for life.

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    I don’t remember how old I was when I first saw the film version of . As a young girl growing up in north-east Scotland, I didn’t know that it had been adapted from a 1961 novel of the same name by a writer known for her keen observational skills and biting wit called Muriel Spark, or that the story had first appeared, almost ...

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers should be aware that this review contains images or names of people who have since passed away.

New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art is known for its large-scale, ‘blockbuster’ exhibitions. These are usually impressive, often enlightening. But sometimes it can be even more rewarding (and less exhausting) to visit a show on a much smaller scale. Such is the case at the moment at The Met, where six paintings by modern and contemporary Indigenous Australian artists are displayed in On Country: Australian Aboriginal art from the Kaplan–Levi Gift. Installed in a room with four large windows overlooking Central Park – a deliberate choice by the curator, Maia Nuku – these magnificent works reference a very different landscape from the one visible through the glass. Yet the exhibition’s location skilfully acknowledges the cultural meaning of place that its paintings vitally express.

The works were a gift to the museum from an American couple, Margaret Levi and Robert Kaplan. After many visits to Australia and time spent living there (Levi, a Political Science scholar, was the Chair in Politics at the University of Sydney’s US Studies Centre from 2009 to 2013), the couple have amassed a considerable collection of Australian Aboriginal artworks. Their desire for greater awareness of this artistic sphere has led to collaborations with leading American museums, including the donation to The Met of eight paintings, six of which appear in On Country. Until now the venerable institution held only one work by a modern Australian Aboriginal artist, Anatjari Tjakamarra, which it acquired in 1989, so this is a key development in expanding appreciation for modern and contemporary Indigenous Australian art in the US.

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On entering the exhibition space, located in the museum’s Modern and Contemporary wing, the viewer is immediately struck by the scale and visual power of the six paintings – two by the acclaimed Utopia artist, Kathleen Petyarre (b. Utopia, c.1940), one by her granddaughter Abie Loy Kemarre (b. Utopia, c.1972), and one each by Doreen Reid Nakamarra (b. Warburton, c.1955–2009), Dorothy Napangardi (b. Yuendumu, c.1950–2013), and Gunybi Ganambarr (b. Yirrkala, 1973). During one of my visits to the exhibition, Ms Nuku informed me that it was jointly organised by the departments of Modern and Contemporary Art, and of the Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas, where she is an Associate Curator. While it was important for these acquisitions to be placed within the context of other international modern and contemporary artworks, she also noted her intention to clarify their continuing tie to a centuries-old tradition. The formal abstractions of Australian Aboriginal paintings have led to comparisons with Minimalism and Abstract Expressionism, and while this formal commonality may aid accessibility to the works, On Country emphasises that these compositions tell a different kind of story. To this end, the display of three late-nineteenth to mid-twentieth-century Indigenous pearl shell artefacts provide a – relatively recent – visual reference, and insightful wall panels locate the paintings historically and aesthetically, interpreting the paintings as visual mappings of sacred Aboriginal sites, or ‘Country’.

Mountain Devil Lizard Dreaming Sand Hill Country after HailstormMountain Devil Lizard Dreaming – Sandhill Country (after Hailstorm), 2000, Kathleen Petyarre, Gift of Robert Kaplan and Margaret Levi, Spike Mafford Photography © 2014, © 2017 Artists Rights Society (ARS)

 

 

A striking example of this is Kathleen Petyarre’s Mountain Devil Lizard DreamingSandhills Country (After Hailstorm) (2000). This depicts the creation tale, or Dreaming, of Petyarre’s Ancestor Being, Arnkerrth, the Mountain Devil Lizard, through the careful sprinkling of gold and blue dots on a large field of white. While this evokes the vast landscape’s multitude of sand grains, additional clustering of gold dots into a series of parallel lines, stretching from one side of the composition to another, captures Arnkerrth’s tireless journey beyond the boundaries of the canvas. In contrast to this focus on expansiveness, Abie Loy Kemarre chooses a much smaller nature motif to record the sacredness of Country. In Bush Hen Dreaming Bush Leaves (2003), Kemarre painstakingly repeats the image of a leaf in hues of red, orange, purple, and brown. These colour contrasts, and the pattern created by the hundreds of overlapping forms, call to mind both the leaves for which the bush hen forages and the flutter of its own feathers. It also creates the astonishing illusory effect that parts of the composition move in front of the beholder’s eyes. While many artworks in the history of art have a sense of internal movement, this is the first time that I remember blinking my eyes to check whether a canvas was straight, or whether sections bulged towards me or, indeed, moved. The sensation is what Australian Aboriginals describe as bir’yun, a term meaning shimmer, and it is a prized formal outcome, for it signifies the Everywhen; that the ancient story of the painting is still alive in the present.

Using a visual language of abstract patterning on large-scale supports, this potent effect is mastered by each of the show’s other artists. In Marrapinti (2008), Doreen Reid Nakamarra, the influential Papunya Tula painter, combines dotted horizontal and vertical lines to capture both the mesmerising movement of women walking to the sacred rock hole, Marrapinti, and of the landscape’s shifting sands; while the deep red and white dots of Dorothy Napangardi’s Karntakurlangu Jukurrpa (2002) create a startlingly complex pattern evoking the dynamic force of her ancestral Country. For the north-east Arnhem Land artist, Gunybi Ganambarr, the exchange of bark as painting surface – a centuries-old Aboriginal custom – for that of laminate in Buyku (2011) is an incisive political and cultural comment. While Ganambarr adheres to his community’s laws concerning art making by using a found object, the use of laminate focuses attention on the impact such industrial materials have had on traditional Indigenous land. Nonetheless, Ganambarr asserts the ongoing power of that land through an accumulative pattern of geometric shapes formed from incisions and earth pigments, creating a hypnotising image of Country.

On Country BuykuBuyku, 2011, Gunybi Ganambarr, ochre on incised laminate board, Gift of Robert Kaplan and Margaret Levi, Spike Mafford Photography © 2014

 

Not being an Indigenous Australian, I don’t pretend to fully understand, or to be able to access the sacred knowledge embodied within, the works of On Country. But the effect of the paintings’ skilfully rendered abstract patterning is such that they still powerfully convey the dynamic strength and cultural impact of an elemental natural landscape, even to the non-initiated. When I visited The Met exhibition, I happened to be reading Henry Beston’s classic book of nature writing, The Outermost House (1928). In Beston’s account of the year he lived alone in a small, isolated house on a Cape Cod beach, I came across, in one of those odd providential moments, a quote that goes some way to articulating what these works communicate, and what those who live close to nature seem to comprehend:

Dwelling thus upon the dunes, I lived in the midst of an abundance of natural life which manifested itself every hour of the day, and from being thus surrounded, thus enclosed within a great whirl of what one may call the life force, I felt that I drew a secret and sustaining energy. There were times, on the threshold of spring, when the force seemed as real as heat from the sun ... I think that those who have lived in nature, and tried to open their doors rather than close them on her energies, will understand well enough what I mean.

On Country Marrapinti Marrapinti, 2008, Doreen Reid Nakamarra, Gift of Robert Kaplan and Margaret Levi, Spike Mafford Photography © 2014 © 2017 Artists Rights Society (ARS)

 

At a time when those in power deny climate change, or seek to eradicate environmental protections, this small delight of an exhibition should be required viewing. Studying these paintings with the sun streaming through The Met’s windows, this elemental force vigorously confronts the beholder. Ironically, in the middle of New York City, these magnificent works bring us a little closer to the natural world.

On Country: Australian Aboriginal Art from the Kaplan-Levi Gift continues at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York until 17 December 2017.

ABR Arts is generously supported by The Ian Potter Foundation.

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    New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art is known for its large-scale, ‘blockbuster’ exhibitions. These are usually impressive, often enlightening. But sometimes it can be even more rewarding (and less exhausting) to visit a show on a much smaller scale. Such is the case at the moment at The Met, where six paintings by modern ...