Archive for Art

The American Scene: Prints from Hopper to Pollock. Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester, 19 September – 13 December 2009

Posted in Art, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , on October 17, 2009 by joeshervin

George Bellows, A Stag at Sharkey's, 1917

George Bellows, A Stag at Sharkey's, 1917

The American Scene chronicles American printmaking from the early 1900’s through to 1960, a timeframe of vast economic, political and social change. The vibrancy of the Jazz Age was culled by the crippling Depression, before the Second World War consumed all, and the post-war period slowly clawed away at regaining stability. All of which is detailed by this very real, very gritty exhibition.

Beginning with the urban, everyday etchings of John Sloan and the dark, brutal works of George Bellows in the early 1900’s, we are confronted with a harsh reality of violent American gutter life, from grubby prize-fighting to chaotic asylum wards and overcrowded high-rise tenements. It is a very savage, yet very honest, portrayal, as much engrossing as it is gruesome.

Cloud-piercing skyscrapers embodied the construction of the Modernist, industrial ideal in the 1910’s, especially the formidable, angular skyline of New York City. Louis Lozowick and Charles Sheeler’s precise, geometric representations of the Big Apple underpin the enormity and scale of such a bold industrial programme.

The optimism of the 1920’s, however, was swept aside following the Wall Street Crash of 1929, as the country itself crashed into economic hardship. Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal programme, however, in particular the Works Progress Administration, promoted the worth of the graphic arts, and commissioned the outlay of socially-centred prints, aimed at recording the economic plight and championing its recovery. We are thus presented with representations of both bleak working conditions, and bright illustrations of hope and prosperity.

The epic struggle of The Second World War demanded patriotic support, and printmaking was employed to promote the necessity and virtue of the war effort. Colourful nationalistic pride boasted of American might and the assurance of victory.

Following the realism and horror of war, abstract expressionism was elevated as a creative escape. The spontaneity of the works of Jackson Pollock offered a new, exciting release from the drudgery of the Depression and the war, honouring the experimental above the ordered.

This shift is outlined brilliantly by The American Scene, an exhibition that not only reflects the social conditions of the time, but doggedly drags us in to experience them ourselves. We feel the grittiness of underground city life, witness the sorrow of the Depression and sense the patriotism of the Second World War. It is an engaging, sometimes sombre, sometimes exciting, timeline of real American life, dark and dirty, yet passionate and busy.


Rodchenko & Popova, Defining Constructivism – Tate Modern

Posted in Art with tags , , , , on April 24, 2009 by joeshervin

id_169_lrg1Defining Constructivism showcases the avant-garde works of Russian artists Aleksandr Rodchenko (1891-1956) and Liubov Popova (1889-1924), two pivotal figures in the outbreak of Constructivism, an experiment that followed the Russian Revolution and sought to dismantle the old order of classic art. Artistic beauty was trampled by mass produced, constructed, industrial works. Painting was abandoned in favour of photography, advertising, film and graphics.

The subject matter is sharp and mettlesome, the visual experience is foreboding and impressive. It frogmarches you through 12 rooms, outlining Rodchenko and Popova’s progression from abstract painting to graphic designs. It forces you to encounter illustrations, 3D objects, and even cinema along the way. It proves a powerful reminder of muscular early communism.

This was art for the people, not the individual. The artists wanted the work to look and feel like it had been manufactured, as though it was a factory product. The result was sharp, angular and aggressive art that varied from bold adverts for state products to violent political magazines. Art no longer separated people, it bound them together.

The exhibition not only recalls the forcefulness of early communism, but also its innocence. Hindsight unravels to us the deficiencies that the communist system couldn’t hide, but this artwork presents us with an insight into its initial euphoria and boundless potential.

It is a grand, adventurous and optimistic throw back. It represents the widespread belief in a new way of life. Soviet Russia had disbanded Tsarist Imperialism and the people had taken centre stage. Defining Constructivism powerfully illustrates this shift. Art was no longer the prerogative of the bourgouise, rather the necessity of the proletariat.

Chilling, perhaps, to witness this work knowing of the consequences of the system it promoted, but equally, if not more so, fascinating because of it. Defining Constructivism offers the visitor a peek into a period of history when people exuberantly believed their lives to be changing forever.

Timely, then, that the exhibition should surface during this current economic downturn. The capitalist banking system has been brought to its knees and many ponder the efficiency and sustainability of the capitalist principle. Disillusion with capitalism inevitably leads to a harking for an alternative. Defining Constructivism presents the most famous alternative at its dynamic, youthful best.

Instantly recognisable, and highly influential, the Constructivist style used sharp angles and block lines to create a powerful and imposing look. Striking, vivid colour, mish-mashed with photo-montage and brash typography, to unleash affecting and unforgettable images. Rich colour aligns itself aside robust messages.

Social, political, and historical significance are each reason enough to visit Defining Constructivism. That the exhibition is visually stunning is a terrific bonus. Mechanical and considered pieces line the walls, industrial yet engaging. It can be at once charming and harrowing. The 12 room lay out requires persistence and willing, but rewards with an interactive, dominating experience: educational yet enthralling.

Road to Ruin?

Posted in Art with tags , , , on April 24, 2009 by joeshervin

getattachment1Common, Common, a brash and funky bar situated in the heart of Manchester’s unapologetically cool Northern Quarter, automatically justifies itself as the ideal place to meet Richard Roberts, a front-running street artist emerging from the Manchester scene. The walls are plastered from floor to ceiling with artwork, a new exhibition occupying the venue every few months, as artists are invited in to daub the place as they see fit. Roberts’ own work, I’m to learn, even graces the outside wall of the snazzy nightspot. It all adds up to a colourful, quirky setting for an interview with a colourful and quirky character.


I hoped to learn of Roberts’ own personal story, yet to also discover his views of graffiti as a wider genre, especially following the recent arrest of street artist Shepard Fairey, the man responsible for the red, white and blue ‘Hope’ posters that formed the backdrop for Barack Obama’s presidential campaign. Mr Fairey was arrested for property damage, yet his work is being proudly displayed at the prestigious Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston.


“It’s silly to me”, laughs Roberts, “it’s not as if he [Fairey] is some kid going round tagging random property. He has been endorsed by the most powerful man in the world! His work should be appreciated, not vilified. He’s not destroying things, he’s creating them.”


Public regard for street art, on the other hand, is not so clear cut. Whilst many admire the complexity and aestheticism of the practice, many more dismiss it as a needless nuisance.


Roberts himself, certainly appears the archetypal grungy graffiti artist. Low-slung baseball cap hangs casually above a mopped, tangled beard. A baggy t-shirt droops lazily over clumpy combat trousers. His scruffy appearance, however, contrasts sharply with his precise and elegant artwork.


I myself have already become accustomed to some of his more celebrated endeavours. He performed live at the Manchester Eurocultured street festival in the summer of 2008, under his alias Ruse. Alongside other talented illustrators, he conspired to transform New Wakefield Street into a whirling mass of intricate colour. His spiky graffiti can also be seen emblazoned across shop shutters throughout the Northern Quarter, and, one that he’s especially proud of, surrounding the entrance door to South nightclub. “Yeah, that one’s cool. It’s quite an iconic Manchester indie club, and the entrance was even used in a photo advert for Harley Davidson. There’s a big motorcycle parked in front of South, with my artwork virtually filling up the rest of the space. It’s great!”


It transpires that he’s also travelled with his work, partaking in the prestigious Dot The Eyes exhibition in Copenhagen, “absolutely awesome city”, alongside some “very drunken, very funny”, trips to Austria and Dublin. He works on a variety of canvasses for smaller graphics too, including sheet metal and wood. He has designed tattoos and decorated trainers, including work on a campaign for New Balance.


Some of the work that he finds most gratifying, however, is that which benefits others. In February 2009, he orchestrated a workshop for a Primary School in Burnley, which resulted in a wall of the playground being transformed from ugly grey brick to a “kind of psychedelic zoo with animals playing in a band”. He grins, “the nippers designed all the characters and even helped with the fills.” In November 2008 he painted a van for the Youth Contact Team, a mobile unit branch of the Manchester Youth Arts Network, an outreach programme that believes all young people should have access to art of some form.


“Doing those kind of jobs is really rewarding,” he ponders, “usually communities look down on things like graffiti, so it’s great to have people encouraging you and giving you positive feedback. Working with kids is brilliant. They’re so creative and fun, it kind of brings out the big kid in you. They respond really well to fun activities. It’s cool when you think that you’ve brought out the artistic sides in kids who might not get the chance to show it otherwise.”


It’s this positive shine of graffiti that Roberts is keen to stress. “I can understand people getting annoyed about graffiti, especially if it’s on their property or in their neighbourhood, and I agree that a lot of it can be tacky and ugly, but there’s so much more to it than scallies with spray cans. It’s a valid art form and just as valid as any other. When done with skill and passion, it can be incredible. Just look at Banksy, his work is selling for thousands of pounds nowadays. It’s obvious that it’s a popular activity. I get lots of people congratulating me on my work at shows, which is ace. It proves that people like it and can understand the artistic merit.”


This brings us neatly back round to the issue of Shepard Fairey. “His [Fairey’s] work is mint. It can proudly stand up next to any art form in the world as far as I’m concerned. He shouldn’t be treated like a criminal. It’s like the DPM crew in London all over again.” The DPM crew, I’m animatedly told, are a gang of South London graffiti artists that were jailed for defacing public property in July 2008. As they were locked up, their work was hung up at the Anonymous Gallery Project in New York, in a display entitled DPM – Exhibit A, which unashamedly flaunted both the convicts’ artwork and criminal charge sheets side by side.


Both cases highlight the ever-strained divide between people’s opinions regarding street art. For Roberts, however, the artistry of the spray can is undoubted. “With graffiti, you don’t have to visit a gallery or a museum to see brilliant art. More often than not, people will come across it by accident. I love the fact that some random person might check out my graffiti on his way to work. It could even brighten up his morning. It might…” he giggles, “Even inspire him to be creative.”