Alan Davie @ Tate Britain, Review

Published in Artlyst, 2nd May 2014


Detail Entrance To A Red Temple no 1#


This mini retrospective of the recently deceased Alan Davie (September 28, 1920 – April 5, 2014) presents eight of his works owned by the Tate, each representing a key point in the long and highly unique career of this artist, saxophonist and all round spiritualist.

‘All round spiritualist’ being a deliberately fluffy term; for Davie was uniformly pantheistic in his approach, seeking inspiration in runes, symbols and the mystical which cannot be easily comprehended by our modern Western eyes. In pursuing these spiritual interests entirely independently, the resulting artwork appears alien to and exists outside any structured artistic movement or stylistic tradition. Thus, without helpful explanations one might easily conclude that the artistic realisation of the purely spiritual is – contrary to clichéd and hippyish notions of the ‘beautiful’ Zen – actually very grey and ugly, far from aesthetically enlightening, with imposing, almost violent canvases of vigorous and impulsive strokes. Indeed, the traditional ideas of spirituality through aesthetic beauty (major e.g. being the Renaissance) are revealed to be incidental, nay, unrelated. In this way, Davie sought to connect with “mysterious and spiritual forces normally beyond our comprehension”; his works similarly so.

This makes for a less than pleasurable visual experience, but then Davie illustrates how this is not the point, firmly believing that the ego to be the enemy of true art and as such searching to represent by means of the id, or as much by impulse as possible. Thus we should recognize 1955’s ‘Birth of Venus’, a violent, indistinguishable mess – for there is little cohesion or pattern – as the byproduct of the artistic process, representative of the instinctive method, rather than a singular visual result. Completed shortly after reading Eugen Herrigel’s book Zen in the Art of Archery (1953), the importance given to spontaneity by Zen beliefs have clearly made an impression on Davie’s method, whereby the artist stood over the work laid on the floor, rapidly applying layer upon layer without pause or hesitation. Interestingly, though this method is quick, the length of time that elapsed during its creation indicates the sheer number of layers he must have applied and reapplied, reworking continuously, not travelling towards some preconceived image, but finding spiritual release through his submission to instinct. We must recognize therefore an alternative mode of beauty, manifest in the visualisation of subconscious, intrinsic feeling, in this uniquely Jungian approach to painting.

A shift in focus occurs in later work, returning to representational painting though limited strictly to a universal vocabulary of symbolism, and maintaining the characteristic process of applying innumerable layers of not necessarily corresponding imagery. ‘Entrance for a Red Temple No.1’ of 1960 is shown next to a video of its making; though filled with more legible motifs and pattern, that the resulting painting looks nothing like it did in the video only hints at the many hidden layers that must exist below the surface, applied over the three years of its production. It is more visually coherent and accessible while staying faithful to the spiritual ideal of the automatic method. The depiction of several assorted calligraphic signs, drawing from ancient art and architecture, including the enigmatic ankh symbol of a cross with a loop at the top, attempts to convey the timeless or the universal, being collective of many signs but representative of no specific religion. The result is perplexingly cryptic, evocative of any unnamed place of worship. In bringing to us an image of magic, its symbols deciphered and represented to us via an intermediary, Davie asserts his belief in the artist posited as a shamanic figure.

It is a shame that further elements to Davie’s oeuvre are not explored; a keen jazz musician renowned for free improvisation, this would have fed into the themes of instinctive painting well. Similarly, unlike previous retrospectives which sought to show the original sources for the symbolic content of his work, such a comparison here would be fruitful. Viewed in isolation, given the inaccessible and challenging visual nature of the works, this is not helpful in introducing the new viewer to Davie’s work. It is a shame, as, once grasped, his whole outlook is indeed visionary – a word not lightly bandied around. Perhaps this is down to the speed with which the show had to be mounted following his recent death.

We have some tantalizing snippets however. Some pieces of early jewellery are shown in which we can easily detect his fascination with the universal language of symbols, favouring simple, almost primitive shapes and designs not unlike votive pieces. Similarly, a couple of photographs suggest more fascinating connections and inspiration, including Davie with a Carib Petrograph of ca. 2000 BC in Venezuela. The caption mentions how Davie delighted in the fact that no one has deciphered the ancient Carib Indian rock carving; crucially this informs our understanding of Davie’s quest for the ancient and cryptic and his interest in the eternal power of symbols.

The display is sparse, curated with clear examples of significant points of Davie’s career, a solemn and quietly respectful affair – perhaps fitting for a shaman, the man who has seen the spiritual – leaving the powerful works to speak for themselves. However, to first time viewers unfamiliar with the works and the methodology behind them, (they are deliberately cryptic, after all), it is not an easy introduction. I am not for spoon-feeding visitors, however for paintings that are so relatively obscure to the more common trends of representational art, additional supporting material – such as the fascinating connection with jazz music and travelling – would give viewers grounding to these highly mystical pieces.

Matisse Cut Outs @ Tate Modern, Review

Published on Artlyst 24th April 2014.

There is little to fault in terms of curation of ‘The Cut Outs’, a chronological survey of Matisse’s late period of works constrained to the medium of paper and scissors rather than paint and brush, a progression forced by his ill health in this latter stage of his life. Where retrospectives often trace the origins and development of an artist’s method and style, ‘Cut Outs’ occurs at a point in the artist’s career when Matisse was well and truly established and matured.

Starved of an arc of development – the two mediums being in practical terms mutually exclusive, affording no mid ground between the transition from one to the other – the Tate has only to display thematic examples under a wide curve showing a general increase in scale and ambition; such as the ‘Blue Nude’ or ‘Zulma and Creole Dancer’ sequences. In addition, the very nature of the medium of paper cut out, or decoupage to give its French name, while displaying textural features like wrinkled surfaces (Matisse lamented that print reproductions flattened these subtleties) nonetheless has none of the surface richness of other mediums such as paint or sculpture. The emphasis is on colour almost as a medium – Matisse referred to it as such when describing his “cutting directly into colour” – which effectively excludes the importance of surface texture. To someone used to standing close and reading every inch of surface, be it painting or sculpture, the sheer number of pieces in this mode (14 rooms of them), combined with a developmental arc that is more simplistic than most surveys of this scale, made for a show less rewarding for its length and inclusiveness. One can’t help but compare to the richness of Miró’s huge scale works shown in these galleries a few years ago, bearing similar enormous swathes of bright colour, though rendered in textural paint. There can be no sensational claim to ‘genius’ in this body of work, and the show makes no such claims, so the best attitude is to browse through (crowds at this ‘blockbuster’ ensure this anyway) and absorb the bright compositions which are fizzing with energy, invigorating and playful. What emerges is how Matisse used this method of work to overcome the physical confines of his illness, a man in primal need to saturate the eyes with joyous, healing colour. The pieces are most rewarding when approached in a similar mindset.
Within the surface of paint the viewer seeks the artist’s hand, perceiving each stroke to be the result of a careful balance between mental intention, and the coordination of hand and eye. The resulting image is what allows us to recognise distinct, characteristic artist styles. Cut outs revise the fundamental approach to a two dimensional surface; a video here showing Matisse cutting through paper held before him using an oversized pair of scissors helpfully illustrates this difference, highlighting an interesting new interplay between the dimensions. This, combined with the physical difficulties of wielding such instruments, increases the distance between the mental intention of the artist and the resulting contours of the two dimensional shapes. Though we learn that Matisse directed assistants to pin and re-pin compositions, the very outlines of the shapes betray the overriding influence of chance over intention. Some will delight in the thrilling unpredictability of the enterprise, or the resulting childlike qualities of the shapes. Others will struggle with the somehow inhuman absence of the artist’s hand. As such, the room showing various attempts at the ‘Blue Nude’ composition, and the obvious struggle against the cumbersome method, will either fascinate by this comparison of results, or infuriate by the method’s refusal to let the artist’s hand realise itself.
Though pieces such as these present the cut out method as problematic and unyielding, there are nonetheless thoroughly joyful works throughout the show. ‘The Horse, the Rider and the Clown’ encapsulates the better qualities of the medium; it hinders any possibility of representation of complex iconography, firmly rooting the works in the most basic, therefore universal, of iconographic content. Similarly, the clean delineation of colour, minimising tonal variance, betrays an actually very sophisticated choice of palette. Indeed, though the representation of the iconographic elements and surrounding shapes is most simple, even naïve, their overall composition together evokes many wider iconographic possibilities, from resembling a textile or print, a child’s vision, or a dream. An undeniable sense of movement and energy emanates from the surface lent by the chaotic cutting method, contributing to the idea of the image as impermanent, transient.
In this sense however, towards the latter works Matisse appears to have departed further from the notion of traditional representation and iconography; later works are defined by enormous scale, and are populated most commonly by seaweed-like splodge shapes compulsively churned out. The enormous ‘The Snail’ of 1953 hints at the spiral shape with increasingly large squares spiralling out from the centre of the image. The emphasis by this point is on scale, method (‘Acanthuses’ contains more than a thousand pin holes where compositions were revised repeatedly, according to Tate conservation analysis) and more obviously than before his primal urge to surround himself with colour and shape, breaking the boundaries of his physical confinement. A rare later painting is shown amongst the ‘Zulma and Creole Dancer’ sequence made from brief sketches of a dancer performing in his studio. Against these incredibly youthful and sophisticated pieces, skilfully showing receding space and depth, is 1951’s ‘The Tree/L’Arbre’, a sorry, rather flat collection of stiff dark strokes against white. The comparison is perhaps unfair to the medium of paint, but illustrates well how his physical condition preferred the cut out method.
The relatively simple story of stylistic development within this method during the latter years of this extraordinarily well established artist makes for a straightforward curating exercise. It is possible to intellectualise the period in comparison to other mediums, and some will feel the need to due to the lack of chunky concepts and ideas to get one’s teeth into. Nonetheless, this and the universally appealing works make this is an extremely accessible show, and one cannot fail to enjoy the infectiously joyful colour and wilful abandon of traditional representational methods. The explosion of Matisse-themed stuff available to purchase in the gift shop is ‘themed’ such simply by making products bright and colourful, which perhaps betrays the key selling point of this show – the overriding feel-good appeal of colour – and presents the absolute opposite end of the spectrum (no pun intended) to the overly conceptual brain-teaser exhibitions ‘Ruin Lust’ and ‘Art Under Attack: British Iconoclasm’ recently mounted by its sister gallery, Tate Britain.