Monday, May 10, 2010

Grace Jones by Chris Levine

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Grace Jones with laser and crystal bowler hat by Chris Levine
Grace Jones with laser and crystal bowler hat by Chris Levine (c) Chris Levine

One can hardly imagine the spiky dervish Grace Jones sitting still for a second, let alone remaining motionless long enough to have photographs (and plenty of them) taken for her portrait. Nevertheless, Chris Levine has managed to pin her down - in a manner of speaking.

Levine's exhibition at the Vinyl Factory - Stillness at the Speed of Light - captures the performance artist's restless activity in a very clever way: several of his portraits are in fact lenticular 3D portraits - holograms. Having shot many images of Grace's face in motion, Levine layers them and illuminates them with acid colours and lasers. When you walk past the portrait, her eyes demurely flutter open or shut or she sways slightly.

The laser beam bouncing off Jones' crystal bowler was Levine's contribution to her recent show at the Albert Hall, and he has made it a motif for this one, Jones' impassive stare daring you to look on as light shoots towards you.

Levine used this technique most famously with a portrait of the Queen, but it works especially well with Jones: for her, a machine of perpetual motion, only a moving portrait will do.

See Chris Levine's portraits of Grace Jones in motion here.

The most spectacular piece in the show is perhaps impossible to capture. By cutting an image of Jones into tiny vertical strips and feeding them into a flickering column of light, you see nothing when you stare directly at it, but as soon as you turn away, it appears in a flash in your peripheral vision, and disappears as quickly. Another perfect metaphor for Jones' heightened speed.

  1. Stillness (single)
  2. Stillness (triptych)
  3. Superstar (single blue)
  4. Superstar (single red)
  5. Superstar (triptych)
  6. Superstar (sequence blue)
  7. Superstar (sequence multicolour)

LUX/ICO Artists Cinema Commissions

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A still from 'Tomorrow Everything Will Be Alright' by Akram  Zaatari
A still from 'Tomorrow Everything Will Be Alright' by Akram Zaatari

In my parents’ day, apparently, one just turned up at the cinema whenever one felt like it, even if that meant the first thing you heard on entering the auditorium was Bogart signalling the start of a beautiful friendship. That doesn’t wash these days – the auteur put paid to that – and given the short films commissioned by ICO/LUX to run before the feature, we can only approve.

ICO, which supports independent film in the UK, and LUX, an agency for artists who work with film, asked eight international artists to make five-minute films, the results of which are being premiered at Cannes on 15 May. There is a fitness in this conjunction, film being the most popular medium of the 20th century and a key medium of 21st-century visual art.

The results are, expectedly for contemporary art, a mixture of linear narratives and semi-abstract mise en scènes, touching personal stories and alienating political works, the harmonious and disjointed.

Tomorrow Everything Will Be Alright by Akram Zaatari is the most obviously filmic: words magically appear on paper fed into a typewriter, and the person sitting at the typewriter engages with the ghost in the machine, who appears to be a former lover, taunting, teasing and tenderly enticing him.

It works as its own narrative, a taut romance played out in front of us, yet is almost suggestive of some sort of screenwriter’s madness, where he becomes so caught up in his writing that the characters come alive and type themselves. This film succeeds because it talks to the audience in cinematic terms it will understand.

That can’t be said for This Quality by Rosalind Nashashibi, which goes from a long take of a woman staring at the camera to sequential shots of unmoving cars. Unmoving is the word, although you might more kindly say “meditative”. The Last Days of British Honduras by Catherine Sullivan with Farhad Shamini requires far too much hinterland to be appreciated by the incidental filmgoer: if you (like I) have never seen Ronald Tavel’s play of the same name (and perhaps even if you have), you will instantly be lost in this maze of mysticism.

Pulmo_MarinaPulmo Marina by Aurélien Froment (pictured right) is the most visually abstract: a white jellyfish glows against an electric blue background, arresting like an Yves Klein, as a voiceover talks about the jellyfish’s nature and biology and the construction of the marina. Whereas most films tell a story in pictures, this film separates the two and makes you question the artifice of the whole medium, a little like those Downfall videos where Hitler fulminates against vegetarians or copyright theft, or John Baldessari’s early word-paintings.

There is no good reason why these films have to be “accessible”, since they are art, after all, but it is clear that some will work much better before films – engaging the audience, making them reflect on where they are and what they are about to see – than the obscurity of others. Nevertheless, the project is daring and thought-inspiring, and may well stir cinema-goers out of the torpor the darkened auditorium and the shining screen can easily induce.

Stuart Semple, Morton Metropolis

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Almost vibrating with tension: 'A Pounding Outside Poundland' by  Stuart Semple

Almost vibrating with tension: 'A Pounding Outside Poundland' by Stuart Semple (c) Stuart Semple Industries

Sincerity is not a quality the contemporary art world seems to value: the masking of emotions under layers of irony is where we stand. But while Damien Hirst paints from a cynical palette, British Pop Artist Stuart Semple's Nineties-inflected paintings have sincerity to spare.
The Happy House, his new show at Morton Metropolis and his first in London for three years, combines the commercial tropes of Pop Art as refracted through a certain naffness with self-portraits both visual and emotional.

This is clear in the show’s outstanding picture, A Pounding Outside Poundland, where Semple recreates the time he was assaulted outside the titular mart. It has the shrinking awfulness of the enthusiastic Poundland logo (“yes! everything’s £1”), the assailant in a skeleton tracksuit and mask, glaring at the viewer, and Semple in a kapow!-style stagger, complete with neon flashes to exaggerate the force.

comfortablynumb_high_2The way in which Semple plays with the time scheme – the skeleton has already hit him and turned away, while he is in the instant after the blow – gives each figure much more potency and individuality and puts the event in a permanent state of happening, the canvas almost vibrating with this tension. The cartoonish power-lines try and inject some levity but serve only to heighten the tension, like a weak joke at a wake. That this is all taking place outside Poundland makes it that bit grimier even as Semple is mocking it.

Anything before 2008 suddenly seems appealing, as suggested by titles like Comfortably Numb (pictured above right) and Killing Me Softly cribbed from golden oldies; the crosses emblazoned with “Our Price”, “Biggie” and “Working Class” in the former picture hark back to what is no longer with us.

These are very much post-recession works, disdaining the indulgent Noughties: there is a tiny Jeff Koons balloon-rabbit in silhouette in the far distance, and one of the decade’s stars, Kate Moss, is a cheap and corpulent patriotic stripper in Welcome to Middletown. (Nostalgia is, after all, free.) Pairs of suspicious eyes taken from the cartoon Trapdoor hang around the canvas, while the word “HAPPY” in emetic colours and manic-depressive arrangement suggests we are anything but.

KillingMeSoftly_LOW_RESIn Killing Me Softly (pictured left), Semple layers a message to a former lover over what looks like a Harajuku Lolita in front of a distant forest. Each letter of the message is in a different colour (in one of the matt paints he has designed especially for his work), dizzying the viewer as the girl stares out from behind huge red sunglasses.

The message in part reads “Maybe… you’ll see me as I paint this song”, and that captures what Semple is doing with this exhibition: by melding wide-ranging cultural references with an intense emotionality – finishing this painting with “i miss you… Good luck, Goodbye xxx” [sic] in his own script – and his vital yet sensitive technique, he is making Pop Art personal.