Saturday, October 26, 2013

Ancient art, modern art

WP_20131026_052 (631x1300)A deep low-pressure area has developed west of England, and forecasters are predicting a “Once in five years” storm to hit the coast tomorrow evening, bringing torrential rain and 80 mph wind.  I’ve serendipitously booked a flight to the US for Monday afternoon, my first in seven months.  Now I have my fingers crossed that the worst will be over so the plane can get out from Heathrow.

Ahead of the gale, the wonderlijke wezen and I determined that it would be a good day to get out to some Gallery shows in London.  Two in particular, the display of Chinese scrolls at the V&A and Sarah Lucas’ modernist works at the Whitechapel, looked fascinating.

WP_20131026_047 Stitch (1300x1266)Masterpieces of Chinese Painting opened today, but the crowds and entry fee were both modest and the exhibit takes about an hour and a half to see.  It features dozens of horizontal and vertical scrolls, many a thousand years old, along with commentary that helped me to make sense of what I was seeing (the direction to read, the figures, the use of colour or application of paints). 

Some works are little more than rough sketches around lakes or impressionistic mountains (shanshui), while others are finely detailed scenes of life in cities extending for many meters.  I liked the portion from 950-1250 best, the blend of poetry and image, the smoky landscapes, the large representations of nature and the compact intrusions of man, underfoot the mountains and trees.

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And the dragons!  Again, highly individual and wonderful faces capping generic bodies, similar to the styles of the Terracotta Warriors.

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I always learn a lot by looking, reading, discussing, comparing with my own experiences.  Water and sky are both represented by whitespace, softer edges against the liquid, harder against the air, the horizon indistinct and implied.  The tree trunks flowed like water between the leaves; the rocks were hard-edged and immovable lower in the same picture.WP_20131026_044 (1300x843) WP_20131026_035 (855x1300)

Black and white mountain receded into the distance just like I saw during my visit: coloured ones were more definite, improbably built of stacked planes.  And the city scenes were delightfully detailed depictions of street life during the period, sometimes wrapped in a story or lesson.

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WP_20131026_083 (1300x732)Sarah Lucas was part of the Young British Artist’s (yBa) group that formed in the late 80’s, creating controversial and confrontational sculpture and exhibiting in warehouse spaces. Damian Hirst is the group’s most famous member; Sarah Lucas was likely the most hard-living (The Guardian had an excellent profile of her).

Her art doesn’t disappoint: it’s unlike anything I’ve seen before and carries a lot of feeling.   There are a lot of repeated motifs and techniques, but I think she’s exploring a space rather than refining the work.  She is not subtle. Her medium, usually toilet bowls, panty hose, balloon-like sacks and cigarettes, are combined into troublingly stained erotic tableaus.

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I’ve been forcing myself to lean into difficult conversations with people lately.  I caught myself subtly avoiding them, taking control of uncomfortable flows and steering into less provocative topics by asking lots of questions and offering personal anecdotes. I’m resisting that temptation now, staying present in their moment and experiencing their feelings (the feminist perspective, applied broadly).

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This show is similar: the full experience demands that I stay present in uncomfortable dialog with her work, letting her visual feeling wash over me, rather than making a small joke and moving along.   I like her “Nuds” a lot, contorted sculptures of soft fabric or reflective metal that remind me of my worst days.  The wire-frame Bunnies are amusing, the schematic depictions of breasts and legs wrapped around chairs are thought-provoking.

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WP_20131026_058 (691x1300)In the end, I liked both exhibits a lot, but for totally different reasons.  There was comfortable and uncomfortable, fusion of feeling with image, expression of poetics in medium, artefacts that are each surprising and individual, separated literally by a thousand years.  The anger of the modernist work contrasted with the calm of the ancient scroll  ,but both implied the separation, sometimes alienation, of social humans from their natural states of being.