Sunday, 18 March 2018


02 Academy, Brixton, London, Fri 9th March

It’s another axiom of Lucid Frenzy that a great band can combine apparent contradictions. At the Drive-In for example, were a full-on hardcore punk band who managed to pack in the most left-field manoeuvrers. They were like a switchblade knife that was simultaneously a corkscrew.

And I did sometimes wonder if what made them burn so bright also made them burn half as long, with their releasing just three albums then quitting at their peak. As if contrapedal forces finally reasserted themselves, they split into the proggy, jazzy Mars Volta and the “cleaner, more accessible” Sparta. And the two were never as good apart.

So will the reunited band manage to reassemble, like that movie scene where the split parts of the amulet recombine to reignite the magic? Or, would they just be, to quote an old lyric, “dancing on the corpse’s ashes” of their grand reputation? They’re clear still at the top of the crowd’s heart, spurring many singalongs. But initially, it veers towards the second option.

Much of what permitted ATDI to perform their magic trick was the twin guitars - the switchblade edge of Jim Ward combining with the corkscrewing of Omar Rodriguez. (Who’s cited Frank Zappa, Robert Fripp and John McLaughlin as his influences.) At the Drive-In are still driving, still full of force. But those twin guitars merely make a wall of noise to underline the vocals. it’s switchblade at the expense of corkscrew. Despite the fact that it’s Ward who’s absent from the reunion. (Seemingly dropping out at the last minute, and replaced by Keely Davis, also ex-Sparta.)

I had given up all hope and started to figure I should just settle for what I was getting, when relatively suddenly they managed to click back in. What had been pure frontal assault gains depth and breadth, and songs take on strange and unexpected elements. Even the ones you know well.

They strike up noise between tracks, meaning the next number erupts from it as if a sculpture arose from a single stroke. And, something I previously witnessed from seeing their re-reformation incarnation Antemasque, in the midst of well-known tracks such as ’Enfilade’ they introduce long, slower and much more hypnotic sections – influenced more by soul and reggae than hardcore punk. They’d stretch for long enough to leave you almost forgetting the original number, before breaking back into it. The original ADI didn’t tend to pull such switches , and were more given to superimpose each element over one another. Which perhaps that gives them an extra novel effect.

The encore, perhaps predictable but still a welcome choice...

Cafe Oto, Dalston, London, Sat 11th March

The legendary trance/ drone/ impro outfit Vibracathedral are celebrating their Twentieth anniversary. Somehow I have only succeed in seeing them once before, in a short set at the Colour Out of Space festival. So, even though I was only up in London the previous day, tonight I’m back.

Some music you need to search a little before you find a way to listen to it. As if your head’s a radio, you need to tilt it to the right angle for you to tune in. But VBO are almost the opposite. As the five members bang, strum and pluck away, barely ever looking at one another and seemingly just off on their own thing, the surprising thing is how perfectly it all fits together. It’s not head-scratching music, it’s heart-lifting.

This may be partially down to the magic unifying power of the held drone. Provided in the opening section rather wonderfully by someone simply tra-la-laing. At times you feel like they’re packing a rhythm section a more conventional band would burn their A+R contact list for, even when their ‘drummer’ is merely hitting cymbals placed on the floor.

Perhaps there can be no bigger praise than saying how much it reminded me of Terry Riley. Not just the raga influence. Or the metronomic pieces, playing what often sounds like snatches from riffs or melodies, or the ‘holy groove’ sonic shimmer. Or even the sense of the eternal present, where the music somehow shifts into something else entirely without you noticing until they’ve done it.

More because it has Riley’s spirit, his combination of wig-out exuberance with transcendentalism. Plus, many years before punk, he brought a DIY approach to music which these guys are still channelling. There’s black boxes which get twiddled from time to time. But instruments include the aforesaid cymbals, a rather battered violin whose bow looks almost fully frayed, and a toy piano. It conveys the sense that this joyous sound stems chiefly from a state of mind, as if once in the zone they could cheerily play for hours if given the chance.

The only downside… And it should be acknowledged it must be hardest of all to mix an impro set, when you can’t be sure what you’ll need to capture. But the sound quality was often patchy, sometimes harsh and abrasive in a way which might even match a noise outfit but not these sound carriers. However, these problems were mostly confined to the earlier part of the set.

Not from Cafe Oto but in full flight…

Cafe Oto, Dalston, London, Sat 17th March

God is My Copilot are a DIY punk band from Nineties New York, mostly associated with queercore, sometimes described as “Raincoats meet Black Flag”, and whose mission statement is ”co-opting rock, the language of sexism, to address gender identity.” They’re yet another legendary band who have somehow previously passed me by.

If hippie bands would smoke and punks snort something before their set, GodCo would seem to have jabbed their mitts in some mains electricity. Their sound’s agitated and angsty with trebly, scratchy guitar more skating over the surface of songs than leading them. Tracks don’t push ahead so much as proceed in spasmodic jerks, often pulling abrupt tempo shifts on you.

Their songs aren’t the righteous rallying cries most associate with punk, they’re simultaneously more immediate and more obtuse, shot through with sardonic humour. Like they less want to reach out and fix the world, and more plan to draw you into their messy web of personal relations. “I want a dress with no blood on it”, went the words to one number.

It’s an odd mixture of exhilarating and frustrating, ramshackle to the point of uneven. In fact, for a band with songs and a set-list, it had many of the ups and downs of an impro outfit. In fact, Vibracathedral Orchestra were more consistent despite being an impro band! The singer (who in police parlance I now know to be called Normandy Sherwood) frequently wandered over to a box of tricks of some kind, but I was no clearer by the end what it was supposed to be doing. 

That somewhat odd photo the venue used for the gig, with the top of the guitarist’s head just poking in (reproduced above), does fit the occasion. They seemed to come off the rails a couple of times, the drummer (who plays a more active role than in a regular punk band) picking them up again.

But then this is the type of music where that can just be part of the point. They seemed to somewhat divide the audience. Not what you expect from a cult punk band reformed and returning to London, serving tracks up with practised ease, but more in the spirit of the day. Back then, to please everyone was seen as the same thing as pleasing no-one.

They close with a Devo-like deconstruction of ’Totally Wired’. It turns out you can simplify a Fall guitar line, who knew? Whether that was a special tribute to the recently departed Mark E Smith or a regular feature of their set, I’ve no idea.

Couldn’t find any current footage so here’s some back-in-the day stuff. Guitarist Craig Flanagin looks to be the only member in common ‘tween then and now…

Saturday, 10 March 2018


After posting a playlist of longer tracks, I foolishly promised to compile a companion piece of shorter snappier numbers. Much to my own surprise, I then went and did it.

The original plan was to keep everything to single length, which I decided was the four minute mark. A few did end up creeping past that, but nothing beyond five minutes. Well, apart from the one that does. Anyway, this is what I came up with. Ah-wun-too-free-four...

The Small Faces : Song Of A Baker
The Blues Magoos : Tobacco Road
Captain Beefheart & The Magic Band : I Love You, You Big Dummy
Fairport Convention : The Bonny Black Hare
Nick Drake : Black Eyed Dog
Low : Dragonfly
New Order : ICB
Wire : Indirect Enquiries
The Jesus + Mary Chain : On The Wall
At The Drive-In : Metronome Arthritis
The Magnetic Fields : When My Boy Walks Down The Street
Melt-Banana : Cat And The Blood
The Fall : Mother-Sister! (Peel Session)
Long Fin Killie : The Heads Of Dead Surfers
Stiff Little Fingers : You Can't Say Crap On The Radio
Gang Of Four : Outside The Trains Don't Run On Time
Fucked Up : Invisible Leader
Miss Black America : Miss Black America

”Just like a doll
”I'm one feet tall
”But dolls can't see anyway
”I’m like the clock
”On the wall” 

Saturday, 3 March 2018


The Hope, Brighton, Sat 24th Feb

Carlton Melton hail from a geodesic dome out in the wilds of Northern California, from where they create “meditative soundtracks freed from the constraints of traditional song composition”. An all-instrumental trio, they commence with slow, intricate, lines built up by threading together two lead guitars which become thoroughly transformative to listen to. (Slightly reminiscent of the recent Thurston Moore show.) The second guitarist shortly takes to the drums, and things kick off into a full-on noise-fest. It was music which first pulled you in, then sent you right out there.

Though this was a pattern they’d repeat throughout the set, it remained involving and unpredictable. The only drawback being, while the twin-guitar parts were very much ensemble playing, the rockier sections did lend themselves to guitar solo heroics. However, in this context they do appear as more of an organic growth. Guitar solos in the midst of songs always feel like when the adverts break into a film you’re watching.

Psychic Lemon are a psychedelic band hailing from Cambridge. (Though they prefer the label “krautfunk.”) Prior to psychedelia there’d been garage rock, music hard and regular in shape. There’s a reason after all why the most celebrated compilation of that era was called ’Nuggets’. And part of the joy of psychedelia is the collision of that solid object with it’s morphing, shapeless forms. That classic movie staple of the cop, or some other straight and rational thinker, succumbing to a trip is essentially what happened to the music.

But with the greater use of effects available to music today, even in a live setting, Psychic Lemon can effectively make the two things happen at once. They were more song-based than most of the other acts, yet that structure never seemed to constrain them. The guitar and drums could stretch out in all sorts of strange directions, leaving the bass to keep the sound grounded.

The upside of such a crowded night, courtesy of the good folks at Drone Rock records, was the plethora of acts. Which came with a perhaps inveitable downside, this Saturday night gig effectively started sometime during Thursday. So, alas I missed half the set of opening act Sleeping Creatures. Again with twin guitars, though this time without bass, they managed to combine the seemingly contradictory virtues of the sonic assualt of heavy riffing with post-rock’s freedom to move around. It seems they’re a local outfit, so hopefully I’ll catch a full set soon.

I was, if I’m honest, less taken by the other three acts. Melt Dunes were the best of them, particularly when they let their swirling keyboards take to the fore – like a fairground carousel which had discovered Surrealism. Stereolicia involved guitar improvisations over a near-drone loop, which was somewhat New Agey. And while the beauty of psychedelia is in it’s unhinged abandon, Gnob were most definitely hinged. Their far out stage costumes were nifty, but mere fancy dress.

Yer real actual gig footage of Carlton Melton...

...and not so from Psychic Lemon (well, you can’t have everything)...

Attenborough Centre for the Creative Arts, Falmer, Brighton, Sun 11th Feb

While I might listen to a variety of styles in music, ask me about eras and I can be quite rigid. In art in general, I’m only really interested in the primitive and the modern, regarding the rest as mere in-filling. My interest usually shades in somewhere around Romanticism. The Renaissance was just a whole load of hype.

So it was pretty much by chance I first heard Renaissance composer, Thomas Tallis, via an art installation at a previous Brighton Festival. And, finding every rule comes with exceptions, I went along to the Sunday night of this Tallis festival.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, I did feel like something of a no-nothing novice. If I had a seat within the venue, it was still like being an outsider with my nose pressed up against the glass. And so, while I enjoyed the event, I’ve only two observations. Tallis’ compositions are choral and hearing music composed only of multiple human voices has a strangely unearthly quality. The human voice, the first ever instrument, should surely be a natural sound for us. Yet when you hear this many voices at work it’s anything but.

It’s also music that’s virtually impossible to listen to in terms of individual lines. There are just so many voices you need to just take in the combination, the same way you’d watch a murmuration of starlings.

The Brunswick, Hove, Sat 10th Feb

Space Ritual are Nik Turner’s variant of the band which must absolutely not be called Hawkwind while on British shores. A few years ago, I was telling you that in the great Hawkwind schism I aligned more with the heretical Turnerite sect than the Brock orthodoxy.

Alas, things have turned. Now seventy-seven, you would no longer be expecting Turner to roller-skate around the stage. But perhaps inevitably through time he’s pretty much lost his singing voice. Through some quirk of the human larynx he can still honk his horn as ever, meaning there was some effectiveness to the instrumental sections. I am really not sure I want to point this out, Turner being so strongly associated with music I’ve loved since by early teens. I still have vivid memories of my first Inner City Unit gig, shortly after leaving home. But facts, I suppose, are facts.

And as Brock long ago made the decision to be the director of music rather than the frontman, that makes his Hawkwind – the Hawkwind who are called Hawkwind – the live version to go for.

Saturday, 24 February 2018


Following the entry from a couple of weeks ago, this completes our pectoral journey down one of Brighton's graffiti havens. But if I went back there today, I expect there'd be several new pieces up - it changes faster than you can snap it! As ever, full set over on 500px.

Saturday, 17 February 2018


It’s strange the way the ostensible subject of films have so little to do with the film itself. Rock biopics are, by and large, awful however big a fan you are of the band themselves. While my disinterest in ballet meant that for years I avoided seeing Powell and Pressburger’s ‘Red Shoes’, before finally find it a favourite of theirs. But when it comes to dressmaking, particularly when it comes to the devising of gowns to be draped over the wealthy,then my interest in ballet becomes by comparison almost an obsession.

And yet that’s no barrier whatsoever to Paul Thomas Anderson’s ‘Phantom Thread’. Chief character Reynols is a fashion designer, but that’s not particularly significant. The subject of his obsessions isn’t the focus on the film, his obsessions themselves are the subject of the film. His art is Platonist, he works not from omissions but ceaseless sketches, realising the perfect object he sees in his mind. He’s learnt how to turn on the charm to the society ladies who purchase the finished product, but they’re merely an unfortunate necessity to him, the ignorant but cash-dispensing patrons to his Renaissance artistry. 

The film’s a character study of ‘the artistic temperament’, and we watch with contradictory feelings of admiration, abhorrence and plain puzzlement. There are very few exteriors, and the vast majority of the film takes place inside the limited sets of the house. (I didn’t even know when it was set until reading it afterwards.)

The next most significant characters are Alma, his latest muse, assistant and living mannequin, and his sister Cyril. (I have no idea why she’s called Cyril!) While Reynols busies himself with his work, Cyril is the business head. When he intends to refuse a society invitation, Cyril curtly informs him such people pay for their house. Viewing a finished dress, he pronounces it as matching his specifications yet “ugly” before (albeit involuntarily) damaging it. If it doesn’t work for him it’s of no use. Cyril then goes into gear, politely but firmly telling the seamstresses no-one’s going home until it’s repaired and the client’s order fulfilled.

Alma is demonstrated to be unlike Cyril, her interest in the man not the goods he produces. When a (particularly disliked) customer collapses in one of his dresses, she brusquely forces her way into the room to rescue it. And as that example shows, she’s capable of agency. Unlike her predecessor muse, a doormat whose shunting offstage is even accomplished offstage.

But the fact we’re discussing Alma in the negative, seeing her in terms of not occupying space blocked off elsewhere, is indicative. The film, so fixated in Reynol’s fixations, has little interest in her fixation on him. Does his devotion to his work attract her at the same time it shuts her out? Does she sense someone beneath all this? Is she merely looking for a place in the world?

She has no backstory, or anything else which might help us out there. She has strength of character yet no actual character. And such questions simply pass unasked. As in the classic Frank Sinatra quote, it’s his world and she just lives in it. And as this becomes more acute, as Reynols rebuffs her more and more cruelly and ruthlessly, and as she still persists, this absence of any actual Alma becomes a bigger and bigger space.

We all know rom-coms where unlikely couples overcome obstacles to get together. (And most mainstream films now have at least a rom-com element.) Naturally, they’re two-handers. We also know films where small characters work as our link to the lives of great ones. (Perhaps most exemplified in the early scene in ‘Citizen Kane’, where anonymous figures in a darkened movie theatre speculate on him.) ‘Phantom Thread’ is a strange mish-mash of the two.

Other reviews have found this a weakness of the film. But it’s clearly not a mistake. It’s a deliberate decision, however strange. Reynols isn’t portrayed sympathetically, he’s actually shown quite unsparingly. In the showing I saw, some were laughing out loud at his self-importance, as he delivered the most scathing abuse in the most mellifluous of tones. But in another way he’s simply not shown at all. Through non-Alma, we’re simply standing too close to him to frame him, and so we become radiated by his light.

The film comes to feel like something Reynols would make if he took up directing. Individual scenes can be stunning and exquisite. The afore-mentioned dress repair sequence, for example, has the dress laid out below multiple seamstresses like a patient on an operating table. A party scene is as elaborate and fantastical as a Fellini set-piece, yet occupies the screen for an absurdly brief period of time. It’s a film that’s cut from the most priceless cloth, but there’s no gaining any purchase on those silky surfaces.

Saturday, 10 February 2018


Sackler Gallery, Royal Academy, London

”In general it can be said that a nation’s art is greatest when it most reflects the character of it’s people.”
- Edward Hopper

Depression Invents Invention

Many commented on the Royal Academy devoting it’s (then) twin galleries to American and Russian art respectively. But it might be more significant they were based in successive decades. As we all know Russian Modernism essentially becomes derailed in the Thirties, as it collides with Stalinism. Yet that was the decade where art in America got into gear. Just as the creative spark was being snuffed out on one side of the map, it was being kindled on the other.

Modernism was around earlier, of course. As the Academy’s earlier George Bellows exhibition had shown, the Ashcan school had been operating in the nineteen hundreds and tens. But, considering how this was art for the new world and America effectively was the New World, it was not well embraced. At absolute odds to the claim America was some bastion of free speech, it faced stricter censorship than most European countries – with galleries frequently raided.

In fact it’s notable how many things we think of as quintessentially American actually start in this period. We’re told, for example, that this was the first iteration of the phrase “the American Dream”, and inevitably it came from someone lamenting it’s loss. (James Truslow Adams in 1931.)

Depressions can be… well, depressing. As the show puts it, “as the nation confronted these unprecedented challenges, it’s confidence was shattered”. But in another sense they can also be galvanising, in proving old ways haven’t worked, in forcing you to seek out the new. As Laura Cumming put it in the Guardian: 
“It was a terrible decade for America, and yet evidently great for its painting.” I still remember the slogan devised by another Fall, the legendary post-punk band, in the early Eighties: “New art forms hit recession cities and countries best.” Now ramp that recession up into a full-on Depression.

The change was driven by a congruence of two things. Stepped-up European migration (often fleeing both Fascism and Stalinism) included many Modernist artists. But the key thing was the Depression. In a remarkably brief turnabout, Modernism went from a marginal movement to being quite literally state sponsored. In 1933, the New Deal enabled both the Federal Art Project and the Public Works of Art Project, the nearest America ever got to the artist’s wage paid out in post-Revolutionary Russia. And yet, just as immigrants were supposed to show up on American shores ready-transformed but never did, Modernism was embraced in a strange and often self-contradictory way. Let’s start with the least modern...

Small Towns, Mighty Big Spaces

The great popularity of this exhibition was more than likely down to the inclusion of Grant Woods’ ‘American Gothic’ (1930, above). (Which inevitably made it onto the exhibition poster, up top.) If the measure of the popularity of an image is its dissemination into copies and parodies, then this work doesn’t lag far behind Munch’s ‘The Scream’. But, like a plant that requires home soil, this was its first showing out of it’s home country.

Wood started with the house after stumbling upon it, and only later added the figures which guard it so closely. And they seem almost its extensions, chipped from the same block. We don’t need to see a picket fence because the repeated three-stroke verticals essentially create one. Laura Cumming of the Guardian goes into its history and composition so throughly there’s little point repeating it all here. What matters is what’s evoked - those terse and steely, flinty people, who don’t get fat on Big Macs but save pennies in a jar. They look out at us and politely enquire if they can be helping us along on our way.

The picture’s straightforward enough, you can see what it’s of. And yet it led to the most vigorous debate over how to read it. Was Wood paying tribute to or parodying his subjects? While city intellectuals, such as Gertrude Stein, often preferred the parody interpretation the reverse wasn’t always true. When the picture was reproduced in Wood’s local paper, The Cedar Rapids Gazette, it was seen as a slight and provoked a backlash. The disagreements continue up to today, with Morgan Falconer’s article ’Tribute Or Travesty?’ appearing in the pages of the Royal Academy magazine.

In the Financial Times, Jackie Wullschlager suggests 
“the picture is so powerful because we can’t tell.” And it’s tempting to agree. It may well be so iconic precisely because it’s so ambiguous, because it allows each viewer to read it according to their preferences.

Yet Wood was quite unequivocal on the subject: “I did not intend this painting as satire. It seems to me that they are basically solid and good people. But I don’t feel that one gets at this fact better by denying their faults.” Which I think means something like “I respected these people, but they were strangers to me so I needed to paint them as that”. We shouldn’t assume that decides the issue. If artists were the ultimate authority of their work just because they painted it there’d be no need for them to paint it – they could just tell us what was on their minds. Which would be quicker, and I’d be less behind in these blog posts. However, here what the artist says makes most sense.

This show helps us see the work less as some great icon, whose home is in ‘greatest work’ lists, and more in its context. First, two things it wasn’t. As it was painted in 1930 try Google Imaging both ‘America Twenties’ and ‘America Thirties’. Two quite distinct sets of images come up. And this painting looks like neither of them. Perhaps it was even created out of contrariness, as an alternative to its times.

As mentioned over the Tate’s Barbara Hepworth show, this period was marked by a widespread “idealist belief in the universal language of abstraction”. And so rising to meet the latest thing from Europe was it’s polar opposite, pitchfork in raised hand. The style came to be known as Regionalism. It wasn’t enough for art to just be American, that was almost as abstract - it had to root itself in specific places. Bypassing the better-known coasts and big cities, it’s focus was on small-town mid-America. Arch-eaved houses were where you found the heart of the nation, the skyscrapers were at best the ribcage.

Charles Sheeler’s ’Home Sweet Home’, (above) painted the following year, is an interior, depopulated but which could perhaps belong to Woods’ couple. There’s a resolute plain-ness to the scene, a dislike of ornamentation, to the point where there’s almost a luxuriating in that aesthetic of simplicity. It suggests an American culture not in thrall to brash consumption but still dedicated to the pioneer spirit of the Puritans. And, much like Wood, the picture is painted in the plain style of those furnishings – there’s no separating of content from form.

Next, let’s return to Wood and look at what could be considered a pull-back view. His ‘The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere’ (1931, above) isn’t composed at all in the way the title might suggest, demonstrating his heroic historic ride. In fact Revere’s such a small figure, at first you don’t see him for the town. It’s a small American town, clustered around and dominated by the Church steeple. The cliff face behind gives it a kind of echo in the landscape. Follow back the snaking path Revere’s horse is on, and you come to the few lights on the horizon marking the previous town. The impression is of many such towns, strung along that ribbon road. As before the straightforwardness of the depiction, making it seem almost a diorama, adds to the effect.

Wood always insisted his influences came from the Flemish Renaissance. And Paul Sample’s ‘Church Supper’ (1933, above), in it’s muted palette and sense of sombre celebration, almost evokes Bruegel. And notably there’s not only another road snaking off to the next town, but it’s placed directly above the central figure (the old lady with the tray). It’s carefully shown that both towns have churches, the bell-tower to the left and the steeple at upper centre.

In both works America is not the mighty city on the hill but the small town in the valley, clustered round it’s church. And while each small town is itself a microcosm of America, it also leads to the next like nodes in a network. Every Springfield needs it’s Shelbyville. It’s the America of Capra films, where good neighbourliness derails big business simply by being closer to hand. The true America is not grandiose but unassuming, because it’s ultimately located in each citizen’s heart.

And what do you normally depict in art? The stuff you see around you, or the stuff you used to? Between 1890 and 1930 the population had doubled, with more than half now living in cities. In the show’s words Regionalism “lamented the disappearance of the settler mentality”, just as the Romantics had lamented the dying of folk traditions. (Indeed some works, such as Wood’s ’Young Corn’, 1931, could easily be set in England.)

The show’s title is well placed. Just like the original Fall myth, this is an origin story, and where it went wrong is also where it all began. Like a microcosm of his country, Wood was born in rural Anamosa, Iowa, but was then moved to the big city at the age of eleven, after his father suddenly died. It was nostalgia for that rural life which fuelled his art, even driving him to write the pamphlet ‘Revolt Against the City’ (1935).

Is nostalgia always reactionary? Thomas Hart Benton’s ‘Cotton Pickers’ (1945, above) is the only Regionalist work in the exhibition to show black people. In fact the whiteness of the cotton and the work-sacks they haul emphasises this. Their work is hard. By the pickers a baby lies in a makeshift shelter, while even the figure offering water is slightly bent. Behind them, that wagon has a slope to climb - emphasised with an echo in the curve of the clouds.

However much it was verbally venerated by white Anglo-Saxons, the hard work that built America was actually provided by successive waves of immigrants. Active on the Left, and typically for a New Deal artist primarily working on public murals, Benton’s solution to this is to transfer that spirit of industry to black workers, to emphasise how they are Americans too.

Yet unlike elsewhere the workers are de-individualised, only the water carrier showing their face. Most cotton pickers were share croppers, forced to sell only to their landlords. Who, unsurprisingly, often exploited their position. All of which is absent from this image, suggesting they were the beneficiaries of their own hard work. The romanticism inherent to Regionalism screws with Benton’s documentary impulses, there’s no place for black faces even in the faded American dream. (He often complained how he’d alienate European-looking Modernists with his politics and the art market with his “folksy” style.)

‘Roustabouts’ (1934, above) by Joe Jones, another Leftist artist, might be a more honest depiction, showing a group of black workers with a white boss standing over them. The ones shouldering the heavy bags have presumably more recently received their orders. And it may be no co-incidence that this work uses an urban location. With it’s cross-river view and belching chimney, it semi-echoes Bellows’ ‘Men of the Docks’ (1912).

It’s unremarked upon by the show, but Alexandre Hogue’s ’Erosion No. 4, Mother Earth Laid Bare’ (1936, above) is surely a commentary on Wood’s ’Fall Plowing’ (1931, also above). Both give a gradated view of a landscape, with the horizon line at about the same height. Both contain a farmhouse but no people. Yet Hogue turns Wood’s plough the other way, as if a reversal of the image.

In the gap between the two works the dust bowl migrations had begun, where migrants were forced to flee the now uninhabitable great plains. As Hogue points out the causes were as much human as fluctuations in weather patterns, as over-intrusive farming methods stripped away topsoil. Here the land takes on a woman’s contours, and the plow comes to resemble an instrument of rape.

Admittedly it’s not a very good painting. Even were we willing to accept the gender essentialist concept of ‘Mother Earth’ (which we’re not), there’s an uneasy mixture of heavy-handed righteousness with a rather furtive sexual fascination. While there’s not enough of an attempt to challenge Regionalism’s rather neat and tidy view of nature, pushing the work into an uncanny valley. That ‘earth’ looking more like foam rubber. But it is historically interesting, an attempt to counter Regionalism’s illusory idylls.

The City On the Hill

The two things Wood most definitely wasn’t doing, the urban as a signifier of the modern and the tendency towards the universalism of abstraction, are neatly put together in Charles Green Shaw’s Wrigleys’ (1937, above). And yes that is a stick of chewing gum he stuck centre; in this land of free enterprise, he was trying to win an advertising competition. The result is, to quote the Royal Academy magazine “as if a pack of gum had zoomed in on an early Rothko”, or like one of those gag cartoons where the Mona Lisa beams unenigmatically as she hawks toothpaste.

A remarkably similar cityscape appears on the upper right of Aaron Douglas’ ’Aspiration’ (1936, above). As the silhouetted figures look up to it the City becomes escape, Oz to your Kansas. The image of… sometimes just the term ‘city on the hill’ 
became something of a stalwart of American discourse. It stems from a sermon of Jesus’ from Matthew: “You are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden."

In other words, Christians have the obligation to act in an exemplary manner. (The proverb “don’t hide your light under a bushel” stems from it.) Yet what seems to have popularised the phrase in America isn’t behaviour so much as place - the association of the futuristic city with the radiance of heaven. America lit the world like beacon. And its cities lit America.

(And in fact I’ve placed this section second partly to convey the notion of the city framed by the country. As said of the Bellows show, he “had to see those soaring skyscrapers and teeming streets with an outsider's eye, the better to convey them to the rest of us.”)

Take in the painting as a whole and several schematics can be seen at work, overlapping one another, all journeying from lower dark to upper radiance. As above, it could be seen religiously, as turning to the light of the Church. Or it could be through time, those shackled hands at the base clamouring to escape the darkness of slavery. Or through space, the journey from South to North, or rural to urban.

The two were in practice combined, in the Great Migration (possibly the world’s biggest peacetime migration) many black Americans migrated from the segregation of the rural south to relative opportunity in the industrial north. Which could be seen, provided you took it from the right angle, as a whole continent of Whittingtons turning towards the city in order to seek their fortune. Or, more widely still, a timeline of human evolution, from the darkness of tool-less hands to the light of modernity. (Look at what the centre left figure clutches.)

And it’s through this multi-mapping that blackness comes to be associated with the primitive, and ‘lightness’ with resolution. In other words, uh-oh. At its most extreme, it might be read as dark-skinned people being washed white. Yet this work was made by a black artist. Douglas was strongly associated with the Harlem Renaissance, which asserted the value of black culture in American life, but which in the process came to be criticised as assimilationist. It seems a long way from the “black is beautiful” aesthetic of the Sixties and Seventies. (More of which coming up.)

Exhibiting in the uber Modernist Armoury Show exhibition, staged in New York in 1913, could scarcely be more of a contrast to Wood’s Regionalism. Stuart Davis’ ‘New York – Paris No. 3’ (1931, above) presents the city as somewhere between a pattern and a collage of elements. And this style fits the city more readily than it would the country or small town. We don’t think to ask why gas pumps might be the size of three-storey hotels. Painted after Davis spent a year Seine-side, the picture’s less a contrast than a comparison of New York to Paris. And while Reginald Marsh’s ’Twenty Cent Movie’ (1936, also above) isn’t a collage but a street scene, it’s such a busy jumble of elements, including frames within frames, it has much the same effect.

Whereas Edward Hopper’s ‘New York Movie’ (1939, above) though only varying the setting by taking us inside a movie theatre, has much the opposite effect. This work is all about space and stillness. A central column bisects the painting, even giving the two halves their own light sources. The woman, who we have to take for the main figure, is pushed to the side of the composition. Though handily lit by a lamp, her face is pushed into shadow. Over the other side, we see only a slither of the silver screen. The blue uniform, highlit by that thin red stripe, would mark her out to contemporaries as an usherette. She’s a worker there, yet she’s passive and pensive.

And what’s she thinking? We don’t know. How could we, when she’s just paint on canvas? Yet Hopper makes that a mystery at the core of the work. Hopper disliked comparisons to Regionalism. A point he might over-argue, that quote of his up top is almost the credo of the scene. But he was correct in seeing his style as more psychological than parochial. 

He styled himself after Manet and Degas, but I was reminded more of another of their disciples – Walter Sickert. It’s true he has a much smoother painting style, and his regular guys and everypeople are some way from Sickert’s rootless cosmopolitans and angsty bohemians. But like Sickert, he tended to paint the space between things rather than things themselves.

The show then smartly hung his ‘Gas’ (1940) the other side of a doorway, and indeed they work well as bookends. Hopper makes much of the twilight setting, with the light that plays through the door and windows of that gas station cutting across the frame. The main figure is again solitary, but this time is placed at the centre of the frame. He’s smart-dressed and dutiful; in fact, never in history has a gas attendant looked more like a sentry. We’re asked to assume both figures are beset by the same existential crisis, but one knows the solution is to act your way out. One setting being rural and the other urban… that’s probably as significant as one being male and the other female.

A Dream To Some...

Finally, in the section ’Visions of Dystopia’ the show looks at the works which most literally took the Depression as a Fall. To them, the phrase “the American dream” was only a cue to the most grotesque and nightmarish visions.

Superficially, in it’s insertion of various figures into a scene, ‘Dance Marathon’,by Philip Evergood (1934, above), resembles Marsh. But this work is much more reminiscent of German Expressionism, as a series of grotesque couples lean heavily against one another, the couple at the centre looking crossways. These events were a Depression phenomenon, 
an endurance version of showbiz later immortalised in 1969 film ‘They Shoot Horses, Don’t They’. The radiating blocks of the dancefloor make them appear as if trapped in a spider’s web.

America liked to present itself as full of youth and vigour. Here, even the audience looks tired and isolated. And we’re placed among them, hands grasping the bar before us, making us implicit in this voyeuristic spectacle. But then against this naturalising gesture, at upper left it’s skeleton fingers which holds out the prize money. (Adding to the grotesquery, above the hands at lower right appears to protrude the face of Boris Johnstone. Well, he does have dual nationality…)

The damage the Depression did was severe, but had strange upsides. Despite it’s extremism and associations with violence, the Klan had for many years been able to present itself as a mainstream political organisation. (It’s peak membership year had been 1925.) However, the Thirties were to mark a drastic fall in their fortunes. And an image such as Joe Jones’ ‘American Justice’
(1933, above), is a barometer of that fall – portraying them not as citizens concerned by public decency but shadowy murderers.

It’s not a great painting, not the match of Jones’ earlier-seen ’Roustabouts’, still less the visual equivalent of Billie Holliday’s (recorded 1939).

Lurid cartoonishness belies its seriousness of purpose and its documentary message is marred lack of consistent lighting; it’s like a tabloid that thinks it’s a broadsheet. But as with Hogue its significance is cultural.

And if the Depression wasn’t bad enough, then came warning of war from Europe. With its title and central masked figure, Philip Guston’s ’Bombardment’ (1937, above) may seem reminiscent of Picasso’s ’Gunernica’ of the same year. And both were visceral reactions to Francoist bombing.

But it’s actually not a collage of elements. It just uses its circular shape to distort and dynamise what would otherwise be pictorial space. Unlike Picasso’s allegorical take, here real planes blast a real street. The bomb is going off dead centre, actually some way from us, but yet the blown figures are flying out so far they’ll surely whack us. War, it seems, is headed this way. The story of Guston abandoning Abstract Expressionism for cartoony representation is so strong, there’s a tendency to overlook his earlier work from this era. The tendency’s understandable, but mistaken.

The bridge is almost as iconic an image of urban America as the skyscraper. (Think of how often they showed up in the Bellows’ show.) San Francisco’s Golden Gate bridge had only been finished two years before. So of course O. Louis Gulgliemi’s ’Mental Geography’ (1939) takes it to Brooklyn Bridge. The date might suggest that like Guston he’s playing on fears of war winds blowing West, yet what he does is subject it not to artillery but Surrealist distortion - what Dali did to clocks.

The expanse of sky above it’s crest suggests it’s an act of hubris which God has now confounded. The child figure looking up at it has a bomb protruding from her back. War has made hybrid creatures of us, we’re part victims of its weapons and part weapons ourselves.

The smaller Sackler gallery is perhaps best suited to solo artist shows. Attempts to embrace vast themes soon run up against it’s constraints. Things here aren’t as crammed and inadequate as in the earlier ‘Mexico: A Revolution In Art’ exhibition, but this tour is still sometimes too whistlestop. The last section, on post-figurative art, is precisely five paintings long – like they miscalculated and ran into a back wall when they hoped for extra time. It’s better read not as a part of this show but a “coming soon” trailer for what happened next. 

(I read later, in Sarah Churchwell’s piece in the Royal Academy magazine, that the Paris version of the show ended with a montage of Depression-era movies, including the Emerald City from ’Wizard of Oz’. It’s a shame there was no space for that here.)

But then let’s be grateful for what we got. In the Guardian, Adrian Searle exulted “there is terrific range in style and subject matter, outlook and temperament, artistic registers, ambitions and focus here.” And he’s right. There’s perhaps not the limits-busting range as seen in ‘Revolution: Russian Art’, but the sense of tumultuous times generating creativity still hits you.

And like the Russian exhibition the works vary dramatically in quality, all the way from sublime to awful. And like the Russian exhibition this really doesn’t matter, or at least anywhere near as much as it could do. Art seems so broken with the past, so new that you need to allow for it still feeling its way. You look at works for what they were evoking, for what they say about their times. Your brain needs to keep switching between aesthetic, political and cultural concerns. But so be it. That’s as much a strength as a weakness.

Saturday, 3 February 2018


...and, to no great surprise, discovers graffiti.  Robots, girls and numbers seem a common theme, I'm sure there must be a rational reason. This small side-street, easily missed off the more busy Trafalgar Street, is actually something of a graffiti haven. Lots more posted to 500px, but they're just the half of it! Will post the other half sometime soon.

Saturday, 27 January 2018


Kings Place, London, Sat 20th Jan

Celebrated Minimalist composer (and regular Lucid Frenzy fave) Steve Reich has sometimes taken the view that regular musicians can be unattuned to his way of doing things. (My mental analogy for this is always luvvies hamming their way through Brecht.) Whereas he has dedicated a piece to Colin Currie (more of which anon), who by turn has formed this group primarily to play Reich’s music.

The two halves of the programme followed the same chronological structure, picking a piece from the Seventies, Eighties and post-millennium respectively. And in so doing gave a good primer in the changes to Reich’s music.

Reich spoke in the programme of an initial “desire to make music with the simplest possible instruments”. And ’Music For Pieces of Wood’ Having not listened to ‘classic’ Minimalism for a while, I found my ears needed to get acclimatised to it all over again. You need to stop picking out the individual lines and start taking in the overall piece, listening to the wood not the trees. (Pun not intended. Oh alright, it was intended.) As said after another Reich night: “In Minimalism the sounds are so similar they superimpose on one another before they even reach you and your ears are no longer quite sure what they're picking up.” There’s a kind of sonic ‘shimmer’ which takes over once you get there.

But it was the second Seventies work, part one of ’Drumming’ (1971) which most won my heart. Bongo drums were struck with sticks to create an unusual sound, which the players built up through cascades (at point pummelling with a blur of arms) before breaking back into slower and more basic tempos. Reich states enthusiastically “there is only one basic rhythmic pattern”, yet it’s enough to entrance you the whole time.

’New York Counterpoint’ (1985) and ’Vermont Counterpoint’ (1982) both featured solo wind players accompanied by pre-recordings of themselves. Perhaps the sort of thing already covered in previous instalments. But further proof that there’s nothing chin-stroking ‘difficult’ to Reich. Both were positively rhapsodic to listen to, and put me in mind of Spring sprouting despite the temperature outside.

If the title of ’Mallet Quartet’ (2009) suggests more non-standard instruments, this later work actually uses two vibraphones and two marimbas, merely struck with mallets. Unlike any of the earlier works, they quickly divided into ‘lead’ and ‘bass’ sections. (“The marimbas set the harmonic background which remains rather static” while “the vibes present the melodic material”, as Reich puts it.) All of which might make it accessible enough to be a good introductory work for newbies.

Or at least that’s what I was thinking until we hit the middle, slow movement. This was perhaps the most unReichean part of the whole programme, only suggesting the rhythmic pulses that normally seem the connecting molecules of his music. He confessed “I was originally concerned this movement might just be ‘too thin’, but I think it ends up being the most striking, and certainly the least expected, of the piece”. And Reich is right.

’Quartet’ (2013) was the piece dedicated to Currie, and as the most recent work did mark the other evolutionary end to ’Drumming’. Reich has described it as “one of the more complex I have composed”, and despite being the finale my reaction was almost the opposite to ’Drumming’. It was still recognisably Reich, but seemed to have lost his rosebud, it did more but signified less.

Currie promised the launch of a label, tracking their recordings of Reich. With perhaps more live shows to go with it…

Part of ’Drumming’. by the CCG but from elsewhere...

Cafe Oto, London, Fri 12th Jan

Regular readers won’t know of my love for Australian free improvising trio The Necks. Not because I don’t keep going on about them, but because there are no regular readers.

But those numerous sightings left me with no conception whatsoever of what drummer Tony Buck might do left to his own devices. More than most other bands, the Necks work as an ensemble – it would be an absurdity to abstract any individual element from their playing. So the only way to find out what he’d do seemed to be to show up and see…

It was in fact not quite a solo gig, as Buck was accompanied by three musical mobiles. One scraped metal sheets across the floor, another struck a cymbal and so on. As he could switch these on and off, and speed up and slow them down via pedals, these acted as somewhere between live-action samples and automated musicians. (Though at points he’d employ actual samples too.) Belying his day-job, it was mostly guitar he’d play over the top of these. In fact he only took to the full drum kit right at the end.

It was very much something else to the Necks’ measured serenity, with some of his guitar assaults going into full-on noise territory. But it was more than decibel-level different. Necks gigs have a muso/anti-muso quality to them, as if the music’s already present in the ether and is just being made manifest through the players. (They’ve said in interviews how things like their mood on the night doesn’t affect the music much.) Whereas this felt more being created from moment to moment, Buck setting up processes and then reacting to them, ellipses in the turning of the mobiles becoming part of the experience.

The gig was quite a ritualistic affair. Buck entered through the audience, playing bells and in the place of the traditional Australian corks wind-chimes attached to his hat. They effectively masked his face throughout. Then at the end, contravening the rock’n’roll orthodoxy of leaving ‘em on a high, he exited the same way while leaving the mobiles going. People sat listening to the mobiles alone for several minutes before breaking into applause.

A short series of edited excerpts of Buck doing something similar in his cellar…

Friday, 19 January 2018


A Spotify playlist with a difference! During previous compilations, I found the things pretty much insisted on a maximum track length. I’d sometimes push things to the nine, ten, eleven minute mark, but even at that point there’d start to be an unbalancing effect. It’s like if a street otherwise composed of bungalows suddenly sported a mansion. No-one’s going to look at the bungalows then, right?

Now this could be described as something of a First World problem. But it bugged me. Particularly in the case of bands who solely trade in longer tracks, making themselves playlist proof. Until one day it hit me that you could compile a list just of longer tracks. (Yes, that’s right, I have been to college.) With the result being right here. Dali’s floppy clock ( a section of ’Persistence of Memory’ seemed to fit.

Sunn 0))): It Took the Night to Believe
Godspeed You! Black Emperor: Fam/Famine
Faust: Accroche A Tes Levres
The Cosmic Dead: Anatta
Sun Ra: Space is the Place

Almost straight away, I then got the notion to make a companion playlist devoted to shorter tracks. (With a five minute maximum.) If I ever finish that one, I’ll yet you know. Until then, settle down for some sustained stuff…

Coming soon! Back with the gig-going adventures…
Coming slightly later! Back with the art exhibition reviews...

Saturday, 13 January 2018


Design Museum, London

In the world of my mind this post would have gone up straight after the Academy’s ‘Revolution: Russian Art’ show, rather than four months later. My planning it seems is scarcely any better than Stalin’s. But on the upside it does mark my starting to catch up on my art exhibition reviews. As an added inducement to the reader, this time each section… yes, really, each section… has it’s own opening quote, and not all of them are by Mayakovsky.

“The streets shall be our brushes, and the squares our palettes.”
- Vladimir Mayakovsky

On The Up
“Hey, you! Heaven! Off with your hat! I am coming!”

Let’s cheat completely by starting with a work from another show – a film-clip from Friedrich Ermler’s ‘Fragment of an Empire’ (1921), shown in the Academy’s ’Revolution: Russian Art’. A solider is shown returning from the front to Petrograd. Almost like Rip Van Winkle, the long-bearded man arrives in a futuristic scenario which bewilders him.

To borrow from the show’s title, propaganda this film surely was. But was it not revolution but simply a lie, a mask for brute realities? In fact the truth... the actual truth of these times is more complicated. And so, inevitably, was the art.

This show is based around six unrealised architectural projects, all intended for Moscow. (Which had become the Russian capital shortly after the revolution.) This takes it somewhere different to the Academy’s ‘Building the Revolution’ exhibition, which was concerned with the history of buildings which had survived.

In exhibition book Jean-Louis Cohen’s essay ‘Lissitzky’s “Amerikanizm”’ describes El Lissitzky’s role as a “travelling salesman” between East and West. It also reprints an essay of Lissitzky’s own, titled ‘”Amerikianism” in European Architecture’ (1925). 

America was a New World country which had largely pioneered the use of skyscrapers, greatly influencing Russian architects. But it was also an avowedly capitalist nation which refused to recognise the Soviet Union, which through the White Armies had actively tried to destroy it. Arguably, Lissitzky tries to square this circle when he insists “Europe today is more American than America itself”.

And being more American than America of course largely meant being bigger than America, bigger being simply another word for better. The pissing contest of the Cold War is already here in earnest. The Palace of the Soviets, for example, was not only designed to be the tallest building in the world (stealing the crown from the Empire State Building), but to be topped by a hundred metre statue of Lenin – despite the fact that the Moscow climate would mostly obscure it with clouds. A full-size reproduction of one of the fingers, four metres tall, is somewhat surreally on show. One section of the show is appropriately titled ’Colonizing the Sky’.

Yet if this show merely recorded the to’s and fro’s between two super-powers, which didn’t even divide in aesthetics much let alone ideology, it would be of academic interest only. Happily, that’s not the case…

We’re told skyscrapers were then often called “cloud pressers”. (Though not whether this was local to Russia or not.) And even that minor variant of the term is enough to revitalise the metaphor in your mind. For example Lissitzky’s ‘cloud iron’ buildings (above) have a distinct, megalith shape distinct from the geometric block or tapering tower we’re so used to. But that just leads us into the most significant thing about them...

He conceived of a ring of these around Moscow, people living up above while the street level was reserved for transit and communications. The city was to be not an accumulation of places which happened to be clustered together, but as a set of connecting nodes.

Meanwhile, ’The Problem of the Scientific Organisation of Life’ by Nikolay Kuzmin not only designed a model miners’ apartment house but broke down their day into blocks, some as short as two minutes. Or at least from rising at 6am to 5.25pm after which he indulgently decreed “from here life dictates it’s own timetable”. Worker’s lodgings are no longer a refuge from, but an adjunct to the workplace. They helpfully wake you up in the morning and switch your lights out at night. They regulate your non-working hours almost as thoroughly as your working ones.

Two conceptions seem at work, which are surely rivals. One is based around not just the workers taking over the existing Moscow, but building an entirely new Moscow better adapted to their needs. The city becomes almost a kind of steel exoskeleton built at their arms and legs. With the other, the new architecture is more a mould in which the worker is poured to shape him. Contemporary Architecture magazine called for new buildings “that creates new social types” (1928).

The human body is itself likened to a machine, the USSR Conference on Workers’ Vacations stating “like a machine a person needs repair and recuperation: socialist leisure restores the proletarian machine-body.” Recuperative Health Factories were to be built, such as the one Sokalov designed for tired Muscovites by the Black Sea. It’s scarcely uncoincidental that infographic reductions of the human form, not previously widely seen, become common. If the world was to be transformed man must be too, and in art at least transformed physically, made by tools into a tool.

And this is perhaps at it’s clearest in Valentina Kulagina’s poster ‘To The Defence of the USSR’ (1931, above), in which robotised figures march dynamically out of the frame. They could even be produced in that factory on the lower left, along with their planes and guns. These are salutary reminders that true dystopias are all failed utopias.

Perhaps armed with our knowledge of what came next, we cannot help but notice the distinction which we perceive as a clash. For example Rowan Moore’s Guardian review commented on how 
“designs of wild ambition combine with homages to science and pedantic prescriptions for dividing up a worker’s day.” But it’s a distinction which, largely speaking, we make that they didn’t. And we make it precisely because for us it’s happened, because we can look back on it. (This of course cycles back to what was said about the Revolution in the Academy show write-up.)

Architecture as Fantasy, Science As Fiction

By setting itself in Moscow the show bypasses the era's most famous example of unrealised architecture, the Tatlin Tower (which was intended for Petrograd). And this lays the ground for Tatlin’s influence over the show to be exceeded by that of his arch-rival, Malevich. Yet that happens in a surprising way…

One day I was confidently explaining that Malevich was unable to realise his Suprematist visions in three dimensional space, that threshold tableware wasn’t really a thing. Then pretty much the next show I see, and El Lissitzky is doing it like he doesn’t even see the problem. And in so doing he came to influence both the Bauhaus and De Stijl. This is perhaps at it’s most pronounced in his children’s book ’Of Two Squares: A Suprematist Tale’ (1922) where he anthropomorphises those two squares (after Malevich, one black, one red) into a narrative. It’s an indication of how little we need images to contain for us to ‘read’ them.

But more significant here are his diagrammatic, geometric Prouns (Project for the Affirmation of the New, the acronym works in Russian). These demonstrate how artworks and architectural diagrams overlap to the point where it’s impossible to see the joins. Compare his lithograph ‘Proun 1E (The City)’ (1919) to Gustav Klutski’s ‘Architectural Study’ (1921/2, both above). (A 3D version of the Proun is also on show, though made by Henry Milner in 2009.)

But then Suprematism, even in its ‘pure’ rarified form suggested motion and often pictorial depth, even when it lacked an actual Z axis. In the guidebook, Eszther Steierhoffer describes Malevich’s art as “implying a sensation of levitation”. The disciples were merely going where the master couldn’t follow, taking up his dynamic forms more than the heraldic black square he used in place of a signature. Take for example Ilya Chashnik’s ‘Vertical Axes in Motion’ (1922/3, below).

Chashnik also demonstrates how recurrent verticality is here, the indicia remarking on “aviation motifs featuring prominently.” The show is so stuffed with audaciously imaginative but unsurprisingly unrealised projects it would be hard to sort them, but a favourite of mine was Seregy Gruzenberg’s proposal for a ‘Columbus Flying Monument’ (1923) an aerial sculpture which, while huge in size, would have drifted around the Earth like a stray balloon.

The notion this verticality can become literally gravity defying, already incipient in the flat iron buildings, can be seen in spades in two photo-collages. In Rodchenko’s ’Circus Acrobats’ (1938, above) two trapeze artists appear in the heavens, past a rocket ship. While in Piotr Gladzhev’s photocollage ’Female Tennis Players’ (1924), the players look as though they’ve leapt up into the sky. Though I could only find an image for Rodchenko, Gladzhev may be the more radical. If one figure stands on the wing of a plane, the image still feels as though they have hurled themselves up to this height. It’s as if the more more involved they grew in their game, they less connected they became to the ground. It’s an image of dizzying exhilaration.

(Like the cloud-pressing skyscrapers, these images may belong to their era as much as their place. In America, Phoebe Jane Fairgrave – among others - would wow audiences not just by wing-walking but dancing the Charleston while up there. But the notable thing is how readily they do fit into their place.)

And this new architecture of verticality might remind us of the ‘future city’ of science fiction. Given that one of Russia’s main proto-revolutionary art movements was called Futurism, we might expect to see some of the futuristic side of science fiction here. But alongside such techno-fetishism its cosmic dimension is also present, whose concerns are almost – and sometimes literally become – eschatological.

For example Ivan Ledinov’s ’City of the Sun’ series, with their clusters of elegantly slender towers which may or may not be mirages, seem to exist in the interchange between Suprematism and science fiction. (See ’City of the Sun, Distant View’, 1943/59, above.) Some are painted simply on plain board, as if a form of science fiction folk art. Yet for all his spaciness, Ledinov still contributed designs for buildings -including the Lenin Institute and even the United Nations Building.

While in 1933 Yakov Chernikhov produced a book self-styled as ’101 Architectural Fantasies’. Some might have been vaguely realisable, at least to the degree that they vaguely resembled buildings. With others, such as No 57 (above), ‘architectural’ might seem merely a synonym for geometric. Certainly it looks as influenced by Kandinsky as by Malevich. Yet while Chernikhov made no architectural designs he produced a book on design theory. There’s also a slideshow of entries for the design of the 1924 Lenin Mausoleum, which show a huge variety not only in styles and approaches but in attitudes to viability. Not a few we’d regard as outsider art.

Why should this be? Why, when the period finally granted so many opportunities to build did people stick with paper fantasies? Why, when it threw up so many immediate problems, when bellies so often rumbled, did people seem so unconcerned with even making a division between the practical and the fantastical?

Of course this question takes us back to Malevich. As said of his Tate retrospective “he was tapping into some heightened realm of pure geometry, something which could only exist through being painted – but was no less 'real' for all that. His term Suprematism does not relate to 'superb' but 'above' or 'beyond'.”

Take that titular term ‘imagine’. It may conjure up images of John Lennon at his grand piano, of the innocently well-meaning, as hopeless as they were hopeful. Yet the crucial thing was that the chains that tied us to the old world were finally broken. Now we were living in the future, today was already tomorrow. What wasn’t possible immediately was sure to be so soon. 

We had brought an end to capitalism in order to stop merely imagining and start building, but it was more than that – we meant to unfetter our imaginations. This wasn’t an end to dreaming, it was the start of dreaming. “Demand the impossible” and “let imagination rise to power” were not Russian revolutionary slogans, they arose later. But their sentiment is widespread here regardless.

Making New Men + Women
“The proletariat must destroy the family as a prime device of oppression and exploitation”
-Nikolay Kuzmin, 1928

One of the most recognised icons of post-revolutionary Russia, perhaps second only to the Hammer and Sickle, is the muscled man in a cap brandishing a lump hammer. And the veneration of that strapping male worker can be quite unguardedly homoerotic. Mayakovsky, always able to sum things up in a choice quote, insisted in ‘27 “there is no more beautiful clothing in the world than the bronze of muscles and freshness of skin.” Which normally goes only one way. Traditionally in art the more man is associated with the machine, which was at least in part about making him appear ‘manly’, the more women are with nature.

Yet here we see the very opposite. My guess would be that, is out of any Modernist movement, Russian Futurism had the highest number of women artists. And their work was often explicitly liberational. Maria Bri-Bein’s ‘Woman Proletarian’ poster (1931, above), has as it’s full text “women proletarian, seize aircraft, go to schools and colleges of civil aviation”. But neither do we see the muscled-up women, the girls-can-be-boys, the ‘women can make it work’ of Rosie the Riveter. The woman pilot in this image holds not a hammer but a map. The main instruments she needs to fly that giant plane are that map and her brain. She doesn’t need to be as strong as machines because these days we have machines for that.

Equality between men and women had been declared as early as 1918. Yet as the show sagely states “the emancipation of women was ultimately aimed at adding women to the workplace”. A poster for “nurseries, playgrounds, kitchen factories, canteens and mechanical laundries” openly boasts that this way “we will get 1,600,00 new working women” (unknown artist, 1930). The Bolsheviks’ embracing of women’s emancipation from ‘women’s work’ was ultimately merely tactical.

In Britain, during both World Wars, labour shortages meant women were encouraged out of their traditional roles. The fact that this lasted for a more extended period in Russia just shows how much of a war footing society was on.

And even within the art world, as Futurism became Constructivism, as art became chiefly interested in its practical application, women artists started to separate off into more traditional ‘female’ media, such as textile design. As said of the Tate’s earlier ‘Rodchenko and Popova’ show: “It would be a simplification to suggest that Rodchenko designed buildings and Popova cups and saucers – but not that much of a simplification!... As you walk through their exhibition, you don’t entirely shake the feeling that women’s art was a variant of women’s work.” Women’s gains were not illusory, but at best limited and conditional.

The New Idolatry
”We say Lenin, but we mean the Party”

Nikolay Kogout’s poster ’From Darkness To Light’, 1921, above), was designed as part of the official Liquidation of Illiteracy campaign. It’s full text reads “From Darkness to Light, From Battle to Book, From Misery to Happiness.” A gargantuan book stands open before some workers, pointed to by an orator in a red starred hat. Yet behind both is a cityscape, while greenery is pushed to the lower left of the composition.

And why? Illiteracy affected both workers and peasants, as emphasised in the text of another poster “Peasants and Workers! You Mastered the Rifle, Now Master the Quill” (1920, artist unknown). But as said over the Academy’s more recent ‘Revolution: Russian Art’ show: 
“to them, nature was now out, mysticism was now out”. 

If nature was made up of curves and inclines, then we wanted straight lines and sharp angled edges. There is more of a visual connection between the bold geometric letters, and the straight sides or pure curves of those buildings than there would be with a nature scene. Note how some of the buildings are themselves shown sporting text.

And this visual similarity reflected ideology. Urbanisation and literacy are both seen as other terms for modernisation. The book, the plan, the diagram, the cityscape – all are being equivocated.

And, from a Western perspective, there seems something going on akin to Protestantism. Protestantism used the printed word to quite literally overwrite the image, in a bid to obliterate Catholic iconography. It wanted to strip Churches of their finery and instead fill them with Bibles. And this opposition to the fetishisation of images often became a fetishisation of the printed word.

In another quote from the Academy review: “The plan itself seemed interchangeable with communism, an ordering of things in opposition to the free-for-all ‘anarchy’ of the market... Like the Bible to an orthodox Christian, the Plan became the book of answers which could not be questioned, the book so important as to require guarding by the clergy.”

So for all the denunciation of icons, the era became exceptionally adept at producing them. It’s true that while the population remained largely illiterate, it had to be reached visually. As said over the Academy show, “only the image was going to spread the word”. Yet the dictionary gives two definitions of the term ‘icon’, which essentially reduce to “devotional image” and “representative symbol” - Jesus on the cross and those figures on toilet doors.

Yet these definitions are in practice mingled. You might, for example, expect to see frequent images of Lenin. But within these he strikes the same few stock poses, like the red version of classic Christs. For example he’s often shown with one raised arm, the pose used on the exhibition poster up top. (An appalling poster to advertise a museum devoted to design, but never mind that now.) Sometimes he’s pointing up, sometimes with fingers outstretched as if reaching to shake hands with a giant. Whichever, the iconography is of an elevated figure gesturing still higher. All of which is accentuated by the way that his death merely multiplied the images made of him. Mayakovsky pronounced him “even now, more alive than the living”.

Mikhail Balyasny’s ‘We Will Make the USSR the Country of Socialist Industry and Electrification’ 
(1930, above) centralises this figure, but makes of it a bold red silhouette, like it should be so familiar as to not require filling in. While John Heartfield’s ‘Montage of Lenin Over Moscow’ (1931) projects that silhouette half across the city. In Alexander Medvedekin’s film ’New Moscow’ (1938) Lenin’s statue is shown from below, as banks of airplanes fly above him. It’s like with that upraised arm he’s conducting the whole affair from that lofty perch.

And yet this seems to vie with the frequently-used form of the photo-collage. Perhaps this partly comes from our inevitable tendency to contrast them with the smoothness of modern Photoshop images, but they look rough-hewn, manipulated into existence. And the result is that they assert boldly, not insinuate, they seem innately disruptive, unafraid of their propagandist role. In Valentina Kulagina’s cover to ’Krasnaya Niva No. 12’ (1930, above) the black and white figures are not only shoehorned into those gridded streets, and juxtaposed against their boldly colourful surroundings, thee’s no attempt to find aerial views of them. They look like a demo of people of vastly different sizes, all lying on their backs.

Plans Unrealised
”There is no final one; revolutions are infinite”

Of the six unrealised buildings, the Palace of the Soviets (the one Lenin’s huge statue was supposed to top) might serve best as a summary of its times. It was to be built on the site of the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, which Stalin had dynamited in 1931. The destruction was filmed, with lingering close-ups of its iconography as if parading its guilt. To complete the site’s trajectory, it’s fairly close to the spot where one of El Lissitzky’s cloud irons would have been.

The winning design was submitted by Boris Iofan, who had studied under Armando Brasini – a fascist architect favoured by Mussolini. Kaganovich, Stalin’s appointee to the Moscow Soviet, had effectively decreed that by virtue of the Revolution Russia was already Socialist, so any suggestion of further change was suspect if not actually counter-revolutionary. And this palace looks… well, like a palace. It’s described in the guidebook by curator Dejan Sudjac as “the Socialist Vatican”.

War put a halt to construction, though Sudjic suggests it’s grandiosity was unachievable anyway. Khrushchev later made the site into an open-air swimming pool. Then, from 1995, the original Orthodox Cathedral was rebuilt, and was where Pussy Riot performed their “punk prayer” protest. The swimming pool looks by far the best option. And I’m not even kidding. A brief film-clip suggests it was heated for year-round use, and shows bathers climbing out from the steam amid icicle-dripping rails.

But we already know Stalinism was despotic. A more interesting question might be – what does any of this mean for today? The show’s video comments how “the contemporary landscape is populated by their dreams and ideas”. We can find examples of this aplenty, such as ‘paper architects’, who don’t necessarily design to be built, now being much more common. 

But of course this merely betrays their weaknesses, rather than addressing their strengths. It portrays them as literally an avant garde, planning for a future who was only realisable later. Which is to suggest they were never really that radical, that disruptive, that all existing society needed to assimilate their innovations was a little time. And yet our world is only their future in a linear sense. It’s a world they would neither want nor even recognise.

It’s like a window had cleared, and it was briefly possible to peer through into a future different from the present, before it occluded again. Looking at those city plans arranged around a bending river inevitably makes you try and project how it would have been had all this been happening in London. As the show amply demonstrates, there’s no neat transposing from then to now, no merely taking up of old blueprints. But hopefully one day we shall find out.

Coming soon! From Moscow to Washington…