Friday, 25 November 2016

'MALEVICH: REVOLUTIONARY OF RUSSIAN ART'

The latest in a series on artists who dealt in abstraction and semi-abstraction. (Which is of course a thin cover for this being another art exhibition review which gets written up absurdly late.) Previous entry, on Kandinsky here.


“By Suprematism I mean the supremacy of pure feeling in creative art. To the Suprematist the visual phenomena of the objective world are, in themselves, meaningless; the significant thing is feeling.”
- Malevich

The Modernist Magpie

For the longest time, I associated the Russian artist Kazimir Malevich with Mondrian. An artist whose formulatory early years turned out to be their best work. An artist who, as soon as he'd figured out what he wanted to do, had boxed himself into a corner. In Mondrian's case a yellow box, in Malevich's a black one. But the same difference. His Black Square, beloved of art history books, was a full stop – the cul de sac of the path of abstraction. Once it was reached there was nothing left to do but turn back again.

With Mondrian, I still contend that's pretty much true. Yet Malevich's story turns out to be richer...

For an artist renowned for having so singular a style, it's weird to watch Malevich starting out by looking like everybody else. And it really is everybody else. He's able to cycle through so many Modernist styles so quickly, taking from each elements that suit him, like a Magpie in flight. Just get ahead of yourself for a second and scroll down to glance at at the next six or seven illos. They're not just from the same hand, they were created within a four year period.

Seeing an exhibition like this can be like reading a book where you already know the ending. It can distort your vision of what's happening right now. So, despite our natural tendency to look for Malevich expunging elements from his art, we should pause a moment to consider what stays. Abstraction is commonly assumed to lead from landscapes or still lives; the human figure so strong an image in our minds it needs to be suppressed before we can start to see a picture's formal elements. (Try looking at a still life of a vase of flowers merely as shapes and colours, then try the exercise again for a portrait.) But the human figure remains dominant, perhaps even a fixation, in Malevich's art right up to the switch-over. A rare landscape can even be called simply 'Landscape' (1906).

Matisse is a visible early influence, for example in 'Bather' (1911, below). With it's bold outlines, it's real or apparent blocks of vibrant colour, it's an evocation of movement. It's audaciously simplified figure shows little interest in anatomical accuracy, the torso is simply a sausage from which protrudes oversized flapping hands and striding feet.


Malevich soon joined the Donkey's Tail group. With a name presumably working as a self-styled irony, they determined not to be merely imitative of art abroad but (as the show puts it) “fusing the innovations of the Western avant-garde with the simplified forms and expressive colour of [their own Russian] popular prints and religious icons.” And as we saw with the 'From Russia' show, this would prove a potent cocktail. The magic beans of Western Modernism were brought back and plant in the rich soil of Russian folk art, leading to some very bold beanstalks indeed.

The common folk became the subject for painting, with an almost totemic emphasis on the figure of the Peasant. He's clearly seen as the emblem for Russia, much as John Bull was for Britain. But paintings are frequently named after their central figures, who are themselves named after their activity, such as 'The Floor Polishers' (1911/12). Their facial features are normally boldly outlined, evoking types rather than depicting individuals. See for example 'On the Boulevard' (1910, below), where the figure is emphasised by being thrust out at you. If we include the bench he sits on, he extends beyond the frame in all four directions, with a disconnected landscape placed behind him like a theatre flat.


But Malevich was already moving beyond Matisse. In for example ,'The Scyther' (1911/12, below) the background is reduced to shades of red, and works somewhere between a scene and a form of patterning. It offers a vivid colour contrast to the foreground figure. With his neatly gradated black and silver-grey (looking almost like a piece of modern vector art) and mask-like face, the figure looks as metallic as the scythe he carries. And yet, rather jarringly, his feet are unshod.


And this change was coming through fresh winds blowing from the West. The Knave of Diamonds exhibition of December 1910 first brought Cubism to Russia, and spawned an indigenous group named after it. However, as we saw in an earlier review, distance allowed the Russians to take the seemingly irreconcilable Cubism and Futurism and combine them into their own synthesis – which they promptly (if uninventively) titled Cubo-Futurism. Nevertheless, most examples were more Futurist, more concerned with dynamism and speed. (See for example Natalya Goncharova’s ‘The Cyclist’, 1913)Malevich, conversely, stayed closer to the more contemplative Cubism.


With 'Head of a Peasant Girl' (1912, above) Malevich employs sombre browns and greens, the cooler colour scheme of Cubism, rather than the bright blocks he'd first borrowed from Matisse and were still being employed by the Futurists. The show finds “the title challenging the viewer to find the trace of a recognisable image in a complex arrangement of planes”. You can't, and yet like a Zen exercise the image seems perpetually just out of reach.

The title actually has a second challenge, for there's a pleasing irony in Malevich insisting so modern a painting should still be dedicated to a Peasant Girl. Yet at another point he seems less assured that he can continue to combine his influences. 'The Woodcutter', effectively a sequel to 'The Scyther', has on it's back 'Peasant Women in Church' (both 1912), not only a more traditional piece of folk art but, as its title would suggest, religious in theme. It suggests an artist divided, not sure which way to go.

And yet he did. Modernism is often caricatured as a series of dry, formal innovations, hermetically disconnected to anything outside the artist world and its fixations. And if there's a moment of truth to that, Cubism is it. It's innovations weren't important so much as revelatory. But it was art for artists. And those artists needed to swallow it down, learn it's lessons and move on. That's pretty much what Picasso did, and he was the school's co-founder. And that's precisely what Malevich does. His Matisses, however good they look, are merely more Matisses. Whereas his Cubist works, however typical they look, show him already working his way out of them.

As if the brew wasn't already heady, Dadaism is then thrown into the mix. Though it was never named as such in Russia it seems to have had the same impetus as in Germany, the looming shadow of the First World War. In 1913 Malevich collaborated on the 'Zaum' manifesto which boldly called for “the dissolution of language and the rejection of rational thought”, and started wearing the signifying wooden spoon in his buttonhole. The signature paradox of Dada, nihilist destructiveness combined with wanton playfulness, is at work - though in Malevich's case... well, let's check out which face is uppermost.


‘American in Moscow’ (1914, above) is a reason-defying collage of objects, including that identifying wooden spoon and the (at least in the popular mind) arch-Surrealist totem the fish. Among the chopped-up words and images are three chopping devices – a sabre, a saw and scissors. Even the scales on the fish's back, emphasised by being placed before the man's face, look sharp enough to cut.

Writing in the Telegraph, Richard Durrant comments “accomplished as all these early pictures are, every single one is a pastiche”. He’s right. But they’re so accomplished. And both those points are nowhere more true than with this work. It's almost the consummate early Malevich. Beneath the chaotic jumble it's well-composed... in fact too well-composed, too realized. Dada relishes in its nihilism, audaciously defying you to find it aesthetic. It's disruptive, volatile and even violent. Whereas this is art merely masquerading as anti-art. It's a great work of art. That's its success and its failure.

Nevertheless, it was Dada rather than Cubism that was to prod Malevich into abstraction. And that's less surprising than it might appear. Though people commonly couldn't find the images in it, Cubism was never intended as abstract or even proto-abstract. It treated objects much like flat-pack furniture in reverse, it took the seeming solid and disassembled it. It asked why we'd want to see objects from just one perspective in art, when that's not the way the world works. But multiple perspectives would prove not liberating enough for Malevich.

Not that Dada was any more proto-abstract. It sought to undermine language's functionality at the point of use, to make its descriptive powers seem arbitrary and thereby meaningless. But the lesson Malevich took from it was ultimately different - that you could cut language from its earthly moorings, and rather than use it to point at objects attempt to express the ineffable. “Zaum” was most likely a nonsense term akin to Dada itself, a jeer at language's inadequacy. The nearest English equivalent might be “blah”. But Malevich seems to have taken it to mean something more like “aum”. Coined to express nothing, he took it to mean everything.

And so he went and painted a big black square.

Be Square


'Black Square' (1915, above), as he decided to call it, is called by the show “one of the iconic paintings of the Twentieth Century” or by the Times' Rachel Campbell-Johnston the “Mona Lisa of Modernism”. (She uses the line early, so it pokes above the parapet of the great Murdoch paywall.)

The date I've given above follows convention, it's when the work was finished. But Malevich himself always used 1913, when he first had the idea. Which suggests it might even be the the first conceptual work of art, its idea more important than its realisation. (The same year, in 'Village' he simply wrote the word “village” on a canvas, arguing that “encompass[ed] the entire village” rather than get tied down in specifics the way an image inevitably would.)

And look when it comes. It wasn't the full stop I'd previously imagined. As it comes early in his abstract works if it's any form of grammar it's an opening quote. When the show calls it “the starting point for a wholly new approach to art”... well bugger me for a know-nothing but they prove themselves right! Malevich was soon calling this approach Suprematism, and crying “arise comrades, and free yourself from the tyranny of objects!”

Realising it in fact proved problematic, for such a large block of black paint would inevitably crack over time. (Look up close at the illo above.) To try and overcome this he repainted it four times, though it makes you wonder why he didn't just stitch a square of black material onto the canvas.


And, there being multiple versions, we even get to see it twice. Just in case you didn't get the point the first time. And in fact I'm not being sarky there. In December 1915 he staged 'The Last Exhibition of Futurist Painting 0.10', which doubled as the first Suprematist show. (The only known photo of it is above.) This is duplicated by the Tate, though more sparsely as only twelve of the original twenty paintings have survived. And seeing it in this context, rather than standalone, gives it more meaning. Hung across the top corner, its simultaneously part of and outside and above the other works. Notably its been placed next to some of the more detailed pieces, providing a contrast. In fact, though I've no idea whether this is actually the case, it looks like the other works were made to go around it.

The show makes much of this being the place where, in Russian Orthodoxy, the icon would be hung in the home. (Ironically its also the place a modern power object goes, the playback screen in shops showing punters the security cameras are working.) There's debate about whether this is meant as some Dadaist provocation or a genuinely spiritualist gesture. My money's on the second one. In fact it made me think of the way Hebrew scrolls would only use a placeholder for the name of God, but still place that placeholder into a sentence. The exhibition looks like it's built up as a sentence in that way, the works as words, meaning stemming from context.

Yet in a sense this all exhibits the limits of Malevich's approach. Language always depends on context for meaning. It can point at the ineffable, but only by contrasting with the here and now. Malevich has expelled the representational from his art, but we still need the represented - to see it framed by the real world for it to have meaning. 'Black Square' needs the context of what it isn't to be what it is. (I had a similar feeling at the 'From Russia' exhibition, which included a photo of the Black Square above the artist on his deathbed.)

Suprematism Supreme

By this point Malevich has successfully reduced his art down to one colour, and one that strictly speaking isn't even a colour. Even the off-whites which border his black shapes are so off as to be no more than non-black, something to stop the eye settling there. But, in the one moment of truth to the theory he needed to pull back from the absolutism of 'Black Square', colour then comes back in all it's boldness.


Take 'Suprematism 55' (1916, above) with it's bright blocks of colour, even the background replacing the cold off-white of 'Black Square' with a warm sandy yellow. This leads the show to claim “at the heart of Suprematism was colour”. However, while colour is an important component, it's not the key feature of these works.

The Futurist dynamism he initially passed over for Cubism returns in all its glory, and the colour is there to serve that dynamism. We can think of abstraction and perspective as opposites, one seeing the picture frame as a window on a world and the other insisting its just a flat surface. But this work has a powerful sense of spatial depth, that black tadpole floating as if several feet above the brown rectangle. The diagonal black line emphasises the perspective, like a dropping rope. Yet where Futurist dynamism was convulsive his is elegant, those shapes seeming to serenely glide. (I know it's not the point, but I can't help but see biplane shapes in there.) For all it's abstraction it feels not sterile but alive, full of movement. It provides everything 'Black Square' withheld.

And it's these works which carry the show. Notably it's this, and not the better-known 'Black Square' which becomes the show's poster image (up top). In fact, as Malevich started using a black square in place of his signature, it becomes little more than an authenticating rubber stamp, added to each corner.

With Malevich it's easier to come at him from what he isn't doing, before arriving at what he is. Miro called a series of painting 'Constellations', as if they were as vast and awe-inducing as the night sky. While alternately, the first atom-splitting experiments have been considered an influence on Cubism. As we saw with Alexander Calder, he quite possibly combined both. And indeed one of the appealing features of abstract art can be having your sense of scale with-held, so you've no idea whether you're gazing up at the immense or peering into the microscopic.

But for Malevich either option – the cosmic or the subatomic – seems still too earthly, too tied to regular human perception. It was more like 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'. Works echo this in their immaterial titles, such as 'Mystic Suprematism' (1920/22) or 'Supremacy of the Spirit' (c. 1920).

Robert Burghardt and Gal Kim point out: ”The most obvious strategy for representing universalism is abstraction. The abstract, like the universal, evades the concrete. In the abstract formal languages lies a certain openness that allows space for one's own thinking and associations. It facilitates multiple interpretative approaches and engenders fantasies.” ('Signal' 3, PM Press) (They're writing about Yugoslav Partisan Memorials but the point transfers.)

”Everything Has Disappeared”

And this leads to a peculiar paradox with Malevich. The most active part of his career coincided with the most politically eventful era in modern Russian history. He went to Moscow shortly before the 1905 Revolution, fought in the First World War and witnessed the new post-revolutionary Russia. It's events which led to the political commitment of Rodchenko's photo-montage, Eisenstein's cinema or Tatilin's vow to redesign everyday life. And yet among them here's this mystic, his art self-avowedly removed from all earthly things. To him surely those political events were like the off-white behind the black square, not something worth focusing on.

Materialsm, the idea that humans are products fo their social context, that we cannot arbitrarily transcend that context just by thinking hard, is axiomatic to communism. Suprematism seems the very opposite to all of that. Surely it was merely an aesthetic movement with delusions.

And yet he seems to have seen it differently. He claimed in 1915 “our world of art as become new, non-objective, pure. Everything has disappeared; a mass of material is left from which a new form will be built.” And if a cynic might claim that as mere boiler-plate Modernism, at other times he more explicitly tied artistic changes to the political. In 1919 he stated “painting died, like the old regime, because it was an organic part of it”.

Rachel Spence writes of “the Russian avant-garde's fantasy of a social re-ordering so radical it was often conceived in cosmic rather than earthly terms”. ('Art Quarterly', Spring '15) She is of course using the analogy to dismiss such hubris. But its actually sound. If Malevich was other-worldly, there's also the sense that events in this world had led us to more easily access that other world. Revolution raised us, much like Mass is held to connect Catholics to God.

He taught art, and far from being remote or ascetic proved a galvanising figure. His charges formed their own group, the Champions of New Art, taking up the black square as their emblem. (Members included Popova and Lissitzky, creator of the famous piece of abstract agit-prop 'Beating the Whites With the Red Wedge', 1919.)

The Revolution, when it arrived, affected Malevich's art in two ways. First there's the Architectons. Much like the Constructivists, he was searching for a more practical application for art, so created works which lay somewhere between sculpture and scale models for buildings. But the truth is, they don't really work as either. As stated above, Malevich's art needs a frame. It's subject was the ineffable, with abstraction as a means to describe the indescribable. It works as a kind of portal, an other-world only bordering ours. Objects which physically exist in our space do not play to his strengths.

Also, true to his words that “painting died” and “everything has disappeared”, he again starts to strip elements away. The dynamism disappears, and those pure blocks of solid colour dissolve. They're as formal as the earlier 'Last Exhibition' works, but instead of black-on-white they're... yes, really... white-on-white. Check out for example 'White Suprematist Cross' (1920/21, below). If we're going to continue with our grammar comparisons, these are like the ellipses that trail off a sentence like...


And if that seems rather like a film that ends by fading to white, like the story should really have stopped there, perhaps it should. But instead...

Back to Peasantry (Tragedy and Farce)

Stalin soon rose to power, and it's scarcely a spoiler to say that part of his plan to suppress all dissent was to impose a socialist realist orthodoxy on art. Added to which, in a point played up in Orwell's 'Nineteen Eighty-Four', those who had earlier shown an excess of zeal for the revolution were now considered problem cases. What was wanted was those who'd just obey. Malevich, in short, was primed to get it from both barrels. He had only ever left Russia once, on a speaking tour of Germany, but that was used as evidence of fraternisation with the enemy and proof of “bourgeois” qualities. Many of his works survived only because orders to destroy them were disobeyed.

Perhaps unsurprisingly given the circumstances, he soon decided painting wasn't quite dead after all and returned to the point most acceptable to the new regime – the Donkey's Tail era. However, when his peasants reappear, its history repeating as both tragedy and farce.


'Head of a Peasant' (1928/9, above) is something of a sequel to 'The Scyther', but the eyes look heavy, the mask-like face less universalised than stamped with the dehumanisation of enforced collectivism. (In other works the main figure has an alarming egg-shaped void for a head.) The figures behind could be foraging as much as farming, while above them war planes fly in formation before a darkening sky. As the show puts it “his inert figures against a pared-down landscape convey a sense of dislocation, alienation and despair. The peasant, long established as the embodiment of the Russian soul, is reduced to a faceless mannequin.”

You could debate how deliberate all this is. Is Malevich like Shostakovich, encoding the dissidence he couldn't state openly? Or is he like Vertov, trying desperately to adjust to the new realities but unable to sing the new slogans with any cheer? It probably doesn't matter much. The result is the same. If some of his early works were pastiches, these are almost pastiches of his own early work.

He followed a career almost as neat as one of his geometric forms. But unlike his patented square it was a triangle. There's a steady ascent to the late Tens and early Twenties, at which point he seemed able to lift himself from the ground, but which is followed only by decline. Yet the view from that apex... it's no exaggeration to call it other-worldly – so let's focus on that for the finish.

As a general rule, I like to think of abstraction as something which expanded the territory for art, freed it from being tied to representation. Which is distinct from the notion of 'pure abstraction'. If it instead switched art over, trading in hillsides and rivers for squares and circles, then it surely swapped one set of confines for another. It seems to make more sense to see those normally regarded as the pioneers of abstraction, such as Kandinsky, in terms of expansion rather than exchange. 

So perhaps the most fascinating thing about Malevich is that his abstraction was pure, that he did disdain anything short of that as “a mere imitation of reality”. And yet he found a way to make that work. He's the man who made geometry glide and sing.


Coming soon! More of this sort of thing...

Wednesday, 16 November 2016

SO WHY IS TRUMP STILL WITH THAT WALL?


So Trump, the charlatan supreme, inevitably starts rolling back on his grossly inflated pre-election pledges. Scant surprise. But then how come he’s still on about that stupid wall? It’s grandiose monstrosity would seem a prime example of rash promise, made when you thought there was no risk of being asked to deliver on it. 

And, completely contrary to his inflammatory rhetoric, Mexican immigration to the United States is falling and likely to continue falling. While, despite all the absurd liberal rhetoric we've heard lately, Obama actually deported more migrants than any other President so far. Above all, most migrants don’t try to cross an already policed border, they just get a temporary visa and overstay. (Like, duh.) You might as well build a wall to keep out the climate change. If he admitted it was happening.

Which means it’s not just impossible to achieve it’s, even by it's own twisted logic, increasingly unnecessary. But instead he’s upped the ante by bringing in this three million target. Estimates suggest there probably are enough illegal migrants in the States for him to theoretically reach his magic number. Except illegal migrants don’t by tradition make themselves easy to find, what with being in the country illegally and everything.

Here's an idea of what he might be planning. His association (yet again) of migration with criminality may be the clue. Certainly there's nowhere near enough migrants who've committed crimes to reach the figure, unless you use the circular logic of claiming illegal residence is itself a crime. But let's remember that other great American standby, of linking criminal records with the right to vote then criminalising those you don't like voting.

Latinos currently occupy quite a unique, perhaps even key, place in the demographics of the States, which presents a unique problem for the right. They don’t vote Democrat in the same proportions as black Americans (nine-tenths) or Jewish Americans (just under three-quarters). But the figure is still a significant two-thirds. And they’re the second-largest ethnic group in America (after whites) and the second-fastest growing (after Asians). In other words, every day they are busily making more non-Republicans.

More established Republican strategists saw the solution as winning them over, seeing religion and the work ethic as strong in their culture and therefore claiming them as natural supporters. Yet that third which does vote Republican tends to do so because it’s Evangelical. Which means to win over the other two thirds you need to convert them religiously before you stand any chance politically. Which might be a bit of a tall order.

Or on the other hand you can just deport them.

In an extreme form of gerrymandering, Trump's plan is to start deporting Latino citizens. Don’t renew your car insurance quick enough, run a red light, drop some litter, maybe get arrested while protesting against his anti-Latino plans and find yourself in Mexico or Puerto Rica. And if the remaining Latino citizens get cowed into quietude, if they don’t protest his plans for the fear they might be next, so much the better. Making America Great Again and Keeping America White have become analogous concepts.

Sounds wild and implausible? There’s precedent for it. America has already deported ‘criminals’ to countries they left as children, sometimes when only a few days old. Like most Trump pledges, they only need to do more of what they’re doing already.

The illo's from this vid...


Saturday, 12 November 2016

THE RAINCOATS (GIG-GOING ADVENTURES)

West Hill Hall, Brighton, Sat 5th Nov


“We're like those clothes they make inside out, we're showing all our seams”. After confessing to skipping a section from the last song, bassist Gina Birch seemingly ad libs the line. And it's about the most astute thing I've ever heard anyone say about this band.

I wrote a piece a while back about how the two great girl bands of the post-punk era (you can probably guess which two) worked in an opposite but complementary fashion. And indeed it rather marvellously seems that, while every boy band was formed in the wake of the Sex Pistols, it was seeing the Slits that first galvanised the Raincoats. Listen to a Slits record and it's like the local gang are inviting you to join them for a while, as they go on their shoplifting sprees or other wild adventures. While with the Raincoats it's like stumbling on the secret den where the outsider kids hang out.

In the post-punk history 'Rip It Up', Simon Reynolds commented on how “unrocked” their sound was. Undriven by the standard rhythm section, their music's sketchy and slightly tentative, as if feeling it's way into existence. This sense of music for misfits and outcasts made by misfits and outcasts, which probably couldn't follow a straight path if it wanted, makes the band idiosyncratic to the point of inimitable and yet at the very same time a herald of indie. Certainly the track 'In Love' might be the only song in that whole over-subscribed genre to accurately describe the hopeless topsy-turviness that situation instills, which can feel as much like being hit by an infection as it does anything else.

After Lennon and McCartney, many great bands comprise two separate, distinct characters writing in separate, distinct styles. And Birch has described herself and Ana da Silva, the only remaining original members, as “polar opposites”. Gawky but engaging, Birch best fits Kim Gordon's description of the band as “ordinary people playing extraordinary music”. While Da Silva, playing more of an older sister role, talks less and has a quiet assurance about her which radiates an anti-cool cool. Birch's songs can feature confused characters in a confusing world, sometimes barely convinced of their own existence. While Da Silva's are more mysterious and indefinable, akin to some of John Cale's stranger ballads.


Following their own rules as ever, their set is mostly comprised of post-reformation songs, with the classic tracks largely confined to the end. This meant most of the set I'd not heard before, but it didn't matter in the slightest. A friend exulted afterwards that they sound no better rehearsed now than they did back then, and I do know what he means. They've never polished or commodified their sound, they're still in touch with that initial impetus when they were rehearsing in a squat basement. The only weakness of the new songs is that they can stray slightly into the pedagogical. Feminism was always innate to the band, but in an instinctive rather than banner-waving sense.

Trash Kit supported, playing the skittering off-beat rhythms of post-punk mixed with Afro-beat. I'd previously seen them supporting the Ex a couple of years ago, where they sounded good. But they seem better now, as if their sound's maturing as they go.

I couldn't find anything contemporary for the compulsory YouTube clip, so here's two tracks from back in the day...

Saturday, 5 November 2016

FLIT/ FUCKED UP (GIG-GOING ADVENTURES)

FLIT
Brighton Dome, Sun 30th Oct


Martin Green day-jobs as accordionist with the contemporary folk trio Lau. (A classic case of an outfit I always intend to catch up with without succeeding.) For this one-off project he's got together an ensemble including Portishead's Adrian Utley, Mogwai's Dominic Aitchison, Becky Unthank and Arab Strab's Aidan Moffat. (Though the last only appears as a recorded voice-over.) Green's described Flit as “inspired by first hand stories of human movement around the world.” Songs are strung along polar opposites - past and present, parent and child, home and travel.

I confess to never having previously been sold on the Unthanks, but here Becky's voice served admirably and married well with co-vocalist Adam Holmes. She had a refreshingly direct, unhistrionic way of singing, as if merely intending to get the song over to you. (Green praises her for this in the programme.) The music moved back and forth between vocal-led sections and what I believe we are supposed to call folktronica, but remained measured and refreshingly sparse, never clever or fussy.

They were accompanied by stage design and visuals by white robot, predominant enough for the night to end with a cinema-like credit sequence. Yet at the same time they were equally measured and sparse. In fact with their brown paper packaging and folded-paper figures they had a home-made quality, more Oliver Postgate than Pixar. And animation, where objects and figures don't just move but morph and transform, worked well with the overall theme of human movement.

In fact the night's one weakness was Green's audience addresses, which if leavened by humour veered towards the pat. (Life is a journey, family bonds us and so on.) It could of course be said that folk musicians are inveterate explainers, that with a folk gig there’ll be an inevitable gap between the phrase “this next song…” and the actual next song which sometimes matches the length of the song itself. We expect this, and we go with it.

But that's a tradition built up around events consisting of one guy, an acoustic guitar, a barstool and a spotlight. While even some of those elements can be considered optional. Apply it to an ensemble in a multi-media event and it becomes not just superfluous but extraneous.

It could of course be said that Green’s ‘explanations’ might sound inadequate, but were merely reiterating what was in the songs anyway. But that seems all the more a reason not to repeat it all. Firstly, these were evocative rather than polemical songs. But more, there’s a reason why we have songs, or any other kind of art - they can say things better than saying them. They can reinvigorate what has been reduced to cliché. In one of the voiceovers, Moffat comments on finding a photo “from another country”. Of course, we recognise the well-known analogy for the past. But the fact that we make the connection, in the moment, while we watch, is important. (I did wonder if these addresses were merely padding, to stop the show being too short.)


Okay, having accused Green of pat philosophising it’s time to do some of my own. The songs more explore a terrain than develop an argument, a terrain defined by the track ‘The Wrackline’ - the line of debris left by the high tide, neither sea nor shore. And while folk artists forever try to pin a tune back to it’s source in their fool's quest for 'authenticity', these songs seem to stem from such an unplace. As in the lyric “railway lines and ocean liners, it never will be a home to any,” we live in a present that’s merely liminal.

And as such they’re haunting laments. It’s reminiscent of the way that several contemporary ghost stories, such as the recent BBC series ‘The Living and the Dead’, have inverted what might seem the genre’s most fundamental relationship – it's us who've become the ghosts who haunt the past.

But at the very same time there's a quiet assurance to them. Teresa May recently tried to court popularity by claiming “if you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere”. As if human movement is somehow a recent phenomenon, a fiction this show does much to dispel.

And even if we do live more on the Wrackline than once we did, if we are not tied to a place in the way people once were, that doesn’t make us the rootless cosmopolitans of Nazi, Stalinist and now Teresa May’s propaganda. It just means, in an image used in one of the songs, we carry our roots with us. And folk songs are effectively lightweight bundles for carrying such things around, sonic knotted hankies attached to download sticks. And if that’s become our identity we should embrace it.

And that’s perhaps best not raised in the lyrics but embedded in the music. The ‘folk’ and ‘tronica’ sounds are not ironically juxtaposed in some clever foregrounded way, but blended. You stop making a distinction between them fairly quickly.

I walked home past a church under redevelopment, under the sign 'giving the past a future'. Which is not such a bad idea. But our more pressing issue might be giving the present a past...

The animation for 'Strange Sky'...



 FUCKED UP
The Haunt, Brighton, Fri 29th Oct


As the record shows, Expletive Undeleted's last appearance in Brighton just under four years ago was well received here in Lucid Frenzy Towers. Enough in fact to come back to the very same venue for more...

They're here to celebrate the tenth anniversary of their first album, 'Hidden World', by playing it right through. Their previous steps have been less surprising than previously inconceivable - playing with some similarly F-worded friends in the Festival of the Fuck Bands, covering 'Do They Know It's Christmas?' and releasing a hardcore punk concept album where workers in a lightbulb factory discover love, revolution and metafiction in roughly that order. So playing an old album in the correct track order does seem strangely retrograde. Perhaps it's intended as a kind of double bluff, where the most unexpected thing for them to do now would be something expected.

Perhaps luckily for me it's not an album I really know, having bought it only shortly before the gig. And they are nothing less than a great live band. If the great frontmen of punk are like forces of nature which get unleashed on stage, sometimes you can pin them to a specific animal. Iggy would be a wolf, perhaps an urban fox, the Velvets cats. 

But with frontman Pink Eyes you'd have to invent the creature – something supersized yet playful, a punk version of the Gruffalo. He's hyperactively all over the stage (and for that matter most of the auditorium), finding a Halloween pumpkin which he's soon adopted into a helmet, heading to the bar for a drink mid-song without missing a beat, high-fiving all the venue staff...


But while it was still a great gig, it was beaten by it's predecessor. And it was to do with that first album business...

Many bands found they soon had to abandon the punk sound, that what started as a jolt of energy soon became a musical straightjacket you needed to wriggle out of. Whereas for F And Five Asterisks they wear it like a suit of clothes they seem infinitely able to accessorise.

And that was already at work with the first album. Among the cacophony and bellowed vocals there's already a keen melodic sense. One of their fortes is great guitar surges, already in enough evidence that to house them it needed two nine-minute tracks. (Hardly a hardcore staple.) But it starts something was taken much further subsequently, they became more musically adventurous as they went on. (Underlined by both first and second album containing so many religious themes.) Going back to that first album now is like going back to your roots for a band whose beauty lies in their ability to flower. I never saw them back them, but it does feel like being timewarped to that point, where the band we knew were still budding.

'Invisible Leader' from Liverpool...

Sunday, 30 October 2016

KANDINSKY – THE PATH TO ABSTRACTION

This is a reprint from Ye Olde Print Days of Lucid Frenzy, on a Kandinsky exhibition which was on at the Tate Modern a decade ago. But it does serve as a sort of intro to a brief series on abstraction and semi-abstraction in the arts. Instalments will chiefly be on exhibitions already gone, though not as gone as this. They'll inevitably be interspersed with gig-going adventures. Oh, and that's 'Cossacks' (1910/11) below.



”This exhibition follows Wassily Kandinsky’s intriguing journey from figurative landscape painter to modernist master, as he strove to develop a radically abstract language.”

Sometimes it’s all too easy to react. What’s more, the rarified air of galleries can stir this in you. You find your brain vying with the documentation and curatorial efforts, as if they’re all part of some conspiracy conjured up to keep us apart from the pictures. (Albeit a conspiracy conjured up by the very people showing us the pictures.) I do this myself and I know I do.

Of course the world has no shortage of educated idiots, and with Modernism in particular there’s aspects that are almost always (if not consciously) suppressed. But if all you do is react you’re never actually acting – you’re just being somebody else’s mirror image. It’s more likely the problem here lies in reducing art to mere words, and in so doing tying it down to a neat narrative.

‘The Path to Abstraction’ is more a sound-bite concept that fits neatly on a poster than some plot. But it's still reducing Kandinsky's career to a “path”, a “journey”, a series of linear “developments” we can cut up neatly into successive rooms like marking it out with milestones.

The exhibition “focuses on the early, exploratory period of his career, as he moved from early observations of landscape towards fully abstract compositions.” (So says Kate Pau in the catalogue). The first two rooms therefore offer us the Fauvist Kandinsky, but their benefit in being there lies in “offer[ing] a foretaste of his later explorations into the use of colour”.

This skating over Fauvism is so common as to be almost orthodox. Fauvism is like the middle child who parent attention skipped over. Indeed, it suffers from something of a double whammy. See Modernism as a linear series of formal innovations and Fauvism becomes incidental, a staging-post, a way-station on the road from Impressionism to Expressionism. On a more popular level, Fauvism lacks the big hitter that can turn a Tate show into a blockbuster. No Monet, no Picasso, no Dali. (Matisse is the exception to the rule, except he’s rarely popularly associated with Fauvism.)


Personally I find Fauvism, with its solid blocks of bright and often unexpected colours, somewhere I’m happy to linger. (See for example 'Landscape With Factory Chimney', 1910, above.) I enjoy the similarity not just between it and folk art but much commercial art. (Commercial art presumably uses the style more due to skimping on printing processes than any fancy philosophising. But then so did folk art.) But mostly I just enjoy it, the juxtaposition of realist and non-realist styles appeals to something deep in my brain I couldn’t vocalise. (Something Kandinsky himself would have been proud to hear!) I even found myself taking a guilty pleasure in the perspectives used, the key element expunged by abstraction, like indulging in the last piece of chocolate before Lent.

Try this for an angle: “Kandinsky’s paintings during the years immediately preceding the First World War often convey a dramatic sense of a world on the verge of destruction… An artistic revolution was also underway, with Kandinsky emerging as one of the key figures.” Now just wouldn’t that make a great montage on 'The South Bank Show', World War One trenches morphing into Kandinskian colour and all that? From this angle the pictures are scanned for elements representing cannons and swords, as if it was the violence of the world around him which drove Kandinsky off into the arms of the abstract.


In 'The Last Judgement' (1912, above), for example, a figure is described as cowering before a trumpet. Now there are dark paintings on show here, but they all follow a fairly simple code. One of the codes is that they’re always …um… dark. This one could hardly be painted in brighter colours and still be visible without sunglasses! Moreover, the “cowering” figure may possibly have her hands over her ears, but could as easily be said to be kneeling in prayer. Compositionally she’s not recoiling against the trumpeter but facing the same way. It’s like they’re alongside each other.

Certainly, Kandinsky was no bloodless New Ager who shied from savagery. All his works of this era have a dynamic, convulsive quality, and there’s often a sense that they are storms. But there’s a greater, and finally overpowering, sense that they are dances.

I see Kandinsky as a more spiritual than political figure, always asking what was universal and rarely what was particular. With bombs going off around him, he’d probably just ponder the mystery of the purple rectangle regardless. I don’t imagine war somehow ‘abstracted’ him from the world and I don’t think he was ‘driven’ down that path in any case. If there is a narrative journey towards abstraction here, it’s one of revelation more than damnation.


His great compositions have a sweep and swirl to them. (See 'Improvisation Gorge',, 1914, above.) As you stand before them you won’t fix on their entirety so much as take in one then another element, you eye being pulled backwards and forwards like exploring a city across it’s criss-cross tramlines rather than surveying it from outside and above. His favourite Biblical image, the deluge and flood, is partly a metaphor for the journey from solidity to swirling liquid. 

If the hippies hadn’t run off with the word, we’d be able to call Kandinsky truly cosmic. The transition from Room One (Fauvist) to Room Nine (Abstract) merely mirror the changes he hoped to see in the world, changes he hoped to help magic into being by depicting them. He’s not fearing apocalpse but pining for revelation, the time we can just cast off the outer forms which divide everything and inter-mingle.

Kandinsky asked the viewer, should they notice any representational elements, not to comment on them. But there’s more to this than just good manners, like not telling the critic whose just been on the Late Review his flies were undone. The best way to approach these impressions, improvisations and compositions is to just go with the flow, open yourself up to their suggestion. If one thing looks like a face, a boat or a ladder and another just the sweep of a line, don’t dwell too much on the distinction.

In life our sight passes between 'abstract' and 'non-abstract' images all the time. Walking down the street our eye might flit betwen on a pattern of cracks in the pavement and a tree or a shop window. This doesn't cause us much concern, so I don't see why it should if the two things were in a painting.

Pretty soon the sense that these pictures aren’t completely abstract, and the attendant notion that it’s hard to tell when they are from when they aren’t, stops being a problem and starts becoming part of the pleasure of looking at them. It’s like listening to a song or reading a poem. By seting yourself the task of deciphering it you’re just going to bypass the point for the sake of a thousand trivial details. We’re here being asked to do the same thing the other way up, expunge the representational for the sake of the abstract. But it is the same thing – and it’s not the most useful thing.

And all art is abstract if you choose to look at it that way, an arrangement of lines and coloured shapes on a canvas. Abstraction in art is like ambience in music, more a way of looking at or responding to art than a way of creating art. Even if some works try harder to evoke such a response, all can be responded to that way. Equally our eyes are adept at picking scenes and images from clouds or out of the grain of wood. When we stop to look at a painting we can sometimes listen to the polemicists more than we do our own senses. We shouldn’t.

Partly the problem comes from the ‘ism’-ness of Modernism, which in a way was the supreme ‘ism’. Modernism was widely written about, in fact in some ways it existed to be written about in a way previous art movements hadn’t. The art most written about is often that which is most easily written about, which takes a concept or theory and exemplifies it. But the art best remembered is often that which takes a bunch of seemingly incongruous or even contradictory concepts and notions and holds them in perfect balance.

This problem could even turn inward, like a particularly nasty toenail. Modernists frequently felt obliged to come up with grand high-faulutin’ theories to justify their daubs, and it wasn’t always to the work’s benefit. Mondrian was a classic example of an artist who was far better when just flailing around, before he boxed his thinking up into his grand scheme.

Kandinsky wrote voluminously, if not always coherently. But perhaps the secret of his talent is that he was willing to follow his nose. Draw something over and over, and pretty soon it will start looking more and more codified. When you see yourself doing that, you can fight against it (like you’re supposed) or go with it to see where it takes you. I suspect the origins of Kandinsky’s abstraction lie far more in such roots than in any grand narrative of advancing art.

And his paintings are great not because they finally reach the point where they expunge the representational for the abstract, but because they mix the two up so... well, I think the word is carelessly, though in the positive sense. Ernst employed a thousand tricks and devices to leave the viewer unsure what they were actually looking at, as it created a potent ambiguity and forced the viewer to take a far less passive role. Kandinsky just swung it like a natural. His great paintings are like that song or poem you figure must be about something but can never quite pin down to what, so you always want to go back to it.


Perhaps another weakness of this “path to…” stuff is that we only get one tiny room at the end for the later, geometric Kandinsky (such as 'Circles On Black', 1921, above) – as a kind of post-script. Of course there might well be too much to the man’s career than could be captured in a single exhibition, but there’s significance in fixing on the beginning and middle of the story rather than the finale. These Bauhaus-era works may appear more stately, more considered than the convulsive early abstracts but ultimately they’re my personal favourite Kandinskys.


Coming Soon! More on abstraction and semi-abstraction in the arts...

Sunday, 23 October 2016

THE LENS OF LUCID FRENZY IS IN CHICHESTER

After posting photos of Newhaven as part of my Fort Process review, I seem to have inadvertently set off a short series of photos of Sussex towns. Regular readers may be under the impression I only visit the place for the Pallant House Gallery. Whereas I actually also visit the Cathedral which - strange but true - comes complete with it's own collection of Modernist art.

As ever, full set on Flickr.







Sunday, 16 October 2016

JESU + SUN KIL MOON/ BEN OTTEWELL/ DAMO SUZUKI (GIG-GOING ADVENTURES)

JESU + SUN KIL MOON
Concorde 2, Brighton, 19th Sept


After the last Sun Kil Moon outing my response see-sawed between gig and CD review. Please expect the same here. Only this time over the eponymously titled collaborative album given away in the title...

News of this meeting of minds between Sun Kil Moon (aka Mark Koselek) and Jesu (known to his mother as Justin Broadrick) was received in Lucid Frenzy Towers the way others responded to the recent team-up of Scott Walker and Sunn0))). As the record shows, I greatly enjoyed both Sun Kil Moon's last visit to Brighton and Broadrick being back with his original sparring partner in Godflesh. But those gigs had little to nothing in common with each other. Would the two talents get together to serve up a tasty sweet and sour, or wind up with a chalk and cheese?

The subject matter of the earlier album 'Benji' was death, death and more death – roughly in that order. When an old man faces unjust incarceration it comes as virtual light relief. And Death gets a look-in on the new album too. But overall, just as the music gets heavier, the lyrics get less so. The line from the opening song “the sun's gonna come out and shine,” referring to a storm passing, seems emblematic. Which works well. Broadrick serves up riffs which double as fuzzy, numinous drones. And as noted here numerous times, very heavy music segues into the very sublime strangely easily.

The collaboration often comes across as a kind of a sensory overload, like you're getting it from both barrels. Koselek outpours his torrents of words as Broadrick unleashes his beats. Music is normally turned down to magnify the words, like it's relegated to sidekick status. Here it's turned up to match them. It's the same trick as the insistent lyrical loghorrea of the Velvet's 'Black Angel's Death Song', even if the effect is quite different.

Koselek often sings in a breathless semi-mumble, the very opposite of an actor in-to-na-ting his woo-o-ords. While the lyrics recount details, often trivial in themselves, in a way that's somewhere between diary entry and stream-of-consciousness – three lines in and he's visited his bank. 'America's Most Wanted' contains the refrain “that's an account of my last few days”, but it's a line which could describe almost every song. Perhaps significantly, the lyric sheet has no line breaks but presents the whole album as one free-flowing screed.

Let's go back to that opening track, 'Good Morning My Love', as a key to how the thing fits together. It follows Koselek going about his daily tasks, while his mind constantly drifts back to a line from the documentary he watched the night before “that played over and over in my head all night/ What does 'rekindle' mean?” Koselek's a direct songwriter. If there's snow on the ground, he tells you there's snow on the ground. If a sweet tastes... well, sweet, he tells you that. I don't think he's posing us a philosophical question, or setting us up to see rekindling as the theme of the album or anything of that kind. The songs don't make points or try to construct an argument so much as convey a perspective or an experience.

What does rekindle mean? It probably says on Wkitionary, but it's irrelevant. He talks of the line “playing”, like the phrase is a tune that's earwormed you. He even refers to it as “that line in my head, it just keeps going in a ring”. And it's that experience, not the phrase itself, which he's reliving. The phrase becomes more like a mantra, something the mind focuses on irrespective of it's content.

And when the music's placed over these words, it acts as a kind of filter. Place psychedelic music over words and everyday terms start to sound strange and surreal. (Lennon singing about “Blackburn, Lancashire”.) While Broadrick's fuzzy drones make a stray line from a documentary feel numinous. The often dry details of Koselek's life become like one of those dreams where everyday events somehow seem significant. The mantras get magnified.

And once you have that filter, you can take it and place it over what you did yesterday. I am about the last person who'd ever sign up for one of those hideous New Ages courses in “mindfulness”. But if we were to start treating our lives as if the details of them matter, then those details might start to matter. As a letter from a fan, read out on the album says, “it inspired me, as only good music can do.”

For accuracy's sake the music veers away from this sound as the album goes on, closing on a long track that's virtually easy listening. But anyway, there was also a gig...

Last time Koselek played in a Church with the evening sun in the windows, in what felt like a solo set which happened to have a couple of extra guys involved. This time it's a rock venue, and they're very much a band with Koselek as the frontman. He cheerily boasts of the sheer Spinal Tappery of having a bassist with six strings and a guitarist with eight, while not touching an instrument himself.

The band play laconic, hypnotic riffs while Koselek unleashes all those words over the top. (So many he often needs a crib sheet to hand.) Every now and then this misfires, the words and music don't quite synch. ('Song of Shadows', my absolute favourite song from the album, alas isn't served well by the version here.) Koselek's songs are so unmediated, so in the moment, that live many be the best way to hear them. But they may spill out better when he can have his fluidity, where there's less of a band unit sticking to a set list. However, when it does work it becomes as mesmerising as the album.

We've only just got used to this found-Jesu sound and already there's many new songs which take another direction. After my only just telling you Koselek doesn't normally write songs to make points, here's a clutch of numbers which do precisely that. Rather than fuzzy and drone-based they're tighter and sharper, more strident. Lyrics are much more political and on the nose, covering gun control, our great friend Donald Trump (Koselek insists if he came as a surprise we weren't paying attention) and the general state of America. We may come to see this forthcoming album, yet to be titled, as his protest album, perhaps his version of Lou Reed's 'New York'.

My favourite point in the whole thing, though, is when on 'Last Night I Rocked the Room' he reads a fan's letter warning him against listening to the hipsters who “like you only because of 'Benji'.” Which was of course my jumping-on point. Craft beer, anyone?

'America's Most Wanted' and 'Exodus' from Paris...



BEN OTTEWELL
Prince Albert, Brighton, Sun 9th Oct


From unexpected team-ups to unexpected solo sets. Ben Ottewell of the great Gomez going alone... It was one of these events which piqued my curiosity, but about which I had no expectations whatsoever. Ottewell's songs do tend to be my favourite of the band's. But while I was dimly aware they inhabited separate bodies, and didn't necessarily all living together in one big house like the Monkees, I very much thought of the band as a band. Like their playing, their songs complemented one another.

The gig turned out to herald a forthcoming solo album (as I was to discover, his second) and he was armed only with a solo guitar and – befitting his fledgeling singer-songwriter status – the shaggy beard of the folkie. It's bizarre to recall that, on first seeing Gomez, I couldn't conceive how such young shavers, looking like they were in town for Fresher's week, could be playing such timeless music. Slowly but surely, Ottewell is starting to resemble someone from one of his songs.

With Gomez still a going concern, Ottewell's solo songs present quite a different face. And this was accentuated by his playing not only old but almost entirely early Gomez numbers. The new songs are... well... more songy, less based around anthemic chorus lines and with less of the soulful baritone vocals that might seem his trademark. 

A contrast which did make the new songs seem more 'hard centres' than those of yore, a taste that needed a little more chewing on. The new songs are strong, they're just more in the strong and silent vein. Which is unavoidably exacerbated by the more familiar songs being also the more immediate. The Gomez songs would quickly lead to audience singalongs, the new songs not.

Yet what they do have in common is their unhurriedness, their willingness to proceed at their own pace. Early on he played the classic 'Free To Run', a song about walking places sung at a walking pace. And in the sound-bite instant-fix world we inhabit, that's a cure for what ails yer.

Not from Brighton, not actually from a gig but a sofa. But a new song...


DAMO SUZUKI'S NETWORK
The Hope & Ruin, Brighton, Tues 11th Oct


For those not already in the loop... ex-Can frontman Damo Suzuki has embarked on a never-ending world tour, playing entirely improvised sets with local musicians wherever he might land, and I have been much taken by his previous visits to Brighton.

One cool thing is the way that each time not just the players but the instrumentation changes. Beyond Damo's vocals this line-up consisted of guitar, keyboards, cello, violin, drums, congas (by the inimitable E-da of Drum Eyes and Adrena Adrena). Plus a hippy girl sat on the floor, whose remit seemed to be “do hippy stuff”. She'd dong bells, hit gongs, play various bits and pieces of percussion but at other times waft incense or do precisely nothing at all. When she stood up to blow bubbles from a pipe, it was a veritable bubble solo.

And what might seem the most superfluous role, the Bez of the band, came to epitomise the whole thing. Despite looking like she was doing her own thing in her own time, she somehow always worked with the other players.

At one point, a melodic line was split between cello, violin and keyboards, each playing their snatch of it in quick succession. It's the sort of thing you'd imagine requiring not just a composer but an arranger, painstakingly transposing the parts to the players in rehearsal. And yet they just fell into the thing spontaneously on the night. It's a testament to the power of collective effort that such a thing can be done.

Perhaps with there being more players, or with the higher proportion of non-rock instruments, there was less of everyone finding a riff to climb aboard. Instead the set was more varied and dynamic, slipping into lyrical quietude before rising up into great flurreys, then abandoning them for the next thing out there.

Back in the day, Damo must have been the youngster of Can. And I'm not sure if this pans out quite so exactly, but I think he might have played with younger and younger players each time I've seen him. It's like he's become our tribal shaman, drawing new generations into his sound world then moving on once the ritual's complete. At the end he left the stage to let the others come to a climax, as if to say “my work here is done”.

And in a way, there's more of a DIY spirit to the enterprise than there was with punk. It exudes the sense that all you really need to do to make this music is to surrender yourself to it. Of course that might be something of a romaticisation on my part, and if I start to tell you I'm reforming my student band based on his example please slap me back to my senses. But at the same time it's precisely the right attitude to take.

This live clip includes the bubbles solo...


Postscript! After writing about Swans twice over, I figure I've little to add after the most recent gig. But the good news is that, after rumours the band was winding up, they played a couple of new tracks. Here's one. (NB It starts with audio only...)


Coming soon: Tis the season for gig-going adventures...