No Colour Bar: Black British Art in Action 1960 – 1990

By Hannah Gormley (BA3 student)

Colour Bar: Black British Art in Action 1960 – 1990, an art and archive exhibition at The Guildhall Art Gallery comes across, at first, as a total enigma. If you are lucky enough to know of the Guildhall Gallery, one of the more esoteric gems of The City, it is also likely you missed the brazen red banners downstairs, proclaiming the shows existence. In all fairness, one wouldn’t expect a show commemorating two of London’s most valuable creative activists, concerned with celebrating and exploring the Black British experience of the seventies and eighties, to take place in a gallery that is a branch of the City of London corporation. Nor would you particularly expect a show containing Eddie Chambers ‘How Much Longer You Bastards’ (1983), a brutal challenge to Barclay’s involvement in South Africa at the time of the Apartheid, to be nestled within the financial centre of the country.

‘Recreation of the Walter Rodney Bookshop owned by Bogle L’Ouverture Publishing at No Colour Bar’

‘Recreation of the Walter Rodney Bookshop owned by Bogle L’Ouverture Publishing at No Colour Bar’

No Colour Bar: Black British Art in Action 1960 – 1990 is an amalgamation of art and archival material related to the African and Caribbean diaspora and those interested in the ‘black’ British experience – though their use of the term ‘Black’ denotes a political and cultural struggle rather than a specific skin colour. Part of the exhibition is dedicated to the efforts of Jessica and Eric Huntley, Guyanese born migrants who settled in London in the 1960s and founded Bogle L’Ouverture Publications in 1969. This bookshop is recreated and becomes the centre of the exhibition, attempting to evoke the ‘cultural hub’ where artists, writers and activists met and shared their work. The Huntley’s notably published Dr Walter Rodney’s ‘Groundings with my Brothers’ and ‘How Europe Underdeveloped Africa’ which were seminal to reframing black experience and analysing the systematic profiteering from oppression across the world.

Sonia Boyce, ‘She Ain’t Holding Them Up, She’s Holding On’ (1986)

Sonia Boyce, ‘She Ain’t Holding Them Up, She’s Holding On’ (1986)

This archival material is then set against art from the BLK art group of the 1980s and the Caribbean Artist Movement, or artists with similar concerns. This is where it is possible to get lost – as the link between the Huntley’s activism and artists is subtle. It is also too easy to presume that these artists like Sonia Boyce, Denzil Forrister, Keith Piper and Eddie Chambers were solely political or ‘black’ artists – when really their artworks were personal expressions that in certain works, incidentally, explored the societal tension of the time. Sonia Boyce’s rich She Ain’t Holding Them Up, She’s Holding On (1986) pastel drawing is deeply personal and recreates the psyche of a young girl formative years, contending with her identity as both Black and British – at a time when such things could be considered incongruous. Even the shows title ‘No Colour Bar’ references the formal and unofficial racial segregation in the UK and across the world. And this is where, as a show championing the Black British experience and struggle, often under tradition and the establishment, the potency of the exhibitions message is revealed – in a grand government run gallery. Hopefully this show not only allows people to reconsider their assumptions of Black British art but of the Guildhall Gallery too.

Chasing America: Workshopping American Art History in the CHASE consortium

By Theo Gordon (PhD student)

On Saturday 24 October, scholars and students of American art history and visual culture from across the CHASE consortium gathered together in the Sackler Research Forum to discuss their research topics, exchange ideas, and ponder the age-old existential problem of the Americanist in Europe: why study the culture of countries half-way around the world, and what are the methodological problems we all encounter in this curious scenario?

Inauguration of the Statue of Liberty, New York, United States (1886)

Inauguration of the Statue of Liberty, New York, United States (1886)

The event was organised by David Peters Corbett (UEA) and Alixe Bovey (Courtauld), alongside SAVAnT (Scholars of American Visual Art and Text), with the aim to assess the breadth and depth of research into art and culture in the Americas, taken to include Canada, Central America and Mexico, as well as the United States and South America. Around fifteen research students and post-docs from across the consortium presented their work across the day. The range and quality of the work was extraordinary – we heard of the afterlives of American Civil War photography, the representations of female sex workers in turn of the century New Orleans, rereadings of materialism in depictions of the American home, theories of the graphic novel, and the mystery of David Wojnarowicz’s series showing Arthur Rimbaud riding the New York Subway, amongst many other fascinating topics.

As the day unfolded, we gradually realised the proposition that within CHASE there exists one of the most dynamic network of researchers working on the Americas in the United Kingdom. The event was exciting for a number of reasons. First, the consistent originality of the work and the way that everyone sophisticatedly questioned established narratives of art and culture of the Americas. Second, the opportunity presented to reach outside of one’s own institution and connect with others working on similar problems. Third, the prospect of establishing a formal network for the study of the Americas within CHASE, to enable these links and friendships to flourish in the future.

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Finally, it was nice to know there are other people facing similar issues in the study of a geographically and culturally distant place. It can be difficult when the archives and objects of investigation are so far away. I took away the importance of sharing and discussing one’s method with the group. If we are all chasing America, we can turn these issues from being the problem into being the solution.

 

A Mockery of Contemporary Art Taste or a Triumph of Medium over Message?

A symposium and an exhibition at Hauser & Wirth Somerset

By Wiktor Komorowski (PhD student)

Softer Targets is a solo exhibition by Jenny Holzer at Hauser & Wirth Somerset, featuring both new work and a selection of significant pieces drawn from over three decades of the artist’s career. The exhibition was accompanied by a symposium under the McLuhanian title ‘The Message and the Medium’. The main aim of this one day meeting was to explore the use of language and technology in art.

Softer Targets, exhibition view

Softer Targets, exhibition view

The undisputable highlight of the symposium were talks given by Dave Beech and Pavel Büchler. Dave Beech is an artist in the collective Freee, as well as a writer and curator. He is also Professor of Art at Valand Academy, Gothenburg, Sweden. His work focuses on slogans, billboards and publications that challenge the commercial and bureaucratic colonisation of the public sphere of opinion formation. Pavel Büchler is an artist, teacher and occasional writer who describes his practice as ‘making nothing happen’. Büchler teaches on MA Fine Art at Manchester School of Art.

The presence of two conceptual artists among the panellists contributed to a more interactive discussion by providing a testimony of the first-hand experience of artistic practice and through brining ample examples drawn from the portfolio of both speakers. Beech’s talk concerned the foundations and the almost 50-year long tradition of text art. His presentation emphasised the artistic potential of language that provides almost limitless opportunities to unfold different contexts. Language, as a highly culturally-related medium, became a foundation of all conceptual creation as it facilitates artists to introduce additional levels of meaning. His presentation was followed by Büchler’s talk on the discrepancy between the limitless potential of language and technological limitations of working with letters and words. Pavel Büchler focused on the gap between ideology that supports the conceptual practice and the frequent practical difficulty of bringing these ideological assumption to life.

Jenny Holzer, There were eleven of us, 2015

Jenny Holzer, There were eleven of us, 2015

The presentations given by Beech and Büchler fully engaged the audience, but, surprisingly, did not build on the links between the tradition of text art and the work of Jenny Holzer. The lack of a more structured commentary from Beech and Büchler left an impression that the tragedy Holzer talks about in her art becomes marginalised and serves merely as a platform for a discussion over aesthetic form and different modes of reception.

The absence of further considerations of the message Holzer is trying to convey, pauperises her work to a purposefully hyperaesthetic commodity. Her practice seen in such a light does not provide the silent victims an opportunity to speak but rather questions the moral condition of the contemporary audience, in particular, its ability to spot the message under a thick layer of conceptual aestheticisms. Holzer’s exhibition at Hauser & Wirth, similarly to the recent exhibition of Ai Weiwei’s works at the Royal Academy, raises the question how far has the politically inspired conceptual art turned into a mockery of contemporary art taste?

Jenny Holzer: Exclusive

 ‘The Message and the Medium: a Symposium’ at Hauser & Wirth Somerset

By Professor Sarah Wilson and Dr Irene Noy

On October 19th 2015 three Courtauld pilgrims made their way by tube, train and taxi to a much welcoming Hauser & Wirth Somerset (near Stourhead). Formerly the medieval manor of Bruton, its Farmhouse, Stables, Cowsheds, Piggery & Threshing Barn were repurposed as the country playground of the international art set – attached to the blue chip gallery which has branches in London, Zurich and New York. Set in Piet Oudolf’s wild landscaped gardens – far from the aesthetic of the farm itself or from a Capability Brown (despite a nod to the Oriental) the farm buildings have had new wings for art added to the original plan. Precursors might include the Insel Hombroich, Neuss (near Düsseldorf) with its ancillary pavilions. In Somerset, Smiljan Radić’s Serpentine Pavilion (2014) was marooned in the park like a biomorphic spacecraft in autumnal landscape. Inside, playful and seemingly messy junk décor decorates The Roth Bar & Grill.

Smiljan Radić, Serpentine Pavilion (2014)

Smiljan Radić, Serpentine Pavilion (2014)

The impressive Jenny Holzer installation which for the first time filled all the display spaces, functioned as a backdrop to the event entitled ‘The Message and the Medium’. The short abstract indicated that the symposium would deal with the issues raised by Marshall McLuhan in regard to language and innovations in technology and their usage by artists. In addition, it proposed to address issues concerning those who make, who view and who consume art (the self-selected audiences, predominantly local,  paid high fees for their participation and lunch). Instead Jon Bird, Professor of Art and Critical Theory at Middlesex University, focussed upon the shared preoccupations and generational transition between Nancy Spero, Leon Golub and Holzer, with whom she was friends. Holzer’s archive of redacted documents from American military archives underline her recent series Dust Paintings. Her turn to paintings references suprematist precursors and the fetish of Greenbergian flatness. Ruth Blacksell, Lecturer in Typography and Graphic Communication, focused on Art & Language and the ‘story of conceptual art’. The art polemicist, Dave Beech, gave examples from his contemporary performative practices and insisted on manifestos as a voiced performance, relating to the actions by his group Freee, which transforms read text into a democratic process of interpretation and voicing. Lastly, the experienced conceptual artist Pavel Büchler presented his Honest Work and his subversive play with the meaning as well as the materiality of actual letters.

Jenny Holzer, Floor (2015)

Jenny Holzer, Floor (2015)

Discussion generated by an ‘is it art?’ question evoked by Holzer’s work led to an amusing internal polemic around Duchamp’s urinal versus his eponymous Fountain. Yet the display of neatly cleaned and arranged human bones on charmingly rustic gate-legged tables in the barn ­­—  the Lustmord tables of 1994, which ‘materialised’ debates on rape and murder during the Balkan war — provoked no comment during the whole conference. Holzer’s recent ‘painting’, which appeared to be conceptual as Büchler pointed out, looks like it is entirely the work of anonymous assistants. A disturbing play of aesthetics, pathos and indeed bathos, nonetheless related to extreme instances of abuse and torture ­ — the redacted documents from American military archives, which become increasingly invisible as suprematist/Greenbergian references take over. Not only does Holzer ‘make the inhuman visible’ as Bird argued: the signatures of perpetrators as well as victims added a dialectical comment on the state of the human race at war.

‘Pastoral conceptualism’?  the Hauser & Worth Somerset framing demonstrates the art world ‘red in tooth and claw’ (Tennyson): uncannily echoed by the displays of carcasses and dead fowl in the designer kitchen.

Salt Room at The Roth Bar & Grill

Salt Room at The Roth Bar & Grill

Interestingly, Holzer’s exhibition was accompanied by an education guide (which was included in the symposium pack) and included some of the following questions for discussion:

1.      Do you think that Jenny Holzer’s work is Feminist? Discuss reasons for your answer.

2.      How does art make you politically aware? Think of some examples.

3.      What emotions do the texts in Lustmord evoke in you?

4.      How do Holzer’s Truisms work in promoting social change?

5.      How does protest become art?

6.      Do you consider what Holzer does as art?

7.      Do you think it can still be considered Jenny Holzer’s artwork even if the text comes from a different author?

It would have been beneficial to refer to at least some of them and perhaps voice the contemporary connections between those who make, who view and who consume art – issues that were perceptible and visible within the Hauser & Wirth Somerset setting but went unspoken.