Friday, August 14, 2015

Damien Hirst at the Tate Modern

An artist recently told me an anecdote about Damien Hirst, it concerned an assistant who worked for him and who was reprimanded for speaking to Hirst at a staff party. Anecdotes such as this seem to be relatively common when talking about Hirst. Sometimes it is difficult to look at his work without bringing to it an awareness of all the gossip and cultural baggage that has accompanied his career and success. 

Claims of plagiarism have also provoked legal proceedings and perhaps undermined his position as an important artist. For example, the LA based artist Lori Precious claims Damien Hirst stole her ideas. She exhibited works composed of butterfly wings in the late 1990’s, years before Hirst exhibited works that are very similar. One wonders if Hirst’s assistants had to spend hours pulling wings off dead butterflies.

On a cold grey day in London I visited the large Tate retrospective of Damien Hirst’s work, (April-September 2012). One of the early works caught my eye - Boxes, 1998. A simple installation of brightly coloured cardboard boxes painted with household paint which clustered around a corner of a gallery space. It is a work that is designed to be variable and “fabricated new each time it is exhibited; it is a fixed number of boxes that may take any form.” (from the small guide to the exhibition). Something about the informality, budget materials and bright colours of this work really appealed. In contrast, some of his works use rather more expensive materials - “The Anatomy of an Angel”, 2008 is carved from Carrera marble and will no doubt last hundreds of years. 

Many people are also familiar with “For the Love of God”, 2007 Hirst’s sculpture which is a platinum cast of a skull encrusted with diamonds. This work has also been subject to claims of plagiarism, this time by artist John LeKay who produced a crystal covered skull in 1993. At the time the sale of “For the Love of God”, and subsequent media coverage created considerable publicity for Hirst. The work was eventually purchased by Hirst and an anonymous consortium of others. In works such as “The Golden Calf”, a calf with hooves dipped in gold, Hirst seems to mock the wealthy collectors, the curators and audience, “worshipping” a false idol, echoing the Bible story from Exodus where the ancient Israelites create and worship a golden calf because Moses is so long up Mt Sinai. 

Hirst’s preoccupation with death was apparent throughout the exhibition. “A Thousand Years” 1990 consists of a glass case with a severed cows head in it, which flies feed upon. Some are zapped with an insect-o-cuter and others reproduce. It is a really confronting and morbidly fascinating work. I’m not sure how people generally react to this work but it’s fair to say it probably prompts a feeling of disgust and perhaps a sudden inclination to embrace vegetarianism upon viewing. One of the things that has really stayed with me from the exhibition was the smell, not of rotting meat but a strange, unpleasant sort of metallic chemical smell, perhaps from the formaldehyde works.

Another work in the exhibition also used living creatures, this time living butterflies, in a work entitled “In and out of love”. Butterflies hatched from canvases with pupae attached. The room was filled with living and dying butterflies. A modest row of plants offered the butterflies some habitat. Tables with ashtrays of cigarette butts were also part of the installation. It suddenly felt like being in some small child’s nightmare. I can not help but contrast this part of the show with the fascinating Sensational Butterflies show at the Natural History Museum that we took our son to in 2013, which also had butterflies going through their life cycle but in a rather more lush and green setting.

I found the spot and spin paintings dull and unoriginal, but “Pharmacy” 1992, a replica of a pharmacy with cabinets full of pill boxes was interesting and the room full of surgical instruments was again morbidly fascinating. The displays in this room prompt the audience to contemplate death and the fragility of life. Hirst has been inspired by museum displays and this is a strong theme in his work. The animals in formaldehyde are scaled up versions of the sort you would see in a natural history museum.

I think after viewing an exhibition like this one I needed a good dose of something life-affirming, like a walk in the sunshine or a hug from a loved one. Unfortunately the grey London day did not provide any sunshine but I had better luck with the hug. I’ll make sure my next blog post is about something more joyful - I’ve got just the exhibition in mind.

Celeste Sterling, 2015

For plagiarism claims have a look here:

The Tate Gallery has a run through of the show with Hirst here:

Saturday, August 01, 2015

Olga de Amaral at the Louise Blouin Foundation

A Beautiful Exhibition - Olga de Amaral, October 2013.

One day in London I took a train to the Louise Blouin Foundation to see an exhibition by an extraordinary artist.

Olga de Amaral is a Columbian artist who has spent her life working with woven thread, especially linen and cotton woven together. She also uses acrylic paint and gold leaf on these fabric strips. She says of these strips:

“These woven fragments are the “words” I use to begin creating landscapes of surfaces, textures, emotions, memories, meanings and connections.” (p.208 Olga de Amaral, the Mantle of Memory.)

These beautiful and compelling works cross the boundaries between fabric, sculpture and painting. They are stunning to see in person.  The titles intrigued me - Escrito, Alquimia, Strata, Lienzo, Luna Oro to name a few. Some of the works seem deceptively simple at first, but looking closer one becomes aware of the layers of complex threads, changes in texture, differences between the front and back of the weaving and the shimmering, changing light on the surfaces. At one point I had the odd sense that someone had taken one of my early works and turned it into a hanging sculpture. But what a sculpture! It was humbling and enlightening to see an artist working with gold, silver and intense colour and thread with such amazing results. 

I have seen many exhibitions in my life. I think this will always be one of the most memorable.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Paul Klee at the Tate Modern

Life sometimes take you in unexpected directions. My formative years and tenth birthday were spent in Victoria, Australia. I do not particularly recall that birthday but we were living in the Dandenong ranges at the time, firstly in Sassafras in the middle of the forest and then in The Basin, a small village in the foothills. My twentieth was in Auckland, New Zealand, whilst I was attending Auckland University. A decade later I was living in Dublin, and celebrated my thirtieth in a small pub in Doolin, on the West coast of Ireland. My fortieth was a quiet affair in London. I awoke late, still jet-legged after returning from a trip back from New Zealand via San Francisco and Los Angeles. My small family and I enjoyed a rare dinner out at our local cafe in Bayswater to celebrate that milestone. I lived in London for two years and during that time was fortunate enough to visit some outstanding art exhibitions. 

On of the highlights for me of the time in London was the Paul Klee exhibition at the Tate Modern (October 2013 - March 2014). It was a wonderful finale to the London sojourn and a real treat to view such a comprehensive collection of work by a really important artist. This show encompassed Paul Klee’s entire career.

One of the first things at strikes you about Klee’s work is the scale - most of the works are small, some a lot smaller than one expects. It is a reminder that artworks do not necessarily have to be large to have merit or impact. I remember a similar surprise when I first viewed artworks at the National Gallery in London which I had previously only known from slides in the Art History department of the University of Auckland and through book reproductions. Van Eyck’s Arnolfini portrait comes to mind in particular, a small intricate painting which nonetheless looms large in the history of art. Klee’s work is likewise often small and encourages the intimacy of close examination. 

The intimate, playful and thoughtful works of Klee’s artistic career are also remarkable for their sensitive use of colour. Klee delved deeply into colour theory. He taught at the Bauhaus in Berlin and Dessau, and colour theory would have been a big component of his lessons. The watercolours in the exhibition are delightful. Whilst they seem simple and almost naive at first glance it is easy to forget just how innovative they were at the time. Klee was influenced by the art of children and paintings such as “Fish Magic” really remind one of this with its delicately drawn colourful fish, flowers and little figures peeking out from the lower part of the canvas.

Unfortunately the Nazis destroyed many of his works and closed the Bauhaus, labelling Klee’s art and that of many of his contemporaries as degenerate. It is difficult to comprehend now how his work was branded as subversive and attacked by those in power.

Klee’s painting methods were experimental and technically innovative, a fusion of surrealist, abstract and expressionist techniques and ideas. A journey to Tunisia was a catalyst for the development of his art. Hopefully one day I’ll have the opportunity to visit an exhibition devoted to the watercolours produced on this trip. In the meantime a search on Google of Klee in Tunisia will suffice to give you an idea of these beautiful works. Travel can offer artists a chance invigorate and refresh their work and to see the world anew, something I am reminded of every time I step outside of my usual circumstances and look around at an unfamiliar landscape.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

New artist blog

My Arcadia blog has been neglected for a long time, sometimes life takes over - marriage and a child, two years exploring London and beyond. More recently I have built a website to showcase my paintings and as a more personal artist blog. You can find it at