Pins and needles

Desperate to avoid another social network hungrily eating at my time, I did everything I could to avoid the colourful world of Pinterest. But I love pictures and I have no self-discipline, so it’s started. Here’s a link to my first board (let’s face it the first of many boards) of my favourite living artists, these are the artists I follow the works of like a crazy stalker, leaching on them for their inspiration and enlightenment. Tell me if you think there’s anyone I’ve missed.


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Filed under Installations, Misc, Painting, Performance art, Photography, Public art, Sculpture, Video art


Untitled (lash) 2008  © Cris Bierrenbach

This photo is currently on display in the Eloge du Vertige exhibition – which shows photographs from Brazil’s Itaú Collection at the Maison Européenne de la Photographie Ville de Paris (known by its friends as the MEP) until 25th March.

Itaú’s is a really rich collection of photographs, spanning the work of Brazilian artists over the last sixty years. I know very little about Brazilian art, so the exhibition was an education for me. My expectations, perhaps narrow-mindedly, included happy gatherings, bright colours, carnival scenes etc. I felt very ignorant as I walked around the dark, gloomy, gritty and often unsettling images in this show.

The works in this collection seem to fit into two camps, the first following the art movements and trends of European art, Man Ray and surrealism for example, whilst the other half are more inward-looking, artists who are either criticizing, celebrating or differentiating Brazilian culture and its artistic traditions.

This photo by Cris Bierrenbach is the cover girl of the show, used on all the marketing material and catalogues etc. I can see why, it’s an unforgettable image and one of the more universal pictures in the collection i.e. it will sell well in the gift shop. However, looking on Bierrenbach’s website his work can get a little transgressive (not for the squeamish).

Society’s concept of the ‘beautiful woman’ and the pressure on women to fit this ideal seems to be a key theme in his work, for example his video performance Identidade from 2009 which completely deconstructs the idea of makeover.

So this photograph could either be interpreted as a surreal exaggeration of a beautiful woman, a mythical eyelash creature perhaps, or it could be Bierrenbach criticising women’s quest for perfection. We’ll never discover which is true, but what I want to know is, how did he do it? I hope Photoshop is involved otherwise it must’ve been pretty painful!

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Swan Fake

Quell, 2011 – Kate MccGwire

Photograph: Tessa Angus, Image courtesy of All Visual Arts

I discovered Kate MccGwire’s sculptures at the Maison Rouge as part of a group exhibition – Memoirs du Futur, which focuses on the art collection of Thomas Olbricht (on until the 15th hurry!).  Although an amazing show, it was a little gloomy and macabre so MccGwire’s sculptures were a breath of fresh air in comparison. Yet, I guess it depends how you look at them, from one perspective they are beautiful and dream-like, another they are disturbing and nightmarish.

To start with the beauty; as soon as saw ‘Quell’ I thought of swans gliding down the Norfolk Broads, close to where I grew up and where my family now lives. Bizarrely, when I read the label for the artwork I noticed that the artist is from the same area, further research found that her father was a boat builder and she was brought up on the river.

Other images that came to mind were the swans on the Serpentine in London which prompted fond memories of Sunday walks around Hyde park. Then, I remembered the bizarre Dutch swans of Amsterdam. In the middle of the night I watched around thirty of them parading and stretching out their plumage bathed in reflections of neon lighting. It was as if they’d learnt their moves from watching the nearby windows or they had inhaled the fumes of the neighbouring coffee shops (I myself had done neither I promise!)

So how about the disturbing qualities of the sculptures? Firstly, swans themselves. Although graceful, beautiful and mysterious birds you would never try and pet a swan. It could be an urban myth, but they are said to be able to break your arm, failing that I’m sure they’d try and peck you to death. Attempt to defend yourself and you’ll be in trouble with the Queen of England as apparently they are all her property (perhaps another urban myth).

However, you then realise that the creepiest thing about these sculptures is that they aren’t swans. These bodies don’t have heads; they are always stuck somewhere or tucked away. Why should there be a head anyway? Perhaps because our brain tells us from experience that it should be a swan? Maybe the bends and wriggles belong more to a serpent than a bird? This made me think of the worm scene in BeetleJuice, which isn’t difficult because as a teenager I watched this film about 100 times.

The biggest surprise about these works though is that the ‘swans’ are actually made of pigeons’ feathers. Although that doesn’t bother me, there are some who despise pigeons. People in the countryside shoot them and I’ve seen city-dwellers kick them mumbling ‘rats with wings’ under their breath. Pigeons are swans’ ugly, poor cousins. In London it used to be an attraction in Trafalgar Square to feed the pigeons and let them walk all over you as seen in this film (skip to 3min47) but now that they live on our discarded McDonald and kebab leftovers they are seen as dirty pests.

In an interview MccGwire once said how she is interested by the shift in perception that people experience when they find out that the feathers are from pigeons. Often they feel squeamish, despite the knowledge that the feathers are sanitized before use.

MccGwire first came up with idea of using feathers as an art material when she moved her studio to a river barge to get closer the nature she was studying. Next-door is a disused boatshed that pigeons had made a home. She started collecting their molted feathers, which was considered dangerous at the time because bird flu had just broken out. To supply her need for huge quantities of feathers she now works with a network of over 200 pigeon-racers and fanciers who send her feathers in molting season.

The move to feathers has been a turning point in her career as it has attracted the attention of global art collectors such as Charles Saatchi and her cabinet pieces and on-site installations have been exhibited all around the world.

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Princess Ooh la la

Princess X (right), Constantin Brancusi, 1916 – photo thanks to Geishaboy500

Paris is a weird city because although it’s generally very noisy due to tourists and traffic you can still manage to find a corner of tranquility if you know where to look. Despite being next-door to the Centre Pompidou the Atelier Brancusi feels like it’s in a small country village. Inside, all I could hear were chirping birds and a busker’s mandolin.

It is not the original location of Constantin Brancusi’s studios. They used to be based in the 15th arrondissement of the city until the building deteriorated and the contents were moved to outside the front of the Centre Pompidou. Then, when it became clear that the sculptures wouldn’t survive against the elements the decision was made to finally give them a home.

Although Brancusi was originally from Romania he decided to leave the contents of his studios to the people of France because his homeland’s communist government had shunned him. He gave the collection to France on the condition that it was displayed exactly as he’d left it on the day of his death.

Brancusi moved to Paris in his twenties to study at the prestigious École des Beaux-Arts. He later worked in Rodin’s workshop but left after two months as he felt he needed to find his own direction. Examples of his two most famous sculptures The Kiss, 1908 and Bird in Space, 1919 can be seen in the collection, but my favourite piece was Princess X, simply because it made me smile. Brancusi obviously had a sense of humour.

The sculpture was originally exhibited at the Salon des Indépendants (a regular exhibition organised for artists not supported by France’s official academy for painting and sculpture) in 1920 but was quickly replaced after complaints that it was pornographic. The title, ‘Princess X’ refers to Princess Marie Bonaparte, a direct descendant of Napoleon Bonaparte. She was a psychoanalyst and a close friend of Sigmund Freud, her most famous research was based on women’s ability to have an orgasm, hence the sexual form of Brancusi’s sculpture.

Brancusi was successful in his lifetime and expanded his studios several times. Yet despite his prosperity Brancusi continued to dress like a Romanian peasant. His roots were important to him, he was part of a community of Romanian intellectuals in Paris, influenced by Romanian folk stories and mythology and often entertained his guests by playing them traditional songs on his violin or cooking them recipes handed down the generations. The circle of friends that got to enjoy these treats included Picasso, Duchamp and Man Ray.

Brancusi died in 1957 at the age of 81 and was buried in Paris’ Montparnasse Cemetery, a sculpture of ‘Le Baiser’ or ‘The Kiss’ marks his grave.

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Wing man

Bryan McCormack, When Joris Ivens Meets Hraesvelgr, 2010

I’ve passed this sculpture several times, it’s at the top of a steep hill and I’m always happy to see it, but at 12 metres high it’s a little too tall to hug. The hill is in Domaine National St. Cloud, a beautiful heritage park that was one of the places Louis XVI hid during the French revolution, Marie Antoinette’s rose garden is still there. Its lakes, topiary and fountains is like something out of Alice in Wonderland, but the view of Paris in the distance brings you back to reality. Due to its location on the outskirts of the city it’s always very quiet which makes you feel, like Alice a bit of an intruder.

The sculpture is by Irish artist Bryan McCormack, I couldn’t find much information about him other than that he was born in 1972. However, the commissioning of this sculpture was obviously very important as it was inaugurated by the Minister of Culture, Frédéric Mitterrand (also nephew of the ex-President François Mitterand), along with the first lady Carla Bruni-Sarkozy.

Perhaps it is the subject of the work that made it so prestigious. Joris Ivens, who is referred to in the title of the piece is a Dutch film-maker, and in Paris cinema is like a religion. In England someone would ask you, “have you seen that new film with Kirsten Dunst in it?” in Paris they would say, “have you caught the latest Lars von Trier?” It’s not even about snobbery, it just seems to be ingrained into the culture, like a taste for wine and strong cheese that other cultures can take or leave.

Joris Ivens directed over 80 films between 1912 and 1988 and continually re-visited the theme of wind. This sculpture refers specifically to the 1966 film, ‘Pour le Mistral’. The Mistral is the name of a powerful and mysterious wind that blows around the coast of the South-East of France in cities like Marseille, Nice and Cannes. Located along the Mediterranean Sea, these are hot cities in the summer but a pleasant day can disappear in a few minutes when the Mistral sets in. Ivens was often nicknamed the “Flying Dutchman”, another reference to wind as it relates back mythology of a rebel ship that is forever doomed to sail the sea’s high winds.

The other name mentioned in the title, Hraesvelgr, is that of the Nordic wind giant from Norse mythology often represented holding a globe with wings on his back. Half-man, half-bird, Hraesvelgr could not fly himself but by flapping his wings he would send his children, ‘the winds’ around the world on his behalf. McCormack’s sculpture features strong fabric wings held up by flexible cable so that they can move along with the wind, harmonising with the trees around it.

Also on Artsharks

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Driven to Abstraction

“Pliage”, 1971, Oil on canvas 140cm x 90cm by André-Pierre Arnal at Galerie de l’Europe

Exhibition: Supports/Surface, etc until September 30th

At the exhibition openings I usually go to the guests are normally there to drink the free wine, I’ve never been to an opening where the guests actually have enough spare cash to buy one of the paintings, well there was one but that’s another story. The other thing that was strange about this opening was that everybody had really dressed up, this might surprise you but in Paris it’s not often you see high-heels, matching handbags and eye make-up. Generally everyone seems to stick to one of two looks, ‘casual’ or ‘classic’. As the bling started to add up I came to realise this might be quite a special occasion.

Understandably, I felt a little out of place at first but was quickly made to feel at ease by a warm welcome from the artist himself who was keen to explain his work and the ideas behind it. The stereotype of the shy, tortured artist is definitely a myth, especially in Paris. André-Pierre Arnal is a fiery but friendly Mediterranean. He started painting in 1961, driven by what he describes as a “rage of expression”.

Shamefully, I didn’t know much about Arnal or his work before the exhibition and finding out more revealed why everyone had made such an effort. The starting block for his career was his involvement in the Supports/Surface movement. In existence from 1969 to 1972, the movement’s manifesto was to create art that focused exclusively on the materials themselves, forbidding references to anything outside this. The artwork had to be autonomous of anything outside it such as the personality of the artist and the time in which it was created. The aim of this was to free the work of the interpretations or dreams of the viewer. The Centre Pompidou has a room dedicated to the Supports/Surface movement on the fourth floor if you want to find out more.

Much of Arnal’s work in the exhibition achieved the objectives of the Supports/Surface movement. His pictures are striking and memorable but they didn’t spark off anything in my imagination. This wasn’t just because the were abstract shapes, even when looking at Rothko, the king of abstract, images such as a sunset, window or green flat landscape often flash into your head. Yet with Arnal….nope nothing.

Instead, your brain takes a different route, it starts analysing how these pictures are made, doing mental gymnastics in order to re-construct what you see in front of you, unpeeling layer upon layer of paint, examining the thickness of the paper or cotton it is painted on. This meditative process almost convinces you that you were the artist.

(Image – © 2011 André-Pierre Arnal – Galerie de l’Europe, September 2011 All Rights Reserved)

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Nothing Toulouse

La dépouille du Minotaure en habit d
arlequin (The Minotaur’s body dressed as a harlequin) Pablo Picasso, 1936

When I hear the sentence, “one of the world’s greatest…” my eyes generally glaze over, followed by an attack of involuntary yawning, but the thing is, Picasso really was great. Firstly, he could paint. Secondly, he was involved in starting a whole new art movement, Cubism. Thirdly, he was a right character, which is the most important thing if you want to go down in history as a legend.

In every big museum I’ve ever visited in Europe there’s been a Picasso. It’s a must-have must-see, but unlike many of the greats, his work is so varied that every work I’ve seen has been very different. This probably has something to do with the fact he produced thousands of works. It was not only a result of hard work, but the fact that he lived until he was 91.

I recently spent a couple of days in Toulouse as part of my holiday (go there it’s great!) and would’ve been a little disappointed if there wasn’t a Picasso or two to see, especially as the town is so influenced by Spanish culture. I thought I had been there, done that and got the T-shirt when I saw Guernica in Madrid, but I was speechless when I saw this beauty. It’s gigantic, 10 metres high and more than 12 metres across. I felt like a mouse, just look at the size of the woman’s head in the picture compared to the Minotaur’s!

Just to give you a bit of an explanation about the scene, a Minotaur is a creature from Greek Mythology that has the head of a bull and the body of a man; it was adopted as the symbol of the Surrealist movement, which Picasso was close to. In this case the man is dressed as a Harlequin, traditionally an important character in French theatre, which is significant as the painting was commissioned as the stage curtain for Romain Rolland’s play Le 14 juillet, written to be performed on France’s national day. I get the feeling that this curtain was a bit of a show-stealer. I’m not sure anyone would’ve been actually watching the play.

The work is on display at Les Abattoirs, Toulouse’s main contemporary art space, named after its previous function. Don’t be put off by the name though; it’s a great museum with architecture similar to the Musée D’Orsay and a collection of mainly French artists, many from the region. Also, abattoirs have an important place in art history as the French Impressionists and Expressionists often visited Paris’ main slaughterhouses in the Villette district to paint haunches of blood-red meat. Now the abattoirs of La Villette have been converted into a centre for arts that includes a gallery, concert venues and a canal-side park.

Picasso, who had previously hung it in his studios, donated the stage curtain to the city of Toulouse in 1965, but sadly it is now only shown to the public for part of the year due to its fragility.

This post also appears on Artsharks

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