Hockney reviewed in 100 words

Hockney film still, Woldgate Woods

My opinion of Hockney’s work was polarized by this RA exhibition. The garish painting, the ipad drawings and the canvas-stacking overload of much of this show had gone day-glo, overblown. The film and the photographic collages, however, were like fresh air breathing through so much stuck paint. Space and time were lifted, expanded, filled and dancing because of framing that thwarted the one-eyed camera view. Turning seasons and waving tree-tops give you the bigger picture, the one where sight is corporeal and turns you inside out. Enveloped, interconnected, loved. Hockney’s research into looking with technology is fusing this work.

David Mach ‘Precious Light’ review

Noah and the Ark II

David Mach’s exhibition (30 July – 16 October 2011, City Art Centre, Edinburgh) brings together a multitude of work on biblical themes, timed as it is to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the King James translation. There are over 40 pieces, of which 5 are sculptures and the remainder are predominantly large-scale photographic collages. The former occupy perhaps a more prescribed space for Christian reference, in the crucifixions and caricatures of Jesus and the devil, even though the materials (coat-hangers and matches) may diverge from familiar forms. The latter are infinitely more interesting for representing biblical scenes with more reference to contemporary idiom than traditional painting type.

It’s true to say that textual knowledge of Bible stories is not a commonplace, and Mach deliberately ploughs his way into the mythical status occupied by such stories. For him, the fact that what people (including himself) know of the references is often half-known, as if a memory or association, is important for being contemporary. It’s part of the practice of being an artist today; the only way to sing in tune, as Jean Cocteau would say, is to sing from one’s own genealogical tree. So the approach that might assume sincerity as the only credible alternative to an ironic, cynical or critical use of biblical imagery in contemporary art is proved false by Mach. He isn’t detached from the stories, but neither is he a faith-filled believer using the stories to express his religion.

This middle ground is what Richard Holloway, in his introduction to the catalogue, equates with the ancient Greek’s use of ‘muthos’ to describe another way of understanding texts. It’s something like empathy and something like a relationship to meaning which asks not ‘true or false?’ but ‘dead or alive?’ It may not offer the didactic, reasoned lesson of much theological doctrine, but it does offer a way to connect with human religious thinking and feeling. In fact, it’s precisely this feeling that Mach wants to get at: ‘As this project has unfolded I have found my belief in spirit – in the human spirit – reinforced. I’m interested in people – I like them. My work is inhabited by thousands of them going about that very thing – being human.’ (p.15)

The humanity is what dominates in the collages – figures are part of multitudes featuring every age, colour, expression and dress imaginable, from the crowds around Noah’s ark (in all of the 5 versions) to ‘The Money Lenders’ outside the temple (Sagrada Familia). Even where the scene is more limited, for example ‘Jesus Walking on Water’ or ‘Daniel in the Lion’s Den’ such is the scale from a purely physical point of view (not far off life-size) that the viewer relates even more immediately to what is unfolding in front of them.

The question of engagement is an interesting one, since the ‘spectacle’ of the event might preserve or encourage a remote viewer, as if it were reportage or objective documentary – Mach has himself commented on this media-led view. However, he has also said that the Bible ‘supercharges’ the scenes, which leads to a heightening of the experience of drama. ‘The Last Judgement’ is a particularly engaging triptych, for reflecting a central view in the irises of two eyes shown on either side – even to the extent of suggesting, by allocating left portions of the image in the right eye and vice versa, that we the viewer stand in the same position of what the eyes are seeing. There’s a deliberate encouragement of identification, which perhaps asks too, where might you end up at The Last Judgement – in the chaos and fire, or pillow-fighting in white at the edges?

Also a predominant feature of the collages is the cornucopia effect of multitude and scale, where not just humanity, but the natural and the man-made world overflow like the detritus of materiality. ‘Adam and Eve’ are surrounded by a National Geographic collage which has all the lusciousness of a Damien Hirst spin painting, there are plagues of frogs and locusts, or towers of architecture and storms of confetti-like smoke or paint – in fact in ‘The Last Supper’, created by Mach and his studio team during the show, the pattern on the tablecloth takes off and swirls around the room, adding to the effect of the literally-peeling paint/paper. Mach has in the past worked sculpturally with this information-overload quality of printed media, and here uses it to almost painterly effect. It is like a visual reference to Jean Baudrillard’s hyperreal explosion of representation, and it raises interesting questions for Mach’s biblical subjects – could the hyperreal be read as the supernatural? Does the collapse of material things lead to a revelation of the unseen and the spiritual?

‘Precious Light’ is in the end a fitting title for the show, as are the references to revealed light (Luke 12:2-3 and Matthew 5:14-16) which open the exhibition’s catalogue: there is an uncovering here of biblical subjects and themes which normally hover in the shadows of churches or books rather than art galleries. What has become private isn’t deemed cool enough to be public (or perhaps commercial), and Mach initially found a reluctance on the part of gallery managers to host such work. ‘Cool is for w——‘, as Mach has said, preferring to underline the credibility of pathos in Christian stories and rituals rather than pandering to the approval of arts’ institutions. How refreshing.

David Mach ‘Precious Light’, London: Revolution Editions, 2011.
Jasper Rees ‘David Mach: Why I turned the Crucifixion into Coat Hangers’,
The Telegraph online, 11/01/11.
Adrienne Dengerink Chaplin ‘Not all religious art is made by believers’,
The Guardian online, 23/09/11.

Mark Fairhurst review

Mark Fairhurst Gloucester CathedralThese 22 framed pictures of church/cathedral architecture open a world on pattern and symmetry. If I was to conjure up the heavy solid stone vaulting and the expanse of cavernous space that I feel in cathedrals, this is how I’d frame it. Kaleidoscope and repetition bring balance to something that’s as much about the experience as it is about the eye: it can’t be rigidly formal, but it can’t float away into ethereal emptiness either. The means of digital photographic collage here allows both. A bit like the title of Thomas Kellner’s book ‘Dancing Walls’.

Is there more to it though? What does the exhibition title ‘Deception’ suggest, along with the one or two pieces that incorporate other elements such as a skull, or the fragment of another piece of fantastical architecture, the Chrysler Building? The place for the sacred in these buildings becomes more a place for the unknown, or even something suspicious. There’s an interesting suggestion in the notion of infinity presented by the images – repeating pillars into darkness, for example – where the sense of ongoing harmony doesn’t seem to reach any conclusion. The scenes suggest to me a kind of sci-fi gaming platform, inviting a quest and encounter. I like this aspect of discovery, but I also think it lacks a sense of place described as revelation, as awesome connection with the divine. Yes, there is a ‘different universe’ here, which Mark relates to experiences of the first visitors to such buildings, but wasn’t there also a profound belief in God’s presence and power?

That said, it’s good to raise questions about the beauty in places of worship, it’s good that there’s active looking/feeling/sensing, rather than just disembodied contemplation. It surely opens the door on faith and a personal connection with the transcendent. Abstracted deity and wonder is not what the buildings are about, even if the material matter seems to say so – it’s a language of purpose and design that we may have forgotten too easily.

‘Deception’ is currently showing at the Corinium Museum until Saturday 1st October.