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Review of 2009 Turner Prize winner Richard Wright (Tate Britain) and Pop Life: Art in a Material World (Tate Modern)


Richard Wright no title 2009.Richard Wright no title 2009.

Pop in Crises: Time Has Come Today
A review of 2 London shows: The 2009 Turner Prize winner Richard Wright (Tate Britain) and Pop Life: Art in a Material World (Tate Modern)

Viewing 2009 Turner Prize winner Richard Wright’s pareidolia-laced no title 2009 and Pop Life: Art in a Material World set in motion for me a set of considerations about the contemporary condition of art. Something prime is shifting.

I think I can sum it up by saying that the success of Wright’s large, but delicate, wall mural signaled to me the return of magical immersive thinking into mainstream art. This at the expense of the pop icon/logo celebrated in the Pop Life: Art in a Material World exhibit. Its gold, monochromatic (but kaleidoscopic) ground dominates over configuration. As a consequence, this visionary art produces an exciting all-over full fervor that needs to be interacted with imaginatively.

One feels immediately a sense of languor in the room. People are in no hurry to move along. Rather they seem immersed in their own mirrored filigreed realms. And one hears the word “beauty” repeated over and over again. Clearly here we are in the presence of an invitation to reverie.

That said, initially I was a bit nonplussed when encountering it, as the composition has a distinct resemblance to the kind of work I was doing in 1991-2 when I first uploaded my drawings into a computer and began mirroring them with photoshop. My companion at the museum also pointed out the similar structure Wright’s mural shares with pioneers of algorithmic art, such as Roman Verostko, particularly evident in his series Epigenesis: The Growth of Form from 1997- pen and ink drawings that are executed with a multi-pen plotter coupled to a PC. So yes, the work has a kind of cute computer retro quality about it as it reminds one of the obsessive-compulsive mirroring rituals that algorithmic processes made so tantalizing in the early 1990s. Another example being the mirroring manipulations in the early 90s work of the British artist Carl Fudge based on the Durer etchings Resurrection.

In addition I was slightly annoyed at the uneven lighting that produced distinct hot spots on what felt like what should have been a unified undifferentiated field.

But nevertheless, I shall not quibble. This golden work (not at all typical of Wright’s other temporary murals) made opportune a re-appropriation of our finer senses in a way similar to that experience of listening to the prepared piano Sonatas and Interludes of John Cage. It is more affective than discursive. More enigmatic than dogmatic. Its intricate patterning seems to contain many possibilities of interpretation - and thus seems magical, as magic does not conform to modern canons of causality.

The work is full of complex inter-relational transitions and rhythmic overlapping perceptions that interlace. It displays elasticity through the principle of sameness with difference. There are forms emerging from other forms, both up and down in scale. Possible elegant figures are nested within larger units, so things become component parts of other things. Here we are calling up image-formations from the depths of our mind. And this experience cannot but remind us that the primary feature that distinguishes aesthetic consciousness is imagination and that imagination entails visioning and symbolizing – areas of practice useful in heightening perception and intuition. Indecision, ambiguity and conflict become dynamic and useful values here. Because apparent secrets and angelic visual pleasures are concealed in the florid ground, apparent “flaws” like the all-over ambivalence of the superficial illusory groundlessness become affirmative values.

That is the interfering shift I detected in what I think of as the responsibility of looking – a shift towards (and into) visual noise. Here we can re-appropriate our senses and our fragile capacity to visualize on a difficult personal basis. Here is an inner reverberating resonance that cannot be appropriated by capital. Here one feels oneself feeling as a first person singular. This is an art to self, in self and for self.

However, the result is empathetic - as one experiences one’s own powers of imaginatively projecting feelings and perceptions into the vaguely apprehended forms that result from the balanced and mirrored symmetry. So a shift suggestive for efforts towards an anti-pop no-logo emancipatory labor indicative of social relationships outside of passive pop consumption. Here we can take back our head.

Caught in its florid web, I drifted off into the permanent collection and was rewarded by a similar mirrored and webbed enticement in the nearby lace collar depicted in Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger’s painting Mary Rogers, Lady Harington. So Richard Wright’s no title 2009 seems to be pointing at a reevaluation of high art, and to the necessity of our re-conceiving it in our time, per se.

This consideration is only reinforced when contrasting this work with that seen in the Pop Life: Art in a Material World that was co-curated by Jack Bankowsky, Artforum’s Editor at Large, Alison M. Gingeras, Chief Curator of the François Pinault Collection and Catherine Wood, Tate Modern Curator of Contemporary Art and Performance, assisted by Nicholas Cullinan, Curator, International Modern Art, Tate Modern. Here it is cynical configuration that dominates over ground.

The accustomed platitudes of the corporate logo model for art (immediate and bright) is supposedly submitted to a “re-reading” here. But absent any juxtaposition that might allow for a re-reading, the exhibition reads more as a celebration (if I was to be uncharitable) or (more charitably) an 80s data dump. All the typical suspects are gathered together here, anyone that succeeded in copying Andy Warhol’s notorious provocation that ‘good business is the best art’: Takashi Murakami, Keith Haring, Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst, Martin Kippenberger, Tracey Emin and Richard Prince, among others. Still, I wondered: why no Mark Kostabi?

The Baudrillardian idea of subversive conformity is given a small aperture here in the shallow art-market-only treatment that the East Village receives. This pained me considerably. But my spirit was lifted by the restaging of Hirst’s performance/painting from 1992, as two very cute identical twins sat beneath two identical spot paintings. I had seen the original piece at Cologne’s ‘Unfair’ art fair in 1992 and then it kind of irked me. But the two dark skinned middle-aged twins sitting there this time beaming, charmed me a good deal. It also was good to see again in a smallish room Jeff Koons's reunited Made in Heaven show that he made in collaboration with La Cicciolina in 1990 just as it was depressing to have to cross before a functioning Keith Haring’s Pop Shop in the middle of the show. Is this to be considered as a re-reading of the conflation of culture and commerce? It is more of an uncritical representation of it, to me.

Lamely cute in referencing Madonna’s 80s pop chart hit Material Girl, the subtitle Art in a Material World should more precisely have been Art in an Infotainment World - as the focus here is on artists that advanced their careers by playing to the mass media – creating a persona (like Salvador Dali did) and signature 'brands'. But the feeling here is that this corporate model only tightens the tourniquet of powerlessness about us. Here we are caught in a profitable (for them) web of methodical manipulation that exploits our attention based on the vulgar vagueness of self-mythologizing fame.

That is why I sense a sea change with the social recognition of Richard Wright’s no title 2009 as it rewards the fabulous inner privateness of the human condition in lieu of the constructed social spectacle that tries to encompass us. And for that I thank the Turner Prize judges: Charles Esche, Mariella Frostrup, Andrea Schlieker and Jonathan Jones. Their re-conceptualization of what is valuable in contemporary art in terms of inner excess is to restore to art a property of unbridled field based on the freedom of thought. Perhaps a certain regime of seeing is in the process of coming to an end.

Joseph Nechvatal

Pop Life: Art in a Material World will travel to the Hamburger Kunsthalle from 6 February – 9 May 2010 and then to the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa from 11 June – 19 September 2010. The exhibition is accompanied by a fully illustrated catalogue.

Images attached below (in descending order):
1) an example of pareidolia as seen in a slice of wood
2) Joseph Nechvatal, Upload, 1991. photoshop file
3) Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger. Mary Rogers, Lady Harington, 1592, oil on panel. Tate Britain. (detail)
4) Roman Verostko, Epigenesis: The Growth of Form 1997
5) Richard Wright no title 2009. Courtesy the artist; Gagosian, London; The Modern Institute / Toby Webster Ltd, Glasgow and BQ, Berlin © Copyright the artist. Photo: Photo credit Sam Drake and Gabrielle Johnson, Tate Photography (room view)
6) Carl Fudge. Durer Resurrection. 1992 (detail)

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