Sometimes we struggle to find the right words. There’s an itch on the tongue, maybe you wave your hands in the air, trying to physically pull the language out. Sometimes I catch myself gesticulating in front of my computer, hands furiously grappling with the thin air dividing me from a multi-syllabic outburst.
Imagine living in a constant state of trying to find the right words. For those who suffer from aphasia, that can sometimes be the case. Aphasia is a disorder which limits the ability to process language. Sometimes it comes about as the result of a stroke or severe brain damage, and for those who suffer, there are varied degrees of loss of comprehension and speech.
Some aphasia sufferers may have more difficulty speaking, others may be less able to write. There are endless permutations of the disorder’s symptoms. And for those who love words and quick-shot discussions, the effects of aphasia are more nightmarish and saddening than many other impediments.
Currently on view at the Tate Modern is a group show titled Stutter. The artists in the exhibition all work on themes of language, miscommunication, and linguistic re-appropriation. Artists include Anna Barham, Dominique Petitgand, Michael Riedel, Will Stuart, and Michelangelo Pistoletto. One work stood out above the rest, though: a film installation by Belgian filmmaker Sven Augustijnen.
Johan (2001) and François (2003) are both documentary films, each recorded during an aphasia patient’s appointment with a speech therapist. Both patients are affected by the same disorder, though to diverse ends. Viewed together in sequence, the two films create an unsurmountable tension between spoken language and that which is impossible to articulate, forever gestating on the tips of these men’s tongues.
Johan is young, sweet, with kind blue eyes. He speaks very slowly and carefully, paying methodical attention to what limited vocabulary he has at his disposal. When asked to describe a recent holiday in France, he thinks for a long pause. He says he went cycling. When the speech therapist asks what else he did while on holiday, Johan looks up again and says, as if for the first time, “Cycling.” Again and again, he is unable to find more words to describe a week at the seaside. Then, the therapist shows him a series of photographs in which something isn’t quite right: a girl dances in work boots, a boy sits in the tub fully dressed. When shown a photograph of a boy trying to play an LP record in a cassette player, Johan remains totally silent. “What’s wrong with the picture?” he’s asked. It takes nearly a dozen tries for him to find the right words to say. The tension is thick, and the viewer feels deeply for Johan, whispering the right words under their breath like a prayer in the darkened gallery space.
In contrast to Johan, François is a quick, babbling talker, and his mouth seems to move faster than the camera can possibly record in real time. He rambles excitedly, using the words he still has, happy to joke and tell long personal stories to the therapist. She is hardly granted enough time to speak in which to administer a cringe-inducing examination. After about ten minutes of excited chit-chat, François is finally asked to name things like buildings, school supplies, and types of sport. Only when he is confronted with these specific tasks do we realize just how much he is unable to say. Though he disguises his aphasia with excited talk about the day’s headlines, when asked “What is a building where sick people go?” he looks dumbfounded. The incessant banter was actually salvaged from a very limited vocabulary.
Both films stage a tension, pitting silence and nervous banter against unease. Although both men are afflicted with the same disorder, it has diversely shaped their character and their reactions to their limitations. The difference in both François and Johan’s behavior changes how the viewer perceives their condition. Sometimes we root for them, sometimes we want to quietly beg them to slow down or speed up. More than anything, the tension we feel in watching these men struggle is a result of our inability to comprehend the inability to truly speak.
The aphasia films of Sven Augustijnen are being screened as a part of Stutter at Tate Modern until August 16, 2009.
Tony Swain changes the news. He transforms broadsheets and headlines into the physical starting place for expansive, imaginative landscapes and Claudian vistas. Pasted together, multiple sheets of newsprint become hazy, glorious dreamscapes. Swain collages newspaper in layers, cutting out text, combining printed pictures from fragmented evening edition remains.
In a new commission for the Art Now space at Tate Britain, Swain has created pastoral scenes of the imagination. And it's fitting to find his works in the same institution as Constable and Turner. Swain's gorgeous, full paintings are deeply rooted in landscape-- doubtlessly one of the most British painting traditions.
Collage has long lingered on the outskirts of acceptable painting, ever since Picasso and Braque began their experimentation with collage and painting in 1907. Nevertheless, Swain asserts the relevance of collage in contemporary art by pilfering his visuals from current headlines. The centrepiece for the exhibition, "Dream Re-enactment Society" (2009) is an idyllic scene. From across the room, all you can see clearly is the deep cerulean horizon line, stone cottages on the hilltops, and laundry hung out to dry. It is only upon closer inspection that one notices that the main images in the painting have been lifted from newspapers, and perhaps the roots of the images are not so idyllic after all. The stone cottages may have been sourced from a story about conflict in Ireland, the hazy mist may have been a result of a car bomb. The disconnected, disrupted use of collage and painting not only undermine the viewer's initial perception of the scene, they also provoke the outdated notions of historical landscape painting.
Tony Swain: Temperature is Here Too is on view in the Tate Britain ART NOW space until August 16, 2009.
Today marked the opening day for the Saatchi Gallery’s third exhibition in its gorgeous new gallery on Duke of York Square. In the autumn, the Saatchi hosted new art from China, and the spring saw an incredible genre-defying exhibition of new art from the Middle East. For the gallery’s blockbuster summer show, Sir Charles turned his eyes back towards the west. “Abstract America: New Painting and Sculpture” is an incredible, diverse, and colourful testament to contemporary art without radical politics.
The artists involved in the exhibition all seem to respond to the very same vein of abstraction that was pioneered by their American forebears. The gallery walls are lined with reinterpretations of the themes invented by Abstract Expressionists like Pollock and Motherwell. While looking at the works in the show, countless demands are simultaneously made on the viewer. Of course, there is the constant question of, ‘But is it art?’ while sub-sets of questions are forged by one’s initial response.
More than anything else, ‘Abstract America’ begs a reconsideration of the importance of abstraction. Is abstract painting relevant? Or is it now merely an element of greater abstract multi-media works? Also, how have the limits of abstraction expanded since the Ab-Ex group? Can abstraction be rooted in figurative visions? Also, what if the audience is expecting an abstract? Does that change the meaning of the work into something figurative which merely resembles non-figurative painting?
The ‘Abstract America’ artists read like a roster of young, visionary, and uncompromising talents: Agathe Snow, Sterling Ruby, Aaron Young, Patrick Hill, Kristin Baker, Mark Bradford, Jonas Wood, Paul Lee, Matt Johnson, Elizabeth Neel, Rachel Harrison, Carter, Mark Grotjahn, Francesca DiMattio, Ryan Johnson, Guerra de la Paz, Eric and Heather ChanSchatz, Baker Overstreet, Gedi Sibony, Peter Coffin, Jedediah Ceasar, Amanda Ross-Ho, Kirsten Stoltmann, Tom Burr, Stephen G. Rhodes, John Bauer, Chris Martin, Amy Sillman, Jacob Hashimoto, Dan Walsh, Bart Exposito, and Joe Bradley. Perhaps the group will go on to form a kind of shining diamond American YBA stable for Sir Charles.
One work which stood out particularly well as a response to the Abstract Expressionists was Aaron Young’s Greeting Card 10a, 2007. It takes its title from a piece by Pollock of the same name, no doubt implying who he’d like to be compared to. To create the work, Young laid plywood panels on his studio floor which were painted with red, yellow, and orange paint, with a wet layer of jet black on top. Twelve motorcycles were brought into the studio to drive over the wet, black panels, their tires revealing the bright colours underneath in an abstract pattern. Young uses a methodical process to create spontaneous work, resulting in merely superficial similarities to the work’s namesake.
The boldest, most humble works in the show are two canvasses by Jonas Wood. Wood is a quickly-rising Los Angeles figurative painter whose scenes echo the bright colours of 1960s illustration, the shapes of Stuart Davis, and the sleepy Americana of Edward Hopper. Untitled (M.V. Landscape), 2008 was my favourite work in the whole exhibition. Wood translates the warm, colourful landscape of a bright, small town into a flattened, two-dimensional fantasy set piece. Every house is pulled to the foreground, favouring a burst of architectures over a realistic depiction of space.
Elizabeth Neel’s paintings The Humpndump (2008) and Good vs. Evil (2009) are coy criticisms of abstract painting. The granddaughter of landmark American painter Alice Neel, you can almost see Alice’s distinctive lines in Elizabeth’s work. Her colours are reminiscent of Cecily Brown, her lines like Alice Neel’s and Cy Twombly. The most remarkable thing about these works is their frenzy. It feels as though as soon as she thinks of an idea, she furiously paints so as not to forget. This kind of immediacy and urgency was a recurring theme in the show, evident in other works by Kristin Baker, Carter, and Mark Grotjahn (more in his painting Untitled (Face) 2007 than in his Butterfly works).
Other noteworthy pieces include Francesca diMattio’s hypnotic five-panel painting Tunnel (2007), a sprawling, imaginary, architectural tableau; Chris Martin’s Motherwell-esque obsessively repetitive canvasses; and Baker Overstreet’s intensely colourful naïve and geometric paintings, also reminiscent of the works of Stuart Davis. Overstreet’s Flattering Turtleneck (2006) is exceptionally casual, bright, and deceptively engaging in its simplicity.
Star New York painter Amy Sillman rounds out the diverse, colourful show. Her fragmented, kaleidoscopic, and animated paintings are deceptively agitated and aggressive. They echo passivity and ferociousness simultaneously, disguising their rawness behind a polite veil of polished pastels. Her 2005 painting My Pirate takes a tall ship as its subject, mixing hardly recognizable forms with a cheeky nod to Abstraction, present and past.
Abstract America: New Painting and Sculpture, Saatchi Gallery, London SW3 (020-7811 3070; www.saatchigallery.co.uk) 29 May to 13 September
Emily Valentine Bullock
The first animal protection groups were initially formed as a reaction to such acts of “murderous millinery.” Environmental justice campaigns were originally designed to counter the use of feathers and wildlife in hat decoration. One writer in 1875 declared that the beauty of these birds “tempts the most tender-hearted to condone the practice. It was reckoned in 1895 that some twenty to thirty-million dead birds are imported annually to supply the demands of murderous millinery.” Such excesses and extremes galvanized a group of ladies from Manchester to form the For Fin and Feather group in 1889, later to become the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (the first animal rights group).
The bird protection trend soon spread to the United States, where many women took fashion cues from British publications. The Audubon Society was formed in Boston in 1896, when Harriet Lawrence Hemenway initiated a movement among her friends to stop wearing hats with bird feathers on them. The organized efforts in Boston caught on, and women across the country started promoting milliners who sold bird-less hats, lobbying for protective legislation, and working to change what was considered fashionable. Soon, many American women wore "audubonnets," the term given to the non-feathered hats that the Audubon Society ladies encouraged milliners to make as an alternative.
Soon ‘acceptable’ feathers included only those from domestic birds, such as cockerels, geese, or ducks. Some birds were even bred especially to provide feathers for millinery displays without their killing being required; the most common being pheasants and ostriches.
As ‘murderous millinery’ soon made many of the more objectionable feathered fashions defunct, feathers have now taken on a more sinister and confounding role in both fashion and art. I felt compelled to revisit some of this early writing about plumassiers when I saw images of artworks by Emily Valentine Bullock. Bullock uses feathers in a unique style, implementing them in her sculptures of small dogs. On one hand, it’s disconcerting to see the feather simply as a sculptural material—on the other, it’s even more troublesome to see the form of one animal made from the parts of another. Her work is brilliant, if not a bit shocking just for its simple audacity.
A few years ago, I was at a show at the Bowery Ballroom in New York. One minute, everything was as it should be—the next minute, Stórsveit Nix Noltes walked out on stage. What happened next was perhaps the most unreal and ethereal forty minutes of Balkan folk music to have ever been played in a Tri-State venue. One by one, the band members walked out, each carrying a bizarrely different instrument. A girl with an accordion, a boy with a keytar, a boy with an upright bass and a sousaphone…it went on and on until the stage was filled with a dozen beautiful Icelandic musicians carrying the contents of both a music store and a junk shop. They played drums, they played pots and pans. My heart swelled up in my throat and I spent the next year looking for an album– and found nothing.
Finally, April saw the release of their album, “Royal Family-Divorce” and it is magical. Ten tracks of raucous, tin-roof, Bulgaria/ Balkan blasting. The tracks are massively new and wildly old, mixing folk accordion that grandpa may have heard in the old country with electric beats and hissing. On the second track, “Krivo Sadovsko Horo,” Eastern European trumpets are pushed aside by rhythmic drums and electric whoops. “Pajdusko” sounds like a triumphant garage band playing an Albanian village wedding which is crashed at the end by a drunk 1970s punk in a bad mood. Things collapse and boom as something in the background struggles to keep the order of the innocuous folk beats.
“Kopanista” sounds like a chase through small, winding, Bulgarian village streets—streets lined with trumpets and mud, with a broken radio playing out an old woman’s window. “Cetvorno Horo” is the more expected minimalist Icelanding murmering and hazy frozen mists.
“Royal Family-Divorce” is an incredible patchwork of good things. And though I often don't write about music (I often don't even like to speak about music), Storsveit Nix Noltes create something urgently pleasant. They paint cacophonic pictures with unbridled brushstrokes. While music often accompanies memories of moments past, I'd like to save this album to accompany the best thing to come-- to tuck it into the lining of my pillow until someone wonderful enough comes along who deserves to share these bells and bassoons.