Newsletter 284

Published April 29, 2019

Last week China, this week London. I’m changing channels in my head from the Terracotta Warriors of the Qin Dynasty, to Claude Monet, as he gazed from a hotel room in Le Havre at the scene that became Impression Sunrise. But although Monet is the presiding deity of this trip, I’m taking the opportunity to see as many shows as I can, starting with the Tate Modern, where I spent the afternoon, knowing that if I lingered in the hotel I’d succumb to jet lag.

The Tate, as is so often the case, has one magnificent show – of Pierre Bonnard, and two rather dubious ones. Dorothea Tanning (1910-2012) lived long enough to deserve a show at a major museum or two, but her work begins as a kind of eager, copycat Surrealism, and devolves into strange, smudgy studies of grappling bodies. I’m glad I’ve seen a big Tanning show, but if I’d flown specially from Australia I’d be feeling a little sick.

The third Tate show was devoted to the oddball Austrian artist, Franz West (1947-2012), who made a career out of shapeless over-large abstract sulptures, uncomfortable furniture, oblique photos and performances, and getting drunk. West is the perfect illustration of the maxim that, in contemporary art, if you do dumb-looking things for long enough, when you die you’ll be acclaimed as a genius. Although all West’s work is a running gag – an ‘Up yours!’ to art, his creations are treated with reverence at the Tate. Viewers are invited to pick up a stick with a hunk of plaster attached, and “interact” with it privately behind a curtain. A video shows West, Sarah Lucas, and a bunch of mates sitting around swigging beers. In the same room are shelves laden with fashionable philosophy books, which we are expected to peruse.

The paradigm looks like this: even though Franz West was a boozer who made the dumbest looking art you’ve ever seen, he was in fact a dedicated reader of philosophy. This means that all his work must be viewed as a profound, philosophical statement. It’s deliberately dumb, therefore it’s completely successful! Naturally he could have sculpted like Rodin if he chose to…

I dwell on frivolous Franz, rather than the great Bonnard, because the latter’s work speaks most eloquently for itself. West is spoken for by the institutions at which he thumbs his nose.

This week’s art column remains anchored in Sydney, looking at The National 2019: New Australian Art – a collaborative survey held at the Art Gallery of NSW, the Museum of Contemporary Art and Carriageworks. The four curators behind this show would probably be pretty keen on Franz West, judging by some of their inclusions. Objectively speaking, he’s more interesting than most of the things on display across the three Sydney venues.

I feel a bit like a wowser at a drunken party in expressing disappointment at The National– the curators, and a good deal of the press have been so pleased and excited with the results. At the risk of sounding like a curmudgeon, I had the opposite feeling: too much of the show felt derivative, half-baked and superficial. When I went back for another look, feeling that maybe I’d been  overly critical, matters failed to improve. I expect that from this point the usual reactions will ensure. Those in agreement will say: “I’m so glad you said that, I thought there must be something wrong with me.” Those opposed will mutter: “John, he’s soo conservative. He hates contemporary art”.

In the world of film, I’ve resisted the siren call of Avengers: Endgame– currently being praised by “critics” all over the world – and written about a 1985– a small but powerful movie about a particular moment in time. It’s the age of AIDS and we watch a young man returning to his family home in Texas, wondering how to tell his God-fearing parents that he’s contracted the disease. It’s a story that reminds us that some things are matters of life and death. And then there’s Art.