Monday, 15 December 2014

Jake and Dinos Chapman at the Jerwood Gallery, Hastings

I always liked Hastings. It was slightly down at heel, edgy and a little bit eccentric and bohemian. It also had people under the age of 65 and a live music venue in a church crypt. This all made it so much more interesting, less conservative and decidedly cooler than Eastbourne which was where I spent most of my time when growing up. Adding to the allure was the fact that my friend rented a massive top floor flat on the St. Leonard's seafront in the days when they were as cheap and plentiful as a seaside chip. 

Hastings, I am told, is not the town it used to be but walking along the seafront I find the same gently decaying shop frontage and the inherent sadness of the out-of-season seaside town. Sitting alongside the old, the peeling and the boarded-up are also several smart, new shops and restaurants. Although this may seem like a jarring and contemporary incongruity, to me it’s just the same as it ever was. There were always stark contrasts and examples of shifting fortunes to be found in Hastings and St. Leonard's. What is strange, however, is walking down to the Stade and seeing the shiny and solid black exterior of the Jerwood Gallery emerging from an impossible space between the road and the sea. It’s an impressive building and the contrast with the architecture and function of the bingo halls and amusement arcades passed a few minutes earlier is particularly dramatic but entirely consistent at the same time.

The exhibition at the Jerwood entitled, 'In the Realm of the Unmentionable', is the latest show by Jake and Dinos Chapman who grew up in Hastings.  They have divided opinion from the very beginning. Many years ago a friend of mine studied with Jake who drew her portrait.  Another student outraged by what he saw as a highly offensive caricature of my friend, tore the portrait in two.  Like the other YBA branded artists, the Chapman brothers have been around for long enough to be part of the British art furniture. So being able to see their work again now distanced by time from the froth and fury of its initial impact is an interesting experience.
Entering the large Foreshore gallery takes you straight into the magnificently over the top visual spectacle of ‘Sum of all evil’. It’s like Jake and Dinos got a job lot of the Airfix war, murder and mayhem modelling kit with 10 Ronald MacDonald bonus packs and a few other bits and pieces thrown in for free.  The naked dead, the uniforms, the skeletons, skulls, crucified Ronalds and several Adolf Hitlers all tumbling over themselves in a landscape with trees. The only moment of stillness is in a quiet corner where the ‘normal’ Mr. Fuhrer is placed in a tableau that could be called ‘Interior with dog and greenhouse’.  It is a particularly 20th century view of the utter awfulness of humanity and seems oddly and rather quaintly nostalgic in an age of live video beheadings.  The Ronald MacDonalds have moved on too, resurrected by adding a little more lettuce and some rebranding as soldiers in the battle against obesity.

The series ‘Living with Dead Art’ is like an alternative form of illustrated art history making some of the images fascinating to unpick. The interiors created within each frame are also very atmospheric so it was good to spend time in them. The 'Los Caprichos etchings commission', however, still strikes me now exactly as it struck me at the time. I just can’t take it seriously. It does put me in mind of Joe Orton defacing library books but mostly I think it’s what might have happened had Beavis and Butthead been locked in a museum overnight. I feel pretty much the same way about the old oil portraits that have been similarly rectified.  
The same thing only better’ is a recreation of Tracey Emin’s work, ‘Everyone I ever slept with', a stitched tent which was burned in the Momart warehouse fire in 2004. That fire also destroyed ‘Hell’ a definitive Chapman work that was the forerunner of ‘The sum of all evil’. The presence of the tent is a reminder of just how polarised and visceral, attitudes had become to the works of those artists at that time. The glee at their destruction expressed at various levels across the media was a bizarre kind of testament to the work's impact beyond the usual suspects.

'Archive Cloud' fills a corner of the gallery and is arguably just a modern name for a range of works on paper executed over a long time frame. The earliest date seemed to be 1983 but some of the work looks as if it may have been done in 1973. This arrangement was fascinating as a marker of a successful artist’s career trajectory. At this stage of the game the Chapmans can stick any old thing on the wall, call it an archive and everyone will think it’s somehow profound or important. I am not averse to chronological displays in which one can see how an artist develops but this selection is not particularly good. There are one or two that stand out and an occasional glimpse of another direction that may have been taken but overall the selection suggests why sculptural works took prominence.  

The newest series of works in the show, ‘Human Rainbow’ has something for everyone.  Like ‘Living with dead art’ there are echoes of departed artists and of other Chapmanesque preoccupations. However, in the context of this show it seems as if they finally discovered some colours (other than red) in their middle years. The image chosen for the publicity poster was an image from this series. This is obviously due in part to its newness but it is also an image that is inoffensive and the most painterly. Ironic really given their reputation but at least it’s red. 

The exhibition continues into two other smaller gallery spaces. In the first room are the defaced oil portraits mentioned above. In the second, however, things are more interesting. The gallery has been given a false ceiling and this intervention completely changes the whole nature of the space. In fact it’s the first time you actually think about the space. As you look through the door from the first room, one small work is visible. You can only enter this vertically truncated room by stooping and as you move towards the painting a still life emerges. You reach it and find it is signed ‘A.Hitler’.  That was the only laugh out loud moment in the whole show for me, so thanks for that.

The works on the final wall are join-the-dots images that you suspect are not what they seem but what you really want from them is a few stapled together photocopies that you can take with you and do on the train home.

Given that this was my first visit to the Jerwood I also went upstairs to check out the permanent collection. I didn’t hang around because I was interrupting a bunch of school kids on an art trip. They had been making comments about the works on post-it notes and sticking them on the floor under the relevant work. Catching glances of some of their comments was pretty funny.   

There were some very pleasant surprises from the Jerwood Collection particularly Mark Gertler but also Stanley Spencer and some Jacob Epstein and ElizabethFrink sculptures and drawings. Seeing a Frank Brangwyn here was nice too even if it did make me briefly nostalgic for my former home of Walthamstow and the William Morris Gallery. Funnily enough I have often referred to Hastings as Walthamstow-on-Sea and there are similarities although the E17 Art Trail does seem more rooted in the community and able to appeal to a broader demographic than Coastal Currents. Then again there are a lot more people in E17. Talking of Coastal Currents, however, I found it very interesting that the Chapman brothers exhibition actually prompted an article that looked seriously at Hastings and the art scene here in general. It seems a bit sad that coverage can only be promoted by celebs but that’s life. The view of the real coastal currents from the top floor of the Jerwood is sublime.

When I was about to leave I was approached by a very pleasant member of the Jerwood staff who asked me if I would mind answering some questions about my visit which I did. The nature of these questionnaires and their primarily algorithmic values, however, means that there is little scope for real feedback and I have one complaint.  I believed the hype that said: “The Chapmans will scour the antique emporiums and junk shops of Hastings for old artworks that will then be ‘fixed’ by the brothers in their signature anarchic style.”

It was not clear if this had actually happened. If it did, it presumably would have been the portraits but I have definitely seen at least some of those before. It would have been nice to know. In fact, a little more information in general would have been useful even it was just a list of titles and dates and an image from each part of the show.  

Apart from that one small gripe, however, I really enjoyed my first ever visit to the Jerwood although I am not sure ‘enjoyed’ is the right word to apply to a Jake and Dinos Chapman show. Whichever way one finds it necessary to view their collective oeuvre, it is ultimately a bleak and depressing interpretation of our hapless species particularly if you take it at face value. The trauma of being human is something we all share. How one deals with that and what one needs from ones art to assist dealing with it varies. Horror is increasingly unavoidable in reality so it no longer feels like fun to have it slapped on with a trowel in art. The fact that anyone can now have private digital access, at least, to whatever horror they like for less than the price of a Jake and Dinos Chapman work both affirms their view and explains why the Internet is also full of kittens.

The tension running through their work so often characterised by a hostile rejection of both art and human history sometimes seems like a desperate attempt to distance themselves from being part of either. However, the universal conundrum of reconciling childhood with adulthood is also a permanent and rather comforting presence. It could all have been so different. I wonder what would have happened if their Dad had been a maths teacher….. 

Wednesday, 3 December 2014

Back to the Garden

The last time I looked at this blog was August 2013 when I did a post about a trip to Dublin. It is now December 2014. Those past 18 months have been spent shovelling an awful lot of sad and horrible sh*t under the bridge. The upshot (much aided by insane London house values) is that we have exchanged a small Victorian terrace for a whole house with a magic garden in a Sussex village.

I am originally from 'round these parts' (to be said in Sussex accent) so I guess I should just see it as finally coming home after a 33 year trip. In that 33 years I have always lived in cities - London, Tokyo, Jerusalem, Dubai - and spent a lot of time in many others. I like cities. I enjoy being stuck in an empathetic crush of anonymous humanity so I will miss it.

However, being in the new garden has also made me realise just how much of  my rural childhood environment I have carried around with me. There is a palpable and familiar exhilaration at the changing light, colours, textures, sounds and smells. What makes this garden magic though, is an awesome variety of plants that are also familiar from those 33 years of travelling. There are Japanese Maples, Cedars, Pines and Cherries, Chinese Willows, Black, White and Sacred Bamboos, mosses, a Golden Rain tree, a Tulip tree, an Iranian Honey Locust, an Indian Bean tree, Cacti, Magnolias, tropical looking ferns and others I haven't even begun to identify yet.

I am sure we would have left London before we keeled over and died but the combination of circumstances, and finding a house that we weren't even looking for, means that anyone viewing this blog will now be inundated with photographs of plants. So if you don't like the colour green, look away now.....