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Basquiat: Boom for Real – Barbican

Basquiat at the Barbican

Artist Jean-Michael Basquiat became a member of the infamous 27 Club in 1988 when he died from a drug overdose, joining stars like Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison before him, and Kurt Kobain and Amy Winehouse after. Together with numerous others, the much-lamented lost talent of the 27 Club represents a group reaching the height of their power and abruptly cut short. Basquiat’s work as a painter, graffiti artist and musician is celebrated in a new exhibition at the Barbican which, now thirty years on, demonstrates Basquiat’s role in using art to communicate the politicised anger of America’s poorest communities and their recognition of the now-empty American Dream.

One of the most revealing aspects of the Barbican’s excellent new show is how carefully it builds the case for Basquiat’s influence on modern art, and how the simplicity of the surface appearance of his art belies a considerable depth, understanding and passion for a wider-range of subjects. Starting on the upper level of the Gallery, Curators Dieter Buchhart and Eleanor Nairne walk the viewer through Basquiat’s life, represented through his pictures, from his early days as an anonymous graffiti artists leaving pithy statements across New York, to his emergence onto the 80s club scene, mingling with Madonna and other recognisable faces at the The Mudd Club, an important meeting place for a particular wave of young, disenfranchised creatives, and becoming friends with his hero Andy Warhol.

But this is more than a chronologized life-story, and in the lower galleries, the Curators skilfully unpick the huge range of influences and knowledge that infuse Basquiat’s work in several themed areas intended to explain the deep research, use of symbolism and cultural markers that are referenced again and again in his work. Taken together, they result in a strong sense of the context in which his work was created, as well as its development over time, and the complex relationship between his own self-image and the layers of meaning beneath the surface. The result is one of the most intelligently considered and genuinely insightful exhibitions you will see this year.

For Britain and America, the late 1970s / early 1980s was a period of economic uncertainty, deprivation and political instability. Long before the financial boom of the 80s, people suffered as large-scale industries started to close due to overseas competition, strikes and protest became more frequent, and there was a sense that traditional structures were breaking-down across society, and not for the better. It was a time when the gap between rich and poor felt wider than it ever had, and the process of social decay, initiated by the debt-ridden aftermath of the Second World War was in its death throes.

Into this space came of wave of young musicians and artists whose work, even now, still feels full of the anger, fear and disillusion of those days. Rebellious bands like The Jam (who were the subject of an excellent exhibition at Somerset House in 2015) and The Clash, and artists like Basquiat provided a social record of the failure of their parent’s generation to resolve the outcome of war, and the desire to speak-up for those without an artistic outlet for their impotence. The punk aesthetic that feeds in to Basquiat’s work became a way to envision those feelings of powerlessness, using a deceptively simple style or creating a “tag” for his graffiti creations that generalise the social comments he’s making. These are the work of one or two men, but the voice of many.

And you see this again and again in the photographs of his graffiti statements, scrawled across garage doors, walls, door frames and windows crying out for an end to the facile, drudgery of 9-5 work or the externally imposed expectations of society to behave in a particular way. In the second room entitled ‘Samo©’, the Barbican have collated an insightful series of images of these slogans and declarations created by Basquiat and his friend Al Diaz under the character of Samo©, that peppered parts of New York in 1978. Like waiting for a new Banksy to appear, the Samo© pieces touched on the pointlessness of life, ‘for those of us who merely tolerate civilization’ and the sense that each day is just ‘another way 2 kill some time’. Taken together in this room, they are a remarkable outpouring of fury but offer unique access to the ideas that drove the rest of Basquiat’s work.

A sense of community was also important, bringing together others who felt the same and helped to enhance Basquiat’s work which the Barbican demonstrates in the next two rooms on the Canal Zone loft party where he met several like-minded people who he went on to work with, and on display are the colour-photocopied postcards he made with Jennifer Stein that use 3-D objects, layering and collage to create a series of striking pieces that mock the obsession with brand and image that dominated America at the time. Likewise, his frequent appearance at The Mudd Club put Basquiat right at the centre of the underground scene, where he performed as a musician and there are various images from this period which give the viewer a strong impression of Basquiat’s lifestyle.

Passing through a documentary he made which shows the desperate poverty of New York and a trip to LA that resulted in the acidic yellow ‘Hollywood Africans’ [1983] which satirises the empty wealth of an area built on slavery and references the enduring racism of film, the section on Basquiat’s time with Warhol is one of the best in the show. Most fascinating is the double portrait ‘Dos Cabezas’ [1982] in which Basquiat has inserted a highly simplified self-portrait with wild hair next to a much more flattering and considered Piccaso-esque image of Warhol. It shows the beginning of Basquiat’s desire to reduce his own image to a symbol, increasingly simplifying his appearance in pictures until he is reduced to a silhouetted figure or just a crown of dreadlocks. This picture tells us something about the way Basquiat saw himself and, despite his simplistic style, that the image of Warhol proves he had a talent for anatomical drawing, more of which we discover downstairs in the exhibition.

Having established his style and the world as he experienced it, the second part of the exhibition delves deeper into Basquiat’s continued self-education and the ways in which he incorporated broad interests into his work. From previous shows, including the excellent Constable exhibition at the V&A, we know that artists have always looked to their predecessors to learn the fundaments of perspective, shape and colour, and a whole section is dedicated here to Basquiat’s attention to art history.

Alongside original copies of his books, Basquiat’s detailed anatomical images draw on the work of another hero in ‘Leonardo Da Vinci’s Greatest Hits’ [1982], classical elements are picked up from Titian, and Manet, while the semi-abstract style comes from Picasso and Matisse. As well as ‘Untitled (Pablo Picasso)’ [1984], an eponymously titled portrait of the young Picasso with strong jawline wearing the striped red jersey of his later years, artists’ names appear like graffiti in several other pictures displayed here.

Basquiat, Barbican

This is a technique Basquiat uses repeatedly, whether he’s hailing the heroes of early Jazz like Charlie Parker and Louis Armstrong, figures from Greek tragedy or Old Testament Christianity, or Voodoo symbols, his work in the second half of the exhibition is detailed and intriguing, displaying an astonishing range of influences. Pieces such as the triptych ‘Ishtar’ [1983] or ‘Glen’ [1985] are like maps covered in little notes, drawings and images as all of the information in his head spilled onto the canvas. It’s the kind of detail that Grayson Perry has become known for more recently, as both artists attempted to capture a particular theme or period.

It ends with more of Basquiat’s notebooks and an examination of his engagement with classic film, both in its ongoing influence and its rather stilted portrayal of black lives which still feels particularly pertinent. Aspects of Basquiat’s work may utilise the childlike doodles of the untrained artist, but as you wander through this exhibition, something much deeper than that emerges. The curators have done well to convey not just what life was like in a particularly downtrodden area of New York, filled with creative people living an underground existence, but how these things shaped the work of an artist who continually strove to read and understand more to give his pieces political backbone. Even if you’ve never heard of him, Basquiat: Boom for Real is worth a chance, and by the end you’ll understand why his death at the age of just 27 feels like an abrupt conclusion for an artist with plenty more to say.

Basquiat: Boom for Real is at the Barbican until 28 January. Tickets are £16 with concessions available. Please note the Barbican now has a no bags policy (not even small handbags) in the Art Gallery so leave extra time to queue for the cloakroom. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


The Vulgar: Fashion Redefined – The Barbican

vulgar

Taste is a very personal thing, something we use to assess our attitudes to the outside world, to determine whether something is decent, appropriate or aesthetically pleasing. But, our tastes can also be used against us, to define what we kind of person we are and the effectiveness of our judgement. To have good taste is not just about individual satisfaction but it sends an outward signal to the world about who we are – one key element of taste is a sense of collective agreement, having others to reinforce your ideas. With this in mind the Barbican has opened an exhibition it claims celebrates the antithesis of taste, vulgarity.

Having now seen the exhibition, I have to admit to being to being rather perplexed by the use of the word “vulgar” in association with the exhibits and arguments on display here. It opens with a determination to reclaim the word and return it to its earlier associations where it meant commonplace or vernacular, and a determination to show how fashion ‘revels in, exploits and ultimately overturns the prevailing limits of taste.’ There is very little here that, to my mind, fits our notion of the word vulgar which, aside from its original meaning, now has a prevailing association with the coarse, crass and crude.

While I see what the Barbican is trying to do, it seems the word vulgar was chosen more for its intriguing appeal on a poster than for its actual and clearly defined application to the exhibits and themes of this exhibition. It may get people through the door but the concept feels over-intellectualised which for all its reasoning and the explanatory text by psychoanalyst Adam Phillips, just doesn’t make sense in the context of what you see. Instead, what this show is about are the perhaps less attention grabbing concepts of populism and fashionability, exploring the line between societal changes and clothing, and whether fashion creates or reflects new modes of living, particularly when dealing with the outrageous or unconventional.

A centrepiece on the Ground Floor is a large collection of dresses from or inspired by the eighteenth-century fashion for large hooped skirts, ruffles and shaped bodices that transformed the female form by extending the hips, flattening the bosom and slimming the waist to almost unnatural proportions. The argument here is that etiquette books offered young women a modest and genteel guide to dressing appropriately suggesting that extravagance in size and adornment of dress was the antithesis of good breeding and elegance. Yet, these are quotes from the late nineteenth-century guides while the pieces on display are clearly eighteenth-century, more than 100 years before when the way taste and fortune were displayed was quite different.

Those considered to be leaders of ‘polite society’ such as the famous Duchess of Devonshire and the Whig crowd, certainly took fashionable interpretation to excess with enormous expensive dresses and unmanageably tall wigs that often represented their political allegiances, and what this exhibition doesn’t tell you is the fame and recognition that excess created was used to promote interests in politics, science and patronise the arts. By the definitions of this exhibition and guides from a century later, these people were ‘vulgar’. But the historical record doesn’t really back this up. In fact while the extravagance of “The Ton” – the nickname for the Duchess and her cronies – was gently mocked in the press, their influence on fashion, concepts of taste and modes of living among those considered ‘well-bred’ was more celebrated than derided. And the purpose of such styles was to display their wealth and influence.

It created a trickle-down effect through society that only suggests vulgarity in the old-fashioned sense – the popularisation of something that was once the preserve of an elite. And as this room goes on to show, the effect of that influence continues to resonate in fashion today with stunning modern pieces by John Galliano, Gucci and Vivienne Westwood who have frequently drawn on the eighteenth-century shapes and fabrics for inspiration. Sitting alongside some beautifully embellished wide-hipped ‘Mantua’ originals, Westwood created a spectacular jade green full-skirted Watteau dress with black trim inspired by the era. You can’t wear it to Tesco but it’s hardly vulgar in either sense, haute couture is certainly not populist nor can the artistry, detail and beauty of it be considered coarse or crude.

Rather than shoe-horning these clothes into a pre-set definition of vulgarity and taste – labels which of themselves change over time – adding more historical context can explain a great deal about why particular fashions and preferences for excess or simplicity emerged, based on the social, political, economic and cultural experience of the era as well as how they were used by individuals to create personal influence. And that is something clearly missing from this show.

One of the issues here is that most of the clothes on display are specifically avant-garde or haute couture where there is an argument that they are created as pieces of art, not intended to be widely worn, self-selected for this exhibition by virtue of their outrageousness, and thus not representative of “fashion” in the sense of a ready-to-wear designer collection or a high-street off-the-peg offering. And while some exhibits represent those categories, the distinction (ie. the purpose of creating that specific item), is not made clear enough, never mind whether it can be classed as vulgar or not (in whatever sense).

If you take away the entire structure of this exhibition, you’re left with a collection of interesting and eclectic items which are actually nice to see. Borrowing from Pop Art influences there is a Moschino evening gown that looks like it’s made from sweet wrappers, while sitting next to it a short yellow number is also printed with packaging images, while a paper dress from the 60s has a pattern of Campbell’s soup adverts (which you can also see in the V&A’s Records and Rebels show). These, as I suggest above, showcase the intersection of design and populist influences from the fun movements of the times, but are arguably not created to be widely worn.

Similarly the show opens with some beautiful Grecian inspired dresses which the blurb rather pretentiously interprets as ‘the imitation of classical culture… reimagined in a vernacular tongue’, as well as later displaying some puritan lace collars and seventeenth-century stomachers that defy the label of vulgarity. Like the eighteenth century clothes this suggest an ongoing interest in the way in which draping, cut and shape can create a fluidity around the body that again reflects the political attitudes to femininity in the era they were created rather than a mere vulgarisation of ancient styles.

And then there’s the outfits that are truly avant-garde, created as part of a wider collection and never seriously intended to be worn. In a section on royalty entitled ‘impossible ambition’ there are Dior outfits inspired by the short-like pantaloons and ermine trimmed jacket worn by Henry VIII in his famous Holbein portrait, as well as a Viktor and Rolf flared red dress with accompanying wheat and flowers headpiece inspired by Van Gogh in a section on ‘Too Big’, while a Walter van Beirendonck elephant skirt is reminiscent of those emu costumes with fake legs that 70s comedians used to wear at the Royal Variety Performance. Yet, none of this is vulgar; silly yes, playful certainly, but vulgar not really.

For the most part, the Barbican delivers excellent value with its art and photography exhibitions which are usually smart and informative without being pompous, and I think that is the problem here – the intellectualising in the written descriptions is just a bit too pleased with itself, a tad smug. This attempt to unpack the concepts of taste and vulgarity could have been achieved more simply and in a way that matched the outfits chosen with the historical, social and cultural context of their creation. So go for the clothes, enjoy the chance to see detailed craftsmanship, artistry and glamour of designer work, but don’t worry about the concept – it doesn’t make any sense anyway.

The Vulgar: Fashion Redefined is at the Barbican until 5 February 2017. Tickets cost £14.50 and there are concessions available. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1   


Magnificent Obsessions: The Artist as Collector – Barbican

What are artists made of? Where does creative inspiration come from and how does it influence the work that’s produced. This latest exhibition at the Barbican is part of a wider London trend looking at ways in which collections can tell us more about individuals, and comes alongside History is Now at the Hayward and Cotton to Gold at Two Temple place (a forthcoming review) all of which take a broad brush approach.

This exhibition at the Barbican is probably the most successful of the three, drawing a relatively straight line between the stuff artists own and their output, and unlike the Hayward exhibition, clearly displays at least one piece of the artist’s work to ‘prove’ the argument. Whilst I liked the eclectic nature of History is Now, I was less convinced by the overall curation and whether any clear argument was being made by the entire exhibition, whereas here within each section the Barbican’s argument is consistently realised as well as trying to tell an overall story about the diversity of creative inspiration.

It begins with Hiroshi Sugimoto and his collection of medical history ephemera including intriguing images of the muscles and bones of the face and a collection of glass eyes, as well as some natural history pieces including fossilised creatures which you can see influence his own images of landscapes and waxen people. Perhaps the most obvious collection belongs to Damien Hirst – some skulls, a LOT of taxidermy and some anatomical models – no surprises that his work turned out the way it did. It’s an interesting collection though, the centre piece of which is a large glass case containing a stuffed lion which is actually quite impressive as well as a bit disgusting. A large Hirst piece from his Entomology period contains real creatures arranged in patterned rows on a mirrored surface, and nothing in this exhibition is scarier than the giant spiders!

In the next room we are given two overwhelming displays of things from Hanne Darboven’s house that looks much like a jumble sale display. There are paintings, ornaments, models, furniture, books and prints, it’s pretty crazy but you can see the link to her work on the adjacent wall – a large series of photographs of a party in a room crowded with people, furniture and heavily patterned carpets – a really claustrophobic environment which is clearly similar to her own lifestyle. Have to admit at this point I did start to see a drift from artists collecting what you could describe as other ‘artistic’ pieces to some more mass produced, for want of a better word, tat.

And this theme continues upstairs, mixing art and other objects to show the range of influences on creativity. One of the best sections is Howard Hodgkin’s collection of beautiful pictures of Indian scenes between 1570 and 1750 which he has been acquiring since school. Although he claims the collection has no influence on his own style it is clear from his the colours and style that it does in some way. A big draw will be Andy Warhol’s collection of cookie jars and comic books which clearly influenced his love of the domestic and comforting. Of his own work there are the brillo pad boxes and some fish wallpaper to enjoy.

Pae White’s pretty collection of scarves make for a well displayed sub-room as they are dangled from the ceilings on washing lines of various heights, hanging above and around you. With so much of this exhibition devoted to solid objects in display cases and shelves it’s nice to see something a little more fluid. And White’s own wire sculpture sits above the downstairs gallery and you can see the influence of both the colours and the sense of lightness in her work which has come from the fabric. The final section of note is Peter Blake’s vast array of pieces range from Victorian circus performers, puppets and toys to china elephants, wrestling mementoes and taxidermy, all meticulously organised. There are also a lot of other artists to see but I’ve picked out the most memorable.

If I have one negative thought about this otherwise well-constructed exhibition, it is that a lot of the stuff on display isn’t exactly art so the reverence with which it is displayed and treated is at odds with what it is. It’s fascinating to see that artists take inspiration from a variety of sources but in a lot of cases we are looking at their tat, stuff that’s been given as garish wedding presents you hide in the cupboard or awful ornaments that fill your grandma’s house. Whilst I respect the idea that these belong to someone else and should be treated with care, at the same time the pieces themselves, if I’m being blunt, are a load of someone else’s rubbish. And even if that nasty mermaid statue inspired a great work of art, isn’t the original thing still fairly worthless?

That aside, I do think the Barbican have pitched this well and by having a piece of the artist’s work alongside their collection make a neat argument for its influence. Although perhaps creative impulses are individually driven it was interesting to note the similarity across some of these collections, making it possible for you to draw your own conclusions about common factors in the artistic process. So what is an artist made of, well lots of cookie jars, cartoons and especially Disney characters crop up repeatedly, as do African tribal masks and taxidermy. So maybe we should expect to see a Donald Duck cookie jar holding a stuffed animal wearing a mask from someone soon?

Magnificent Obsessions: The Artist as Collector is at the Barbican until 25 May. Tickets are £12 with separate concession and member rates available. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier – Barbican

There are many things you might expect from an exhibition of Jean-Paul Gaultier clothing – Breton stripes, tartan, conical-shaped underwear – being greeted by a life-sized dummy with the projected face and voice of the man himself is probably not one of them. Yet this is one of the many innovations that make this new exhibition at the Barbican both bold and exciting. Covering 40 years of design from his time with the French fashion houses including a stint as Creative Director of Hermes, through the Eurotrash years, to the launch of his own fashion label in 1997, this thematically arranged collection, charts the development of Gaultier’s distinct and iconic style.

The first gallery is devoted to the Breton stripe and the various ways Gaultier has incorporated it into men and women’s fashion, from nautical association with bell bottom trousers to long evening dresses. All the dummies in this room have faces which move, talk and sing – giving more interesting presentation to clothes designed for real people. The expressive mannequins are both a dynamic way to present what could be a lifeless display of clothing, and somewhat creepy at the same time.

The next room showcases Gaultier’s work inspired by British street culture, and in particular the punk movement of the late 1970s / early 1980s. It is awash with kilts, denim, camouflage materials and studs with some repurposed as elegant ball gowns which make for an interesting contrast. There’s also a revolving cat-walk that dominates the room, allowing you to sit and watch the clothes pass by as though you were in the front row. The mechanics are little wobbly but you get the idea.

For some, the highlight will be the clothes designed for celebrities and these are in abundance –including Madonna, Kylie, Dita Von Teese, Lily Cole and Kate Moss. The Barbican always likes to give you a varied experience and I really like the way they have curated these rooms, with the clothes in the centre and high quality photography of said star wearing the outfit on the wall nearby. You’d be surprised how many fashion exhibitions fail to do this when it adds such great context to the bit of fabric you’re staring at. There’s some incredible Miles Aldridge prints in the first room, emphasising Gaultier’s collaboration with numerous photographers, models and artists. Upstairs, there’s also a number of film costumes which Gaultier designed such as The Fifth Element all displayed alongside video clips of them in action.

One of the things I really like about the Barbican is that a gallery visit is always good value and a lot of thought clearly goes into planning the best experience for the visitor. Information is well supplied, although in this case an exhibition guide is only available by app, with plenty of signs explaining the themes, as well as the individual pieces. Several of these tell you exactly how many hours the outfit took to create, a fascinating insight into the haute couture process – in some instances it was over a hundred hours and for the more stunning evening wear this topped 1000. Sometimes exhibited clothes can look a little warn close up, but here the workmanship and presumably a careful preservation process makes them look like new. The Barbican has also lavishly redesigned its grey concrete walls, adding plush velvet display cases and lighting to create an effect that enhances the clothes on display.

In addition to the clothes and a really good insight into the Gaultier aesthetic, you also get an interesting sense of how fashion ties into many other cultural forms, including music, film and photography. He’s worked with some of the world’s most famous people and, rather like the David Bailey retrospective at the National Portrait Gallery, this is a rare chance to see the culmination of forty years of collaboration and impact. Even better, the Barbican, unlike several other galleries, offers a range of ticket prices, some for less than £10, which will help to engage new audiences for which they should be applauded! The Fashion World of Jean-Paul Gaultier is certainly very stripy and this good value exhibition is a great place to meet the man himself, even if it is just a projected version.

The Fashion World of Jean-Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk is at the Barbican until 25 August. Tickets are £14.50 as standard, with variously priced concessions including under £10 for students and schools.


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