Friday, 2 November 2012

Richard Hamilton: the Late Works – National Gallery, London

To enter the world of Richard Hamilton’s late works is to enter a self-contained closed world of reflections and mirrored fragments. Endlessly self-referential, works reappear in other works, which themselves refer back to yet other works. To view them is to participate in a post-modern game through art history. And it is a thoroughly enjoyable game to play.

The first works we see are paintings where the National Gallery’s Sainsbury Wing has been transformed into a vast cathedral, sparsely populated by female nudes and tiny reproductions of earlier Hamilton works. These two paintings (The Saensbury Wing (1999-2000) and Charity), like many in the exhibition, reference a painting in the National’s collection, Pieter Saenredam’s The Interior of the Grote Kerk at Haarlem (1636-37). And with these paintings we are introduced to all of the main themes of the exhibition: interiors, paintings in the National Gallery, the female nude and other works of Richard Hamilton.

In Lobby (1985-87) a hotel lobby is painted with unwavering verisimilitude, the planes within fragmented by carefully rendered mirrored surfaces. It is a meticulously measured photo-realistic painting. The only ‘painterly’ marks are to be found on the flowers in the foreground and the painted paintings reflected in the two large mirrored columns. Lobby reappears in a later work, Hotel du Rhone (2005), where it hangs prominently on a wall in a digitally rendered collage of a hotel room being hoovered by a naked chambermaid. The contents and layout of the room bring to mind Hamilton’s most celebrated image, probably the most famous collage in art history, Just what is it that makes today's homes so different, so appealing? (1956).

Other than Lobby and The Saensbury Wing not many of these works could be described simply as paintings, although Hamilton did refer to them as such. They are mostly digital mash-ups incorporating elements of painting, collage and photography and finally printed onto canvas.

Hamilton’s nudes are always beautiful young women and it is in two more of these nudes that we find the final preoccupation of this exhibition, and a major preoccupation of Hamilton’s career. Descending Nude (2006) shows the same woman four times, three times reflected in a mirror walking down a flight of stairs, and the fourth facing the mirror. In The Passage of the Bride (1998-99) the female nude is reflected in the glass of a section of Marcel Duchamp’s The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (1915-23), otherwise known as The Large Glass, which is seen hanging on the wall of another domestic interior. In the nineteen sixties Hamilton played an important role in the rehabilitation of Duchamp’s reputation in the art world, not least by remaking many of Duchamp’s works and bringing them to a new and wider audience. Duchamp blessed this project, even going so far, in typically Duchampian manner, as to sign Hamilton’s versions of his work. Another Duchampian aspect to Hamilton’s work is the delight he takes in replicating his own work on a smaller scale, as in Duchamp’s Box in a Valise (1935-41).

The clumsiest aspect of Hamilton’s work on show here are the titles, bad puns and unsubtle allusions, as if he hasn’t got the confidence in his audiences ability to ‘get’ the references. And one or two of the works are considerably weaker than others. I wasn’t entirely convinced by The passage of the angel to the virgin (2007), Hamilton’s updating of a Renaissance favourite, the Annunciation, for example. But these are minor quibbles. The exhibition is worth a visit alone for the opportunity to view Hamilton’s last work, Le Chef – d’oeuvre inconnu – a painting in three parts (2011 – printed 2012), which will probably pass into Hamilton legend as his last, great, unfinished, masterpiece.

Hamilton was working on Le Chef… for the final eighteen months of his life and he described it, according to this exhibitions catalogue, as his Etant Donnes. This is a slight exaggeration. Duchamp worked on his final piece in secret for twenty years when everyone thought he had given up art, releasing it only after his death as a way of upsetting Duchampian scholars from being able to sum up his life’s work into a neat little Duchampian shaped compartment. Hamilton’s final work doesn’t really deviate from the well-trodden Hamilton path. It is a nude, a particularly beautiful one. It references, and indeed collages, a number of old masters. And it is a digital mash-up of photography, painting, and collage. Based on a short story by Balzac, Le Chef… tells of a young painter trying to paint the perfect nude, produce the epitome of beauty and desire, but when he shows his work to a couple of other painter friends all they see is a mess of paint except for one beautifully rendered foot.

Thomas Schutte: Faces and Figures - Serpentine Gallery, London

Thomas Schutte has been producing a wide variety of art, from architectural installations and mixed media sculptures to ceramics and drawings, for more than three decades. This current exhibition at the Serpentine Gallery in London concentrates on one of Schutte’s major preoccupations, the human face and figure, drawing on work from the last fifteen years. It is perhaps surprising then, due to the eclectic nature of his practice, that this show has such a traditional feel, being made up as it is primarily of sculptures in bronze, steel and aluminium, and drawings in ink, pencil and watercolour.

It is to the drawings that I am most drawn. There is a quiet, calm seriousness to them, a misleading simplicity. They do not shout for attention. They quietly, calmly and seriously get on with what they do. Often Schutte will draw the same subject many times over a period of months or years, modifying his materials aloing the way, some in ink, some in pencil, some with crayon added, some with watercolour added, with the result that his drawings frequently appear in series. On show here are Luise (1996), Mirror Drawings (1998-99) and Paloma (2012). It’s as if through repetition Schutte is acknowledging the ultimate futility of drawing, it’s inherent failure to capture the true and complete spirit of a subject, as well as his own limitations as an artist, and by use of repetition he can somehow get closer to that unobtainable absolute truth.

In some of the drawings there is a real delicacy of touch. Henri (2012) for example is a very simple and beautiful line drawing in pencil, which has two occurrences of red crayon. Untitled (2006) is an ink drawing of a male face where the ink is thick and black on the right of the picture but the lines, and consequently the face, on the left disappear into the whiteness of the paper. And in another Untitled (2006), the subtlety of the line and delicacy of the face, this time female, is contrasted by a thick block of bright orange on the neck.

The majority of the sculptures on display, I’m afraid to say, fail to move me. They include a series of expressionistic bronze heads, Wichte (Jerks) (2006); an imposing armless figure with solemn deep cheekbones cast in dark rust coloured steel, Vater Staat (Father State) (2010); a long haired and bearded sunken faced bronze, Memorial for an Unknown Artist (2011); all beautifully executed with expressive features, but failing to move me in the way, say, the sinister figures of Juan Munos do, a comparison most explicit in the two large sculptures outside the gallery, United Enemies (2011), two pairs of figures, again armless, with poles for legs, bound together and uselessly straining against each other desperate to pull themselves apart. (When I was viewing these I was delighted to find them both crawling with ladybirds, an unexpected incongruity and pleasing unintentional addition to the work, the bright red dots against the pale blue of the bronze.)

My two favourite of Schutte’s sculptures, Walser’s Wife (2011) and Frauenkopf mit Blume (Woman with Flower) (2006), are both female heads, both resembling the heads of buddhas with smooth Asiatic features and rough textured hair tied up in a bun. Walser’s Wife is upright whereas Frauenkopf… is lying on its side. Walser’s Wife, the most striking of the two, is aluminium painted with gold and purple lacquer, which plays tricks with your eyes reflecting different colours depending on the angle of view. Frauenkopf… is the more familiar and traditional green and brown of bronze. But it is detail that makes these sculptures compelling. Both contain intentional imperfections around the eyes. Walser’s Wife has two small tears, solidified drips of lacquered aluminium, falling uncannily from her upper eyelids. Frauenkopf… has a lump underneath the left eye and a dent underneath the right. Her whole face sags ever so slightly in the direction of gravity’s pull, giving her features a barely noticeable yet  unnerving asymmetrical skew. Both pairs of eyes, in representations of an otherwise idealized yet realistic style, are just deep grooves, devoid of eyeballs or pupils and therefore of emotion. It is in these minor deviations from verisimilitude that we are apparently purposefully separated from the same truth that Schutte seems so eager to obtain in his drawings.