Nick Moss

Nick Moss

Nick Moss is an ex-prisoner, published poet, reviewer and playwright. His book "Swear Down" is published by Smokestack Books, see here.

Art, colonialism and change: 'Entangled Pasts' at the Royal Academy
Monday, 19 February 2024 14:20

Art, colonialism and change: 'Entangled Pasts' at the Royal Academy

Published in Visual Arts

Nick Moss reviews Art and Colonialism: Entangled Pasts 1768 - Now, Royal Academy of Arts to 29 April 2024

The premise of this exhibition is, according to the paper guide, to “explore connections between art associated with the Royal Academy and Britian’s colonial histories.”  In fact it does this only at the most superficial level, if at all.

We are told that “Today, the legacies of colonial histories continue to form part of the fabric of everyday life, physically and emotionally, across social, economic, cultural and political fields both national and global.” The commentary fails to proceed from that banality to anything more incisive. We are simply invited to find in the visual and conceptual resonances between art and colonialism “a space for contemplation, inquiry, acknowledgement, reflection, imagination and ongoing conversations.”  Which is nice, as Bill Murray once put it, in Caddyshack.

If you want more by way of banality, we then are told that “poetry and painting are sometimes called ‘sister arts’ ” and that RA summer exhibition artists sometimes selected excerpts of poetry or prose to frame the interpretation of their works. So “for this exhibition the RA has invited contemporary poets to respond to the works on display.”

All of which implies a lack of trust in the capacity of painting to speak for itself, and the ability of viewers to think for themselves. This isn't to denigrate the poetry – the poems by Imtiaz Dharker and Malika Booker in particular are powerful, and engage strikingly with the works on display, but the exhibition fails by trying to say at once both too much and too little.

There is surprisingly little engagement with the histories of the works on show, beyond brief biographical information about artist, and sometimes, the subjects. The wider history of the period when each work was produced is passed over, when more detail would have aided viewers in active engagement with the works. It is not sufficient to simply say the works are products of colonialism, as if the relations of production encompassed within the term are not varied and complex – including slavery, peasant labour, industrialism and post-abolition imperialism. Moreover, all of these were met with resistance, yet there is little of that resistance on display here.

Benjamin West 005 

The Death of General Wolfe, Benjamin West, 1770

I want to focus first on the works from the RA collection and then look at the works produced /exhibited by contemporary artists that respond to these. One of the most powerful works from the collection is Benjamin West’s The Death of General James Wolfe, which depicts a scene from the 1759 Battle of Quebec. The work features a First Nations (Delaware) figure, kneeling on the left side of the canvas – and we are told that this is “an idealised and exoticised representation of Indigenous people that helped shape viewers’ ideas about Indigenous peoples in North America.”

But West’s relation to the Native American subject is more complex than this allows. An autodidact, he at one point claimed that when he was a child, Native Americans showed him how to make paint by mixing some clay from the river bank with bear grease in a pot. West held that “Art is the representation of human beauty, ideally perfect in design, graceful and noble in attitude.”

The Death of General Wolfe tore up the rulebook of the day by having its subjects dressed in contemporary clothing – history paintings generally sought to idealise their subjects by dressing them in classical garb. We can assume therefore that West wanted his viewers to recognise the level of idealisation incorporated into the scene as no more than was required to draw out the tragic element at its core.  The Native American mourner (is he in fact mourning at all, or simply observing?) is presumably, by virtue of inclusion, seen as part of the tableau of grace and nobility West sought here to represent, and the pose he has the figure adopt is thoughtful, pensive.

So is this really an idealised and exoticised representation of an Indigenous subject? Given Wolfe’s death scene is represented as a martial variant of a Christian pieta, and that West sought to portray his subjects per se as “ideally perfect in design”, we can say that by idealising the Indigenous figure West includes him within his tableau of human beauty, all here faced with a battlefield tragedy . Thus, while the role of the Indigenous guide/warrior is one produced by a particular set of colonial power relations, West’s painting may document those relations, but it does not appear to reproduce them at the level of representation. The figure is included within the circle of mourning subjects. If he is idealised, then he is so as part of a similarly idealised group. This is a point I want to argue for throughout the exhibition.

head of a man 1777 78 john singleton copley 

I want to look now at John Singleton Copley’s 1777/78 Head of a Man (above). The person portrayed is unidentified, but what is apparent is the care taken to bring the subject to life on canvas, the seeming commitment to accuracy and, again, representational dignity and integrity.

We see a similar approach in David Martin’s 1779 Portrait of Dido Belle and Lady Elizabeth Murray. Dido Belle was the illegitimate child of an enslaved woman and a Royal Navy officer. She lived alongside her second cousin, Lady Elizabeth Murray, in the household of William Murray, 1st Earl of Mansfield, at Kenwood House, London.

Lord Chief Justice from 1756 to 1788, Mansfield’s ruling in the 1772 Somerset Case – which ruled on the right not to be forcibly removed of an enslaved person on English soil, determined  that slavery had no legal basis in England. Mansfield ruled

The state of slavery is of such a nature that it is incapable of being introduced on any reasons, moral or political, but only by positive law, which preserves its force long after the reasons, occasions, and time itself from whence it was created, is erased from memory. It is so odious, that nothing can be suffered to support it, but positive law. Whatever inconveniences, therefore, may follow from the decision, I cannot say this case is allowed or approved by the law of England; and therefore the black must be discharged.” – (1772) 98 ER 499.

There was no positive law of enslavement on UK soil – therefore the former slave could not be removed to Jamaica. In the overseas territories of the British empire, slavery was positively endorsed by law. In a sense then, the portrait of Dido Belle and Lady Elizabeth Murray as equals, engaged in playful activities together, is the embodiment in oil on canvas of the implications of the Somerset case for social relations in England.

There is reference by the curators to art as part of the process of the construction of whiteness, and while a case can be made for that to a degree, it cannot properly be made on the basis of the works on display here. The institutions and relations of slavery were necessarily prior to any representation of the distorted social distinctions slavery required – the construction of white subjectivity was a product far more of the creation of distinctions and separations by law.

“Whiteness” was a product of the systematisation and industrialisation of slavery. In a sense, as WEB Du Bois had it, “whiteness” was less the ideology of slavery than its ex-post-facto ideological justification:

“The discovery of personal whiteness among the world’s peoples is a very modern thing – a nineteenth and twentieth century matter, indeed.” – The Souls of White Folk.

My point is that the majority of those artworks here that were produced in periods coterminous with the enforcement of slavery as a practice of exploitation show the institution as it appeared to the painter – ie Agostino Brunias’s black slave women washing and bathing in a river on a plantation, Johann Zoffany’s  black servant attending a white family etc. but, whether the painter be Copley, Martin or Thomas Gainsborough, in his portrait of Ignatius Sancho, the Enlightenment artist’s fidelity to what was real and thereby rational meant that non-white subjects were documented with as much care and attention to detail as their white masters.

Thus, to reiterate, social relations were documented without distortion, but subjects were painted also as they were – such that their humanity could be portrayed in a way that outweighed their social status and undermined the ideology which formed and performed the common sense of slavery. This would, necessarily, be the case whether or not the painter was committed to upholding the institutions of slavery and Empire. If the times required that slavery be portrayed as a natural outcome of the difference between races and yet a portrait such as that of Head of a Man portrayed a black subject as no more or less dignified/intelligent/ aesthetically pleasing than a white, then the “natural outcome” would be (whether intentionally or not) undermined.

In an 1888 letter to Engels, Marx wrote of Balzac:

his great work is a constant elegy on the inevitable decay of good society, his sympathies are all with the class doomed to extinction. But for all that his satire is never keener, his irony never bitterer, than when he sets in motion the very men and women with whom he sympathizes most deeply – the nobles.”

Such is equally the case with much of the work here; whether or not the painters sympathise with a society based on the institution of slavery, by portraying without distortion and thereby preserving the humanity of  those who are of the enslaved , the paintings cut against  the doxa of slavery. Edward Said noted in relation to Joseph Conrad’s writing that:

“since Conrad  dates imperialism, shows its contingency , records it illusions  and tremendous violence and waste ...he permits his readers to imagine something other.” – Culture and Imperialism p28.

It is the possibility of that recognition of contingency that Entangled Pasts dismisses. The pre-20th century works are simply seen as relics of an Empire style that require poetic commentary by 21st century poets to preserve us from contagion.

As a result, the exhibition passes over a real opportunity to engage with its own history. The first decades of the 20th century saw clashes between Academicians and the younger artists influenced by Impressionism, who formed the core membership of the New English Art Club. There were 4,184 women painters, engravers, and sculptors in England and Wales in 1921, and one female Academician – Anne Swynnerton.

In 1924 Ebenezer Wake Cook published Retrogression in Art and the Suicide of the Royal Academy, which decried the election of younger and more progressive NEAC artists to the Academy – Augustus John in particular – and opposed expanding the number of women artists in the Summer Exhibition. Cook argued against a pernicious “barbarism” which drew on traditions of  “Bolshevism” and “Anarchism” that had corrupted British artistic traditions.

The Breakdown Painting 

In 1926, against the background of the General Strike, the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition exhibited The Breakdown by John Bulloch Souter (above). The New York Times described the painting as follows:

A broken statue of the Goddess Minerva is shown lying on the ground. On her gigantic helmet there sits the familiar figure of the negro jazz musician playing a saxophone. Before him there dances the nude figure of a white girl with an Eton crop and a fashionable boyish figure. A wisp of flesh-colored stocking hangs over the statue’s broken arm and there is also the hint of silk lingerie hastily discarded, and in the foreground a rejected green leather evening shoe. As a protest against the jazz age the picture seems undoubtedly effective.”  

Thus, in the revolutionary decades that heralded the possibilities of genuine social change at the start of the century, the RA was caught up in the cultural battles over who should be the subject of art, and how the artist should approach both the subject and medium of art. The exhibition tells us that there was some discontent at the time and displays a portrait of a nasty-looking committee of white, male Academicians, but otherwise, these debates are passed over.

Opening up the archives to the debate inside and outside the RA, at a time of revolutionary and anti-imperialist upheaval, after the carnage of the First World War, would have been of genuine value and enlivened an otherwise somewhat by-rote exhibition.

There are some works that appear here for no obvious reason at all. There are two JMW Turner “whaling” paintings, which are wonderful in and of themselves – as representations of that point in Turner’s art when a focus on weather, wildness, wind and steam – that combination of maritime rapture  and industrial ferocity – was crushing and then expanding his art to a point at which it tumbled into abstraction – but which seem out of place here, when his  terrifying 1840 Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying (which was originally exhibited at the RA) would have been an ideal locus for the exhibition. All the themes of colonialism and its representation (or the turning away from representation) as a system of brutality, through art which touches both the horrific and the sublime, coalesce in that work.

The contemporary works from Kara Walker, Kerry James Marshall, Sonia Boyce, Karen Maclean, Mohini Chandra, Yinka Shonibare and Shazia Sikander are all wonderful in their own right, but they deserve to be exhibited as such, not thrown into the midst of an exhibition that wants them to serve as secondary commentary on works that are not themselves critically examined by the curators.

 It’s great to see the Singh Twins here, but having one work on show doesn’t do justice to the richness and complexity, wit and political sharpness of their work. The fact that all the contemporary artists here are expected to serve primarily as providing a critique of earlier white artistic practice rather than being simply celebrated in their own right, shows what a missed opportunity this exhibition is.

Again, there is a battle that’s missing, the way in which the British artistic establishment excluded a generation of artists who were too proudly black and militant for them to be given a platform is, if not quite erased, then passed over – and that battle took place within and against the RA, and could again have been brought to light here. The early works of Sonia Boyce, which rage brilliantly against racism and cultural exclusion, and invent their own medium through chalk, pastel and text, and righteous anger, could have been shown as ferocious examples of how to fight against the denial of an artistic space and voice.

There are video works by John Akomfrah and Isaac Julien here which demand rigorous contemplation and are entirely lost in the churn of exhibits. Akomfrah’s Vertigo Sea – to which the Turner paintings relate – looks at environmental destruction and the whaling industry and the battle to come against fires, famine and floods, and should not be left to be just something that we walk through towards the exit.

Entangled Pasts contains enough great art to make it worth seeing but it represents a missed opportunity to properly take on the issues it seeks to engage with.

 I also think that not all of the RA’s history of clinging to classicism and landscape as representing the best of artistic tradition is a product of the ideological weight of Empire and colonialism. The art market pre-20th century harked back to a mythical golden age as a sign of value and taste – and to position themselves within that market, artists paid stylistic homage to that golden age, to obtain brand approval from the RA and access to collector purchasing power. There was always an avant-garde that fought against this. The RA’s function though, as described by a 1913 Summer Exhibition reviewer, was straightforward:-

“...the mission of the Academy – and a mission, it may be said, which it fulfils very efficiently – is to show us the results of art movements which have passed definitively beyond the experimental state, and to deal with types of effort which have been proved by experience to have in them the possibilities of permanence. In this sense it must always be behind the times; it cannot commit itself to speculative encouragement of activities which may or may not have come to stay; it cannot assume a prophetic role and profess to foretell what the art of the future may be. What it really has to do is to sum up the art history of the last few years and to exhibit what the men who have made history have produced and are producing,”

There is then a contradiction intrinsic to an exhibition such as this, and one we should seek to draw out. If there is to be a genuine attempt to do away with the function of the RA as gatekeeper of “permanence” then it has to do more than stage exhibitions like this once in a while.

It needs, from within and without, to argue for ditching the “royal” once and for all. It needs to open up the summer show  selection to art colleges, schools, prison art departments, prison art charities, community-based mental health trusts, art activist groups etc., so that the summer show doesn't simply reflect the taste of Home Counties amateurs, and democratise the academy election process so that it does not simply represent a self-selecting elite.

If none of this happens, then what we will have is shows that purport to critique, but in fact only represent the recent claiming for itself the possibility of permanence, a changing of the gatekeepers.

Barbara Kruger: Thinking of You. I Mean Me. I Mean You.
Tuesday, 13 February 2024 09:16

Barbara Kruger: Thinking of You. I Mean Me. I Mean You.

Published in Visual Arts

Nick Moss reviews Barbara Kruger: Thinking of You. I Mean Me. I Mean You., at the Serpentine South Gallery to 17 March 2024. Above image: Installation view, photo by George Darrell

Barbara Kruger’s work has been exhibited surprisingly infrequently  in the UK. However, the success of her interventions in relation to abortion rights and the struggle for women’s rights more generally – the early billboard works carrying texts stating  “Your gaze hits the side of my face”, “Your body is a battleground”; the New York magazine cover that reads “Who Becomes a “Murderer” in Post-Roe America ?” – means there is a resonant familiarity to these works.

They are works as often encountered outside the gallery space as within – and outside the gallery space is where their subversive intent is perhaps most effectively realised. For me, I first encountered her work when she designed the sleeve for the industrial/hip-hop band Consolidated’s album The Business of Punishment.

The Serpentine exhibition continues her attempts to reach beyond the gallery. Three London taxis have been decorated with texts from the works here. Obviously, these will serve to promote the exhibition, but the chance encounter with Kruger’s work is when her art of subversion has its real impact. These are what Kruger calls “moments of recognition” -when the slogan twisted against itself captures something about the way your life can be twisted against its own interests:

When my work is seen in public spaces, it’s not important that people know it’s me or my work – it's just the meaning that they’re seeing and the connections that they might make between image and text and sound. That’s more important to me. I don’t care if it’s identified as an artwork or if my name is on it.

Kruger uses the visual language of advertising to “to try to detonate some kind of feeling or understanding of lived experience.” She worked as a graphic designer and picture editor for Conde Nast’s Mademoiselle magazine in the 1960s, then as freelance picture editor for House and Gardens.

Coming from a working-class Newark, New Jersey background, she improvised an artistic style from her background in graphic design. As she states in the interview with Hans Ulrich Obrist that accompanies the exhibition:

I just had to figure out what it might mean to call myself an artist – I needed to understand what really engages me. I had to figure out what really struck a match in me, rather than just a stylistic choice that would become my art.

In common with contemporaries like Jenny Holzer and Art & Language, she became fascinated with type – primarily with sans-serif – and the way “they made a strong overture to the viewer and reader” and with the way the language of advertising and its use of direct address, establishes what might be called value claims, and how these value claims might be subverted.

Kruger’s art, as she puts it, is “about how we are to one another, and that means how we respect one another, how we detest one another, our adorations , our contempt, the centuries of worship and subjugation, of brutality and kindness.” 

But the works are about more than that – they are about how human relationships, dialogues between peoples, become pervaded and polluted and distorted by a kind of institutional language – a toxic, miasmatic emanation of a kind of non-language (if language is a bridge from one person to another) which is really a series of commands – to shop, to dress, to obey.

 Kruger has for years now been waging a permanent war against all this, and this exhibition shows how in the process she adapts, revises and revisits works to meet technological changes and challenges.

The Serpentine exhibition gives many examples of how these adaptations are worked through. Your Body Is a Battleground – originally created for the 1989 Women’s March on Washington, is presented as a video where a woman’s face is split and re-assembled into a divide of contrasting colours – the body as a frontline.

The newest work, No Comment, is a three-screen video installation compiled from found video and audio drawn from TikTok, YouTube, Fox News et al, with Trump, cats, hairstylists and acrobats combining to present a cacophony of hostile banality which Kruger periodically interrupts with statements from Voltaire and Kendrick Lamar among others, which derail and disrupt the ranting, tumbling, hurtling procession.

Kruger has said that one of the reasons she thinks her work has an impact is because it capitalises on:

what I think is predominant in the world and something that I share, which is a short attention span. I believe it’s possible to make work and meanings that engage those short attention spans, that encourage them to linger a little bit.

One of the ironies Kruger has scathingly embraced is the attempt by hipster skatewear label Supreme to appropriate her signature white-on-red Futura Bold Italic text in its graphics. In response, her original “I shop therefore I am” is reworked here through a number of variations ending with “I die therefore I was.”  Elsewhere, a skateboard carries the graphic ”Dont Be a Jerk.”

Kruger’s work has an obvious link back to Situationism’s practice of detournement, but whereas Situationist practice was rooted in an attempt to stimulate anti-system activity, Kruger’s work – at least as it exists now – lacks that revolutionary kernel. The subversive joy of her work has, in the face of the rise and resurgence of Trump, taken a didactic turn.

One piece here, The Work Is, runs through a description of the intended purpose of her work:

The work is about...audience and the scrutiny of and the imperialism of garments, community and the discourse of self-esteem, witnessing and the anointed moment, spectacle and the enveloped viewer, narrative and the gathering of incidents, simultaneity and the elusive now, digitals and the rush of the capture.

You keep waiting for something to happen to mock the sanctimony, for a YouTube cat to pounce or a turd emoji to float across the screen, but it just scrolls on and on. I know Kruger has the best intentions, but this spelling-out implies a lack of faith in both her best work and in her audience. 

The Serpentine education room, the window of which looks out onto Hyde Park, is covered with black and white text, Orwell’s “If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stomping on a human face forever.” (1984) and Virginia Woolf’s “...women have served all these centuries as looking glasses possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of man at twice its natural size”, from A Room of One’s Own.

Having the two texts facing out and catching the happenstance glance of strollers in the park is a good example of Kruger’s “game of the event” but the Orwell quote reminded me again of what appears to be missing from her current work. There is no Utopian element –the Women’s March that greeted Trump’s inauguration, the Black Lives Matter movement, the fight for abortion rights in the US, Poland, Latin  America are nowhere here.

SerpKruger 006.3 Loser

Installation view, photo: George Darrell

None of these achieved their aims , but they, as also the various iterations of Occupy, and the surge of protests across the Middle East before them, held ground and refused to be silent in a time of reaction, and they have no presence in Kruger’s latest works. The didacticism of The Work is About has replaced the possibility of subversion, and Orwell’s future has trampled on any revolutionary hope.

I doubt Kruger is really as despairing as all of this suggests and I wonder if the real problem lies with the fact that the “direct address” of advertising is now, as the text accompanying the exhibition, accepts, “the dominant way of communicating”.  It therefore becomes impossible to work outside and against such a form of communication on its own terms, in its own form, as it drowns out every voice but its own.

We speak the shorthand of advertising even in non-commercial space, such that we commodify ourselves via language. Kruger’s response to this is to dial up the volume, at the expense of the satire that was key to her earlier work – it is not enough to hate a culture, to begin to overturn it you have to show its weak spots.

The early works here show how Kruger accomplished that. The later works appear to suggest she no longer believes it’s possible to achieve that double-take of recognition that was at the core of her work. The best of her work was in a sense a collision/collusion between artist and viewer – “a detonation” she called it. The hope inherent in that is at times lacking here.

Barbara Kruger has been a pioneer – a committed, working-class  feminist who maintained a resolute militancy in an artworld devoted to selling tat to oligarchs. She remains challenging, vital, reworking and trying other ways to keep on “stopping people” in their tracks and telling them:


Sean Fitzgerald
Sunday, 04 February 2024 12:33

Sean Fitzgerald

Published in Poetry

Sean Fitzgerald

by Nick Moss

The jakes told a passerby
"We're just executing a warrant".
There was an execution, for sure.
January 4th 2019.
Sean Fitzgerald, aged 31.
Burnaby Road.
No mention of firearms on the warrant.
No firearms found.
Drugs as the justification.
No drugs found.
West Midlands cops
Staged their theatre of death anyway.
With chainsaw, hammers, flashbombs, guns
Lots of guns.
If in the first act you have cops with Glocks
In the second act a working-class lad will be dead.
It's the golden rule of UK policing.
Sean Fitgerald, 31.
Shot in the chest.
Sean Fitzgerald
Killed by police.
But it's not a crime.
To shoot him dead.
Lover, brother, uncle, stepson,
The laugh they'll miss
At every wake, every communion
Every wild-for-the-night party to come.
The funeral dirt bike ride-out
Brought the noise
For a family that
Refused the silence .
Standing firm for Seany
Lover, brother, uncle, stepson,
Shot dead at 31.
Another name on a too-long list.

Sean Fitzgerald, unarmed, was shot dead by police during a raid on a property in Burnaby Road, Coventry on 4th January 2019. The purported justification for the raid was to search for drugs, and drug-related materials. The warrant made no mention of firearms but West Midlands firearms officers were deployed. No drugs or firearms were found and no one was charged with any offence. On 4 January 2024, five years after Sean's murder, the IOPC stated that the officer who shot him dead would face no criminal charges. The IOPC has still to reach any conclusion about Sean's killing, and his family continue their fight for justice, see here and here.

Dahiya Doctrine
Saturday, 16 December 2023 11:39

Dahiya Doctrine

Published in Poetry

Dahiya Doctrine

by Nick Moss

Bibi and Yoav banging on the table, demanding
Ashes, dust, blood.
The IDF playing moksha patam with groups of the displaced.
"Move south of Wadi Gaza";
So Khan Younis must be safe
Until it isnt.
Plenty of snakes. No ladders.
Bombs land on the square
At the same time you do.
Ashes, dust, blood.

A line of refugees walking through
A topography of ruin
Beit Hanoum razed
Jabalia razed
Gaza City razed
Khan Younis razed.
Is "the humanitarian zone."
After that, the sea.
Let the human animals drown...
Ashes, dust, blood.

Outside the "humanitarian zone"
Is given over to inhumanity
The peculiar , debauched genius
That can turn a hospital or a school
Into a mass grave.
"We are now rolling out the Gaza Nakba."
Revenant families caper in the wreckage
Of the Dar al-Shifa death zone
Ashes, dust, blood

Article 51(5)(b) of 1977 Additional Protocol I to the Geneva Conventions
(and the Statute of the International Criminal Court )
Ashes, dust, blood
“intentionally launching an attack in the knowledge that such attack
Ashes, dust, blood
will cause incidental loss of life or injury to civilians or damage to civilian objects … which would be clearly excessive in relation to the concrete and direct
Ashes, dust, blood
overall military advantage anticipated” constitutes a war crime in international armed conflicts
Ashes, dust, blood
Major-General Gadi Eizenkot: “What happened in the Dahiya quarter of Beirut in 2006 will happen in every village from which Israel is fired on"
Ashes, dust, blood
“We will apply disproportionate force on it and cause great damage and destruction there. ”
Ashes, dust, blood

A group of half-naked Palestinian men
Illuminated by the light of an IDF jeep
Single file, blindfolded, hands bound,
Linked together by flex.
Due process ceased long ago.
All of this land of ashes, dust and blood
Is a permanent black site.
Min an-nahr ʾilā l-baḥr

Angels of Light
Thursday, 07 December 2023 12:42

Angels of Light

Published in Poetry

Angels of Light

by Nick Moss

Eichmann’s first day at the International Criminal Court
Checks his in-tray, prepares a list.
Sets down the journal he’s bought from Aspinalls.
Traces his fingers across the surface of the cover
The softness of full-grain leather.
Places the Montegrappa pen alongside. One of 888.
A limited edition. Where it came from, best not ask.
Stretches. Makes a fist. Straightens his hand again.
It may be a long day. He already hates the building.
All the pompous waffle about transparency,
Mosa Terra Maestricht tiles and a garden because
"Gardens are an element common to all cultures."
It looks like a Dusseldorf shopping centre. Yet still
There is justice to allot. Opens the Rules
Of Procedure and Evidence on his screen.

Another Cape Town four seasons day.
Craig Williamson and Clive Derby-Lewis step out of their taxi
Having chosen to travel together to save on expenses.
Chair and vice-chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Committee
They are steeled for another day of trauma-sharing and
Reaching for those momentary possibilities of amnesty.
Clive left Walus at the hotel, discomfited by what he'd
Already heard about the lengths to which soldiers of the racial war
Would go to draw their sticky carmine lines between black and white.
Craig is stroking his grey goatee, remembers MLK's sermon
About how we change society with forgiveness.
Clive, pensive, rubs absently at a blazer button.
He wonders how much of such horror his heart can hold.
His Citizen Force medal will serve to reinforce
His will at another day of urgent, vital unburdening.

Dr Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber unwinds in the December warmth.
Chairing the 28th meeting of the Conference of the Parties
Is no small thing. He's already sent a letter to the Parties
Pledging that the Conference will be "a defining milestone
To accelerate action and deliver real results." The international
Lexicon of shared non-commitment. As CEO of
The Abu Dhabi National Oil Company he hopes
The Parties will enjoy the 32-field flare-off he's arranged
As a spectacular for them to see as they fly into Al-Bateen.
He fidgets the ADNOC insignia cufflink in the left sleeve
Of his white cotton Zegna shirt (worn instead of his thobe
To demonstrate easy familiarity and, he hopes, a beguiling openness).
Looks out at a sea of (how many was it? Check the list of passes)
Two thousand four hundred and fifty-six fossil fuel lobbyists.
Touches the bridge of his glasses. Smiles.

Here is a start, please carry on! 'Women in Revolt' at the Tate Britain
Wednesday, 06 December 2023 10:04

Here is a start, please carry on! 'Women in Revolt' at the Tate Britain

Published in Visual Arts

Nick Moss reviews Women In Revolt - Art and Activism in the UK 1970-1990, at the Tate Britain until 7 April 2024. Image above: Houria Niati, No to Torture (After Delacroix 'Women of Algiers') 1982-83 

The national women’s’ liberation conference, held at Ruskin College in 1970, was held at a time when wives could still be lawfully raped by their husbands, when there was no statutory maternity pay, no sex discrimination protection, when sex assigned at birth could not be changed, and prior to the establishment and effective funding of domestic violence shelters and rape crisis centres.

The 1970 conference began what Sally Alexander (activist, a founding editor of the History Workshop Journal and one of the founders of the Night Cleaners Campaign) called “a spontaneous , iconoclastic movement whose impulse and demands reached far beyond its estimated twenty thousand activists.” 

Red Women resized

Red Women’s Workshop, 1974-1990, 7 Demands, 1974

This inspiring exhibition focuses on how feminist protest used art as a form of activism and how feminist artists looked to organize outside and against the commercial art market. The exhibition serves both as evidence of a new world coming into being through struggle, and an alert to us, to show how the gains we make can be reversed.

The refusal to separate art and politics – the refusal to surrender to the idea that aesthetics and aesthetic judgement can be divorced from the political or the culturally contingent – distinguishes much of the art shown here from that which fills galleries today. Just as importantly, much of the art was a product of a collective ethos – See Red Women’s’ Workshop, the Hackney Flashers, Format Photography Agency, BLK Art Group, Autograph-Association of Black Photographers, and Panchayat.

 Alison Lloyd SUPPORT THE MINERS Solidarity will win 1984 resized

Alison Lloyd, SUPPORT THE MINERS, Solidarity will win! 1984

Much of the art was produced as a contribution to ongoing struggles –  Wages for Housework, Women Against Pit Closures, Greenham Common Women’s’ Peace Camp/Women for Life on Earth, Gay Liberation Front. The photographer and Autograph founding member Ingrid Pollard sets out the animating character of the artists as “We weren’t expecting to get exhibitions at the Tate; in the 1980s, people set up things of their own. We did shows in alternative spaces –community centres, cafes, libraries, our homes. We occupied spaces differently.”

That work here – the photography, the artwork produced for Greenham Common Women’s’ Peace Camp such as literature, Gee Vaucher’s works,  Thalia Campbell’s banner works, Margaret Harrison’s installation –  jolts us to reflect on the significance of the camp and the various links in the chain of solidarity that led to it and follow from it.

Without the inspiration from the 1970 conference and the networks of activism it generated, the forms of self-organization it gave rise to-it is unlikely that the women’s’ march from Cardiff to the Greenham base would have happened. Without the renewed awareness of the history of feminist militancy that the movement produced, it is perhaps also the case that the specific suffragette-inspired decision by the marchers to chain themselves to the fence would have occurred.

Today we are faced again with the possibility that the nuclear states may consider a first strike a risk worth taking. As Alison Assiter wrote in 1983:

The culmination of militarist thinking is militarist problem-solving: war.....(In a nuclear war) everyone becomes a combatan, in the sense of being a possible target, but also a non-combatant insofar as he or she plays no active role in military action or decision-making. - (Over Our Dead Bodies, Virago 1983)

Thus, we come full circle. Every gain can be reversed; every battle has to be refought. Now also we face the prospect that global warming will be the human-generated locus of our own extinction. To quote Kate Soper, from the same 1983 volume:

We have somehow to summon up within ourselves the will to confront this possible death of human existence. ...I do not think one can dwell on this impending disaster very long without awakening the need to rescue humanity from it. This at any rate is my ‘optimism of the will.’ 


Jill Posener, Fiat Ad, London, 1979, reprinted 2023. Courtesy of the artist

There is so much by way of optimistic resource that can be drawn on in Women in Revolt. The art here, and the political actions to which that art related, fearlessly and wittily challenged capitalism, patriarchy, rape culture, homophobia, militarism. From flour-bombing Bob Hope at the 1970 Miss World competition, via Jill Posener’s photographs of feminist, anti-consumerist graffiti, to Lubaina Hamid’s white, male, unicycling, carrot-dangling idiot in Carrot Piece, the oppositional culture here is not afraid to mock the enemy.

Alexis Hunter, in The Marxist Wife Still Does the Housework, captures the hypocrisy of leftist gender politics with a series of photographs of a woman’s hand wiping down a poster that shows a picture of Marx  with text that  reads “Karl Marx, Revolutionary Man, Thinker.” It reminds me of those left groups that failed to address the issues raised by feminist, gay liberation and anti-racist struggles, and then decried as separatist those who decided to organise around these issues anyway.

Linder Untitles 1977

Linder, Untitled, 1977

It’s worth noting the extent to which the artist groups represented here  recognized the necessity of fusing artistic /political theory and practice, as a means of challenging each other and pushing on and  developing their ideas. Debates took place in the pages of Spare Rib, Red Rag, and Peace News and also in local bulletins and journals devoted specifically to issues raised by artistic practice, such as Feminist Arts News, Feminist Review, Heresies, Autograph, Contra-Diction, In Print, Outwrite, Shakti Khabar, Square Peg,Ten-8, Woman’s Art Journal, and Women Focusing.

It was in these journals that what became adopted in academia as “critical theory” – Barthes, Foucault, Cixous, Kristeva, Derrida – was first put to effective use as a way of challenging/confronting  the ubiquity of  the male gaze. Here also, Juliet Mitchell and Laura Mulvey made use of psychoanalytic theory,Lacan in particular, to explore what Mulvey set out as “the realisation that biological difference becomes overlaid by a cultural concept of sexual difference suited to the needs of a particular social order.”

Not all of the artists here accept a primarily political understanding of their work. Mocica Sjoo, for example, insists that:

What I was seeking was a form which expressed what I wanted to say about my experience and women’s experience generally. Without that excitement and tension, an image does not convey the message you want to get across. Painting is holistic, it reaches different layers of consciousness. Painting is a shamanistic act.

Sjoo has used her work, which includes powerful images of  God Giving Birth, the Sheela-Na-Gig, and The Goddess of Avebury, to rescue a feminist mythology – The Ancient Religion of the Great Cosmic Mother of All:

Men want to see women as beautiful and sweet and lovely, as seductive and heterosexually alluring, a sort of Pre-Raphaelite image. To see powerful women who are not pleasing and sexually titillating to men is seen as aggressive.

 There is some brief focus on women in music and Rock Against Sexism, but this is probably the area where the exhibition is at its weakest. Gina Birch of the Raincoats is represented, with a video work of her 3-minute scream, and it is good to see Linder Sterling recognized for her work as a musician in Ludus as well as her wonderful collages. But despite the inclusion of Gee Vaucher’s collages, there is little reference to Crass, who, at their best, represented an assault on capitalist-patriarchal norms using sound, graphic art, text and video.

Cosey Fanni Tutti appears as performance artist but not as (anti) musician with Throbbing Gristle. It is also the case that the attempt to present the materials here chronologically means that the works produced by the Black Arts Movement, and by lesbian and gay artists, mostly feature separately from the earlier works produced by white artists, which inadvertently reproduces the fissures that black and LGBT artists had to organize against.

Throughout the exhibition, we encounter women using art as a weapon to respond to a constant ideological warfare intended to shore up the institutions of  patriarchal capitalism – section 28, anti-gay propaganda around HIV/AIDS , the constant battle to preserve abortion rights, the attack on militant trade unionism, the crackdown on black and Asian resistance. What all of this makes clear is that what we today call the “culture wars” is a constant. What Althusser called “ideological state apparatuses” include the visual representations across various media of capitalist relations of production in the workplace and reproduction in the home as normative. Women in Revolt shows that it is both possible and necessary to establish a constantly renewing counterculture in response.

As Supta Biswas and Marlene Smith state in the exhibition notes, in relation to the struggle against institutional racism:

We have to work simultaneously on many different fronts. We must make our images, organize exhibitions, be art critics, historians, administrators, and speakers. We must be the watchdogs of art establishment bureaucracies: sitting as individuals on various panels, as a means of ensuring that Black people are not overlooked. The list is endless.

The emotional weight of so many of these works hits hard. Susan Hiller’s poignant work, 10 Months, consists of shots of her pregnant belly taken over the duration of her pregnancy, and texts written at the same time. Amongst these she simply records that “It is easier to describe despair than joy.” Marlene Smith’s Good Housekeeping 111 is a protest at the 1985 police shooting of Cherry Groce that consists of a portrait of Cherry Groce and a family photograph, alongside a text painted onto the wall that reads  “My mother opens the door at 7am. She is not bulletproof.”

Sutapa Biswas’s Housewives with Steak Knives gives us Kali, with a garland of severed heads, wielding a steak knife and holding decapitated male head.  The painting is a reference to Hindu culture as originally matriarchal. It is also, simply, a painting of a woman who refuses to submit- like the women in the miners’ support groups, the women at Greenham,  and Jayaben Desai, leader of the 1976 Grunwick strike, whose photograph is shown in the exhibition.

The last words in the exhibition go to Kate Walker, whose “Feministo” postal art project began  in 1974 with  Sally Gollop, features. They are fitting to end (begin again) with here:

In the absence of a feminist art we must invent it as we go along. Here is a start, please carry on.

'Arty art screws you in the end; always be on guard against it.' Philip Guston, Claudette Johnson, Re/Sisters, Nicole Eisenman
Tuesday, 28 November 2023 14:28

'Arty art screws you in the end; always be on guard against it.' Philip Guston, Claudette Johnson, Re/Sisters, Nicole Eisenman

Published in Visual Arts

Nick Moss reviews exhibitions by Philip Guston, Claudette Johnson, Re/Sisters, and Nicole Eisenman. Image above: Nicole Eisenman, The Triumph of Poverty, 2009, courtesy of Leo Koenig Inc., New York.

When the Frieze Art Fair is in full swing, with Cork Street in Mayfair lined with chauffeur-driven Cullinans and Maybachs, with blacked-out windows and bodyguards/bag carriers in Bottega Veneta suits and shades, blocking gallery doors, and the Goodman Gallery boasting that it flogged El Anatsui’s new work for $1.9 million, the idea that art might provide a platform for political intervention may appear entirely deluded.

The four exhibitions reviewed here are therefore reviewed together as each shows how the possibility of an artistic practice that engages its lifeworld head-on (and refuses the attempted closure of any way of conceiving of the times as other than how they already are and will henceforth always be) might be pursued. All of the artists reviewed here practice “political art” as William Kentridge defines it: “an art (and a politics) in which optimism is kept in check, and nihilism at bay.”

Philip Guston at the Tate Modern, to February 2024

Phillip Guston’s work will be the most immediately familiar. The Tate's rousing exhibition, Guston’s first major UK retrospective in 20 years, displays over 100 paintings and drawings from across Guston’s 50-year career, from his early years and political activism, his celebrated period of abstraction, and his deliberately confrontational later works.

Born Phillip Goldstein, his early influences included cartoon imagery and Mexican muralism, and a preoccupation with Uccello and Piero della Francesca and the problem of the picture plane (or “place” as he called it , “an illusive, imaginary place where forms of this world, trees, people, furniture, objects momentarily come to rest...Not “come to rest”. Pause.”)

Initially, under the influence of Diego Rivera and David Siquiero, and of the Mexican Muralist movement, Guston travelled with his friends Reuben Kadish and Jules Langsner to Morelia, where they were commissioned to produce the 1000 sq. ft. mural The Struggle Against Terror (a projection of which features in the exhibition.)

In 1935 he changed his name from Phillip Goldstein to Philip Guston and moved to New York to work on murals for the government-funded Works Progress Administration Federal Art Project.
He painted a mural in the US Post Office in Georgia - Early Main Service and the Construction of Railroads, and others in Washington DC. Throughout, his worked carried echoes not only of the Muralists, but in its colour scheme particularly, the painters of the Italian Renaissance – with Piero della Francesca a particular source of inspiration. In the late 1940s and early fifties, Guston entered a "period a destroying everything. Everything seemed unsuccessful to me."

This crisis (of figuration, ultimately) related to his exposure to images and films coming back from the concentration camps . "The forms I wanted to make couldn’t take the shape of things and figures." It was resolved by a move towards abstraction – Guston became a key painter in the New York School alongside Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning and Mark Rothko.

1Passage resized 

Passage, 1957

Of the works from this period featured here, Zone has a supernal glow, and could be patch of fabric snatched from della Francesca's red bedspread in Visons of Constantine. Similarly, Passage, from 1957, has Guston trying to work towards the exemplar of the colour "blue" – arriving at something that mirrors closely the blue of the dress in the Madonna del Parto.

Guston has described della Francesca's paintings as capturing the "wonder of what it is that is being seen" and yet also "the apprehension that everything may again move." In his abstract works, Guston is chasing the same thing: a way of painting where "there seems to be no structure at all. No direction. We can move spatially, everywhere, as in life." For Guston this was a wonder, but also "the anxiety of painting" – painting as an absolute – just forms, colour, movement.

By the mid-60s, though, Guston had abandoned abstraction and turned back to figuration again, producing the works for which he is probably best known – his Klansman paintings, crudely drawn hooded figures which were dismissed as "Ku Klux Komix" when first exhibited.

 Painting etc resized

Painting, Smoking, Eating, 1973

The Klansmen became part of the lexicon of shapes and forms he worked with repeatedly through to the end of his life – shoes, clocks, lightbulbs, cigarettes. We can see in the shoes a reference back to Van Gogh, and the iconography developed around cigarettes – in paintings like Smoking, Eating and Painting, Conversation and Smoking, Eating – a deliberate revelling in the corporeal, and an attempt to prove , after his rejection of abstraction, that "painting is 'impure'. It is the adjustment of 'impurities' which forces its continuity. We are image-makers and image-ridden."

The paintings of piles of shoes and piles of legs are reflections on the images from the Holocaust that drove him to turn from figuration. It was perhaps a way of stating that the abject has to be portrayed crudely, cruelly – that if we sanctify images of terror we bleach them dry of their horror, depoliticise them. His Klansmen, meanwhile, are the American Everyman, the fool who believes in the Dream that's always promised but always deferred. "The KKK has haunted me since I was a boy in LA. In those years , they were there mostly to break strikes, and I drew and painted pictures of conspiracies and floggings, cruelty and evil."

Yet they are also comical figures in their Flintstone cars, driving everywhere and nowhere. Guston doesn’t let himself, or us, off the hook either. The painter is wearing a hood too. So, probably, is the viewer. We're all fucked and all fucked-up. That's why we're where we are – now take that fucking hood off and let's try again.

In 1970 he wrote "The total conformity of painting now that we see is absolutely deadening to my spirits. Its conventionality. Its domesticity." His work was produced always as a complete refusal of that conventionality, and a way out of the sober relentlessness of good taste. "If someone bursts out laughing in front of my painting, that is exactly what I want and expect."

Claudette Johnson at the Courtauld Gallery, to January 2024

Claudette Johnson's exhibition at The Courtauld Gallery, "Presence", embodies the idea of "presence" in two ways – the presence of the work as such, its scale, its power in the space it occupies, and the presence of work that features, as subjects, black men and black women, in a space where the subject on canvas is usually white, and more often than not, male.

Claudette Johnson was one of the pioneers of Black British art, showing her works alongside Lubaina Himid and Veronica Ryan. Exhibiting her work at the Black Art Convention in 1982, she stated that “Black women have been presented as people who did not have anything to offer in themselves but were just there to be looked at. I have tried in my own images to be very personal, and to talk from my own experience and nothing else, so I can be sure it’s honest and explore a side of Black women that isn’t often seen.”

Johnson sought not to shrug off the influence of painters like Manet, but to question how they saw the world they painted. The point she makes about painting from a point of view which is drawn from her own experience "and nothing else, so I can be sure it's honest" seems simple enough, but it explodes the hierarchy of representation in painting – who is seen and who is relegated to the background, who has standing and social capital, and who has none; who can afford to commission a portrait and who worked to produce the wealth that purchased the portrait. There is also a complacency that assumes once that question has been posed, it is thereby also answered, and we can all just move on. Claudette Johnson's works here don't grant us that comfort.

There has been a long silence around Johnson's work. As she has explained, between about 1990 and 2015 "there was a long period where I would have thought it was aggrandising to describe myself in that way, (as an artist.) I was producing much less. I was working full-time in a project for homeless people. I’d given up my studio. Art moved very far into the background.” It was only when she was contacted by Lubaina Himid to work on a group show alongside Ingrid Pollard and Helen Cammock that she was able to rebuild the mechanics of artistic production – studio, gallery etc. There followed due recognition for her early works and eventually the call to exhibit at The Courtauld.

There is a moment that Johnson seeks to capture in each of her works. In a Guardian interview she has explained it as “I had all these received, hypersexual images of Black women. But I realised that in my imagination there were different figures almost waiting to come out. A very centred figure, a figure that had her own agency, as opposed to being at the mercy of these stereotypes. It was a bit like that moment when we shifted from talking about ourselves as ‘coloured people’ to talking about ourselves as Black people."

2And I have my own business 

And I Have My Own Business In This Skin, 1982

These figures with their own agency are already fully realised in the early works, such as And I Have My Own Business In This Skin, from 1982, which uses geometric shapes to recover both Cubist technique and the black image from Picasso, and his own use of non-naturalistic images and techniques inspired by encounters with African art. This is explicit again in the later painting Standing Figure With African Masks, where an exquisitely powerful self-portrait in a naturalistic style is mirrored by a carved mask and a figure painted in the Cubist style of And I Have My Own Business.

But it is important not just to look for the politics of the paintings in their symbolism. The fact of the paintings, their beauty and their size, their dominance of the space, is also a political statement. And these are extraordinarily beautiful paintings. Johnson captures defiance, exhaustion, wistfulness, in a line. She has a way with the painting of flesh that is close to that of Lucien Freud and Jenny Saville, but is, while just as unflinching, somehow kinder.

She also does good hair, which is something too often neglected in portraiture. She catches the essential detail of a change of hairstyle, a change of colour, the way the hair hangs, or the stubble of a buzz cut, and uses how the hair falls to sketch the mood of the sitter in a very tender and non-judgemental way. Claudette Johnson's works deserve to be in the Courtauld not just for the moment of this wonderful exhibition, but permanently, to show the unseen in art, and the ahistorical nature of an art history that brackets out the question of who gets to be seen, and thereby colludes in the exclusion. It deserves its place there both as a rebuke and by right.


Trilogy (Part Two) Woman in Black, 1982

In Tendayi Sithole's Refiguring in Black (Polity 2023) he writes of "seeing things differently and deliberately, so from the black point of view." When Johnson talks of, and works through, questions "from my own experience and nothing else", this is what she means. Sithole develops his theme: "What does it mean to see clearly? To see clearly is not only to look. It is to have a point of view. It is to see dissimulation and to unmask its falsities, malice and pretences, to see clearly is to see differently. It is to see what is not seen. To see clearly is refiguring."
The paintings in "Presence" are works of refiguring, and works of restoring –both of black men and black women as subjects of figurative art, and of Claudette Johnson as a key figure in the development of figurative art per se.

Re/Sisters at the Barbican Gallery, to January 14, 2024

Re/Sisters, at the Barbican, is a group exhibition which shows how female artists have worked to demonstrate the links between gender and ecology. In any review of a group show, it is impossible to cover all the works in sufficient detail, so it is important to state that the key to all of the works on show is the remarkable prescience of the artists here, in identifying the link between misogyny, oppression and the despoliation of the plant.

There are works here from over 50 international women and gender non-conforming artists. These are angry works, compassionate but challenging, and all focused in various ways on establishing the connection between women's oppression, colonialism and the exploitation of indigenous lands and corresponding attempts to clear the lands of native peoples.

None of the artists here flinch from the challenge of exposing the ideology of "progress" behind which capital hides its willingness to sacrifice our futures to the pursuit of profit. These are artworks produced as protest, not artworld product.

 4. ReSisters A Lens on Gender and Ecology Installation view Barbican Art Gallery 5 Oct 2023 14 Jan 2024

ReSisters, A Lens on Gender and Ecology, Installation view

The works are displayed thematically across six sections, addressing in succession the politics of extraction; acts of protest and resistance; the labour of ecological care; environmental racism; and queerness and fluidity in the face of rigid social structures and hierarchies. Works on show include Agnes Dene's Wheatfield – A Confrontation (1982) in which the artist planted a wheatfield across a two-acre site adjacent to Wall Street, as a way of symbolically reclaiming the land from capital; a collection of flyers and photographs from the Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp, and Ana Menieta's Earth-Body works, wherein in the first of these, Imágen de Yagul (Image from Yagul), 1973, Mendieta lay naked in a vacant grave at Yagul, was covered with white flowers and photographed.


Pamela Singh, Chipko Tree Huggers of the Himalayas #4, 1994

Other such works by Mendieta include her Untitled (Maroya) (Moon), 1982, which consisted of a vulva-like niche dug into a yard, filled with gunpowder, and ignited on moonlit nights. Anne Duk Hee Jordan 's film installation Ziggy and the Starfish (2018) shows hermaphroditic examples of aquatic life, drawing parallels with non-binary identity, and the Indigenous queer performance artist and activist Uýra (Brazil) uses their drag persona to transform into a hybrid plant-human organism and advocate for resistance to the devastation of the Amazon basin.

One point of particular interest is the extent to which so much of the work is performance-based. Much of the early practice of performance art was intended as a challenge to the commodification of artwork, and as a confrontation. Marina Abramovic and Yoko Ono, among others, have shown that there need not be a separation between performance and commodification, but the artists here all saw performance and video installations, and the incorporation of documentary materials into their works, as ways to keep open the vision of art as a source of utopian possibility. It's certainly the case that Ana Mendieta, for instance, saw her work as a refusal of art-as-commodity, given that so much of it – the blood works in particular – was not intended as exhibition but as contestation, an attempt to challenge and provoke and expose male/state violence.

As regards the prescience of the works, I'm reminded of how feminist theoreticians like Nancy Fraser and Kate Soper were consistent proponents of the link between environmental resistance, gender equality and social justice, at a time when so much of the left was still debating whether the climate crisis existed at all. Fraser describes capitalism as follows:

"The logic of economic production overrides that of social reproduction, destabilizing the very processes on which capital depends-compromising the social capacities, both domestic and public, that are needed to sustain accumulation over the long term. Destroying its own conditions of possibility, capital's accumulation dynamic mimics the ouroboros and eats its own tail." – Nancy Fraser, Cannibal Capitalism, Verso 2023

The works on show at the Barbican aim to show how that process plays out and the ecological crisis that results. They also show how we might find ways to resist and to live otherwise.

What Happened, Nicole Eisenman at the Whitechapel Gallery, to January 2024

Nicole Eisenman's retrospective at The Whitechapel Gallery perhaps brings us full circle, because like Philip Guston, she is avowedly a political artist and also one who scabrously resists the straitjacket (maybe we ought to say "Straight jacket") of artworld "good taste."

Eisenman's work takes inspiration from Guston and from Pieter Breugel the Elder, Hogarth and Goya and Renoir, but also from Tom of Finland, Fat Freddy's Cat, Mary Wings, Cath Jackson and Alison Bechdel (the cycle of influence with this latter trio runs, I'd say, both ways.)

All of these are chewed up and incorporated into a fantastic array of startingly alive and very funny images that flay at the dead flesh of Trumpian politics, misogyny, and generalised fearfulness. The key to Eisenman's work is that it is both funny and tragic, that in a painting like Fishing, for instance, when a group of lesbian fishers dangle a suited man over a hole in the ice, there is both a joyful world-turned-upside-down aspect to the scenario, but also, on the faces of some of the women, expressions that move between pensiveness and a kind of dread as to what, if anything at all, will happen next.

All of this is to suggest that substantive change is vital, necessary, but also that we cannot just wait on what comes after, as if agency is the property of some force outside ourselves.
The essential aspect of the paintings has to be worked for. At first glance they seem simply satirical, but just as in Hogarth, or George Grosz, the satirical brush paints a barbed life into every character, not just the obvious sitting target. These are paintings full of life, a fantastic celebration of polymorphous perversity and euphoric lesbian joy, but there also moments of profound melancholy and wistful pauses – as where Eisenman paints herself as Marvel's The Thing, receiving a letter that begins "Dear Obscurity..."

In the Bush years, she paints a small-town America knee-deep in shit. She gives us grotesque parades of patriots and good old boys, including an ass-backwards top-hatted Jester/ leader walking towards their own demise. There is a series of paintings that focus on how we make romantic/erotic connections, mediated but not fundamentally diluted by technology. Finally, we come to a large scale kinetic sculpture of a potter at a wheel, surrounded by her works. Some of the works look like junk, detritus, as if the production of the work itself is pointless. But there's also a bundle of dynamite, which suggests Eisenman is a long way from resigned as to the purpose of her work.

2009 BeerGardenWithUlrike Hall 2 copy scaled e1689762786475 1170x655

Beer Garden with Ulrike Hall

I want, though, to draw out the political significance of three of her quieter works. Biergarten at Night is a straightforward scene of friends gathered together as the title suggests (straightforward is a relative term here, as one figure is passionately kissing a death's head ) in New York, or Berlin, bohemians at play, relaxed, pissed. What matters is that the painting is a celebration of friendship, of comradeship, of sitting and drinking with like-minded people, sustaining each other, taking care of each other.

Another painting, Sloppy Bar Room Kiss, shows two lovers kissing, uncaring as to anything else going on around them. It’s a celebration of queer love, and like Biergarten at Night, also a celebration of being present in a place, being seen, occupying a space.

The political importance of this act is drawn out in The Abolitionists in the Park, which gives us a snapshot of the occupation of City Hall Park in New York by a coalition led by Black Lives Matter in 2020, following the police murder of George Floyd. It could be a scene from a late summer picnic. Friends and families eat pizza, talk, laugh. What counts is their being-there. Eisenman is celebrating presence as an act of resistance.

Claudette Johnson similarly offers presence as resistance, both in the gallery space and within the frame. In the Re/Sisters exhibition, the focus on Greenham Common makes the point again – being present-for others, as oneself, in defiance of the state may not be enough, but it’s a start. Meanwhile, El Anatsui crumples bottle tops into shimmering banners of red and gold and sells them for a million dollars. I think they're lovely and I don’t begrudge him, but we're a long way from the uselessness of art as subversion of commodity-fetishism.

I don’t suggest that the works discussed here pose an entire solution to the recovery of the utopian possibility of art, but they do suggest that political interventions through the medium of artistic production remain possible, and that Eisenman's bundle of dynamite may sometimes be disguised as a painting of a couple kissing in a bar. Let's give the last word, though, to Guston: "Arty art screws you in the end; always be on guard against it."

Class, history, and boxing: review of 'Crisis Actor' by Declan Ryan
Thursday, 14 September 2023 12:40

Class, history, and boxing: review of 'Crisis Actor' by Declan Ryan

Published in Poetry

In his 2010 review of Robert Hass’s The Apple Trees at Olema: New and Selected Poems, the US poet Michael Robbins attacked Hass’s “dewy piety” which he identified as a complacent trait in much American poetry. “Like Mary Oliver, Billy Collins and Sharon Olds - in their different ways - Hass has made a career out of flattering middlebrow sensibilities with cheap mystery.” What is so often true for American laureates and their  academic progeny exists as an even worse tendency in the UK, where such pieties are pitched at the  level of the Hallmark greeting card, and poetry has become a consolatory pot-pourri.

Declan Ryan’s first collection points to a way of writing that “doesn’t kiss the boo-boo and make it all better” (Robbins again) and stands therefore as an alternative to so much of the dead-end dross of the poetry mainstream. Much of it is concerned with a subject which always riles the pacifistic middle-class-boxing- but others are autobiographical or eulogistic. For the most part they are pleasingly unsaccharine and technically astute.

Ryan was born in County Mayo and lives in London. The autobiographical poems are situated between these, and show an alertness to the onset of gentrification, and how it feels to be both part of and alienated from that influx. In “Sidney Road”, Ryan describes how:

...Rows of identikit SUVs

line the road in lieu of trees

I’ve seen cut back, then down.

and remarks that there are “too many rugby shirts around to feel comfortable.” The poem concludes with a snapshot of individual ennui captured with the adroitness of Larkin or Alun Lewis,a poet Ryan elsewhere pays homage to:

The months pile up since my last confession;

wheels spinning slowly, hazards on.

just low enough for running down the battery.

This is Ryan at his best, able to sketch without melodrama what Lewis drily called the “enmity within.”

“The Range” is the most extradordinary poem in the collection, combining a charting of familial distress, a heritage of poverty and institutional neglect, with a parallel commentary on Irish history, and a version of the 12th century poem Cumhthach Labbhras an Lonsa. The poem mourns the loss of Ryan’s maternal grandmother. It commences by noting “God Save All Here” scored into the metal of the family range:

...You only asked that He save you. All.

You are dead,as is your mother.

Bad luck has clung to your brother

like an impermeable caul

he couldn’t shake by getting out

Again, the exactness and skill facilitate the resonance of the poem. That “All” which denotes a whole way of life rooted not in self but family and community, and the “by getting out” which ambushes the preceding lines by introducing the emigrant’s hope as an instant unachievable dead-end. The poem’s second part then turns to consider Charles Stewart Parnell, “the Blackbird of Avondale”, Protestant President of the Irish Land League. Ryan employs a combined reference to James Joyce and the 1882 murders of Burke and Cavendish in his substitution of Joyce’s Fiendish Park for Phoenix Park, the events of which, with the Times’s printing of forged letters suggesting Parnell sympathised with the murders, provide a template for the Zinoviev letter four decades on. “Later”, Ryan tells us, Parnell “could not prevent scandalising “a noncomformist conscience;” his larks/ at Eltham almost vandalised/ Home Rule.” (The reference here is to Parnell being named as co-respondent in Kitty O’Shea’s divorce, and the Catholic church and Liberal nonconformism combining to denounce him as an adulterer.)

We can read this extended analogy as employing the figure of Parnell - the symbol of an Ireland united across the Catholic/Protestant divide - undone by religious bigotry and British skullduggery, such that the Irish state into which Ryan and his ancestors were born was caged by the Church and a State subsumed to it, so that emigration appeared the only route out. Ryan’s willingness to address all of this within one section of a longer poem, to begin the working-through of a complex history and to thereby make the reader have to also participate in the working-through, places him in such unfashionable but similarly dextrous company as northern Irish counterparts like Tom Paulin or Seamus Heaney.

What all this history comes to amount to, as Ryan shows us, is “betrayal”- not epically, but as the daily tragedy of working-class lives casually unvalued. “By the time he deigned to look for the real reason/ behind your winnowing it was everywhere/ The doctor told you that you’d lose your hair.”  “The Range” does something that’s all too rare-it sets the value of one “Mountain family. Wiped out” within the context of the wider socio-economic forces through which they lived and tried to make their own histories, and it does not allow the larger picture to overshadow the (ostensibly) smaller. “I could not live where the young leave before the old/ “God save all here” you wrote. You didn’t say from what.”

There are other poems, similarly themed, which show a sensitivity to the nuances and brutalities of class. “Fathers and Sons” shows us Ryan waiting for his dad to come home from work, “My tone brighter/ The further past 5pm”, dad with “hair flat against his head/ from the hard hat or the rain”. In “Bachelors”, men whose lives had been given over to  “digging footings/ a machine licence, sandwiches in the rain at teatime” now “break their hearts crying once or twice at an unlikely funeral”, before the seeming move towards the sentimental is sucker-punched by “All that sperm, useless as the priest’s, who eventually visits.”

“Crisis Actor” also contains a series of tender poems in remembrance of, variously, Nick Drake (who “hung a future on the stopped cogs/ of his alarm clock, then slept through it”) Alun Lewis, Ian Hamilton, Colin Falck, Alan Jenkins, Jonathan Rendell, and a musician-workmate who, on playing guitar, “held starlight in his hands/ and was translating it to bone.”

It’s Ryan’s boxing poems, though, which have attracted most attention. Boxing doesn’t fit with the polite conventions of London literary types. It’s “macho”, purportedly, which is an insult to great boxers like Katie Taylor and Christy Martin. I’ve always thought that the simple reason for the cultural flinch is because - a bit like ending conscription when they realised it meant angry unemployed people trained in combat skills - a section of the propertied class don’t like the idea of the working class being skilled at violence.

In essays on the subject, Ryan has shown a willingness to buy into some of the cliches writers always fall into at ringside. In his 2018 New Statesman article “A matter of life and death: why people are prepared to die (and kill) in the boxing ring”, he states for instance that boxers are taught to  “internalise a code that says you must be prepared to fight to a conclusion, even a fatal one.” This is, at best, hyperbolic nonsense, which Ryan knows is untrue. Being schooled to fight until the referee intervenes is not the same as being schooled to beat your opponent to death. The fatality rate in boxing (0.13 deaths per 1,000 participants per year) is lower than many other professional sports leagues such as football (1 death per every 939 players), hockey (1 death per every 573 players), or baseball (1 death per every 27 players). The boxing poems, though, are way better than this kind of stuff, and capture Ryan’s faith in the sport as (quoting Donovan Craig) “the only honest place.”

In “Ethiopia Shall Stretch Forth Her Hands” he runs the story of Joe Louis defeating Primo Carnera alongside the negotiations between Italy and Ethiopia at The Hague, then jumps to Martin Luther King telling of a young black man being subjected to poison gas execution in the southern US:

and the gas curled upward,

through the microphone came these words;

“Save me, Joe Louis. Save me, Joe Louis. Save me, Joe Louis.”

Boxing, as a product of working-class skill and of resistance to poverty and discrimination, is inescapably political, and Ryan does full justice to it as such. He notes how “Louis will touch a glove to Carnera's lower back/ after the bell/ and  return to his corner/without celebration.”

And he leaves the significance of this gesture ambiguous. Is it a small intimation of recognition or as a result of the seven commandments Louis’s manager has asked him to adhere to: (“...never have his picture taken with a white woman/...never gloat over a fallen opponent”) in order to secure a title shot? Or, yet, a combination of the two?

In “The Resurrection of Diego “Chico” Corrales”, Ryan sets out the 2005 lightweight unification fight between Corrales and Castillo, with Corrales knocked down twice in the tenth before getting up to win the fight by stoppage. “He’s being borne aloft by his trainer and his cutman/ his arms stretched out crosswise/ celebrating coming back from the dead.” Corrales never won another fight, and died two years later in a motorbike crash. Rising from the dead once was miracle enough.

“My Son, the Heart of My Life” gives us a picture of Rocky Marciano, “almost every strike against him/ Two left feet/ Stoop-shouldered", hitting a custom-made 300 pound bag, jogging “ten miles of hill a day/ sprinting up and back/ dipping low to generate power.” Eventually, in 1951, he will defeat Joe Louis at Madison Square Gardens. It’s the description of Marciano’s training regime that’s key here. Boxing as process, boxing as an attempt to out-train chaos, until like Louis the fighter comes up against “time - the only unconquerable adversary - (which) will dull reflexes, calcify extremities and betray senses.” (A Matter of Life and Death, New Statesman 27 January 2018). For Marciano, time ran out at 46, dead when his private plane crashed. Ryan shows us the tale turned full circle, with Louis at Marciano’s funeral, kissing the lid of the closed casket.

The  poems “Young God of the Catskills” parts 1 and 2 show us Mike Tyson at two stages of his career - warning Trevor Berbick in 1986 “They think it's just the power/ But it’s the accuracy of the power/ Every punch is thrown with bad intention and the speed of the devil.” Subsequently we see him come undone against Buster Douglas, knocked down in the tenth round after felling Douglas in the eighth. Asked why he lost, Tyson replies “I just stopped caring/ He got up.Nobody else had.”. (Lately, we have seen instead a run of fighters such as Anthony Joshua, James De Gale and Audley Harrison who stopped caring as soon as it became apparent their opponents didn’t buy the hype.)

Each of the boxing poems is a finely balanced tribute to both boxers in the ring - in celebrating the victory of one, Ryan never ignores the courage of the other. For the most part, the politics of boxing is there in the identity of the fighters in the ring - Italian poor, black poor - never other than poor. In Jehovah and the River, though, the Ali-v- Foreman “Rumble in the Jungle” is set against the backdrop of the assassination of Patrice Lumumba and the rise of Mobutu , “epitome of a closet sadist.” In the end, even Ali’s political suss and style couldn’t escape the bloodstain that US imperialism shed across the globe. “What happened here is going to shock the world” Ryan concludes, and it’s clear he means both the fight, and the butchery and embezzlement Mobutu carried out. Ronald Reagan, as Ryan notes, described Mobutu as “a voice of good sense and good will.” Like Pinochet. Like Ferdinand Marcos.

Ryan has called boxing “a place for the authentic”. In his hands, as “Crisis Actor” demonstrates so well, poetry can still be authentic as well.

Crisis Actor by Declan Ryan, Faber 2023, is available here.

Review of 'The Dogs' and 'Black Bullets in the Sweet Jar'
Monday, 07 August 2023 10:09

Review of 'The Dogs' and 'Black Bullets in the Sweet Jar'

Published in Poetry

Nick Moss reviews two new books from Smokestack: The Dogs, by Michael Stewart, and Black Bullets in the Sweet Jar by Alison Carr

Michael Stewart’s The Dogs is the product of a wretched encounter. A daily walk took him past a scrapyard where a guard dog, chained, was neglected and abused. Stewart is tormented by the encounter but can find no solution to the dog’s plight. One day the dog is gone, but weeks later a younger dog has taken his place. The book “is dedicated to the dog of Low Lane, and all the dogs around the world that never experience warmth, adequate shelter, or comfort.” The poems form a tripartite sequence. The first part sets out an origin myth of and for dogs; the second looks at the exploitation of dogs today, and their abuse through dysgenics and “pure” breeding; the third imagines an uprising with two movements, one non-violent (The UnderDogs) and the other a violent splinter group (De UberHund) demanding autonomy from humans. The book is illustrated by Louis Benoit, whose artwork captures the surreal, macabre plight of the dogs Stewart portrays.

In the first section, Parados, Stewart shows how “feral dogs running wild amongst people” come to be “blind and hobbled” (Dog Is Life) and there is the first intimation of the rebellion to come , with the call to:

Bite the hand that feeds,
growl,howl, hiss,
bark yourselves hoarse,
shit in their sacred places.

Dog comes to enter into a cursed bargain with man. In “Xoloitzcuintli” , dog is flattered to “serve as a guide to the dead as they make their way from this world to the next.” But the honour to serve man comes with a grim codicil “You must accompany the dead through your own death. And afterwards , we will eat your flesh.” Stewart relays how man’s violence becomes a weapon of control:

If Dog barked too much
or if he didn’t bark enough
the Man whipped Dog.
(The Man.)

Dog’s plight is captured in the description of Turnespete, the name given to a short-legged, long-bodied dog bred to run on a wheel to turn meat :-

Turnspit Pete, Turnspit Pete
Will they toss you crumbs to eat?
Will they give you snout and feet?
Or will you die before your treat?

As with all forms of exploitation and domination, the relationship is determined by the fact that the outcome is in one sense always open - there is always the possibility, amidst the crush of abuse, that you’ll get the “crumbs to eat.” The relationship between man and dog, master and servant, is thereby trained, not simply and brutally imposed.

dogs resized

The second section, Stasimon, gives us dog as dog lives now. The pubs that say No Dogs No Dogs No Dogs, the dog that “gets a kick for blinking (Bill’s Dog), the brachycephalic pugs and French bulldogs bred so that:

Sometimes during exercise
He collapsed
But isn’t he cute, they said.
Isn’t he just adorable?


Stewart’s writing takes on a scabrous rigour as the book progresses, with sections that resound with an anger captured in a mix of poetry and prose that suggests Louis-Ferdinand Celine dragging Alan Garner into a dark wood.( “Go to the pain” as Garner suggests, “go to where it hurts the most, and say whatever it tells you” .) At various points, “Jimmy Saville appeared in a pink shell suit and a string vest and said , Now then, now then, guys and galls. Uh-uh-uh-ughhh. Then went to Stoke Mandeville hospital to do some voluntary work...Fiona Bruce, wearing a straitjacket and a crazed grin, kept interrupting everyone with leading questions.” (Ouroboros.) The Gap Band and Cliff Richard’s butt plug both make appearances. Briggite Bardot’s animal-welfare-meets-Islamophobia campaigning is met by dog responding with Allahu Akbar (Pluto’s Square) and finally we come back to the guard dog from Low Lane:

This dog’s no good, they said
And beat him with an iron bar.
They smashed every bone in his legs,
Threw him in the back of a Nissan
Drove him to an abandoned farm
And chucked him down a well.

(Guard Dog.)

Stewart’s book is a fiery indictment of cruelty, to animals, and also of cruelty to refugees, to poor families queuing at food banks, to all those shackled and crushed by austerity and the swindles and sweat-stealing of capitalism. In the book’s final section, Exodos, the dogs rise up and “eat the hearts of men”:

“Is it good “? The wayfarer asked
“No,it’s like the hearts of all men.
They are tough to chew and taste of nothing.”

(The Hearts of Men.)

In the flux of revolution, the dogs unleash the turning-upside-down of man’s world:

Let the horizon’s hills
Heap as high as haystacks with the heads of dead hipsters ,
Make the sky black with drones

(The Dogs of War)

Dog hails “the death of peace” , and the dogs go:

...Fucking and eating
Everything that breathes
Shitting in your streets
Pissing on your trees

(The Dogs Are Laughing.)

The gates of the Kennel Club are stormed, and the eugenicist /dysgenecist logic of dog-breeding is linked back to Hitler reading Charles Davenport while incarcerated at Landsberg, with the eugenicist Davenport also inspiring Kennel Club founder Sewallis Shirley, and tail-chasing of all this coming then to the zoosadism and “sink the small boats” racism of today. The only way to break the shackles, to enter “the Land of No” is to celebrate “heterosis/ all hail hybrid vigour, they barked/ all hail Rassenschande.” By refusing to be a “parade of mutants”, dogs:

“...made a heap
Of muzzles and leads
As high as a hayrick
Then set fire to it.”

(When the Dogs Found Out What Adolf Learned in Landsberg.)

Stewart gives us no easy way out from this circular logic of abuse and exploitation. The dogs have their revolution, they free themselves of “the middleman /who sits betwixt dogs and god” but the UberHund is described as a monster dressed temporarily as an insurrectionist:

His chest was bare of fur and cloth
His flesh was ripped with pecs and recs
Arms linked with occult symbols
Wearing black leather trousers
And biker boots
Head sniped like a jackal’s

(Der Uberhund)

There are, after all the blood and piss and shit, no guarantees. In Dog’s Final Testament, Dog tells us “I/ kan /not/ fix/ the/ blak/ hole/ in/ yure/ soul/by /fetchin/ball. Yure/on/yure/own/now/pal.” Stewart wants us to have to face all of the implications of that fact.

The loss of childhood

Alison Carr’s Black Bullets in the Sweet Jar is, in part, a study of the loss of childhood. The writer was knocked down by a hit and run driver at the age of eight, and the poems engage with the sense she had of being suddenly expelled from childhood. But the poems are, in fact, more ambiguous than that, and the trauma of the hit and run isn't the only mechanism by which childhood comes to be made mutable. The book opens, though, with Arrival, which deals directly, and unsparingly, with the hit and run that makes being alive as if:

Pebbles bounce on the shell of my mind
Like gravel stirring my concrete thoughts.


The awareness of someone cutting into her shaved head - “Thick fingers fiddle with brain tissue/Blood mesh/His bear-like hands/sieve through my mind” - the sense of hands in antiseptic gloves physically sifting “concrete thoughts” - is jarring, as if the hit and run has knocked mind and body out of joint.

black bullets resized

Carr 's work captures exactly the elusive, slowly-darkening magic of childhood “the soft pages/Of fairy tale books”, (The Old House of Childhood) the “sherbet twists...the dark taste of liquorice /Purpling lips like a punch in the mouth.” Every memory recalled has a shadow of menace that never quite intrudes but remains always present, just out of view. In Daisy Chains and Nettle-Stings, she writes:

Grubby knees, orchard trees,
Throwing pebbles, bouncing balls
The fizz, the surprise
Of Dandelion and Burdock

and recalls a “future bright as crocuses.” Always left open, though, is whether the optimistic scenario of “Dandelions/counting time/Holding hopes. Yours. Mine” can come to pass, or whether the nostalgia for childhood is a nostalgia for possibility lost. In Playground:

Bright ribbons in the girls’ hair
Powder-shot brilliant sunshine
We all fall down
that “falling down” is the crashing to earth of a dream.

Like Adrian Henri, and with the dark tone which flickered always around the wit in Stevie Smith’s works, Alison Carr’s writing has an earthy, grass-stained surrealism, there in that “powder-shot brilliant sunshine”, and in the “Hope rolls away like a marble” that is the rueful essence of all of the poems here. (Promises.) The sweetie jar on the top shelf is always just out of reach (Bullet) but there is still, for a while, “Youth’s crispiness in my mouth /Adventure on my tongue.” (Tuckshop). Halcyon Liquorice gives us:

Sweet sunshine days
Staring at the sugar-cane windows

...and the rhythm and the reminiscence both take me back to Henri’s In the Midnight Hour, the hand “held for a moment among the dripping trees” and Carr tells us of the “Swan on the water/Rippled rainbow light / Calm the leaping summer spirit/Of childhood” (Slow Things) and all those possibilities are there again, ripe, but not yet over-ripe and gone to rot. When the rot comes, though, Carr is unsparing:

Honey sweet afternoons are gone.
The hives attacked.
The honeycomb bitter.

(Sweet Afternoons.)

Soon enough,”The Dandelion and Burdock has gone flat” (Birthday Parties) and we’re left with:

Childish bubbles
Sky blue sunshine
Draining down the plughole.


Time kills hope, and adolescence hacks away at childhood innocence. Finally, Carr tells us:

But secondary school has other girls
Groups who taunt, play by other rules
Who know how to scratch
Put a match
To my childhood.


The sequence is followed by a group of poems that work away at the myth of the fall (singing to the serpent/The teeth – marked core lies on the grass (Bounty)) and a feminist awakening from the naivete of youthful hope, the “rosy globe of promise.... not as sweet as it looks
Poisoned to the core
It will pull her down to cinders and dry ash.”

(Heavenly Bite)

She wears a dark veil
In a vale of tears
Wet pearls on her face.


The awareness of misogyny and the passing of youthful friendships is joined with an awareness of finitude - “Everyone born changes to a curled corpse” (Heavenly Bite) - the blighted knowledge that whatever we dream, we all end up the same, which marks the ultimate passing of childhood:

We may be born in a clearing
But we die in the forest
Dim light closing in


Carr then works through the myths of the crashing to earth of Icarus and the fall of Lucifer  - "Collapse of innocence...When you swat a moth / All you are left with is dust on the wall" (Lucifer) before turning to the process of evolution , the “Squashed ape under the sky’s turmoil/ Struggling from the boiling river” (Evolution) , a struggle resulting not in steady progression, no hopeful teleology, but what may be a biological dead-end “The lizard slithers /Out of the river / And stands in the dirt/ In an Armani shirt.” (Slime)

Carr follows these with a series of exquisite melancholy, autumnal haiku, a typical example of which is Apple:

Hanging fruitfulness
A hollow skull
Wasps gather.

All of these effectively capture that essence of autumn –the decay and the growth, the sense of potentialities amidst the rot. The poems turn then to examine the decline and decay of industry and of a hopeful working-class life:

In the wasteland of growing up
Time ticks like a bomb
The tap drips


Always the dust-pocked windows
The grind of grit, dust.
Metal riot, metal riot. Rust.


Part of the key to building a better future, is the preservation of historical memory,in the face of the death of childhood’s hopes and the crushing of the possibilities there in the class battles of an earlier time ; not just on banners, or in documentary form, but as a living language of possibility, away from the museum and the archive - “Confined/consigned to a shiny museum” (Gleam). Carr gets this and looks for ways of writing towards it:

But this town still remembers
The fire-breathing industry
Dragon-lunged locomotives


Spikes on the heart monitor
The hospital is slowly closing down
This town is nearly dead


But “nearly” is not-yet-dead. Carr is unillusioned enough to keep reminding us that:

The nightingale that sang
On hope’s high branches
Has lost its song


.....but in the act of writing these poems she is proving that it remains possible to keep on singing out. There are moments though towards the book’s end when she appears entirely despairing:

Set a match to the worthless bonfire
Of my life


.....but even when she cries that “I want to be something else” the cry still resonates with hope - “A soap bubble of childish magic...I long to be a butterfly” (Struggling). Seen again in the autumnal is the chance of light and growth:

I want the day back, the copper brushing leaves of light
The crunch and whisper of the grass
The green damp sunlight.

(I Want)

In the end, Carr recognises, “We live in deeds, not years/In feelings, not in time.” If we are to be judged for what we do and how we lift and carry those around us, then pessimism and stasis just collude with the “figures on the dial.” (Chilled.) These are quietly profound, beautifully-composed poems which combine a sharp realism with a bracing, hard-fought-for, optimism. In one of the book’s final poems, Rage, Carr sets out what might be called the aesthetic purpose of her poems and of Smokestack Books more generally: to challenge a prevailing mood in contemporary literature, a contemptuous turning away from working-class voices, whether they talk of beauty, or dirt, or revolution:

They slam the book shut
So they don’t have to see
Anything that doesn’t agree
With their idea of perfection.

Both books are available here.

Reflections for Now: review of Carrie Mae Weems exhibition at the Barbican
Wednesday, 19 July 2023 14:20

Reflections for Now: review of Carrie Mae Weems exhibition at the Barbican

Published in Visual Arts

Nick Moss reviews the Weems exhibition, on at the Barbican Art Gallery, London, till 3 SeptemberImage above: Carrie Mae Weems, If I Ruled the World, 2004, © Jemima Yong

My responsibility as an artist is to work, to sing for my supper, to make art, beautiful and powerful, that adds and reveals; to beautify the mess of a messy world, to heal the sick and feed the helpless; to shout bravely from the roof-tops and storm barricaded doors and voice the specifics of our historic moment – Carrie Mae Weems

This exhibition represents the first major solo exhibition of Carrie Mae Weems in a UK institution. The fact is surprising, as Weems is an established and successful artist in the US. The Barbican ‘s curators have worked with Weems to bring together an impressive, challenging exhibition which documents the variety of Weems’ artistic practice, conducted across photographic series, films, and installations spanning over three decades.

Weems’ is a proudly activist art and can be refreshingly blunt and direct. So much art which claims to be political is shamefacedly allusive and mealy-mouthed. There is none of that here. Neither is this an art which avoids beauty or melancholy, but all such representations are rooted throughout in a desire to use art as a confrontation with America’s history of brutal racism and to trigger meaningful change.

1. Carrie Mae Weems Reflections for Now Installation view Barbican Art Gallery 2023 Jemima Yong

Carrie Mae Weems, Reflections for Now, Installation view, Barbican Art Gallery, 2023 © Jemima Yong

The works that open the exhibition are from the series Painting the Town; photographs of surfaces where graffiti in support of Black Lives Matter or in commemoration of George Floyd have been painted over, by racists, using black paint. Some reviews and commentary have made much of how these photographs conjure a form of abstract expressionism, but I don’t think that’s all that Weems intends. This is about censorship, pure and simple. Any image of abstraction is entirely accidental – a by-product of the obliteration of the black voice from public space.

If anything, the reference would be back to Malevich’s 1924 Black Circle, albeit with an entirely opposite intent. Whereas Malevich intended the affirmative, the iconic – the obliteration here of anti-racist text is entirely negative and censorious. If the photographs are shot so as to highlight this chance abstraction, then there may be an implicit critique, at work on 2 levels – abstract art as a displacement of the politically committed art of the preceding era, and the removal of black artists like Norman Lewis and Jack Whitten from the history of abstract art. The Painting the Town works are a good example of Weems’ practice – you think at first that the works give up their meaning easily, but they hold you and force you to think harder about your encounter with them.

11. A Hot Spot in a Corrupt World from And 22 Million Very Tired and Angry People 1991

Carrie Mae Weems, A Hot Spot in a Corrupt World from And 22 Million Very Tired and Angry People, 1991, Barbican Art Gallery, 2023 © Jemima Yong

Weems’ earliest works, such as A Hot Spot in a Corrupt World, use the disjunction between text and image to provocative effect. In the subsequent series, From Here I Saw What Happened and I Cried, 1995-96, Weems makes use of a series of pictures of enslaved African Americans taken by photographer Joseph T. Zealy in 1850. Commissioned by the Harvard scientist Louis Agassiz, these were intended solely to support racist theories about the inferiority of Black people. The sitters are displayed simply as anthropological specimens. The photographs are bookended by images of a royal Mangbetu woman witnessing the crudely racist display. Weems infiltrates and disrupts the images, simply by cropping, tinting them and reframing them and overlaying fragments of texts that expose and subvert the original intent.

The work for which Carrie Mae Weems is probably best known, the Kitchen Table series, stages a series of domestic portraits which show the development of a feminist consciousness from within the confines of a family relationship, with the characters wrestling with various forms of interpersonal dependency, oppression and, at the same time, friendship and haven. The photographs are accompanied by texts which sometimes mirror what we see, at other times seem to stand in contradiction to it, so that the participants are shown to develop their particular awareness as a working-through of each situation as it unfolds.

Weems uses the juxtaposition of text and image in her work in fascinating ways – sometimes to highlight, sometimes to trick, always thereby to expose how images are constructed and how ideologies manifest in visual form. In her 2008 Constructing History series she has her students restage and photograph historical events-Hiroshima, the JFK assassination, the assassinations of Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King – working out how little is now required to conjure the event given the extent to which each event has been overlaid by the accrual of various earlier stagings, interpretations, edits etc. When we understand an event as a specific image-form, how much do we really understand of it?

By overlaying the Evers/Malcolm/MLK assassinations, for instance, Weems asks what do we really know of the specificity of the assassinations, how much are they obscured by the media interventions which strip them of their historicity, how much of this is deliberate, and how much simply a product of the technology of mediation. By unpicking the theatre, the performance of photographic representations, we are made to look at the events afresh.

The most ambitious work here, and the most recent, is The Shape of Things, Weems’ 2021 film projected as a cyclorama on a wide, curved screen. The film is in seven parts and splices old footage of circus performers and slapstick with live films of Trump rallies and the 6 January mob crashing the Washington Capitol. We are asked to imagine how it is to live when you are always stopped, always charged, always convicted, always killed. Scenes of police violence are cut with the voiceover of a white woman ranting hysterically about being attacked by a black man in Central Park (in fact a black male birdwatcher asking her politely to put her dog on a leash.) 

We are told to imagine the worst, and that it never stops recurring. The Shape of Things works because of its scale, its overwhelming, disorientating, impact, like Walter Benjamin’s angel of history, faced with that single catastrophe that brings about a storm to propel him towards the future while “piling wreckage upon wreckage and (hurling it) at his feet.”

The Shape of Things leaves us dazed and despairing but feeling that we have somehow to act if only so that we can find our way through the wreckage and disorientation to somewhere else. (There is an adjacent film which features Weems giving a lecture about an encounter with Trump, which doesn’t work at all, because it is portentous and indulges in a “when they go low, we go high” moralizing that fits ill with the subversive rage she displays more generally.) 

17. Carrie Mae Weems Lincoln Lonnie and Me A Story in 5 Parts 2012

Carrie Mae Weems, Lincoln, Lonnie and Me, A Story in 5 Parts, 2012, Barbican Art Gallery, 2023 © Jemima Yong

Lincoln, Lonnie and Me – A Story in 5 Parts, is one of the most extraordinary works I’ve seen in recent times. The work consists of an eighteen-and-a-half-minute video projection, where life-size figures float on a central stage framed by scarlet curtains. The figures are enveloped by mist or float ethereal in snow, interrupted by silence and succeeding each other. A tap dancer appears while Blind Willie Johnson’s Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground echoes out like an angry ghost.

Weems appears, dressed as a trickster, and snarling “I am gonna destroy ya, because I want you to feel the suffering that I know. It’s not gonna be pretty, Oh! Revenge is a muthafucka.” She recites Lincoln’s Gettysburg address. Neil Diamond sings Girl, You’ll Be A Woman Soon. The artist/activist Lonnie Graham talks of the difficulty of achieving meaningful social change. All of this is displayed using a technique developed in 1862 by John Henry Pepper, the director of London’s Royal Polytechnic Institution and a critic of spiritualist discourses, who wanted to expose the theatrical tricks exploited by fake mediums and con artists.

Pepper’s namesake technique enables objects and actors to appear onstage as projected spectral images, by means of a simple optical manipulation: a pane of glass is placed at a forty-five-degree angle between the stage and a hidden adjoining chamber, or “blue room,” located beneath it. When appropriately illuminated, objects and actors in the chamber appear on the glass and before the audience as dematerialized versions of themselves. Thus, on one level we might see the Pepper technique as a form of ideology critique, in that it is intended straightforwardly as a tool to expose illusion.

But, as always, Weems asks us to think again, look harder, because the technique also serves to allow the ghosts of a history not yet realized , the “unfinished work” of the Gettysburg address, to haunt the stage. Lincoln, Lonnie and Me is what a mash-up of Blind Willie Johnson, Kenneth Anger, William Kentridge and the Black Panther Party might look like and it is magnificent.

Carrie Mae Weems’ retrospective shows us what art which engages with the possibility of political change can accomplish, if the artist is resolute and determined to combine a rage proper to the times with an unwillingness to compromise aesthetic vision. In her Roaming photographs, Weems, graceful, ethereal, haunts the drawing rooms and balconies of the architecture of fascist Italy. Weems often works through a concept of intrusion into the frame which allows her to develop a critique of racial oppression and the images which sustains it, by an interruption immanent to the image itself, a disruption of its internal logic. In the ruins of ancient Rome and the opulent posturing of fascist Italy, her presence as counter-position works as a kind of victory.

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