Coming soon! A proper post next week, okay?
Friday, 24 February 2017
No time for a full post again this week. And, while there's more Brighton town photos to come, let's mix things up a little with some photos of the Brighton street artist Minty. As ever, full set on Flickr.
Saturday, 18 February 2017
Oh, alright then, stays at home in Brighton! It can be good to remind yourself your home town is photogenic too, even if some of these sights I see pretty much every day. As ever, full set over on Flickr.
Coming soon! At some point, more Brighton photos. But probably something else first...
Sunday, 12 February 2017
MAYA BEISER: NEW YORK CELLO
Kings Place, London, Fri 10th Feb
Cellist Maya Beiser was a founder member of New York based contemporary music ensemble Bang On a Can All-Stars, here playing solo. (The parent outfit still exist, and played London five years back.) As the programme looked interesting and I am known to like a good cello, I thought to happen by.
The folk singer June Tabor once stated that her talent was singing, so when it came to songwriting “I just ring up Richard Thompson, it's easier”. Beiser would seem to do a similar thing with composers. Three of the other All-Stars founders – Julia Wolfe, Michael Gordon and David Lang – were composers in their own right, and in the programme notes Beiser wrote of the interplay which occurs when compositions are written for specific players. I didn't know, until she mentioned seconds before launching into it, that Steve Reich's 'Cello Counterpoint' was also written for her. (In fact the programme featured only one non-New York based composer, the Argentinian Osvaldo Golijov.)
'Classical' music is often assumed to spring fully formed from the mind of the genius savant, with the musicians merely assigned parts. But can't composers and musicians work within scenes, like rock music can? Isn't hearing a piece by the intended player the thing to do? Like hearing the Mothers of Invention play Frank Zappa? Certainly Beiser's spirited work-through of 'Cello Counterpoint' was stirring stuff.
If the gig was solo only for one piece was it unaccompanied, with the rest using at various points vocals, electronics, loops, multi-track recordings and film projections. One feature was how the projections worked so seamlessly with the music. 'Cello Counterpoint' for example is one of the Reich works where the musician plays over pre-recordings of themselves, here handily demonstrated by seven pieces of video evidence, lined up (according to the programme) “Warholian style”.
While Gordon's 'Light is Calling' was essentially a collaboration with Bill Morrison's visuals, effectively a sequel to the eerie and enthralling 'Decasia'. Warped electronics played alongside sonorous cello strokes, just as Morrison played warped and distressed footage from an old film – images appearing through the psychedelic corrosion, then dissolving again. At first it seemed that the sound and sight were perfect metaphors for one another, the electronics fuzzing the clear cello lines, but as the piece went on they seemed to overcome separation and morph together.
Wolfe's 'Emunah' featured etherial chanting, provided life by Beiser. I can find this sort of thing New Agey, so it perhaps wasn't my favourite Wolfe work. (That may be this.) Yet as with Gordon's electronics they made an effective counterpoint to the deeper, earthier cello sounds. I especially liked the ending, after the vocals faded out for a low bowed hum, verging on a drone.
'All Vows', the second Gordon composition, though not the longest piece was the album track of the evening. It not only featured solo cello but kept to a low range, taking a simple musical line and giving it quite subtle variations. Yet if it demanded close listening it certainly repaid it.
Lang's 'World To Come' was written shortly after the Twin Towers attack, but rather than a political response felt more existential. (Perhaps an understandable response to something like that hitting your home town.) The programme described it as “a kind of prayer”, and it was accompanied by a video by Irit Batsry focusing on water, a kind of matter without form. Creation, as the saying goes, is not a noun but a verb – an ongoing process.
Formally it was almost the opposite of 'Cello Counterpoint', cello and vocal phrases were looped as rich and resonant textures over which the 'live' cello part played the lead. The movements were ably matched by the video. Strongly rhythmic bowing was accompanied by fast pans across glistening waterways, a slower and more ethereal section by close-ups of rippling surfaces, and finally churning and frothing.
If stepping back for an encore seems more a rock music tradition, then Beiser surprised at least me with versions of 'Kashmir' and 'Back In Black' - surely any sensible person's favourite Zeppelin and AC/DC numbers. A constant guiding principle of Bang On A Can has been that rock music can be a source of inspiration, not just through taking elements from it but it's spirit. And what worked was they way these were not re-transcriptions for a more classical idiom but proper rock outs, with bow strings fraying. (Essentially the cello took over the function of lead guitar and vocals.)
Oddly, however, Bach's 'Air On a G String' was sandwiched between them. Which was not only a rupture of mood, but came to feel a little self-consciously eclectic. And I don't see how you can say, as Beiser rightly has, “all these boundaries we're created [are] so unnecessary” and then slap yourself on the back for audaciously mixing it all up. (To be clear, I enjoyed all three pieces, the problem was the programming.)
'Light Is Calling', albeit not from London...
The Hope & Ruin, Brighton, Sun 5th Feb
It's often said that noise music is the punk of today. And true enough it's one of the few music scenes to remain underground, not to be heard flogging designer jeans for middle-aged waists. But more to the point, it exhibits both the pros and cons of punk of old. There's no more learning two chords to form you own band, you can do it just by plugging in a laptop. But, as those of us who recall the hardcore scene of old can attest, anyone can do it is both boon and curse. There's a whole lot of bad electronic noise out there, pressbutton rage in a quite literal sense. But then the rest just makes it all the more important to track down the best...
Dilloway is formerly of noisemonger troupe Wolf Eyes. I would gather he was in the UK touring with Genesis P Orrdige, but was tonight solo. His set comprised a contact mike he placed in his mouth and, at one point, a long horn of what variety I do not know. But (from what I could tell) all the rest consisted of tape loops, treated, manipulated and overlapped.
And yet though that means the sounds were mostly pre-prepared there was something quite genuinely out of control about the set. Dilloway was like a Prospero who'd unleashed the storm on himself, elemental forces he was barely able to marshall. Unlike most electronica artists who barely move, he'd twist and convulse as though possessed by the music he himself was making.
And yet again, despite being for this sort of music a lengthy set (the best part of an hour) there were no longeurs, or klunky switches between sections. If it was like watching a man trying to conduct the weather, which it pretty much was, the success rate was surprisingly high. Several times it would build and build in intensity, breaching every barrier you had imagined existed, then suddenly breaking off into a new tangent.
I don't think there's much of a philosophy behind or real-world analogy to be applied to Dilloway. You're not supposed to think about urban alienation, commodity fetishism or Trump or whatever. (And in fact a night off having to think about the orange abhorrence is to be welcomed.) Which I suppose is the point, that he's found a way to say something which couldn't be said any other way. Which makes him a true original.
Here's a completely different set. It's all good...
'RAY LEE: SIREN'
Attenborough Centre for the Creative Arts, University of Sussex, Falmer, Fri 1st Feb
I knew almost nothing about this sound installation event from ”award-winning sound artist and composer” Ray Lee, except it was attached to a Stockhausen festival. (Which it turned out to have almost nothing to do with. But sometimes you need to go with your instincts, and sometimes they even work.
A series of sirens attached to revolving poles are switched on one by one, emittting pitches matching the height of their stands. As the sound starts to build up it first resembles the venue's description of “pulsing electronic drones” but transforms as it builds up into the electronic equivalent of pealing bells. The only other variant employed was occasional adjsutments to the spin speed, and yet the combination was richly resonant and quite mesermising. Who ever knew sirens could sound so serene? Certainly it brought up the alternate meaning of the term, a captivating sound source which draws you in.
Cool things about the event included the way it built up from a simple premise into a rich tapestry; the 'wires out' presentation, all processes on open display: (relatedly) the way the guys working the sirens seemed more workers or road crew than musicians or performers; your being encouraged to wander the space, effectively remixing the sound in your ears as you moved; and the way it didn't rely on the audience being smart or sophisticated, but merely open to what was going on. But perhaps best of all they way it was experiential, in our YouTubeable world it was something you had to be there for.
JAH WOBBLE'S INVADERS OF THE HEART
Con Club, Lewes, Thurs 26th Jan
Last time I saw Jah Wobble, as you might recall, I was much taken by much of it but found it at times straying too far into muso/fusion territory. This time he has a new album, 'Everything Is Nothing', which is essentially jazz fusion. (Improbably featuring Youth from Killing Joke and Nik Turner from Hawkwind. I bought a copy, played it once and probably will never again.) The trumpeter of that album (Sean Corby) has joined the line-up, improbably sporting a folded hankie in a smart jacket pocket, and at times they now even go in for relay soloing.
And yet, contrary soul that I am, I may have enjoyed this gig more than the last one. And I think that's down to having less of an emphasis on your actual songs, with the ones which survive counter-intuitively relegated to the second half of the set. The only Public Image song remaining is 'Public Image' itself. (Unless you count 'Fodderstompf', of which only the hook and one-line chorus are kept.) The songs that stay are mostly from the original Nineties Invaders of the Heart.
Which is really the band playing to it's strengths. As a singer Wobble is a great bass player, and the outfit simply work best not boxing themselves into song structures but spreading out. Besides, Wobble's patented patter between songs keeps the audience interaction flowing. (After one interjection the drummer bashed a cymbal.)
And the trumpeter's role proved positive. Rather than a wild card he became a calm card, pouring like cooling water over the more active bass and drums, and preventing everything getting too frenetic. I'm not sure many will have previously asked themselves what 'Socialist' would sound like with a cool jazz trumpet break in the middle of it, but the answer is surprisingly positive. Perhaps it worked through sparing use, Corby stepping to the back of the stage when not at work. You don't play all your cards at once.
Saturday, 4 February 2017
(aka This Just in! Trump Still a Dickhead!)
“You're a child. You have the mind and ego of an angry, spoiled, uneducated child. And that's what makes you so fucking scary.”
- As said to Idi Amin in ’The Last King of Scotland’
Yes, more about Trump. Believe me, I'm sick of hearing about the orange abhorrence too, and whatever childish insult that smug face has spewed at someone lately. But alas he's not going to go away by himself, we're going to have to do that for him.
Let's get the obvious out the way. Some are saying “well Obama did bad stuff too”. And so he did. Those drone strikes didn't deliver cup cakes. He deported people in record numbers, effectively licensed extrajudicial killings and all the rest of it. But the strange thing is, I don't remember most of those people saying any of this at the time, which might have been a good moment to mention it. The fact that this argument can be used unamended by both ends – by trumpers for Trump and more-radical-than-thou ultra-leftists - suggests it's not really much of an argument at all. Okay, Obama was bad. But Trump is worse. And the thing about worse is, it's worse.
(See also “despots have had State visits before”. This is a paraphrase of “but we've hung out with so many mass murderers already, it's too late to change now”. Which is itself a variant of the “we've always practiced slavery” argument.)
And as for “protesting after an election is anti-democratic”... Seriously? The guy who said he'd only accept the result if he won suddenly discovers the joys of being process-bound? A process which quickly narrowed people's effective choice down to two elite insiders as widely loathed as Clinton and Trump, waited for one to gain a three million majority then handed the result to the other – that's going a bit past flawed, really.
And “give him a chance, you don't know what he'll be like yet”? Guys, you know this stuff isn't decided by lottery, don't you? That candidates put forward their programmes beforehand and stuff? Besides, how does that measure against Trump's repeated boast to be getting through the changes so quickly? He's doing dumb shit now. Let's have some smart opposition at the same pace.
But if we're to win we need to look out for his weaknesses, and our potential weaknesses too.
This much is obvious – from any angle, that travel ban is bollocks. The Department for Homeland Security has stated right-wing extremists area greater danger than Islamic jihadists, a conclusion borne out if you look at those pesky fact things. But then again,
the average American is under greater threat still from being shot by a toddler. Just as much as that stupid wall, the travel ban is designed to work only as a distraction.
And was it ever thus. The Situationist publication the Spectacular Times said of power “it's only real security lies in the construction and maintenance of myths and illusions. First and last, it is a show”. And the former reality TV star presents the Presidency as a form of theatre. He literally signs his ordinances for the cameras. That the travel ban couldn't even succeed on it's own terms is effectively beside the point. A big media event has occurred which has had that label attached to it. It's not policy, it's self-advertising.
We've been told so repeatedly that demonstrating against Trump is “pointless”, that seems a pretty good indication we need to keep going. But beware. We need to be wary of doing the same as him, of creating a rival show programmed against his, of demonstrating just to give the papers a photo-op. That feeds the narrative. It doesn't disrupt it.
In particular we should avoid focusing too much on celebrity endorsements. We should of course be grateful for the support and participation. Even from Madonna. Even from Meryl Streep. (Though one of the few things I agree with Trump about is her acting.) But that stuff plays too neatly into Trump's supposed 'anti-elite' stance.
So how do you oppose something? Through providing it's opposite, right? And the opposite of Trumps' sound-bite knee-jerk gesture politics is substance.
People, brought up in a hierarchical society such as this, tend to assume there's some trade-off to be found between authority and liberty. Too much of one we're shoved into labour camps, too much of the other and the bins don't get collected. Hence even those who don't wear white hoods or shout “heil Trump” blithely assume that authoritarian states are a model of efficiency, that Hitler sorted out the German economy, that Mussolini made the trains run on time. It seems so self-evident, they don't think to check those facts.
And to Trump's supporters, that trade-off is supposed to have gone too far one way. Those checks and balances are like traffic calming measures in the way of an angry driver, pointless encumbrances put there by busybodies, best just ridden straight over. His not following due process, even defying the courts, is taken as a measure of his strength.
While we need, not to push the trade-off the other way, but to question it's existence, to stop framing the thing as a security vs. liberty dilemma. For those 'facts' above are wholly wrong. And will only ever be wrong. Authoritarian societies are not run by genius masterminds, surging ahead of lesser bulbs, but by caprice and whim. The makers of those 'tough decisions' are removed from the effects, and keen to surround themselves with sycophants who'll tell them all went swimmingly.
We should focus on the travel ban's manifest malevolence. But we should also focus on it's bumbling ineptitude, where even Trump's own spokesman was unable to explain how it would work and ended up contradicting himself, where the British Government was advising travellers one thing and the State Department another. People might be willing to follow a tough if reckless figure, but a bumbling amateur? When he loses his appearance of strength he loses his selling point. It'll be like pricking an orange balloon with an ugly face on it.
And underlying that point, we should remember not all the grievances of Trump's supporters are reactionary. The situation is more complicated than Trump simply selling them a line. Their grievances are more often a mixture of reactionary and progressive, allowing Trump to deliver on one half and perpetually rain-check on the other. But then American history is a longstanding process of the rulers dividing the ruled by race, so it's scarcely a surprise to see it internalised by this point. But even if that's internalised, it doesn't mean it can't be unpicked. We just need to pick on, from Trump's many weaknesses, the weaknesses that others will see as weaknesses. “Heil Trump” must become “fail Trump”.
Coming soon! Back to the standard gig-going and behind-time art exhibition reviews...
Wednesday, 25 January 2017
It's beyond doubt that Trump is a bully. His response to debate, or even to being questioned in any way, is to shout over or actively threaten people. Caught out on a lie, he just tells another. And like any bully if he gets contradicted, let alone challenged, he throws a tantrum like the over-entitled man baby he is. We've seen this enough.
Okay, leaders are often bullies. But Thatcher, for example, tried to cover up at least the worst excesses of her bawling-out. She went for a strong image, but also had at least an approximation of appeals to reason. Trump foregrounds his bullying, it's become part of the sales pitch. It proves he's a 'strong man'. His policies, such as they are, are less a balanced programme than a means of expressing this. He'll bring in protectionism, punishing those who don't comply. He'll make those Mexicans pay for the wall. And so on.
Because in uncertain and volatile times, where living standards are dropping and seemingly nothing can be relied on, having a strong man to cling to can seem attractive. In short what makes him loathsome to us (and let's be honest we don't just oppose him, we loathe the total dickhead) is precisely what makes him attractive to his hardcore supporters. (Note: That is not an analogous phrase to “anyone who voted Republican last time”.) In which case, pointing out how bad he is isn't much of a help.
Besides, accusations of fascism kind of miss the point. Trump is like Putin in Russia or Erdogan in Turkey. (The Alt Right clique, the ones who chant “hail Trump”, actively compare him to Putin.) In all three cases, the leader simply imposes their will. Their word is effectively law, even where the law actually says something else. But in all three cases, they do so in nominal democracies. And that's important. Stir in some cognitive dissonance, and people can believe they live under a democratic system, where they are ultimately in charge, where we have checks and balances, and yet when the leader rides roughshod over those checks and balances that just proves his exceptional status, what a man he is. It's a classic case of wanting it both ways.
(The British version is bizarre. It hasn't coalesced around a person, but around Brexit. TheTory councillor who petitioned for it to be made an act of treason to even question Brexit was an outlier for idiocy. But the notion that it cannot be questioned, that you are obliged to just shut up, is widespread.)
And what do you do wth bullies? You stand up to them, of course. But how?
Now of course, the Republicans don't like the foul-mouthed orange faker either. He stole the nomination just as he stole the election. In their time-honoured tradition they 'misunderestimated' him, while busily backing their own dog in the fight, until it was too late. Now they'll be united under their leader, and they'll be united against him. Except they'll now be united behind MikePence, over whom the debate is whether he's as right-wing as Trump or worse. Besides which, they'd then be united while controlling Congress and Senate. We shouldn't unite with them, even if we could stomach it. We have to hope they manage to make his ride rocky, without unseating him.
We could of course back Clinton, who as anyone knows got a majority of nearly three million. (Which is enough to win a 'vote' as they are normally conceived of.) Except that ignores how we got into this situation in the first place. The Democrat vote went down, not the Republican up. There were the usual tricks of voter suppression in Democrat-leaning black areas, in some cases with hard-won Civil Rights legislation reversed.
But this combined with what commenters disparagingly call ‘voter apathy’. If America’s first black president, a candidate with break-with-tradition literally written on his face, made no difference for regular folks then what price one where stick-with-tradition was her main sales pitch? People weren’t apathetic, they were disillusioned. And finding your illusions were illusory will do that to you. We don’t know, and we probably never will, what the blend of those is. But they had the same effect.
This is pretty much where we came in. Knock out Trump and Trump alone, and people will just migrate to the next 'strong man' and his empty promises. We need to be tough on Trump and tough on the causes of Trump.
We should remember that to gain power he has made promises he can't keep, and in many cases wouldn't if he could. The rust belt workers who turned to him essentially want the Eighties back, with regular unionised jobs on good pay and with regular overtime. If Trump could offer that, he'd be one of the people he was making poorer. But that in itself can't be relied on, because they could as easily turn to the next snake oil salesman. Trump neats to be beaten, not left to fail.
You defeat an enemy by going for their weakness. And with Trump his most obvious weakness is his bloated ego. He should be ridiculed, not monsterised. But his bigger and more important weakness is his appearance of strength. Puncture that and you deflate the whole bloated bravado act, he is the little man behind the curtain. He is only President as long as people do what he tells them. Otherwise he is President in name only. Everything he does should be opposed, not via another celebrity endorsement, but directly. And Trump is weak. Bullies always are.
(A quickly thrown up piece, from someone living in England who's never even been to the States. The reader can take up if they find any of it useful, or ignore the whole thing if they prefer.)
Tuesday, 24 January 2017
“Liebezeit drummed with Can, Zen masters of metronony who could take a groove to trance states.”
“Can’s Jaki Liebezeit was responsible for restructuring rock’s basic rhythm, influencing countless bands including early Roxy Music, Talking Heads and Joy Division. He devised a more continuous, open-ended alternative to the Anglo-American blues-based, verse-and-chorus model. In the late 60s and early 70s, while a new generation of heavy rock and prog instrumentalists were showing off their virtuouso prowess, Liebezeit and fellow Can members... devised a way of playing and jamming that was about creating space, rather than soloing pointlessly. Theirs was a style... that achieved its ends through loops and repetition, creating a cumulative intensity.”
“In the midst of the horrors of our current president's fascist tendencies, the passing of Jaki Liebezeit – a musician deeply committed to the idea of harmonious flow – reminds us of the true potential of creative democracy and equality for all. RIP Jaki Liebezeit. RIP Love Time.”
Sunday, 22 January 2017
In his too-short life, perhaps Arthur Russell's greatest proclivity was for pulling together apparently unreconcilable musical genres. In the almost tribal New York scene of the Eighties he worked as music director for experimental venue the Kitchen, but also frequented disco clubs like the Gallery or punk places such as CBGBs. Perfectionist and somewhat fractious, forever starting new projects and rarely finishing old ones, little of his music was released during his life. And he was still almost entirely unknown when becoming a victim to AIDS in 1992, when only Forty. 'Tower of Meaning' was one of those few releases, but in an edition of 320 copies.
Happily, our times are less hamstrung by genre and things seem to be changing, with not only the UK premiere of this piece but a Guardian retrospective written to accompany the concert.
If Russell is known for one thing, it's finding common ground between minimalist music and disco. Ironic then that, not using the repetitive phrases of Reich or Glass, 'Tower of Meaning' seems less related to disco than minimalism in general! Brass-dominated and composed of long, slow melodic lines, instruments dropping out and re-joining give it a sense of momentum, even though there's nothing you could call musical progression. In a way it's more installation piece than composition. (It was originally conceived of as a soundtrack.)
There's an almost stately feel to it that makes it strangely calming, like a kind of second cousin to Bryan's 'Sinking of The Titanic', making for ideal Sunday night fare, arriving after the business of the week was done. (The tempo on the original recording was achieved by artificially slowing the session tape, meaning for live versions it needed to be re-transcribed.) There's an underlying assumption that it doesn't need to travel anywhere, that it's precisely where it wants to be, and so can just trace elegant circles – regatta rather than journey.
Slightly eccentrically, the running order of the supporting programme wasn't written up anywhere. I just about guessed that none was by Russell himself, and that the opening solo cello piece was yer actual classical. (It turned out to be Bach.) A string quartet was later revealed to be by Mica Levi (of whom the record shows Lucid Frenzy to be a fan), 'You Belong To Me'. the violins constantly pulling ahead while the cello acts as a brake.
But my favourite from the first half was 'Wolff Tone E-Tude' by Mary Jane Leach, a composer previously unknown to me. Her work, it says here, “reveals a fascination with the physicality of sound, its acoustic properties and how they interact with space”. A description which, perhaps against the odds, her piece lived up to. It built up steadily from a drone, with each instrument slowly and steadily finding it's own voice, yet rather than breaking away still contributing to the whole. Certainly a name to look out for.
Two longstanding collaborators of Russell's, Bill Ruye and Peter Zummo, stood out against the much younger London Contemporary Orchestra and Oliver Coates of the recent Deep Minimalism mini-festival. The audience alike were overwhelmingly young, plus plentiful, despite this being an overspill from a sold out Saturday night. In fact, performed in the round while punters sat or laid casually around, it had a much similar feel to Deep Minimalism. Further evidence a thriving scene is building around this music.
Saturday, 14 January 2017
Saturday, 7 January 2017
(Yes, finishing tomorrow. Rush, my pretties, rush...)
”I could act as a Trojan horse that would spew forth hallucinating figures with the power to surprise, to disturb the dreams of the exploiters.”
- Wilfredo Lam
Though almost always known through the shorthand term 'the Cuban Surrealist', Wifredo Lam's talent was incubated in Europe. He was painting before leaving Cuba, but the work was conventional. It was initially Madrid which introduced him to both artistic and political radicalism, after he won a scholarship to study in Spain in 1931.
He became not merely pro-Republican but Marxist, closely associating political change with artistic innovation, not just creating agitational art but working in a munitions factory (till the chemicals took a toll on his health). While, in a manner not entirely dissimilar to the early Malevich, his paintings cycled through copies of Modernist styles. For example 'Composition I' (1930, below) is an accomplished but somewhat generic exercise in tick-list Surrealism – the moonlight dreamscape, the sexually charged Hollywood blonde, the mannequin figures, the long shadows, the highly symbolic body of water.
The most successful element is the tugging perspective, the tilted-back head of the main figure leading to the steps and the jetty, pulling the viewer into the composition as if it's aim is to leave you dangling at the end of that jetty. There's also a neat touch where her hair becomes linked to the curtain draping the right half of the picture.
And if that doesn't seem generic enough, the later 'Composition II' (1933) features a giant Terry Gilliam foot. I'd always thought that was an image people retrospectively assigned to Surrealism, in the same way they imagine it was obsessed with fish. While other works are as influenced by Matisse, such as 'Self-Portrait II'</> (1938). Had he continued in this vein, he would have been but a footnote in Modernism's history.
The Awakening African (Putting The Black Back)
But from hereon emerges a pattern where historical upset bouncing him around the map like a pinball, but always galvanising his art. Fleeing fascist advance in May 1938, he escaped to Paris clutching a letter of introduction to Picasso. Something which might seem like one of those cursed magic objects of folk tales, for the norm is for artists to either become trapped within Picasso's orbit or escape it. Yet for Lam he seems to have been an enabling figure, introducing him around and even exhibiting with him.
It even seems to be Picasso who suggested that Lam explore his African heritage in his art. One variant of the story claims that he saw an African mask for the first time in Picasso's studio, and did not initially know where it was from. In the vidclip below, his son Eskil claims Picasso used the phrase “you should be proud of this”. The show also mentions his becoming a visitor at the Musee de l'Homme. (Though Cuba had been a Spanish colony, with it's different empire France would have had a bigger hoard of African art.)
Notably, in his new African-influenced style he created a self portrait, 'Self-Portrait II' (1938); the show underlines the point by hanging it next to the Matisse-dervied 'Self-Portrait II'. But a stronger and more significant work might be the almost audaciously reductive 'Young Woman on a Light Green Background' (1938, below).
With the figure herself a pale sandy yellow, barely distinguishable from that background, it's the thick black lines of the features which are pushed forward. The figure's deliberately codified, broken down. A horizontal line serves for an eye, three lines for a mouth, and two parallel diagonals for shoulder blades. It's only their arrangement that gives them their significance. It's as if Lam was no longer chasing the latest thing in art, but instead tugging at it's roots.
Despite Picasso's comment it is effectively impossible to reconstruct how much Lam was responding to African art as a Modernist, taking inspiration from primitive styles, and how much as a black man taking up his heritage. We should remember he first saw African mark quite literally through Modernism's eyes. But there do seem to be elements of both in the art.
'Figure' (1939, above) gives us an almost identical silhouette to 'Young Woman'. But everything is transposed, the background a roughly painted off-white while the figure itself becomes a window onto coloured symbols and motifs. Once more, the figure looks female. And Lam had been influenced by Surrealism, where female figures are often totems for the id. Lam's Africa is not accoutrements, not hangings on the wall, it's placed on the inside.
But stronger still is 'The Awakening' (1938, below). Despite the title only one of the two figures is waking. And, as in the title, she seems caught in that act - eyes still closed slits, hands at her face as if her features were a new thing. The grid patterns of the roof and floor suggest confinement, particularly when compared to the non-backgrounds of the previous works, and throws the figures' nakedness into relief. While not necessarily specifically a painting about slavery, the work does suggest an emerging black consciousness.
African influences were of course widespread in Modernism. Even by this point, some thought the influence played out and had started looking to more remote points on the map for inspiration. Romantic as it sounds, there may be something about Lam's heritage which allowed him to wholeheartedly take up the influence and come up with something more original from it.
Nevertheless, history would push Lam two more times before his mature style would emerge...
Horns and Hybrids
Again fleeing the advance of fascism, Lam was caught in Marseilles in June 1940 – including Andrew Breton and many of the prominent Surrealists. The show presents this period as a kind of incubation chamber. Like unattended house guests, with little else to do they occupied their own time - drawing together, often collectively. The situation was doubtless fraught. Lam wrote at the time of “another day of anguish and disgust”. Yet his Marseilles Notebooks, as they came to be called, came to be significant.
The show wisely includes some of these (sample page above), and even gives over a small room to his general drawings. They're full of linear and often flat drawings of women and animal hybrids, much of which sticks in his art. But describing them as “a new pictorial zodiac of creatures” suggests they were some kind of preparatory aid. Whereas his drawings cannot really be separated from his main body of work, for reasons we'll come onto.
These hybrid figures emerge in an important (if transitional) work, 'Portrait of HH' (1943, above). The thick, geometric black lines have now been softened and curved, the bold colours gradated. Despite being adorned with horns the face is sympathetic, with the torso contoured into the shape of the chair. The subject,Helena Holzer, was in a relationship with Lam at the time. Yet the mixture of strength and softness gives off a highly maternal feel.
While the Surrealists were mostly able to escape to America, Lam was briefly interned before – in August 1941 – returning to Cuba. His work came to be influenced by the Yoruba religion, which can be regarded as related to Voodoo. The main product of this was 'The Jungle' (1943), generally regarded as Lam's finest work. Unfortunately, created on paper, it's now considered too delicate to travel, so is not part of this show.
However, this show does have 'The Sombre Malembo, Gods of the Crossroads' (1943, above), which is perhaps not just Lam's second-greatest work but a variant on the theme. The colour scheme, dominated by deep but mottled greens, is entirely new. Though outlined in black, and at points highlighted in purple, the figures seem to blend into one another (as with his hybrid drawings) and to be half-emerging from, half fading into the background.
Though you initially see a forest setting, there's really a print-like pattern of leaf forms and mere suggestions of sectioned bamboo-like trunks. This effect is most likely because the figures themselves look so plant-like, with their tuber-like heads, flowing hair and rooted feet. Their features are as impassive and inscrutable as the African faces earlier.
Rather than a realised work, a window onto a scene, it looks like a portal, a doorway into some other kind of space. These aren't semi-camouflaged figures hiding out in the jungle, like fairies living at the bottom of the garden in children's stories. Nor are they symbolic lords over it, like Cuban Oberons. These are more animist works, both apparition and nature scene, where Lam is conveying the spirit of the jungle.
Andre Breton said of Lam's work of this period: “This aspect of the human issued from the idol, still half-entangled in the legendary treasure of humanity... the architecture of the head sinks onto the scaffolding of totemic animals which are believed to have been driven off, but which return.”
The show makes much of Lam employing the secret symbols of tribal religion, used to counter suppression. Yet it's important to note that he wasn't interested in the Yoruba equivalent of Bible illustration. Though figures and motifs recur, he's principally using Yoruba as a repository of images and themes. He commented “I have never created my pictures on terms of a symbolic tradition, but always on the basis of a poetic execution”.
Take the horns, now moved from the portrait of HH to these bulbous heads. Significantly Elegua, the messenger of the Gods, had a horned head. But according to Western tradition so did the cuckold. And Lam was in a sense cuckolded by history, himself a hybrid creature. This was a time when 'mulattos' (a pejorative term for mixed race akin to 'half-caste') often suffered increased discrimination. It's inaccurate to see Lam as a primitive artist, channelling his Third World roots onto the canvas, someone to be stuck in a box marked 'ethnic'.
It doesn't seem conceivable he could have created these works if he'd simply stayed in Cuba. Not only did his art develop through encountering Modernism in Europe, he needed to return to Cuba to see, as the show puts it, “the country with new eyes”. (While his estate's website refers to his “exile to the native land”.)
Moreover, Cuba was itself a hybrid culture. Lam's antecedents had been but one group of Africans to move, or be moved, there. And Yoruba was itself heterodox, like Voodoo borrowing from Catholicism. Lam himself said: “When I came back to Cuba, I was taken aback by its nature, by the traditions of the Blacks, and by the transculturation of its African and Catholic religions”.
And this was seem in microcosm within Lam's family. His life did not become polyglot the day he moved to Spain. His godmother had been a Santeira princess, his father Chinese. His son says, again in the vidclip below, he considered himself a citizen of the world. And it's in not concealing but bringing all these traditions together, in seeking to unite past traditions with the present, that Lam was a Modernist. Here he paints the Gods of the Crrossroads. And like them he was not just on but of those crossroads.
”But Which Returns” (The Shadow Scenes)
Like most, knowing Lam's career only through the highlights, I was surprised to discover how brief this period was. 'The Eternal Present' (1944, above) comes only a year later, but is already heading for pastures new. There are compositional similarities, an arrangement of hybrid figures around a darkened centre, horns raised at the apex of the picture. But those verdant colours soon become quite sombre, with this work in monochrome brown. In fact the colour looks strangely absent, as if faded away. And the background, while it still has some sense of a dark recess to it, also incorporates a wrapping curtain. It's less a hazy apparition, more of a tableau.
But mostly, what's unmissable is the Surrealist saturation of art with sexualised violence. Two naked projecting bums bookend the work, while vulvas and penises project everywhere. In the upper centre a head of corn protrudes from a vulva-like ear, while another vulva adorns a tail at lower right. Of two prominent knives, the one at lower right seems to sprout a bird head for a handle. The horned head on the platter and the two-headed spear are motifs which will recur throughout this work.
This develops into works featuring, as the show puts it, “bright foreground bodies shrouded by dark forms in the shallow space.” Indeed it becomes challenging to frame the figures as they bend off in myriad directions, often snaking right across the canvas, unconstrained by the normally alloyed number of limbs. The influence of those earlier Surrealist automatist drawings is here, you can't imagine these compositions being composed so much as being created impulsively. And it seems clear enough why the figures should be unclear, as they soon start to lose their differentiation from one another.
'The Jungle' and 'The Sombre Malembo' could be said to be sinister works. Their spirits don't look the insipid New Agey sort, there to fill the heads of Western visitors with feelgood wisdom. But they're strangely inviting, connecting one world with another, metaphorically as well as literally colourful. While what follows is unmistakably savage. As art critic Marco Valsecchi commented “Lam alerts us to the existence of a disquieting state of being”.
The show presents three large paintings, first show together in a New York exhibition of 1948, all characterised by a kind of anti-symmetrical parallelism. Let's focus on the first two, which feature two figures trapped in a kind of symbiotic adversity. In both cases they look respectively male and female, telegraphed by the first being titled 'The Wedding' (1947, below).
The side figures 'rhyme' one another, the right one with a long tapered leg suggesting femininity. While it has a tail and finishes in a hoof, the male figure is shadowed by some animal creature. (I suspect these shadow forms mean something between spirit, second self and true nature.) A central figure is in an inverse crucifixion form. A horn-like ribcage, horns above and wheel below grant the figure something close to symmetry. Yet he holds out different objects, a sword and a candelabra, to the others.
The show suggests this figure is Maldoror from Lautremont's epic poem, whose opposition to religious morality made him a significant figure for the Surrealists. One of literature's most irreligious figures is given the role of the marrying priest. These elements may be opposed but their existence is predicated on that opposition, they could never be extricated from one another. The work's character is ritualised, perhaps even ceremonial, yet simultaneously savage, suggesting some primal civil war which locks us into it's patterns of violence. (And if another picture in the trilogy is called 'Nativity', you can probably draw your own conclusions...)
And this paralleling is echoed in the next picture, 'Belial, Emperor of the Flies' (1948, above). Though there's a bizarre echo in the right-hand leg, generally the genders of the figures look reversed, the left figure composed of curves and the right angles, with a rather testes-like Adam's apple . Unusually for Lam in this era, the darkest point isn't the centre of the frame but taken by the right-hand figure. His malevolent grin seems to dominate. There's something like the upside-down central figure of 'The Wedding', though pushed to the right and perhaps incorporated with the dark male.
The image seems to seethe with barely sublimated conflict. She stands solidly on all (yes, really) four legs, a knife held (concealed?) behind her while he pushes to the centre of the frame. The pointed arrow at the top of the frame seems to counter his thrusting hand, while also echoed by the two feet set toe-to-toe against one another. At the same time as this barely checked violence there's birth imagery, with the egg to the right, while the head held aloft on the platter could be read as a foetus.
Belial is a demon from the Hebrew Bible, while Emperor of the Flies sounds close enough to the Lord of the Flies, aka the Devil. Yet the show suggests he's also Chango (the Youruba deity of Thunder), and Mars against her Venus. Venus and Mars were often depicted in Classical art as lovers, often with an implicit “make love not war” message where she was able to sooth his lust for battle, for example in Botticelli's' Mars and Venus' (c. 1483). Whereas with Lam it's very much Venus being dragged into Mars' world.
The Fifties saw the wild, loose-limbed figures give way to more geometric forms, almost like animate symbols, while the colours become bolder. Sometimes these could be literally made into painted totem poles of motifs and symbols, such as 'Totem To the Moon' (1955) and 'Totem For the Moon' (1957). (They also saw him once more upset by events, having to flee the imposition of the Batista dictatorship in Cuba in 1952. From there he lived variously in Italy, Switzerland, and back in Spain, Paris and Cuba. However, the change in his art seems to come first and now, with the main elements of his style complete, his work becomes less informed by outside events.)
'The Threshold' (1950, above), for example is sharper in an almost literal sense, and with it crueller - dominated by a triple diamond formation. Symmetry is associated with power art, and here they seem to be descending like a portcullis on a limbless and already broken figure beneath. The only humanised features belong to the one mute witness, shadowed in the lower left. (The expression is of shock, but the horns would seem to implicate it.) We've gone from the primacy of violence to the primacy of sacrifice. Notably, as with the earlier trilogy, the more you look at the work the more the symmetry starts to break down. The forms inside the diamonds vary considerably, particularly in their lower half.
If not quite giving due attention to Lam's drawings, the show does present his prints. There's often a paradox to them. They can give the figures a fluidity, a sense of motion beyond the paintings, their stretches and contortions virtually wrenching the eye across the frame. Yet they can feel a bit too fixed, too visible, too in plain view. There's a sense in the paintings of the figures never quite being capturable, while the prints shine on them a spotlight which denudes them of their mystery. The best are in the 'Apostrap' Apocalypse' series (1964/6, example above), created with the Romanian poet Gherasim Luca. These are looser, more plasticated, splattered with tints and tones. Bird forms come to predominate.
'The Soulless Children' (1964, above), though a decade and a half later, recalls 'The Wedding' both in it's use of multiplied elongated forms and paralleling of a male and female figure. But this time there seems more of a scene, actually looking quite domesticated. The male figure seems to be examining a horned dome-head like some sort of specimen, while the female has countless morphing figures on her lap. The space between them, which seems to double as third figure and cabinet, is a tumult. Children are presented as some sort of infestation, with no likeness between them and their parents.
While 'At the End of the Night' (1969, above) brings back the diamond forms of 'The Threshold', but again in an entirely different way. They now light the work in clusters of soft colours, like the lights of a distant city. Two figures, composed of less geometrically perfect triangular forms float towards this, their limbs already linked to it by a series of intersections. It's about as Jungian as the earlier works were Freudian. It looks like an image of the soul reaching the afterlife, so much so it's surprising to discover Lam lived until 1982.
Coming in the New Year! Assuming Dickhead the First doesn't kill us all as soon as inaugurated, more of the same. More visual arts reviews and gig-going adventures, for at least the next two to three months. The mini-series on abstract and semi-abstract art might even pick up again at some point. Then maybe time to dip back into that science fiction business…