Saturday, 10 December 2016


St. George's Church, Brighton, Sat 3rd Dec

Now flying below the radar for something like twenty-three years, the constant core of Low is the couple of Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker (guitar and drums respectively). Their signature sound is sparse (Parker's drum kit barely breaking into the plural) and yet expansive. Despite being dubbed with the slowcore tag, they can fall so quiet you'd hear a pin drop but can also crank up the noise as soon as it it suits them.

Though there's post-rock and sometimes even minimalist elements to their sound, their strong melodic sense sense means even the extended numbers never quite give up on being songs. They're particularly effective at double vocals, perhaps suggesting there's harmonies and then there's husband-and-wife harmonies. None less than Robert Plant covered two of their tracks on his 'Band of Joy' album.

If they don't actually sound much like Slint, both have the sense that their element is moonlight, less at odds with the workaday world than belonging in some parallel reality to it. I was particularly pleased they were returning to St. George's Church, as they work best outside of regular rock venues.

Though I've now seen the band live a few times, there was always one piece of the puzzle which never seemed to fit. I am not, I hope you know, so blinkered as to not listen to music made by Christians. In fact this time last year I saw Josh T Pearson at a similar Church in Hove, singing Pentecostal hymns, and commented “what a great songbook the hymn book really is”.

But Sparhawk and Parker are Mormons. And, with no disrespect to their good selves, I cannot help but regard Mormonism as crankery. Yet their music seems a far cry from happy-clappy feelgood or proselyting platitudes. Their signature mood is sombre, their songs taking place in a strange and ultimately unknowable world. Sparhawk has said of them "It's about not having answers.” As Drowned in Sound's Euan McLean has commented, it’s “not what you’d expect from a band containing a pair of married Mormon parents.”

And what could bring all that to the fore more than a concert of Christmas songs? (Based on a 1999 EP. While their website sells limited edition Christmas socks. And no, I'm not making any of this up.) Over the years the Christmas show seems to have become a Low staple, though with not always even results. The interweb mentions a London show of some years back which was met with heckles. While the only Christmas song Humbug head here can normally cope with is the Pogues' 'Fairy Tale of New York', and only that because it speaks the word like a curse.

The set's a mixture of originals, covers (such as Elvis' 'Blue Christmas') and Christmas classics. Yes, genuine Christmas classics, such as 'Little Drummer Boy' and 'Silent Night'. Which, however unlikely that sounds, went down like mulled wine, and the songs I'd normally never ask to hear became a gig highlight! Their versions reminded me, of all things, of Jeffrey Lewis' album of Crass covers. (Well Crass themselves did a Christmas single so perhaps there's some sort of a link.) Both sing the songs their own way but with absolute conviction, without smartypants reworkings and not a note of hipster irony. Can christmas carols be as great as the hymn book, or is it just what Low bring to them? I don't suppose there's any telling.

Certainly they're kitted out for such material. They sing simply and undemonstratively, with little inflection, like all the vocal is there to do is to serve the song. An attitude which always reminds me of folk music, but perhaps religious music is similar in that way.

Strangely, rather than shackling the band to the theme the result was quite possibly the most varied set I've seen from them. Precisely one track went for undermining the Christmas spirit,'Santa’s Coming Over', infusing the line “will he see the cookies?” with more menace than most death metal bands manage in a career. (A great track, but not something you could sustain for a set.) One number was so full of Christmas cheer it prompts an audience clap-along, a first for any Low gig I've been to.

Actually from the gig (no really)...

The Haunt, Brighton, Wed 7th Dec

This young Irish four-piece are, as the name might suggest, an all male band. (In the tradition of Girl and Girls Against Boys. Though apparently one of the Theoretical Girls was genuinely a girl!)

The opening track sets out their stall, over almost insanely metronomic guitar sounds the singer screams a single line over and over - “Why they hide their bodies under my garage?” It seems simultaneously a nonsense mantra and buried trauma recalled through the power of primal scream. While the guitars don't sound much like guitars, yet never quite not like guitars. It sounds like the scarier side of techno, somehow transcribed onto rock instruments. (And I learn later it's a cover of the electronic dance outfit Blawan.)

Instruments can sound like they're howling and shrieking with mistreatment, or as abrasive as a key dragging down the paintwork. It's often the sheer audacious act of repeating them which turns the sounds into riffs. They'll hold to a line for near-absurd lengths, then suddenly blow it wide open. (There were no Christmas numbers that night. Unless they did a delayed encore of ’Rocking Around The Christmas Tree’ after I’d left the venue.) Yet there's just about enough melody to keep things this side of outright noise rock.

They have a style but never anything so predictable as a formula. Tracks can stretch, or deliver their blow and get out. One, which sounds like a rock version of gabba, is done in thirty seconds. Surprisingly, however good they are at internal dynamics, about their only weakness is endings – some songs just crash out.

As a rough and ready guide, imagine 'Idiot'-era Iggy, with it's recipe of rock-meets-electronic-dance. The vocals in particular have his mix of arch and frenzied. Yet instead of being produced by Bowie with proper musicians, imagine it was kicked into life in a Detroit basement by the original Stooges. It harnesses the relentlessness of dance music, while keeping the animal abandon of punk.

Phil Harrison wrote in the Quietus: “These are cranky, abstracted journeys through texture, noise and rhythm with howling, gibbering singer Dara Kiely as our unreliable spirit guide. At their best, Girl Band manage to locate a sweet spot between chaos and precision, poise and frenzy, hysteria and logic.” Which sums it up so well I don't know why I don't just pack up and leave things to the pros.

The venue's packed, with the audience raging from photogenic indie kids to other old codgers like me. Much like the original Stooges, there's no telling how much they're working by animal instinct and how much by smarts. Which makes it hard to predict how much longevity the band might have. But let's hope they can keep this thing up...

Not from an indoor venue in Brighton during the winter. You may have guessed that by yourself…

Sunday, 4 December 2016



Yes, Colour Out of Space has hit seven! Self-described as an “international experimental sound and art festival”, with the alternative guide Eyeball guaranteeing “maximum weird shit”. As ever, it was a solid three-day festival and what follows is by necessity sketchy and incomplete...

This year one whole day was given over to Fylkingen, a Stockholm-based contemporary music collective who've been operational since (yes really) 1933, with a record label from 1966 and venue from 1971. What was indicative about their group interview was how insistently up the wrong tree it barked. Again and again it was asked what they had in common while they continued to insist the only answer was a negative – they didn't want anything that had been done before, anything being done elsewhere. And, after seven years, we can safely say the same is true of the Colour Out of Space programme.

And so perhaps inevitably, as ever with COOS, with the Fylkingen folks or over the whole weekend, things went from the compelling to the excruciating, from acts you willed to be over to those you never wanted to end. But it's worth taking the rough with the smooth. For one thing, it's good to deprive yourself of the fast-forward button. There's much music which I initially hated, then through slow exposure came to love. Yet these digital days, when you can so easily just click away, you can forage while actually stay in your box. Which leaves the live setting as the only chance music has to get to work on you. Admittedly, there wasn't one instance of this happening all weekend. (Excluding acts which simply took a little time to get going.) But still, it's a good habit to keep up.

To misquote Frank Zappa, does humour belong in noise? Interviewed for the previous Festival, chief curator Dylan Nyoukis recalls his Mother attending and asking him if it was okay to laugh. Which is pretty funny in it's own right. And despite the dour stereotype some conceive of, many acts come ready-aware of their own absurdity. But there's also no shortage of outright humourous pieces, which serve to break up what might otherwise be a relentless drill-bit intensity – the clowns between the circus acts. Perhaps accounts of previous years have followed the tortured artists and skipped over the funny stuff a bit too much.

And what's interesting is that even if your only aim is to act ridiculous, it can be as hard to cut it as a clown as a musician. Fylkingen's WOL, despite an overlong preamble which was really just an extended setting-up, managed to masterfully twang stretches of sellotape. And by 'masterfully' I mean their ability to perfectly pull the 'pained concentration' face of the classical pianist, as if stretched tape was their chosen means of expressing their art. It's never what the clown does which makes him funny, it's his hopelessly serious intent.

Whereas Anne Pajunen (also of Fylkingen) seemed to knowingly nudge you in the ribs with her inverted-commas absurdity. Such performances seem a form of 'safe space shock'. While Dada aimed to antagonise audiences this feels aimed at in-the-know hipsters, ready to laugh along, wanting the self-congratulatory part of outrage while avoiding any actual outrage.

I wouldn't be sure in what category to put W Mark Sutherland. Intoning Russian Futurist poetry in amassed anti-languages, he jumped off stage, traversed the auditorium and finally passed through the exit door. An usher confirmed he was still proclaiming the stuff as he left the building. Perhaps I'll cross paths with him in a couple of weeks, down some Brighton sidestreet, as he continues to Klang and Zaum.

After I've seen a great impro performance I'm almost apprehensive over seeing them again. Will the magic work a second time? So it was with Angharad Davies, who I last saw surpassing superlatives at Aural Detritus.

She was again playing unamplified violin, this time in a duo with Lina Lapelyte. I always take to a good visual corollary for the music in the staging, and they placed themselves in the centre of the room, back-to-back and circling one another. In impro music, too often one provides the click track for the other to extemporise around. But here neither took on a fixed role, but played continually interwoven lines – a true collaboration. Their playing went from strident bowing to ethereally exploring the edge of hearing and back again. Fantastic stuff!

As said in previous years, acts which are simply novel means of sound sourcing (such as sticking a contact mike down your throat), quickly become merely gimmicky. An antidote of sorts was Fylkingen's Marja-Leena Sillanpaaset - who set up a power electronics system and simply stepped back, allowing it to develop without her. It was powered, insofar as I could tell, by a detuned radio which set up resonances among the rest of the kit. 

The willingness to surrender authorial intent, to trust to the elements, was Cagean – even if the resultant music sounded nothing like him. I looked round afterwards to see someone sopping wet. He'd found it so oppressive he couldn't even stay in the same building, so had stood it out in the rain. Whereas for me it was exhilarating...

Phantom Chips was an act of two halves. The first part reproduced the eternally multitasking nature of the modern mind, unable to actually settle on a single thought, like a TV flitting through a thousand channels as if they all require watching at once. Something usually conveyed by frenetic skittering beats, a device which only ups the ante while actually providing a point of continuity. Chips' act was more like a myriad of sound sources, overlapping without overtyping one another. And, interestingly, rather than an anti-modern critique it more conveyed the exhilarating buzz which embracing the electronic flow can bring on.

Half-way through, she introduced her patented squeeze-nodule and stretch-string instruments - which she promptly handed out among the audience. Her infectiously cheery Aussie character did undo the usual laptop stereotype, the outsider who never actually steps outside the house. And her choosing a child to conduct the various players was appealing. But it fell between the stools of performance and workshop. Overall, I preferred the Phantom to the Chips.

Another Fylkingen fellow, Mikael Preys' music-and-film combinations seemed to me like fractal black holes. The film seemed continually going into greater and greater close-up as the music grew into greater and greater intensity, like perpetually crossing over the event horizon with no handbrake. You were metaphorically and literally drawn in at the same time.

Cassis Cornuta played an amassed array of eight Korgi keyboards. So many they just had to be set up before the start of the evening, then left on stage awaiting him - like Chekov's gun. Like a jumbo jet it was slow and rumbling in take off, but once going it soared powerfully.

I wasn't sure whether Daniel and Marcelvs L Lowenbruck's piece counted as sound art, instillation or an exercise in crowd psychology. Only when we didn't get handed questionnaires at the end did I start to rule out the last one. Let's call in an environmental work, something which needed that particular setting for it's effect.

In a darkened room they unleashed a sonic maelstrom, including what sounded like farmyard genocide, while a strobe randomly fired at us. Intoning performers weaved in and out of the crowd. Passing in and out of hearing, it sounded like there might be some 'stage' element you hadn't spotted yet, and people started to shuffle around in search of it. Whereupon you started to smell smoke... There should surely be a strong distinction between jockeying for a view-spot and the flight instinct triggered by fire, and yet the two did seem to readily combine.

Having endured some of the daftest excesses of the industrial scene, I'm normally skeptical of 'extreme' music, figuring extremes are normally where the dead ends are. But whatever it was the Lownbrucks' did has some gut-level, reason-bypassing effectiveness, like some old shamanic ritual designed to scare you out of your old skin. And it's appealing to come across works which are not photo-ops or YouTubeable. Sometimes you really have to be there, however out of fashion that is.

Matt Krefting simply played tapes. Yes, old cassette tapes on a range of old players, and seemingly mixing them only via the bass and volume dials with which they came. Given this lowest-of-lo-fi in the devices at his disposal, I'm unable to explain how he made the sounds he did or how it all worked so effectively. As far as I could ascertain, each cassette became an instrument in a minimalist composition, a means by which he could set up resonances between them. So the effectiveness of the headline act on Friday night became not how many punters the vinyl DJ got jumping, but how many bodies the tape player got reclining flat on the floor. He didn't wish us pleasant dreams, but I'm sure most had them anyway.

Whereas the Sunday night led to dreams of a very different nature...

Though I know Romanian spectralist composer Iancu Dumitrescu more by reputation, what little I've heard has confirmed his high reputation. As the record shows, I'm an enthusiastic ignoramus where Spectralism is concerned. So had the programme been him and Coldplay on bongos, I'd have probably got myself a ticket.

Accompanied by fellow composer, collaborator and wife Ana-Marie Avram for his afternoon interview, they proved so gloriously eccentric, so fitting of the deranged genius composer role, that I half wondered if they hired character actors to play themselves. Perhaps while remaining safely ensconced back in Bucharest catching up on soaps. I did manage to pick up... at least I think I did... that while influenced by Modernist music they were as equally steeped in the still-strong folk tradition of Transylvania. (Which remains a part of the world not overly troubled by modernity.) But they didn't seek to synthesise the two so much as find their commonalities, re-opening the links where classical music had driven a wedge. Those folk connections seemed to lead to them feeling very much of an Eastern tradition, where Bartok was a star in their sky while Messiaen not.

Looking back over my comments from previous years, it seems every festival there is a storm to which I compare one of the acts. Well, this year there was another storm and... Actually, they sound less like a simple storm than a whole weather system, an array of elemental forces at work. Playing with their own Hyperiorn Ensemble, sounds would cluster powerfully together then as quickly fragment – like violent squalls followed by eerie calm.

Morton Feldman said the process of creating music should seem a mystery to the listener. And that's true here, even though we know a little of how Dumitrescu does it. The ensemble play with standard classical instruments (a double bass, timpanis), already pushed to the limits of their sound range and then electronically treated by the man. My lowbrow comparison would be that pure electronica can be like CGI in films. Anything can be done, and then it is. And yet it feels somehow synthetic, removed from our world. While with Dumitrescu you can never quite fix on a point where the natural instruments lose their sound, and the resultant experience is gloriously disorienting. Like Modernist music going back to Stravinsky, it sounds primal and unearthly at the very same time.

The middle worked solely featured Avran's voice (well with a little of Dumitrescu's), so presumably was one of her compositions. And while it was not as iconoclastically striking as his, it was possibly even more effective. Her singing would be multi-tracked and delayed, but every time it built up to a crescendo it would twist into an entirely new direction. Perhaps hearing the human voice break the bounds of possibility is more effective than with classical instruments.

One day I hope to know enough about Spectralist music to say something coherent about it. Partly so I can call the piece 'Spectralism is Haunting Europe'. For now... when caught out by the clock, Dumitrescu promised us he'd return soon. Let's hope he holds to it.

Friends Centre, Brighton, Fri 25th Nov

Alvin Lucier is an American composer of music and sound instillations, a former member of the Sonic Arts Union, who mixes conventional instruments with unusual sound sources, and straight scores with process works.

Adam Bushell, doubling as participant and compere, made for an engaging presence, introducing Lucier without wrapping him up in over-fancy terminology. Though Lucier's best-known for his Sixties work, the programme's oldest piece was from 1980, while three were post-millennial. (Bushell explained this was largely due to difficulties staging the more instillation-based pieces.)

The programme ran the range for me, with some I was waiting to be over almost as soon as they began, and others... well, let's focus on some of those others.

'I Remember' featured no less than eight participants who blew an array of objects to create a drone tone, while in turn reciting memories. (The score requesting you find and use your own memory.) Unamplified, you mostly couldn't hear what these personal memories were, they barely rose above the drone hum. But then I don't think they were the point. The idea, I'd surmise, was to create an environment where it's made easier for you to recall your own memories. The drone tones evoke a sense of timelessness and instil a meditative state, while the participants' memories merely joggers to make your own recall easier.

Except it was less a mechanism to dig up memories, than a frame in which to consider memory. It's strange after all the way we so readily accept our memories aren't neatly logged like computer files, but weave in and out of reach like a short wave radio band. And the way the voices arose, but only semi-arose, from the drone static conveyed that.

'Precious Metals' created quadrophonic sound by the simple expedient of placing speakers in the four corers of the room, emitting more drone tones. Brass players, stationed by each speaker, would break in at intervals. Rather than have their own lines they'd always play precisely on top of one another, so their various timbres would combine. It was as if a single instrument was able to produce some multi-level sound, like a 3D shape for the ears. It felt non-durational, like it was some eternal piece which we were only hearing a random section from.

But my favourite piece was the opening, and most recent, number - 'Criss Cross'. One string was permanently held down on two guitars, in fact the same string for each, providing an even tone. The playing came through simply altered it's tuning. Like much of Steve Reich's work, the resonances created from this simple-seeming input became richer and richer as the piece progressed. It started sounding like no guitars you'd ever heard, and went stranger from there. Several numbers were 'duets' between sound sources (for example another featured the human voice and an oscillator), but of them this was by far the most effective.

It might be some kind of fool's errand to try and find commonalities between the various pieces. But... if Lucier's chiefly associated with the Sixties, his music couldn't be less dramatic or iconoclastic, or sounding like it arose from a cultural firmament. Instead it's calm, perhaps even sombre. And it seems less formally experimental (in the “what would happen if..?” sense) than evocative, interested in what effect it has upon the listener.

'Criss Cross'...


..with more vids here.

The Rose Hill, Brighton, Mon 14th Nov

Though I know precisely one Richard Youngs album, the early 'Advent', my mind has somehow formed itself into a quite definite notion of what he does. Wikipedia describes him as possessed of “a prolific and diverse output”, but more importantly he has a knack of bringing diverse sources together and naturalising them. He can slip between folk, drone and experimental styles like a thing between, what are walls to others being nothing to him.

At this gig he clips down the guitar neck, with a device I later learn is called a capo, then strums away. As he works through the numbers he moves the capo down the neck through each fret in turn, never forming a single chord with his fingers. He calls this approach “high concept, low technique”. With that single-chord strumming going on with the guitar, you might assume it was being used as a straight man for some more active vocals. In fact he mostly sings simple, straightforward phrases over and over until they become like mantras.

Yet rather than being some academic exercise it’s strangely melodic. You're never quite sure where the melodies are arising from, but they're there. He's singing songs, of sorts. He frequently enlists the audience as backing vocalists and hand clappers, a sure sign of a folk gig. But like many old folk songs they seem straightforward while at the same time feel slightly elusive, like you can’t quite catch what’s going on.

And yet at the same time it doesn’t seem entirely fitting for people to clap each track individually, that they're really components of a greater whole. (Though I did appreciate people’s perverse insistence to still applaud when numbers were only a few seconds long.)

While this capo-driven main set was all from a forthcoming album, the encore was described ironically as a “greatest hit”. For the accompaniment this time he had stillless to do with his guitar – placing it on the floor, he weighted the strings down and modified the sound only by stamping his foot nearby. Yet this was the nearest thing to a clear-cut folk song of the whole set, and somehow felt warming when so much of his music is wintery.

That Wikipedia page also quotes him as finding life performance “nerve wracking”. But rather than some sensitive artist type his stage presence is avuncular and very often genuinely funny. (This being the guy who titled an album 'The Great Difficult Music Swindle'.) Which initially surprised me, but I finally found it fitting. There’s an intensity to the music but also humour, an awareness of it’s own absurdity without being meta or ironic. Youngs seems capable of doing almost everything at once, with the barest of materials. High concept, low technique equals minimal input, maximal output. The guy's an original.

Those who know me may spot me in the audience...

Friday, 25 November 2016


The latest in a series on artists who dealt in abstraction and semi-abstraction. (Which is of course a thin cover for this being another art exhibition review which gets written up absurdly late.) Previous entry, on Kandinsky here.

“By Suprematism I mean the supremacy of pure feeling in creative art. To the Suprematist the visual phenomena of the objective world are, in themselves, meaningless; the significant thing is feeling.”
- Malevich

The Modernist Magpie

For the longest time, I associated the Russian artist Kazimir Malevich with Mondrian. An artist whose formulatory early years turned out to be their best work. An artist who, as soon as he'd figured out what he wanted to do, had boxed himself into a corner. In Mondrian's case a yellow box, in Malevich's a black one. But the same difference. His Black Square, beloved of art history books, was a full stop – the cul de sac of the path of abstraction. Once it was reached there was nothing left to do but turn back again.

With Mondrian, I still contend that's pretty much true. Yet Malevich's story turns out to be richer...

For an artist renowned for having so singular a style, it's weird to watch Malevich starting out by looking like everybody else. And it really is everybody else. He's able to cycle through so many Modernist styles so quickly, taking from each elements that suit him, like a Magpie in flight. Just get ahead of yourself for a second and scroll down to glance at at the next six or seven illos. They're not just from the same hand, they were created within a four year period.

Seeing an exhibition like this can be like reading a book where you already know the ending. It can distort your vision of what's happening right now. So, despite our natural tendency to look for Malevich expunging elements from his art, we should pause a moment to consider what stays. Abstraction is commonly assumed to lead from landscapes or still lives; the human figure so strong an image in our minds it needs to be suppressed before we can start to see a picture's formal elements. (Try looking at a still life of a vase of flowers merely as shapes and colours, then try the exercise again for a portrait.) But the human figure remains dominant, perhaps even a fixation, in Malevich's art right up to the switch-over. A rare landscape can even be called simply 'Landscape' (1906).

Matisse is a visible early influence, for example in 'Bather' (1911, below). With it's bold outlines, it's real or apparent blocks of vibrant colour, it's an evocation of movement. It's audaciously simplified figure shows little interest in anatomical accuracy, the torso is simply a sausage from which protrudes oversized flapping hands and striding feet.

Malevich soon joined the Donkey's Tail group. With a name presumably working as a self-styled irony, they determined not to be merely imitative of art abroad but (as the show puts it) “fusing the innovations of the Western avant-garde with the simplified forms and expressive colour of [their own Russian] popular prints and religious icons.” And as we saw with the 'From Russia' show, this would prove a potent cocktail. The magic beans of Western Modernism were brought back and plant in the rich soil of Russian folk art, leading to some very bold beanstalks indeed.

The common folk became the subject for painting, with an almost totemic emphasis on the figure of the Peasant. He's clearly seen as the emblem for Russia, much as John Bull was for Britain. But paintings are frequently named after their central figures, who are themselves named after their activity, such as 'The Floor Polishers' (1911/12). Their facial features are normally boldly outlined, evoking types rather than depicting individuals. See for example 'On the Boulevard' (1910, below), where the figure is emphasised by being thrust out at you. If we include the bench he sits on, he extends beyond the frame in all four directions, with a disconnected landscape placed behind him like a theatre flat.

But Malevich was already moving beyond Matisse. In for example ,'The Scyther' (1911/12, below) the background is reduced to shades of red, and works somewhere between a scene and a form of patterning. It offers a vivid colour contrast to the foreground figure. With his neatly gradated black and silver-grey (looking almost like a piece of modern vector art) and mask-like face, the figure looks as metallic as the scythe he carries. And yet, rather jarringly, his feet are unshod.

And this change was coming through fresh winds blowing from the West. The Knave of Diamonds exhibition of December 1910 first brought Cubism to Russia, and spawned an indigenous group named after it. However, as we saw in an earlier review, distance allowed the Russians to take the seemingly irreconcilable Cubism and Futurism and combine them into their own synthesis – which they promptly (if uninventively) titled Cubo-Futurism. Nevertheless, most examples were more Futurist, more concerned with dynamism and speed. (See for example Natalya Goncharova’s ‘The Cyclist’, 1913)Malevich, conversely, stayed closer to the more contemplative Cubism.

With 'Head of a Peasant Girl' (1912, above) Malevich employs sombre browns and greens, the cooler colour scheme of Cubism, rather than the bright blocks he'd first borrowed from Matisse and were still being employed by the Futurists. The show finds “the title challenging the viewer to find the trace of a recognisable image in a complex arrangement of planes”. You can't, and yet like a Zen exercise the image seems perpetually just out of reach.

The title actually has a second challenge, for there's a pleasing irony in Malevich insisting so modern a painting should still be dedicated to a Peasant Girl. Yet at another point he seems less assured that he can continue to combine his influences. 'The Woodcutter', effectively a sequel to 'The Scyther', has on it's back 'Peasant Women in Church' (both 1912), not only a more traditional piece of folk art but, as its title would suggest, religious in theme. It suggests an artist divided, not sure which way to go.

And yet he did. Modernism is often caricatured as a series of dry, formal innovations, hermetically disconnected to anything outside the artist world and its fixations. And if there's a moment of truth to that, Cubism is it. It's innovations weren't important so much as revelatory. But it was art for artists. And those artists needed to swallow it down, learn it's lessons and move on. That's pretty much what Picasso did, and he was the school's co-founder. And that's precisely what Malevich does. His Matisses, however good they look, are merely more Matisses. Whereas his Cubist works, however typical they look, show him already working his way out of them.

As if the brew wasn't already heady, Dadaism is then thrown into the mix. Though it was never named as such in Russia it seems to have had the same impetus as in Germany, the looming shadow of the First World War. In 1913 Malevich collaborated on the 'Zaum' manifesto which boldly called for “the dissolution of language and the rejection of rational thought”, and started wearing the signifying wooden spoon in his buttonhole. The signature paradox of Dada, nihilist destructiveness combined with wanton playfulness, is at work - though in Malevich's case... well, let's check out which face is uppermost.

‘American in Moscow’ (1914, above) is a reason-defying collage of objects, including that identifying wooden spoon and the (at least in the popular mind) arch-Surrealist totem the fish. Among the chopped-up words and images are three chopping devices – a sabre, a saw and scissors. Even the scales on the fish's back, emphasised by being placed before the man's face, look sharp enough to cut.

Writing in the Telegraph, Richard Durrant comments “accomplished as all these early pictures are, every single one is a pastiche”. He’s right. But they’re so accomplished. And both those points are nowhere more true than with this work. It's almost the consummate early Malevich. Beneath the chaotic jumble it's well-composed... in fact too well-composed, too realized. Dada relishes in its nihilism, audaciously defying you to find it aesthetic. It's disruptive, volatile and even violent. Whereas this is art merely masquerading as anti-art. It's a great work of art. That's its success and its failure.

Nevertheless, it was Dada rather than Cubism that was to prod Malevich into abstraction. And that's less surprising than it might appear. Though people commonly couldn't find the images in it, Cubism was never intended as abstract or even proto-abstract. It treated objects much like flat-pack furniture in reverse, it took the seeming solid and disassembled it. It asked why we'd want to see objects from just one perspective in art, when that's not the way the world works. But multiple perspectives would prove not liberating enough for Malevich.

Not that Dada was any more proto-abstract. It sought to undermine language's functionality at the point of use, to make its descriptive powers seem arbitrary and thereby meaningless. But the lesson Malevich took from it was ultimately different - that you could cut language from its earthly moorings, and rather than use it to point at objects attempt to express the ineffable. “Zaum” was most likely a nonsense term akin to Dada itself, a jeer at language's inadequacy. The nearest English equivalent might be “blah”. But Malevich seems to have taken it to mean something more like “aum”. Coined to express nothing, he took it to mean everything.

And so he went and painted a big black square.

Be Square

'Black Square' (1915, above), as he decided to call it, is called by the show “one of the iconic paintings of the Twentieth Century” or by the Times' Rachel Campbell-Johnston the “Mona Lisa of Modernism”. (She uses the line early, so it pokes above the parapet of the great Murdoch paywall.)

The date I've given above follows convention, it's when the work was finished. But Malevich himself always used 1913, when he first had the idea. Which suggests it might even be the the first conceptual work of art, its idea more important than its realisation. (The same year, in 'Village' he simply wrote the word “village” on a canvas, arguing that “encompass[ed] the entire village” rather than get tied down in specifics the way an image inevitably would.)

And look when it comes. It wasn't the full stop I'd previously imagined. As it comes early in his abstract works if it's any form of grammar it's an opening quote. When the show calls it “the starting point for a wholly new approach to art”... well bugger me for a know-nothing but they prove themselves right! Malevich was soon calling this approach Suprematism, and crying “arise comrades, and free yourself from the tyranny of objects!”

Realising it in fact proved problematic, for such a large block of black paint would inevitably crack over time. (Look up close at the illo above.) To try and overcome this he repainted it four times, though it makes you wonder why he didn't just stitch a square of black material onto the canvas.

And, there being multiple versions, we even get to see it twice. Just in case you didn't get the point the first time. And in fact I'm not being sarky there. In December 1915 he staged 'The Last Exhibition of Futurist Painting 0.10', which doubled as the first Suprematist show. (The only known photo of it is above.) This is duplicated by the Tate, though more sparsely as only twelve of the original twenty paintings have survived. And seeing it in this context, rather than standalone, gives it more meaning. Hung across the top corner, its simultaneously part of and outside and above the other works. Notably its been placed next to some of the more detailed pieces, providing a contrast. In fact, though I've no idea whether this is actually the case, it looks like the other works were made to go around it.

The show makes much of this being the place where, in Russian Orthodoxy, the icon would be hung in the home. (Ironically its also the place a modern power object goes, the playback screen in shops showing punters the security cameras are working.) There's debate about whether this is meant as some Dadaist provocation or a genuinely spiritualist gesture. My money's on the second one. In fact it made me think of the way Hebrew scrolls would only use a placeholder for the name of God, but still place that placeholder into a sentence. The exhibition looks like it's built up as a sentence in that way, the works as words, meaning stemming from context.

Yet in a sense this all exhibits the limits of Malevich's approach. Language always depends on context for meaning. It can point at the ineffable, but only by contrasting with the here and now. Malevich has expelled the representational from his art, but we still need the represented - to see it framed by the real world for it to have meaning. 'Black Square' needs the context of what it isn't to be what it is. (I had a similar feeling at the 'From Russia' exhibition, which included a photo of the Black Square above the artist on his deathbed.)

Suprematism Supreme

By this point Malevich has successfully reduced his art down to one colour, and one that strictly speaking isn't even a colour. Even the off-whites which border his black shapes are so off as to be no more than non-black, something to stop the eye settling there. But, in the one moment of truth to the theory he needed to pull back from the absolutism of 'Black Square', colour then comes back in all it's boldness.

Take 'Suprematism 55' (1916, above) with it's bright blocks of colour, even the background replacing the cold off-white of 'Black Square' with a warm sandy yellow. This leads the show to claim “at the heart of Suprematism was colour”. However, while colour is an important component, it's not the key feature of these works.

The Futurist dynamism he initially passed over for Cubism returns in all its glory, and the colour is there to serve that dynamism. We can think of abstraction and perspective as opposites, one seeing the picture frame as a window on a world and the other insisting its just a flat surface. But this work has a powerful sense of spatial depth, that black tadpole floating as if several feet above the brown rectangle. The diagonal black line emphasises the perspective, like a dropping rope. Yet where Futurist dynamism was convulsive his is elegant, those shapes seeming to serenely glide. (I know it's not the point, but I can't help but see biplane shapes in there.) For all it's abstraction it feels not sterile but alive, full of movement. It provides everything 'Black Square' withheld.

And it's these works which carry the show. Notably it's this, and not the better-known 'Black Square' which becomes the show's poster image (up top). In fact, as Malevich started using a black square in place of his signature, it becomes little more than an authenticating rubber stamp, added to each corner.

With Malevich it's easier to come at him from what he isn't doing, before arriving at what he is. Miro called a series of painting 'Constellations', as if they were as vast and awe-inducing as the night sky. While alternately, the first atom-splitting experiments have been considered an influence on Cubism. As we saw with Alexander Calder, he quite possibly combined both. And indeed one of the appealing features of abstract art can be having your sense of scale with-held, so you've no idea whether you're gazing up at the immense or peering into the microscopic.

But for Malevich either option – the cosmic or the subatomic – seems still too earthly, too tied to regular human perception. It was more like he was tapping into some heightened realm of pure geometry, something which could only exist through being painted – but was no less 'real' for all that. His term Suprematism does not relate to 'superb' but 'above' or 'beyond'. Works echo this in their immaterial titles, such as 'Mystic Suprematism' (1920/22) or 'Supremacy of the Spirit' (c. 1920).

Robert Burghardt and Gal Kim point out: ”The most obvious strategy for representing universalism is abstraction. The abstract, like the universal, evades the concrete. In the abstract formal languages lies a certain openness that allows space for one's own thinking and associations. It facilitates multiple interpretative approaches and engenders fantasies.” ('Signal' 3, PM Press) (They're writing about Yugoslav Partisan Memorials but the point transfers.)

”Everything Has Disappeared”

And this leads to a peculiar paradox with Malevich. The most active part of his career coincided with the most politically eventful era in modern Russian history. He went to Moscow shortly before the 1905 Revolution, fought in the First World War and witnessed the new post-revolutionary Russia. It's events which led to the political commitment of Rodchenko's photo-montage, Eisenstein's cinema or Tatilin's vow to redesign everyday life. And yet among them here's this mystic, his art self-avowedly removed from all earthly things. To him surely those political events were like the off-white behind the black square, not something worth focusing on.

Materialsm, the idea that humans are products fo their social context, that we cannot arbitrarily transcend that context just by thinking hard, is axiomatic to communism. Suprematism seems the very opposite to all of that. Surely it was merely an aesthetic movement with delusions.

And yet he seems to have seen it differently. He claimed in 1915 “our world of art as become new, non-objective, pure. Everything has disappeared; a mass of material is left from which a new form will be built.” And if a cynic might claim that as mere boiler-plate Modernism, at other times he more explicitly tied artistic changes to the political. In 1919 he stated “painting died, like the old regime, because it was an organic part of it”.

Rachel Spence writes of “the Russian avant-garde's fantasy of a social re-ordering so radical it was often conceived in cosmic rather than earthly terms”. ('Art Quarterly', Spring '15) She is of course using the analogy to dismiss such hubris. But its actually sound. If Malevich was other-worldly, there's also the sense that events in this world had led us to more easily access that other world. Revolution raised us, much like Mass is held to connect Catholics to God.

He taught art, and far from being remote or ascetic proved a galvanising figure. His charges formed their own group, the Champions of New Art, taking up the black square as their emblem. (Members included Popova and Lissitzky, creator of the famous piece of abstract agit-prop 'Beating the Whites With the Red Wedge', 1919.)

The Revolution, when it arrived, affected Malevich's art in two ways. First there's the Architectons. Much like the Constructivists, he was searching for a more practical application for art, so created works which lay somewhere between sculpture and scale models for buildings. But the truth is, they don't really work as either. As stated above, Malevich's art needs a frame. It's subject was the ineffable, with abstraction as a means to describe the indescribable. It works as a kind of portal, an other-world only bordering ours. Objects which physically exist in our space do not play to his strengths.

Also, true to his words that “painting died” and “everything has disappeared”, he again starts to strip elements away. The dynamism disappears, and those pure blocks of solid colour dissolve. They're as formal as the earlier 'Last Exhibition' works, but instead of black-on-white they're... yes, really... white-on-white. Check out for example 'White Suprematist Cross' (1920/21, below). If we're going to continue with our grammar comparisons, these are like the ellipses that trail off a sentence like...

And if that seems rather like a film that ends by fading to white, like the story should really have stopped there, perhaps it should. But instead...

Back to Peasantry (Tragedy and Farce)

Stalin soon rose to power, and it's scarcely a spoiler to say that part of his plan to suppress all dissent was to impose a socialist realist orthodoxy on art. Added to which, in a point played up in Orwell's 'Nineteen Eighty-Four', those who had earlier shown an excess of zeal for the revolution were now considered problem cases. What was wanted was those who'd just obey. Malevich, in short, was primed to get it from both barrels. He had only ever left Russia once, on a speaking tour of Germany, but that was used as evidence of fraternisation with the enemy and proof of “bourgeois” qualities. Many of his works survived only because orders to destroy them were disobeyed.

Perhaps unsurprisingly given the circumstances, he soon decided painting wasn't quite dead after all and returned to the point most acceptable to the new regime – the Donkey's Tail era. However, when his peasants reappear, its history repeating as both tragedy and farce.

'Head of a Peasant' (1928/9, above) is something of a sequel to 'The Scyther', but the eyes look heavy, the mask-like face less universalised than stamped with the dehumanisation of enforced collectivism. (In other works the main figure has an alarming egg-shaped void for a head.) The figures behind could be foraging as much as farming, while above them war planes fly in formation before a darkening sky. As the show puts it “his inert figures against a pared-down landscape convey a sense of dislocation, alienation and despair. The peasant, long established as the embodiment of the Russian soul, is reduced to a faceless mannequin.”

You could debate how deliberate all this is. Is Malevich like Shostakovich, encoding the dissidence he couldn't state openly? Or is he like Vertov, trying desperately to adjust to the new realities but unable to sing the new slogans with any cheer? It probably doesn't matter much. The result is the same. If some of his early works were pastiches, these are almost pastiches of his own early work.

He followed a career almost as neat as one of his geometric forms. But unlike his patented square it was a triangle. There's a steady ascent to the late Tens and early Twenties, at which point he seemed able to lift himself from the ground, but which is followed only by decline. Yet the view from that apex... it's no exaggeration to call it other-worldly – so let's focus on that for the finish.

As a general rule, I like to think of abstraction as something which expanded the territory for art, freed it from being tied to representation. Which is distinct from the notion of 'pure abstraction'. If it instead switched art over, trading in hillsides and rivers for squares and circles, then it surely swapped one set of confines for another. It seems to make more sense to see those normally regarded as the pioneers of abstraction, such as Kandinsky, in terms of expansion rather than exchange. 

So perhaps the most fascinating thing about Malevich is that his abstraction was pure, that he did disdain anything short of that as “a mere imitation of reality”. And yet he found a way to make that work. He's the man who made geometry glide and sing.

Coming soon! More of this sort of thing...

Wednesday, 16 November 2016


So Trump, the charlatan supreme, inevitably starts rolling back on his grossly inflated pre-election pledges. Scant surprise. But then how come he’s still on about that stupid wall? It’s grandiose monstrosity would seem a prime example of rash promise, made when you thought there was no risk of being asked to deliver on it. 

And, completely contrary to his inflammatory rhetoric, Mexican immigration to the United States is falling and likely to continue falling. While, despite all the absurd liberal rhetoric we've heard lately, Obama actually deported more migrants than any other President so far. Above all, most migrants don’t try to cross an already policed border, they just get a temporary visa and overstay. (Like, duh.) You might as well build a wall to keep out the climate change. If he admitted it was happening.

Which means it’s not just impossible to achieve it’s, even by it's own twisted logic, increasingly unnecessary. But instead he’s upped the ante by bringing in this three million target. Estimates suggest there probably are enough illegal migrants in the States for him to theoretically reach his magic number. Except illegal migrants don’t by tradition make themselves easy to find, what with being in the country illegally and everything.

Here's an idea of what he might be planning. His association (yet again) of migration with criminality may be the clue. Certainly there's nowhere near enough migrants who've committed crimes to reach the figure, unless you use the circular logic of claiming illegal residence is itself a crime. But let's remember that other great American standby, of linking criminal records with the right to vote then criminalising those you don't like voting.

Latinos currently occupy quite a unique, perhaps even key, place in the demographics of the States, which presents a unique problem for the right. They don’t vote Democrat in the same proportions as black Americans (nine-tenths) or Jewish Americans (just under three-quarters). But the figure is still a significant two-thirds. And they’re the second-largest ethnic group in America (after whites) and the second-fastest growing (after Asians). In other words, every day they are busily making more non-Republicans.

More established Republican strategists saw the solution as winning them over, seeing religion and the work ethic as strong in their culture and therefore claiming them as natural supporters. Yet that third which does vote Republican tends to do so because it’s Evangelical. Which means to win over the other two thirds you need to convert them religiously before you stand any chance politically. Which might be a bit of a tall order.

Or on the other hand you can just deport them.

In an extreme form of gerrymandering, Trump's plan is to start deporting Latino citizens. Don’t renew your car insurance quick enough, run a red light, drop some litter, maybe get arrested while protesting against his anti-Latino plans and find yourself in Mexico or Puerto Rica. And if the remaining Latino citizens get cowed into quietude, if they don’t protest his plans for the fear they might be next, so much the better. Making America Great Again and Keeping America White have become analogous concepts.

Sounds wild and implausible? There’s precedent for it. America has already deported ‘criminals’ to countries they left as children, sometimes when only a few days old. Like most Trump pledges, they only need to do more of what they’re doing already.

The illo's from this vid...