Saturday, 22 April 2017


The Haunt, Brighton, Wed 19th April

Looking back at what I wrote after first seeing Chelsea Wolfe, at the Mutations festival, I find I was much taken by her music. While taking some exception to her Gothy, too-much-mascara look. 

Which in retrospect seems too much like reviewing a book by the shade of it's cover. True, I tend to react to the trappings of Goth the way they do to sunlight. The main problem with it is that too often it's just the dressing up, just empty theatrics and painted dark. But then your actual dark is plentiful enough with Wolfe. (Quite literally so. It's one of the most underlit gigs I've been to in recent years.) Enough to convince you she's yer actual creature of the night.

There's a cool quote from her on Wikipedia: “"I do have a hard time sticking to one genre, and honestly I prefer it that way. I'd rather be free to experiment and make the kind of art I want to make than be easy to define." It the goes on to list her influences as “doom metal, drone metal, black metal, gothic rock, folk and dark ambient”. 

Bar folk, none of which are sounds which you associate with songwriting, yet she seems continually able to pack them into songs. In fact, by 'folk' I suspect people mean that packing - the means by which she binds those sounds together - rather than any kind of Sandy Denny vibe. (Though at the same time it can sometimes sound like later, louder Portishead. Wolfe's tremulous voice in particular can channel Beth Gibbons.)

Guitar lines can be distorted to the point where there's really only the distortion. Yet their scrunchy metallic rhythms don't collide with melodies so much as co-exist. Songs don't progress so much as deepen, like storm clouds thickening. And the sound is so expansive it's great to hear in a live setting.

If I say there's something underlyingly adolescent about it all, I mean it in a positive sense. In the sense of feeling that immensities are contained within you, which you're compelled to find a way to release. And in our nostalgist, classic rock magazine era, we probably need to cling on to the sense that it's music about stopping you getting old and accepting.

An old-ish clip but a track from the current album... (And like I say, underlit.)

Saturday, 15 April 2017


(The latest in a long line of art exhibitions reviewed after they close)

“Ensor was a scenographer, depicting a strange world that was neither tangible nor imaginary, populated by inscrutable beings”
- Curator Luc Tymans

The Sunless Seaside

I first saw the work of the Belgian artist James Ensor in an exhibition devoted to Carnival - 'Carnivalesque' at Brighton Museum, back in 2000. Fittingly enough, for as we'll come onto, Carnival was prevalent in his work, almost always at least implicit. Now any Carnival buff knows the festival to be inextricably connected to it's ostensible opposite - Lent. And so Ensor starts with Lent. Officially that's the wrong way round, for Carnival was supposed to yield to Lent. But then he was a somewhat contrary character, so let's follow his lead.

Take for example 'Afternoon in Ostend' (1881), where figures sit primly at afternoon tea, or the murky oil of 'The Bourgeois Salon' (1880, above). The light at the window is able to strike up some white echoes straight in front of it, but the single figure is determinedly turned away. And the exteriors were little less oppressive. In 'Large View of Ostend (Rooftops of Ostend)' (1884, below) those titular rooftops are crammed into the lower fifth of the canvas, huddled below a tempestuous sky. Not unlike Sickert's Dieppe, there's a sense of unease to Ensor's Ostend, made stronger for never being quite identifiable.

It's not an approach Ensor ever entirely abandons. 'Flowers and Vegetables' (below), dating from 1891, is that rare thing – a still life which virtually leers out at you. The ruddy reds and lurid greens must make for the most feral-looking vegetables in art history, as throbbing with life as any Van Gogh nature scene. Set against that those delicate blue bits of porcelain, it looks like the crusties have taken over the garden suburb. You can uproot nature and even fetch bits of it indoors, but it remains untameable.

But the underlying unease becomes more palpable and more fantastical as Ensor went on. For in a remarkable sea change, almost all of the successive works are devoted to what 'The Bourgeois Salon' shutters out. What is repressed is shown as returning, quite frequently erupting. In 'The Haunted Furniture' (1880), an early example, spirits rise from the sides of a great heavy wardrobe.

Skeletons At Work and Play

'The Skeleton Painter' (1896, above) is one of many images using the skull or full skeleton. The title is most likely some double-edged self-referential joke, the skeleton who painted skeletons. We don't see the figure's hands, so can't ascertain whether this is an animate skeleton or just someone in a skull mask. Skulls and masks are placed around the studio, suggesting either is possible. Though the eyeballed skull atop the easel seems more animate than the figure. It's widely seen as a kind of self-portrait, which would make that easel skull a kind of totem. (He'd also create the etching 'My Portrait as a Skeleton', 1889.)

Notably, there's no attempt to give the skeleton any shock appeal. It's entirely unlike covers to Gothic novels, with their long bone fingers stretching towards shrieking maidens. For one thing, sunlight pours in the room. In fact it's the 'natural' 'Bourgeois Salon' which takes place in the gloom, rather than this 'fantastical' work. And skeletons are always painted naturalistically, or even casually, like they belong to their environments. (See for example 'Skeleton Looking at Chinoiseries', c. 1888/90.) TJ Clarke of the London Review of Books commended Ensor's “ability to convince us that horror and absurdity are familiar events, behaviours we all recognise from our daily round… Garishness and matter-of-factness were faces of the same coin.”

The show suggests a local origin for this imagery. The ongoing development of Ostend had disinterred mass graves, the residue of the Eighty Years War, reminding us that the past is rarely actually past. Remember the old Fall song lyric where unearthed graves are found to be “disease ridden, dusty, organic - and psychic”?

But it does also seem to be tapping into the same themes as Mexican popular art. As I said of the British Museum's 'Revolution on Paper' exhibition of Mexican prints:
“The skeleton figure acts paradoxically, throwing emphasis onto the figures’ accoutrements (bosses’ top hats versus peasant caps), whilst confirming that these are only accoutrements for almost identical figures…. reducing us to the skeletons we all are underneath.” The face is just mask for the skull, which less represents death than the inescapable baseness of life.

Which is possibly most visible in 'Skeletons Fighting Over a Pickled Herring' (1891, above). What's striking isn't the armless war between jaws, like the figures are squabbling birds. Or even the way their tugging is emphasised by the angle of the clouds. It's the fine-looking clothes, the bizarre busby hat perched on the bone head. A human in a hat like that might even seem deserving of our respect. Whereas a skeleton is a ghoul, a savage mockery of status.

Masks Alive

Following an an 1908 description of him by Emile Verhearen, Ensor has become known as “the painter of masks”. To the degree where the show insists this is too limited a frame, which needs busting open. Nevertheless, the motif is recurrent in his work.

As already seen in 'The Skeleton Painter' Ensor would casually mix his skull and mask motifs up. And we perhaps shouldn't try too hard to disentangle them. An artists' work rarely reduces to a neat set of symbols, which you can come along and fix a key to. Nevertheless, while Ensor is able to convey different expressions through skulls, the mask inherently gives greater variety and so becomes a broader symbol.

And as with the skull, the mask had a local connection for him. Ostend was home to the annual Ball of the Dead Rat, a carnivalesque masked ball. He even grew up, and later made his studio, above a shop where his mother sold carnival masks and similar goods.

And what did the mask mean in Carnival? Not merely the way we see them now, as a form of disguise. The masks were often associated with characters, and to don one was to effectively become that character. And if anything Ensor pushes that concept further. The masks often appears as the embodiments of spirits, as if they were themselves animate. As Laura Cumming wrote in the Guardian, Ensor's work is “a theatre where the masks can live their own existence.”

'Intrigue' (1890, above) is so famous a work it's not just the poster image but has the show named after it. (The last time I can think of that happening was Fuseli and the Tate's 'Gothic Nightmares' exhibition, back in 2006.) And here the figures seem not just living their own existence but pressing into ours, massing at the front of the work like they're about to erupt into our space. In particular the red coated woman with the baby seems to be projecting out of the frame, while the black slitted eyes of the main figure seem to be not even looking out as us but on a point beyond us. The figures are less alive than charged, animate energy virtually seething with malevolence. The work almost literally exudes menace.

There's not a sliver of human flesh to be found, the two hands gloved, the high collars - particularly that raised black collar on the main figure - obscuring any join at the neck. It's reminiscent of the trope in films such as 'The Invisible Man' (1933), in which a figure is unwrapped to reveal only an absence. Similarly, in 'The Astonishment of the Mask Wouse' (1889, below) some figures seem to have had their spirits desert them, leaving inert masks attached to husks of clothing on the ground. The hand of the main standing figure is upraised, as if she might magic motion back into them.

‘The Intrigue’ can also be traced back to an event in Ensor’s biography, but accurate or not that’s scarcely the point of the work – it’s source not explanation. Overall, and typically of Ensor, the painting's neither explicable as a scene nor reducible to a set of symbols. And that’s kind of the point. It presents a kind of erupting irrationality, against which we’re like the defensively doubting rationalist in the horror film, stuttering about some pat psychological explanation. Ensor himself declared “reason is the enemy of art.”

And this is not just to do with Carnival but the childhood sense of animism, the feeling every object in the world is possessed of a spirit unknowable to you. This can seem charming, as we see children form attachments to inanimate objects. But at the time, as those thoughts run through your head, it meant even a domestic scene could seem charged with danger.

The Crowd As Collage

Okay, some social levelling, masks...what else do you need to create Carnival? Of course, there has to be a crowd. A party needs invites. And as if by magic Ensor's other most famous work, 'The Entry of Christ into Brussels', foregrounds this. (Represented here not by the giant, four-metre plus painting of 1888, but an 1895 etching, above.) Though Christ can be found in there if you search, the work's more concerned with the figures which surround him. They're a motley array, a jumble of individual heads – this is crowd as collage.

The dominant notion has become that there is something reductive and deindividuating about a crowd, that being in one somehow makes you less than what you are. Yet when you’re in a crowd you’re part of it and yourself, at one and the same time. We all know this from experience. And this precisely what Ensor depicts. They're not a deindividuated swarm conjured up by popular phrases such as 'mob mentality', they're individuals amassed.

And there's a juxtaposition between the crowd and the neat military line of soldiers behind them. (A device Ensor re-employs elsewhere, for example in 'The Strike', 1886.) They're like the buckling bottle whose task it is to contain the frothing, fermenting alcohol. The crowd are shown at a physical distance. But that's not how the work feels. Ensor depicts crowds the way some artists do the sea, their teeming feels like an invitation to dive in. To quote Laura Cumming again: “Ensor is festive even when devastating or macabre”. The bawdy and the grotesque are bedfellows.

And if Ensor was the painter of anything, it wasn't masks but crowds. 'Skeleton Painter', showing his studio strewn with masks and skulls, can give rise to the notion he had a hermetic world-view - his imagery cast no wider than the room about him.
And so he comes to be depicted as some reclusive outsider artist, such as in Timothy Hyman's description of him as “working alone through long, silent days in his fifth-floor attic high above the family’s carnival shop.”

And yet, news though it may be to some, the art world is not the world. Yes, Ostend insulated Ensor from the art world, which he found confining and regulating. But that doesn't mean he hid away from Ostend, like some recluse. Let's remember his family shop was not selling antiques, but was outfitter to an ongoing carnival tradition. And you can see that in the work, a love of the crowd far too visceral to be theoretical.

There may, however, be one or two elements of truth to this. Ensor is known to have anarchist sympathies, and he went on to influence political artists, such as George Grosz. And at times these can come out in the open. (For example, the full-size version of 'Christ's Entry' contains a banner proclaiming “Vive La Sociale”.) But he was not primarily a political artist. He less saw the crowd as an instrument of social change and more loved it for it's own sake, luxuriating in it's disreputable tumultuousness. And of course these days we are more wary of making clear, causal connections between Carnival and revolt than others have been in the past. (Carnival yields to Lent, remember?)

Further, Ensor exhibits a paradox between an artist with a highly personalised cosmology, and one influenced by folk traditions. And the two often come together in his style. His compositions are often strangely arbitrary, heads and feet lopped off by his borders like he ran out of room. Just as some artists are Just Abstract Enough, perhaps we need a name for artists who are Just Outside Enough. Artists who, like Ensor, had formal art training and could draw conventionally when they needed, but didn't feel at all beholden to it. Timothy Hyman suggests the term “exceptionals”, presumably drawing on the twin meaning of ‘outside’ and ‘beyond’.

'The Baths at Ostend'(1890, above), for example, is so crammed with comic incident it's not entirely dissimilar from children's comic artists such as Leo Baxendale. (If a more lewd variant.) In fact, particularly with it's use of coloured pencil, it might even be a child's drawing. It's noticeable how much emphasis there is on voyeurism, with gapers down virtually the whole left side and the monocled figure in the lower centre.

Not Even Past

Try again to find the actual Christ in 'Christ's Entry Into Brussels'. There's a short cut, you can track him down by his halo, it's yellow an echo of the sun. This Medieval device, which had long since passed from art's vocabulary, makes a return. Similarly, 'Adam and Eve Expelled From Paradise' (1887) uses a local Belgian landscape for this Biblical fable. It's total uninterest in fidelity to the Middle East again echoes Medieval art.

And while 'Christ's Entry' might hide the title star in a crowd, Ensor often focused upon him. For example in the late 'Christ In Agony' (1931) or 'The Man of Sorrows' (1891, above) – where he's painted as if saturated with ruddy reds, to the point where it's hard to tell head and hair from blood. In fact it wouldn't be too hard to believe the thing had actually been painted in blood. There's none of the solemn dignity we're used to seeing given to Jesus, those harshly over-exaggerated features look more savage than John the Baptist.

To Ensor as with the Medieval artist the halo's a transpiring symbol, yet the face and body of Jesus is very much a real thing. His blood is not a religious thing, it's thick red stuff. Like many Medieval religious images, it's more macabre than moral.

All of which seems very much at odds with our idea of art of this time. Tuymans comments that Carnivalesque art had originally rebelled against Classicism, conveying order through it's neat rules of composition. Whereas for Ensor the dominant culture was Modernism, most of which he volubly detested. It really comes back to the image of the disinterred skeleton. Just as reason was a thin skin over the irrational, the present was a barely coping mechanism for holding back the past. The bodies just don't stay buried.

It's hard to find a term for the art history he refers to. I guess the point was less that it was an integral era, named and scrupulously annotated, and more that his interest went to the gaps – past-Classical yet pre-Romantic. People have sometimes seen an inheritance from his geographical forebearers, the Flemish Renaissance. There's Breugel's interest in the culture of the common folk, and Bosch's phantasmagorias. When people compare Ensor to Bosch perhaps they’re seeing a similar collision between the Medieval and the contemporary, for all that the two artists were working in different eras.

Held in the Academy's upstairs Sackler gallery, this is a relatively small exhibition, comprising about eighty works. So it's strange when curator Luc Tuymans sacrifices space to works by Ensor's contemporaries, a piece by himself and at one point a pointless fake video where an actor portrays Ensor perambulating on the seafront. Tuymans is himself an artist, considered well-known enough for his name to become incorporated into the show's title. And while it is often artists who understand other artists best, perhaps this sort of indulgent decision-making comes with celebrity curators.

Conversely, the show does give space to Ensor's prints and drawings. Though paintings are often held by curators to trump other media, Ensor himself saw them as equally important. In fact he prized his prints the highest, because they were the easiest disseminated. Overall, while it would have been nice to see a few more Ensors at this Ensor show, when even today he is so often overlooked there's never any reason to knock seeing Ensors.

Coming soon! More art exhibitions reviewed after they have closed. (While stocks last.)

Sunday, 9 April 2017


Barbican Centre, London, Sat 8th April

If pressed to name my most favourite band of all, I don't quite know who I would go for. But legendary Krautrock band Can would certainly be on the shortlist. And now they're... well, they're not exactly revived. In fact in the programme, former keyboardist Irmin Schmidt stated quite firmly “I hate revivals – revivals mean you reanimate something dead. That's not what I ever did.” Instead, there's two separate sets – each with it's own nature.

Which is probably all to the good. Rob Young, who has just published a book about the band, comments on the accompanying podcast that many have tried to sound like Can, but no-one has ever managed it. And in fact many of the best bands where influenced by without being imitative of them, such as the Fall or early Public Image. So it's the best idea for prior participants to do something new, but in the spirit of what went before.

In the first half, former keyboardist Irmin Schmidt conducted a new orchestral piece, 'Can Dialog', (co-written with Gregor Schwellenbach). And in fact formally speaking Can were something of an anomaly in his career, before their formation he was conduction, and since he's mostly composed film and TV scores.

The most obvious point of comparison might seem Philip Glass' orchestral versions of Bowie. But rather than a reworking in a new musical setting it was a whole new composition which incorporated Can themes along the way. (“Weaving quotations and motifs”, as the programme put it.) It was similar to the way classical composers of old would incorporate folk tunes, even if in Schmidt's case both were his.

The Can contributions mostly appeared as melodies, floating through the work, often introduced by the wind instruments. And, for a band best known for maintaining a groove, they turn out to have quite affecting and memorable melodies. There seemed to be quite long sections which were Can-free (unless my ears missed them). But the orchestra would often play rhythmically of it's own accord, stopping their appearances as feeling merely decorative. It felt like Schmidt collaborating with himself, able to find harmonious links between his elder and junior incarnations.

Those many chairs were then cleared away and the second set given over to a rock band setting. As with This Heat recently, an enlarged ensemble (eight in all) performed amended and updated versions of Can tracks. In fact both gigs featured Thurston Moore on guitar. Perhaps he's just moved in backstage.

If you were to say Can never had to sound like Can, that might sound like an inevitable truism, applicable to any band. Yet they weren't really a band for rehearsing numbers until they were well-drilled enough to perform them. Given their own dedicated practise space (in a castle), they'd improvise freely then edit things down for release. And they rarely performed numbers the same way twice.

Except you can over-emphasise all of that. In fact the most incredulous element of the story, hanging out in a castle, is the only unarguably true part. Like the Velvets, a strong influence in the early days, they mixed free-form jams with quite strong songs, and that combination is a large part of their appeal. But it was a way of working which kept their playing organic, like it was all happening in the moment. They were agile and sinewy, not musclebound.

With Schmidt not rejoining the band for the second half, Holger Czukay too ill to travel and the sad death of Jaki Liebezeit in January, original vocalist Malcolm Mooney was left as the only actual Can member onstage. Yet ironically he sometimes felt like a weak link, the Mooney who'd repeat phrases until he'd go off into a trance state not always present. And it seemed strange to watch him reading lyrics which at the time had been arbitrarily plucked from thin air. It worked much better when, rather than providing lead vocals, he'd fall back in the mix, or when the players would take over entirely.

The twin guitars of Moore and James Seawards (who plays in Moore's current group) were definitely hypnotic and powerful. The twin drummers of Steve Shelley and Valentina Magoletti could work just as well, but were over-utilised and kept on their dual-powered, double-barelled setting too much. A track like 'Thief', requires something more intimate, not to be walked on with hobnail boots.

Were a Can tribute band to exist (and one probably does), what might they sound like? I imagine they'd learn the songs ably enough, but only manage a faux approximation of those trance-out grooves. The most essential element of any band of course being the most irreproducable – the chemistry between the players. If anything this band was the opposite, quite ready to take off and often majestic in flight, but less conversant with the songs. It was 'Deadly Doris, 'Uphill' and 'You Doo Right' which came across, rather than 'Thief' or 'Mary, Mary'. Overall it seemed the post-Velvets powerhouse Can who were being channelled. And channelled superbly. But there were so many other faces to Can...

Saturday, 1 April 2017


SUNN 0)))
Barbican, London, Tues 21st March

Waiting near me outside the auditorium, two vikings in black hoodies babbled away to one another in German. Every so often one would say “Throbbing Gristle”, they'd then drop back into German. Then, a minute or so later, one would say “Throbbing Gristle” again. While a sign on the door above them warned of impending “high level sound levels and dense haze”.

I figured I was in the right place.

This marked my second chance to see legendary drone metal band Sunn 0))), and while they inevitably don't have quite the same impact when not filling a small seafront club with their sonic force, so powerful as to be physical, they remain an unmissable live experience.

Vocalist Attila Csuhar opened the gig with some liturgical chanting, which he'd then mix in with more guttural tones - part-way to throat singing. This section did, if truth be told, go on a bit. In fact a fairly sizeable segment of the audience didn't show up until it was ending, presumably forewarned and forearmed.

But as that was the gig's only weak point, let's focus on another aspect. Despite the band's signature uniform of monk habits and customary banks of dry ice, I don't think the intent here is really sacrilegious – like the sonic equivalent of an inverted crucifix. In fact it's nearer to... well religious, those mixed-chant vocals more intended to compare than contrast. 

Despite the band having arisen from the black metal scene, despite their almost fearsome reputation as the heaviest of them all, their sound isn't really oppressive. Like a lot of religious music, it's actually elevating. Rather than relying on any kind of shock effect, it's involving and even contemplative. To the point where even us non-religious types find it takes us out of ourselves. It induces a kind of aum state without any of the dippy New Age shit.

For one thing, they don't let that heavy tag hold them down and are quite happy to break with expectation. In a lengthy mid-section the wall-of-noise guitars walk right offstage and a quite plaintive trombone starts up. And if sludge metal has already been made a genre, I suppose there's no reason why we can't also have sludge jazz.

Also, and more importantly, there's a solidity – a kind of one-ness - to their sound. It's pretty much pitched at the point where black metal becomes drone. It's difficult and at times impossible to pick out individual instruments. Even the keyboards, which are sometimes prominent, play neither above or along to the guitars – they more play along to the resonances between them.

While heavy rock tends to be blues music with added volume Sun 0))) seem unrooted in rock tradition. In fact in the programme they complain of how once-normal listening practices have been undermined in the past forty years, like a near-half century is just a bump in the road. Most noticeable by it's absence, with neither bass nor drums there's none of the release of rock music, none of the sense that music's a means to let it all out.

In fact, despite their strong overlaps with noise music, they demonstrate how rockist the noise scene can be. They don't just dress like monks, they're as disciplined as them. Though the singer stands to the front, neither he nor the others gives off any impression of individual personality. Even when they sup a beer on stage, a single bottle is passed between the lot of them like a sacrament.

Founder member Stephen O’Malley has described their sound as “more raga than … rock. And despite the fact that the walls were literally shaking from volume, it was actually quite a blissed out, psychedelic session.” (Though speaking of a particular album.) While in the programme Csihar compares it to “the music of the plants, and that's why it's so slow and enormous”. Which seems reminiscent of Andrew Marvell's old poem “My vegetable love should grow/ Vaster than empires and more slow”.

Let's jump from Marvell to Elvis Costello, who once sang “The truth can't hurt you, it's just like the dark/ It scares you witless, then in time you see things clear and stark”. He could have been thinking of Sunn 0))). There's a kind of double trajectory afoot. What might originally hit the listener as a sonic onslaught slowly transforms itself into something serene, pummelling fists morphing into massaging hands. 

Moreover, from what I know of the earlier albums, that also fits the history of the band - they were more abrasive and discordant at the beginning. Which also fits the history of Earth, enough of an influence for Sunn 0))) to name themselves in a kind of paralleling tribute. Or the way the doom metal of Sleep transformed into the trance of Om. To get to the light, it seems you need to go through the dark tunnel.

And that half-transfer, half-dichotomy is something you often see in art evoking the sublime. What first appears to you as an overwhelming, pulverising force soon comes to feel like rejoining where you really belong. Perhaps, were Turner alive today, he'd have ditched his oils and joined a drone metal band.

Con Club, Lewes, Wed 29th March

”They say history repeats itself. But that's his story. My story doesn't repeat itself. Why should it? My story is endless”

Last time I was at this venue, to see Jah Wobble, I was committing myself to print in saying I am no fan of jazz. So what do I do but head back for what's unambiguously a jazz gig?

But then of course this is no regular gig. It's not a matter of public record how Herman Poole Blount's parents reacted when he told them he'd teleported to Saturn to commune with the spirits there, and been told to devote himself to music as a means to solve the problems of the Earth. They most probably thought it was an elaborate excuse to drop out of college, which was the first thing he was insisting on doing. But he went through with it, changing his name to Sun Ra in the process, and throughout his life stuck to that story and to his guns. (His discography is this big.) He was more or less to jazz what Lee Perry was to reggae, where there's no point trying to separate what was genius from what was lunacy.

And if Sun Ra himself ceased having even a tangential connection to this Earth back in '93, the Arkestra continues under the direction of Marshall Allan. (Who is himself 92, having played with the Arkestra for 57 years.) After two successive sell-outs, they ended up playing a three-night residency, of which I caught the middle event. Living up to their “my story is endless” promise they played for over two and a half hours, a completely different set from the first night, and cheerily announced at the end the third night would be something different again.

Those freak free impro days now seem done and dusted, with band members even sporting music stands. The set most matched Wikipedia's' Philadelphia period, a kind of cosmic jazz to match the cosmic soul of the times. (The era the classic 'Space is the Place' album came from.)

And in fact the downside of the gig wasn't it falling into indigestible squonk but becoming tasteful enough to have safely ported onto an episode of Jools Holland. There were, I confess, points where it lost my interest.

But the highlights were... well, befitting Sun Ra's cosmic aspirations I'd have to say higher than sky high. Despite their daunting reputation, the Arkestra have a strong melodic sense and the ability to form into a powerful rhythm section. For a jazz band, they sure are funky! The brass in particular seemed able to play along with the line, then each instrument find a way to veer off into it's own thing while still holding that line aloft. (And to think I once found Led Zeppelin tight but loose!)

The best tracks, for me at least, started off with a vocal – somewhere between a repeated spoken phrase and a chant. These were often cosmic aphorisms which would probably seem platitudinously New Agey out of context, but in context were like a foot sliding into a slipper. (And besides, the one quoted up top does have it's appeal.) The ensemble would then work around them, in a manner not entirely unlike Steve Reich's penchant for finding music phrases in the cadences of the spoken word.

Perhaps the main thing is convey is that it's not chin-stroking music to chew on, it's joyous, exuberant and energising. If it doesn't quite teleport you to Saturn you can almost feel your feet lifting from the ground. Space really is the place.

This was from the first night...

And after seeing Sunn 0))) and Sun Ra, of course I then went to see Sun Kil Moon again. No, actually it was...

Brighton Dome, Thurs 30th March

After seeing the Kodo drummers some three years ago, I am it seems becoming something of a regular for Japanese drum ensembles at the Dome. Perhaps unsurprisingly, there were many similarities between the two, above all the same combination of absolute discipline and unleashed frenzy. And it demonstrates what a timbral range can exist just from different varieties of drum.

But Kodo's art had been very much a martial one. You could imagine them arising as one at six AM on their South Pacific island, and starting their morning practice by twenty past. They were intent on what they were doing, single-minded to the point of being cult-like.

Yamato are much more showbizzy, sporting bright costumes over uniform black vests. There's stage antics, visual gags, acrobatic playing, ample audience participation and even individual personalities emerging from the players. At times it did become so circusy I half expected a guy with a moustache to come on, and hold a chair up to a mangy old lion.

But we're probably best taking that as description rather than criticism. Being structured unashamedly like a show gives things an ever-relentless dynamic. They barely stopped even for applause. Perhaps they had less musicality than Kodo, but they so successfully keep you watching you don't particularly notice at the time.

My favourite moment was when the drummers were joined by the Japanese banjo. (Which probably has some special name, which probably isn't “the Japanese banjo”.) It was an unusual pairing, which they were really able to make work.

This TV appearance is from some while back, but gives a good flavour for what they do...

Wednesday, 29 March 2017


...though these will be the last Sussex town photos, at least for a while. This time we take in Stanmer Wood (and Park), Brighton Cemetery and more Chichester. Some of them look pretty countrified, but all taken within city limits. As ever, full set over on Flickr.

Wednesday, 22 March 2017

Saturday, 18 March 2017


More pics this week. With another Brighton Festival impending, some shots of an old one a few years back. Plus the wide open esplanades of Hove seafront. As ever, full set on Flickr.

Saturday, 11 March 2017


(Yet another art exhibition reviewed after it's closed)

”My love of the monstrous and the magical led me beyond the confines of material appearances into unreal worlds.”
- Paul Nash

A Sense of Place

The Futurist Marinetti was usually to be found raging over something, but English art particularly got his goat. He'd jeer at “the soft, sweet and mediocre, the sickly renewals of Medievalism”, opprobrium he'd doubtless have poured all over Paul Nash. 

In fact when you look at the early works of the artist best-known for becoming the one British Surrealist people have heard of, it's remarkable how in thrall to Romanticism he then was. Pre-war, it was Blake and Rossetti who were his touchstones. And iff there's anything to persuade you he wasn't going to become a painter of country gardens, it's the elements of fantasy illustration. Nash even trained as an illustrator and, like Blake, often illustrated his own poems.

Marinetti's spittle traces a broad arc, but there may be places where it sticks. Some of Nash's early work was blandly pastoral, the coloured chalk works in particular could have adorned drawing rooms. Nevertheless, the first room of this exhibition gives us not just the seeds of the mature Nash but some strong artworks in their own right – even among the most fantasy-oriented pieces.

Take 'The Combat', (1910, above), one of several works to portray human figures not in but above a landscape. If the noble profile set against a beaky visage suggests stock notions of good versus evil, try looking some more at those combating figures. You'll notice how alike they become. The 'bird', despite it’s beak and unfurled wings, is followed by some decidedly human legs. It’s not terribly clear what it holds in that beak, but it seems to mirror the sword held against it. And if we look back to the seemingly human figure he too has wings, if currently folded. Though he has his feet planted firmly on the ground, he dwarfs the trees in a way which recalls the folk art custom of assigning size by symbolic importance.

In his accompanying (admittedly not very good) poem Nash writes “there is no history but this”. And it is this Manichean sense of ceaseless conflict between eternal forces that lifts the work from generic fantasy art into something genuinely post-Blakean. For this reason I favour the title given here over ’Angel and Devil’, though it seems unclear which Nash came up with first.

If this could also be interpreted as a comparison between earth and air, the theme is taken up a few pictures down, this time with both human figures and moralism removed from it. Though the setting is fantastical, there is something deadpan and naturalising about 'Pyramids in the Sea' (1912, above). There doesn’t seem anywhere on Earth Nash could actually have seen this sight, yet he depicts it as though he has. Ostensibly we're seeing a borderline, with palm trees visible behind the pyramids. Yet the waves seem to be not crashing against but morphing into them, with the dune beneath the palms like a fore-echo of their arrival.

It's often read as proto-Surrealist, portraying dream and wakefulness as shifting states in a way similar to Rivera's 'Communicating Vessels'. But it could also be seen as portraying nature and culture similarly amorphously.

So perhaps it was the fantastical elements in his art which, when purged of their pastoral cliches, took Nash to Surrealism? Nothing so simple. For one thing, from hereon in the fantastical tends to wane. And more importantly, there's a direct link from his nature scenes to his Surrealist work. Which is largely because 'nature scenes' is something of a mis-label. Along with the fantastical human figures leave his work (you can sometimes see the traces from where they were erased), and he instead takes to portraits of trees. (His aim, he said, was “to paint trees as though they were human beings”.) Take for example, 'The Three In the Night' (1913, below.)

These three trees marked the boundary between Nash's garden (in Iver Heath, Buckinghamshire), and the wider country – hence they are threshold guardians of sorts. He wrote of his fascination with “something which the ancients spoke of as genius loci – the spirit of a place, but something which did not suggest that the place was haunted or inhabited by a genie in a psychic sense ... Its magic lay within itself, implicated in its own design and its relationship to its surroundings.” Archaic people don't tend to “worship nature” in a generalised sense, as is sometimes imagined. They more commonly find specific spirits and meanings in particular places. And these animist notions recur throughout Nash's work.

The Negative Sublime

One day they'll make a biopic of Nash. It will start with an English gentleman capturing his country walks with bright and innocent watercolours. Which will then segue into a shell going off above the First World War, then slightly later him painting how dashed cross he is about it all. Hopefully we've already shown how the first part of that equation is off the mark, so the second can't fare much better. It was the Vorticists and Futurists, the ones who believed in the gleaming machine age, who has their world most torn apart by the War. And Nash was of a different breed.

Nevertheless as David McKean has said “he found his voice during the war”. It was war which turned him from a good artist into an important one, something which might not have happened any other way. Certainly Nash himself saw things as transformative, painting in oil for the first time and writing home:

“I am no longer an artist interested and curious. I am a messenger who will bring back word from men fighting to those who want the war to last forever. Feeble, inarticulate will be my message, but it will have a bitter truth and may it burn their lousy souls.”

There's now a debate over how anti-war these works were taken to be at the time. It questions whether his focus on nature was a euphemistic consequence of censorship, indulging the peculiarly British sentimentality of lamenting a shattered tree above a dead solider. Certainly his images aren't as visceral or grotesque as, for example, Otto Dix's. Though he first saw war as a combatant, by the time of these works he was an official war artist. And it is true that ’The Menin Road’ (1918), specifically commissioned by the British War Memorials Committee, is more ostentatious, more smooth and refined and thereby less effective than some of the other works.

But human figures can appear, in both 'Wounded, Passchendale' and 'After the Battle' (both 1918). What is more accurate to say is that it's the more successful works which leave them out, suggesting questions about them are the wrong questions.

'We Are Making a New World' (1918), deservedly Nash's best known war painting... perhaps even his best-known work of all, depicts his subject the most clearly. It's not the frenzy of battle, nor even it's cost in human life, but the existential hell of No Man's Land. 

Compare it to CRW Nevinson's 'After a Push' (1917). (Shown as part of the Imperial War Museum's recent 'Truth and Memory' exhibition.) Both not only depopulate No Man's Land but remove some of the more obvious features, such as the barbed wire. But Nevinson depicts the scale of the thing, an uninhabited plane stretching off to the distant horizon. It could have stretched to envelop the world, for all that we see here. Whereas Nash paints more claustrophobic, less realist images which capture it’s alien-ness.

'We Are Making' is in fact a reworking of the more realist ‘Sunrise Inverness Copse’ from the previous year. (Not part of the show but this Wikipedia page compares them.) And that sense of a sunrise is important. Nash wrote in a letter home a year earlier “sunset and sunrise are blasphemous, they are mockeries to man”. And here he paints the chorusless dawn, a deathly stillness, trees blasted and blackened husks, the very ground no longer solid but a shapeless corrugated pulp.

We use nature as a symbol of renewal. Here we see the ultimate in barren-ness, winter without spring. Not the end of battle but the end of life. With Nash’s talk of blasphemousness, there is a sense the War is being compared to the final tribulation. A Romantic artist paints the sublime, nature as an overwhelming force. Here Nash paints it's inverse, invoking the scale of the sublime only to portray it's absence. And seeing these works in the context of his career makes them more powerful. The artist most keen to show us the land has a spirit is now exhibiting it’s slain corpse.

We may be better off assessing the works' effect on us today than trying to reconstruct a past response. In the same letter home he comments “I may give you some idea of its horror, but only being in it and of it can ever make you sensible of its dreadful nature”. Art is not reportage, it always works on it's subject from some angle and sometimes the oblique works the best. And in our era, when we can have highly graphic photographic evidence of the horrors of war, sometimes even broadcast by their perpetrators, perhaps Nash's approach can get under our skin better.

And if 'We Are Making' is the Tribulation then 'The Ypres Salient At Night' (1918), with it’s Tommies huddled below a glaring flare, seems a semi-blasphemous reworking of the Wise Men and the star. But, more importantly still, it presents the trenches as a jagged zig-zag. (Echoing the pre-war work 'The Cliff to the North', 1912.) As the show says many of the war compositions work like mazes, stuffed with the obstruction of detritus, no way out of them for the eye. 

While the sublime tends to be presented via vast vistas, as with Nevinson, these works are so fragmentary to almost be collages. (An effect emphasised by Nash's iconic painting style, which makes each object look slightly discrete.) It's reminiscent of TS Eliot's well-known post-War poem 'The Wasteland', which suggested that all that was left to poetry was broken fragments of earlier works.

Disembodied in Dymchurch

After a breakdown brought on by the War, Nash recuperated on the Dymchurch coast of Kent. It's in fact the works from this time which are devoid of human figures. 'The Shore' (1923, above) somehow seems neither natural nor man-made. Rather than the genius loci of earlier we have an absolute anonymity of place, worn smooth of distinguishing features. ’Pyramids By the Sea’ had shown the land and sea effectively merging into one another, here the only thing there seems to be is the space between. It’s a No Man’s Land, if of another kind. If the war paintings presented no escape for the eye, these are such smooth sweeping planes they seem to have no purchase for the eye. It's the standard landscape ratio but seems to have an overwhelming horizontality, a world in which no human figure could ever stand up.

With 'Winter Sea' (1925/37, above) the sea is not just morphing into sheets of metal, it's hard to tell it from the land. You feel you should be looking out to sea, your feet planted on the beach, but it doesn't feel that way. And what makes a metal sea a striking image is also what makes it hard to write about. It's an immediately striking image with no way to parse it, no Freudian theory to neatly wrap it up in.

In 'Dymchurch Steps' (1924, above) the block of a featureless building is just placed on the landscape, with no obvious way in. The image is less solitary than desolate, as if Nash had slipped out of society, perhaps for an afternoon stroll alone, and now finds himself unable to return – an exile at home, all apertures closed.

David Mckean's graphic novel of Nash's life, 'Black Dog' (in part performed at the Tate Britain on 13th Nov), bases itself around the week in 1921 where he fell unconscious. It speculates on what he might have dreamt during that time. But we might want to imagine a greater conceit, that he somehow painted these works whilst in that other state. If that sounds less than likely, we'd also have to contend with the fact he moved to Dymchurch only after he re-woke. But as Alice Channer comments, he painted “from strange perspectives, from above the landscape, as if he's levitating, disembodied”. ('Tate Etc.' magazine 38) They seem the work of some bodiless spirit, at an inevitable distance from all things.

The pre-war Nash painted body and soul as indivisible, united in place. But now the same elements are irreconcilable, divided even in himself. They're less angsty expressionist howl than the sense of dislocation that more commonly comes with depression.

Surrealism’s Coming Home

'Plage (Tower)' (1928, above), is perhaps a transitional work. The architectural features placed on the coast make it something of a successor to 'Dymchurch Steps'. But unusually it was painted in France, and shortly after Nash had seen de Chirico's work, which (as with many Surrealists) had inspired him. In both artists the human presence is rendered significant by it’s absence. Denied it we seek to find significance in objects and environments, even to the point of anthropomorphising them.

Nash is sometimes criticised for lacking the visceral impact of continental Surrealists. Almost inevitably, it’s Dali who’s dragged up. But to reduce it all to shit-stained trousers not only misunderstands Nash but Surrealism in general. Unlike Dada or Vorticism it was not principally based around the shock but the haunting image, the sight you can’t quite forget after you’ve seen it. 

Similarly, we have become steeped in the notion that Surrealism is something foreign, that the continent was the place for dreaming, with it’s exotic place names and strange Mediterranean architecture. Yet the idea that the numinous can be found in the everyday, even everyday England, is central. So Nash defamiliarises the English country just as De Chirico did the Mediterranean town. The fact that his work often looked like the product of the English gentleman, with a slightly tweedy parochialism, becomes not a weakness but a strength.

Nash was always something of a gentleman painter, never truly becoming expert with a brush. Here for example his sea is just a kind of slightly askew patterning, his white clouds blobs. But that slight amateurishness somehow makes his work look more visionary. The artist so interest in nature was never that keen on naturalising nature, so his imperfect realisations of objects and scenes just encourage you to look through them. They don't look like folk art exactly, but there's the same disinterest in objects except as symbols.

A room is given to Nash's still lives which are, if we're honest, for the most part the sort of dull and provincial fare that would send Marinetti off into another rant. But it is worth their inclusion just to see where he takes things. He doesn't just progress through them but almost superimposes each successive work upon the others. Each already has collage elements, incorporating reflections, intersecting planes and multiple perspectives. And this takes us to 'Lares' (1929/30, below) – not so much a still life as a semi-abstract work on the theme of openings.

The Surrealists always had a penchant for apertures and here it's like Nash is trying to morph all openings into one. There's more a sense of repeating recesses than actual spatial depth. It's reminiscent of the way it can be enticing to peer through a crack, while an open window view is uninvolving. Some paintings act as portals, like Alice's mirror, into the subconscious. And this definitely seems to deny the flatness of the wall behind it. Rather gloriously, it was exhibited in a frame within a frame.

But even after coming across de Chirico and continental Surrealism, the English landscape continued to exert a huge influence on Nash. 1933 was to prove a significant date, marking when he visited Silbury Hill and Avebury for the first time. This led to works such as 'Druid Landscape' (1934, below). (Okay, druids had nothing to do with megaliths. That may have been less known then.)

Buried in the land, pointing to the sky, megaliths suggest at the same connection between supposed opposites as 'The Pyramids and The Sea'. But there's more to them, in fact more to them than any symbolic system seems capable of holding. When you come across a megalith or longbarrow on the landscape it just calmly sits there, seeing no reason to explain itself. It can even seem as though it's you who is the interloper. And it's mystery seems magnified by it's misshapenness. Classical columns seem to manifest the universal rules of geometry, just as they're connected to a language we can decipher.

And so their strangeness becomes in itself strange to us. This should be our home turf, the most recognisable thing, and yet it’s impervious to our understanding. Inevitably we come to see these things as outside ourselves, a puzzle to be solved with measuring tape and aerial photographs. Yet there's the nagging sense the answer is within us, one of those things we seem to know but cannot quite recall. In short, it's not the megaliths themselves which are Surreal, it's our relationship to them.

Nash accentuates all this, in fact painting an object which seems to be morphing before our eyes between stone megalith and abstract metal sculpture. Notably in the same year he painted 'Stone Tree', after finding an actual fossilised tree.

He wrote an article in 1936 called, rather brilliantly, ‘Seaside Surrealism in Swanage’. Nash himself said “the landscapes I have in mind are not part of the unseen world... They belong to the world that lies, visibly, about us. They are unseen merely because they are not perceived.”

Georgina Coburnarts writes “One of the best rooms in the show 'The Life of the Inanimate Object' is also one of the most unexpected.” And she's right, though perhaps it's surprising that we’re so surprised. All Nash has really done is shift from a focus on the spirit-inhabited place to the objects found within it. While found objects (or “object personnage”) were an established Surrealist device. And yet it does seen unexpected when we see Nash do it.

It’s the photographs and photo-collages which work the best, for example 'Swanage' (c. 1936, above), which seems reminiscent of Ernst. Or perhaps the assemblages Nash made from his findings. (Which often now exist only as photographs, making it harder to distinguish between the two.) If these objects do have a spirit, they’re best of exhibited directly and straightforwardly, the best to transmit it. He essentially takes their portrait, as he earlier did with trees. And the next-best thing is the pencil drawings, which delineate the objects dryly and faithfully. However he'd often then go on to paint them, which can seem distancing, getting away from their spirit.

Euro Standardised Surrealism

When the International Surrealist Exhibition was held in London in 1936, Nash didn't just exhibit but was on the hanging committee. As far as the European art scene was concerned, he had arrived. But the truth is that he was better before he left. As the Thirties went on, he slowly lost what had made him 'provincial' and with it what had made him distinctive. It turns out, what we really wanted was English Surrealism for English people. Who knew?

Later works such as 'Landscape For a Dream' (1936/8) are too blatantly juxtapositional, too resonant of the trickery of his earlier still lives, too made up to have any genuine sense of strangeness. They look like Surrealism by numbers for the awaiting Athena poster generation. The point about Blake seeing angels in trees is his implicit assumption there was no reason why he shouldn’t, that he didn’t accept the same demarcation between worlds as the rest of us. These works look like Nash has just cut and pasted the equivalent of angels into trees, then congratulated himself. One of the better examples is 'Nocturnal Landscape' (1938, below).

A Dream of Flying

Then, as the Forties hit, history was to repeat itself. War thrust it's way back into his life, to both upset and reinvigorate his work. Nash was by then too old to go to the front, but he became an official war artist working at home.

This coincided with his turning back to watercolour and 'Bomber in the Corn' (1940, below) looks such a conventional English pastoral scene it takes a while for the strangeness to work on you – even though that wrecked plane is right in the foreground. It's a surrealist juxtaposition, but rather than being merely manipulated like the works from a few years before, it's drawn entirely from life.

Nash said at the time “a statue on a street or some place where it will normally be found is just a statue, as it were in it's right mind; but a statue in a ditch or in the middle of a ploughed field is then an object in a state of surrealism.” JG Ballard probably expressed this sentiment more succinctly when he said “war is surreal”.

'Totes Meer' (1940/1, above) seems to refer back to the metal sheets of 'Winter Sea'; the 'sea' now in a less calm state emphasising the idea they could be companion pieces. (Even the name, German for 'Dead Sea', invites the comparison.) Yet this scene is also drawn from life. Nash visited a dump for shot-down planes at Cowley, the show even includes photographs he took there. (The gouged ground in the lower right is presumably where the metal carcasses were dragged to their resting place.) 

Unlike any of the First World War works, both show visible Nazi insignia on the planes. While British planes, present at the actual Cowley dump, are excluded. A contemporary film, shown at the gallery, claims them as propaganda images. Yet it's their matter-of-fact surrealism which lingers.

If both works featured planes, that was scarcely surprising. With Nash in England, the war had to find him. Nevertheless, he continued with themes of flight after hostilities. Not just the sky but celestial images, the sun and moon, recur in highly symbolist works. In 'Eclipse of the Sunflower' (1945, below), the images of the sun, a sunflower and a flaming wheel seem fused. In some ways these bypass the Surrealist works and go back to the beginning, eschewing solidity for immateriality. Lines of force seem to radiate from the objects, as if spirit forms.

And the fixation on the sun is significant. We all have notions of the magic, transforming moon. It blooms when the workday world is put to bed, and can encourage strange ceremonies or turn men into animals. But with this comes the notion of the sun as normative, it's rising restorative, causing spirits to scatter. But Nash paints both moon and sun as occult forces, just as he did the pyramids and sea, with no normality on offer.

Nash said he had always dreamt of flying, and only realised late in life that this was only achievable through death. It's an image that goes right back to 'The Combat' but is perhaps at it's strongest with the disembodied spirits of Dymchurch. He died a year after 'Eclipse of the Sunflower'.

Perhaps the big question about Nash, one to which I wouldn't have an answer, is whether the unevenness of his work was inevitable. He was remarkably adept in reworking his deficiencies to his advantage. Poor at drawing the human figure, he went on to make an ostentatious statement of it's absence. But his modus operandi, to find the numinous in the parochial, possibly wasn't going to emerge every time clutching a pearl. Nash never tells, he creates general moods, hints, suggests at things. And perhaps hinting is harder.

Coming soon! More art exhibition reviews, probably after they've closed. (Well I'd rather write something good than quick. Yes I know that's not the regular internet way...)