Anselm Kiefer at the RA


By Matthew Oxley

As the Earth’s rubble stares back at us from monstrous canvases - mud, ash, clay, lead, baked and blackened sunflowers, even diamonds - it seems almost incredulous that this type of abnormality and abhorrence dares to produce such harmony and beauty.

From the very start of this exhibition, before we’ve even entered the Royal Academy, in the Annenberg Courtyard, Anselm Kiefer lets us know his intentions. In two huge glass vitrines he presents us with his homage to the Russian avant-garde writer Velimir Khlebnikov, whose theory was that a major sea battle would take place every 317 years. Through two towering glass containers, we witness Kiefer’s own underwater war. In both vitrines we can peer in at his rusting and battle-hardened submarines, like sharks in an aquarium. In one, they hang in suspended motion as a shoal, cutting through the non-existent Ocean with unwavering force. And in the other they have fallen; no longer machines capable of conquering nations, but scrap metal, waiting for the split and cracked sea floor to consume them. With Velimir Khlebnikov: Fates of Nations: The New Theory of War Kiefer is giving us a glimpse of the genius to follow. What we find is life amongst death, strength within fragility, and splendour amid decay.

This show takes us through the German artist’s stunning career with wonderful fluidity. From his early, less evasive series of photographs, extraordinary handmade books and water colours in which his own ghostly, Nazi-saluting figure often invades the scenes, to his eventual epic masterpieces, we are doused in profound sincerity.

Born in the Black Forest at the end of the Second World War in 1945, Anselm Kiefer’s art is forged from the black hole of his nation’s past. By placing his own figure in his scenes he allows us to find our own understanding and acceptance of that history, whilst simultaneously hurling it back into the face of the Third Reich. His smaller, more delicate watercolours and photographs that make up the first room are a carefully chosen appetiser for the onslaught of scale, capacity and power to come.    

There is no better example of the authoritative pull that Kiefer’s work can wield than Ash Flower 1983-97, a 12 by 24 foot towering brute made from oil, emulsion, acrylic, clay, ash, earth, and his most loyal symbolic material: the dried sunflower. It takes its name from a Paul Celan poem: “I am alone, I set the ashen flower/in a glass full of pure blackness”. Celan, a man once liberated from a Nazi labour camp, is a constant presence throughout much of Kiefer’s work and his heartening, desolate words hang in the air throughout this exhibition. Ash Flower can be found on the far wall of the illustrious and expansive Gallery III, a space that was described by the Instrument of Foundation as a place where artists “offer their performances to public inspection and acquire that degree of reputation and encouragement which they shall be deemed to deserve”. A full inspection of Ash Flower feels like it would take years; each square foot of the painting could be cut away and framed in its own right, still providing endless interpretations. The work is again a comment on Nazi symbolism, with its shapes and outlines based upon that of the Mosaic Room in the Reich Chancellery, Berlin, designed by Albert Speer, architect and for a period during World War II, Minister of Armaments and War Production for the Third Reich. But that context isn’t needed to recognise the barbarism it hides. As one giant scene, it comes across blurred and obscured. The upside down, withered sunflower cuts through the entire middle of the canvas like a seared spine, its roots jutting out through the top of the frame, as if desperate to escape the nightmare it has found itself attached to. What once would have been a stunning mass of yellow petals and burgeoning seeds, now hangs as a wretched reminder that left to sour amongst depravity, life will wilt.

Proving that German history and Naziism weren’t big enough foes for him, Kiefer fills the Central Hall with a brand new sculpture, Ages of the World, 2014, a totem-esque heap of discarded canvases, sunflowers, rocks, dirt and other detritus, inspired by our planet’s evolution and, among other things, the ‘poetry of ruins’. If I was left with any regrets from this show, it’s that we weren’t treated to enough of Kiefer’s frenzied sculptures or installations such as this and his Annenberg Courtyard vitrines. There was plenty of room, for instance, to include another in Gallery III.

With a select look at his life’s work and with new paintings and sculptures completed especially for the RA, Anselm Kiefer frightens and inspires. The Royal Academy, along with curator Kathleen Soriano have surely produced what will go down as one of the most formidable and awe-inspiring shows of the 21st century - and the man is still only 69 years of age.


Anselm Kiefer at The Royal Academy runs until 14 Dec. 

Hauser & Wirth Somerset


By Matthew Oxley

The first sculpture to greet you at the newest location of Hauser & Wirth, in Bruton, Somerset, is not the farmyard enthused, organically inspired West Country piece that you might expect. Paul McCarthy’s ragged, fraying and blackened Ship of Fools, Ship Adrift sits unperturbed in the courtyard entrance. The American’s monumental, sobering view of the human condition - eight tons of cast black bronze, making up 10 deformed and tortured child-like figures drifting endlessly and forever on a cramped and creaking ship is just as vile and noxious as it sounds. But it commands the courtyard entrance nonetheless, watching over the innocent diners sipping homemade ginger beer, specialised Cuban mojitos and consuming rustic burgers made from meat sourced not 5 miles down the road. It’s a bizarre concoction. But then, Hauser & Wirth Somerset is not your usual High Art gallery.

Tucked away in the depths of the Somerset countryside, this new edition to Manuela Hauser and Iwan Wirth’s family doesn’t really make much sense on paper - even with Glastonbury and Stonehenge nearby. Zurich, London, New York, Los Angeles on the horizon, and… Somerset. We’re so used to art being tucked away behind the walls of prissy, city institutions with rarely anything to keep us company other than deadly silence, white walls and an immediate sense that we’ll just never quite be able to get it. But remove the concrete jungle, the suits, the underground, the rush, the smog and replace it with undulating English countryside, roadside strawberry stands, quail and pheasant, and you get a completely different beast with which art can interact - and more importantly, with which we can interact with art.

Luckily the darkness of McCarthy’s dystopian nightmare is brightened somewhat - at least on one side - by Subodh Gupta’s colossal stainless steel bucket. The Indian-born superstar has already been exhibited at each of the Hauser & Wirth locations around the world, but this playful and captivating gargantuan vessel will never again look quite as at home as it does in the stunning surroundings of a working, country farm. It certainly steals the spotlight from Royal Academician Phyllida Barlow, whose sprawling and varied exhibition ‘GIG’ is the inaugural feature show. Unfortunately, the 70 year old’s contribution here seems forced. She has said herself that she feels most at home in the “visual and aural noise of urban environments.” It shows.

Inspired by the odd and off angles of the agricultural surroundings, her sculptures and installations are fun and interesting to navigate, but they fail to reach the level of finesse that we might expect from such an accomplished and seasoned artist. Instead, they end up coming across, well, a little odd and off - and not in the endearing way her surroundings inspire. The splendid exception is her use of the Threshing Barn, the first gallery space you come across and the most beautiful. Hefty, multi colored spheres made from shredded and tattered fabric hang from wooden beams that spread across the roof in manic patterns. This is immersive art at its best, forcing us to carefully brush past and interact with the swinging balls in our path. It’s the closest Barlow gets to evoking any of those rural sensations and looking up through the mass of rope, textiles and wood, one can easily imagine this as a psychedelic, dusty, spider-web ridden dream.

There are various other sculptures scattered throughout the immaculate grounds to keep you occupied, including Arin Sala’s oversized, warped timepiece Clocked Perspective, which reminds us that eventually we will all have to spend our time elsewhere; Louise Bourgeois’s brilliantly hidden spindly Spider, 1994 and Martin Creed’s crowd pleasing, but rather plain-sailing and over-ripened Everything Is Going To Be Alright.

Hauser & Wirth Somerset is a truly marvellous achievement, which must have felt completely bonkers when the idea was first dreamed up. But not only does it provide escape and adventure away from the big city, it also feels like the sublime repose that you didn’t know you needed. Savour the art, yes. Savour the cocktails and the local beer and the brioche sandwiches. But most of all, savour the countryside.


Photobook review: Disco Night Sept 11


By Matthew Oxley

Peter van Agtmael’s introduction to Disco Night Sept. 11 is short; just two pages in all. Like some of the images inside, his words carry the dead weight of anguish and agony. But, just like the images inside, they also carry with them a bracing candour; the type that is just as agonising to stumble upon. In his closing line before the images get their turn, Agtmael hits us with the most poignant of that candour: “If I found any truth in war, I found that in the end everyone has their own truth.” And so we turn the page and begin the task of excavating this immense collection of one man’s truth.

I purchased my copy of Disco Night Sept. 11 - a chronicle of America’s wars from 2006-2013 - at the Bristol Photobook Festival in June. Like everyone else, I flicked through it as carefully and as elegantly as I could. I’d like to say it felt different, but it didn’t. Even when I knew it had come straight from the printers and had arrived just hours before, it still felt exactly the same as the hundreds of other books in the crowded little room in Bristol. But feeling is not seeing, and my eyes - in the brief moment they had to take in the flashes of war that were inside - saw something they wanted to take away with them. And that’s where it starts to feel a little strange, because Disco Night makes you feel as if you’re eavesdropping on war. It has a loose, disparate feel; as if you sneaked into Agtmael’s tent late at night to flick through his personal diary under torch light. The intertwining of dates, places and situations helps contribute to this sensation; on one page we’ll be in Fort Hood, Texas, in 2011, watching the joy on the faces of family members as their loved ones return home, and the next we’ll be waking up next to a soldier, gun by his side, on a cold, desolate mountain top in Kunar, Afghanistan, in 2007. But this sense that we’re an intruder upon these images runs deeper than a lack of chronological order. It goes to the very heart of conflict photography. Either we’ve experienced war or we haven’t. But that doesn’t make these images futile and it doesn’t make Agtmael’s capturing of them unwarranted. It makes them the important middle ground; somewhere for us lucky ones to go when we think we’re ready to see those flashes.  

It’s this middle ground that Disco Night deals with so well. It doesn’t care about shock and awe, although that’s there if you want it. It doesn’t care about opinions, although there are some hidden for us to find. It doesn’t even care too much about style - you’d be forgiven for thinking this book had multiple authors. What these images seem to be telling us more than anything is that war is fragmented, is never still, and is far more connected to those of us living in the tranquility of the middle ground than we dare admit. We’re reminded of this in the blurred, joyous frolicking of naked soldiers at Rockaway Beach, New York and in the silky, glittering blackness of America and her horizon seen from the window of a plane. For there is no war in these types of images, just human interaction at its most innocent and the calm, wistful normality of a landscape we recognise. But go to another page and you’ll get the awe, in the giant, monstrous figure of a bomb-induced dust cloud. And you’ll find the shock too, etched onto the burnt and seared face of Sergeant Jeff Reffner, as he strains to lift his head after being hit by an IED; a future ahead of him that is unimaginable.

Running through this unassuming, unassertive book alongside the photos, are the other reason it feels diary-esque. With every image we are rewarded with words that are just as forthright as the images they lay next to. “His family clutched at his body, wailing and ripping at their clothes, collapsing in despair at his side”…  “I joined them, and we got drunk as hell that night”… “The top part of his head was strewn in pieces on the wall and ground”… “The lemon on the plate signifies the bitterness of loss. The salt represents tears.” These descriptions, like the images, and like war itself, meander through our emotions as if we were being forced to relive our lives through sporadic, unintelligible jolts of memory, with only our individual truths left over.


Disco Night Sept. 11 can be purchased from Magnum Photos

Mollino | Mapplethorpe - Hamiltons Gallery


By Matthew Oxley

Carlo Mollino’s talents - or perhaps more accurately, his desires - seemed to have no ends. His professions, pursuits and hobbies included architect, designer, photographer, writer, professor, urbanist, skier, racing car driver and stunt pilot. Born, raised and educated in Turin at the turn of the century, his personal and artistic propensities flourished in the cultural melting pot of Italy during that time. In 1955 he took part in the infamous 24 Hours of Le Mans, in a car named the Bisiluro; designed by the man himself. However, it is as a celebrated but also heavily criticised architect that he is remembered most, despite completing just a dozen works in his lifetime.

It feels somewhat extraordinary then, to stand in front of the very photographic explorations that this larger than life, ‘erotomaniac’ never intended for the world to see. His Polaroids here at Hamiltons were discovered after his unexpected death from a heart attack in 1973, aged 68. He considered them his own personal, intimate objects, prescribed them no art value and had no plans to exhibit them. Writing about the use of Polaroids in his essay, ‘Il Messaggio dalla Camera Oscura’, on the history and criticism of photography, published in 1943, he described the process as leaving behind the “technical photographic aids for the aesthetic transfiguration of nature”. That ‘nature’ was mostly lovers and prostitutes, often nude, straddling and draping themselves in wonderful narcissistic fashion across his own furniture creations. Cleverly, two of these creations - The Lattes Chair and The Copenhagen Chair - are included in the exhibition, allowing our imaginations to run a little wild with visions of Mollino pacing, circling and directing his subjects around what he must have considered his already-realised architectural masterpieces. The images are deep and rich in colour, a characteristic forged by Mollino’s finesse and commanding grip of light. In one of the more striking, a female wearing only stockings sits upright in another of Mollino’s conceptions - this time a giant wicker chair. With darkness as his background and soft light bathing his subjects from the front he provides the scene with what becomes the signature of these Polaroids: power and sincerity. For there is no degradation here. Not a whiff of sleazy pornographic Italian obsession. They are a respectful presentation of healthy passion.

It is often surprising how fine and delicate polaroids can appear in the flesh; our modern generation considers them shakeable, stout, even malleable little objects. But spend just a few moments with Mollino’s exquisite, perfectly formed studies of the female form and you will want to sweep them gently into your arms, cradling and protecting them from the world’s hardships.

The Italian’s C-type prints of the same subjects and situations are also included, but they are a stark contrast to his Polaroids. If they were chosen to highlight Mollino’s inaccuracy and seemingly casual mastery of the darkroom, they succeed. Next to his polaroids they seem crass and a little oafish; a strange curatorial choice for such a confined and limited gallery space. I would far rather have digested another half dozen Polaroids (of which over 2,000 were found in envelopes after his death) than have to endure the frustratingly preliminary feel that his C-types excrete.

Mollino’s roommate at Hamiltons is a rather more prominent figure in the photography world. Robert Mapplethorpe’s name is already seared into photographic history as one of it’s most groundbreaking and contentious contributors. His stark images of the male nude and often explicitly sexualised gay scenes shocked the world in the 1970s and 1980s. But he never meant to stir or provoke; his work was his way of representing and creating beauty as he saw it. His friend and lover, the musician and poet Patti Smith said of his work: “I really believe Robert sought not to destroy order, but to reorder, to reinvent, and to create a new order.” Mapplethorpe himself was an avid and successful Polaroid user; his first ever solo show was an exhibition of his Polaroids at the now famous Light Gallery in New York in 1973, the same year as Mollino’s fatal heart-attack. We are presented here however, not with Mapplethorpe’s Polaroids but with the large format series of his other photographic passion: flowers.

They are commanding. They are vibrant and colourful. And yes, they are unmistakably Mapplethorpe, which means they are unmistakably eroticised and suggestive. But they also force us to ask questions not only of nature, but of our nature. Mapplethorpe was meticulous with his processes; careful styling, composition and lighting were paramount to achieve the level of detail, luminosity and saturation that he managed to achieve in his colour work - groundbreaking at the time. And when you factor in that it was the 1980s, you start to understand why they seem to have taken on an almost hyper-real presence in 2014. Suddenly when surrounded by these hugely important prints - kept in a private American collection for years - they begin to overwhelm. Some keep their shape as flowers and leaves, but some could easily be mistaken for sea creatures great and small. But for Mapplethorpe, it didn’t matter what we saw, as long as he represented his subjects with his own personal integrity: “Whether it’s a cock or a flower, I’m looking at it in the same way. …in my own way, with my own eyes” he once said.

To combine Carlo Mollino and Robert Mapplethorpe was brave. Brave because at first they don’t really seem to fit together. But spend some time inside the cave that is Hamiltons Gallery, with Mollino’s tiny flashes of raw infatuation and Mapplethorpe’s sustained, almost arduous attempt at connecting with sensuous beauty and they slowly but surely begin to speak to each other.


Mollino | Mapplethorpe is on at Hamiltons Gallery, London from 23 June – 12 September 2014

Film Review: The Woodmans


Untitled 1975-80, Francesca Woodman, © The estate of Francesca Woodman

Two minutes and forty-four seconds into The Woodmans (2010), we get a glimpse into the steam-train like mentality which seems to have powered this family. Betty Woodman, mother of the films heroine, Francesca, is attempting to explain her deep passion toward the arts: “I couldn’t live with somebody who didn’t give making art the importance I give it” she says. Then, with an unnerving coolness and a shrug of her shoulders: “I would just hate them.” And, you believe her. Watching her speak those words, you immediately understand why Francesca Woodman, during her 22 short and seemingly frustrating years on Earth, came to live, breath and die through her artistic expression.

The story of Francesca herself, as with many other artists throughout history, is dolefully tragic and short-lived. What is most fascinating though, and is carefully and cleverly nurtured throughout the film, is how so far beyond her years she was. Proof of this is not just found solely within her haunting images or movies, which by themselves manage to evoke an often unexplainable mixture of profound emotions; it is emphasised as well, by the words she left us. Woven throughout the film are the diary entries of a very troubled, but very philosophically mature and poetically beautiful young mind. There is no narration for these, and quite rightly; we are left to imagine for ourselves the different tonalities and accentuation of emotions that accompany these most private of thoughts. There is no better evidence of her maturity than in her first journal entry; this, from a 14 year old:

… book bought on a

sweltering hot day in august ‘73

in the hope that it will work out

i don’t know if it will

because when I think of things

instead of just letting them happen

they usually turn out different

or don’t turn at all

This dark rhetoric from such a young artist quickly becomes the central theme of the movie. And how could it not? Francesca Woodman’s expression through her work - mostly self portraits, often nude, usually bizarre, but always haunting  - gives us a glimpse into a mind at war with life - and itself. In one of her most well known images, the surreal and unsettling Providence, Rhode Island, 1976, we find her sitting naked on a small chair in the corner of an expansive, flaying wooden room. Her surroundings are bright - almost blindingly so - and she has a look on her face which became something of a trademark in her self portraits; it seems to be saying: “Try and understand me if you dare.” This provocation joins forces with the surreal element of the image: the shadow-like figure on the floor beneath her. Francesca’s innocent gaze is firmly fixed upon us as we try and make sense of the scene. Is it really a shadow, is it an outline, or is it something else? Questions, I imagine, she wouldn’t have minded eliciting.

Although a film that attempts with vigor, to get under the skin of a family and unearth the roots from which a single mind was created, this film is dominated by that single mind. Francesca is constantly there, not just hiding away in the background, waiting to play her part; she dictates almost every second. Even during the scenes following Betty and her father George, she seems to scramble all over her parent’s time in the spotlight - a fact, you sense, that has not worn well in the years since her death. And, Francesca’s work is only strengthened more by the tedious focus on her mothers own artwork, which is childish, nauseating and garish in comparison.

It’s Francesca’s tireless rummaging for artistic authority, mixed with her palpable insecurities - even from the grave - which make this film, one that isn’t the most elegantly filmed or creative, tenaciously compelling.

By Matthew Oxley


Graciela Iturbide - Tate Modern

image© Graciela Iturbide, Mujer Ángel, Sonora Desert, Mexico, 1979

My latest review of the Graciela Iturbide retrospective at Tate Modern is featured on The Photographers Gallery website. Here’s a little preview:

"They are disturbing, gloomy, nostalgia-leaden landscapes. But they are also a thirst-quenching take on the American road trip style of imagery, which was blooming just as Iturbide was noiselessly crafting her own version. I suspect her haunting take on fleeting America won’t find a place alongside the work of Robert Frank or be bestowed any parallels with the words of Jack Kerouac when we write her into the history books. But I’d challenge any notion that suggests she couldn’t sit as equal next to either."

View the full post here. 

By Matthew Oxley


Graciela Iturbide is on show at the Tate Modern in The Bryant Gallery (level 2) until 11 May 2014

World Press Photo Awards


                               © John Stanmeyer - African migrants in Djibouti

Judging the winning image of any major photographic competition on the character of its predecessor – at least in part - is inevitable. But this year, with the announcement of the 2014 World Press Photo of the Year, the desire and need to appraise through comparison, feels stronger than ever. Last year’s winner, by Paul Hansen, showed us two Palestinian men carrying the bodies of their young nephews to their funeral through a crowded, sun drenched, dust filled alley in Gaza . The uncles share a look of anguish and anger between them. Behind them is a mob; arms are raised, mouths open in mid-shout; bodies stampede towards the foreground. The image ignited what has become a rather vicious and at times tedious debate, surrounding what does and does not constitute authenticity in photography. The image was scrutinised the moment it was announced as winner. Photo imaging experts, retouching houses, photographers and picture editors all argued the toss, with vastly contrasting opinions across the board. The original exposé was run by Extreme Tech, and began “It turns out that the 2013 World Press Photo of the Year — the largest and most prestigious press photography award — was, in actual fact, a fake.” Subsequent updates to that original piece and the flood of other blogs and articles on the matter are testament to the furore the image provoked. The British Journal of Photography’s article ‘Objectivity, manipulation and the search for truth’ is one of the more considered responses, exploring the opinions of some of the leading minds and most seasoned photographers in the industry.

Hansen’s image did more than just highlight the challenges facing professional documentary photography in a digitised, irritable 21st century. His choice as winner last year seemed to hold a spotlight on the hyper realism and perfectionism that has managed to permeate its way into almost all forms of photography in recent times. In the aforementioned BJP article, Magnum’s Chris Anderson stated:

“…facts do not exist, but truth does. And truth is paramount. Authenticity and integrity in the image is something I think we understand intuitively. When we come to grips with the fact that all photography is a lie, the question is not whether or not it is factual, the question is whether or not it is true.”

We did not need imaging experts to help us see that Hansen’s winner in 2013 had been prepared as though it were ready to grace the cover of Vogue or Vanity Fair. And, there is nothing wrong with that; photographers have been dodging and burning profusely since the medium’s invention. My issue with Hansen’s image was never really the physical process it went through, but rather the eventual product that somehow made it to the top of what is supposed to be the very best pile of press photography. Anderson’s admission of photography’s lie was refreshing in an industry which has come to expect its photographers to be the eternal hoarders of fact. His phrase that ‘truth is paramount’ is even more interesting, since the two words are so easily mistaken for one another. The facts exist in Hansen’s image; two year old Suhaib Hijazi and his three year old brother Muhammad are being carried to a mosque for their funeral after an Israeli bomb found their home, killing them and their father, and seriously injuring their mother. But the type of truth Anderson refers to - the photographer’s truth - is no where to be found. When I first saw it a year ago, I remember thinking it looked as if it had been pulled straight out of the most sophisticated video game available, or a James Cameron movie. I’ve looked at it hundreds of times since and each time, I’ve found everything but the truth. It is a shame, because Paul Hansen is an extremely talented and dedicated photographer; his colour images from Afghanistan between 1996 and 2001 are some of the most arresting, intimate and elegantly haunting that I have seen from a region that has not been short of photographers. 

More than ever then, the 2014 winner of the World Press Photo awards was always going to be a defining one in its history. Another controversy, another winner who was found to be heavy handed in the digital darkroom, and the awards would have plunged into its own type of darkness. Many will criticise the choice of John Stanmeyer’s image of African migrants in Djibouti raising their glaring phones to the sky, in an attempt to steal whatever signal they can from neighbouring Somalia, as safe. It won’t satisfy a large base of the photography world - and the public - whose cravings for hyper real, 3D-esque visual experiences seems insatiable. Some will say the choice was cowardly. Thankfully, those people will be quickly drowned out by the unassailable integrity of Stanmeyer’s image. In a wonderful recording released by World Press, we got to hear the moment Stanmeyer was informed of his win by Managing Director Michiel Munneke and jury chair Gary Knight. In a mark of the man’s rectitude toward the importance of his work, his reaction when told which of his images had won the top prize was not one of personal satisfaction or gratification, but one of immediate concern and connection with the message of his photograph. Without hesitation, and almost interrupting Munneke, he launched into a deft explanation of an image that obviously means so much to him: “It is an important moment in our collective humanity, not only related to migration, but how we are so desperate to connect back home.” Far from being safe, the choice of Stanmeyer as winner was ballsy, especially by a judging panel that must have felt the weight of Hansen’s image hanging around their necks, just as the 2010 Wildlife Photographer of the Year panel must have felt after the stripping of José Luis Rodriguez of his title in 2009.

It will take more than one photo for the world of documentary and press photography to solve its problems; almost immediately after the winners were announced, the British Journal of Photography reported that 8% of the images that reached the final round of judging had to be disqualified due to manipulation. But Stanmeyer’s gloriously simple, unembellished scene of human beings raising their mobile phones to the light of the moon, will go along way to finding its cure.

By Matthew Oxley


To view all of the 2014 World Press Photo award winners click here . 

William S Burroughs: Taking Shots, The Photographers Gallery

image                          William Burroughs - Car Crash, New York City, 1965

 By Matthew Oxley

The Americans are here. Warhol, Lynch, Burroughs; a long overdue collision in these Isles of the raw and - however much we stoic Brits like to deny it - often unrivalled talent born across the pond. Don’t expect these three to work together though, in any way. This is not a collaborative, succinct display of American photography; it is, like I said, a collision. But I don’t think any of them would have minded that at all.

In Andy Warhol - perhaps the name most likely to draw in the crowds - we see a relentless, obsessive desire to record his everyday, long before it became fashionable to do so. With The Factory Photographs, we get a heavy dose of Lynchian magic. We are reminded why David Lynch, insuppressible, widely talented painter, photographer, musician, actor and director, and at 67 years old, the only one still alive and very much kicking (his album, The Big Dream and a short film documenting the lithographic process, Idem Paris, were both released last year), was once referred to as ‘the first popular Surrealist’. His unrelenting, unnerving black & white studies of industrial spaces scattered around the world, in Poland, Germany, New York, New Jersey and here in England, are strikingly moreish. But, it’s our third visitor that comes out head and shoulders above his compatriots.

William Seward Burroughs II would have been 100 years old on February 5th. A number of cities around the world, most where Burroughs resided at one point or another during his nomadic life, will pay homage to this milestone. The Lawrence Arts Center in Kansas City, where Burroughs played out his finals years, will host 50 of his artistic works, most made in the last 16 years of his life. Paris, Morocco, Berlin and New York (which will hold a month’s worth of activities) all feature centenary exhibitions in his honour.

Most famous for his novels Junkie and The Naked Lunch, both brutally honest explorations of the life of a drug addict and for his cultural status as ‘the godfather of the Beats’, his association with photography - at least within the mainstream - is far less known. But it is not his role in history as the famous drug addict, bohemian and homosexual that defines this exhibition, despite its rather unimaginative and predictable title, which hangs greedily onto that addiction, as much as his love for the gun. It is Burroughs’ extraordinary capacity for creativity that is on display. Whereas Warhol’s snapshot photography feels, well, like nothing more than snapshot photography, the spontaneity in Burroughs’ imagery screams the same type of brilliance that deafens the readers of his prevalent and rampant novels and essays. In his defense, the exceptions for Warhol are his stitched pieces, which should really have been the entire focus of his photographic work here. They ooze Warhol’s unmistakable, classic pop-art style, whilst retaining the edgy truth of 70s and 80s black & white photography. But they are scarce, which is a shame, and they only add to the dismay when viewing his endlessly dull diaristic images.

With his own documentation of the every day - a car crash outside his New York home in 1965 for example, seemingly shot from every conceivable angle - Burroughs shows us his unflinching curiosity; a potent desire to uncover and unearth, not just plainly record. You can imagine the scene: chaos, panic, anger and William Burroughs, camera in hand, silent as a cat, scampering in between hurried figures and torn wreckage, his own world unfolding through the viewfinder. This little series is one of the most intriguing of the entire show and perhaps sums up best, the Burroughs mentality.

In 1989 he told critic A.D. Coleman ‘I never take pictures just for the taking of pictures. I want the end product… That’s what I’m really interested in.’ Within the infinite world of his cut-ups, a technique he fathered and perfected with friend and fellow artist Brion Gysin we get, paradoxically, as close to final as the mind of such an unremitting thinker could possibly let us. Sporadic and often nonsensical, but utterly consuming, his experiments with folding and cutting, folding and cutting and then folding and cutting some more was to be a constant theme throughout his life, engulfing not only his photography, but his writings and later on, his paintings too.

Burroughs was meticulous; his photography, just like his writing, was ultimately a wonderfully deft rearrangement and reimagining of reality. He once famously stated that ‘All writing is in fact cut-ups.” You could say, that for Burroughs, all of life was a cut-up. In the end, what this show proves is that he was a man constantly in artistic and creative debate with the world around him. There are few in our history with the credentials and the constitution strong enough to have joined William Burroughs in that debate.


Taking Shots: The Photography of William S Burroughs is on at The Photographers Gallery until 30th March 2014

Daido Moriyama: Silkscreens

image                                 KARIUDO (Hunter), 1972 © Daido Moriyama


By Matthew Oxley

Almost twelve months have passed since Daido Moriyama and William Klein took the photography world by storm with their gritty, extensive and muscular collaboration at Tate Modern. It was a brave and emotional retrospective, the likes of which we will be lucky to see again soon. However, what that show provided was dangerous; it gave us a giant shot of genius. Almost too much. And, London has had to wait a whole year for another fix of either artist. It has felt like a lifetime.

The setting is a little different to say the least, and this time it is Moriyama alone who takes center stage. Hamiltons Gallery, with its oppressive lighting and cave-like dwellings is a far cry from the giant, pristine-white walls of Tate Modern. This is a completely different show, and any memory of that sprawling exhibition on the South Bank twelve months ago will be immediately quashed as you step into the thunderous silence that greets you in the small Mayfair gallery.

Thirteen prints, that’s all. Thirteen prints to represent the photography of Daido Moriyama. Hamilton’s director Tim Jeffries, who personally selected the prints, must have had a substantial task ahead of him when choosing from the Japanese masters gargantuan portfolio. To curate a show of Daido Moriyama’s photography is to curate a show of one of the most stylistic photographers of the 20th century. Stylistic yes, but also unpredictable. That is the beauty which hides behind the candid vehemency Moriyama prints present us with; his images could never be brushed with the allegation of complacency. In that regard, the final 13 prints, which hang with authority at Hamiltons, are both concise and shrewd choices.

Conspicuous in their absence are a number of Moriyama classics - the images that have come to define his unique aesthetic. Stray Dog - perhaps his most iconic, certainly one of his most haunting, Provoke no 2 - the voyeuristic and strangely erotic hotel scene, in which a naked women sits smoking on a bed, and the images from his most sumptuous and delicate series, Tights & Lips - are all missing in action. With such limited space to play with, selecting the more well known images in Moriyama’s repertoire would have been tempting. It also would have been a mistake.

What we are presented with in Silkscreens is a subtle insight into the mind of one of the great photographers of our time. Aside from black & white, there is no particular theme or idea that immediately unites the prints, which is where the evidence of his virtuosity lies. One moment we will be in Buenos Aires in 2005, watching as a couple commands the dance floor and the next we will be on the shadowy streets of Tokyo in the 1970s. No matter the subject matter, be it Pepsi bottles or the inside of a woman’s thighs, or it’s location, a Moriyama composure will always accomplish one thing: it will provoke more questions than it provides answers.

In perhaps the most nostalgic and enchanting of the prints, One More Peek, 1966, a young boy relieves himself against an old building. As a dark pool of urine gathers at his feet, he looks up at the poster of a naked woman above him. She is trapped in a perpetual state of tease; her leg flicked out behind her and her long flowing hair caressing her back. The car hiding around the corner from the boy and the slight angular composition of the photograph work together to evoke a strange kind of disquieting comfort. The image encapsulates both Moriyama’s forbidding aesthetic and his seemingly endless ability to place vastly different human emotions and needs side by side, and make them work together.

This show may lack some of the bravado and swagger that it’s Tate Modern counterpart hemorrhaged a year ago, but what it lacks in brawn, it makes up for with suave agility. Each silkscreen canvas, printed especially for the exhibition, glistens in an oil-like state, the dark and murky nature of Moriyama’s world a perfect match for the inky beauty silkscreens offer. They also lend a little cultivation to the rather seedy and noxious picture that his work can sometimes paint. All this contradiction is indicative of the work of Daido Moriyama, a photographer who quite openly once tried to “destroy photography”. Thankfully he didn’t succeed.


Daido Moriyama: Silkscreens is on at Hamiltons Gallery until December 20th 2013.

Darin Mickey: Stuff I Gotta Remember Not To Forget


By Matthew Oxley

Darin Mickey’s Stuff I Gotta Remember Not To Forget takes its name from a bulletin board. We get to see this bulletin board within the series; the words in question tucked between a picture of a catholic priest praying and Ziggy the comic strip character affirmatively pointing their way. In a series full of images that you just want to stare at, whilst not immediately understanding why, this picture is one of the most intriguing. But I was determined to understand it. I had to figure out its lure. Then it hit me. It wasn’t the priest, or Ziggy, it was the notes; each one with a different scribbled reminder, a different task that couldn’t, apparently, be forgotten. “Finish taking up carpet floor”, “Add polymer sealant to Chrysler”, “Pick up trash”, “Cut down trees”. All such mundane, everyday undertakings, but that is precisely the reason this image - which at first feels numb and subdued - becomes so compelling in its delivery. It’s the image that sums up the series, a series, which is endowed with that most seldom of photographic qualities: the ability to connect with each and every one of us.

Presented to us in Mickey’s inimitable, deadpan, comatosed style, Stuff I Gotta Remember Not To Forget takes us into the world of his father, Ken Mickey. Behind each image lives an intimacy which feels within our grasp, but which is ultimately never quite reachable. It’s a feeling that will be an established presence within many father and son relationships and is converted into a visual aesthetic with both a run-of-the-mill comfortability, but also an edge which keeps us guessing.

We meet Ken stooped over a black briefcase in a sun drenched street, his silver striped tie hanging vertically from his throat, his body forming an almost crippled figure in the harsh shadow cast beneath him. From this seemingly inadvertent encounter, his world is slowly, if not ever fully, unveiled to us. We see his suits hung tightly together, we see him at work in a cave-like warehouse that wouldn’t be out of place in a Bond movie, and we see him at home, doing the dishes, relaxing in the garden. The point here, is that Ken Mickey could be anyone’s dad; that in itself, mixed with a style of photography that is both personal and imaginative, creates an open door for the viewer to walk through.

The need for artists to turn their craft towards their own family is not a new phenomenon, and it’s not a surprising one either. Salvador Dali, aged just 21, painted numerous portraits (arguably his best) of his sister Ana María Dali. In more recent times, Christopher Anderson’s ‘Son' eloquently scrutinises not only his journey as a new father, but also his role as a son himself. Virginia Beahan’s ‘Photographs from Home’, a poetic and delicate observation of her family in New Hampshire, USA, must be one of the most visually stunning series that explores the relationships between different generations of a family. Then we have Phillip Toledano’s emotional and at times heart wrenching ‘Days with my father’, an examination of his time spent with his ageing father after the death of his mother. Turning our artistic sights on a family member or friend or lover then, seems like a natural step in the on-going fight to understand our lives.






All images © Darin Mickey

Stuff I Gotta Remember Not To Forget is published as a hardback full colour book by J&L Books. Available from Photo-Eye.