The YBAs always seemed to be in a hurry, as if bound to a gaining clock, and so it’s fitting that the two most significant artists associated with the movement both have major long term exhibitions in London one year shy of the 25th anniversary of Freeze. Hirst has his oft-delayed Tate retrospective, timed to coincide with the Olympics. Lucas’s is the more modest proposal, and the more engaging, taking over the floor above Sadie Coles’ New Burlington street gallery for the year long project ‘Situation’, the second instalment of which has recently opened. Francis Lamb reports.
Partly a nod to the artist-led ventures of the early’90s, the space has an improvised feel, complete with distressed concrete floor and side kitchen. The main room is dominated by two wall-sized photographic prints: buttocks squeezing a pint of semi-skimmed, which resembles a red snooker ball, and a mirrored print of a T-shirt with a nipple showing through a neatly cut hole. Taken over a decade ago, the images provide a link to ‘Bunny Gets Snookered’, which introduced her anthropomorphic sculptures made of tights stuffed with kapok.
The coruscating humour of that era has been filtered through the pastoral occult of the underrated ‘Penetralia’ show (2008) for other works. With suggestive economy a coat-hanger supports a rack of light bulbs, genitals a rusty bucket lit up by a red bulb, the ensemble dangling over an oriental rug depicting agricultural scenes – plucking fruit, plowing furrows and the like. The rest of the space is squatted by the NUDS ( first shown in 2009). Flesh cast as mystery, their skin mottled like hogs’ pudding, forms that resemble turds or placenta as much as bodies or limbs are entwined around chairs, or loll on top of breeze-block stacks.
‘SITUATION MAKE LOVE’ is a tantalising glimpse of Lucas’s modus operandi that whets the appetite for her survey show at the Henry Moore Institute opening in June. Meanwhile, on the other side of town, there is the skull, the shark and the indispensable ‘A Thousand Years’. A riff on the dirty Pop that Paul Thek skewered in the’60s with ‘Meat Piece with Warhol Brillo Box’, and somehow smaller and more sordid than memory allows, it still elicits horrified delight.
A common charge against Damien Hirst is that the inventive one-off pieces of the early years gave way to serial works that lack nuanced concept or a sufficiently obsessive dimension. This partially sticks in the way the work revels in the broadest of strokes: bright colours are beautiful, sharks malevolent, cigarettes and alcohol fleetingly pleasurable, finally mortal. The series that gives this the lie are the medicine cabinets, their air of hermetic intrigue under glass reconfigured time and again.
In the early examples from ‘Sinner’ (1988) to ‘Pharmacy’ (1992) the dated graphics of the packaging prove to be a potent Madeleine for the end of the century blues. The pharmaceuticals come out of their boxes and onto the shelves in later works such as ‘Lullaby, the Seasons’, (2002) sliding doors still in place, coloured plaster pills within reach. The same cabinets reappear towards the end of the exhibition, the medicine replaced by synthetic diamonds, as if wealth were the ultimate palliative.
One of the strengths of the work is that it pulls o the trick of being grandiose without being pompous. Fortuitously, Hirst’s drollery didn’t evaporate after his initial success, persisting in his titling at least; one spin painting “for over the sofa” is qualified with the prefix “throw away, kids’ stuff , lacking in integrity”. Then there is the chutzpah of wallpapering the penultimate room with the cover of the auction catalogue of ‘Beautiful Inside My Head Forever’, (2008) which puts one in mind of an inside-out Benson & Hedges packet.
The recent story has been judiciously edited to leave out mid-decade diversions like the photo-realist painting, which he claimed as his artistic future at the time, or the 2004 auction of the fittings and fixtures from the Pharmacy restaurant after which he declared; “Suddenly my restaurant venture seems to be a success.” The impression that the last decade has seen Hirst’s project shift emphasis from making work to working numbers is sealed by the dedicated shop at the conclusion of the exhibition, which, depending on your view, is either a damp squib or the only fit ending to the riot of Grand Guignol that precedes it.
Tate Modern (4 April- 9 September 2012)
With Damien Hirst’s first major retrospective at Tate Modern, there is a sense that, along with the public queuing up to see the work, there is also a queue of critics who would like to see Hirst’s reputation crash and burn.
This is, of course, the very frisson that art such as Hirst’s thrives on; the way it’s perceived is key to its impact. It’s exciting being ushered into the darkened room with the diamond-encrusted skull For the Love of God, entering the dialogue yourself. The reaction of viewers to this work is interesting in itself. There are a lot of smiles; a kind of tacit understanding of what is being ‘said’ by the artist; an acknowledgement of cultural capital. The ironies are clear: wealth, beauty and death – a smile and a shrug, the way of the world.
In the first room of the exhibition is a selection of student work, including With Dead Head, a photograph of a 16-year-old Hirst next to a specimen from the anatomy department, taken in a Leeds morgue. Although he claims to have been terrified by the experience, in itself the artwork depicts an act of youthful devilment, of punky cheekiness. What we see in this early work is Hirst’s characteristically shrill machismo, without the buttressing of the monumental largeness of his later works. Its unvarnished slightness is emblematic of the exhibition as a whole.
By the time we get to Judgment Day 2009, with its revisiting of the set ups of earlier pieces such as Lullaby, the Seasons 2002, we get Hirst in gold, which is fitting for artworks designed to be purchased by the super-rich who can also display their cultural capital while have a piece of serious bling on the wall of their palace. Of course, Hirst is making this very point, he’s naughty King Midas, subverting obscene wealth while pro ting from it at the same time.
In the end, as another consumer at the tourist magnet of the Tate Modern, perhaps a more straightforward customer satisfaction report would be most appropriate. Looking over the Hirst-endorsed products in the gift shop, which manifested a characteristic balance of art criticism with British (natch) horror movie trash, I was left feeling somewhat hollow by the whole experience. I was reminded of seeing the tumescence on the Birkenstock-wearing Klansman in the White Cube Chapman Brothers exhibition; there I felt implicated by my ironic guffaw, the moral turpitude on show threw my cultural capital back at me. Whereas, with Damien Hirst, all I kept seeing was the cheeky young man who had posed with a cadaver, now with the keys to this worldly kingdom, spinning in his empty ironies.
El Loco, Valencia, Spain (April 20, 2012)
Daniel Johnston, special person, extra-special songwriter, asks for enough light to see his lyric book. Love he has aplenty from this Valencian audience, and when he leaves the venue later, girls and guys will fall upon him as if he were a puppy dog, lavishing him with hugs and kisses.
But he wants light. It’s a practical issue, and it will take a hands-on approach which is slow in coming. Behind the man this committed small city music crowd has paid in advance to see, the name of the venue in neon – El Loco – is, graciously, not lit up, though it would be mischievously appropriate. Johnston’s mental issues are a famous part of his appeal. Some would say these are the key to his writing, his drawing, and the charmingly offbeat approach that initially brought him fame.
A light from a battery of colours behind him is manually shifted to shine behind his aged, silvery occiput and onto the words he unceremoniously begins to sing in his unrefined Virginia whine – a car-crash of a voice for sure, but the Reliant Robin that knocked a Rolls Royce off a cliff edge. A choice of simple but robust words fixed to the pillars of poetry every few metres by revelations in golden silk and melodies that translate with universal ease, and he accompanies them on a stumpy, headless guitar whose nylon strings he cannot hold down. Everyone is wearing a mask, he insinuates on the hard-to-misinterpret ‘Mask’, but we don’t want to, and as he sings we let it drop.
The sound and the delivery are disastrous on one level, and you wonder if everyone here sees how through this diseased performance the beauty shines strangely, like ready-cut diamonds in dirty rock. No, I don’t think they all do, but those who have never seen Daniel Johnston can be held in surprise and awe for a few more solo songs. From somewhere within the raw mess of the bombed harmonics from this amplified guitar, you can hear tiny phantom trumpeters. Daniel is never alone.
“What country are we in?” he asks. This is the sixth stop on his current European tour. There is laughter, affectionate, polite, not full-on, as if irony was not expected. Johnstonian irony is of a special kind, and it has always been there in his work, but you don’t expect it because one of the things that most draws people to this figure is the phenomenon of his sincerity, the way his words, as well as his cartoon art, seem to have no archness, like the expressions of a child. Singing solo, this sincerity is surely what proves so magnetic, because for audiences used to performers being polished, Daniel is naked and unwashed. But the sincerity is suddenly there in a more concentrated form when the band kicks in and puts the songs into a more habitual context, and, guitar-less, Daniel sings and screams, very much in tune, giving it his all against the Beatlesy, Undertonsey rocking threesome, apparently local Spanish musicians, who do him proud. It is this unpretentious, classical pop noise that best suits Daniel’s voice and his simple but glorious tunes. When he plays alone, you find yourself rather patronisingly thinking that people who don’t quite get it should imagine that it’s Johnny Cash or Jeff Buckley up there singing those words. But when Daniel is let loose to live the dream of being a pop superhero, the dream that has li ed him throughout his life from his default “I love you all, but I hate myself ” condition, the magic works. He turns into the human flame, he is Casper the friendly ghost, he is a most ghostly, ethereal musical entity, a phenomenon of nature.
The Wave Pictures
Long Black Cars (Moshi Moshi)
In many ways, this album – The Wave Pictures’ umpteenth (and fifth for Moshi Moshi) – is more of the same from London’s hardest working indie band. Recorded over four days in New York City, Long Black Cars finds David Tattersall’s vocal melodies on fire, with Franic Rozycki’s bass and Johnny Helm’s drums vigorously supporting his signature frenetic guitar flights. Tattersall also maintains his talent for delivering complete, highly emotive imagery with the sparsest lyrical language: whole philosophies and full relationships somehow packed into a single line.
Near constant touring has meant the trio have grown more consistent, con dent and honed with each successive record. While there are some obvious crowd-pleasers in their now extensive repertoire, they have yet to have the ‘hit’ with which to define or limit their sound – so there is still room for development. Their progression is hinted at on ‘Give Me a Second Chance’; a great ‘rock’ showcase for harsh guitar solos, thundering drums and indignant vocals, sung by Jonny Helm giving the lie to any erroneous notion of the band as fey indie types.
Helm’s occasional (on stage) lead vocal cameos are always a highlight, so it’s good to see live favourite ‘Eskimo Kiss’, also finally getting cut to vinyl. Arguably the strongest track on the LP, the chorus of Eskimo Kiss showcases Tattersall’s talents as a lyricist, with an unforced combination of rhyme and alliteration. For all that, the Earworm of the Album award goes to the ultra-hummable ‘Spaghetti’, an ode to the oddly romantic perception: “Wild hair tumbling from the centre of your skull like spaghetti/I knew then that you’d never forget me.”
Elsewhere, ‘Seagulls’ offers a break from the so side of the Wave Pictures, instead telling the bitter tale of a lost connection with a close friend who has recently joined the police force. Unusual but oddly beautiful lyrics are highlighted further by the sparse, precise guitar – holding its breath before the beat kicks in. Tattersall is almost rapping here, constantly playing with the rhyme scheme, and letting the band build up behind him, barely pausing for breath. Behind the calmness comes a marching chorus, more than a little reminiscent of the Velvet Underground’s ‘Sweet Jane’, but perhaps with more tension in the verses and less release in the chorus.
The final (title) track keeps the energy going right up to the wire, complete with false ending to keep the listener’s attention until the last moments. The track typifies the album as a whole, demonstrating both a growth and consistency in ‘The Wave Pictures’ approach to recorded music and their reliability as entertainers. While there is no radical change of course for the band, this is certainly a strong album with enough song highlights to keep their live shows as upbeat as ever.