How To Write About Contemporary Art || Gilda Williams

Well yes I had to, didn’t I? I mean, you can only wing it for so long and I don’t think you can call yourself a true hipster critic unless you can come up with the right phraseology. It’s all about the juxtaposition of mores in a socio-cultural ethos these days, innit? Oh, ah. First lesson: avoid jargon and poor structure.

A book such as this absolutely stands or falls on its author and, without simply typing out the back-flap bio, I can say that Gilda Williams has an impressive pedigree, having written for a variety of publications and been Commissioning Editor at Phaidon.

Here are some tips:

Avoid lists, unless for dramatic effect to emphasise variety and excess. Well, regular readers will know that lists are a staple of a lot of my reviews, but strictly for that purpose and usually limited to three items. I mentioned it, but I think I got away with it.

Organise your thoughts into complete paragraphs. Yes, good one, but isn’t that the heart of all good, clear writing? I’d say you need to tell a story and, if at all possible, have a beginning, a middle and an end.

Frankly, I could go on. The fact is that this is a thoroughly sensible and accessible guide to writing that could almost be applied to any subject. Above all, it’s well-written (phew!) and there’s a narrative thread that takes you through basic stylistic tics and tropes and on to how to approach different styles of art and writing – from the essay to op-ed journalism and the artist statement.

Every publication will, somewhere, have a style guide for contributors. This book is the nearest thing to a universal one and makes for an invaluable vade mecum that should sit in a prominent place on your bookshelf.*

* Can a vade mecum do that? Shouldn’t it be in your pocket?

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Training Days – The Subway Artists Then & Now || Henry Chalfant and Sacha Jenkins

Serendipity and the happy (or not-so-happy) accident can have remarkable and often unintended consequences that can spark major changes and movements in history.

In 1977, a power blackout in New York triggered widespread looting and fires. The spoils from the looting included large amounts of spray paint and electronic equipment. And so began street art and the rise of hip-hop. If you want to trace different origins for the growth of these two styles, this was also the year that Henry Chalfant started to photograph the subway art that had started appearing, becoming a first-hand witness to what was happening.

In 1980, a subway strike provided an opportunity for the graffiti artists to work undisturbed on stationary canvases (let’s call them) and thus the movement burgeoned. Like I said, serendipity and happy accidents.

You’re entitled to ask, “What took you so long?” This book is, after all, appearing more than thirty years after the event. That, I think, is explained by a general rediscovery of the period around the early 1980’s, reassessments of bands such as Blondie and The Ramones – what was once current affairs that come and go are just far enough off to start being history.

But let’s not cavil (he said, having cavilled). Let’s evaluate the book. Well, the first thing is that, although it includes a lot of Chalfant’s photographs, it’s not a showcase of them (see 1984’s Subway Art for that). Rather, it’s an account of the work of some dozen artists working in the medium of spray paint on, um, unofficial surfaces. This is a dynamic form and the book attempts to capture some of that, with first-hand descriptions by the artists of their backgrounds and how they work. It’s not exclusively street slang, but they are lively stories excitingly told and they span subway art from its inception to the present day.

The blurb says that the book “captures all the raw, explosive creativity of the late 70’s and early 80’s … a captivating and inspiring book for all”. And it is all that, though I suspect that, like a lot of grassroots movements, you had to be there to appreciate it fully. Nevertheless, it’s something that’s worth documenting while the voices can be recorded live and this is a thorough account that avoids the trap of being over-academic about it all.

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Winter Landscapes in Watercolour || David Bellamy

Winter, David tells us, is an ideal time for painting. The cold weather brings crisp, clear light and views are unobscured by leaves and vegetation. Long plein air sessions are not necessary and modern clothing offers enough protection for quick sketching and photographic trips. It’s also a chance to practice with colours other than the inevitable green!

The subjects covered are largely those you’d expect from David: hills, mountains, waterfalls, trees and buildings as well as people and animals. His treatments are by turns both dramatic and pacific. I’ve observed before that a calmness has crept into his work in recent years and that’s well in evidence here, even when accompanied by his trademark dramatic skies.

Structurally, the book begins in autumn and finishes in spring, so that winter itself is nicely bookended and David is able to demonstrate the subtle way that the landscape changes through the seasons, with colours muting progressively before they subdue completely and then re-emerge.

This is a timely and worthwhile book that will delight both general painters and David’s (many) fans alike. There’s a good variety of material and plenty of examples and step-by-step demonstrations.

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The Essential Cy Twombly || ed Nicola del Roscio

I’ll admit that I approached this with some trepidation. I just about get Jack the Dripper and I can appreciate Piet Mondrian, though he does make me think of those slide-the-tile puzzles, or Windows 8 (curse you, Microsoft!). Twombly though, well, it’s a big ask.

Cy Twombly ploughed his own furrow, ignored contemporary artistic trends and went un-noticed for much of his life, though he was recognised, by the time of his death in 2011 at the age of eight-three, as one of the Twentieth Century greats.

Twombly’s art is all his own and contains its own language and internal references. It is, maybe, a form of Zen, in which the viewer is invited to create their own images and responses to visual and sensual stimuli, rather than simply relying on what the artist provides. What the brain sees here is more akin to its response to music than to conventional visual art. The more you look at it, the more sense it begins to make: a bit, perhaps, like being able to discern individual words in a foreign language. To speak it fluently, though, would be the study of a lifetime. In short: I’m beginning to get it, but it hasn’t moved me yet. Cue my usual allusion to free jazz, which I totally get but which, to the general listener, usually only sounds like a fatal accident in a piano factory.

But this is The Essential Cy Twombly, so does it mean that we absolutely have to understand the man? You could argue that, if he’s as widely regarded as he is, yes, we should. Or you could say that the Emperor’s new clothes are the Emperor’s new clothes however you display them. Dismiss modern art, though, at your peril: it may be classical to you, but it’s all Greek to me, etc etc. No, this is the essence, the beating heart, of a man who produced a great number of works during a long life and whose style defies classification, maybe even description. Start to look at his work and you realise that, although it’s about as abstract as it gets and often consists of scribbles (and is mostly untitled, which doesn’t help either), every piece is more than subtly different while retaining that common and central language I referred to earlier.

Am I a convert? No. Do I want to see Twombly’s work in the flesh? Er, yes, I think I do.

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The New Colored Pencil || Kristy Ann Hutch

I’ll admit that I double-checked the publication date (it’s 2014) as most of the materials covered here have been around for a while and have been the subject of a good number of earlier books.

This doesn’t mean that this one isn’t any good, or is late to the party. In fact, having had time to consider its subject and the earlier treatments, it’s perhaps more of a considered opinion. The approach is highly practical and is based on a series of how-to’s such as Grating Pigment Over A Wet Surface, Creating a Muted Foliage Background or How to Use The Grid Method. All of these are subsections to general chapters on wax-based coloured pencils, water-soluble pencils and wax pastels as well as working with different media in combination.

I can’t say that the book offers any great new insights, but it does have a novel and accessible approach that, combined with a catholic selection of subject matter, gives it a wide appeal that may well make you think that, out of all that’s available, this is the one to buy.

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Max Weber – an American cubist in Paris & London 1905-15 || ed Sarah MacDougall

Published to accompany a major exhibition of Weber’s work at Ben Uri (“The museum foreveryone”), this heavy volume examines the artist’s influence on European rather than solely American art and includes works not only by Weber, but also Duncan Grant, Wassily Kandinsky and Henri Matisse, with whom Weber initially studied. There are also plenty of examples of the work of the photographer Alvin Langdon Coburn, Weber’s champion in England.

This is not, it should be said, an introduction to Weber’s work and to understand the artist himself, it would probably be advisable to look elsewhere. However, as a study of Weber’s place in twentieth century art and his influence on it, it is hard to fault. Books of this kind often fall into the trap of talking, frequently extensively, of what was happening around the subject, but not of illustrating it. This can be down to availability of material and the cost of permissions. One suspects that this one would have been similar were it not for the Ben Uri exhibition. As it is, if you’re familiar with Max Weber and want to see him in a broader landscape, you should snap this up before it goes out of print. It’s an expensive production and it’s hard to see it making a reprint.

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Brothers In Arms – John & Paul Nash and the aftermath of the Great War || Paul Gough

Paul Nash is one of the great names to have come out of the First World War, while his brother worked more quietly and almost in obscurity. In spite of this, they came together in exhibitions and occasionally shared a studio. To consider them together is entirely right.

There has been some danger of the celebration (is that the right word or the right ethos?) of the Great War becoming hagiographic and samey. There have, however, been not a few interesting re-appraisals of the period and this is one of them.

Looking at this, it’s hard not to conclude that Paul was generally the better artist, although John has a strong sense of design and colour and his best images can be striking, combining a strong sense of the Twentieth Century English landscape with a Modernist approach that is less defined and maybe even less self-conscious than that of his brother.

The work of Paul Nash has been covered extensively; that of John less so. By bringing the two together, this book places a focus on a corner of English painting during a period of crisis and change in both this country and the world. As well as a good selection of illustrations by both artists, the text provides a thorough account of the lives and work of both men.

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