State of the Nation: Writing Contemporary British Art

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  • Association of Art Historians 2012 667


    State of the Nation: Writing Contemporary British ArtAlice Correia

    Contemporary British Art: An Introduction by Grant Pooke, London: Routledge, 2010, 304 pp., 24 col. and 30 b. & w. illus., 24.99

    Grand National: Art from Britain edited by Charles Danby, Vestfossen: Vestfossen Kunstlaboratorium, 2010, 352 pp., 137 col. and 1 b. & w. illus., 20.00

    British Art Show 7: In the Days of the Comet by Lisa Le Feuvre and Tom Morton, London: Hayward Publishing, 2010, 192 pp., 129 col. illus., 19.99

    Beyond Cultural Diversity: The Case for Creativity edited by Richard Appignanesi, London: Third Text, 2010, 152 pp., 15 col. and 6 b. & w. illus., 12.95

    These four books deal with the state of contemporary British art and together they provide useful, insightful and sometimes contentious overviews of the themes, issues and concerns preoccupying artistic practice, art-historical interpretation and the making of art policy. Each publication was written with different aims and audiences in mind, and as such they address diverse sets of issues and debates, not least those concerned with when the contemporary moment is. The defi nition of the contemporary in these books varies, from the past fi ve years to the past thirty, and despite, or perhaps because of these varied timeframes, there are productive overlaps and divergences in the artists and ideas that are addressed. Read collectively, these publications probe the construction of national and art-historical narratives.

    Grant Pookes Contemporary British Art is one of the fi rst (if not the fi rst) survey books to be written on the art produced in Britain between 1987 and 2007, and a thorough account of recent artists, art practices and thematic tendencies is provided. Works of art are carefully described and discussed in a clear, jargon-free style, making this book accessible to a wide audience; it will undoubtedly become a mainstay of school and undergraduate reading lists. Such was the impact of the yBa generation that British art at the turn of the century became a popular area for study; however,

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    Pookes book, like the others reviewed here, is at pains to move beyond the Hirst-Emin-Lucas triumvirate. As a result a large number of lesser-known and perhaps less critically respected artists are included, an extreme example being Pookes discussion of Jack Vettrianos popularity amongst mainstream audiences.

    Pookes book is divided into four chapters. After the Introduction, which includes a very useful literature review in which Pooke reminds us that much of the writing on British art in the 1990s consisted of personal accounts of the heady years of the yBa moment, which often concentrated on personalities rather than artworks, chapters follow on the art market and its institutions; painting; installation and sculpture; and lens based and performance art. On the back cover of this publication, the authors previous publication on Marxist art history is referenced; this helps account for the bias throughout this book for the kind of art that addresses socio-political issues, as well as explaining why this book starts with a discussion of the commercial art market, its dealers and gallerists. For although Pookes publication is ostensibly about contemporary art, chapter one focuses on trade, patronage and the place of art within New Labours creative economy during the 1990s and 2000s. An overview of public and private commissioning agencies is provided, major British collectors are named and the fi nancial benefi ts of art prizes discussed. All this is a very interesting introduction to how the art world works and it is perhaps indicative of the power this system of trade and commerce has that it should be given such a prominent position in this book.

    Using a term introduced by Charles Harrison and Paul Wood in Modernism in Dispute: Art since the Forties (1993), chapter two of Pookes survey is titled Post-Conceptual Painting. Unfortunately, like any art term that embodies a rejection of what has gone before, knowledge of what has gone before is required. Lack of space undoubtedly limited Pookes ability to discuss the legacies of conceptual art, but it is a problematic omission. Nevertheless, he does provide a useful discussion of Greenbergian modernism and abstract painting, and identifi es important survey exhibitions, such as A New Spirit in Painting of 1981, and their impact on painterly practice in Britain. Signifi cantly for the younger generation of painters that included Chris Ofi li and Gillian Carnegie, Pooke places their work within an international context, demonstrating the widespread infl uence of German conceptual painter Gerhard Richter.

    Pookes text comes to life when he is discussing individual artists and artworks. Intricate descriptions and analyses place paintings such as Keith Pipers Nanny of the Nation Gathers Her Flock (1987) within the context of politics in the 1980s and Margaret Thatchers jingoistic defence of Little England. By positioning Pipers work alongside a discussion of Ken Curries paintings depicting class inequality and sectarian confl ict in Glasgow, Pooke certainly provides a persuasive argument that painting can be a productive site for protest and dissent within the visual arts.

    Chapter three, Installation Art and Sculpture as Institutional Paradigms, adheres closely to the arguments presented in Claire Bishops Installation Art: A Critical History (2005). While it is tempting to ask whether it would be better to read Bishop instead, Pooke does provide a clear explanation of her notion of antagonistic relations, Nicholas Bourriauds relational aesthetics and Julia Kristevas abjection, and associates these ideas with the work of artists such as Jake and Dinos Chapman, Liam Gillick and Marc Quinn. As such he helps readers to navigate complex theory and the work of a diverse set of artists with ease.

    The fourth chapter, New Media in Translation: Photography, Video and the Performative, provides an interesting literature review of photographic theory, addressing the writings of Walter Benjamin, Victor Burgin, John Tagg, Susan Sontag and Roland Barthes, while also providing a brief history of major photography exhibitions and institutions dedicated to exhibiting photographic works in Britain. This is certainly a useful launch pad for further research and a comprehensive bibliography provides excellent direction for students. However, for a chapter that includes the word performative in the title, there is very little performance work here: Spartacus Chetwynd and Marcus Coates being the most obvious omissions.

    To his credit, Pooke acknowledges his omissions in the conclusion by suggesting that this book was sampling some of the critical concerns and idioms suggested by a range of practices (243). In an introductory text there are bound to be artists who are overlooked and practices, issues and concerns that are excluded. What is striking, however, given Pookes clear preference for art that engages with issues of race and social politics, is his limited consideration of female artists, feminist theory, and artists engaging with the politics of gender and sexuality. These concerns are limited to short discussions of Jenny

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    Saville and Cecily Brown, while Judith Butler is given only the briefest of mentions.

    There are other frustrations with the book, primarily Pookes decision to structure his book according to medium. While this organizing system permits a focused analysis of medium-specifi c theory, it does not allow for the fact that in the contemporary moment many artists work in a number of different media, and consequently, artists such as Yinka Shonibare appear in at least two different chapters. This structure is also problematic when trying to get to grips with thematic concerns: John Keanes paintings made in response to the fi rst Gulf War (199091), Mark Wallingers installation State Britain (2006) and Steve McQueens photographic work Queen and Country (2007) are all discussed in different chapters even though the political territories addressed by each artist overlap.

    This book is a well-researched and accessible text, which will more than fulfi l its stated aim to provide an introduction to British art from the mid-1980s to 2007 for a non-specialist audience. Pooke has created an excellent introduction to some prominent and less prominent artists, and has identifi ed artists in need of further investigation. His overview of important theoretical positions will be extremely useful within a teaching environment, detailing as it does diffi cult ideas in a clear, accessible way. Despite its omissions and frustrations, this publication will be invaluable to those wishing to study contemporary British art.

    Pookes Introduction has a bias towards the socio-political, and Grand National: Art from Britain continues to expand upon British art from this perspective. Comprising extended essays, short texts on individual artists and artists illustration pages, Grand National actively seeks to probe the nature of Britishness, exploring class, social disorder and economic inequality through the work of a range of artists working since the late 1970s, including Derek Jarman and Paul Graham in the 1980s; BANK and Keith Coventry in the 1990s; and Jeremy Deller and Marcus Coates in the 2000s. Signifi cantly, while Pookes book does not engage with the national specifi city of his subject matter, here, an interest in art that is about Britain and art that was produced in Britain is signalled from the start. What is refreshing about this publication is that like Pooke, the editor Charles Danby does not adhere to the Cool Britannia slogans of the 1990s. This is not bright and shiny New Labour Britain, but a nation that is uncertain and in some cases very upset. Bringing together newly

    commissioned and re-printed texts, the publication is a source book of ideas and positions, including as it does, texts by Iain Aitch on British identity in the 2000s; Neil Mulholland on the visual culture of Punk; and Peter Wollen on fi lm in the 1980s. In addition to these extended essays are texts dedicated to selected artists, alongside images of their works. This variety of material creates a conversation between artists and authors, so Mulhollands text on Punk, Jamie Reid and Linder provides a cultural backdrop against which the anxieties and tensions found in Derek Jarmans fi lm The Last of England (1987) or Paul Grahams photographic series Beyond Caring (198485) can be understood.

    Although published to coincide with an exhibition held in Norway of the same name, this book does not feel like a run-of-the-mill exhibition catalogue, and nor should it be treated as one.1 Danby proposes in his introduction that this publication is neither a document of an exhibition nor an explanation of one. Instead it aims to establish a parallel site of engagement (12). The book is a test site, then, and can be divided into two, albeit unequal, sections. The fi rst section is organized chronologically, moving backwards in time from now to the late 1970s, while the second, comprising the fi nal three chapters, is thematic, addressing the overlapping histories, methods and concerns in British art of the past thirty years.

    The introductory essays and the fi rst chapter take critical glances at the recent debates surrounding national identity, particularly the narratives of the yBas and the exclusion of artists from different (that is, not white, English) backgrounds. In his essay, A Constructive Site of a Present British Art, Danby discusses the work of Shezad Dawood through post-colonial theory in an attempt to tease out what impact diasporic artists have had on a national collective identity. What is particularly interesting is the fact that these texts were written for a Norwegian audience, and it would seem that explaining the complex and often fraught nature of Britishness to other people is easier than explaining it to a British audience.

    Chapter two, Brit Band, addresses art in the 1990s and New Labour politics through an examination of work by BANK, Mark Wallinger and Angus Fairhurst. In Chris Horrocks essay, recession, both economic and artistic, is a dominant theme, and it is argued that the 1990s was in fact a period of political contestation and poetic investigation in contrast to the self-congratulatory narratives played out in the media at the time. Civil Low is the title of chapter three, which

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    seems entirely apt for a discussion of artworks made in the divisive climate of Thatcherite politics. The social and political lows of the 1980s are represented by artists of different generations: Isaac Juliens fi lm Territories (1984) addresses the politics of race and sexuality against the backdrop of the Notting Hill carnival, while archival material and a new text by re-enactment specialist Howard Giles accompanies images of Jeremy Dellers investigation of the 1984 miners strike, The Battle of Orgreave (2001).

    Like the patchwork of essays and short texts on individual artists, the colour images that run throughout the book form visual essays, and kinships between artists can be teased out thanks to the thoughtful way the book has been arranged. Images of Marcus Coates performance project Vision Quest (2010) at Heygate Estate dealing with housing issues in Londons Elephant and Castle, discussed in chapter one, resonate through the pages, connecting to chapter fi ve and Keith Coventrys paintings of housing estate maps from the 1990s.

    After the chronological sequence, the second part of the book focuses on materials and thematic issues: Still Revolver on lens based work; Constant Matter on painting and memory; and Object Matter on sculptural form and the politics of gender. Within these chapters, the proposition that art is a site that refl ects, comments upon and enacts dissent is strong. Protest, confl ict and anxiety are identifi ed as enduring features of British fi lm and photographic practice, from Derek Jarman to Dryden Goodwin. This is an exemplary publication on contemporary British art; taking a political position, it is both ambitious in its scope whilst also being critical and self-refl exive. It is a great shame that British audiences did not get to see the exhibition, but one hopes that this publication will have greater reach.

    Even though they share similar structural features and both are publications pertaining to exhibitions, British Art Show 7: In the Days of the Comet and Grand National are very different books. The former is the catalogue published to accompany the touring exhibition of the same name, which over a period of fourteen months during 201011, travelled to four locations across the UK.2 British Art Show 7: In the Days of the Comet contains an introductory note on the exhi...


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