Say it with books

Louise Darblay’s holiday gift guide

By Louise Darblay

ArtReview is something of an expert in giftgiving, especially when it comes to presents loaded with a subliminal message it would never dare to confront the receiver with directly. This year, that gift might well be Rosanna Mclaughlin’s Double-Tracking (Little Island Press, £10.99), which ArtReview is thinking would be perfect for some of its ‘friends’ in the artworld. Combining essays, profiles and fiction, Double-Tracking takes it cue from a term coined by Tom Wolfe during the 1970s, which points to the artworld’s – and more widely, the bourgeoisie’s – conflicted and duplicitous relationship to privilege. ‘To double-track is to be both: counter-cultural and establishment, rich and poor, Maldon Sea Salt of the earth, a bum with the keys to a country retreat, an exotic addition to the dinner table who still knows their way around the silverware,’ Mclaughlin writes with an eye for the contradictions. Tracing a lineage for this manufactured ‘authenticity’, her stinging prose moves between the poverty fantasies of Marie-Antoinette, the ‘worker look’ in the designs of Margaret Howell and a gallerist ‘wrestling’ with his own privilege. It’s a cathartic reading experience. ArtReview hopes you’ll also find yourself.

For friends or perhaps art-student relatives eager to get acquainted with London’s art ‘ecosystem’ (snakepit always seemed to ArtReview like a better analogy), Hettie Judah’s Art London (ACC Art Books, £15) is an essential guide to all the spaces showing, producing and selling art in the capital’s neighbourhoods. Layered (like a Christmas trifle) with history and stuffed (like a turkey) with quirky anecdotes, it maps the evolution of an artistic landscape: from William Blake’s Lambeth house to Groovy Bob’s Duke Street Gallery, from Gustav Metzger’s first experiments in autodestructive art in Chelsea (of all places) to Leigh Bowery’s Soho club nights (dress code: ‘as though your life depends on it, or don’t bother’). For better or worse, London keeps changing, so don’t wait for next Christmas to get your hands on it. Also packed (like pigs-in-blankets) with juicy anecdotes is Dave Haslam’s We the Youth (Confingo, £7), an account of Keith Haring’s experience of the underground club culture of 1970s and 80s New York. Stories of legendary parties such as the 1984 New Year’s Eve ‘Party of Life’ at the infamous Paradise Garage, where Haring invited Madonna to perform, should be sufficient to overcome the rather bland prose and excite the imagination of those nostalgic for a time when these clubs hadn’t been totally coopted by the mainstream (classic double-tracker talk).

Dogs are iconic motifs of Haring’s art, their anthropomorphism – they dance, DJ, laugh – speaking to humans’ tendency to project their own behaviour onto our animal companions. At least that’s how ArtReview is choosing to see it, so as to create a frictionless segue into the next item on this Christmas wishlist: On Dogs: An Anthology (Notting Hills Editions, £14.99). Introduced by Tracey Ullman, this elegant, pocketsize tribute to our most loyal friends is realised in excerpts from novels, poems and literary theory. Charming inclusions like Lord Byron’s epitaph for a Newfoundland and John Steinbeck’s accounts of his travels with his poodle (‘he is a fraud and I know it… five minutes after I had left Charley he had found new friends and made his arrangements for his comfort’) are balanced with texts that take the dog’s perspective: Buck’s return to his nature in Jack London’s The Call of the Wild (1903), for example, and Virginia Woolf’s stream-of-consciousness narration of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s spaniel, the aptly named Flush. In combination with essays by the likes of feminist writer Charlotte Perkins Gilman, the anthology also raises questions about ‘canine design’ and their new status as pets rather than hunters or shepherds: ‘To supply his wants, and “love” him, is not enough,’ Gilman writes. ‘No live thing can be happy unless it is free to do what it is built for.’ Something to, err, chew on.

Paradigmatic shifts are also key to decolonial studies, and Giselle Beiguelman’s Agosto 01 (SESC Serviço Social do Comércio, free) exemplifies how Brazilian artists are challenging dominant art-historical narratives. Commissioned for Meta-Arquivo 1964–1985, a show at São Paulo’s SESC Belenzinho that asked artists to consider the role of archives in building national identity, it proposes the first Portuguese translation of Hal Foster’s influential essay ‘An Archival Impulse’ (originally published in October, Autumn 2004) with a notable difference: where Foster references Thomas Hirschhorn, Sam Durant and Tacita Dean to discuss the use of archival research and the materialisation of archives in art, Beiguelman substitutes a younger generation of Brazilian artists, respectively Bruno Moreschi, Bianca Turner and Tiago Sant’ana. In a country faced with censorship, colonial legacies and authoritarian bans, Beiguelman and this exhibition seem to say, the archival impulse appears as survival strategy.

It’s been six years since London’s Delfina Foundation launched its research programme on the Politics of Food (Delfina Foundation & Sternberg Press, £20) through 90 artist residencies that encompassed workshops, talks, performance – and dinners. The best contributions to this volume attest to food as a signifier through which it is possible to map structures of power (political, economic, cultural): holiday-themed highlights include artist collective Cooking Sections and their dissection of Christmas pudding as colonial symbol (‘the most English of dishes made from the most un-English of ingredients’) and Chris Fite-Wassilak’s guide to turning flat industrial ‘nowhere’ cheese into the tasty, smelly kind – which might just be the perfect way to impress your French belle-famille. If that doesn’t cut it, then arm yourself with Dalí’s Tarot (Taschen, £50), a reissue of the deck commissioned from the surrealist for use as a prop in the James Bond film Live and Let Die (1973; it never made the final cut, allegedly on account of Dalí’s exorbitant fees). Packaged in a lush velvet box with a how-to guide to tarot, Dalí’s images remix Christian and mythical iconography from the art-historical canon (including, rather immodestly, his own work) into Delphic compositions. Now that you are holding all the cards (tada!) in the poker game of passive-aggression that is the interfamilial exchange of gifts, ArtReview will leave you with another kind of illumination: Blaze (Art/Books, £30) pairs recent work by abstract photographer Garry Fabian Miller with a poem by Alice Oswald. Responding to Midwinter Blaze, a series of Cibachrome prints evoking the phases of a lunar eclipse with the artist’s enveloping colour gradients, Oswald writes: ‘all this is only angles only circles / and I could well by falling / drop through different hours / to where the sun still flying draws the cold / first inkling of an evening from the earth / into the air still crimson turning gold.’ 

From the December 2019 issue of ArtReview