In 1920, in his mid-thirties, the English potter Bernard Leach returned from sojourning in Japan and joined the sketchy artists’ colony in St Ives, Cornwall. The young Japanese potter Shoji Hamada came with him, and on the edge of town they built a studio – including the first Japanese-style kiln in the West, albeit rickety – and began producing ceramics that fused craft, fine art and Eastern philosophy. Almost a century later, earthenware is chic in an artworld experiencing one of its cyclic yearnings for the homespun: think of hands-dirty exponents like Aaron Angell, Jesse Wine, Shio Kusaka, Caroline Achaintre, etc. Hence That Continuous Thing, Tate St Ives’s nattily structured, century-spanning recap. It begins, naturally, with Leach, Hamada and their coevals, then detours through another coastal earthenware uprising, the 1950s and 60s California Clay Movement – an out-of-context quote from whose prime mover, the jazzily improvisatory Peter Voulkos, gives the show its title – via Ken Price, Ron Nagle et al. Works by the aforementioned Wine respond to this, before the show pivots into the flaring recrudescence of ceramics in 1970s and 80s London, now also being more widely reconsidered, and works – by Anthea Hamilton, among others – created in Troy Town Art Pottery, Angell’s East London safe haven for, uh, potheads. If, after this, ceramics still make you glaze over, you’re cracked.
Also well timed, as European nations and the United States erect their isolationist fences, is Speak, Lokal, whose 14 artists and, not infrequently, collectives hail from New York to Tehran, Adelaide to Dhaka, though the lineup tilts naturally towards the host institution’s Zürich. If ‘the local’ risks demonisation amid proliferating nationalism, these artists (including Piotr Uklański, Shirin Yousefi, Sarnath Banerjee and Theory Tuesdays) seek to redeem the category, considering how artists both ‘investigate and broach local conditions’, whether they position themselves as activists or creators of graphic novels, performers or documentary-makers. The local, the organisers indicate, has value as a realm where ‘precision is possible’ – although, this being art, we’re advised to expect ambiguity aplenty. Meanwhile, the answer to whether the Speak, Memory-echoing title foreshadows consideration of Switzerland’s most famous literary nonlocal, Vladimir Nabokov, nestles in a sealed envelope bearing a local stamp.
In 2010, Mac Adams made Thinking of Nabokov, a photographic series that served, as have many of the Welsh artist’s works since the first instalment of his noir-ish Mysteries sequence in 1974, as a kind of existential crime scene. Here, butterflies (the fabled writer was of course also a fabled lepidopterist) perch on the edge of a mug among police evidence bags, flutter above tattooed skin or sit among rope, hatchets and masks. The story is inconclusive, the narrator unreliable; apropos, given the nod to the author of Pale Fire (1962). Adams has made such controlled procedurals-without-conclusion his metier – all we know, really, is whodunit. Within this, though, he’s toggled his aesthetic from the monochrome, Weegee-esque photography series The Third Swan (2009) to room-size installation tableaux and public art projects. Here, in Homecoming, we get several of those aforementioned tableaux (The Homecoming, 1976–2017, and one of the Mysteries images made three-dimensional), the crisp editorial photography of Postmodern Tragedies (1986–9) and a ‘conceptual collage’ from 1971. As his gallery happily points out, Adams’s attentions to the staged, sign-laden, semiotics-influenced photograph precede those of Cindy Sherman, while his 80s works involving shadows have the honour of influencing second-generation YBA artists Tim Noble and Sue Webster. As the joke runs: got a light, Mac? No, but I’ve got a dark brown overcoat.
‘Whodunit’ is a vexed question in Anywhen (2016), Philippe Parreno’s speculatively authorship-displacing commission for Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall, in which drop-down screens, audio, video and sound effects are ostensibly triggered by the digitally analysed morphology of live yeast, sitting unobtrusively in a back office among spare fish-shaped balloons to replace the ones already caught in Tate Modern’s rafters. (The show closes in early April.) The Frenchman’s subsequent show, for Porto’s Serralves Museum, A Time Coloured Space, is similarly unseating. It’s a retrospective, of sorts: the works date back at least to his Speech Bubbles (1997–), taking in aluminium sculptures, film, light objects, a digital player piano and more than 180 drawings along the way. But, with the exhibition being based on the musical model of the fugue, and influenced by Gilles Deleuze’s 1968 Difference and Repetition, each of the 13 rooms is a variation on the last, differentiated by arrangement and colour.
Another artist drawn to repetition and difference, Giorgio Morandi, has lately served as an inspiration to Uta Barth, whose photographic series In the light and shadow of Morandi (2017) comprises one half of the German artist’s first solo show since she was awarded a MacArthur ‘genius’ grant in 2012. (We’d take a holiday too.) These seductive, opaque works feature arrangements of silhouetted vessels strafed with what look like reflections of light through coloured glass, done by, as the gallery says, ‘drawing with light’. Elsewhere, in the Untitled 2017 series, Barth’s three-decade engagement with the phenomenology of perception – relaying how rather than what we see – is focused on a patch of her Los Angeles studio’s exterior wall, tabulating changes of light and humidity. Be prepared to look long and slow in order to receive meditative dividends; Barth, one suspects, is merely the latest in a long line of West Coast creative types to be productively brushed by Zen breezes blowing in from Japan.
Don’t expect much peace in Maureen Paley’s latest show, a double-header featuring Gardar Eide Einarsson and Oscar Tuazon. Galleries exhibiting Tuazon sign up to get walls ripped into and spaces congested with large, mute arrangements of cross-beamed wood. Galleries who exhibit Einarsson – who’s Norwegian but based between New York and Tokyo – sign up for hefty doses of nihilism (albeit of the Nietzschean sort, aimed at nearly killing you psychologically to make you stronger) expressed via post-Warhol silkscreens of police violence and American flags, melancholy texts and oilcan sculptures. We’d say that all of this (if that’s what we get) will look timely, but it’s been timely for years now.
Continuing the general theme: ‘It’s really about boys, isn’t it?’ Sue Williams told an interviewer around the time of her last show at 303 Gallery, in 2014, a couple of decades on from her calling-card works mixing elements of counterculture cartooning, all-over abstraction and suggestions of domestic violence. The paintings she was talking about – centrifugally lyrical abstract-expressionist from a distance, seeded with pungently gendered figuration up close – featured an aroused male kangaroo, the Twin Towers and phalluses in general. ‘It’s becoming more of a fascist world,’ Williams said, considering the authoritarian fallout of 9/11. Judging by what we’ve seen of the paintings she’s made while chickens came home to roost, her tenth show with the gallery will tweak her latter-day, warped-Helen Frankenthaler mode. The compositions feel vivid and spacious, in an outwardly welcoming manner; but zoom in and you notice ripped architecture, fragmentary male figures, hand- writing and tumbling dice: a timely synecdoche for high-stakes political gambling.
Elsewhere in New York there’s a bit of Central Park architecture called the Astor Gate, but Theaster Gates is in Hong Kong. Don’t get confused. Gates, of course, deals not just with architecture but with regeneration and community: his transformative history of conversions in Chicago’s predominantly African-American South Side, from his Dorchester Projects to the Stony Island Arts Bank, an arts gallery and community centre, requires little rehearsing by now. Almost as remarkable, though, is how Gates leverages the art market to help finance his communitarian projects. For all the visual canniness of his para-paintings made from upcycled firehoses, tar roofs and wood flooring, and his intricately counterweighted sculptures, gallery shows like his 2015 exhibition at White Cube Bermondsey, Freedom of Assembly, also seemingly serve as funding drives via pointedly democratic art loaded with histories of use. In Hong Kong, coinciding with White Cube’s participation in Art Basel Hong Kong during late March, anticipate works in bronze that further nuance Gates’s interest in roofing practices – but don’t expect them to go over your head.
For viewers of a certain age, the Whitney Biennial may feel more biannual, but in fact the last edition was in 2014. Now, however, after a pause as the museum settled into its relatively new HQ in the Meatpacking District, the biennial is back, curated this time by Christopher Y. Lew and Mia Locks, and, in terms of display acreage, bigger than ever. The 63 artists and collectives encompass young New York painter Celeste Dupuy-Spencer, Gulf collective GCC, Occupy Museums, Light-and-Space veteran Larry Bell and hard-blowing saxophonist Kamasi Washington, who retools the spiritual jazz of the Civil Rights 60s for a fresh age of turmoil. Expect accordingly a reflection of America’s current experiment with plutocracy, and its visible consequences. And the proud sponsors of this fraught artistic shebang? A jeweller, Tiffany & Co; an auction house, Sotheby’s; and a financial services firm, J. P. Morgan. Perfect.
Another biennale launches in March, but you can’t go to the Antarctic Biennale unless you were among 100 people invited by Ukrainian artist (and former sailor) Alexander Ponomarev to the Argentine city of Ushuaia, where the research ship Akademik Ioffe will voyage into ‘the icy inaccessibility of the Antarctic continent’. It’s a trip, man. To further quote the website: ‘Instead of pompous apartments, ascetic cabins. Instead of chaotic creative wanderings, a conjunction with Nature and explosion of consciousness through discussions with scientists, futurists, and technological visionaries.’ This ship of souls, mostly unidentified at press time, will use the South Pole as a tabula rasa for speculative thought, always a rewarding activity. What if you had a biennale and nobody came? What if, contra bluster, you were merely the latest artists to do this – given all the art/research missions that have already transpired? Can a biennale put the Larsen Ice Shelf together again? What is that massive object lately identified under Antarctica – is it an installation? We’re not pessimists, but we’re also not invited and will muse at home, enjoying a frosty biennale of the mind, and wait. In 2014, 15 and 16, Ponomarev organised various prequels at the Venice Biennale and at two Venice Architecture Biennales. There will doubtless be sequels.
From the March 2017 issue of ArtReview