by Elliot Davies
With eight Turner Prize winners among the assembled artists, including a few pieces that must surely be a part of many “works to see before I die” lists, Somewhat Abstract shows that the Nottingham Contemporary can do serious art, seriously.
Arranged by vague themes as opposed to eras, on one level the whole exhibition seems to be an attempt to prove that there’s really no such thing as “abstract art”. In fact, it asks that in the guidebook. Is there such a thing, it says, as an artwork with no relationship to the visible world? These are pieces in which “the image has lost its definition to become something else, while still retaining a sense of where it came from.”
That’s quite a weighty idea to consider in the ten minutes you have to kill before you catch your train.
One of the posters advertising Somewhat Contemporary seemed to depict a stunted bipedal anus, strutting suggestively through a garden. At least that’s what it looked like to me, with my failing eyesight, when I saw it for the first time from a distance.
It was Wolfgang Tillmans’s 2008 piece Dan, a photograph that actually shows a buff ginger male. Viewed from above, Dan’s strange pose makes him look alien. Is he modelling, or did is that just the way he stands? Did he intentionally contort his body to make himself look inhuman, or do we all look inhuman from certain angles? Does it all just depend on the way you look at things?
Yes, the Nottingham Contemporary is located along the route that takes me from work to the train station, so I’ve been regularly popping in for a few weeks. Cumulatively, I’ve spent hours viewing Somewhat Abstract, but those hours were spaced out across multiple afternoons. This has allowed me to focus on different galleries and different pieces. With so much to see in each room, I believe the approach has allowed me to take in some pieces that I might otherwise have overlooked.
If, like me, your initial instinct upon entering a room is to immediately turn to your right, one of the first pieces you’ll see is Bernard Cohen’s Glow (1965). This giant canvas seems to depict pond life, with a writhing mass of weeds, clusters of frogspawn and an encroaching green murkiness. But somewhere among that tangled mass is a horrible staring eye, a creature from the depths. These aren’t weeds, they’re tentacles; and suddenly I feel suffocated and a little nauseated. The cephalopod, of course, being my nemesis; but perhaps everyone sees their darkest fears when they gaze into the glow.
Situated right next to Glow, in an apparent attempt to highlight the diversity of the collection from the start, is Rebecca Warren’s Regine (2007). At a glance it resembles a melting tower of bronze. On closer inspection, from certain angles, it looks human, strangely feminine. It could be taking a step forward, or wearing a dress, or nonchalantly carrying a human skull under one arm.
There are some pieces in here that satisfy every single prejudice concerning the absurdity of modern art. Richard Wentworth’s Guide (1984), for instance, is a child’s Wellington boot encased in cement and placed within an adult’s wellington boot. You know those people that like to sneer about what is and isn’t art? This is exactly the sort of thing they’re talking about. They’d be in their element at Somewhat Abstract. They’d leave with cynical shit-eating grins, pointing at paving slabs and saying things like “Look! It’s art! La la la.”
But there’s always so much going on. One piece to which I kept returning was Keith Coventry’s Crack City (1993). A nod to Malevich’s White on White, you have five small canvasses, hung neatly in a row, each one painted white. On closer inspection, each contains a smaller off-white square, representing the footprint of a tower from the New Cross Woodpecker Estate. Malevich wished to portray purity. His white canvas was supposed to evoke ideas of utopia. Coventry recasts that utopia as a cosmic pipe dream, a failed experiment, as the Woodpecker Estate became synonymous with Lewisham gang culture.
Of a similar hue is Yoko Ono’s All White Chess Set (1962-1970), a game that’s only possible to play “as long as you can remember where all your pieces are”. This is an elegant anti-war statement wrapped-up in a neat little box, perfect for high-concept Fluxus fun on long journeys. At the time of writing, the pieces are arranged in such a way that would be impossible and illegal in a standard game of chess. War is hell, especially for those who like to play fair.
Near the top of my very own “works to see before I die” was Francis Bacon’s Head VI (1949). This screaming pope is one of those images that, once seen, will never be unseen. It’s a piece that inspires obsession, perhaps because it was itself born of obsession. Here Bacon was tormented by two images: Velázquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X, and the agonised expression of a woman, shot in the eye, in Battleship Potemkin.
It’s a squeeze to the windpipe captured in a frame; a crushing, claustrophobic chasm of disease, decay, pain and suffering. This smallish painting dwarfs most every other piece in the exhibition. It’s no wonder it’s been all-but concealed in a corner in what will, for most people, be the last gallery visited. I feel like Head VI was intended to be the final painting seen by most visitors. Did they believe that everything else would seem insignificant and trite by comparison, or is the implication that all developments in abstract art start and end with Francis Bacon?
On my numerous whistle-stop tours of Somewhat Abstract, I learned that abstract art, in stripping the image from the subject, can act as a portal. Like an insidious soul-mirror, it invites deep or fleeting explorations of those parts of you that might otherwise remain hidden. Don’t like what you see? That’s your problem.
At its best, it’s shimmering and transcendent. An excerpt from Raphael Hefti’s Subtraction as Addition series (2012) is a photogram; a photograph made without the use of a camera. It consists of pressed layers of museum glass, leaning against a wall, as if awaiting installation. Museum glass is designed to be non-reflective, but when pressed together it takes on a deep purple tinge, not so much reflecting the room in which its placed as creating an alternative, slanted and enchanted dimension.
This is a piece in which you can literally see yourself. To view the world in a different colour can be genuinely inspirational when the colour is so rich.
Even Head VI is surprisingly sparkly when viewed in the flesh.