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June 22 2012

This week's new exhibitions

Jenny Saville, Oxford

Jenny Saville's monumental paintings of flesh in the raw have made her one of Britain's best-known artists. Her women's engorged bellies, swollen breasts and thighs, shouting of anguished self-image in bloody gobs of pigment, have garnered her a public following to rival the approval heaped on her by critics. Although she emerged as an almost fully formed star when Saatchi first exhibited her work in the early 1990s, this is her first big public gallery show in her home country. It traces her development as a painter over the course of two decades, from the famed images of unruly, tormented but defiant female flesh, to recent works that see her striking out in fresh directions. New drawings have taken Leonardo's cartoon of The Virgin and Child with St Ann and St John the Baptist, for inspiration. In place of its vision of stoic motherhood, Saville's images are a hectic whirl of energy.

Modern Art Oxford and The Ashmolean Museum Of Art & Archeology, to 26 Sep

Skye Sherwin

Mark Wallinger, Gateshead

A film shows three builders erecting scaffolding on a beach. The camera frames the geometric structure set against the shingle and the background horizon. The builders' white T-shirts interweave with the metallic grey of steel rods that frame a grey-blue sea and sky. The Construction Site receives its UK premiere in this show of Wallinger's intriguing work. There's something about the way Wallinger composes apparent futilities with such systematic earnestness that is in itself convincing. Another classic here, titled 10000000000000000, is of exactly 65,536 (the decimal form of the title's binary number) stones on a chess grid, a reflection of a superperfect number.

BALTIC, to 14 Oct

Robert Clark

Diane Arbus, London

Whether photographing a giant or schoolgirls, Diane Arbus had a genius for revealing her subjects' outre side. The 32 photos here focus on modern tribes, exploring the idea that dressing up or getting into disguise can make you freer to be yourself. It's easy to see her portraits of celebrity lookalikes as an influence on an artist such as Gillian Wearing. There's plenty of strange glamour, from puckish, bare-chested youths in makeup to society dames with matching pillbox hats and elegantly held cigarettes. Arbus probes further, however. Her image of a blind couple, huddled in one another's arms and dwarfed by their bed, or Russian midgets in a sombre living room, speak of tribal tendencies as necessary armour in a tough world.

Timothy Taylor, W1, Tue to 17 Aug

SS

Stanya Kahn, Manchester

Stanya Kahn comes from Los Angeles and it shows. Her videos are all self-consciously faked, every emotion and thought acted up and played out. But you're reminded of the camera's ubiquitous presence; the costumes are tatty and the props throwaway. Kahn navigates this slapstick theatre of the absurd with consummate self-deprecating humour. In Lookin' Good, Feelin' Good she roams the streets dressed as a giant foam penis. For It's Cool, I'm Good she explores LA wrapped in bandages like an escaped hospital patient. In true LA style, the words Cool and Good are taken to mean the opposite of their conventional definitions.

Cornerhouse, to 16 Sep

RC

Madge Gill, London

Madge Gill is one of outsider art's most fascinating figures. A Victorian spiritualist, she began obsessively creating drawings guided by a spirit known as Myrninerest, whose "signature" was often seen in the corner. The repetitive intricacy of her work is tireless: dense squares, cross-hatching and swirling forms, from which spooky, feminine faces peer. Most of Gill's vast output rarely leaves its Newham archive; here Bow Arts redresses the balance with the first of a trio of 10-week shows at the Nunnery.

The Nunnery, E3, to 23 Aug

SS

Erwin Wurm, Liverpool

A grown man entertains himself in private by stuffing red and blue marker pens up each nostril. He grips two photo-film canisters in his clenched eye sockets and, as a finishing touch, his mouth is gagged by holding a stapler like some kind of robotic beak. If all this weren't loony enough, he takes a photograph of the whole grotesque affair and presents the image as a work of art. This is just one of Erwin Wurm's One Minute Sculptures, a series of photo-artwork-performances that he's been working on assiduously since the late 1990s. Other of the 18 works exhibited here show a prone figure half buried by a suitcase and another figure wearing a cardboard box as a regulation uniform. The surprising thing with Wurm is that such dada daftness doesn't look just tiresomely wacky, like so many drunken pranks. Delightfully, it's somehow very sophisticated cultural mischief.

Open Eye Gallery, to 2 Sep

RC

Andrew Kötting & Iain Sinclair, London

Legacy has become the Olympics buzzword, applied before the fact, as if you could reverse time, and projected on to the future. Psychogeographer writer Ian Sinclair and artist-filmmaker Andrew Kötting's latest project sends up the vacuous cultural commissions taking legacy's name in vain to bulldozer so-called wastelands rich with people's history. Exploring the lesser-celebrated side of Britain, last year they took to Blighty's waterways in a swan-shaped pedalo. Their pedal-powered odyssey from Hastings to Hackney is by turns tragi-comic and quietly radical, lit up by folk songs and locals' stories. The results can be seen now in an installation of film, photos and artefacts, to be released in movie form next month.

Dilston Grove, SE16, Wed to 29 Jul

SS


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Exhibitionist: the week's art shows in pictures

From monumental flesh paintings in Oxford to portraits of celebrity lookalikes in London, find out what's happening in art around the country



Jenny Saville, Yoko Ono and Ai Weiwei – the week in art

Saville is out to show she's the feminist Freud, Ono divulges her hopes, book tips and snapshots, and Ai Weiwei is barred from his own court hearing – all in your weekly art dispatch

Exhibition of the week: Jenny Saville

Is this painter of pungent flesh a feminist Lucian Freud for the 21st century... or an overblown media phenomenon? Saville has a striking style, but critics have never agreed on the quality of her work. Big red blotches of pigment do not guarantee brilliance. Here is a chance to make up your mind about an artist who straddles fine art and pop culture.
· Modern Art Oxford, from 23 June until 16 September

Other exhibitions this week

Edvard Munch
One of the true giants of modern art brings a Scandinavian chill to the British summer.
· Tate Modern, London, from 28 June until 14 October

Diane Arbus
The extremes of pathos and mockery in this photographers' art epitomise the power of photography itself.
· Timothy Taylor gallery, London, from 26 June until 17 August

John Currin
Freaky paintings to amuse and appal.
· Sadie Coles HQ, London, until 18 August

Karla Black
Last chance to catch a show by this recent Turner nominee on her home turf.
· Gallery of Modern Art, Glasgow, until 24 June

Masterpiece of the week

Rembrandt, Girl at a Window

Is she a servant, a courtesan? The gold chain around her neck suggests sensuality and is typical of the way Rembrandt glorified women. Whoever she is and whatever relationship – if any – she may have had with the painter, this young woman lives forever in his art.
· Dulwich Picture Gallery

Image of the week

What we learned this week

That Ai Weiwei grows ever more convinced of the need to stand up to Chinese authorities – after he is barred from his own hearing

What Yoko Ono's top book tips are, what her personal photo albums look like – and how she answered your questions

That the Stirling prize shortlist this year is chock full of austerity chic

Who Turner shortlister Luke Fowler has taken as his latest film subject

How Chris Ofili has found collaborating with the Royal Ballet – backdrops, bunions and all

And finally

Have you uploaded anything to the Guardian Art and design Flickr page yet?

Or shared any of your art with us?

Do you follow us on Twitter?

Or on Facebook?

Have you seen our Tumblr?

Have you signed up for the Art Weekly newsletter?


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June 08 2012

The month in photography – audio slideshow

Our guide to the month's best photo exhibitions and books – featuring Anders Petersen, Diane Arbus, Stephanie Sinclair and Olivia Arthur



March 31 2012

Gillian Wearing; Patrick Keiller

Whitechapel Art Gallery; Tate Britain, London

At almost 50, Gillian Wearing is still making art to divide the audience. The curators of this show, for instance, appear moved by her little figurines of everyday heroes – a hoodie who turns out to be a brave police cadet, a woman who helped out on 9/11 – where others may find them cutesy and mawkish. If you're going, take a friend and see whether you can agree on the moral, aesthetic and emotional values of her work. To me, these are constantly in doubt.

The Whitechapel show is superbly staged, at least, and has all the classics: Trauma, in which adults disclose dreadful childhood memories on the small screen; Drunk, with its street drinkers staggering through elaborate fights and reconciliations in life-size triple-screen projection. The policemen keeping agonisingly still in Sixty Minute Silence; the much-plagiarised photographs of people holding signs inscribed with their inner thoughts – "I'm Desperate", "Mary come back".

Anyone unfamiliar with the old arguments about Wearing will find them conveniently revived in a dozen films from the past two decades. Intrusion, manipulation, voyeurism, exploitation: all these charges are courted by the works themselves, with their distinctive presentation of authenticity in the form of conspicuous staging.

Each film asks you to consider what is true, what is performed or real, and what, if anything, can be known about the subjects. Which has sometimes amounted to very little – who was the eponymous Woman with the bandaged face I saw yesterday down Walworth Road?– or, at times, nothing.

Take the latest series of photographic portraits in which Wearing plays many parts, from her parents and grandparents to artistic forebears such as Diane Arbus, Andy Warhol and Robert Mapplethorpe. The artist squeezes into a latex mask or body suit, holds the pose of grandmother, mother, father or brother and disappears into the period photograph.

Wearing's contribution is the idea (and the wearing, so to speak). The skill is in the illusions themselves. So plausible are these prosthetic faces that the join is barely visible in the rim where mask meets eye, except when deliberately exposed; a magic extended to costume, scenario and lighting.

Claude Cahun, Cindy Sherman, Hiroshi Sugimoto – the influence of these quick-change artists is everywhere apparent. But unlike Sherman, Wearing does not create characters; and unlike Sugimoto, she does not create appearances.

Wearing as Claude Cahun has a touch of wit in the Wearing-faced mask dangling like an attribute from Cahun's hand. But this marvellous French artist did not assume masks as a trope. To be outside society, to be misunderstood, to live in disguise (she was a resistance heroine): Cahun's self-portraits admit the miseries of a double life just as they acknowledge how strange one can seem even to oneself.

Wearing, on the other hand, is only trying on other people's faces. It is true that a strong family likeness emerges in that series (though how can one know, since all eyes belong to Wearing?). It is also true that some kind of homage is implied in recreating oneself in the image of other artists.

But that Wearing can be made to look exactly like all these different people is mainly what strikes – that and the peculiar lack of affect. After the showbusiness double take, these pictures are perfectly blank. Even when Wearing appears as a three year-old, the image does not occasion mortal questions so much as curiosity to know how the trick was achieved.

These feats of wizardry are a prelude to the confessional booths that follow, where people in masks "confess" to Secrets and Lies. Domestic violence, childhood beatings, rape, murder: the monologues are harrowing. They are also strictly produced. Nobody talks for more than an allotted few minutes, so that the bare outline of hell is all anyone can offer. The disguise is always a distraction, generally because the discrepancy between what is being said and the mask from which it issues is so extreme – the woman whose husband tried to strangle her, for instance, is got up in a candy-coloured top, matching lipstick and blusher.

This feels indiscriminate or sententious, depending on your viewpoint. At worst, it undermines the speaker. They talk, we listen, the experience all round is botched, unfulfilled, incomplete.

In Bully, a victim re-enacts his suffering with the aid of a group of strangers, whom he is encouraged to cast and direct. The film begins with finger jabbing and ends with near-violence. But it's never clear whether catharsis takes place, nor (typical twist) whether everyone is truly acting. How can one know: that remains Wearing's default position. She doesn't ask, and she doesn't want us to ask.

People are strange, people are not what they seem, nobody can be fully understood. Wearing's art is often heavy with platitude. Her strongest works, to me, have their roots in reality but raise the artifice to dramatic heights – films such as Sacha and Mum with its noh-like ritualisation of a mother-daughter relationship, and the unforgettable 2 Into 1.

Here, Wearing films a mother talking about her 10-year-old twins, and vice versa, then has each lipsynch the other's monologues in turn. As each speech is uttered, family secrets are devastatingly corroborated by the body language. "Lawrence is gorgeous, I love every inch of him," declares Lawrence, smirking at his mother's praise. Mute, resigned, Lawrence's twin grits his teeth alongside.

At Tate Britain, Patrick Keiller has been given the whole length of the Duveen galleries to reprise one of his cult films by other means. Robinson in Ruins plays silently on a giant screen while pictures selected from the Tate archive act as further illustrations and, indeed, stills to the film's fictional journey through Oxfordshire, Buckinghamshire and Berkshire.

Robinson, it may be recalled, is that mysterious academic from the University of Barking (sic) whose travels through psychogeography are reminiscent of Iain Sinclair. His is an England haunted by white horses and neolithic rings, henges and pylons, nuclear plants and power stations. It is sepulchral, apocalyptic, wondrous and political; and so is much of the art.

Turner's shipwreck bristles alongside Muirhead Bone's drawing of the British Museum Reading Room under construction: each a dark chaos of struts. Black cloudscapes by Alexander Cozens glower behind real chunks of the meteorite that landed in Yorkshire in 1795, the same year as the Poor Removal Act; and here are victims of that act in portraits.

The journey proceeds through coincidence, proximity, visual affinity. Sometimes it's predictable – Blake versus Constable, Greenham Common, Quatermass, Peter Kennard's deathless Haywain with Cruise Missiles. But there are revelations along the way: the overlooked Susanna Duncombe, tremendous explosions by Leonard Rosoman and Paul Nash, Keiller's own photographs of sackcloth ghouls windblown in the hedgerows and overgrown milestones once sponsored by RBS.

This is art as consciousness-raising, to some extent, but it is also addictive and immersive. And Keiller's offbeat humour is at play in the situationist cartoons and the riffs on Goethe, romanticism and the picturesque. His gift, as in the films, lies in plucking images from the landscape and holding them to the light for contemplation, and he could have gone on and on for ever, it seems to me. But what is here will suffice to make one ruminate on the museum and the world outside in a different way.


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March 15 2012

Photographs Not Taken: what makes a photographer freeze?

A new book of essays by photographers explores the missed opportunities of images never captured

The American photographer Christian Patterson was driving along a deserted road in rural Nebraska when he saw a house on fire. He jumped out of his car and ran towards the house, but the intense heat drove him back. As he was about to take a picture of the scene, a truck pulled up and a man jumped out. He fell to his knees, crying. A fire truck arrived but, by then, the house and all its contents were reduced to ash.

South African photographer Roger Ballen once drove an acquaintance across Johannesburg to the house of a witch doctor. There, in a back room "full of cat's skins on clotheslines", the man produced a live cat from a sack. The witch doctor took the cat, weighed it, and paid the man accordingly. Ballen watched the transaction in silence, then drove the man back across town.

These are just two of the 62 stories collected by Will Steacy in a new book, Photographs Not Taken, published by Daylight. In his introduction, Steacy, a photographer himself, describes it as "a collection of essays by photographers about moments that never became a picture". He writes: "Here, the process of making a photograph has been reversed. Instead of looking out into the world through a camera lens, these essays look directly into the mind's eye to reveal where photographs come from in their barest and most primitive form – the original idea."

The stories also show that there are many reasons not to take a photograph. For several of the photographers here, including Patterson, the decision not to press the shutter is usually an ethical one. Consider the story related by Sylvia Plachy who, on a street in midtown Manhattan just after the twin towers of the World Trade Centre had collapsed on 9/11, encountered a dust-covered man "who had walked though hell". He was, says Plachy, "the icon" of the human tragedy. Many people took his photograph. She did not. "I would have had to step in front of him, interrupt his frantic pace," she writes. "I felt ashamed. I hesitated. I questioned. It didn't seem right. In an instant he was gone. I didn't do it."

Plachy spent the following fortnight roaming the streets of downtown New York looking for another picture as powerful as the one she had not taken. "His image haunts me to this day," she writes, adding ruefully, "Diane Arbus would have done it."

This story, it seems to me, gets to the heart of the matter. Many photographers share Arbus's view that you take the picture whatever the cost – to yourself as well as the subject. I have always been uncomfortable with that notion. It says that nothing is too intimate, too private. It insists, too, on the primacy of the photograph over the experience.

Simon Roberts's story argues the opposite. On assignment in Zimbabwe, he visited the Mashambanzou Aids clinic where he encountered Priscilla Dzengwe, who had been raped as a child by her uncle and was HIV-positive. She was close to death, but curious and engaging. As they were talking, a group of local girls came in and began singing. "It was a haunting, spiritual and utterly captivating sound that filled the small room," writes Roberts. "The girls, including Priscilla, began to cry as they sang. For the first time in my career, I felt physically unable to take a photograph."

Would that experience have been the same, carried the same intensity for him, had he taken his camera out to photograph the scene? In doing so, he would inevitably have placed himself outside the experience. And, as he notes, "no image, however accomplished, could have captured the agonising poignancy of the moment. It was a moment to be lived, not framed, analysed or reduced in any way."

The book is full of lost moments and missed opportunities, some poignant, some hilarious, some mysterious. (We never find out why Ballen did not photograph inside the witch doctor's house. Was it superstition, or had he simply gone out without his camera?) One of the funniest is told by Matt Salacuse. As a struggling photographer in New York, he was waiting to meet his father in the lobby of the Ritz Carlton Hotel, when he spotted Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman with their newborn adopted baby. Salacuse went outside and positioned himself by a waiting limo, waiting for the celebrity couple to emerge. Just as he was about to photograph them, Cruise looked straight at him and said calmly: "You're not going to do that." Salacuse writes: "It must have been some crazy Scientologist voodoo mind trick, because I looked at him and said, 'You are right. I am not.' And, I didn't."

Like the others, all that Salacuse was left with from his chance encounter was a story about a great photograph that never happened. Sometimes, as this book shows, that's enough.

Now see this

Carole Callow, who has printed all of Lee Miller's work since the photographer's death, curates Through the Eyes of Lee Miller at Lucy Bell Gallery in St Leonards on Sea. The show will focus on two sets of work: Miller's portraits of Picasso and images taken at Farley Farm House in East Sussex. From 20 March until 21 April.

In London, Foto8 is showing Rob Hornstra's images of Abkhazia, the coastal strip of the Black Sea once known as the Riviera of the Soviet Union. The Sochi Project: Empty Land, Promised Land, Forbidden Land runs until 5 April.


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November 11 2011

The month in photography

Audio slideshow: Our guide to the month's best photo exhibitions and books – featuring Walker Evans, Terry Richardson, Bruce Davidson and Diane Arbus



October 24 2011

Behind the scenes at the V&A museum

Video: Take an exclusive tour of the new Photographs gallery, where images by Man Ray, Henri Cartier-Bresson and Diane Arbus are on display



July 26 2011

Diane Arbus: humanist or voyeur?

It's 40 years since the troubled US photographer took her own life, but her images continue to reveal the camera's predatory nature

Diane Arbus killed herself, aged 48, on 26 July 1971. On the 40th anniversary of her death, it's worth reconsidering her artistic legacy. Her work remains problematic for many viewers because she transgressed the traditional boundaries of portraiture, making pictures of circus and sideshow "freaks", many of whom she formed lasting friendships with.

If Arbus undoubtedly felt at home among the outsiders she photographed, she also experienced a frisson of guilty pleasure when photographing them. "There's some thrill in going to a sideshow," she once confessed of her nocturnal visits to the circus tents of Coney Island, where performers were still earning a living in the 1960s. "I felt a mixture of shame and awe."

Her works make us question not just her motives for looking at what the critic Susan Sontag – with typical hauteur – called "people who are pathetic, pitiable, as well as repulsive", but also our own. In perhaps the most angry essay in her book On Photography, Sontag insists that Arbus's gaze is "based on distance, on privilege, on a feeling that what the viewer is asked to look at is really other".

The "other" is not what it used to be. We live in a time when it is ubiquitous, whether in voyeuristic TV shows about "embarrassing bodies" or documentaries about sexual exhibitionists or conjoined twins. Nevertheless, Arbus's black-and-white portraits – particularly of those with mental disabilities or physical abnormalities – retain their power to unsettle and disturb. Here, whatever her intention, the cruel often seems to outweigh the tender. What's more, her portraits always send us back to Arbus: to her need to not just photograph but befriend her subjects; her seemingly insatiable fascination with the unusual; her often fragile state of mind. (She killed herself for reasons that remain mysterious.)

Later this year a new biography, entitled Diane Arbus: An Emergency in Slow Motion, will be published. The author is William Todd Schultz, a professor of psychology at Pacific University, who specialises in what he calls "psychobiography". Once again, as with Patricia Bosworth's celebrated book about the photographer, it is the life – and mind – of the artist that is being probed in an attempt to shed some light on the photographs. For his research, Schultz spoke at length to Arbus's therapist. This, I would hazard, did not go down well with the famously controlling Arbus estate who, as Schultz put it recently, "seem to have this idea, which I disagree with, that any attempt to interpret the art diminishes the art".

Yet with Arbus, as with Nan Goldin, the life and the art are inextricably intertwined. Of late though, Arbus's identification with her subjects has been interpreted not, as Sontag insists, as a kind of prurient voyeurism, but as a way of understanding the world and shedding new light on its fringes. "To cast Arbus in the role of a tragic figure who identified with 'freaks' is to trivialise her accomplishment," Sandra S Philips, curator of photography at the Museum of Modern Art in San Francisco, told the Smithsonian magazine in 2004. "She was a great humanist photographer who was at the forefront of a new kind of photographic art."

I would agree with the latter half of that sentence while disagreeing with the former. Arbus, as the great American critic and curator John Szarkowski recognised when he first showed her work in his New Documents group exhibition at Moma in New York in 1967, was certainly a trailblazer of a new photographic aesthetic, by turns raw and unflinching, disturbing and illuminating. But a humanist? Only if your view of humanity is essentially pessimistic and tinged with neurotic narcissism.

Arbus may have felt an enormous empathy with the people she photographed, but she was not one of them, however much she identified with their outsider status. She had her own troubles, but they were of a different order. The work she left behind remains powerful not just because of its dark formal beauty or its stark vision, but because it asks questions of the viewer about the limits of looking, about the vicariousness and predatory nature of photography, and about our complicity in all of this.

When we look at an Arbus photograph, we cannot help feeling that we are intruders or voyeurs, even though her subjects are tied to a time and place that has all but vanished. A sense of complicity – hers and ours – lies at the very heart of her power. Her images hold us in their sway even when our better instincts tell us to look away. Perhaps her greatest gift is that she understood that conflict instinctively, and did more than anyone to exploit it artistically.

Now see this

In 2002 and 2003, photographer Ken Griffiths travelled extensively in what is known as Welsh Patagonia. In doing so, he was following in the footsteps of Welsh pioneers who journeyed into the interior of Patagonia as far as the Andes, which border Chile. His photographic record includes landscapes, cityscapes and portraits, all of which attest to the beautiful otherness of the region, and a selection is showing at London's Michael Hoppen Gallery until 20 August.

• Sean O'Hagan is the 2011 winner of the Royal Photographic Society's J Dudley Johnston award. The award recognises achievement in the field of photographic criticism


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