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August 03 2012

Art and the hidden depths of the humble public pool

The swimming pool is not just a place of pilgrimage for leading Olympians – it has also inspired some of the 20th century's most memorable art. Artist and novelist Leanne Shapton, herself a former competitive swimmer, chooses 10 of the greatest works of art based around the baths

Drawing for 'Children's Swimming Pool', Leon Kossoff, 1971

Kossoff's charcoal study for his oil painting Children's Swimming Pool, Autumn Afternoon is of a public pool in Willesden, London, near his studio, where he took his son to learn to swim. Kossoff captures the wild energy of an indoor pool overtaken by children during a public session. His vigorous lines, bobbing heads and sharp elbows remind us that as well as being pristine and serene, pools can also be aggressive and feral. The piece is audible, one can imagine the echoing hollers of the children, the heavy odour of chlorine and the lurking verruca.

Nine Swimming Pools, Ed Ruscha, 1968

Among the hundreds of gorgeous photographic images of swimming pools, this grid of colour photos that Ed Ruscha conceived in 1968 stands out as my favourite. The nine pools depicted are glassy, blue and bright, and while they are absent of figures, (only wet footprints leading off a diving board) they shimmer with the American dream. Each photo offers its own condensed version of public or private water; together, they simultaneously deliver the yearning of Sunset Boulevard, the challenge of competition, the seduction of youth, the promise of sunshine, as well as the shallow transience of motel life.

Pool Shapes, Claes Oldenburg, 1964

Oldenburg's palette is consumer goods, and his four bright blue swimming pool designs bluntly and directly convey his interest in the choices we are offered. The piece is a copy of an advertisement with the type removed, and the reframing of these simple diagrams of backyard pools, with their bubbly rounded shapes and shallow steps, is typical of Oldenburg's humour and playfulness. The image appears on the cover of a 1966 catalogue of his early sketches, diagrams and photos, produced by Stockholm's Moderna Museet for an early solo show of his work.

Ellipsis (II), Roni Horn, 1998

Rather than making the tank of water the subject, Roni Horn shifts her focus to the locker room of a swimming pool she loves in Reykavik, Iceland. Her large (8 x 8ft) monochrome grid of 64 iris prints shuffle the viewer through a warren of slick cubicles and halls. In an interview, Horn described the endless tiled surface and peepholed doors as a voyeristic delight, and explained that she "…shot it in a way to bring out more of the sensual aspect to balance against the antiseptic quality of the architecture".

Le bain mystérieux, Giorgio de Chirico, 1938

Giorgio de Chirico's series of bathers and labyrinthine pools, done between 1934 and 1973, began when Jean Cocteau asked the artist to provide illustrations for his book Mythology. He returned to this theme – men, both fully dressed and nude, in and around pools that were connected by twisting canals and surrounded by cabanas – for years after. He always depicted the water as a herringbone parquet, inspired by one day observing sunlight reflected on a highly polished floor. In this series, the founder of metaphysical painting hauntingly evokes dreams of water, submersion and classical Grecian imagery.

Gatsby, Dexter Dalwood, 2009

Pools are often used in literature and film as symbols of hedonism, seduction or danger. In F Scott Fitzgerald's 1925 novel The Great Gatsby, the pool manifests all three, finally submerging its eponymous hero in its eighth chapter. In his painting Gatsby, Dexter Dalwood, whose subject matter often involves the locations of violent tragedies (other titles: Kurt Cobain's Greenhouse, Sharon Tate's Living Room), gives us the melancholy millionaire Jay Gatsby's sunlit backyard pool in West Egg, and an inflatable red air mattress overtaken by its shadow: a fitting metaphor for Fitzgerald's haunted hero.

New Yorker cover, Richard McGuire, 2008

New York City is not known for abundant outdoor swimming pools, which is why this New Yorker cover illustration, Swim, Swam, Swum, a rendition of the Carmine Street pool in Greenwich Village, is so charming. It showcases the beloved city pool (featured in Martin Scorsese's film Raging Bull and Larry Clark's Kids, and flanked by a 1987 Keith Haring mural). Illustrator Richard McGuire is a master of reductive line. He's a regular New Yorker cover artist, designs toys and games, makes wildly popular comics, children's books and haunting animations, and lives a block from the pool.

Poster for 1972 Olympics, David Hockney, 1972

David Hockney is the undisputed king of swimming pool art. His paintings of Hollywood pools, replete with big splashes, submerged figures and undulating ripples, gave us an iconic Californian landscape that still defines a certain kind of languid and lush west-coast sensuality. My favourite piece of his, however, and one I work beneath every day, is his poster for the 1972 Munich Olympics, which depicts a diver, suspended over a wobbling sunlit grid of aquamarine, the moment before he slices through the water. (Josef Albers and RB Kitaj also did swimming-themed posters in this series.)

Floating Swimming Pool, Rem Koolhaas, 1978

Rem Koolhaas's pool illustrates the last chapter of his book Delirious New York. It's an Orwellian fable about a group of Soviet architecture students who build a vast, floating swimming pool that they propel across the Atlantic by swimming laps. The journey to New York takes 40 years, and the pool's arrival is met with a hostility they had not anticipated. Koolhaas, himself an avid swimmer, satirises the utopian beginnings of Russian constructivism and its slow morph into corporate American modernism with his usual intellect, idealism and rancour.

Aquis Submersus, Max Ernst, 1919

In one of his earliest surrealist pieces, Max Ernst offers us a melancholy and disturbing night swim, though a clock in the sky indicates 4:42 and the shadows cast by a handlebar-moustachioed man are long. A sense of unease and suspense shroud the work. The clock is reflected in the pool as a moon, the lonely buildings around the pool appear empty, the upside-down figure of a swimmer is weirdly still. The painting shares a title with an 1876 novella by Theodor Storm, about a long-thwarted love and the drowning death of a boy, as narrated by a painter.


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July 21 2012

LA artists fight for soul of one of the city's cultural landmarks

Trustees of Museum of Contemporary Arts split by row over dumbing down of shows

A furious row has broken out at Los Angeles's leading art institution, the Museum of Contemporary Art, which is pitting some of America's most celebrated aesthetes against a billionaire property developer.

Moca, one of the symbols of LA's recent emergence as an art hub to match New York, is dedicated to the presentation and study of recent art and has long been a home to the erudite and esoteric. But the museum has been hit by the defection of high-profile artist board members furious at a perceived dumbing down.

The conceptual artist John Baldessari was first to resign, followed by agit-prop graphic artist Barbara Kruger and "queer-space" photographer Catherine Opie. Then Ed Ruscha, possibly the city's best known artist internationally, followed suit. Their resignations, they said, could be read as a protest at the commercial, pop-culture direction of the museum at the expense of education and scholarship.

"The artists in LA are very upset," said Hunter Drohojowska-Philp, author of Rebels in Paradise: The Los Angeles Art Scene and the 1960s. "There's a schism between the trustees. It's a complicated situation."

Angry fingers are being pointed at Eli Broad, a billionaire property developer and art collector who bailed out the financially struggling institution three years ago with a $30m donation, and his choice of director, the pop-art minded, former New York dealer Jeffrey Deitch.

With Broad's backing, Deitch, they claim, effectively engineered the removal of the museum's long-serving chief curator, Paul Schimmel, setting up a confrontation between artists and a deep-pocketed collector allied with museum managers charged with raising revenue and exhibition attendances.

Art in the Streets, a Deitch-orchestrated survey of the graffiti and street art movement, drew a record number of visitors. That was followed by a retrospective of Dennis Hopper's artwork. Earlier this year, the actor James Franco curated a show that drew inspiration from Rebel Without a Cause.

"Jeffrey represents a populist streak that many in the art world consider vulgar. He goes for spectacle more than scholarship," says New York art critic Carlo McCormick. "They feel he's dumbing down the cultural values of the art world."

And behind that, many suspect, is a billionaire whose motives are not entirely clear. While Broad saved Moca and wants to keep it viable, he is also constructing a rival museum across downtown LA to house his own collection.

In addition, the original trustees of the museum have been bolstered by big-money figures such as hedge fund whale Steven S Cohen and Victor Pinchuk, a Ukrainian who collects Damien Hirst. "The influence of collectors is probably at an all-time high," says McCormick. "Art is highly professionalised and market-determined at every level."

LA artists expressed dismay that educational aspects of the institution have been cut from the budget and said they worried that Moca was becoming "a cliche of Los Angeles or a part of the entertainment industry. We want to know the direction of the museum and to know that curators are respected and their shows are being funded."

LA art critic Mat Gleason said: "Deitch is actually inoculating the museum from conflicts of interest with high-wealth collectors." By putting on more pop-culture orientated shows, "he can go to low-level donors and say, 'We throw really cool parties, why don't you donate to us?' " In response, Deitch wrote to museum members saying the institution's programme was "a response to and an articulation of the current art and cultural landscape today". Moca, he said, would continue to engage audiences in a "dynamic and scholarly way".

Friends of Deitch say he's tired of being criticised for placing pop art or shows about disco culture ahead of cutting-edge art. But they also say he's perfect for Los Angeles because it is a city "wrapped up in celebrities and celebutantes".

It's the artists, then, who may have to accept that they live in an entertainment town. "But, of course, they're freaked out that people like James Franco are getting exhibitions because it's not serious and it doesn't matter," says a Moca supporter.

Artists, however, not collectors or institutional managers, may still have the final say. "If showing at Moca means selling out, then no one is going to want to show there," says one.

• This article was amended on 23 July 2012. The original wrongly gave the location of Eli Broad's rival museum as Wilshire Boulevard.


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September 16 2011

Cornelia Parker selects spectrum of Government Art Collection

Whitechapel Gallery's choice of government-owned art includes works by Andy Warhol and Grayson Perry

A video of a man hanging precariously from a ladder seems somehow appropriate for a collection intrinsically linked to politics and politicians, as does the portrait of Elizabethan statesman William Cecil which recently hung in Ken Clarke's office. A phallic geyser bursting out of the earth may be less obvious.

"People will make their own links," said the artist Cornelia Parker about a new exhibition she has curated, choosing 70 works from the Government Art Collection (GAC).

The show is the second in a series of five at the Whitechapel Gallery in London in which different people are let loose among the 14,000 works in the collection.

Parker said the experience had been fun. She trawled through books and printouts before she decided that she was going to display the works according to colour. "I went through lots of ideas and this one about colour is the one that stuck and it gave me permission to be very eclectic," she said.

It means Old Masters are hanging next to modern work. A portrait of Elizabeth I by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger, for example, is near to Brews, a strikingly orange work, by pop artist Ed Ruscha and a big photograph in Liberal Democrat yellow by Jane and Louise Wilson which recently hung in Nick Clegg's office.

Other works in the show include Grayson Perry's Print for a Politician, which George Osborne personally chose for his office, a Peter Blake screenprint of the Beatles, previously in the residence of the deputy UK representative at the UN in New York, some colourful William Turnbull screenprints last in the ambassador's residence in Panama and an Andy Warhol portrait of the Queen from 1985.

Parker has also chosen one of her own works, which was one of a suite of six that for 10 years hung in the Chancellor of the Exchequer's wood-panelled dining room while Gordon Brown was there – a feather from the pillow of Sigmund Freud.

Spending cuts means the GAC is not buying anything for two years, the first time it has been forced to stop collecting since the second world war. It has been acquiring works for 113 years and around two-thirds are out on display at government buildings and embassies worldwide at any time.

Next at the Whitechapel after Parker's choice will be the selection of historian Simon Schama, and after that staff from 10 Downing Street will be making the decisions.

GAC selected by Cornelia Parker: Richard of York Gave Battle in Vain is at the Whitechapel Gallery in London, 16 September-4 December.


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September 12 2011

Los Angeles: art's brave new world

Hats off to the city that launched Andy Warhol, spawned Ed Ruscha and now boasts Frank Gehry's most beautiful building

Los Angeles. The first thing you notice is the light: it's like walking into a David Hockney painting.

But the work of art that makes the most poetic use of the silver and blue optical clarity of Californian sunshine is Frank Gehry's Walt Disney Concert Hall in downtown LA. The way the curved sails of shining metal that shape this beautiful building glitter against the sky is a glimpse of paradise in the middle of the city. Gehry is a truly great architect and this public monument is his masterpiece – an even lighter and more dynamic creation than his Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao. Or perhaps it is simply that California is the true home of his art. His concave and convex, hard-yet-yielding forms seem to belong here, to blow in the breeze like the sails of the Beach Boys' Sloop John B.

LA is not a city with a reputation for a developed public life. It's more famous for car culture than for ... culture, and more renowned for strip malls than civic piazzas. Yet Gehry's generous civic building, loved by locals, could give London some lessons in architecture, with a heart and soul that pour life into a city, instead of sucking it out. Yes, I am once again referring to the Shard. Why is London letting an oversize tower wreck its skyline for no good reason, while here in LA an infinitely more imaginative contemporary building performs a creative instead of destructive role in community life?

The Walt Disney Concert Hall is a classic of modern architecture, a building that proves the social and cultural value of poetry, personal expression and beauty. Architecture does not have to be a corporate trashing of the common life. It can save the world, in the hands of a genius like Gehry.

Another genius who has been captivating me in LA is Ed Ruscha. Ever since the 1960s, Ruscha has created art with such indefinable cool that categorising it as pop, or conceptualism – or anything except a deeply brilliant triumph of precision and impersonal style – seems clumsy. He is the west coast's Warhol, the Gerhard Richter of the Pacific. I saw a painting by him yesterday called Annie, Poured in Maple Syrup. It was painted in 1966. The bold letters of the name Annie do indeed seem to be written in gooey syrup – yet the infantilist, supersweet lettering is painted with meticulous conviction in oil on canvas. I find this both a hilarious and eerie work. It seems to do everything pop art ever wanted to do, but better.

Well, not better than Warhol. There is a powerful display at Moca of his soup-can paintings, a reconstruction of the exhibition at the Ferus Gallery, LA, in 1962 when these irresistible paintings were first shown to the world. Warhol made a road trip across America to exhibit in LA. It was the city that gave him his first solo show – an exhibit purely of soup cans, painted as icons. The show was supported by film star Dennis Hopper among others. In LA, Warhol must have felt like he was coming home.


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July 22 2011

Photobooks – affordable collectibles that are soaring in value

Rare editions now sell for tens of thousands, but collectors on a limited budget can invest in emerging photographers

At first glance they may look like overpriced coffee-table books, but photobooks are highly collectible works of art. In recent years, a boom in the market has seen prices skyrocket. At a dedicated auction at Christie's in London last year, signed early editions of influential photobooks such as Robert Frank's The Americans and Henri Cartier-Bresson's The Decisive Moment sold for £43,250 and £13,750 respectively.

The sudden surge in prices is thought to have begun with the publication of Martin Parr and Gerry Badger's lushly illustrated two-volume retrospective The Photobook: A History, in 2004. These books, along with Andrew Roth's 2001 work, The Book of 101 Books: Seminal Photographic Books of the Twentieth Century, attempted to reveal what Parr described as "the final frontier of the undiscovered". As a result, a canon of sorts was established and the values of the featured books soared.

According to Sven Becker of Christie's Books and Manuscripts, prices have risen so quickly in the last five years that values put on the more famous books have stalled. Higher prices will only be attained, he says, when the "books or copies are in perfect condition" or where they have "extraordinary things attached such as signatures and inscriptions".

Despite the scarcity of signed or inscribed books and the high plateau in prices on the seminal works, there is hope for the average collector with a modest budget. In fact, even if you're a complete novice, there is a good opportunity to combine learning about the art form with a sound piece of investing by collecting new editions.

Photobooks are expensive to produce and, while demand is too small to warrant long print runs or multiple reprints, it is large enough that the books remain desirable, soon become scarce and can eventually be very valuable. This means new editions costing between £20 and £60 can double or triple in price in as little as two to five years. In 10 or 20 years – and if the work of the photographer becomes particularly fashionable – the price may increase even more.

Jeff Ladd of the photobook blog 5B4, cites the example of John Gossage's book of gritty landscapes, The Pond. When the groundbreaking work was published in 1985, you could pick up a copy for about £20-£30, but it soon went out of print and became very scarce. Today it sells for £500-£600 via rare book trader Vincent Borrelli.

Similarly, photobooks by Bruce Davidson have become very valuable. Reprinted 2003 editions of his 1980s book Subway (see below) cost £40 on release but now sell for anywhere between £200 and £300.

If you want to pick up some books currently on the shelves that might follow this trend, William Eggleston's For Now (Twin Palms, 2010) and Before Color (Steidl, 2010) can still be found for around the £30-£40 mark; they are expected to double in value relatively quickly and perhaps even increase beyond that in years to come.

You need to look after anything you buy very carefully. Martin Amis of photobookstore.co.uk, which sells rare and limited-edition books, says books must be in perfect condition. "Blemishes or damage can knock as much as 40% of the price," he says, "which is why you have to be careful with places like Amazon who don't always package books as well as they might."

Amis, a collector himself, recommends buying from stores that specialise, straight from the publisher or from dealers you know. Other online specialists include the excellent photo-eye.com, based in Santa Fe. If you prefer to buy from a physical bookshop and can get to London, Photobooks International in Bloomsbury is a good place to rummage for used editions.

But one of the great things about photobook collecting is discovering the work of emerging photographers whose early books may become sought after. A good place to look is among the current boom in self-published titles.

Self-publishing in photography has a fine pedigree. Perhaps the greatest example is Ed Ruscha's 1963 work Twentysix Gasoline Stations (see below). More recently, Ryan McGinley's self-published 2000 debut The Kids Are Alright sold for £3,528 at Swann Galleries in New York.

"You can't go wrong if you are paying £7-£10 for something you like," says Becker, who believes these self-published books are "guaranteed to be collectible in the future".

To help you navigate the bewildering array, look at websites that collate the best of self-publishing, such as theindependentphotobook.blogspot.com, indiephotobooklibrary.org and selfpublishbehappy.com. Also, many established photographers, such as Stephen Gill, sell through their own sites. His Book of Birds, £19, or Hackney Flowers, £28, are available through Gill's own imprint Nobody and are worth a look for their uncommon detail as well as their potential collectability.

Finally, to make the most of collecting you will need to stay in the know and – most importantly – get to know what you like. Luckily, there are some excellent resources at hand. As well as Ladd's 5B4, there are blogs such as Marc Feustel's eyecurious.com, Nathalie Belayche's foodforyoureyes and the Guardian's own photo blog by Sean O'Hagan, all of which cover in depth what's new, where to go and what to see. Add to this magazines such as the British Journal of Photography, Photoworks, and Foto8 and galleries such as the Photographers' Gallery in London and the Redeye network in the north-west and you will find many opportunities to learn.

Collecting photobooks is a wonderful way to discover more about photography and build a small alternative nest egg at the same time. The only downside is that you might incur the cost of installing a sturdy set of shelves.

Where to start

The Photobook: A History Volumes 1 and 2 by Martin Parr & Gerry Badger £49.95, Phaidon; £30.40, Amazon

Published in 2001 and 2004, Martin Parr and Gerry Badger's retrospective of the history of photobooks has become hugely influential in the used photobook market. It's a good place to start learning and may even become a collectors' item itself.

New editions and reprints likely to go up

William Eggleston – Before Color £40, Steidl; £28, Amazon

Elegant edition of the eccentric American photographer's early work in black and white before he dazzled in colour. Small run and sure to be worth more than the cut-price £27.66 on Amazon in years to come, a good place to start and a unique introduction to the work of Eggleston.

Bruce Davidson – Subway £40, Aperture; £35, Amazon

Previous editions of Bruce Davidson's study of the New York subway system and its passengers have shot up in price. Gritty yet human, the highly anticipated Aperture Foundation reprint due in September is sure to fly off the shelves.

Ones to covet

Ed Ruscha – Twentysix Gasoline Stations £23,800, signed first edition, abebooks.co.uk

Regarded by some as the first "modern artist's book", pop artist Ruscha's self-published photobook consists of pictures of 26 gasoline stations taken on a trip from Los Angeles to Oklahoma. First editions in a run of 500 sold for $3.50 in 1962. At the time the minimalist imagery was shocking, but it is perhaps the price that raises eyebrows now – it can fetch between £6,000 and £12,000.

Alexey Brodovitch – Ballet £6,460, first edition, alibris.com

Legendary photobook by Harper's Bazaar designer Brodovitch whose backstage pictures of the Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo, taken with limited equipment, became famous for their radical challenging of technique and powerful depiction of movement. If you can't afford the original, Errata Editions does a fantastic 2011 version for about £25.


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May 27 2011

This week's new exhibitions

Guernsey Photography Festival, St Peter Port

Packing in big names and greener talents, this fledgling photography festival looks set to become a cornerstone of the cultural calendar. Three British staples headline among more than 20 exhibitions. Pioneer of photography-as-art Martin Parr is showing a selection from his Small World series, where perma-tanned global tourists flood beaches like so many ants. These compliment Parr's hero, Tony Ray-Jones's affectionate images of the British working class at play. Richard Billingham's series of his alcoholic father, Let's Talk About Ray, brings a sobering dose of gritty social realism, while an impressive array of events, screenings and workshops includes a talk from acclaimed documentarist Caroline Drake, and Samuel Fosso, whose twist on self-portraiture and identity see him dress up as black icons.

St Peter Port, Sat to 30 Jun

Skye Sherwin

Linder, London

Linder's record sleeve for the Buzzcocks single Orgasm Addict was a classic: a nude pneumatic babe with a clothes iron for a head and smiling gnashers for nipples. Thirty-three years on, her Frankenstein's monsters of collaged consumer culture retain their bite. Her latest series fuses magazine cookery pages with retro-looking soft porn imagery: wry collisions of the different fantasies sold to men and women. They highlight a starkly similar displacement of physical wants into capitalist baubles, be that women's bodies, food or fast cars.

Modern Art, W1, to 25 Jun

Skye Sherwin

Cornelia Parker, York

The religious allusion in the title of Cornelia Parker's Thirty Pieces Of Silver is amplified by its installation in the nave of the converted medieval church of York St Mary's. More than 1,000 silver pieces are arranged into 30 disc-shaped groups. Each found and collected object – candlesticks, cigarette cases, an old trombone – have been flattened by a steam roller and suspended from the church's ceiling so they appear to levitate. While Parker's work might be predictable – she is the artist who squashes things, explodes them, throws them off cliffs – its metaphoric resonance is undeniable. There is something infectiously melancholic in this poetic reflection on the passing of time, the vanities of materialism and the tragic wastage of personal betrayal.

York St Mary's, to 30 Oct

Robert Clark

Imogen Stidworthy, London

In the past, Liverpudlian video artist Imogen Stidworthy has made work featuring Cilla Black impersonations, criminal gang slang and Romanian street singing. Throughout it all is her interest in language, whether as cultural glue, or through subversive translations. Her latest exhibition is dominated by the incredible but true figure of Sacha Van Loo – a blind linguist, fluent in seven languages, and with an ear finely tuned to hundreds of accents – who analyses wire-tap recordings for the Belgian police. In an installation that uses sound, video and laser scanning, Stidworthy meshes Van Loo's story with elements from Solzhenitsyn's novel In The First Circle. Its account of Stalinist Russia, where imprisoned academics develop technology that jumbles and decodes language, is creepily echoed by police tactics in present-day Antwerp.

Matt's Gallery, E3, to 17 Jul

Skye Sherwin

All That Fits, Derby

Subtitled The Aesthetics Of Journalism, this is an insightful look at fact and fiction in contemporary art which borrows from news and documentary reportage. Curated by Alfredo Cramerotti and Simon Sheikh, All That Fits is being shown in what they call three "chapters" – The Speaker, The Image and The Militant – with the central tenet being "Whereas journalism provides a view on the world, as it 'really' is, art often presents a view on the view." Typical of the ambiguities among the work, Eric Baudelaire's The Dreadful Details brings Manet's 1867 painting The Execution Of Maximilian up to date in images that restage atrocities of the Iraq war in what appears suspiciously to be a Hollywood movie set-up.

QUAD, to 31 Jul

Robert Clark

Ed Ruscha, Wolverhampton

As part of the Artist Rooms touring project of prize works donated to the nation from the collection of Anthony d'Offay, a small but representative collection of drawings and paintings by the renowned west coast American painter. Ruscha depicts the culturally hot landscape of Hollywood with an aptly cool technical restraint. Los Angeles boulevards, billboards and gas stations are reduced to bold compositions of precisely outlined primary colours more familiar in graphic design than fine art painting. Other works more overtly reveal the always-present underlying sense of alienation that affords Ruscha's paintings a psychological tension missing from the more flashy work of many of his east coast peers.

Wolverhampton Art Gallery, to 29 Oct

Robert Clark

House Work, Manchester

It's becoming increasingly common for art to sample, disorientate or mischievously trash neat and proper scenarios of domestic respectability. Jo Lansley + Neeta Madahar present a photographic diptych that uses a bedroom backdrop for evocations of barely suppressed longing. Works by other artists tackle the vulnerability of a domestic or familial sense of security in forms from shantytown sculptures to an account of the last days of a dying grandmother meticulously drawn from mobile phone snapshots.

The International 3, to 17 Jun

Robert Clark

Josephine Pryde, London

An arch yet elusive take on art world anthropology characterises Josephine Pryde's largely photographic work. An earlier series married unsentimental portraits of a baby with song lyrics about the bleak, if hoary, romance of the impoverished artist's life, offsetting creativity, parenthood and art-making in a disquieting mix of temper tantrums and self-validation. For her first UK show in six years, Pryde returns to the theme of reproduction, combining fantasy fertilities with a technologic vision of biological reality. One set of photographs depict teenage girls posing as if pregnant in a perfect stereotype of gendered aspirations, another inserts MRI scans of foetuses in the womb into classic landscape photography, saturated in single colours. The show's title, Embryos And Estate Agents: L' Art de Vivre, sets the teasing tone for how all this might be approached.

Chisenhale Gallery, E3, to 10 Jul

Skye Sherwin


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September 11 2010

Ed Ruscha

As an exhibition of his work tours Scotland, the painter with the 'coolest gaze' in American art reflects on a 50-year career that is happily far from over

When people talk about Ed Ruscha, it isn't long before they're also talking about Los Angeles, the artist's adopted home town. Boxy cars and wide boulevards, deserted gas stations and lonesome illuminated signs: these are the things, they'll tell you, that Ruscha has made his own. "I like to think the California sun has burnt out all unnecessary elements in his work," says film director David Lynch. "[He is] the visual deus ex machina of what has become the most over-scrutinised city on earth," says novelist James Ellroy. "The coolest gaze in American art," said the late JG Ballard. Even Ruscha, who says LA has had less influence on him than they assume, admits that the city "leaks into" his painting. How, then, is his work going to go down in the Highlands? All that colour and light in the middle of a Scottish winter. Ruscha, who can be rather droll, looks at me over his cup. His eyes narrow. "I guess you could say this is where context comes into its own," he says, with a salty laugh.

To explain: Ruscha's work will shortly be seen in a series of Scottish galleries – in Thurso, Inverness and Helmsdale – thanks to a tour that comes courtesy of Anthony D'Offay, the London dealer who sold his art collection to the Tate and the National Galleries of Scotland in 2008. D'Offay, who generously sold more than 700 works for the price he paid for them, rather than for what they could have achieved on the open market, stipulated that the collection be divided into a series of rooms, each devoted to an individual artist, thus allowing it truly to be shared by the nation (different artists tour different regions simultaneously).

For his part, Ruscha was so taken by the idea that he swiftly donated a piece of his own, The Music From the Balconies (1984), to his "room". And now he is in London, telling anyone who'll listen that they should go visit, should they happen to be north of the border. "I like this concept," he says. "It enables people who wouldn't ordinarily see my work to get to know it a little. That really is something else."

We are drinking tea at a discreet corner table in Claridge's, which is a pity, because I would quite like all the social X-rays to get a good look at us. At 72, Ruscha (you pronounce it Roo-SHAY) is a devastatingly attractive man and I suspect he knows it, for all that he throws off a couple of jokes about his imminent mortality. (When I ask him, at the end of our meeting, what he is going to do with the rest of his time in London, his hand flies to his forehead and he says: "I thought for a minute there that you were going to ask me what I'm going to do for the rest of my time on the earth!")

He has a gravelly voice – the kind that invites you both to move your head closer to his and to keep your eyes firmly on his lips – and the slightly impassive manner of one who is used to women falling at his feet at openings. He also indulges in that very subtle form of flattery by which he will agree with almost any proposition I put to him. The luxuriant grey hair, the flinty eyes, the soft blue shirt: sitting with him is like sitting with an old-school American movie star, only with the distinct advantage that Ruscha talks (and so unpretentiously) about art rather than about his "method".

It's almost a year now since the Hayward's hefty retrospective of Ruscha's work on canvas, a show that prompted a huge outpouring of love for him in the press and among both the public and his celebrity collectors. ("A true American hero, the lonesome cowboy pointing a finger at our consumerist greed," said Jerry Hall.) Was he surprised by the strength of the response? "Well, it was a colossal project and I worried I would have some itchy kind of regret about it, that people might think: that's it, it's all over [for him]. Luckily, I happen still to be working, so I wasn't tricked into thinking that was the end of the story, even if other people were."

What compels him, after all these years, to go to his studio every morning? "Just that I can't retire because there's no other job for me." Is he there nine until five? "No, it's patchier than that, but I do still look at myself as a man who takes his lunch pail to work. I don't mean that literally; sometimes, I don't eat at all during the day. But I like the thought that I'm there to work. Of course, work takes different forms. I can spend two or three days without completing anything and it's choppy: it's filled with all kinds of irrationalities and stupid actions. I have some notion and then I drop it because something else comes along. I'm forever darting from one side of the room to the other. Sometimes, four days will go by and I've just kind of, like, piddled. Basically, though, I'm a creature of habit. It [art] is your life's commitment, as grandiose as that sounds. But it's also backed up by habit."

Ruscha is a midwesterner by birth. He was born in Omaha, Nebraska, and grew up in Oklahoma, where his father worked as an auditor for an insurance company. It was, though, apparent to him from an early age that he best get out. "I knew I wanted to be some kind of artist from about 12. I met a neighbour who drew cartoons and I had an idea I wanted to be a cartoonist – or something that involved Indian ink, at any rate. My father was quite traditional, but my mother was more open to the world. I got some encouragement from her. She was ready to take on these new possibilities. She introduced me to poetry. The trouble was, there didn't seem to be much room for that kind of thinking in Oklahoma. Something told me to go west."

At the age of 18, accompanied by his childhood friend, Mason Williams, the song writer and musician, he set out for Los Angeles. "I didn't leave out of anger. Afterwards, I still visited. But it was a pretty big deal. I was pursuing this new frontier. It was all so attractive to me: the vegetation, the sunsets, the lifestyle, the jazz. I'd read about Los Angeles and this fact stuck in my mind: that the city gained 1,000 new people every day. In 1956! A thousand people every day! I felt: I want to be part of that." What did he take with him? "Just an old suitcase. The journey took three days. It was like being in On the Road. We stayed in cheap motels. In those days, they called them 'trailer ports'. Ten dollars a night. It was an adventure."

Once in the city, Ruscha found himself a room in a boarding house and a part-time job as a bus boy in a restaurant, where he spent most of his time opening cans of tuna. Was he broke? "Yes. But you don't – or you didn't then – need much to stay alive. I remember it'd be saltine crackers for three days, until I got a little help from home." Even once he'd enrolled at the Chouinard Art Institute (now the California Institute of the Arts), he still had a job – unpacking crystal and ceramics for a Swedish importer – on the side. "There was no hope for any kind of big opportunity. I'm not saying it was hopeless. The big pay-off was to work as an artist and gain some shred of respect from your friends, who were also artists. But there was never any notion that you could make a living out of art. On the rare occasions you had a gallery show, and sold a little work, well, that was just gravy."

After graduating, he worked as a layout man in an advertising agency. Wouldn't it have made sense to move to New York, where there was a burgeoning and serious art scene? "A lot of people certainly felt like they had to go and live in New York. That was the centre. I loved it, too; it was exhilarating. But it was either too expensive or too tough. At any rate, something kept me away. Maybe I need [access to] wide open spaces."

He admired Marcel Duchamp, Kurt Schwitters, Man Ray and the futurists and clung to the idea that the brave new world that was opening up on the east coast would eventually make its presence felt on the west, too. "I just sort of snuggled in with that thought. But it was baby steps… I didn't have a game plan. I didn't feel I needed to be instantly understood or accepted. I just wanted to show my work if I could."

Ruscha was 35 before he could be said to be making a living, however scrappy, from his art alone. Does he think the struggle helped him to be a better artist? "It's easy to be romantic about it but, no, I think that's a myth. Struggle is not … essential." Of course, it's completely different today. "Students are promised vocational success. They come out of art school and they assume that if you have a gallery show in New York, it all sells out. I had lots of shows where I didn't sell anything and no reviews at all."

Ruscha has often said that he hit on what he wanted to do in his painting relatively early on and it's certainly true that, as he puts it, "a little silver thread" runs neatly through his 50-year career. Many of his paintings from the late 1950s and early 1960s, involve what is now thought of as his trademark: words. BOSS, OOF, HONK. HOT, RIP, STOCK. Ruscha used words as linguistic readymades; he painted them not because he liked what they meant, but because he liked the way they looked, a legacy both of the time he spent in commercial art and a reaction against his abstract expressionist contemporaries Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning. And people really fell for these enigmatic non-messages. (Even presidents: his painting I Think I'll, which plays with the phrases "maybe" and "wait a minute", now hangs on the walls of Barack Obama's White House – a somewhat unreassuring thought, I find – and in July, during David Cameron's visit to Washington, President Obama presented him with a signed lithograph by Ruscha, Column With Speed Lines, chosen for its red, white and blue colours.)

"Learning how to set type, that had a big effect on me," he says. "But I also liked, in LA, all the misspelled words on signs and the homemade signs, like 'watermelon' [for sale]. I thought of it as a kind of folk art. Getting them down, painting them, is like making them official, glorifying them, putting them on stage. I guess that's what poets want to do: put ideas on stage. I settle for a single word."

His work was included, along with that of Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol and Wayne Thiebaud, in the 1962 show, New Painting of Common Objects, curated by Walter Hopps at the Pasadena Art Museum – and ever since, Ruscha has been associated with pop art. Does he mind? "I felt it was a mistake that the popular world had hitherto not been accepted as proper subject matter for art. There's room for saying things in bright, shiny colours. You don't have to accept the so-called harmony of the Greek vase. We were responding to notions of common objects." He looks around the room. "Here we are in this place. How do we make something out of it?" He picks up a delicate-looking round of shortbread. "Maybe this cookie is the centre of this universe."

How much was he helped by his late friend Dennis Hopper, a man who managed, somehow, to straddle the worlds of art and Hollywood? (There exists a wonderful photograph of Ruscha by Hopper; taken in 1964, Ruscha is standing in front of a neon sign that says: TV RADIO SERVICE.) "Well, he had an enormous appetite for anything to do with art. He managed to rack up a good deal of… product [Hopper both collected and made art]. But he was very aware of art movements; he was always on the edge. It was inspiring to see. I hated to see him go." Did they have wild times together? "Oh, we had good times. He lived a harder life than me. Bigger ups, bigger downs."

Together – the two men had studios in Venice Beach – they watched the city change; paradoxically, it became both less sleazy and less glamorous – "Though people still think it's a good place to hole up, to hide." These days, Ruscha, who divorced Danna, the mother of his son, Edward, in the early 1970s, also has a house in the Mojave Desert, a place so quiet, his mother once told him: "You can hear your hair grow out here." But he loves it. Ruscha disdains computers and mobile phones, he doesn't watch television and has never, to his knowledge, entered a Starbucks. "I cherish the idea of being alone," he says.

It is at this point, appropriately enough, that a representative from the Art Fund, which is supporting the Artists Rooms tour, appears to tell me that our time is up. Before I go, encouraged by Ruscha's extreme affability, I ask him – not a question one would put to every artist – if he felt, when the Hayward mounted its retrospective, that his work had improved over the years? "No, I haven't got better," he says. "I've just gotten bigger. I'm talking square footage." He laughs, perhaps because I look slightly startled. "No, I meant that in a metaphorical sense, of course. But perhaps I'm just hoping. Perhaps I'm as locked down as I always have been. This idea of American culture, it's an old one. And the words and all that are just the tail end of an ancient tradition that began with man scribbling on a cave wall. I'm observing that these words, which sometimes represent objects and meanings, are made up of these squiggly little forms we call an alphabet." He looks almost apologetic. "It's another way of looking at things, that's all."


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June 04 2010

Going it alone

Creating your own photobook offers creative freedoms major publishers can only dream of, finds Sean O'Hagan – if you're prepared to put in the donkey work

Ed Ruscha famously did it. Alec Soth recently did it twice. Stephen Gill is just about to do it again for the 12th time. I am referring – lest there be any doubt – to the practice of self-publishing, which is the subject of a two-day event at the Photographers' Gallery in London this weekend.

Self-publishing is not a new development in photography, but recently the trend to make, edit, design and produce your own photobook seems to have become an underground phenomenon. The Self Publish, Be Happy Weekend will showcase what the curator, Bruno Ceschel, describes as "50 exceptional contemporary photobooks" alongside talks, discussions and author signings of books that are often produced in very small editions.

On a recent visit to the Photographers' Gallery, bookshop manager John Buckle showed me a few select publications from the mountain of self-published books he has had to sift though of late. They included Ertussenuit by Dutch photographer, Sjoerd Knibbeler, a visual record of a very strange theme park he recently discovered that – as he puts it in surreally minimal blurb – "was something close to a fit of giggles". More touching is Maxwell Anderson's sad and wonderful book, See You Soon, which records his brief but intense love affair with a Japanese girl through various intimate snapshots of her. (One can't help wondering how much the constant presence of Anderson's camera had to do with the break-up.)

The photobook as art object is beautifully realised by Lester B Morrison in his book of photographs, pencil drawings and collages, Lost Boy Mountain, which Alec Soth has been championing for some time. Soth, whose critically acclaimed book, Sleeping By the Mississippi, was published by Steidl in 2004, also self-published two titles recently: Las Vegas Birthday Book (and Sculpture) which, as far as I can ascertain, was a one-off maquette, and The Last Days of W, a selection of photographs taken over the duration of the George Bush presidency and published as a large-format newspaper. (I've seen some copies in various specialist London bookshops recently but they are fast disappearing.)

There are two touchstones for the self-published photography book: the artist's book, of which Ruscha's Twentysix Gasoline Stations (1963) is a famous and highly influential example, and the fanzine, a labour of love and obsession that came of age with the punk movement of the late 1970s and has spread to embrace every aspect of popular culture, photography included. Ruscha, who made 16 artist's books between 1963 and 1978, said later: "When I first became attracted to the idea of being an artist, painting was the last method; it was an obsolete, archaic form of communication … I felt newspapers, magazines, books, words to be more meaningful than what some damn oil painter was doing."

Today, though, as this weekend's event shows, zine culture seems to be the prime driving force behind the self-published photography book, with many being no more than pamphlets. Whether making an artist's book or a zine, self-publishing is primarily to do with keeping control of your creative vision (the book doesn't just illustrate the art, it is the art) and being able to operate outside the often prohibitively costly mainstream publishing houses. Ironically, the self-published book, which is produced in such limited editions, often becomes a collector's item, and the price rises accordingly.

In Britain, Stephen Gill is perhaps the best-known contemporary self-published photographer, producing works such as London Fields, Hackney Wick and his forthcoming title Coming Up for Air on his own imprint, Nobody Books. In another book, Hackney Flowers, Gill painted over his own images and applied chemical processes that emphasised the theme of decomposition. This is the photobook as art object, in which every part of the process – from discovering a subject to realising it, then creating a book in which to impart it – is imbued with a level of creativity that would probably have been sacrificed if Gill had handed over his prints to a mainstream publisher.

In the current issue of Photoworks magazine, Joachim Schmid, a champion of what might be called vernacular photography (the wealth of everyday images that exists outside galleries and photobooks) as well as self-publishing, writes: "At this time, hardly anybody would dare to make confident predictions about the future of publishing. Nevertheless, I dare say that more artists will make their own books, that more of them will use print-on-demand services, and that the quality of these services will improve notably in the not-too-distant future."

In the continuing digital age, then, the future of the DIY photobook seems assured for perhaps the same reasons that independent record labels currently continue to thrive as major labels falter. The message seems to be that small is not only beautiful, it's also cost-effective and creatively liberating. In today's fragmented pop culture, some of the most interesting and challenging developments still happen on the margins, where the mainstream fears to tread.

• For more information on self-publishing, visit selfpublishbehappy.wordpress.com. If you're interested in making your own photobook, visit blurb.com.

Now see this

From 10 June 2010, the Jack Bell Gallery in Vauxhall, London, is showing the work of the great African photographer Seydou Keita, who chronicled Malian society as it moved from French colonisation to independence. His large-format studio portraits from the 1940s to the 60s are of individuals, families and suited professionals, and he often used ornate backdrops and extravagant props such as Vespa scooters and flashy cars. Keita made his own prints, which show off his formal brilliance and acute eye for composition. It's on until 11 July 2010.


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