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Around the galleries

Quotations from the career of Karsten Schubert

— May 2012

Associated media

Bridget Riley, Burn, 1964. © The artist

Frances Follin reviews ‘The Space Between’ at London’s Karsten Schubert gallery

Th0se familiar with Karsten Schubert’s gallery, off London’s Golden Square, will know that it shows a constantly changing programme of small but interesting exhibitions. Karsten Schubert himself has been an art dealer since the 1980s, representing a number of the ‘young British artists’ (yBas) in the early 1990s as well as already-established figures such as Bridget Riley. Now he has asked critic and author Michael Bracewell to curate a show of work that reflects the different stages of his career.

‘The Space Between’ is the title of the show, and of Michael Bracewell’s new book published by Ridinghouse. Its many essays cover a wide range of artists, including those featured in the Karsten Schubert show.

The gallery space consists of two light and airy rooms, and the work shown is by Glenn Brown, Patrick Caulfield, Dexter Dalwood, Richard Hamilton, Linder, Lucy Mckenzie, Bridget Riley and John Stezaker. The last of these had two works in the show, the others one each.

Given my own long-standing interest in Riley’s work, I had to begin with her Burn of 1964. By that time, Riley was in command of an artistic vocabulary that was able to convey physical sensations of movement to a possibly unique degree. To say that the work comprises a pattern of black and white triangles, which fade out in a V-shape towards the bottom, is to convey nothing of Burn’s effect. As Bracewell comments of this ‘V’ shape: ‘Solidity and sharpness appear to become diaphanous, a poetic tonal mist out of which emerges a gathering swirl…[a] spectacular and dizzying transformation’. He notes, ‘the directional movements of the triangles – their seeming ability to swerve and swoop’. Small wonder that later this month Karsten Schubert and Hazlitt Holland-Hibbert will be jointly mounting an exhibition of Riley’s work of 1960–66.

John Stezaker’s work is unsettling in a very different way. The young woman in his monochrome screenprint Untitled (1982) kneels naked (too vulnerable and trapped for an academic ‘nude’) in a confined space, looking apparently fearfully, or at least anxiously, over her shoulder into surrounding blackness. Stezaker finds his images in magazines, postcards and other ‘popular culture’ sources so this young woman has probably been transported into the gallery from elsewhere. An image perhaps designed originally to titillate now creates unease.

Stezaker’s other work on show is Tabular Rasa (2011), an artist’s book of which 15 have been made. The book itself is a ‘found object’ – an old book of which 15 copies were sourced in an afternoon, Karsten Schubert tells me, via the Internet. A task that might once have taken weeks, or been impossible, is rendered easy by technology.

Displayed in a glass case, the book is open on a picture spread showing two hikers or mountaineers, looking out at a view of mountainous scenery. Or at least, one assumes that they once did. Now the opposite page, at which their gazes are directed, bears a white rectangle that replaces a cut-out area of the original image. People often speak of looking down into a ‘void’ when standing on a mountain or cliff, but here the void is literal. We actually do not know what the men were once looking at, we make assumptions but we are only guessing. Is this the only intervention in this book? We cannot see, as it is sealed in its glass case. As Bracewell writes of another of Stezaker’s works, there is: ‘an intensely poetic strangeness, seemingly at once “within” the psychic world of the image, yet rendering it entirely alien to its original purpose of production’.

The late Richard Hamilton’s Beatles (2007) features a collage of images of the band from the late 1960s. Some of the smaller images are arranged like a filmstrip. The band perform, chat, dance; a naked John talks on the ’phone; George appears with the Maharishi. A small drawing features a naked couple but does not seem to represent John and Yoko. In copperplate handwriting the words ‘Order of the British Empire to our trusty and well beloved Ringo Starr (Richard Starkey Esq.)’ remind us of Harold Wilson’s courting of the Beatles and John’s later return of his OBE in objection to Britain’s support of the US over the Vietnam War. (One also remembers Wilson’s reasons for not denouncing that war: ‘One cannot kick one’s creditors [i.e. the USA, suppliers of  a large post-WWII loan] in the balls’).

The American composer Aaron Copland said, ‘If you want to know about the sixties, play the music of the Beatles’. Hamilton has here used images of the band to capture a microcosm of the 1960s, each image evoking memories and associations of the period.

Also in the show, Patrick Caulfield’s Sculpture in a Landscape (1966), a work that seems to epitomize Bracewell’s description of his oeuvre: ‘works of such mesmeric poise that their very stillness acquires an epic sense of drama’. Glenn Brown references older paintings: from a distance, The Shallow End (2011) appears to be a traditional portrait but as one approaches it becomes much more unsettling. Black sockets replace eyes, the lower part of the face seems to be dissolving into the ‘beard’. Bracewell quotes the artist ‘I like my paintings to have one foot in the grave, as it were…to exist in a dreamworld’. To this viewer, at least, his ‘dreamworld’ is something of a nightmare.

Lucy McKenzie’s pencil drawing Eno Study for Mural (2003), by contrast, is an immediately recognizable portrait of musician Brian Eno, albeit in the days when he had hair (rather longer ago than 2003, I think). Linder’s WH Auden (2009), like Stezaker’s Tabula Rasa, employs a pre-existing book, W.H. Auden: A Tribute Edited by Stephen Spender as its physical material. The monochrome portrait of Auden (whose poetry has inspired earlier work by Linder) on the cover is hidden behind a single white flower, an image applied by the artist. Dexter Dalwood’s Auden (2011), by contrast, is a silkscreen and oil painting that looks somewhat like a collage but does not depict the poet at all. Are we looking at reflections in a puddle? Through a hole in a wall? Or a hole in reality? It reminds me of David Bowie’s line ‘is there concrete all around or is it in my head?’



Frances Follin
Independent art historian
Frances Follin's book Embodied Visions: Bridget Riley, Op Art and the Sixties is published by Thames and Hudson, 2004.

Media credit: © The artist. Courtesy Karsten Schubert/Ridinghouse

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