Modern art frustrations

I spent another fun afternoon yesterday at Bermondsey’s White Cube gallery. It’s quite fun to walk around with a friend and try to figure out, with the help of the exhibition guide, what on earth modern art is all about. Still no clue.

Jurgen Partenheimer

First we saw some Jurgen Partenheimer paintings. They are very abstract (they do not represent things). They often look quite ‘provisional’, with pencil lines on blank paper, lines that had quite obviously been painted over, and previously-applied layers of paint peeking out at the side of the canvas. They didn’t always look polished, and sometimes they looked unfinished. So far we were correctly grasping the ‘open-ended quality’ and the ‘potential to dissolve and reform at any moment’ the blurb spoke of.

Sometimes the abstract forms looked quite pretty on their own. I enjoyed the striking orange, lilac and yellow colour palette: crocus-like! Sometimes they evoked things I’m sure are totally irrelevant to interpreting the works, like the above ‘aerial map’ of a city with streets and parks.

Sometimes they were neither pretty nor evocative, but seemed merely random shapes and blocks of colour thrown onto a board in 10 minutes. Randomness isn’t always incomprehensible: sometimes it can contribute to a greater whole that, in the ensemble, is pretty or striking or interesting. But many of these paintings were not in that mould. Why?!

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Im Auge des Traumes
Why is the red dot off-centre? Why is there a white line at the bottom? Why are the borders hand-drawn? If you look at an old master, it’s quite clear why the artist put that colour here and that brushstroke there: they help depict a nose or a fold of the subject’s clothing. But the reason for each of these creative choices is completely obscure to me. Perhaps it’s my commoner’s eye, but I find it totally frustrating. The painting’s title means ‘in the eye of the dream’. I guess that circular tennis-ball thing could be an eye (a little bloodshot). But there’s nothing particularly blank or yellow about dreams. What is symbolic of the eye of the dream about this? Or, what in the conceptual process that led to the creation of this work was about being in the eye of the dream and how is that process reflected in the work? So much confusion.

Larry Bell

The Larry Bell exhibition was a little more engaging, less because we knew what the works were supposed to mean, more because the materials and how they interacted with the light created some interesting effects.

Firstly, his ‘paintings’ are created by spraying aluminium and quartz onto paper, resulting in a sheeny, not quite reflective but almost light-emitting, surface, sometimes with colours that change as you move around (the photos don’t do them justice).

Secondly, we saw An Improvisation, an installation made up of 6 x 6 panels of glass arranged in squares, some tinted, some clear and some half-reflective.

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An Improvisation
It means that you can spy your reflection in one panel, and spy another person’s reflection behind yours, and turn around to see that the person isn’t actually standing behind you: what you thought was their reflection was actually just them through the glass.

It means that you can walk beside the panel and watch as your ‘real’ legs turn into ghost legs as the panel switches from reflective to clear glass:

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Real me, ghost legs
I can get behind installations like these: they make you participate, they make you experiment with the light and the reflections and trick yourself about what’s real and what’s only an appearance. (Whether that’s what they’re supposed to do is beyond me.) But if anyone has any illuminating tips about abstract painting, help a sista out …

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5 thoughts on “Modern art frustrations

  1. How wonderful that you are willing to give modern art a try, even though it’s frustrating for you. I would guess that your frustration would make the artist very happy. It means you are truly looking, truly trying to figure out what the artist was trying to convey. For me, modern art is all about what the artwork brings out in me, not what it is trying to convey. Realism is beautiful, Impressionism is lovely, but give me a Kandinsky anytime. *Sorry Jess* 😉

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