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The Beginning

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Probably the first review ever written on WWR

The Signorelli Frescoes in Orvieto Cathedral, Italy
by JJ written in 2000

The doors of the Cathedral look good I thought, as we stood in the sunshine in Orvieto before lunch. I asked my friend when he thought they had been made, expecting to hear they were precociosly modern examples of 16th century art. I was told probably the 60s. How careless of me. I expect always to be surprised by everthing and don't bother to think most of the time. The Signorelli frescoes, begun in 1499, are surprising in that anachronistic way. They are full of naked muscley men and women. The women have firm, very protruberant breasts and one of the men has one of the most realistic penises I have ever seen in an old fresco,to go with his disconcertingly long aging hippy hair. There are skeletons, and demons, and people with their heads cut off, and everyone or thing has textbook anatomy, calf muscles which no amount of step aerobics would give you, and spines practically bursting out of their skins. If you saw this kind of thing in a kitsch bar/restaurant you wouldn't think twice, but in a gothic Cathedral you marvel at its invention and bravura.In contast the main hall, the Central Nave in Cathedralese, is not highly decorated, and the walls are mainy just cool stone in stripes of dirty white and charcoal,gray blue. Simple and a relief for puritans who hate overdecorated churches, but the simplicity is pompous in its own way. I wonder what we are doing in these places, looking for kitsch frescoes and grandiose simplicity. Meeting our tedious expectations, or boning up on architectural terminology, biography, guide books. Why do we give a shit? It is all entertaining enough, and as good as the lunch we had sitting on a terrace alone in the sunshine, but it is a lot different from the vitality that produced massive cathredals and ridiculous frescoes, and towns like Orvieto all over Italy. It, is the entertainment of the tourist, the restaurant snob, and the lazy bourgeois.

Rialto Occupato 24/02/2000 Rome
From: anon
Category: Exhibitions
Date: 08 March 2001

The Rialto Occupato is a squat for middle class artists and bohemians. They have occupied a fancy place right in the centre of Rome, just by Trajan's marketplace ( Serra is on show there). The Rialto used to be a palace or perhaps a government building, and it has beautifully proportioned big square rooms with decorated ceilings and raw walls. The usual Roman art crowd was there, they are smarter than their English counterparts, the men wear English public school boy style jackets, corduroys etc. and the women are expensively dressed with good hair. To an ousider they also seem gentler and more innocent than the London throng. The most flashy thing on show was a kind of giant water balloon suspended in the middle of one room by ropes attached to each corner, with a light, blue perhaps, making the water glow nicely in the dark room. It looked pretty professional and made you think wow how did he do that and what happens if the rubber breaks and the water gets everywhere. The guy who made it was striking,tall and wearing leather trousers. After you see him, it all fits together, and you find the work less interesting. There were some paintings dotted around, painty black marks on white backgrounds and the same marks in white on white. Not badly done but meaningless in a predictable way, and too decorative, it is easy to imagine them out of the squat and back in the expensive flat. In another room someone had made some accurate felt meer cats positioned in anxious meer cat group formation looking at some bad cartoony charcoal portraits. In the meer cat room, a performance took place, a woman in a low cut chemisey top tap danced, a hairy man played the violin, and another woman sang, but I wasn't really listening. Drunkenly I was enjoying knocking over a meer cat, the creator was telling me to stop, but I thought he was just an officious bystander and took no notice. The piece was funnier with one dead meer cat anyway, and I wondered whether a domino effect was possible. I liked the show because I had a good time and because I think squatting in nice buildings is a good idea. It is just a pity that the rich have all the good ideas as well as all the money, perhaps there is a connection.

Lucien Freud July 2002
From: Roxy Walsh
Category: Exhibitions
Date: 14 July 2002
Characters in Freud’s paintings are often undone by disclosure. The two successive paintings of Bruce Bernard illustrate particularly that if Lucian Freud is around, one would do well to keep oneself covered: it is as if skin itself is insufficient to contain the writhing mass of disease, that the spillage of hands alone is enough to reveal our inner awfulness: that one can only be fully human when one is fully buttoned up. (And even then perhaps not, as the canker-bearded queen Elizabeth might say)

In some ways the paintings’ characters are like Dickens’: strong and memorable, but subtlety-lite. Whilst in reading Tolstoy or Proust one has the luxury of continually reappraising one’s responses to characters as they are developed, here there seems to be a guillotine on sympathy, a constant re-statement through other mouths of a similar call to mortality. Certain subjects are more criticism-proof than others, and the essential awfulness of mankind is perhaps one of them. These paintings use this ‘truth’ of our essential and embodied sinfulness in parallel with a painting manner that claims reality close to itself, conjuring an authority that I would like to suggest is humbug.

We are flesh, we must die. But on the other hand, you’re alive until you’re dead.

Robert Hughes seems to have no problem in citing Freud as the greatest living realist painter*, and I’m sure I’ve read ‘our’ (read English) ‘greatest living painter’ in reviews of the current show here. Brendan Prenderville writes of Freud (with Bacon and Auerbach) as having the un-English traits in the work of ‘emotional intensity and painterly style’*, but the intensity seems in Freud’s paintings to have been thoroughly anglicised, or angstitsized, with nakedness posited more often as exposure or punishment than as freedom or pleasure. He seems to have an almost military command over the space of the studio. This is a consulting room par excellence, outside which one tensely waits to enter, only to be shown in, stripped, and told what is wrong with us, and that it is undoubtedly terminal.

There is an assumption that these are in some way ‘traditional’ paintings in their adherence to reality, that the relationship between artist, studio and model is transparent and received. But what does the studio represent in the paintings, an aesthetisised image of half century old squalor? And Whose reality is this ? One where on boarding house doors it says ‘No Blacks or Irish’ for though the ‘Irish’ get through the door they do it only in full character cliché, reddened from the drink, and fat with building. And ‘the woman from the benefits agency’ fares little better.

Leigh Bowery is unusual in thwarting the cruelty of Freud, as if his flamboyant, Maja-like (more genuinely traditional?) presence is enough to show up the studio for the shabby stage set that it is. Here the aplomb of the sitter is too powerful for the reducing gaze, and somehow seems to be able to look through Freud to the audience, to laugh at his diminishing process: to show up those islands and acres of grubby muslin as nothing like the body at all.

In early paintings, young-as-his skin is almost unpainted, moved wrinklessly aside to allow enormous baleful eyes to glitter at us noiselessly: but of course skin continually disintegrates (or continually grows fresh, according to one’s disposition). In more recent paintings than these, Freud saves his wartiest, shittiest paint for his most virtuosic displays: for genitals of course, and for famously ‘difficult’ hand and foot painting. Though he can paint himself as a marionette or a Venetian mask, the mist revealing Freud self portrait is not in the show – the one where he literally turns in a smudge from his own gaze.*1

This is of course a huge generalisation, and there are paintings of tenderness at many different junctures: Esther in particular seems to survive his gaze with some bloom still in her cheek, but Leigh Bowery does seem to me almost alone in surviving with his sexual agency represented as in-tact.

Incontinence seems close to the surface in many of the paintings, the dripping of the tap in ‘after Watteau’ or the studio sink, the squirt of green paint from the tube on the floor in ‘Artist and model’. Here too we come to a different skin of paint, of Naples yellow (deadly lead?), on the wall, and beneath and beside it - as fresh a piece of nakedness as anywhere in the painting, the tender pink of raw plaster.

The graffiti on the top left of the painting, the ejaculate of paint on the woman artist’s smock and the gouged away arm of the sofa seem to form a triangle of activity already past, whilst four of the five feet in the painting point to the only painting action in the room, the spurting tube of green: Which starts another triangle, of spent potency, with the lowered brush of the woman-artist, and depleted brush of the model-man.

The lowered brush and the lowered eyes indeed, and the sadly un-naughty foot action: she really really shouldn’t be there, and seems penitent almost to fury. There she is with three limp penises, and at least one of them came too soon (Getting Off In Gateshead as we say in Newcastle).

In Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis, (cited here via an essay on my work by Adrian Rifkin), Her reaction to the bloody body of Adonis is described ‘That her sight dazzling makes the wound seem three; And then she reprehends her mangling eye, That makes more gashes where no breach should be.’ but as Freud dwells over and over on the rips in the covers, the holes and gashes in the sofas and the walls, he never seems to reprehend himself, revelling instead in his violent fantasia, like a little boy pulling the legs from spiders and mixing them in the paint, pushing the shit with a stick, camouflaging the skin of his sitters like boy-soldiers in the mud.

I’m getting married on Sunday, and in the past few weeks have paid more attention to my skin than in the preceding thirty-seven years together. I have pumice and pepperminted my feet, olive stoned my body, and oatmeal and honeyed my face. I’ve been made over like a clown at Chanel, and slightly more humanely at Mac. The skin on my face is far from as clear as the girls who were operating, but a little more so since the facemasks got going (maybe the wartiest, shittiest paint would do for exfoliating). But it has meant, along with the preparation for this talk, that I have been looking and looking at skin and I’d like to say that bad as it might be, thank God it doesn’t look like a Freud’s.

I remember the skin of my Grandmother. Even in extreme age and with twice what would cover her tiny old body it was as soft and subtle as silk: silk with the bloom of a white peach but falling in folds around eyes that could still move it aside to twinkle and glitter through.

*Robert Hughes, Lucian Freud, Paintings (Thames and Hudson) *Brendan Prenderville, Realism n 20th Century Painting (Thames and Hudson)

This is a text prepared for the symposium ‘Skin’ at Tate Britain on June 28th 2002.

Homeless Man on the Northern Line: 12:04am
From: B.A.
Category: Other stuff
Date: 09 August 2002

The moment I have been dreading comes at about 12:04am on the Northern Line travelling between Kennington and Waterloo because I am travelling alone and the carriage and both adjacent carriages are completely deserted but for a shabby looking man stumbling about and fumbling with the door because he has already spotted me.

He has asked me for change once already - about 7 minutes ago on the other branch, before I changed over, and as usual I have said “Sorry, mate” and looked down at the floor, and felt a guilty complicity with the few other passengers who did the same.

An intense feeling of fear and disgust rises in my chest as he half-collapses into the seat opposite to mine. His hair is matted and black and greasy, growing in haywire curls, in one place over what seems to be a recently healed cut. He is unshaven and dirty, and has a small green tattoo on his cheek and tattoos on his hands. There are several gaps in his crooked teeth. My paranoid city-brain contemplates how possible it would for him - if he had a knife and were deranged, or high on crack - to simply stab me to death in the noisy emptiness of the no mans land between stations.

My reaction is instinctive, a primal fear of the other, of the intrinsic threat of difference. My body responds to this random reconfiguration of our urban space as to the echo of some ancient wasteland - with adrenaline and oxygen, burning taut in my chest.

But now I realise, when he speaks, and I see the desperation in his eyes, that really he poses no threat. My emotion changes pitch, from fear to pity. He tells me he needs to get to the shelter. He needs 11 pounds and has nothing. All he wants is to get home but he can’t afford the ticket. He says he’s been trying for weeks but he can’t get the money together. He believes that nobody will help him. He says he can’t take it anymore.

I give home 2 pounds, which is "all of the change I have". I don’t feel I can afford the crisp 10 pound note in my wallet. I feel very sorry for him. Another primal reaction, I see myself echoed in him and understand his need.

When we arrive at the next station he gets out too and begins to walk with me. For a moment he hopes I will really help him – he tries, in his slurred and clumsy way, to ask if I will buy him the train ticket.

But I don’t feel that I can.

“Sorry, mate” I say.

Instantly he turns his back on me and walks off down the platform. He doesn’t even bother trying to persuade me - as if this has happened a hundred or a thousand times before.

I know what he’s thinking.

You’re no different.

Category: Exhibitions
Date: 09 September 2002

Listen! Since they light up the stars at all-someone must think they're necessary? Someone wants them to be there? Someone says these bits of spit are pearls?


Christmas by the River Stour in Suffolk - 26/12/01
From: Laurence James
Category: Other stuff
Date: 26 December 2001

The wind rattles the wood framed windows of the mill. It's Christmas Eve. An eager labrador reminds me it's time to go out with a speculative lick of the hand.

A bright moon hangs in the winter sky, smiling at its reflection in the slate blue stillness of the stour. Walking by the icey water the dogs run loops around me, picking up on invisible odour trails in the crisp, crunchy grass. "Where are the rabbits?" I call, "and all the rats! Catch me a rabbit!" I yell at their upturned tails.

A dew drop at the end of my nose and pins that start pushing in to fingers and toes, and a scratch at an itchy scalp under a hot wool hat. My breath chugs out and hangs behind me in the air like an old steam train lumbering down the track. The railway did used to run down here in truth, from Sudbury right through to Bury St Edmunds, the place of my birth, and I now trace myself back down its forgotten line. Rows of poplar trees and ancient hedgerows are punctuated by the occasional pill-box from the second war. Were the German's really coming down all this way? I guess so, in their day.

A distant horse brays in a moonlit field and my progress continues.

Across the vast meadow the silver birches in the distance seem to be bestowed with a cleaner, sharper outline by the piercing blue half-light, and although the ground is hard my step quickens and I smile. The winter beauty has defrosted my mood and I think ahead to open fires, mulled wine and the warm company of family and friends. My heart is happy as I crunch through the snow like a child. Where is that sledge?

And what of next year? For there's something about this simple unspolit valley with its patient river and gentle slopes that gives me hope for the future. It's as if the countryside draws you in and holds you close, and gives you a sense of belonging. What will that new year hold?

A joyful bark and two wagging dogs bring me back to the track, and I lose my train of thought. And, conscious of my breath rising up in front of my face again, I turn for home. Whatever happens, I decide, it's bound to be very good indeed, I'm sure of it. As sure that this majestic river runs eventually to a wintery sea.