ART / And here's one that was done earlier: Art after art after art: Tom Lubbock looks at the cross-referential paintings of Ken Kiff and the self-referential creations of Gavin Turk
Tuesday 14 December 1993
But how much more fun if you can get the genealogical process going on before your very eyes, catch it in the act. Some such thought seems to be behind the National Gallery's quite recent institution of Associate Artists. What happens is that a fairly established figure in British art is offered a studio in the gallery and the freedom of the collection for a year. The idea is that the artist will absorb him- or herself in the collection and, if things go to plan, be inspired to do some pictures which refer more or less recognisably to individual paintings in the gallery, so that when, at the end of the year, there's the show - hey presto, it catalogues itself. Here's the new work, and here's the old one. Cross-check away. A small but straight-down-the-line art history materialises even as you look.
The most recent, and in fact only the second, associate artist has been Ken Kiff. Kiff is in his late fifties, and thus not likely to be seriously diverted, even by total immersion in the late greats, from the kind of pictures he's been painting for some time. These could briskly be described as psycho-landscapes, done in gorgeous and deeply saturated colours, and peopled with archetypal- looking characters, like Woman or Tree or Sun (with a face and tentacular rays) or Man-monkey. They're a difficult kind of picture to talk about, because they put so much weight on colour, and trying to read any specific psychological story into them is not very rewarding. Some people find paradisal sensations. Others see hopelessly gauche symbolism and draughtsmanship. For myself, I'm just beginning to waver away from the second position.
But either way, he's quite an odd choice for this project. Kiff himself seems to have felt the same way, and his response has hardly been ravenous. He's on record as saying that he didn't feel wholly in tune with the National's collection: his own natural forebears were mainly outside the gallery's remit, being modern masters like Klee and Miro. (That in itself is a telling point against look-alike genealogies, because Kiff's own work doesn't actually look like Klee's or Miro's at all.) But perhaps it was a cunning choice too. Any nod to an Old Master would at least give you something definite to get a grip on. And there are some. Kiff has to an extent responded in the hoped for way. Sometimes it's quite literal: sections from pictures by Rubens, Pisanello and Bellini are loosely paraphrased in charcoal, and that's not so interesting, one artist's image done in the style of another. But there has also been some more creative input in some of the paintings, though most seem to be much what he would have done anyway - and especially in one called After Domenichino.
This is exactly the kind of picture an associate artist is supposed to do, and - with no prejudice to the picture itself - an object lesson in why this associating project is a bit of a waste of time. For it's likely that many people seeing this painting (it is illustrated here), and learning its title, and knowing the circumstances in which it was made, are immediately going to start saying to themselves: 'Aha. But now we would also like to see the original painting by Domenichino. Surely it will be interesting for us to cross-refer between the ancient and the modern work.'
Well sure, that's the whole game. But no, actually, it isn't interesting to make this cross-reference. Don't bother. Domenichino was a 17th-century Italian painter, and it's not a surprise to find that the picture in question, Tobias and the Angel, is very, very unlike Kiff's picture 'after' it. Despite certain perfectly obvious similarities - the layouts of figures and composition do indeed look quite like each other - there is no significant connection to be made between them. These are not two different paintings of the same subject. The two artists have a wholly divergent interest in narrative, in colour, in angels, whatever. You could certainly plug through a point-by-point art historical comparison, but you'd only come away with the empty-handed conclusion that they're just extremely different.
For art-on-art of an, oh, quite other kind, visit No 8, Denmark Street. At the very worst, if you're in the West End, it shouldn't take too long. This vacant three- storey house is currently open afternoons on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, and it's occupied by the 'Collected Works 1989- 93' of Gavin Turk. The title tells you something of the artist: that his career hasn't been long (he's 26), and also that some kind of waggery is in the offing. So it is.
Turk (his real name, quite conceivably) is rather like a fictional artist created by someone out to satirise the art scene. The difference is that Turk is his own fictional creation. His work is about the figure of the artist - as exemplified by himself. It's self-referential and art-referential to the nth degree: very silly, quite funny.
Turk first came to attention as the centre of a (small) cause celebre. For his MA show at the Royal College of Art, he exhibited an empty studio, but on one wall there was an imitation blue memorial plaque with the words 'Gavin Turk, Sculptor, worked here'. At this, the RCA, which had become interested in seeing signs of hands-on work from its students, did something almost unprecedented, and refused Turk his degree. What a gift: here was the 'academy', in good old 19th-century fashion, actually rejecting an artist. A great start, an 'art event' that couldn't have gone better if it had been planned. It's probably Turk's most impressive achievement to date.
Subsequent work is a mixed bag of squibs aimed at various fine art superstitions: creativity, originality, individuality, aesthetic interest. There's a series of pictures in which the artist's signature is the main or only motif. There's a life-size wax-work portrait of the artist as Sid Vicious singing 'My Way' (levels, levels - 'My Way', that anthem of individuality which everyone sings). There are almost exact replicas of work by other artists, like some insultingly-easy-to-forge minimalist cubes by Robert Morris. There are hits at the sanctified objet trouve, like a vitrine with bits of chewed gum stuck to the inside.
One may say that these points have been made before, and that Turk is only replaying, dead-pan and upon himself, all the old jokes about modern art that have adorned the pages of the New Yorker for decades - these modern artists can get away with anything, you can't tell the difference now between what's an art-object and what's not etc.
And then, on the other hand, scepticism towards fine art shibboleths is such a conditioned reflex in the knowing art circles which are Turk's home audience, that nobody need turn a hair. And of course, at every doubt, the work can side-step neatly; anything that might be said about it - a complete scam, say - could equally be said to be what it's about. But really, knowingness itself is not the point. Knowingness has become more like a genre that some artists work in. It's not going to change anyone's life, not for half a minute. But the thing is to do it with some high spirits, and there are some here.
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