Tom Sutcliffe: A critic who sees the whole picture

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At the beginning of this year, Tom Lubbock reviewed the Richard Hamilton retrospective at the Serpentine Gallery in London. Like all of the fine art criticism he wrote for this paper it was a notably thoughtful piece, delivering to a reader not just the results of thought but the process of thinking as well. It's one of the reasons his criticism is so good and compellingly readable – that, whether you end up agreeing with it or not, you are left with a vivid sense of what it's like to look at pictures through his eyes. A lot of reviewing delivers verdicts that aren't open to any kind of appeal, because the final authority is what the writer felt. In Tom Lubbock's criticism you're always aware that the writer is having an discussion with himself (sometimes expressly written into the text with a self-contradiction) and that you will be required to think about an argument, not merely assent to it.

There was an added interest to that piece, though. Because several of the works in the Hamilton exhibition were collages and that is an art form that Tom Lubbock knows by touch as well as eye. When he wrote – about Hamilton's Portrait of Hugh Gaitskell as a Famous Monster of Filmland – that "it often happens with collage that the effect turns out to be incongruity, not incrimination", it was a twist he understood from first-hand experience, having produced his own distinctive collages for the comment pages of this newspaper between 1999 and 2004. And although those works occupied the space that would traditionally be filled by a political cartoon (a form much preoccupied with incrimination) it was their incongruity that was most arresting. In most weeks they were more art than editorial, connectible to a topical event but rarely chained to it. Sometimes they commented very directly on something in the news. On other occasions they captured some far less specific eddy in the cultural climate.

The conventional way of thinking about this double act – writer about art and maker of it – would be that one activity must inevitably undermine the other, in part because of the received opinion that they are antithetical. Gamekeeper and poacher would be the boilerplate phrase, with its assumption that a permanent state of hostility exists between the creator and commentator. But, as Victoria Miro's exhibition of a selection of those editorial collages makes clear, the distinction really doesn't make any sense in this case. The qualities at work in the criticism – its exactitude of judgement and understanding of how even the smallest differences can have large effects – are precisely what you see at work in the collages. And what makes the collages work – their wit and invention and bold simplicity – is what is best in the writing. This is a critic, after all, who once characterised the prevailing fashions in installation art by imagining a whole series of installations using an electric toaster. And the brilliance of that article lay in the fact that the imaginary artworks weren't just crudely satirical of a tendency in contemporary art, but plausible expressions of it. Reading it you felt a mild regret that some of them would only ever exist in words.

The collages repeat the effect from another angle. They are essays for the eyes, and often marked by just the quiet subtlety that distinguishes the writing (a quality, it should be said, that isn't very common in op ed graphics). In New Year Vanitas, for example, a beautifully rendered hairbrush, poised on a shelf below a mirror, reveals a few tell-tale threads of grey tangled into the black. In Scratch, figures in a bleak wasteland hunch over their scratch cards, oblivious of everything around them, including the chickens who peck at the dirt at their feet (and hint that a struggle to subsist is part of this compulsion). And in Crisis Talk from the Buddha, a station noticeboard becomes the unlikely venue for a zen koan. They're worth seeing in the originals because newspaper reproduction never entirely captured the craft with which they were made and the subtlety of their textures. They're worth seeing in reproduction because they explode the idea that an artist and a critic are necessarily different kinds of being. What really matters is that a mind and an eye are at work.

The death of decent directions in Venice

I think it may be time that someone published a book of Hollywood City Maps, given that the topography of cities in films varies in such surprising ways from the ones we actually know. Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck's film The Tourist is notionally set in Venice, for instance, though his Venice isn't quite as I remember it. Leave aside the fact that, only 10 minutes before arrival, the train from Paris appears to be travelling through gentle alpine pasture, rather than the flats of the Veneto. The really intriguing thing, judging from the sequence that comes next, is that the railway station now seems to be located on the island of San Giorgio Maggiore, so that arriving visitors get the best view of the Piazza San Marco. Even more startlingly the airport appears to have been moved to the Riva Degli Schiavoni, so that you can step directly from your private jet into a boat that will have you in the Grand Canal in about two minutes. Meanwhile, the Danieli Hotel has been relocated from the Riva to a stretch of the Grand Canal just down from the Rialto Bridge, which must have been an expensive affair given that its famous 14th-century lobby – all three storeys of it – seems to have been transported to the new site. Am I right in thinking these kind of cinematic improvements happen more frequently to European cities than US ones? Or are New York and LA's major landmarks just as obligingly mobile?

Video art that's a cut above

It's not easy, these days, to preserve enough ignorance for a moment of cultural serendipity. Everything is so exhaustively pre-empted that you often arrive at a film or an exhibition feeling you've already been. But it did happen to me the other day at the Royal Academy. I'd gone to see the GSK Contemporary show Aware, an exhibition of costume and fashion-based work by various artists. On the way out, I noticed that in one of the side-rooms, the Haunch of Venison gallery was showing a collection of video works by the Belgian artist Nicolas Provost. So I went and had a look and was captivated. For one of his pieces, Provost has taken stock Hollywood footage of lovers hugging and kissing, and intercut two different scenes, alternating between them so rapidly that it becomes impossible to tell where one stops and the other begins. The effect is extraordinary, digitally altered so that the image consumes itself in a very eerie way. But the centrepiece is Stardust, one of a trilogy of films that blur the boundaries between reality and cinematic thriller – a blur enhanced in this case by the fact that Jack Nicholson and Dennis Hopper helped out. Sorry I've spoiled the surprise; but if you get the chance you shouldn't miss it.

t.sutcliffe@independent.co.uk

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