Still catching up on the fag end of 2014, we find ourselves admiring the coordination of two Chinese ladies on the Central Line, who were wearing exactly the same grey boots with fur trims. We’re on our way to Osborne Samuel for the last day of The Photographers 2014. It seems to be in the spirit of The Illustrators, that I saw around Christmas 2012, a very different time. Apparently, there had been difficulties with the permissions for some Cartier-Bresson works, but they’ll have a show by him in 2015 anyway. Other people were partly appraising based on price and whether the photos fitted in with what they had in mind for *a particular space*:
“That’s how I want our house to look.”
It’s perhaps simpler to admire what was on show at Osborne Samuel, with the patina of history and canonisation, (e.g. Girls in Windows New York, 1960) than the much more recent works at Beetles + Huxley itself, though there was lots to appreciate there, too. My favourites were Alex Maclean’s aerial views and Michael Najjar’s Netropolis. Every time I go there I’m re-irritated by my being too late in attending the Martin Parr show about the people in the BBC2 programme of people showing off their homes to pick up a copy of the catalogue, in the 1990s. Modern Times – that’s it, which has just been resurrected. There’s a link with all the photos here.
Something of a change of pace at the Royal Academy for Giovanni Battista Moroni, which I was seeing with unusual prescience, a whole month before it closed. A daughter was walking around explaining the context of some of the paintings to her mother and at one point, with some relish, she described that one had been commissioned by a “society of flagellants”. The first thing that I noticed was the way that he seamlessly integrated the content of religious visions with portraits and landscapes – just garden variety saints or martyrs lolling about. As I think has been well recorded, he captured the foibles and weaknesses of those he was painting, the rough edges of their characters, beyond any neat image they might have wished to project. One young woman looked back at us most censoriously, while an older woman appeared to be a real sternchops. He also departed from the usual strict formality of the occasion, including the depiction of the magistrate, who looked like he’d just popped around for a portrait. Some of the use of colour stood out, including a painting of a woman in a red dress that I’d seen before in the show about colour at the National Gallery, the odd pink of St Catherine’s shawl which shimmered as you moved around, and the yellow-orange loincloth in his crucifixion. One of the blurbs referred to
not a concept I knew before. Sometimes I need to be lulled into appreciating these Old Master Types, but not with Moroni.
That evening was The Grandmaster at Curzon Soho, which had the moments of visual beauty you’d expect from Wong Kar Wai, but was rather incoherent. Apparently the edit that’s distributed in the West is much inferior to the original one. What he’s produced since 2046 has been disappointing, generally.
After a hiatus of a few days, known for its festivity, I went back to see the remainder of Constructing Worlds at the Barbican. The first visit had been a free members’ private view, when I’d invited along a friend, and we’d listened to Owen Hatherley, one of the Owens I always confuse, the other being Owen Jones. That time I mostly looked downstairs, whereas this time, without the need to rush, I followed the approved scheme, which was to start upstairs then make your way around and down.
Berenice Abbott’s Night View seemed very familiar and I wondered whether it had been in The Photographers. Someone around me referred to the “total absence of curves”. One photo by Walker Evans also reminded me of another US Depression-era item in The Photographers. People do get around. Julius Shulman’s capturing of the Case Study House Program caused a flicker in my mind about satires on that programme that I’d seen at Tate Liverpool, possibly during the Triennial, spiced with a hint of Jacky Treehorn’s house in the Big Lebowski. His collection includes that view of Los Angeles spreading out down below that’s part of all our visual inheritance, even if we’ve never been there. Lucien Hervé’s views of Le Corbusier’s buildings in Chandigarh were especially good.
At this point I realised I had a very different impression of the exhibition than during the private view event. It felt a lot more substantial, and less gimmicky. Definitely worth the second visit that my Barbican membership afforded.
Extolling car parks seems like a beyond-cliché position to adopt, but Ed Ruscha’s aerial photo of the parking around the Dodgers’ stadium transformed it into an ornate flower or alien creature, while conveying the ridiculous amount of space needed for the cars, compared with the actual working space of the baseball field.
Bernd and Hilla Becher were also famously concerned with superficially mundane structures. I’d seen a show of theirs at Sprüth Magers a few months earlier, accompanied by the chants of a demonstration in the street outside. In this case there was a collection of their photos of water towers, with an incredible diversity of form, situation and location. One was even in someone’s back garden.
Recognise administrative beeps and noises of different venues eg walkie-talkie noises of staff
I liked the fervid pragmatism of the Bellevue church in Alberta, as captured by Stephen Shore, with the sign:
“Drive safely – drive with God”
Moving downstairs, one of the most impressive sets was from Nadav Kander, capturing the bleak transience of architectural change in China, such as the burnt-out monument to peace and prosperity. A short time before coming to this exhibition I’d read an article in the New Yorker (a few months out of date, as usual) about the men who recycle rubbish in Cairo, and Bas Princen had a picture of that very area. Guy Tillim was one of the photographers whose work I remembered from the curtailed first visit and it was just as powerful this time, bringing to mind the shattered optimism of the play A Season in the Congo, that I’d been fortunate to see at the Young Vic, and the Afro-Futurism that featured in one of the Deutsche Borse prize shows at the Photographers’ Gallery.
While the more arch photos downstairs left me sternly unmoved, overall I do think this was one of the best shows of the year. There’s a selection of photos taken from it on the Guardian, as well as two proper reviews, from professional people who write such things properly.