Mark Dion at the Whitechapel Gallery, London

For our modern age – prone to jump to the defence of science, of data-driven evidence – there is something unusually wistful about the art of Mark Dion. Invocations of Victorian adventurers, amateur explorers, cabinets of curiosities and detective stories, lend his work a nostalgic, even fairy-tale air.

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David Milne at the Dulwich Picture Gallery

The Canadian artist David Milne was born in 1882. By all accounts he was a modest man with a leaning towards the austere. Raised in a log cabin in the town of Burgoyne, Ontario, he never lost the sense that his was a peasant’s life. His wrote of his “taste for few and simple things, extended to an almost abnormal dislike for and impatience with possessions that are more than bare essentials.” The effect on his art was probable. “I like to think that my leaning towards simplicity in art is a translation of hereditary thrift or stinginess into a more attractive medium.”

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Coventry Railway Station: A Murky Masterpiece

Coventry railway stationI’ve never been sure about Coventry railway station. Bold perpendicular lines of grey concrete, shifting mezzanine levels, fierce observance to geometric spatial qualities. I could always see it had a certain style, a composition of silent harmonies, an understated poise within its parts.
Yet I have to admit, any virtues I describe now are retrospective appreciations. Today, I can look upon the modernist punch – the concrete muscle, the Helvetica signage, white letters on black ground – and see high principles, but all through my youth I don’t think a single other building lowered my spirits as much as Coventry train station. I saw only a murky cave, certainly not a modernist masterpiece.

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Andreas Gursky

Gursky likes to print his images on very large scale paper. Think Monet’s water lily series at the Orangerie, Paris. So as you approach a work it fills your horizontal field of vision. As well as enveloping you, the technique also has the effect of encouraging you to forget about edges of the picture, to disregard what lies beyond, and to overlook the very deliberate cropping that Gursky undertakes.

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Digital Muzak: How they sell us our iPhones

The life force of a digital device, a mobile phone or a handheld tablet, can give the impression of something magical. The glowing screen and pulsing ribbons of light, the élan vital of this little rectangle of plastic and glass is spectral and, for some at least, no less than spellbinding. Out of electrical impulses fired around tiny circuit boards, overlayed with a framework of dense computer code, comes a pixel-precise organism that speaks and listens, sings and plays, and travels with us wherever we go. An organism that we may even love.

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Embarrassed yet? Some naked truths about life drawing classes

For the last six weeks I’ve been going to life drawing classes at a local college. Just as you see in films or on TV, the disrobed figure sits in the centre of a room with a circle of easels surrounding them. Behind the easels, artists drag charcoal blocks or dab Indian ink or smudge oil pastels across the paper, and try as best they can to render a decent likeness of the posed model in front of them.

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A Time of Gifts: Fermour and the memoir

As a form of literature, the memoir has often struck me as an odd. The author assembles a small museum of personal artifacts for the purpose of describing a story. The writing is somewhat feigned: episodes have the ring of fiction, and we must suspend disbelief that life and narrative have intersected so well. What makes the memoir especially perplexing is that, generally speaking, the better the storytelling the less likely we are to stop and question if it really did happen like this. The more extraordinary it sounds, the more likely we are to succumb to its charisma.

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Leonard Cohen Has Died

Leonard Cohen has died. I can think of no-one whose specific blend of personal traits has inspired me so strongly. He always bore an attitude that I have seen nowhere else, a combination of discordant attributes that, in the harmony of his method, seemed entirely consonant. The novelist Tom Robbins perhaps caught it best, when he compared to Cohen to the strange concoction of Zorba the Buddha: “Such a man knows the value of the dharma and the value of the deutschemark, knows how much to tip a waiter in a Paris nightclub and how many times to bow in a Kyoto shrine.” Robbins is describing a fantasy figure, but I agree with his instinct to reach for the apparently contradictory to capture Leonard’s style.

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Review of ‘The Human Document: The Photography of Persuasion from 1930s America to Present Day’ at Mead Gallery, Coventry

There are few social-documentary photographs more well known, nor more heavily plundered for significance, than those of rural America from the era of the Great Depression. Black-and-white shots of sharecroppers, cotton pickers and economic refugees from the deep-south, the photographs contained in this exhibition have become part of a sort of American folklore, a complex heritage that has engaged sociologists, art historians and critical theorists in broad scope.

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A Weimar Woman: Lotte Laserstein

The recent acquisition of Lotte Laserstein’s Evening Over Potsdam (Abend über Potsdam, 1930) by the Berlin National Gallery offers the opportunity for the public to view a painting that is by any measure a masterful depiction of modernist discord and youthful ennui. As a work of art it is prescient and hugely evocative.

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Remain or Leave?

The Brexit referendum is now decided, and the fall-out is now unfurling like a virtual-reality landscape. Nothing can be predicted; nothing is unexpected.

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Review of Barbara Walker’s ‘Shock and Awe’ at mac Birmingham

In the victory parades in Paris that crowned the end of the Second World War, the Allied Nations agreed that Black soldiers – those mainly from the colonial troops of West Africa – should not be permitted to attend. The leader of the Free French forces, Charles de Gaulle, made it clear that he wanted only white Frenchmen to lead the liberation of Paris.

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Short story ‘Meteors’ to appear in Firewords Quarterly

fireword-quarterly-sissue06-cover-largeI’m happy say I’m about to be published in the literary magazine Firewords Quarterly, whose latest issue, available from April 2016, has as its theme ‘secrets’. Firewords publishes short stories and illustrations, four times a year, and is fast growing as an indie publisher of repute. My own story is a work titled Meteors, a piece I am very proud to share as my contribution to the latest issue.
Copies can be purchased here.

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What would I want a car for?

At the age of 37 I’ve recently come into possession of my first ever car. It has happened sooner than I expected. I thought I’d make it until at least my mid-forties before succumbing to the conveniences of my rattletrap. It has come about by chance really: this old Ford Fiesta used to belong to my partner, but a rapid succession of breakdowns and hindrances (flat tyre, flat battery, knavish servicing) left her exasperated and on the look out for a new specimen. Now the rusty workhorse is mine to roll around in and concern myself with the road-worthiness over.

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All Rhodes Lead to Historical Feud

History is not fixed. The point is, it can be re-judged for its faults.
This assertion, and others like it, have been utilised by a group of University of Oxford students known as the Rhodes Must Fall movement, a campaign to depose the statue of Cecil Rhodes from the front of a building at Oriel College. Cecil Rhodes, the Victorian business magnate, imperialist and undoubted racist, has fallen out of favour.

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Room With a View: What’s it Worth?

Views of the Alhambra.
I’m in Granada, Spain, taking in views of the Alhambra from my hotel room. The extra supplement we have paid for these views is both easy and hard to justify. Common wisdom knows full well that rooms with a view usually stretch the promise, since what is viewed is more often than not merely glimpsed, obliquely or “only on a clear day”. The phrase partial view is the poorer cousin and should be treat with even more circumspection.
And yet on this occasion, views of the Alhambra are really quite good. I can see the fortress of blocks of the Alcazaba, and part of the palace behind, and the hilltop setting, and even the misty line of the snow-capped Sierra Nevada mountains in the distance. I’ve taken several photographs, not as views-from-my-room but simply as worthwhile views.
Our hotel view of the Alhambra, Granada, Spain
Granada as a city has disappointed me a bit. I came here a decade or so ago and all I remember are the jewel-like attributes of the Nasrid Palace inside the Alhambra. What I’ve forgotten is the large sprawling town that surrounds it, seeping inexorably into the broad mountainous plateau on which the city stands. The city is much larger and more lived in than I remember. For the tourist there is no gain in seeing the rows of car dealerships, high-rise apartment blocks, factory buildings, McDonalds outlets, advertisement hoardings, and so on. These things are a blot and a burden – the things that tell us we are in the wrong part of town. We prefer our trinket shops and Flamenco shows, our white-washed buildings and old world atmosphere. Even the touts offering Segway rides up the cobbled streets are a distraction.
Thus, there is something reassuring and yet deeply troubling about these views of the Alhambra. Between the hotel window and the monument I can see nothing but pretty tiled rooftops and a winding street. The view we have paid extra for is not just about what we can see but also what can be edited out. The town is reduced to a single transaction, a line of light between my window and the great building up there. An abstraction.
It is this sort of worry, in my reckoning, that leads some people to want to re-appraise the touristic facets of the general urban swathe. They sense the pathetic aloofness of the tourist who angles his camera lens to cut out all but the most desirable components of the shot, as if to take home pictures of dustbins, car parks, scrub land, building sites, suburbia, etc., would be an embarrassment or a travesty. The same could be said of the tourist who pays extra for a room with a view. Such aloofness is absurd-seeming because it wishes and pretends the earth to be something different to how it is. And yet what is travel but a series of imagined perfections?

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