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Alvin Baltrop, Friend (The Piers) 1977

The Open Eye Gallery in Liverpool is probably the most exciting photo gallery in England (especially now that Foto8 has closed.) On 22 February they will open a show dedicated to Letizia Battaglia's chronicle of the brutal anni di piombo in Sicily. And right now they have a show that brings together self-taught photographer Alvin Baltrop and 'anarchitect' Gordon Matta-Clark.

I went to see Alvin Baltrop and Gordon Matta-Clark: The Piers From Here a couple of weeks ago. I had never heard of Alvin Baltrop before. His photography met with very little artistic appreciation until after his death when art institutions finally started paying attention to his portrayal of emerging gay subculture in New York.

At first glance, Matta-Clark and Baltrop seem to have very little in common. In fact, the two men probably never met. But they both turned their artistic interest to the Piers of New York City during the mid 1970s.

They found Manhattan's West Side piers abandoned and decaying as a consequence of the oil crisis that reconfigured the geography of the city along with the international trading system. Left to rot, the vast industrial space on the outskirts of the city was soon occupied by people living at the fringe of society: graffiti writers, artists, drug addicts, prostitutes. the homeless, etc.

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Image: @Gordon Matta-Clark, the Estate of Gordon Matta-Clark

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Gordon Matta-Clark, Day's End (Pier 52), 1975

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Gordon Matta - Clark, the Estate of Gordon Matta

Pier 52 is the site of one of Matta-Clark's famous building cuts. In 1975, the artist made large cuts into the floor, ceiling and sides of a derelict metal hangar, exposing the Hudson River and sky, creating a sculpture brought to life by the rotation of the sun. Matta-Clark argued that he had created an indoor park. He called it Day's End out of a decrepit space. However, visitors were afraid to cross the large lacerations, the police shut down the opening event and the artist faced an arrest warrant for trespassing and defacing property.

Matta-Clark described the piers as being completely overrun by the gays. So much so that the piers became the site of at least two pornographic films, Arch Brown's Pier Groups (1979) and Steve Scott's Non-Stop (1983). And while Matta-Clark was seesawing his architectural installation, Alvin Baltrop was documenting men having sex, cruising or sunbathing there. Or corpses dredged up from the river.

Most of the time, Baltrop was hiding from his subject, hanging from steel girders, shooting from afar, capturing the freedom these crumbling spaces gave to their occupants. The images are voyeuristic but, perhaps paradoxically, they are never pornographic.

Baltrop photographed the piers and their residents from 1975 to 1986, right up to the moment they were razed. The result is an archive of thousands of photographs that hover between raw passion, violence, furtiveness and tenderness.

Gordon Matta-Clark believed that art could be used as a tool for urban regeneration and the exhibition offers an opportunity to reflect on that very topic but also on the gentrification of (sub)urban areas that usually comes with the dissolution of underground culture.

Both the Piers in New York and the docks in Liverpool experienced a similar process of transformation during the 1970s. Dispossessed of their industrial activity, the areas were gradually reclaimed by people living at the margins of society (from prostitutes and drug dealers to visual artists, performers and film-makers.) I've never been to what is left of the New York piers but Liverpool's docks, where Open Eye is situated, has now left place to office buildings and luxury apartments.

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Alvin Baltrop, Super Cream, 1980

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Al Baltrop, Untitled

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Alvin Baltrop, The Piers (exterior view of Day's End) 1975-86

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Al Baltrop, Untitled

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Al Baltrop, Untitled

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Al Baltrop, Untitled

Alvin Baltrop and Gordon Matta-Clark: The Piers From Here is up at the Open Eye Gallery in Liverpool until 9 Feb 2014.

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And now for something completely different....

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Katushika Hokusai , Diving Woman and Octopi, 1814). This woodblock print image borders on the surreal. Source: Micheal Fornitz Collection via Bloomberg

Last Thursday, i stopped at the British Museum to see Shunga: sex and pleasure in Japanese art. I thought that Thursday would be a good day for a quiet visit. Wrong! It was the kind of crowd in which you have to stretch your neck in unnatural directions to read the descriptions of the works and wait patiently behind several people before you can actually approach a print. When finally you're in front of the work and have had a good look, you want to turn and walk to the next window but you're blocked by the people waiting and staring behind you. And no, they won't move lest they loose their spot in the queue.

My visit was thus laborious but i liked the show so much i'll have another try (a Tuesday morning when the doors open? a lunch time?)

Produced in Japan from 1600 to 1900, Shunga (or "picture of spring", spring being an euphemism for sex) are erotic paintings, prints and books that were used for personal stimulation and for the education of young lovers.

Make no mistake: this was art, not what we'd now call "pornography". In fact, the works were regarded as a suitable gift to brides on the eve of their wedding or to official foreign visitors. Unaffected by the inhibited sexual attitudes of Christianity or Islam, Shunga presented a fantasy world of sexual delight enjoyed by both sexes. The sense of sin didn't have a place in shunga. But female pleasure, tenderness and beauty did.

The genre flourished even when it was officially banned and many works were in fact produced by some of the country's most distinguished artists. The decline of shunga is attributed to the arrival of Western culture and technologies at the end of the 19th century and in particular the importation of photoreproduction techniques. How could Shunga compete with erotic photography?

In Japan, however, the influence of shunga can still be seen in manga, anime, tattoo art and other popular cultural forms.

I got the following photos from the British Museum press office. Unsurprisingly (but disappointingly), the ones i received were quite tame compared to most of what you can see in the show:

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Kitagawa Utamaro; Mare ni au koi 稀ニ逢恋  (Love that Rarely Meets), c. 1793-1794  © The Trustees of the British Museum

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Torii Kiyonaga, Sode no maki (Handscroll for the Sleeve), c. 1785. © The Trustees of the British Museum

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Nishikawa Sukenobu, Sexual dalliance between a man and geisha, c. 1711-1716. © The Trustees of the British Museum

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Kano school. Older and younger man making love, first scene from Untitled shunga handscroll. Early 17th century. The British Museum, purchase funded by Brooke Sewell bequest

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Hosoda Eishi, Contest of Passion in the Four Seasons (Shiki kyo-en zu), late 1790s-early 1800s; one of a set of four hanging scrolls

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Attributed to Sumiyoshi Gukei and Takenouchi Koretsune. Series title: Tale of the Brushwood Fence, 17th century

Shunga: sex and pleasure in Japanese art is at the British Museum, until 5 January 2014.

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Judith Bernstein's Fucked By Number at the Keep Your Timber Limber exhibition at the ICA, London. Photograph: Mark Blower/ICA

Keep Your Timber Limber (Works on Paper) explores how artists since the 1940s to the present day have used drawing to address ideas critical and current to their time, ranging from the politics of gender and sexuality, to feminist issues, war and censorship.

As the title implies, there's nothing sheepish nor restrained in this show. It displays male superheroes ready to spring into action while wearing restrictive feminine outfits, muscular cavemen ogling one another and men of religion ejaculating on themselves. The appropriate opening for the exhibition is thus Fucked by Numbers, a 8 metre long graffiti of a penis firing a US flag. Numbers being scribbled around the phallus to details the statistics of the US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. How many died, how many refugees, how many dollars spent, how many US army veteran suicides, etc.

Judith Bernstein's work is a contemporary version of an image she first made in 1967, to protest the war in Vietnam.

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Judith Bernstein. Union Jack-Off Flag, 1967. Courtesy Judith Bernstein and The Box LA

In case the Brits feel left out by the artist's disapproval, the Union Jack-Off Flag, with the words 'Jack-off on US policy in Vietnam' awaits the visitor on the other side of the wall.

If Bernstein's drawings bring the spotlight on male urges to display power and to destroy, Cary Kwok's work looks at male vulnerability at the moment of orgasm.

I was amazed by Kwok's blue biro drawings. But i can't remember having ever been so felt so embarrassed when watching some artworks.

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Cary Kwok, Blind Date Buffet, 2008

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Cary Kwok, Cum to Barber (1930s New York City), 2013

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Cary Kwok, Muscle Toss, 2010

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Cary Kwok, Cum to Father, 2010

The drawings of Touko Laaksonen, aka Tom of Finland, played an important role in popularizing gay culture. His depictions of homosexual encounters are jolly, humorous and carefree and that's precisely what made them revolutionary. Before him, homosexuals were represented as sad, pervert, dirty and clandestine men. Tom of Finland clad them into police or sailor uniforms, leather outfits and lumberjack attires -that would later be seen on the member of the disco group Village People- and let them frolic in woods and changing rooms.

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Tom of Finland, Untitled, 1959

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Tom of Finland, Untitled (Two men at poster), 1963

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Tom of Finland, Untitled, 1962

In an interview with Charlie Porter, Curator Sarah McCrory says that Marlene McCarty has been looking at women who work with primates and their relationships that have broken beyond ethical and moral boundaries. Women who have been looking after apes and let them sleep in their marital bed, either as if they were children or in different ways. She's looking at confusion within sexual roles.

"My hominid images are all also based on true-life narratives of intense relationships between humans and apes", the artist further explained. "I'm interested in the idea of hybridization (a term used in the study of evolution to indicate those gray areas where one 'species' interbred with another). The process of evolution has been cleaned up for our basically Calvinist/Puritan Western thinking. We uphold very clear distinctions of various species (especially our own) as they've developed from one another, but what doesn't really get talked about is that sometimes one species would begin to appear alongside another and there was most probably interspecies breeding. (Example: Homo neanderthalensis more than likely bred with Homo sapiens, although most schoolbooks would simply present them as one following the other.)"

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Marlene McCarty, Group 8 (Karisoke, The Virungas, Rwanda. September 24, 1967. 4:30pm.), 2006

Keep Your Timber Limber might well be one of my favourite shows in town this Summer. I will however agree with the ever grumpy Adrien Searle when he writes that some of the artists don't quite fit into the show. The fashion illustration of Antonio Lopez seemed a bit meek in the exhibition context and i couldn't quite see the point of adding one drawing by George Grosz that shows over-fed members of the bourgeoisie followed around by skinny figures.

More images:

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Judith Bernstein, Dick in the Head Series, 2010

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Margaret Harrison, Captain America 2, 1997

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George Grosz, Stickmen meeting members of the bourgeois, 1946

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Mike Kuchar, from Prehistoric Pets, 1980-90


Curator Sarah McCrory gives a tour of the 'Keep Your Timber Limber' exhibition at the ICA


Judith Bernstein painting Fucked By Number at ICA

Keep Your Timber Limber (Works on Paper) is at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London, until September 8 2013.
Small photo gallery in The Guardian.

The new episode of #A.I.L - artists in laboratories, the weekly radio programme about art and science i present on ResonanceFM is aired tonight.

Zoe Papadopoulou is an artist whose work looks at emergent technologies and speculates on their future uses to help the public imagine and discuss what these innovations might hold for us in the coming years. In the past, Zoe has baked nuclear cakes, sold ice cream flavoured clouds and drafted the merger between the island of Cyprus and Intel corporation.

But the work we are going to focus on today is called Reproductive Futures. Zoe has spent the past year on a project sponsored by the Wellcome Trust exploring the scientific and technological developments in Artificial Reproductive Technologies. She particularly looked at questions such as "Will the techniques themselves have the potential to fundamentally change the way we perceive parenthood and reproduction? How will the stories we tell children evolve?" Her research will take the form of 3 books that address different scenarios of future reproduction through children's stories.

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The story of the "Goldfish Boy'. Illustrated by Matt Saunders

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1677: Invention of the microscope - 1694: Homunculus (tiny person already formed inside a sperm) illustrates the theory of Preformationism

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Timeline charting the history of assisted reproduction technologies exhibited at the festival Abandon Normal Devices in Manchester

In the show, we will be talking artificial uterus, the orphan child who had 5 parents, artificial gametes, and premature babies exhibited in freak shows.

The show will be aired today Thursday 31st January at 19:30. The repeat is next Tuesday at 6.30 am (yes, a.m!) If you don't live in London, you can catch the online stream or wait till we upload the episodes on soundcloud.

All images courtesy of the artist.

Previously: Reproductive Futures.
Image on the homepage: Wellcome Collection.

On Friday, bored and in Brussels, i took the tram to see the solo exhibition of Leigh Ledare at Wiels, a contemporary art center housed in a former beer brewery.

Ledare is famous for being one of the very few contemporary artists who still manages to shock and break taboos. His most famous series was shot over a period of 8 years and stars Tina Peterson, his own mother. Posing gleefully for him in négligé, naked or in fur hat. In sickness and in health. Flirting with the camera (or maybe the man behind it), masturbating, having sex with men the same age as her son, etc. One moment she is defiant, powerful and utterly stunning. The next, she's chubbier and wearing a brace around her neck.

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Leigh Ledare, Alma, 2012

The opening work of the exhibition doesn't pull any punch. Right at the entrance, there is Alma, a very L'origine du monde portrait of the mother laying on her bed, all porcelaine skin and spread legs. Alma is the name of the 3 year old girl who was given the photo to scribble over. Being so young, the child was deemed too innocent to read anything suggestive in the photo.

The photos are accompanied by hand written lists of the kind of men his mother met through personal ads in newspapers (the "Gonzo porn king", "the horni rabi", "the feisty fireman", etc.) or of the "Gifts mom has been showered with". Each list along with the letters, videos, souvenirs, vintage photo sinks further into the intimacy of the woman.

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Mom Spread with Red Heels, 2003

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Mom in New Home, 2007

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Mom Fucking in Mirror, 2002

The mother seems to be present in other series, even when she doesn't appear on the image. For The Collector's Commissions, Ledare contacted collectors and asked them to photograph him, in the setting of their choice. But the photographer adopts the position that his mother would normally take on those portraits.

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Collector's Commissions (Thea Westreich), 2008

In the series Personal Commissions, Ledare answered personal ads from women whose desires echoed those of his mother's, and paid them to photograph him in their apartments, he lets them direct him and chose the scenario. Ledare doesn't see these works as portraits of himself but rather as individuals portray of the ladies who photographed him. Just like he regards people's interpretation of his relationship with his mother as telling more about the spectator than about himself.

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Personal Commission, "A dream into the Real...", 2008

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Personal Commissions: "Let the Good Times Roll. 1 Blond, 53 yrs old, curvey, buxom, slim, clean, petite. No diseases or drugs. Seeking healthy, honest, reliable, financially secure younger man for discreet sensual fun. Ext#1084", 2008

The show contains more series than i'm covering here: works by Larry Clark and other friends of Ledare, portraits of Ledare'ex-wife by both himself and her new husband, portraits of an anonymous wealthy lady who hired him as her 'erotic photographer', etc.

These distinct but related bodies of work are studies not only of their visible subjects, but also of photography itself: how it mediates identity, relationships, love, loss, and, perhaps above all, human vulnerability. They are also indexes of the relationships of the artist with others - mother, family members, ex-lover, collectors, anonymous patrons, etc. - which, from the start, have played a central role in Ledare's work.

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Me and Mom in Photobooth, 2008

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Mom with Hand on Bed, 2006

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Mom with Hand on Bed Ed#2/5 w/ Intervention by Nicholas Guagnini, 2008

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Mom as Baby Jane, 2005

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Mom After the Accident, 2005

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Mother and Catch 22, 2002

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An Invitation, 2012

Leigh Ledare et al. runs until 25 November at Wiels Contemporary Art Center, in Brussels.

Previously: Leigh Ledare at Guido Costa Projects in Turin.

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Sadie Hennessy, Elephant in the Room, Collage, 2011

Strange Hungers was a pulp fiction book from 1963 set on the island of Haiti where the notorious Ah Sing and Mei Lai conduct pagan love rites! It is also the title of an exhibition that made me laugh out loud when i visited it a few days ago.

Sadie Hennessy - Strange Hungers delves into the mysterious workings of desire, and the insistent lusts and yearnings of the sexual appetite.

Hennessy's prints, collages using vintage housewives magazines, sculptures that adorn mundane object with sexual innuendos are relentlessly campy and witty.

This is the shortest review i've written in a long time. But i don't feel like adding any gravitas to the images below.

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Milf Magazine, 2011

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London 2012 Souvenirs (100% Linen Tea Towels)

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Porn-Star Eyes (iv)

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Mother Love, 2011 (detail)

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Mother Love, 2011

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Happily Ever After, 2012 (detail)

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Place Mat, 2012

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Sadie Hennessy - Strange Hungers is at the WW Gallery until 14 July 2012.

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