EXHIBITIONS: SUSAN PHILIPSZ and FRANK AUERBACH
Tate Britain – February 2016
Two exhibitions for one! Frank Auerbach was the main draw for this trip to Tate Britain but it’s always quite wonderful when you come across another exhibition which was not expected and which just opens your mind to new inspiration.
Susan Philipsz – Sound Installation – ‘War Damaged Musical Instruments’
Susan Philipsz, born in Glasgow in 1965, uses recordings, often her own voice, to create ‘immersive sound environments.’ This exhibition at the Tate is part of the 14-18 NOW art programme to commemorate the First World War centenary. ‘War Damaged Musical Instruments’ features fourteen recordings of British and German brass and wind instruments damaged in conflicts over the past 200 years. The instruments included the bugle used to sound the Charge of the Light Brigade during the Battle of Balaclava in 1854 in the Crimean War, an alto saxophone salvaged from the Alte Munz bunker, Berlin 1945, a tuba salvaged from German trenches in 1915, a coronet played in the Boer War in 1880, a bugle B flat salvaged from the Battle of Waterloo 1815…to name a few. The notes are loosely based on ‘The Last Post’ but you only hear fragments of the tune which is largely unrecognisable. The installation is in the large cavernous space of the Duveen galleries and the sounds travel the length of the space. Philipsz ezplains, “ I am less interested in creating music then to see what sounds these instruments are still capable of, even if the sound is just the breath of the player as he or she exhales through the battered instrument. All the recordings have a strong human presence.’
I stood quite still in the midst of this huge gallery and the only image was of a series of amplifiers situated along the length of the gallery space. The sounds were quiet and at times indistinguishable above the human sounds of the people walking and talking in the gallery. But the sound created a low pitched, sad, enveloping sound which I couldn’t ignore. There was nothing to look at but as I stood very still and waited, the sound became images – images of war and loss and greyness and deep sadness. I couldn’t decide whether these images would have become so real to me if I hadn’t known the subject of the installation but that didn’t matter. The images could not have been more real to me if the gallery had been full of paintings and sculptures of war.
This was a very moving experience and made me want to experience ‘sound art’ more.
This is not the first exhibition I have seen of Frank Auerbach but it is certainly the most comprehensive. The exhibition is arranged by decades in six rooms from the 1950s to the present. There is not meant to be a narrative or a chronological development and each painting is to be seen as ‘an absolute’.
The most significant aspect of Auerbach’s work seems to be his unique technique. He uses thick paint, both oil and acrylic, which is laid on the painting surface often layer upon layer, sometimes straight from the tube and he constantly draws into the paint with thick strokes, adding and scraping at the surface. In his first series of works, the process of creating the work culminates in many layers as he searches for his subject while the later work since the 1960s show how he has scraped back the surface as he develops each layer. The result of this is that the paintings from this period look as if they have been accomplished at the first attempt and seem much more fluid.
To me, Auerbach’s work is all about the process of creating. His paintings are highly gestural and you can feel the energy and the incredible focus which is generated by the strong brushstrokes and uncompromising sense of someone striving for an idea. The steps of the struggle are all there for the viewer to experience and he makes no attempt to hide this. This is particularly evident in his drawings which I must say were the highlight of the exhibition for me. The surface of the paper is covered in markmaking before he begins and it’s as if he is working through the performance of drawing. These marks appear to be then covered with a white wash but still left as part of the work. The drawing continues with strong determined marks, sometimes obliterated until he finds the image he wants. It feels as if he and the drawing are somehow united in the exploration of the immerging image. It’s all there for the viewer to experience.
This is painting which verges on performance art. I felt at the end that I had experienced the artist’s struggle and so the end result of whether I liked or didn’t like the paintings seemed irrelevant.
It was also interesting to see this work at the time when I am thinking a lot about two and three dimensional surfaces in drawing. The highly impasto painting of these images certainly focused the attention on the surface of the painting and often it was very difficult to get past that into seeing his use of space. In many cases the surface became a relief sculpture with the thickly massed layers of paint and for me these were less successful (see ‘Building Site, Earls Court, Winter, 1953’).