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Shrill and Stale

Imaginary Bang is an approximately monthly column about art shows.

View of Anna Clegg’s painting taken before the stairs at Soup Gallery.

The London Review of Book’s second May issue commenced with a response to philosopher Sophie Smith’s dual review The Comet That Bodes Mischief. The response was penned by Sarah Hutton an academic quoted surreptitiously by Smith in her text. Smith had reviewed recent title How To Think Like A Woman (2024) and last year’s The Routledge Handbook of Women and Early Modern European Philosophy (2023), Hutton was one of the contributors to the Routledge handbook. In their exchange, the two were disagreeing most notably over the notion of ‘forgetting’. Is it fair to say that the women philosophers discussed in the two books reviewed were “forgotten” or is it perhaps more apt to say that they were obscured? And furthermore, in whose eyes were these women forgotten and during which period precisely? Smith made sure, additionally, to make pointed gibes at what she called the “women’s recovery industry”. Hutton took exception to this. Although Smith noted that the Routledge handbook, in which Hutton is featured, was somewhat set apart from these “cynical” efforts, she did seem to align it at least in spirit with the other works she held in lower esteem. Hutton wrote into the LRB defending herself (needlessly), Smith returned sharply. The acerbic back and forth was May’s most interesting cultural item; make of that what you will.

This lively exchange gave me a similar joy to the one I experienced reading Sean Tatol and Ben Davis's antagonistic essays last year on the subject of negative art criticism. In Davis’ Art News text, he quoted from Renata Adler’s pan of Pauline Kael’s When the Lights Go Down (1980). It was a quotation about the blahness of most things and how incompatible this is with the requirement to regularly dispense with opinion. I found myself mired in this very quagmire in May, that is, what to write when obliged to:

The consumer service remains the professional basis for the staff reviewer’s job; fidelity, evidence, and so forth are still the measures of his value, but the high critical edge becomes misplaced, disproportionate when applied to most ordinary work. The staff critic is nonetheless obliged, and paid, to do more than simply mark time between rich periods and occasional masterpieces. The simple truth—this is okay, this is not okay, this is vile, this resembles that, this is good indeed, this is unspeakable—is not a day’s work for a thinking adult. Some critics go shrill. Others go stale. A lot go simultaneously shrill and stale… By far the most common tendency, however, is to stay put and simply to inflate, to pretend that each day’s text is after all a crisis—the most, first, best, worst, finest, meanest, deepest, etc.—to take on, since we are dealing in superlatives, one of the first, most unmistakable marks of the hack.

Nevertheless, in the name of consistency, let me talk a little about art, or more specifically scale. I’ve been interested in scale ever since I saw Soheila Sokhanvari’s Rebel Rebel in 2022 at the Barbican’s Curve gallery, the exhibition featured numerous egg tempera paintings, no bigger than a hand, softly backlit against an expansive black wall. The images were of female Iranian movie stars and models dressed in rich textiles, their bright hues filled in with the segmented markings of a fidgeting hand. I vividly misremembered these paintings as drawings. Perhaps because of the prominence of the brushstrokes which reminded me of pencil markings, perhaps also because when I think of scale in relation to these works I think not only of their size but also of the simplicity of their medium and the intimacy that fostered. Drawing but so too the sort of painting Sokhanvari engages herself in is not the alienating and unreachable feat of technical engineering that so much of art is today. It does not require numerous fabricators, expertise in coding and digital software, or costly materials. It can be done on a dining room table. The spectator, then, is the titillated voyeur — Was I supposed to see that? Am I allowed to be here? I was needless to say touched by the show. Is it not, after all, human nature to feel protective in the face of small things? Particularly in environments hostile to them? In the art world, big is so often the norm, galleries have big walls to fill and big stomachs to satiate. 

I was at Soup Gallery earlier this month, a tiny gallery in Elephant and Castle, an old hairdressers converted into an exhibition space. They did a show a few months ago on small works called All The Small Things (9 November 2023–16 December 2023), responding to the fact that many artists when picked up by big galleries are immediately asked to make bigger works, they also coupled this, in their press release, with anti-capitalist, degrowth politics. The exhibition I saw there by Anna Clegg Stainless (25 April—1 June) equally involved small works, paintings mostly. The works were interesting in that they had an off-kilter sense of perspective, for example at the edges of one painting, the edges of a laptop screen were visible hinting at the fact that the painting was a painting of an image seen on a computer. Another painting showed a slightly askew view of the outside of East London gallery Project Native Informant, from the inside looking out, not considering the work inside as the art but the view outside. Other paintings considered everyday scenes, a kitchen sink, a train station, brush pots in the studio. The most interesting part of the exhibition however was the ambiguous text which acted as the press release. The text described an exchange which the artist had had with a teacher, it began with Clegg explaining in detail how she would cheat in tests at secondary school, the well-considered processes she would use to get away with it, it then transitioned into an instance at art school where she had twisted the truth to impress a teacher, the teacher then recounts to her a rather strange and affecting story. It is uncertain what the teacher’s story is meant to inspire in Clegg or the reader. The text works in the exhibition in the same way that all of the other works do — just kind of. They all look out through Clegg’s perspective, including the hermeneutic auto-fictional piece, the spectator is on the whole left out in the cold. 

From Soup Gallery’s smallness I walked and bussed 20 minutes to the White Cube’s grandeur. There Georg Baselitz’s upside down paintings occupied vast swathes of space. At multiple times the size of the human body, it was a markedly different experience than the one I had had with Clegg’s approximately A4-sized paintings. Baselitz stands a wall of expense, insurance, institution, cultural clout, history. The paintings bear down. It made me think of a story I read by Gary Indiana earlier this month in a new anthology called The Sluts (2024). In Indiana’s story My Hole, the protagonist details his sexual encounters with various men. He makes considered and precise observations about cultural politics and sexual power dynamics through his enthusiastic bottoming. At one juncture, he thinks scornfully of an Artforum editor who would gleefully redline his carefully polished prose and render dizzying edits at the most inopportune times so as to give him no choice but to accept. She was a top (editor), he was a bottom (writer). Standing in the White Cube, the enormous Baselitz phallus poised in my direction, I was topped but unmoved. Clegg’s miniscule show did way more for me, at least nudged me in the right direction. Her paintings were lacking in polish, they had a slap-dash feel which was perhaps purposeful considering that the final work in the show was a sketch of a cartoon beetle hanging limply, unframed, from the wall. But it had charm in its unassumingness. Perhaps this month, what I’m trying to say, is that I’m a top. I don’t know. This month has been like many of the other months neither crisis nor desolation, I’ve been both shrill and stale. 

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