Every year Basel art fair kicks off early with a major contemporary artist in conversation. Last tear kicked off with USA art superstar Jeff Koons speaking very positively about art and life. He advocated in a guru-like way for an inner self acceptance as the key to successful risk taking innovation and a meaningfully powerful art. He had seemingly achieved a state of enlightenment with a clear road ahead within himself and his art, emphasising the good the optimistic and the upbeat.
A year on and an almighty world financial crisis later what better artist to reflect our troubled times than fellow USA art powerhouse Paul Mccarthy author of some of the most disquieting images of any era.
Most recently in his Pig Island installation in Milan. Paul Mccarthy whose work has been shown to very powerful affect in London in recent years with giant scale shows at Tate Modern , Hauser and Wirth and Coppermill. He depicts a world of grand guignol gothic Hollywood style horror with a larger than life overthe topness.
The viewer is often overwhelmed in performance or video by naked figures severing limbs and excreting massive volumes of disgusting and saucy materials [ tomato ketchup and daddies sauce squirted in abundance ] In true democratic fashion there is no distinction made between heads of state – Bush – Thatcher – Jimmy Carter – or pigs or pirates – or naked everyman or woman[ourselves] -They are all at it – in extremis .We are all on the same ship of fools [ or island or swamp ] together and god help us. McCarthy”s work is not for the faint of heart. What then were we to expect when McCarthy appeared as this years artist in conversation at Basel?
What appeared was an approachable kindly uncle next door figure. His artistic message and aims though were uncompromisingly stark. Art he emphasised never cured anything. He described his work as – “posthuman” He wished his work to reflect his vision of the world as a Disneyland dream covering up a black gooey underbelly.His reflections and speculations on the degraded American dream were influenced by Hollywood stage sets as islands of unreality unto themselves.
Carnivalesque sets on pedestals like walled in city environments inform his sculptural installations , a modern day Raft of the Medusa or islands at the edge of a void. Human degradation abounds patriarchs are dethroned or mutilated, George Bush has his nose chopped off – there is no salvation. But in tragedy sometimes humour is just below the surface as Samuel Beckett says in Waiting for Godot “there is nothing as funny as unhappiness”
McCarthy mentioned as an early influence the auto- destructive art performances of our own Gustav Metzger [ born 1927]whose work was recently on show at the serpentine gallery and has a strongly political element as well as the ideas that emerged via the Austrian actionist movement and also of the performance happenings of Allan Kaprow. When asked about the nature of sex in his art he stated he liked to reference sex as a form of consumption in general but admitted to his liking of revolving doors and door apertures as well as vertical sculptural elements as phallic depictions .McCarthy was a an articulate guide through our present day underworld depicted via his art. His work pulls no punches and was on show in abundance at Basel art fair. His sculpture White Snow Dwarf [Sleepy] selling for $3 million at Hauser and Wirth
Emerging from the dark but glorious night of Paul Mccarthy,s talk I entered the magnificent celebratory world of Art Unlimited – Art Basel‘s hall of art projects created by major artists from around the world. Art unlimited amply showed the diversity of global art practise today with works of museum quality in multi media.
Some genuine masterworks emerged – one such was Doug Aitken‘s multi channel video and architectural installation Frontier . This was a tour de force of video art in a 360 degree depiction , following the iconic image of veteran long distance Californian artist Ed Ruscha through a kaleidoscope of sound and vision via stream of consciousness American landscape dreamscape- we are surrounded by a visual and auditory dance culminating with an image of a whip wielding cowboy whose whip shatters the walls of glass in the walls of the installation which surround us ,we flinch as we expect to be showered by glass , as in the first movie depiction of a moving train when the audience ran from the theatre in fear of being crushed. This was a true masterpiece
One of the most talked about works being Christian Marclay‘s video /sound work – Solo – which depicts over a 17 minute period a nubile young blonde lady guitarist making love to her guitar in her own auditory and ohysical way – vibrating many strings in her final climax with cacophonous sound effects. I was not unmoved.
A brush with the infinite was achieved via Yayoi Kusama‘s – light installation – Aftermath of obliteration of eternity – candle-like lights being mirrored ad infinitum
The power of contemporary Chinese art was on show via Zhang Huan“s eerie sculpture- Hero 1 made from a skin of cow hides
It was great to see again Tim Rollins and K.O.S 1992 collaborative painted work Animal Farm referencing Orwells book with images of political heads of state as “heads” on the bodies of animals [ K.O.S being a group of deprived kids from the Bronx – Kids of survival ]
The main two floors of commercial art galleries in ART BASEL were as ever a seemingly infinite maze of contemporary art covering the full historic periods of “modern ” art from historic photographs , cubism ,constructivism,dada ,fauvism,school of Paris artists, to a dazzling array of present day contemporary with all its exponential variety , it was easy to get lost amongst such abundance both on a physical level forgetting which direction you were heading in but also on a conceptual basis .
There was so many differing visual/artistic ways of questioning who are we? and where are we going?
Gallery homage was paid to recently deceased artists Louise Bourgeois [25.12.1911 to 31.5.2010] with a moving room of her drawings and sculpture.
Also Sigmar Polke [13.2.1941 to 10.6.2010 ] with paintings and a large photo collage.
USA artist Cindy Sherman showed strongly with 2 huge mural size self portraits with drawn in landscape backgrounds , a strange and interesting departure from her previous photo based depictions.
My personal favourites included;
Christian Boltanski photo/sculptures
Mark Dions found crocodile object cabinet
Marcel Broodthaers egg cupboard sculpture
Richard Prince painting of Kate Moss
Hiroshi Sugimoto’s photos of cinema theatres
Janis Kounellis sculptural pieces
My favourite Basel art experiences was visiting the Volta art fair which was situated in an industrial suburb of Basel and had a very exciting showing of international cutting edge galleries that took big risks with new avenues of exploration or had novel ideas on curation – new art stars could be seen forming among the interstellar dust – it was good to see my art friend Martin Brown here with a good one man show at his London based gallery – Fred who were showing here. Riflemaker gallery had a strong show of William Burroughs paintings – the beat writer noted for his beat writing and influential cut-up writing technique.
Young cutting edge art could also be found at LISTE art fair set in an old rambling factory building -I managed to buy an art work here from a New York gallery called Bureau . I bought from usa artist Ellie Ga 3 silver gellatin photographic prints and an artists book referencing her journey to the arctic with perhaps a certain homage being paid to Ernest Shackleton – a bargain at 50 swiss francs and a far cry from the prices at the main basel art fair arena.
I was deeply impressed with Matthew Barney‘s installation, sculpture , drawing and video show at the Schaulager museum. His show incorporated medieval paintings and drawings by amongst others Cranach and Durer which had a fine correspondence with Barney’s own works .The physical and mental suffering of the crucifixion and an image of Death and the Maiden echoed the physicality in extremis of Barney’s physical restraint drawings. His drawing had the quality both of Joseph Beuys but also of the Renaissance masters.
Rodney Graham the Canadian artist had a spectacular show at Basel kunstmuseum . I attended his artists talk where he spoke about his films . His art comes across as a wonderful victorian music hall variety act – taking on all manner of artistic approaches whether film, installation, text narratives, performance, painting , musical composition, there is endless invention to his work and to the manifest personas that he takes on when he makes his work. There is a surreal knights move logic to the linkages between his various art practises,. He currently has a show of his work on at the Lisson gallery entitled Painter ,Poet and Lighthouse keeper. I met up with him at the private view last week. I asked him for a drawing in his recent Picasso-esque painterly style – he obliged me with a drawing- like signature.
The Jean -Michel BASQUIAT retrospective at the Beyeler Foundation was a profound meditation on the nature of creativity. He created 4000 works in his brief life of 27 years.He died in 1988 At the show there was moving film testimony of the artist painting . As in films of Picasso painting Basquiat showed a magical graphic inventive facility which was seemingly effortless . His vision of contemporary urban life unmistakable.
This was an exhibition in tandem with fellow Cuban born American artist Felix Gonzales Torres[1957 -1996]. I was very happy to pick up 4 of his free to all prints which was his trademark art gesture
The final art work that I procured while in Basel was a drawing i have commissioned from a New York artist who makes graffiti art murals. His fellow graffiti art colleagues were working as technicians at the Basel art fairs and I witnessed their mural making in a Basel city wall on my last night in Basel which I recorded on film. The commissioned drawing cost 80 Swiss francs. I have thus proved that you do not need to be significantly rich to pick up strong art from Basel . Needless to say I shall be returning to Basel for next years art fair
In late September 2010 there will be a new Andy Warhol painting and drawing exhibition starting at Basel kunstmuseum and a Viennese 1900 exhibition starting at Basel Beyeler foundation so it will be tempting to go to Basel for a long art weekend then