Art Review: A Bigger Splash at Tate Modern

Tate Modern’s current exhibition take its name from David Hockney’s iconic rendering of an LA swimming pool (below), and explores how painting relates to performance art through a mixed-media collection featuring film, installations and a bold curatorial presence, yielding some fine results.

The exhibition opens with a white-walled room displaying the aforementioned Hockney, as well as Jackson Pollock’s Summertime 9A. Positioning the latter flat on the floor evokes the artist’s harnessing of gravity to construct the bustling composition; the glare of the lighting and reflections of the film projected on the wall above do detract from the work, however. The film delivers grainy footage of Pollock at work set to a fittingly erratic string soundtrack, as well as enlightening nuggets of voiceover from the artist himself (‘I want to express my feelings rather than illustrate them … There is no accident’).

David Hockney

Pollock’s maximalist, unfettered approach stands in sharp contrast to Hockney’s clean lines and precise document of an erupting splash. For a painting which appears in reproduction so restrained and flat, up-close viewing is surprisingly rewarding, revealing the rugged side margin and splotch of sky a different blue to the rest. The piece is also accompanied by a projection: Jack Hazan’s suitably camp film following Hockney around 1960s LA, intercut with footage of naked males diving into swimming pools. Whilst both videos complement the accompanying paintings, their soundtracks do jostle for attention distractingly in the small room.

Yves Klein

Following this introductory prelude, Room 2 yields Action Painting, and attempts by visual artists to destroy exiting cultural templates in the aftermath of WW2. This concept is illustrated quite literally by Niki de Saint Phalle’s shotgun-ravaged canvases. Photos and film clips illustrate de Saint Phalle’s process, her white jumpsuit acting as a supplementary canvas to which the explosions of paint dwell. The foregrounding of the act of artistic practice is key to the exhibition as a whole, and particularly prominent in Yves Klein’s film of nude, paint-slathered women pressing themselves against paper to reveal Rorschach-like prints (pictured above). The sight of the middle-aged audience decked in their finest suits and jewellry, evidently aghast at the depravity of demonstration, is to be treasured.

Kurt Kren’s silent, luridly colourful films take Klein’s idea to an extreme. A particularly memorable piece serves up rapidly cut images of paint-soaked sex acts, finishes on an extreme-close up of a Christmas tree, and comes off as a disorientating and disquietingly strange fever dream. Kren’s Vienna Actionism co-founder Günter Brus similarly trades on the surreal and menacing, and can be seen strolling about Vienna painted head-to-toe in white, with a thin, blood-red wound running vertically across the length of his body (see below). The Actionists’ performances would invariably end in an arrest of some sort, Brus’ suprisingly obliging interaction with the police proving perhaps the oddest footage on show.

Gunter Brus

A further, naked mass celebration of paint arrives in the form of Yayoi Kusama’s squelchy Flower, which, in a deft bit of curation, is projected on one side of a screen, the other hosting Wiktor Gutt and Waldemar Raniszewski’s The Great Conversation, a fine and engaging piece of filmaking. Less impressive, however, is Ivan Cardose’s H.O. The at first appealing Tropicalia soundtrack is soon displaced by police sirens and gunshots, which, along with the image of a frenzied man fellating a pistol in wildly over-satured hues, appear contrived and outdated.

Perhaps the two most engaging works of the exhibition share a common colour: royal blue. Portuguese visual artist Helena Almeida creates, with the aid of mirrors, striking photography to which she adds licks of paint, the images at once documenting the act of creating, and establishing a singular aesthetic (pictured below). Her Inhabited Paintings foreshadow Edward Krasinki’s Intervention, which occupies a room of its own, in which a constant, thin blue stripe runs a long the length of the white walls, periodically meeting a line drawing which manipulates the stripe into its design. From the ceiling hang a series of mirrors, which both sport the blue tape and refract the reflected lines, whilst also offering glimpses of the art works in other rooms; another inspired piece of presentation.

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A Bigger Splash finds Tate Modern on surprising form, and this collection of odd, avant-garde and provocative art evidences a far more experimental approach to curating than found in its typical retrospectives. There have been many bold decisions made regarding the presentation of the pieces on offer, some to fine effect, whilst others delivering less. Caveats aside, the exhibition explores Harold Rosenberg assertion that painting is ‘an arena in which to act’ with scope and imagination.

A Bigger Splash continues until April 1st.

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