Two Shows at Thomas Dane Gallery London

To earn our wonderful, but dear, twin Vesper martinis at Duke’s Hotel, we took in 4 shows on Saturday. The Humphrey Ocean (National Portrait Gallery) was lovely, not least for the artist’s name; but I’ll talk about two at Thomas Dane, a lovely gallery, up a narrow flight of stairs with turned-wood banisters and wood panelling all around, discreetly hidden on a side-street in St James’s.

The show (Limp Voyeur in a Humid Landscape) was of Dominick Di Meo, one of the Chicago school of post-war artists, loosely grouped into collectives with names like Monster Roster and Hairy Who. Nancy Spero, Leon Golub, and Jim Nutt are artists from these groups that are widely known (at least if you pick a narrow enough circle of people to ask).

Dominick Di Meo
Dominick Di Meo

Di Meo himself sounds funny, a quote from the NY Times, about (New York’s) Soho where he has lived since 1974: “I didn’t want to move here [in 1974]…it was a huge artists’ dormitory. I don’t particularly like artists, being one myself…It’s nicer now that most of the artists have left…artists are prima donnas, you know.”

The works’ appeal to me was primarily the references to much-loved work by Surrealists and other European artists that we’d visited again in Paris: Jean Dubuffet, Alberto Giacometti and Joan Miro being the most obvious ones. Yet the work wasn’t derivative. His formal devices are uncanny: putting together of nude body parts that, if one can unravel them at all, are perhaps mildly pornographic, sort of like a less-aggressive Hans Bellmer. He combines these shapes on great rectangular fields on his canvas, brown adjoining black, yet the border quite shakily drawn. Then there are the forks hanging about.

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Another group of paintings seem to be X-rays or radio-graphs of objects, forks, scissors, spoons, but possibly they were made with spray paint.

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There were a number of pieces that are more anthromorphic, and remind of some of Jean Dubuffet’s impasto paintings from the 1940s. Although the Di Meos don’t have the material richness of the Dubuffets, they derive power from the shapes, the jaw-lines, the simplicity of colours, in short, the graphic-ness of the images. Some of Di Meo’s other works are much more like reliefs, with clay or thick paint or rope laid onto the canvas.

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I can’t say, because I don’t know enough, where this ranks vis a vis Di Meo’s Chicago peers and how, if at all, it takes its European antecedents in a materially important new direction, but the show was enjoyable – a criterion perhaps we’ve lost sight of in these conceptualised days. Oh…lastly, I would love to have one of these on my wall.

I last saw the Turkish film-maker Kutluǧ Ataman’s work in London, at the old Royal Mail sorting office in New Oxford Street. It was called Küba and was made up of interviews with 40 residents of a marginalised shanty-town neighbourhood in Istanbul. Importantly, it’s not clear whether the neighbourhood still exists or ever existed or was made up by Ataman. It was filled with mesmerising stories of daily life (and death) by a range of people, mostly the poor, religious, sometimes uneducated sort, that one doesn’t really see encounter in the posh restaurants, hotels, and bars of Bebek and Nisantasi. Gripping stuff.

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The video at Thomas Dane (Journey to the Moon) was sparser, more elegent, funny: one of the two channels showed still archive images of an incident that apparently happened in 1957 in Erzincan, one of the most backward parts of Turkey, on the Iraqi border. These images show a group of villagers, intoxicated by the US and Soviet space-race, as well as Turkey’s breakneck modernisation, deciding that they would travel to the moon, in a rocket made from a minaret that is carried aloft by balloons, inside which they sit.

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Sounds unbelievable, and it is, in fact, made up. Never happened. Or did it? The stills certainly exist: showing the preparations, the launch, the flight, the other villagers watching in open-mouthed wonder. Ataman then took the archive to a range of professionals: aeronautics and astronomy professors at Istanbul’s presitigious Bosphorus University, and others; a historian; a lawyer; and so forth. These people all give their views on whether this could have ever happened, each from their own professional perspective, and if it did happen, the likely fate of the villagers (eventually either they or the balloons would explode, with uncomfortable results).

Formally, the work recalls Chris Marker’s great film La Jetee, where the entire story of a world after nuclear holocaust is told with still images and a voice-over, and gains immense power in this telling. The title of Ataman’s film is similar to the famous ground-breaking film by the Melies brothers, La Voyage dans la Lune.

What’s the point? Conceptually, I suppose it’s a little like Ataman’s earlier work – he has blurred the line between reality and make-believe, documentary and performance, and in doing so, tells us something about Turkey: contrasting the people of the back-country and the sophisticates of Istanbul. In a sense, that is a reflection of Turkey’s identity, like Russia, it is two countries, torn between tradition and modernity, the European and the Asian. The film is done with great sensitivity, obviously there is no intention to make fun of the villagers (if, in fact, the archive is fictional).

Best discussed over a Vesper….

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