The Life of the Mind Love, Sorrow and Obsession Curated by Bob and Roberta Smith 21 January — 20 March 2011 Floors 3, 4, Foyer and Window Box Artists: Liz Arnold, Bobby Baker, Anne Bean, Efi Ben-David, Louise Bourgeois, Sean Burn, Hannah Camille, Helen Chadwick, Vlasta Delimar, Tracey Emin, Sir Jacob Epstein, Theodore Garman, Geoffrey Ireland, Daniel Johnston, Poshya Kakl, Jeff Keen, Yayoi Kusama, Sarah Lucas, Annette Messager, Lucia Nogueira, Sinead O’Donnell, Chris Ofili, Janette Parris, Bob and Roberta Smith, Emma Talbot, Jennet Thomas, Vincent van Gogh, Jessica Voorsanger
Jacob Epstein (1880-1959) First Portrait of Esther (with long hair), 1944 Bronze. The Garman Ryan Collection, The New Art Gallery Walsall
The Life of the Mind brings together an eclectic group of artists who reveal a truth about what it’s like to be a human being. Collectively, they reveal an insight into the interior worlds we all retreat to in order to rationalise our very own feelings and emotions. The wide range of work in the exhibition explores how the preoccupations of love, sorrow and obsession have informed artists across generations – and how the workings of the human mind continue to inspire artists living and working today.
The exhibition has been curated by artists Bob and Roberta Smith who have been in residence at The New Art Gallery Walsall since September 2009. Their subversive humour offers a fresh perspective on art, politics, popular culture and the world at large – and in the context of this exhibition, addresses the equalities of the female/male psyche. The Life of the Mind brings together the work of artists they admire, both historic and contemporary, who invite us to consider what it means to be a ‘thinking being’. The exhibition features a diverse selection of painting, sculpture, photography, video and archival material, and extends throughout the building. Installations can also be found in the foyer area of the gallery, on Floor 4 and in the Window Box which can be viewed from street level. The title of the exhibition is taken from the film Barton Fink (1991), directed by the Coen Brothers.
In it, the main character, a playwright (John Turturro), patronises his hotel room neighbour by saying that he lives the “life of the mind” and wouldn’t expect his working class neighbour (John Goodman) to understand. In a later scene, we meet John Goodman’s character marching down a fiery hotel hallway, shooting those in his sight and shouting “Look upon me. I’ll show you the life of the mind…” as he goes. The film suggests that the hotel neighbour is the Devil, and Hollywood is Hell. Throughout their residency, Bob and Roberta Smith have worked closely with Archive Curator Neil Lebeter to explore, present and interpret the largely untapped resource of the Epstein Archive (held at The New Art Gallery Walsall). The Life of the Mind is an exhibition that has developed out of this research and is the culmination of this unique collaboration.
The Epstein Archive contains letters, diaries, photographs and artefacts – some of which are included in the exhibition – relating to the Epstein family, and in particular, Jacob Epstein himself, his lover and ultimately his second wife, Kathleen Garman and their three children Kitty, Theodore and Esther. Their lives were dramatic and sadly tragic, with the untimely death of Theo aged 29. His much loved sister Esther committed suicide shortly afterwards. In life and in death, the family are haunted by the themes of love, sorrow and obsession. Bob and Roberta Smith (b.1963) have been captivated by Esther Garman (Epstein’s daughter) and her life story: “I fell in love with Jacob Epstein’s sculpture of his daughter Esther. She looks dead straight ahead utterly focused. She is beautiful. People say Epstein’s gift was to understand the mind of his subjects yet here she resists his gaze and avoids interpretation.” (Bob and Roberta Smith, 2010). Jacob Epstein’s sculpture of his then 15 year old daughter (First Portrait of Esther [with Long Hair], 1944) plays a significant role within the exhibition. Esther’s defiant stance is interpreted by Bob and Roberta Smith to expose the myth of the great male artist having a special insight into the minds of his more frail female subjects. The exhibition features a key number of powerful female artists including Louise Bourgeois and Annette Messager, who resist easy interpretation but in Bob and Roberta Smith’s words, “stick a sharp pair of scissors into the soft underbelly of male hegemony.”
Louise Bourgeois (1911-2010) is one of the world’s most respected artists. Over a long career she was influenced by most of the twentieth century’s avant-garde artistic movements, yet always remained uniquely individual and powerfully inventive. In Cell (Eyes and Mirrors), 1989-93, Bourgeois has created a confined space containing a marble sculpture and an arrangement of mirrors. The idea of a cell can be linked to small rooms in prisons or monasteries where inmates consider their past lives. For Bourgeois, the cell can be linked to the claustrophobic, psychologically traumatic atmosphere of her childhood home, in which her father and governess were having an affair. The marble sculpture, reflected in the mirrors, appears like giant pairs of eyes and alludes to themes of surveillance and voyeurism. Annette Messager (b.1943) takes everyday objects and materials such as soft toys, stuffed animals, fabrics, wool, photographs and other media and transforms them to create extraordinary artworks. The themes Messager examines are as wideranging as the materials she uses; from self-identity, sexuality and the body, to explorations of life and death, good and evil, and human and animal. At times humorous and playful, at times frightening and morbid, her works are characterised by a variety of differing perspectives, challenging the viewer to look at the world anew and confront the fears and fantasies that lie beneath the surface of daily life.
Helen Chadwick, Self Portrait, 1991, cibachrome transparency, glass, steel, electrical apparatus, 51 x 45 x 13 cm Helen Chadwick Estate. Courtesy Leeds Museums & Galleries (Henry Moore Institute Archive)
Shadow Deeds is a collection of actions by Anne Bean (b.1959) originally performed between 1969-1974. The enactments test the strength and vulnerability of the artist's own body. The fast-paced editing of the video piece adds to the tension as the viewer is faced with an array of contrasting sights and sounds: from food products to screams, from blood to laughter. Also exhibited is PAVES, the documentation of a yearlong project developed in partnership with artists Poshya Kakl (KurdistanIraq), Vlasta Delimar (Croatia), Efi Ben-David (Israel) and Sinead Oâ€™Donnell (Northern Ireland). The international collective of female artists reflect on how political contexts inform the production of artwork and how collectively, they can break through physical, cultural and bureaucratic boundaries.
Representations of the female form are also explored by Helen Chadwick, Sarah Lucas and Tracey Emin. Helen Chadwick (1953-1996) used a variety of media to record traces of her physical self. Her work explores what we consist of as human beings both mentally and physically. Meat Abstracts, 1989, is a series of photographs of meat juxtaposed with leather and fabric. The combination of materials is both erotic and repulsive. Piss Flowers, 1991â€“92, are from a series of bronze sculptures cast from cavities made when urinating in the snow by both the artist and her husband David Notarius. The photograph Self Portrait, 1991, depicts the artist carefully cradling a brain in her hands - a rather alien yet familiar object which is the very source of our individual emotions.
Sarah Lucas, Suffolk Bunny, 1997-2004 tan tights, blue stockings, chair, kapok, wire, 96 x 64 x 72cm Copyright the artist, courtesy Sadie Coles HQ, London
Sarah Lucas (b. 1962) employs visual puns and bawdy humour within her sculptures by bringing together a range of everyday materials, such as worn furniture, clothing, cigarettes, fruit and vegetables. Her grotesque figure is made from nylon tights stuffed with kapok wadding, and is clipped to an unremarkable office chair. The
limp, floppy form undermines the fantasy of the glamorous ‘bunny girl’. Cleverly, she subverts the (male) objectification of the female body, by rendering that object of desire undesirable and ridiculous. Tracey Emin’s (b. 1963) photograph The Last Thing I Said to You was Don't Leave Me Here II, 2000,
is a self-portrait of the artist naked, in a beach hut in Margate – the town in which she spent her childhood. Her pose recalls the vulnerable, dejected figure of an abused child. Like Bourgeois, Emin’s work is autobiographical and through a variety of media she reveals the lifelong pain and anguish of experiencing rape and abortion as a teenager. Emin’s posture echoes that of the female figure in Vincent Van Gogh’s Sorrow (1882) from the gallery’s Garman Ryan Collection. The pencil study is a portrait of the prostitute and van Gogh’s then lover Sien who was pregnant at the time, and had been left by the child's father. At the lower margin, van Gogh has quoted from historian Jules Michelet's treatise La Femme (1860) with the words: The worst fate for a woman is to live alone. Alone! Just to pronounce the word is sad. The feeling of deepest sorrow is epitomised in this drawing, yet as the exhibition unfolds, the themes of love, sorrow and obsession intertwine. One feeling is often dependent on the other. Obsessive works in the exhibition feature repetition, fanatic admiration and an artist’s determination to make artwork whatever the sacrifice. Yayoi Kusama’s (b.1929) paintings, collages, soft sculptures and environmental installations all share an obsession with repetition, pattern and accumulation. She refers to herself as an obsessive artist and
has long struggled with mental illness. Kusama has experienced hallucinations and severe obsessive thoughts since childhood and currently resides in a mental hospital in Tokyo. Early in Kusama's career, she began covering surfaces (walls, floors, canvases, and later, household objects and naked assistants) with the polka dots that would become a trademark of her work. The vast fields of polka dots, or "infinity nets," as she called them, are taken directly from her hallucinations. The repetitive dots in Chris Ofili’s (b.1968) etchings are used as a form of mapping device to interpret the world around him. Several editions of etchings were inspired by visits that he made to Barcelona, Berlin, New York and North Wales. They are in stark contrast to his large and vibrantly-coloured canvases and reveal the sensitive, lyrical core of Ofili's artwork. On each trip the artist took along a set of copper etching plates and, working methodically, used a different abstract pattern obliquely related to his impressions of the specific place. Jessica Voorsanger (b.1965) is particularly interested in the obsessive relationship between the fan and the celebrity – and in this case, her own fascination with Andy Warhol who she regularly ‘spotted’ whilst growing up in New York. Her two paintings depict the moments after feminist writer Valerie Solanas shot Andy Warhol in the lobby to his ‘Factory’. After shooting Warhol three times, she then shot art critic
Mario Amaya and also tried to shoot Warhol's manager, Fred Hughes, but her gun jammed as the elevator arrived. Hughes suggested she take it and she did, leaving the Factory. That evening, Solanas turned herself in to the Police claming Warhol had "too much control" over her and that he was planning to steal her work. The Life of the Mind isn’t necessarily a promotion of feminism but a critique of the power men hold within society (and in the art world too). Sir Jacob Epstein (1880-1959) was a very complicated character. In one sense, he was an art hero due to the constant battles he fought with anti-Semitic forces and his peers within the British art community. Bob and Roberta Smith’s colossal Eppy Daddy Battle Bot which is on display in the foyer tells the story of his plight. On the other hand, Epstein was also considered to be a macho character too and his obsession with creating artwork took his attention away from his young family. For Bob and Roberta Smith, revelations about Epstein’s relationship with his children and their life stories are the most powerful things in the gallery’s archive. Smiths’ psychedelic handpainted signs tell the tale of how Epstein’s obsession led to tragedy for Theo and Esther Garman. An expressive series of paintings by Theodore Garman (1924-1954) is featured in the exhibition. These works are displayed here for the first time. Theodore’s early paintings are well known to regular visitors
to the gallery for their vibrancy and use of bright colours. However, the work that Theo created towards the end of his short life is significantly darker. The colours are less vibrant and paint is applied so thickly that it protrudes from the canvas, almost dripping from it. The paintings also link to books from the archive that are displayed in the exhibition. Theo wrote increasingly disturbed notes in his collection of novels and art books and there is a clear relationship between the emerging darkness in his painting, his writing and his worsening mental health. Theo suffered from schizophrenia for a number of years and it ultimately contributed to his death at the age of 29. Sean Burn’s audio works, visual poetry and interventions are all creative responses to mental distress, and are often autobiographical. Within his work he reclaims the language of 'madness' by questioning words and their meaning. The audio piece Coming Down off the Mountain, 2009, sounds intermittently within the exhibition and describes the cacophony of noises, voices and anguish experienced within the artist's mind during periods of mental ill health. Sean Burn is currently artist in residence at the gallery and further works can be viewed on Floor 1. Hannah Camille (b.1983) was the recipient of the Dawn Jones Prize 2010; an annual award open to artists in Walsall who have close experience of mental ill health.
Liz Arnold, Uncovered, 1995, acrylic on canvas, 122.5 x 76.2cm. Arts Council Collection, Southbank Centre, London. Lift of Charles Saatchi. Copyright the Estate of Liz Arnold.
Her self portraits highlight her own battles with body dysmorphic disorder. The attached magnifying glasses invite the viewer to study and scrutinise her own self image. Daniel Johnston (b. 1961) is an American singer, songwriter, musician, and artist. Johnston rose to fame when Kurt Cobain was frequently photographed wearing a t-shirt featuring the cover image of Johnston's album Hi, How Are You? He has since spent the last 20 years exposing his heartrending tales of unrequited love, cosmic mishaps, and existential torment to an ever-growing international cult audience. Throughout his career, Johnston's songs and drawings have been informed to some degree by his ongoing struggle with manic depression, lending an added poignancy to his soulsearching. His drawing within the exhibition I've got something on my mind, 2003, remains joyous and as fellow exhibiting artist Sean Burn claimed in an earlier work, ‘we should learn to love our madness’. Joyous moments are also expressed in Liz Arnold’s (1964-2001) painting of a lingerie-clad insect set against a fantastical background. Arnold described her paintings as "little worlds", created to both escape from, and refer to, the real world. Her wit and unique vision cannot fail to raise a smile. Such hilarity and absurdity continues into the work of Janette Parris and Bobby Baker.
The humdrum of everyday life is cleverly humoured in Janette Parris’ animation Fred’s Café, 2001. The artwork presents ideas about life and art from the viewpoint of a group of regular customers that frequent a South London café. Fred, the cafe’s owner, remains sceptical as a group of artists try to convince him of the importance of art; particularly the artwork they each make. Within the video, Parris reveals the plight of artists as they strive to get their ideas out into the world, however reluctant their audience may be. In How to Live, Bobby Baker (b.1950) demonstrates the techniques of her own mental health therapy empire on her patient: a pea.
Bob and Roberta Smith, See Esther Walsallâ€™s Mona Lisa, 2010. Paint on board. Courtesy of the artist and Hales Gallery
'We need eleven skills precisely,' according to Bobby Baker and her chorus of peas, to make it through the day. The performance is a curious mixture of silliness and motivational speaking with an irreverent but affectionate slant on self-help and therapy culture. Jennet Thomasâ€™ (b.1963) Return of the Black Tower, 2007, is equally surreal. The artist creates hyperbizarre narrative film-based works where seemingly rational ideas
about the world are presented to the viewer. As her films unfold we are invited to question who we trust when learning about how the world functions. The characters within Return of the Black Tower appear to be afflicted by an unnameable though not unwelcome controlling force; its identity is never revealed. Jeff Keen (b.1923) is one of the most prolific experimental filmmakers in Britain. His short film Flik Flak, 2003, is a cacophony of sights and
sounds which bombard the senses. Bob and Roberta Smith selected this piece of work for the exhibition as they believe the spots, stripes, images and patterns are similar to those that you see in your mind when your eyes are closed. The sepia toned drawings of Emma Talbot (b.1969) draw upon her own memories of her life, bringing together life-changing and traumatic experiences such as the loss of her husband with those more mundane yet significant moments which help to define our lives. Though intensely personal, her experiences resonate with us all. Lucia Nogueira's (1950-1998) poetic installations and videos explore everyday experiences and encourage imaginative contemplation. Often poised on the cusp of danger, her works bring together a range of fragile, ephemeral and precarious materials. One and Three, 1994, is a pair of earrings containing mercury and phosphorus; the combination of materials is potentially explosive. Smoke, 1996, is a video documenting an installation Nogueira produced in Berwick, a garrison town on the border between England and Scotland. The video shot in grainy black and white, features kites dancing in the wind – each one being steered by an elderly citizen. Nogueira’s work is intentionally open-ended and leaves questions unanswered. Bob and Roberta Smith have described The Life of the Mind as
a sort of puzzle which we solve in our own minds as we experience various emotions throughout the exhibition. The artists will remain forever curious as to what exactly Esther Garman was thinking whilst Epstein studied and sculpted her. In tribute to Esther and her determination not to be interpreted by the male mind, Bob and Roberta Smith plan to lobby parliament for her very own law:
“As Esther Garman diverts Epstein’s gaze, she reveals herself as someone who’s striving for some sort of liberation but tragically never gets it. In her honour, we would like to develop a law Esther’s Law - which would seek to change the British constitution so that the same proportion of gender diversity and disability in society is reflected in parliament. ‘I’ll show you the Life of the Mind’ Esther would say!”
(Bob and Roberta Smith, 2010).
In Conversation Events
The Life of the Mind related events
Saturday 26 February, 2pm Bob and Roberta Smith will be joined by artist Bobby Baker to discuss the ideas explored within the exhibition
Saturday 5 March, 2pm Bob and Roberta Smith give a tour of the exhibition Please reserve your free place in advance by calling 01922 654400.
Exhibiting artist Sean Burn is currently artist in residence. Visit Sean in the Artists’ Studio on Floor 1 between 14 – 26 February. An open studio event will be held on Saturday 26 February from 12-2pm. A live performance by the artist will take place on Saturday 26 February at 3pm. Free – all welcome.
I’ll Show You the Life of the Mind! Resources Further information about the artists featured in the exhibition can be found in the Art Library on the Mezzanine Level. A series of films produced, directed and starring Bob and Roberta Smith and Neil Lebeter are currently on display in the foyer area of the building.
Saturday 19 March, 1pm – 4pm Free for all, afternoon concert performed by Birmingham Conservatoire Composition students.
The New Art Gallery Walsall Gallery Square Walsall WS2 8LG This is a New Ways of Curating project
01922 654400 thenewartgallerywalsall.org.uk