Martin Creed & Joan Mitchell

August 2010

Publication: The Times

The Glasgow-based artist Martin Creed has been described as a 'Minimalist' rather than a 'Conceptualist'. Germaine Greer, for example, regards his approach as being completely devoid of ego and has said that “Creed's struggle for emptiness never ends. He struggles for utterances that will not yield an ulterior meaning to even the most dogged (mis)interpreter.”


This idea contains a strange paradox. Creed's 'Work No. 227 The lights going on and off,’ won the Turner Prize in 2001.  It seems that for an non-egotist, accepting the world's most hyped art-prize from the world's most hyped pop icon (Madonna) was about as contradictory a stance as it was possible to get.


It's difficult to reconcile Creed's apparent “egolessness” with the contents of this show, which is accompanied by a ballet and the renovation of the adjacent 'Scotsman Steps'. The artist’s ‘self’ and personality permeate the works. Creed’s work seems no different in its broad stance and method from many other 'conceptual' artists, especially those based in Glasgow.


It verges on the dully familiar in fact: the arrangements of wood and chairs (in debt to arte povera), the faux naïf drawings and paintings, and a large screened video work. But there are areas of amusement and interest that hold the attention, if briefly. The  premise of the show is that the world is filled with incrementally based patterning – musical scales, towers, stairs etc. So Creed has created a kind of synthesiser on the gallery stairs which responds 'musically' as they are ascended.


In a large video work a very small and very large dog are juxtaposed. These provide brief interludes of light entertainment. But after that feeling has waned, which it does, rapidly, we are left with the – very valid – questions: 'what does this mean?' and  ‘what does the work tell us?’ The answer to both is: very little. It's a stance which Creed and Greer appear to endorse: the more empty the work, the more it succeeds.


In contrast to Creed's post-modern ironies, the work of US artist Joan Mitchell, who died in 1992, is gutsy, painterly and oozes colour and texture.  Labelled an ‘Abstract Expressionist’ Mitchell saw herself more as an heir to Cézanne and others in the French tradition of colour. She celebrates life, reaching inward to draw upon vast wells of passion and commitment while extending outward to celebrate the world she sensed around her.


Although we are told that Mitchell was a keen follower of poetry there is little here to suggest direct attribution and influence. But what she shares with poets such as Rilke is a love of nature – not sentimentalised but celebrated in its raw beauty. “From darkness a bright phenomenon appears/ and still reflects, perhaps, the jealous glint/ of the dead, who fill the earth…” writes the poet.


Mitchell's painting needs close examination. Reproductions fail to expose the textural qualities of the paint which is daubed, smeared and build up in thick, almost sculptural, layers. Over the years as her work matured it's possible to trace an evolution from darker more restrained canvasses to lighter, exuberant work. Some of Mitchell's last work is here also : two untitled pastels which seem to blend joy and fear, pain and celebration.