This past Saturday our Fox & Squirrel Mayfair tour explored Art & Documentary. We started at a really outstanding show– one we’re sad to see close. “A Strong Sweet Smell of Incense” at Pace Gallery reassembled art that had been shown by Robert Fraser (1937-1986) at his London gallery in the 1960s and 1980s (Fraser spent the 70s in India.) Particularly in the case of the Pop artists Fraser was close with — Richard Hamilton, Jim Dine, Tony Shafrazi– seeing works like Hamilton’s Swingeing 60s series as documents of interpersonal relations changed the way we saw Pop art, softened its gloss, irony, and branding. The same could be said for the art-star expressionism of the 1980s– nothing was sweeter than Basquiat’s portrait of the gallerist, ROB’T FRAZER, 1984, an oil painting of Fraser as some kind of bourgeois papa in shirt and tie, with pages of Fraser’s diary collaged in.
From Fraser antic crew of party boys we completely changed tone, but again saw artworks testifying to a particular time and place, and as the trace of interpersonal relationships. The Turkish radical feminist Nil Yalter (b. 1938), whose work we saw at MOT International, should be better known, but she falls between the now-iconic feminists like Yoko Ono or Linda Benglis and the sociological art of the 1970s (think Fred Forest setting up a telephone call-in center or Stephen Willats interviewing residents of a council estate). Yalter proceeds from interviews, for example in the case of Rahime, Kurdish Woman from Turkey (1979), hand-drawing portions of Rahime’s account of her daughter’s murder alongside photographs Rahime in her home. Although Yalter used sociological methods to collect her data, today her paneled story-boards and hand drawn narratives made us think more of graphic novels like Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis (2000). Maybe we could think of Yalter as a forerunner to the development of feminist comics, brilliantly discussed in Hillary Chute’s 2010 Graphic Women: Life Narrative in Contemporary Comics.
Video can be hard to absorb in an art tour, but we ended this walk totally rapt by Swedish artist John Skoog’s Shadowland (2014) at Pilar Corrias. Although he’s won some awards, Skoog is young (b. 1985) and not that well known, and it would be easy to miss this show, particularly since the video’s hidden in the basement. Skoog went to locations around LA where movies had been shot in the 1930s and 40s, where the variegated terrain had been used by filmmakers to represent places as disparate as the Caribbean, Afghanistan, and the Swiss Alps. There was the pleasure of Skoog’s soft, lovely wide-screen black-and-white landscapes– glittering cays and soft sand dunes– but there was also a feeling of historical depth to the work. Skoog included several shots from the front of a vehicle moving down an empty road, invoking the 1890s “phantom ride” film, a cinematic attraction that pre-dated the distinction between “narrative” and “documentary” film.
So we saw Pop art, almost against the very fiber of its being, document the life and times of one individual, we saw straight-up documentary techniques like interviews and location-shooting take on take on the amplitude of fictional story-telling. And we learned valuable life skills: If you ever get arrested like Robert Fraser did in a famous 1967 drug bust, order in a roast lamb and two bottles of Beaujolais from the nearest five-star hotel.