The eight a-n members selected for the 2019-20 a-n Writer Development Programme are: Kitty Bew (Brighton), Joanna Byrne (Leeds), Orla Foster (Sheffield), Jamie Limond (Glasgow), Rachel Marsh (Beaworthy, Devon), India Nielsen (London), Isaac Nugent (London), and Valerie Zwart (Leeds).

The first workshop of the programme took place on Wednesday 20 November 2019 at Coventry Artspace during the last week of the Coventry Biennial.

Led by Chris Sharratt, we were joined by Stephen Palmer (a-n’s head of online content). Special guest for the day was Ryan Hughes, director of Coventry Biennial, who very kindly agreed to be interviewed – press conference style – by the eight participants.

The workshop was a mix of tasks and discussion, with quick turnaround writing and editing plus a tour of two key Biennial venues, The Row and Herbert Art Gallery and Museum.

As a post-workshop task, each writer was asked to file a 1,000-word feature on the Coventry Biennial, including quotes from Hughes, description of the work on show and exploring the context and theme of this second edition of the festival.

Each of the features will be published here following editing and feedback.

Image: a-n Writer Development Programme participants and Chris Sharratt visiting the Coventry Biennial with Ryan Hughes. Photo: Stephen Palmer


Eduardo Paolozzi: Michelangelo’s ‘David’ (?1987)

In 1987, Eduardo Paolozzi (1924–2005) was walking past Harrods in London when he spotted a window dresser setting up a display using a plaster cast of the head of Michelangelo’s David. Apparently on impulse, he borrowed the head, then took it to the Royal College of Art to make his own mould and cast. As plaster casts of the original David sculpture abound around the world, Paolozzi’s was, at the very least, a copy of a copy of a copy – which may account for the slightly rough surface and lack of definition in David’s features. No matter, as Paolozzi used a saw to cut David’s head into pieces, then glued him together again, placing wood strips between the joins. These spacers simultaneously hold the head apart and together so that it is possible to see right through the sculpture, and brown string is tied around the cast at the neck and forehead, as though to keep it from falling apart. Despite this harsh treatment and with the top of his head completely missing, David is still instantly recognisable in this new form.

While this deconstruction and reconstruction of David may have been an impulse, since 1982 Paolozzi had been creating a series of fragmented heads in wax, wood and bronze. Most of these sculptures had their genesis in plaster: his studio was full of plaster casts of hands, feet, eyes, ears and torsos – the raw ingredients for future work. For Paolozzi, this was an extension of his collage work of the 1950s, which saw him slice up heads from the front covers of Time magazine, mixing them up, reassembling them and then adding pencil, gouache and ink. Those cuts, as in the heads made in the 1980s, are often down the centre of the face and across the mouth. “One comes back to the original obsessions; or perhaps the original obsession always lies under the surface,” explained Paolozzi in a 1984 radio interview, “so that I’m actually doing heads again which, instead of having detritus, have parts of an experience which is previous work pressing through.”

The transition from two to three dimensions in collage was a logical step for the artist. In an interview in 1994 with Frank Whitford, Paolozzi said: “Collage has always been a kind of tool where you can sprinkle the elements … and that randomness can have as much meaning as wilful construction. So I’ve always thought collage could be introduced to sculpture … by chance you can make, as Arp would say, another reality.” 

David was an apt choice for Paolozzi’s creative act of destruction. The original marble statue in Florence was first copied in plaster by Clemente Papi in 1847. This involved making over 1500 mould pieces that fitted together like a 3D jigsaw inside a ‘mother mould’. Inevitably, once the plaster was poured, the small gaps between these mould pieces left a network of raised plaster seams on the surface of the cast, which can still be seen today. Papi was commissioned to cast a second copy which was gifted to the V&A by Queen Victoria. It arrived in pieces and was assembled in 1857. It has since been copied many times. Indeed, Paolozzi drew from a cast of David as a student at Edinburgh College of Art in 1943. Perhaps those raised seams were also visible on that cast?

Towards the end of Paolozzi’s career, his work was characterised by the reproduction  of copies, which he repeatedly destroyed and reassembled. The outcome of this process can be seen in Newton (1995), outside the British Library, a reconstructed self-portrait… with the eyes copied from Michelangelo’s David. Paolozzi’s David, however, feels like a peculiarly 21st century construction – a pixelated but recognisable face-to-launch-a-thousand-memes.

Rachel Marsh

Image: Sir Eduardo Paolozzi (1924-2005), Michelangelo’s ‘David’, ?1987, Plaster, plywood and string. Presented to the Tate Collection by the artist 1995


Ghosts in the Machine: Mark Leckey’s Felix Gets Broadcasted (2007)

In flickering monochrome on an old tube TV, a figurine of Felix the Cat rotates on a platter. His smiley blankness seems to gradually turn to dread, his eyes peeled back like Malcolm McDowell’s in A Clockwork Orange. There’s an undercurrent of interrogation as he spins in the spotlight; the sound of churning equipment, a threatening electric crackle. A rotating daisy wheel chops through the lights like a cartoon buzz-saw, while the analogue image appears to split into its constituent vertical lines, like a set of blinds drawn apart. Circular dissolve. Fade to black. That’s all folks!

Fragmenting throughout the video, Felix looks like he’s about to test-run Star Trek’s matter transporter, and in a way he is: a 13-inch papier-mâché figure of Felix the Cat was the first image broadcast on television, with RCA’s experimental transmissions beginning in 1928. Felix patiently sat out the best part of a decade on his record-player turntable as the TV pioneers tweaked and tested away.  

This setup was restaged almost 80 years later in the studio of Mark Leckey for the 2007 work, Felix Gets Broadcasted.  The artist, who was born in 1964, is a compulsive archeologist of pop culture and a self-confessed wallower in the ‘mire of nostalgia’. In his hands, the image of Felix being conjured, captured and beamed through the vintage TV apparatus becomes part materialization – as if invoking a spirit or a demon –  part execution. It reflects Leckey’s Dr Frankenstein-like preoccupation with animating and reanimating the remains of 20th century culture; the gap between materiality and immateriality and the way in which a 2D image of a 3D model of a 2D character can be imbued with a sense of life. There’s a gleeful wilfulness to Felix Gets Broadcasted. You half expect Leckey to scream, ‘It’s alive!’. 

Leckey’s obsession with the veneer of appearance is grounded in his early life, stranded just far-enough across the Mersey from the city lights of Liverpool in the overspill town of Ellesmere Port, where he cottoned on to the then-current ‘casual’ subculture: young working-class men dressed in the expensive leisurewear of the jet set. “It was a kind of drag, a disguise,” he recalled, “a means of using style to transform yourself.” Leckey became a believer in the power of image, even if that image has no real substance. On first meeting, New York gallerist Gavin Brown remembered: “He was all talk. He hadn’t made anything. But I’ll never forget the way he dressed, the way he walked. I wanted to be around to watch it.”  

In mixing trashiness and perfectionism, the tangibility of the recognizable and the potency of the popular, Leckey’s a little like Jeff Koons – if Koons had grown up on the Wirral. He’s an admirer of the older artist in any case. A 2004 piece, Made in ’Eaven, green-screens Koons’s shiny balloon Bunny into Leckey’s empty London studio. “I like the idea of something that’s almost inhuman in its perfection,” he explained, “like Bunny, it’s as if it just appeared in the world, as if Koons just imagined it and it appeared.” Both artists exploit the impenetrability and strength, the inevitability even, of the cartoon image. Felix the Cat is a robust, appealing aesthetic form, but also an everyman, a clean slate to project whatever ideas we might wish upon; as monolithic as cartoon characters can be they are also fluid, available, becoming whatever we need them to be.

It’s not surprising Leckey employs Felix as something of a personal avatar, the slippery cat appearing in several of his works over the years. For Italo Calvino, the image of Felix walking down a moonlit path was an emblem of simplicity, mercurial quickness and lightness of touch; in the 1923 short Felix in Hollywood, the cat shape-shifts into a bag, using his tail for a handle before detaching it to mimic Charlie Chaplin’s cane. By Leckey’s sleight of hand, Felix takes Chaplin’s place altogether, the frightened cat dazed by the spinning lights a reincarnation of ‘the little tramp’ draped over the factory cogs in Chaplin’s 1936 film Modern Times. A ghost trapped in the machine. 

Jamie Limond 

Image: Mark Leckey, Felix Gets Broadcasted, 2007, Digi-betacam, 9 mins 50 secs. Courtesy: the artist and Cabinet, London


The third and final workshop of the a-n Writer Development Programme 2019-20 took place on Friday 21 February at Tate Liverpool.

Hosted by Liverpool-based writers/editors and co-founders of The Double Negative website Laura Robertson and Mike Pinnington, the afternoon was a lively combination of informative chat, discussion and writing exercises.

Drawing on Laura and Mike’s experience of different aspects of art writing from the journalistic to experimental, this workshop also took a closer look at the role of interpretation and specifically gallery wall texts.

After introductions and the sharing of publishing industry tips gleaned from their experience with The Double Negative and working freelance, we visited Tate’s ‘Constellations’ exhibition for some live writing exercises.

‘Constellations’ draws on Tate’s collection and explores ‘the links between artists and artworks’ through six groupings of different works. We focused on the Barbara Kruger constellation which includes pieces by 11 artists including Lorna Simpson, John Stezaker and Chris Ofili.

The writers were challenged to write short texts in a variety of styles, responding to a work of their choice. This was followed by a closer look at Tate’s own accompanying interpretation before we returned to the workshop room for more writing and discussion.

The task following this workshop is to write a 600-word profile piece on a ‘Constellations’ artwork, building on the 100-word Tate wall text and including quotes. All the articles will be published on this blog.


In the last of the 600-word reviews filed following the second workshop at Baltic in Gateshead, Isaac Nugent looks at London-based painter Joy Labinjo’s recent exhibition.

Review #8: Joy Labinjo at Baltic

Through a series of large, brightly-hued paintings and sketchy drawings on a more intimate scale, British-Nigerian painter Joy Labinjo attempts to make visible the private lives of communities often under-represented in cultural spaces. In her exhibition, ‘Our histories cling to us’, she depicts black families engaged in the rituals of everyday life: weddings, family parties, time spent with friends and relatives. Yet while she proposes these experiences to be important markers of cultural identity for Britons of Nigerian descent, the works themselves seem lightweight and insubstantial. A recent graduate from Newcastle University and winner of the 2017 Woon Foundation Prize, at 26 is she really ready for her first solo show at a major gallery?  

Clearly informed by photography, Labinjo’s work is suffused with nostalgia yet seems to be lacking in warmth. Eyes deadened by the flash of the camera that originally caught their awkward poses and smiling faces, her subjects – black men, women and children at every stage of life – look out towards us, or even beyond us, momentarily frozen. Changing fashions act as markers in time, prompting the viewer to speculate when the photographs that inform the paintings were taken. The men and women of The Final Portrait, for instance, sport baggy battleship-grey suits and shirts with wide collars, dating them to the 1970s or 1980s, while the child depicted in Everything will be alright (2019) wears a loud sweater patterned with scarlet and blue-grey rectangles and must belong to the 1990s. Labinjo’s attention to what her sitters are wearing makes for a sentimental view of history. Rather than gaining a fresh perspective on the recent past, the viewer simply recalls with bemusement the unusual fashion choices of the period. Her focus on pattern and colour makes for paintings and drawings that are superficially charming, perhaps, but little beyond decorative.

Labinjo paints in such a dispassionate manner that these people could be members of the same family: images from a single photograph album. Like feted American portraitist Jordan Casteel, with whom her approach has some affinity, Labinjo wrestles with her photographic source material, attempting to find a means of deviating from the certainty that photographs provide. However, unlike Casteel, who has exhibited an increasingly sensitive touch as her work has matured, Labinjo’s work fails to generate the intimacy that she presumably intends. Her attempts at abstraction feel forced. Each face is distorted according to the same formula: fractured into a patchwork of tones with no translucency or loose brushwork whatsoever. Oil paint, which Labinjo favours, is a versatile medium, but she permits herself only opaque and clearly delineated blocks of colour. For her backgrounds, Labinjo generally chooses zany blues, electric oranges and shocking pinks, editing out peripheral information from the photograph that she’s working from. She intends to focus the viewer’s attention on the figure, but this decision generates a sterile atmosphere. In several of her paintings, Labinjo attempts to alleviate this through the addition of houseplants or floral patterns. Acting as shorthand for the domestic settings that she’s excised, these motifs are prompted by the still life paintings of Lucian Freud or Matisse by way of popular Los Angeles-based painter Jonas Wood. In short, their addition is hardly an original move. 

The need to redress the absence of people of colour as subjects in figurative painting is rightly receiving significant attention from museum curators both in the US and UK. Yet although working with the black figure as its primary subject, Labinjo’s work is of far less consequence than the paintings of, say, Lynette Yiadom-Boakye or Njideka Akunyili Crosby. Saccharine, generic and monotonous, there is little here to suggest that this young artist is ready for the platform she has been given.  

Isaac Nugent

Joy Labinjo: Our histories cling to us was at Baltic, Gateshead from 19 October 2019 to 23 February 2020

Joy Labinjo, Our histories cling to us, BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art 2019. Photo: Rob Harris © 2019 BALTIC


Each of the eight participants on the a-n Writer Development Programme 2019-20 was asked to submit a 600-word review of a current exhibition at Baltic, Gateshead. Half chose to review the Judy Chicago show. Here’s what India Nielsen thought.

Review #7: Judy Chicago at Baltic

Human emotion, when expressed through a female body, is rarely taken seriously. The experience of moving through the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art’s latest exhibition, spanning Judy Chicago’s 50-year career from the 1960s to the present, is endoscopic; it feels as though I’m taking a great voyage hitchhiking on the backs of tiny blood cells. There seems to be a constant play between the micro and the macroscopic as universal themes are dealt with through the singular, deeply personal narrative of one woman. Indeed, when viewed together, it becomes clear that what I am witnessing is female expression navigating and trying on different forms as it seeks ways of being heard. 

Chicago’s large-scale geometric paintings Heaven is for White Men Only and Let it All Hang Out, both 1973, flank the entrance to the exhibition. Made using paint-spraying techniques Chicago learned while taking a course on vehicle body painting, they demonstrate her early attempts to navigate the masculine linguistic structures of the art world, first, by co-opting them. Mimicking the hard-edged, geometric forms of abstraction, a notoriously male discipline and the dominant aesthetic of the time, Chicago imbues them with an emotional intensity that seems to vibrate through these rigid male forms, almost threatening to bust them open. The title, Heaven is for White Men Only, emphasises this action as a form of painterly drag – elevation, transcendence and respect can only be bestowed upon male forms. 

My Accident (1986) is a series of works incorporating graphic photographs with text, comic-book sound effects and vibrantly-coloured pencil drawing, narrating the aftermath of Chicago being hit by a truck. The decision to focus our attention on what came after concentrates all the ‘action’ of this story on her emotional and psychological processing of the event – the accident being a mere trigger. Perhaps a typically masculine way of framing the same narrative would have been to focus on the moment of the accident itself. Chicago’s emphasis, far from being self-indulgent, highlights the importance of legitimising our internal life and our responses to external forces. The female voice here is an active participant, not a passive subject. 

Autobiography of a Year (1993-4), moves this into more mundane terrain as Chicago documents her life in one year, again through the microscopic lens of her own personal psychology. Rapidly made on A4 paper, this collection of some 140 drawings and watercolours often depicts fragmented female forms presented alongside diaristic thoughts in the form of slogans such as ‘Instead of feeling proud of what she’d done with her brush, she felt like she’d laid a turd’; ‘March: Anxious and aggravated’; and ‘Rage at her husband’s impotence’. These are diaristic pages presented as political posters, again exploring the emotional angst of living daily life and the presented ‘skin’ of the woman, expected to contain it in a respectable form. This tenacious insistence on taking female angst and projecting it outward through typically macho, painterly forms is reminiscent of the autobiographical, body-conscious works of Austrian painter Maria Lassnig, a contemporary of Chicago, albeit in a different part of the world. 

Like Lassnig, Chicago succeeds in showing us the biased, white-male superstructures that choreograph our behaviours as women by zooming in on her own intimate psychological narrative. Specificity here lends itself to universality. However, rather than simply railing against unseen oppressive forces, Chicago seems to illuminate a way forward through her own journey. The courage to speak out and express oneself repeatedly throughout one’s life, in spite of social reaction and embarrassment, may be the most effective way through. 

India Nielsen

‘Judy Chicago’ continues at Baltic, Gateshead until 19 April 2020

Judy Chicago installation view, BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art 2019. Photo: Rob Harris © 2019 BALTIC