What artworks do artists like to have around them? What artworks do artists buy, trade with other artists, or otherwise acquire, and why? Do artists buy artworks?
I was thinking about this when I went to an exhibition recently in Hoxton arches. This was an exhibition called Stomach, a one-day extravaganza featuring a whole host of artists.
There’s a lot of good work in the show, but I was particularly struck by an artist called Maggie Williams. The Art Book is a project Williams has been working on for some time, détourning the pages of the well-known art history compendium The Art Book published by Phaidon. Each individual page features a single famous and important artwork from art history. Williams has carefully excised elements of the pictures and reconfigured them, so that the pictures are subtly changed in adroit and often insightful ways.
I found the display of 15 of Williams’s pieces together really fascinating and, dare I say it, entertaining. I mean, ‘entertaining’ in the best possible sense. I was intrigued, riveted, and made to feel completely engaged; I started to have a kind of dialogue inside my head about the work as I inspected it. Good entertainment is meant to do just that, it’s not about passive ‘looking at’ something, it’s about really engaging with it. Engaging with your sense of humor, your emotion or your intellect, or possibly all three.
Frankly, I don’t really know how the words ‘entertainment’ & ‘entertainer’ got such a bad rap, because frankly I can think of very few things worse in the arts than something which is actually not entertaining. (What is the opposite of entertaining? Boring.) I mean, I don’t really expect going to the bank to be entertaining. Nor do I expect doing my taxes to be entertaining. But I think it’s quite reasonable to expect some kind of heightened engagement when going to an art exhibition, a theater performance, read a book, or watch a film.
I particularly adored the collage version of The Exhibition Of A Rhinoceros At Venice by.Pietro Longhi. I always really liked that painting, with its phlegmatic, hay-munching rhinoceros being gaped at by the gaggle of Venetians clad in their carnival finery, looking far, far weirder than the rhinoceros ever could.
Williams’s détournement of the picture makes it appear that the spectators are actually watching the rhinoceros mating with its doppelgänger. This seemed to me such a perfect comment on contemporary spectatorship and society. It’s witty, clever and fun.
So I had to have it. Right now I’m in the middle of writing a book about the relationship of cinema and art, and I knew immediately that Williams’s version of the Longhi painting is just what I really needed to have above my desk. It’s keeping me grounded, keeping my writing rooted in the real world, preventing me from going into academic contortions. It’s reminding me to write with wit and humour as well as precision, and to try to make the book entertaining to its eventual readers. It’s reminding also that although the process of spectatorship changes, but our human desire to spectate never really does. It’s reminding me that what looks strange and bizarre in one era, becomes utterly commonplace in another.
I was able to arrange to meet Williams and purchase the picture, and I found out bit more about her. She graduated from the University of Hertfordshire in 2011, and now lives in London, where she’s showing her work in group shows around town. The works displayed on her website show that she explores the intersection between fine art and popular culture, without wasting time in callous irony. Her work is fresh and often surprising, with a cleverness which is both humane and devastatingly well observed. I like it very much, and I’d like to see more of it. And I’d like you to see it too.