Saturday, July 02, 2016

Picking one thing

Photographs at Tate Modern

My Mum went to Tate Britain recently, and after looking at a couple of Henry Moores decided she'd look only at the sculptures in the collection. She told me this when we met up afterwards, over a spread of Turkish food balanced in large-lipped plates on our small table. "Do you have any side tables?" I'd asked tentatively. They didn't, so we stacked the plates up. I felt like I really needed my Mum that week, and was pleased to have her visiting London, sleeping on the sofa bed in our sitting room, filling her days with good things while I worked. She'd chosen the sculptures to get an idea of how that one specific medium had changed over time in Britain. No musing over the paintings to get in the way of seeing how Hepworth and Nicholson and Moore had carved wood and stone and moulded, and what sculpture looked like before and after these three.

Part of me thought that wasn't very adventurous when there are so many beautiful paintings in that building to gawp at up close. I like looking at paintings up close because i've always craved the ability to put colors on canvas with the conviction of knowing what to do. When I get up close i'll look for actual clues to see how the thick the colour is, and how steady the strokes are. Does it look like the painter had a plan or were they just channeling some deep painterly instinct? Whenever I've painted (rarely) my dominant thought has been "Right... I'm painting. Yes.. i'm painting. What am I painting?"

Willy Zielke

But deciding to stick to one thing- looking only at sculptures, painting only apples or shopping only for fuchsia coloured dresses is comforting in a pragmatic way. It's manageable. And I say that because "manageable" can feel so important in a big city. Otherwise how would you ever know where to start? It's like that paralysis of choice Malcolm Gladwell spoke about when faced with dozens and dozens of jars of spaghetti sauce. Having categories and filters helps us to get through a day. (Pick the jar under £3. Pick the jar nice enough to use afterwards. Pick the same jar your Mum always picked.)

Today i'm at Tate Modern. And because I recently treated myself to a membership, I can go into any of the current exhibitions without needing to pay! So what did I do? Unable to pick between the two options I wandered into the free galleries... There was so much I liked, and I liked it all even more because I'd got out of bed early on a Saturday, eaten a giant almond croissant for breakfast, and felt like my hair looked nice. I looked at a sleeping young woman, lying neatly across the frame. Her pillow tucked under her shoulders in a way i'd never think to tuck it.  So comfortable looking! A Duncan Grant painting with Richard Diebenkorn-esque blocks of colour in ocre, mint green and browns brushing up against chair legs. I looked up close. He looked like he'd had a plan for his brush.

Then I walked into the next room, and this is where I appreciated my Mum's "pick one thing" approach. Because this room was just black and white photographs of glasses. Wine glasses with hexagonal bases. And boob-shaped dessert glasses- hopefully once filled with a spherical scoops of ice-cream. Eaten with a teaspoon! Glasses that made me think of holidays in Europe. Or maybe holidays in Europe that i've seen on-screen; characters drinking from glasses like these on the dark terrace after a hot day. Katherine Hepburn in Rome. Tilda Swinton on Pantelleria. Short glasses throwing shadows and tall glasses distorted so they looked like buildings, those early photographs of awe-inspiring skyscrapers in the 20s and 30s that are


I liked the order in this room. I imagined being the curator and thinking right, glass! and going to the archive with a mission. I didn't feel like I needed to go in any of the other galleries after that. Glass will do for me today!

Which is funny because now I'm sitting upstairs in the cafe with a view over the city and all I can see is glass. The glass sheets covering buildings aren't as satisfying as the round glasses on tables though. I can't imagine them being drawn out of a furnace and turned in circles in the same way as a wine glass, or a bottle, or anything that holds a liquid. They're glorious but they're majestic in a distant way, like they separate people. Glass with no openings. Glass that's glass but not a window. I know this because I struggle with my desire to throw open a window when I work in a place without them.  Where does it open? These buildings surely throw shapes like the drinking glasses. It's a shame we can never get far away enough to see how the light marks their shape in shadows across streets. Maybe that's why people take helicopter tours over cities. (Actually- let's face it- it's probably not.)

There weren't people in any of these photographs but they were implicit in the arrangements. You can't see a collection of used dessert and wine glasses on a table without thinking about the people they've brought together. An evening of filling and pouring. Social props. A glass so pleasing to look at, it makes the drink taste better.

I go and buy a beer!