From the moment you enter ‘A Bigger Splash: Painting after Performance’, the latest exhibition to open at the Tate, you are confronted with a vitality and energy that is a refreshing shock to the system. The creative and curatorial tension that sits so at the heart of the show is made clear from the outset, with the realism of process and technique in Hans Namuth’s film of Jackson Pollock at work on his dynamic action paintings (‘Jackson Pollock ’51) contrasting with the fantasy of Jack Hazan’s ‘A Bigger Splash’ (1973-74), a ‘docu-fiction’ film in which David Hockney’s artistic persona, process, and paintings are romanticised. The gritty reality and confrontational nature of Pollock’s ‘Summertime: Number 94’, (1948), which sits boldly by the entrance of the first room- cigarette butts, whisky and hard graft encased in the lashings of paint- both clashes and compliments Hockney’s painting ‘A Bigger Splash’ (1967), and the eponymous film, both filled with hot Californian colour, glistening swimming pools and shimmering, nude bodies. It is not difficult to see how the Tate curators found it appropriate to title the exhibition after Hockney’s work and as you walk in and face the dynamism of the pool’s splash, knowing a figure has just leapt into it’s azure waters, the viewer feels the rush of movement and energy that continues
to sizzle throughout the exhibition.
Process is key and is explored in various forms, from Nikki de Saint Phalle’s shooting at sacks of paint attached to the canvas to Yves Klein’s iconic ‘anthropometry’ in which nude female models rolled across canvases whilst covered in his famous blue paint. With such an emphasis on the theatricality of process and performance by the artists featured, there is an inevitable dramatic tension to the show, and a simmering aggression behind some of the works. In photos of Hermann Nitsch’s poured painting experiments from 1963, where animal carcasses were used as funnels to pour paint on the canvas, there is a macabre, violent showmanship that can also be found in Stuart Bisley’s ‘Artist as Whore’ (1972). The show explores Feminist experiments with process as a means of defying the artistic establishment and this contains both echoes of Hockney’s romantic scenes, such as in Yayoi Kusama’s ‘Flower
Orgy’ film (1968), and Pollock’s aggressive action painting, (which incidentally Griselda Pollock found representative of male dominance being asserted over the vulnerable, female symbol of the canvas.) Cindy Sherman’s process of adopting roles, wearing costumes and conceiving photo-shoots is presented as a deliberate rejection of the seemingly male expectation of that period that female artists should paint.
Following on from these first five rooms are eight artist rooms that are really pure fantasy, absorbing the viewer in alternate worlds and thus creating another sense of dynamism in the way in which we are so actively drawn into the work. The exhibition continuously manages to balance the realism of process and technique with the fantasy of the artist and performance. This is achieved by the documentary, candid nature of many of the works. A screen-print of Andy Warhol in full drag would have been pure fantasy but in Polaroid form (as on display) the image is grounded and made more intriguingly real, whilst simultaneously surreal. The inclusion of artists’ notes, instructions and plans also helps to create this reality/fantasy dichotomy, exposing the heavy orchestration behind these seemingly improvised performances pieces.
This exhibition is one that the modern viewer can’t help but be absorbed into. In a culture of pop stars who wear haute couture to tour the favelas of Brazil (Lady Gaga), politicians who appoint glamour models as government ministers (Silvio Berlusconi) and girls who can become a celebrity fantasy off the back of a gritty sex tape (Kim Kardashian), we hunger for that line between fantasy and reality.
Combined with the energy and vitality injected into the Tate by these artists who really put on a show, it is unsurprising that this show is so satisfying, both visually and intellectually.