Highlights 2015 – Matthew McLean

Patrick Staff, Diego Velázquez and Mad Max: Matthew McLean shares his highlights from 2015

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Patrick Godfrey in Caryl Churchill’s play Here We Go at the National Theatre, London, 2015

Patrick Godfrey in Caryl Churchill’s play Here We Go at the National Theatre, London, 2015

‘I used to worry’, Luke Brown writes in a story published in the latest issue of The White Review, ‘about how much more intelligent and successful I would be if I hadn’t spent so much time talking to other people, waking up in their homes, never sleeping enough […] What a brighter mind I’d have if I’d stayed in, if I’d read and written much more …’ Brown’s protagonist forgives himself for being ‘enraptured by temporary intimacies’ but for me 2015 was one of those years (the third or fourth in succession now) in which I would routinely tell people, self-pityingly: ‘I haven’t really done anything this year.’ I semi-permanently felt aware of having seen too little, read too little, visited too few people and places (so much of the 50-week-long project ‘fig-2’, curated by Fatos Üstek at London’s ICA, did I miss that I – pointlessly – told myself I would not attend any of it). That I wouldn’t, in other words, have enough from which to compile a ‘Cultural Best Of’ list come the year’s end (not that anyone was asking me to).

Yet, now someone has, and it’s seems to me that 2015 was so markedly imperfect year (more bearable in some ways than 2014, but infinitely ghastlier in most other) that it’s quite in keeping with the spirit of the year just gone to write a ‘Cultural Best Of’ all the same. Here are what passed for highlights.

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Patrick Staff, The Foundation, 2015, production still. Courtesy the artist, Chisenhale Gallery, London and Spike Island, Bristol

Patrick Staff, The Foundation, 2015, production still. Courtesy the artist, Chisenhale Gallery, London and Spike Island, Bristol

Given that mortality (actual and imminent) was a large part of what made 2015 seem so dire, Caryl Churchill’s Here We Go at the National Theatre, London is as good as any place to start. With three acts each lasting just 15 minutes – some chatter after a funeral,, a monologue from the afterlife, a wordless routine in which a man, with the help of his carer, dresses and undresses – the play made the profound tangible, confirming my belief that a) Churchill is one of the most precious writers we have and b) that there is a special pleasure to be had in performances which are short – whether in the theatre or in the art space. Praise on this latter front to Janice Kerbel’s thrilling, 25 minute cantata Doug (to my mind the most deserving Turner Prize nominee in an odd year) and Ellie Ga’s witty and bewitching 60-minute sort-of-travelogue The Fortunetellers, which was the only thing I caught at London’s new performance season Block Universe.

Carly Rae Jepsen’s Run Away With Me is 4 minutes and 12 second long, every one of them a bleak and pounding joy, like watching the lights flash by on a motorway. Opening with a blast of saxophone that recalls the oboe on Roxy Music’s Ladytron, Jepsen’s vaguely Sarah Cracknell-ish vocal builds to a chorus of ‘Baby / Take me to the feeling’: a paean – as Jia Tolentino’s brilliant reading of Jepsen through Simone Weil, Anne Carson and ‘totipotency’ at The Awl puts it – to ‘the first bit of nothing that contains it all.’ Runner up? The only concert I went to this year was Mx Justin Bond at London’s Southbank Centre, which included a breathtaking rendition of St Vincent’s Prince Johnny – Bond purring through this broken romance part Peggy Lee, part panther.

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Jesse Mockrin, Night and Day, oil on linen. Courtesy Night Gallery, Los Angeles

Jesse Mockrin, Night and Day, oil on linen. Courtesy Night Gallery, Los Angeles

‘We’re all sons of someone’ goes one of that song’s best lines. Patrick Staff’s film installation The Foundation, now touring as part of British Art Show 8, explored a particular kind of patrimony – the mire of plural identities (butch/male/gay/queer/trans) from which there is no way out but through. I have already been lucky enough to write about this work for frieze, but since I saw it in January, its poise and intelligence have continued to resonate, and my sense of its achievement has only grown. Of all the artists I thought about this year, I can’t think of one more than Staff whose next move I am more excited to see (in the mean time, I will seek out the essay on Staff in the much-welcomed comeback issue of Little Joe).

Maggie Nelson’s (short!) book The Argonauts (which Stephanie DeGooyer reviewed for the frieze blog) shared some of Staff’s concerns while mining an even deeper and richer seam. Nelson ruminates – by which I mean chewing, digesting, re-digesting, like a cow – on ways to love, to fuck, to mother, to be curious, to be ambivalent, to be ordinary, to read, to be real; on how one might do all those things queerly, as well as how sometimes (and crucially only sometimes) how doing them queerly might be the only way to do them at all. What I loved throughout this book was Nelson’s ability to conjure positions of ‘and/both’ where debates seemed to offer only ‘either/or’; her willingness, when offered options A or B, to consider a previously unseen option C. I am not doing this transcendent book justice and leave it to those who have. In any case, by the time Nelson gets to her son’s birth I sobbed hot tears into airline food for an embarrassing few minutes.

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Francisco de Goya, The Marchioness of Santa Cruz, 1805, oil on canvas © Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado

Francisco de Goya, The Marchioness of Santa Cruz, 1805, oil on canvas © Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado

Elsewhere in literature it was the year that Carmen Balcells, doyenne of Spanish and Latin American publishing, passed away, while English language readers were given new translations of the great Brazilian author Clarice Lispector. Having myself not ‘got’ Lispector on past abortive tries, these new translations allowed me to see the coruscating, scabrous glory of this author’s voice. Though marginally less desirable from a cover design perspective than New Directions’ US editions, particular praise goes to the UK’s Penguin Modern Classics for getting their editions stocked in airport branches of WHSmith of all places (bringing me considerable cheer on several early mornings in Gatwick).

Lispector is capable of summoning up an exquisite pathos and, in the same breath, making it clear that to feel such pity makes you yourself pretty pitiable. This difficult humanity reminded me of many of Francisco Goya’s renderings of characters equal parts desperate and dignified as shown in the once-in-a-lifetime exhibition ‘The Portraits’ at London’s National Gallery (it closes this Sunday). Best painting show of the year? I’d say so.

Goya did have his contenders for that title this year however. Chiefly, Diego Velázquez at the Grand Palais, Paris (which had travelled from Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum): predictably magnificent (here’s Portrait of Pablo de Valladolid!), thoughtful ( is accompanied by oil sketches which underscore how sensuous the painter’s attention to the male bodies is), surprising (who knew how good a painter Velázquez’s son-in-law, Juan Bautista del Mazo, was?), even provocative (the Rokeby Venus paired with the ancient Sleeping Hermaphroditus sculpture). In Venice, too, painting was the thing: not Peter Doig, nor Sean Scully, nor even Cy Twombly (none of which I saw properly) but ‘Henri Rousseau: Archaic Candour’ at the Palazzo Ducale, the highlight of my quick trip to see the Biennale. Re-contextualizing the painter in relation to art history, the academy, the Cubists, surrealism, and more, it also revealed the breadth of the painter’s imagination and talent. As a bonus, it gave me a context in which to think about some of the young contemporary painters I was most impressed by this year: Leidy Churchman, Jesse Mockrin and Nicolas Party. Each, in their way, exploring volume, flatness and a retreat from direct observation in ways that more or less consciously parallel Rousseau.

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Larry Johnson, Untitled (Giraffe), 2007, colour photograph, 1.2 x 2.3 m. Courtesy David Kordansky Gallery, Los Angeles

Larry Johnson, Untitled (Giraffe), 2007, colour photograph, 1.2 x 2.3 m. Courtesy David Kordansky Gallery, Los Angeles

I don’t know if he’s a painter, a photographer, a conceptual artist or what, but LA artist Larry Johnson – on the basis of ‘On Location’, his first ever UK retrospective at London’s Raven Row – was a revelation, whether goofing around with appropriation art, mapping the abstractions and secrets of LA in a way that out Ruscha-ed Ed Ruscha, or doing the clip art thing a decade before Helen Marten et al. I can’t think of a show I saw this year with more sheer ingenuity per square foot than this one. It helped that the exhibition’s co-curator, Bruce Hainley, was around to give a generous insight into Johnson’s dexterous thinking in a conversation with – swoon! – Wayne Koestenbaum; also that that the accompanying book Commie Pinko Guy – was, from its rare extracts from the critic Duncan Smith (whose out of print The Age of Oil from 1987 trades hands for hundred of pounds a copy) to its orange-and-green spine, one of the most precious publications I came across this year.

In terms of online writing, despite stiff competition from Rebecca Solnit (see: ’80 Books No Woman Should Read’) and Ian Penman’s Joan Didion profile – the essay I loved most was Jenny Zhang’s ’How It Feels’ from Poetry Magazine. A poet whose poems I haven’t read (yet), this exploration of the perennial embarrassment surrounding feeling and expression – or ‘why poetry can be mortifying but tattoos can be cool’ – made me giddy with recognition every time I read it (sample line: ‘Everything is embarrassing, everything seems like a facsimile of the real thing, whatever that might be, if it even exists.’ For readers who still feel a hole left in them from Leslie Jamison’s compelling collection of essays The Empathy Exams (2014), I recommend this.

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Henri Rousseau, Self Portrait, 1890, oil on canvas. Courtesy National Gallery Prague

Henri Rousseau, Self Portrait, 1890, oil on canvas. Courtesy National Gallery Prague

Elswhere on the internet, ‘PLEASE WELCOME TO THE STAGE’, a YouTube clip posted by Lara Marie Shoenhals is an absurdist do-over of Taylor Swift’s guest appearances on her 1989 tour delivered at the moment when they tipped into ludicrous territory (e.g. Joan Baez and Julia Roberts), made me laugh uncontrollably for a few hours. While that honeymoon was short lived, the phrase ‘Please Welcome to The Stage’ has given me a useful stock response in conversation, and merely typing Shoenhals’ line ‘acquitted murderess Amanda Knox’ is now making me titter (relatedly to Ms. Knox, this Tweet by @jersing was as funny as any I read this year).

Here’s a film set-up that sounds like a joke: a tragedy about forbidden love and organized crime in a D/deaf Children’s Home in Kiev, its dialogue all performed in sign-language by D/deaf performers, without subtitles. Absurd, right? A torturous experience only for the committed pseud, no? Turned out that Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy’s The Tribe was an enthralling experience, as savagely gripping as any Hollywood thriller. I want to praise this film for its brave realism, but I have no idea what the crime and/or D/deaf communities in Kiev are like; I can say that it was a reminder of how little-seen disability remains on the big screen (and the small screen, and in the art gallery, come to mention it), and how innovation in story-telling doesn’t have to mean compromising on plot or momentum.

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Agnes Martin, Untitled, 1977. Courtesy Tate Modern, London

Agnes Martin, Untitled, 1977. Courtesy Tate Modern, London

British artist, writer and filmmaker Andrew Kotting’s film By Our Selves was more quietly inventive, reimagining poet John Clare’s wanderings after escaping High Beach Asylum (recounted in Clare’s ‘Recollections on a Journey from Essex’ with the excellent Toby Jones in a bluntly contemporary landscape. It blended documentary interviews and a contemporary Mummers march into a thing of silvery magic (gratitude, by the way, to BFI Player for making these films available to people like me who find it inexplicably hard to get to the cinema, even to see films they want to see). Mad Max: Fury Road was the film I spent most time thinking about: explosive with colour and choreography, brilliantly edited, it produced all the necessary spectacle of death (troops of ‘Half Life War Boys’ sprays their mouths silver and howl “Witness!” before hurling themselves like Kamikazes into oncoming cars) to make a satisfying action film while also staking victory on a band of ageing, grey-haired motorcycle women traversing the desert with a satchel of seeds.

Speaking of women and the desert, Tate Modern’s Agnes Martin retrospective was a wonder, offering perhaps the greatest solace of any visual art I saw this year – besides discovering (thanks to the Gallery of Everything) the watercolours by Josef Karl Rädler, an Austrian porcelain painter whose life at the Mauer-Ohling sanatorium in the first two decades of the 20th century he rendered in journal entries as richly coloured and inventively composed as Mughal miniatures. One entry in the Milwaukee Art Museum depicts patients waking in a dormitory before a blooming wood; the Museum attributes the picture the title: ‘Hurrah, in May 1914, without Woe’. Here’s hoping (against hope) for many such mornings in 2016.

Matthew McLean is a writer and editor based in London, UK.

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