‘There was much of the beautiful, much of the wanton, much of the bizarre, something of the terrible, and not a little of that which might have excited disgust.’
It is weird and untimely to inaugurate this retrospective of the year with some lines from Edgar Allan Poe’s famous tale ‘The Masque of the Red Death’ (1842) – incidentally the wisest thing I read on performance art this year – since poor Edgar shuffled off this mortal coil back in 1849. But the old ghoul’s is still the most accurate report on 2015’s mighty highs and awful lows – in art and everywhere else – that I can find. Accordingly this ‘thing’ (what is it, a shaggily overgrown ‘best of’ list? An ‘ode’ to the fading year?) comes gilded with Gothic splendours. It all started because I wanted to praise Stacy Schiff’s fat new history of the Salem witch trials, The Witches: Salem, 1692 (2015) which includes my favourite sentence of the year: ‘It was not a good summer to appear in your neighbours’ dreams …’
Thinking about summertime, the sunlight’s honeyed texture in What Means Something (2015), Ben Rivers’ twin-screen and wholly time-dissolving portrait of the great painter Rose Wylie, shown at Camden Arts Centre as part of his exhibition ‘Earth Needs More Magicians’, merits giddy celebration. In an early draft of this piece there was just a flat account of all the stuff Rivers observes, awed, in the film’s course: chocolate, cats – the noise of their paws in the wild green grass! – coats and the slow play of wind through trees. But the real marvel is how studying such modest material and activity (Wylie making progress on a painting in her studio; life in the garden beyond) permits a complex welter of questions to drift in and out of focus. Stoner epistemological puzzlers like ‘What does it mean to look at anything with a painter’s eyes?’ suggest themselves, alongside misty notions about how home becomes a compendium of memories and how you (whomever you are) transform with the passing of time. Complete with an uncanny walk-through-the-woods coda, Rivers’ film is the most thoughtful work I’ve seen in ages. In smitten tribute, the only TV drama I’d really like to watch now (in twelve hour-long episodes) would be something that chronicles the careful arrival of a painting amid everyday detritus, soundtracked by nothing but faraway breeze and birdsong. If such sounds proved unavailable, I’d settle for the full-fathom-five sax break on ‘Sea Calls Me Home’ from Have You In My Wilderness (2015) by Julia Holter on a never-ending loop.
John Waters’ Kiddie Flamingos (2015), seen at Sprüth Magers, London – among the acid delights at ‘Beverley Hills John’, the Pope of Trash’s first European exhibition – was a hoot. A child star remake of his 1972 filth classic Pink Flamingos, the action consists of kids assembled on a flimsy trailer park set stammering through a PG-rated revision of the script, page by heartwarming page. (The boy playing Divine could have his own show.) Once the premise’s sweet irony has worn off it’s obvious that Waters is, like always, celebrating childhood perversity and – here’s where things get ticklish – making an outrageously comic film about the possibility of making such a film. For a more austere approach to the same concept, see his longtime favourite, The Truck (1979) directed by Marguerite Duras. Much wittier than your typical cinematic formalist, Waters pulls off this combined parody-homage with a grin whilst playing around with the reputation of his own splendidly deranged oeuvre. And the little Mike Kelley memorial, snuck in a low corner of a Waters gewgaw assemblage, was a total heartbreaker.
That might be a neat description of Alexander McQueen’s ‘Savage Beauty’ at the V&A, too, except it was also a blockbuster, a carnival and a zoo. A serious rival for Poe’s masque, magnificent and perverse, it roamed over jungles, sadomasochist lairs, hallucinogenic seascapes and a phantom ballroom where a Kate Moss hologram twirled before vanishing like all smart nymphs do. I don’t know how to fully celebrate this posthumous retrospective that was so morbid and so joyous – for McQueen the two moods always went head over heels together – or how to reconcile the sorrow that his imagination is no longer around to cause trouble with slack-jawed wonder at what he produced in his lifetime. If much here was fearsome, conjuring up strange new chimera to signal the private monsters raging around inside us, it was proof, too, that deep in the furnace of his heart McQueen was a romantic, depending on his alternately angelic or devilish desires to create such beautiful clothes. Anyone expecting bombast was disappointed: consider the bloody feathers spun into dresses or the vampish funeral gowns, at once scary and sombre. The wunderkind also made no secret of his many artistic crushes so prowling Savage Beauty’s grottos was also a chance to think again about Bosch, Leigh Bowery, Joel-Peter Witkin and Catherine Deneuve’s wardrobe in The Hunger (1983). Ravishing, in every possible sense of the word.
Not to forget the collection for Spring/Summer 2016 that Rodarté unveiled this year. If the Fates had paid more attention, Kate and Laura Mulleavy – the Californian sisters responsible for its contents – would have been around in the 1970s to do the costume design for a punk retelling of a fairytale (Linda Manz from Days of Heaven (1978) as the heroine; Mia Wasikowska to star in next year’s remake) but they’re here now, perfecting their own brand of supernatural glamour. My favourite was a dreamy ensemble that captured how it would look if Little Red Riding Hood slipped from her grandmother’s house as a juvenile delinquent with the poor wolf’s bloody pelt tricked out as a fetching winter coat, the good silver melted down into new jewellery and some potions in her pockets for after-dark fun. No wonder they’re huge fans of Karen Kilimnik.
I missed Czech artist Eva Kotátková’s show ‘The Two Headed Biographer and The Museum of Notions’ at Bohnice Mental Hospital in Prague this summer, a fact that still makes me want to yell insults at my reflection. Judging from the available stills this was a rough-hewn art brut extravaganza mixing sculpture – enormous cages, bell jars, vitrines – with an old school anti-theatre cavort in the surrounding fields, honouring artists with psychiatric troubles. A party of teens make-believing they were Henry Darger’s Vivian Girls gambolled between the trees in sunshine yellow dresses and clown-nose red tube socks; they reappeared later, in an installment titled ‘Disappearance Attempt’, slumped in hessian sacks. Like all she’s shown so far, the atmosphere seems pitched halfway between a ghost story and a science experiment. Watch out for anything Kotátková does.
Meanwhile, when autumn was first showing off its golden coat in Geneva, Galerie Marc Jancou created an eccentric ménage a trois by coupling early Warhol and Heidi Bucher drawings with illustrations by turn-of-the-century oddity Otto Meyer-Amden. The show in part provided the best account of ‘boyishness’ as a charmed and wicked condition since Larry Clark’s masterwork of grunge-teen ogling, The Perfect Childhood (1993). The Warhol pieces found him in early-1950s illustrator mode and thus moonily drawing boys as smooth kittens with jewel-encrusted eyes and kiss curls. But swooning too fast was dangerous because there was more than a touch of demonic impishness about the whole crew: hustlers on the make? So sleek were his lines you might fancy Warhol was homaging Jean Cocteau when he was sending the old master’s meek angels tumbling back to Earth as rough trade punks. The little-known Swiss artist Meyer-Amden (1885–1933) was my discovery of the year and an artist who deserves mammoth posthumous tribute. He drew boys that might not be ‘boys’ at all but some spectral breed of creature known only to him. Mirage-like Pucks in ink and pencil, they’re androgynous and composed of faint shade, as if they’re being dimly glimpsed dancing in the lifelong bachelor’s fevered mind. He shows one of them as a wide-eyed dunce getting troubled by what looks like a Maurice Sendak Wild Thing in the middle of a bad mushroom trip. Juxtaposing him with Warhol had the welcome side effect of making you curious about ‘Drella’ (to use his nickname at the Factory) and his erotic life all over again. Yes, Amden’s work is creepy but it’s also shy and delicate, too, sketching out a weird shore of longing with lonesome sincerity. Fragile as butterfly wings, Bucher’s floral studies offered pastoral solace in the midst of delirium. ‘Oh’, as Warhol might have said, ‘_wow_…’
I was summoned to Geneva to see Steven ‘Analogues, Methods, Monsters and Machines’ at the capital’s Centre D’Art Contemporain. A knock-out show sprawling over three floors, it was also a high-spirited wrestle with Homer’s Illiad (c. 760-710BCE), the zero-gravity scene from Tarkovsky’s Solaris (1972) and other mythic debris. When it comes to messing with the archeological strata of history, fiction and metaphor compressed within pretty much any material – pixels, Brueghel, the torso of Patroclus, Swiss bullion – Claydon just rules.
This was the year that Thus Were Their Faces arrived. Assembled by the New York Review of Books’ always-flawless reissue imprint, this collection of stories by the late Argentine writer and artist Silvina Ocampo (1903–1993) is a lesson in how to capture the fantastic (kids who grow wings and vanish; dogs dreaming of their mistress) with deadpan cool. Something evil beats at the heart of these stories, and in the lucidity of their thinking about how unknowable everyone else is, Ocampo’s like a Latin American Jean Rhys with occult special effects.
For intoxicating art historical sustenance, nothing beat Bruce Hainley’s essay ’Pitches for Albert York’ in the catalogue accompanying a show of the late and enigmatic American painter’s works at Matthew Marks in New York last winter. Criticism in the form of a three-stage rocket, Hainley’s piece goes straight to the heart of the tender and haunted country York depicts, into cinematic reverie and finally to some thorny but lyrical place beyond. With all the verve of Jane Bowles if she had enjoyed the world’s riotous greenery a little more, Hainley reminds you just how peculiar painted ‘reality’ really is. I wish it were a whole book.
Ditching reality in favour of other dimensions was a hot activity in music this year. Oneohtrix Point Never’s dysphoric triumph Garden of Delete (Warp, 2015) somehow freaked with the textures of EDM, metal and ambient electronics to make a sonic simulation of teenage wasteland by turns terrifying, sad and rather gorgeous. It also contains ‘Animals’, a pop horror-show scored for synth and vocoder that causes nightmares. Other major thrills included: Actress’ ‘Bird Matrix’ from his DJ Kicks compilation (!K7, 2015) which supplied 13 spellbinding minutes of techno exploration up there with Rhythim Is Rhythim’s ‘Kao-tic Harmony’ (1991) and Jenny Hval’s gooseflesh-raising vocal piece ‘Holy Land’ on her record Apocalypse, Girl (Sacred Bones, 2015). Micachu and The Shapes’ Good Bad Happy Sad (Rough Trade, 2015) found them sounding as supremely wrecked as ever, especially on ‘L.A. Poison’: ‘all the cars… crash/And all the lights… flash’. This was the wooziest illustration yet that what bandleader Mica Levi’s concocted over a near-decade of mixtapes, collaborations, records with the Shapes and scoring the soundtrack for Under The Skin (2014) is a chronicle of altered states. Someone please ask her to score a ballet where all the dancers are drunk and loaded on codeine. RIP Ornette Coleman.
Whilst looking eagerly towards the none-more-eldritch and long-called-for Paul Nash retrospective at Tate Britain next autumn and surveying the atrocity all around right now, am I supposed to pick something to keep from the year almost past? Apologies to the ghost of Joseph Cornell: this is just a transcription of where my mind was, and where it will wander back, long after the year is gone with the fireworks.