I have admired much of Tacita Dean’s earlier work. Her blackboard drawings, including her piece on the deluded round-the-world-yachtsman, Donald Crowhurst. Her poetic photochemical films of the sea and beaming, lonely lighthouses. But, as I wrote in my recent review for Artlyst, the National Gallery and National Portrait Gallery shows suffer from a certain pretension. The large filmic portraits of David Hockney smoking or the big screen of Merce Cunningham rely too heavily on the sitter’s celebrity status. Across at the National Gallery, the curatorship of STILL LIFE feels a bit bombastic. It includes works by the artist alongside contemporaries such as Roni Horn and Wolfgang Tillmans, as well as paintings from the collection, including Zubarán’s beautiful Cup of Water and a Rose. This is a shame because Tacita Dean is a good artist. But why three shows in National Institutions? Less would certainly be more. Now the third has just opened at the stunning, newly refurbished galleries of the Royal Academy.
During her career Dean has had the courage to work across numerous media
But the show at the RA is bit different. This one is about landscape. A subject that suits Dean’s poetic and painterly sensibilities well. In the newly opened Gabrielle Jungels-Winkler Galleries she explores the subject in its broadest sense. There’s a collection of found objects – round stones in a vitrine and another of pressed clover leaves, like a Victorian lady’s giant flower collection. Stone collecting is something of a passion, one she shares with artists she admires such as Paul Nash, who makes an appearance in the exhibition. It was a habit she picked up from her circuit-judge father while growing up on the Kent North Downs. Hers was a very English upbringing. There are also mountains and a series of subtle cloudscapes in chalk on slate, created especially for this space. The inspiration is, of course, Constable, who was obsessed with clouds. The most minimal, the most modest, these, for my money, are the most beautiful works in the show with their fragile handwritten texts scrawled across them like sky messages.
Now that Tacita Dean lives mostly abroad – she was in Berlin but is now in LA with her husband Matthew Hale and her 15-year-old son Rufus – she seems to be contemplating Englishness. Not a Brexit nationalism but the big skies and landscapes of Turner and Constable, the sort of landscape that would have been familiar to Wordsworth as he trekked as a boy through the Lake District. A landscape that is slowly being lost.
Forming the centre of the exhibition is a new experimental film, Antigone, shown as two simultaneous cinemascope projections. Her elder sister is called Antigone and it features the poet Anne Carson and actor Stephen Dillane who filmed separately between Cornwall and the appropriately named Thebes, in Illinois.
During her career Dean has had the courage to work across numerous media – large chalk and blackboard drawings, paintings on postcards, films and sound works. She’s always followed her own sensibilities eschewing the irony of the YBA generation for a poetic seriousness. It’s when she stays close to this impetus that she’s at her best.
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