Michael Landy: Saints Alive, at the National Gallery

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‘Unpredictable’ was the adjective the National Gallery ascribed Michael Landy’s work, and unpredictability was the reason they chose him as their eighth associate artist in residence (beginning in November 2009). He was a risky choice, so said the National Gallery and – funnily – the artist himself. Looking back over Landy’s career, the evidence certainly stands. From his contribution to Frieze in 2011, where he shredded visitors’ credit cards in exchange for a felt-tip pen drawing, inviting viewers to part with more than they were expecting to; to Breakdown (2001), where this time Landy gave up all his possessions (7,227 of them) to be destroyed by a specially built machine in an abandoned C&A store on Oxford Street; to perhaps the most canny: inviting fellow artist to dispose of their ‘failed’ artworks in a work entitled Art Bin (2010). However, my celebration of Landy’s Saints Alive comes in different terms because I believe he fulfils the role in a manner, which may be more predictable than it appears, yet is so cosy a fit, that it is the best of these commissions I’ve seen. Landy has filled the position of associate artist in residence so apparently, intuitively and comfortably, that the result is deeply satisfying.

The challenge of the position: mimesis v. innovation:

The idea of the scheme is that a contemporary artist uses the National Gallery collection as inspiration for his/her own work. A direct flow of influence – from old to the new – is what the brief fosters. It’s an idea that aims – selfishly on the National Gallery’s part, (one might say) – to celebrate the collection, but as such CAN curb the creativity of the contemporary artist’s approaching the project, reducing them to mimesis but without the bite of individuality. But Landy’s response to the collection is both true to its source material and so invigoratingly new, which, (being fairer to the National Gallery) is the National Gallery’s true hope for the project. As such, Landy satisfies the agenda and the organisation and yet is not a slave to the role; he produces artwork that seems to ‘give into’ the cult of the saints, and pay lip service to the brilliance of the Old Masters, and yet his work is no less his. Creating monumental kinetic sculptors constructed like collages out of disembodied parts of the saints from the collection’s paintings, Landy – as the title tells – brings the saints to life. Editing, selecting and collaging the old into something new, Landy is Dr Frankenstein assembling his mechanical monsters – saints that in their martyrdom self-destruct.

Certainly, the artist has been true to the commission:

For an artist whose work has been more destructive than constructive, it is pleasing to find him adapting the narrative style of his source material and creating contemporary works that still deal with the rich history of the cult of different saints. His collages, which combine cut outs of high definition reproductions of Renaissance paintings and drawings by the artists, serve as mind-maps, tying together the saints and their attributes aligning the figures with their tales. Collating work from across the collection, Landy had a wealth of material that provides a clarity to his story-telling that one painting alone cannot find, without comprising the aesthetic of the piece. The other of his 2D works collate objects associated with the saints from different works of art – such as Drawing of all the Wheels, 2013 – and copy of appealing sections of paintings such as After Cima & Tura’s Saint Jerome, 2013, which aid this process, and are displayed in the exhibition as preparatory works, enhancing our appreciation of the final pieces.

But the artist has been true to himself:

In the video played in the adjacent room of the Sunley suite, we are introduced to Landy as a comic as much as an artist. He sits like a villain plotting, with wide eyes, a jovial smile and a sleeping dog on his lap. His exhibition is as comic as he. Like a jack-in-a-box, the head of the Multi-Saint, which comes from Carlo Crivelli’s panel painting of Saint Peter Martyr (c. 1476), wobbles as though in dismay of his own death. This is ironic since, he willingly forfeited his life for his faith, and it is for this reason he has gained his saintly status.

This subtle humour is infiltrated throughout. The Saint Francis of Assissi head is the topknot of a donation box, in which visitors are encouraged to patronise the arts just as those in the Catholic Church have been doing for centuries, by commissioning the flagellation (spiritual self beating) of St Francis with a crucifix. The only trick I think that the artist has missed with his one is utilising the slits of Francis’ stigmatisation (the nail wounds of Christ that miraculously appeared on Francis’ hands) as the coin slots. Otherwise Landy’s creations are smart, resourceful and witty.

Conclusions: but does the Gallery collection – the meat of the brief – come out on top?

Certainly, the outcome of Saints Alive is great. In front of every one of its components (each collage, drawing and kinetic sculpture), I found myself nodding with approval or giggling with pleasure. The question is, if it is meant to inspire people to look back at the collection, will visitors find – as I did – that Michael Landy’s works alone satisfy? As dynamic and contemporary in appearance and attitude as they are. Has the National Gallery created a monster too powerful to control?

Michael Landy, Saints Alive is in the Sunley rooms of the National Gallery until 24 November 2013 and is free.

http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/whats-on/exhibitions/michael-landy-saints-alive

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