Keith Arnatt said he’s a Real Artist. And A Real Photographer.
This is my selection of a fascinating, curious and in places beautiful series of photographs from the many in Keith Arnatt’s collection. One of the UK’s leading Conceptual artists (1930 – 2008), I’ve put him into an overview of his intriguingly changeable and even impulsive works covering nearly five decades. Visible shifts, disappearances, changing locations, contexts, methods and processes, all assemble to complete making unpredictable Art works.
From his early years of painting in the 1950s, Arnatt moved into the next decade and landed amongst the birth of Conceptual art. From there, Claes Oldenburg and many others moved outdoors and worked by buildings and in landscapes, all of which lured him into the new Land Art. Oldenburg’s materially sculptural pieces contrasting with Arnatt’s move to photography and the second dimension of prints.
The Absence of the Artist, 1968.
I’m a Real Artist, 1969-72.
A feature from that time shows the fashion for sans serif texts which Arnatt jumped at here in “The Absence of the Artist” (1968) and later, “I am a Real Artist” and later still, “I am a Real Photographer.” These humorous and series of titles suggest and deny his existence. Posing against that wall with the tiny board, he made a statement of pride and perhaps sarcasm.
Here, Keith Arnatt is facing the moment before he was dug deeper into the earth but paused by a friend positioning him in a mirror where we viewers, see his soon invisibility. Mirrors played a major part in that decade and after that burial experience, he distracted and confused other constructions in dug-out boxes. But below is the full story.
The most famed and familiar work by Keith Arnatt is expressed in this piece. It’s a frightening, beautifully designed art work waiting to be de-materialized. His method for building the subject into it nine-piece grid, “Self-Burial, 1969,” marks the vanishing point. The landscape changed as the soil was dug out and a sculptural mound left. At the sealed ground where Arnatt stood upright, deep under the earth and breathing through a pipe, it almost suggests a game. But today, that raises images of the gruesome ISIS burials of people alive as seen in the film “Timbuktu.”
Claes Oldenberg. “Invisible Sculpture,” Central Park, New York, 1967
In New York, two grave-diggers emptied a trench then filled it; that was described as ‘Invisible Sculpture,’ while Arnatt developed became more complex and more vulnerable by moving inside the earth.
In this situation, mirrors became a highly passionate hands-on process for Arnatt. Here, we’re watching a patch of grass cut out and chunks of soil dug out and then mirrors line a pit and new processes fill his new conceptual plans. The different approach via Land Art leaves him with obvious pleasure in shaping the constructed boxes – invisible and intangible but seemingly realistic for the third dimensional images on this screen.
Artist’s Piss, 1961
This irresistible diptych carries the look of a Rorschach test in this spray of piss. They create a wonderful pair of silhouetted shadows where the straggly octopod’s legs sprawl down the wall and across the pavement next to Arnatt’s back door. They suggest sinister spurts of black blood. During the similar time, Andy Warhol presented his version in ‘Piss Paintings’ but his were on canvases and lack the depth of beauty or substantiality that Arnatt possessed.
Portrait of the Artist as a Shadow of his Former Self, 1969-72
This scene in a similar Piss Street, set up by Arnatt to outline his shadow with chalk and filling his shape with semi-transparent black paint. The figure is almost convincingly three dimensional but for the black ghost’s transparency against the wall. A recent connection links to today’s Dutch photographer, Vivien Sassen who builds exquisite play and body shapes using dazzling colours and stunning sunlight in her versions of these silhouettes.
On “Miss Grace’s Lane,” the ‘Untitled’ images are “Pictures from a Rubbish Tip, 1988-89”
This a final phase of Keith Arnatt’s work, photographs taken in country lanes (including Miss Grace’s). There, with his first colour series, he produced some of the richest aided by natural light. The subjects he found abandoned were lying on the ground, amongst bushes and leftovers from slimy spaghetti, mouldy bread, and rotting meat to torn clothing. Ironically, his incredible colours resemble the abstract paintings which loop him back to his early Expressionist years.
Here’s a quote from Keith Arnatt about a couple of his works. He wrote: “An interest in illusion (and delusion), in the sense of creating a false impression runs through much of my work. For example, the “Self Burial” photographs create the illusion that something is happening to me. And, in the later “Keith Arnatt is An Artist,” I consider the illusion –or possible delusion – of “being an artist.” Another connection is with the idea of absurdity.”
All photographs are Copyright of the Keith Arnatt Estate.