Archive | November, 2011

No need to be SAD: Victoria Miro and Parasol Unit

28 Nov

You may remember that I missed a couple of openings last Tuesday so after lunch and a few meetings at The Charles Lamb in Islington on Friday afternoon, I decided to head over to Victoria Miro and Parasol Unit to see their two, much-talked about new exhibitions.

Victoria Miro’s artist, Alex Hartley, has had his fair share of press recently – and not much of it positive – regarding his 2012 Cultural Olympiad Project, Nowhere Island.  The sculpture is formed from six tonnes of rock cut from a Norwegian glacier and will visit numerous venues across the UK next summer.  Hartley’s aim is for the project to highlight the dangers of climate change but the ‘island’ has been slated as a waste of public money.  Rarely do all the different newspapers unite but here they found a common cause.

Alex Hartley’s Nowhere Island. Image via www.dailymail.co.uk

However, Hartley’s current exhibition at Victoria Miro serves to remind us what a great artist he is.   Presenting a series of mixed-media photographs, the exhibition seeks to explore his on-going investigation into dystopian architecture, secular habitation and the construction of a sanctuary.  Not only do his photographs concentrate on built environments, but the works become built environments themselves as well, as Hartley constructs and transforms traditional wall-mounted photographs, turning elements of them into sculptural jungles.

Alex Hartley, A city in my mind, 2011. Own photograph.

The interventions are all scaled architectural models which come together to allude to the creation of something that has now become uninhabitable, a building or form of shelter occupying an uninhabited landscape.  In some of the images, Hartley even digs crevices into the flat surface of the photograph – ingenious!  From a distance they look like just photographs but up close they are sculptural landscapes.

Alex Hartley, I’m tired of travelling, 2011. Own photograph.

His works directly reference Drop City, the first rural hippy commune built in a desolate area of Colorado in the mid-1960s.  Living in makeshift shelters, the radical artists and film-makers sought to create a live-in, and living, work of art.  In practice, it wasn’t quite so successful and was disbanded within ten years.  But, on Victoria Miro’s terrace, Hartley has made a Drop City dome, rusted, aged and out of time which he will apparently inhabit during the exhibition.  I saw a pair of boots outside the tent mouth but didn’t spot him lurking inside, only a few hens pecking away at the water’s edge.  Dropper is beautiful and so brilliantly brings to life the ideas in his photographs.

Alex Hartley, Dropper, 2011. Own photograph.

One other sculpture accompanies this exhibition.  Upstairs, a work shows a life-size, one-man tent, partly submerged in a snowdrift.  Is the inhabitant inside?  Has he/she survived or escaped?  Although the message reinforces that of the photographs the sculpture, in my opinion, was slightly unnecessary and seems a bit random placed by itself.

Upstairs at Victoria Miro showing Bivvy, 2011. Own photograph.

The project space by reception includes artefacts and objects from Hartley’s past two expeditions to the High Artic that relate to the controversial Nowhere Island.  As this space is separate, it doesn’t distract us too much but I wish they hadn’t dredged up the Olympic debate here and, therefore, brought all of our doubts about Hartley to the surface.

However, regardless of your views on that, the mixed-media photographs are superb and deserve attention in their own right.  Pretend Hartley has had nothing do with the Olympics and look at these stunning works afresh as he re-builds the photograph, forcing us to think about place, community, shelter and surroundings.

Alex Hartley at Victoria Miro. Own photograph.

Looking at the Hartley installation on the terrace, it’s impossible not to be struck by Parasol Unit’s installation by James Yamada.  The summer shelter retreats darkly among the trees is a sculptural work addressing the phenomenon of light and is the first in Parasolstice – Winter Light, a series of outdoor projects on this theme.

Complementing Victoria Miro’s exhibition, Yamada’s work is a shelter but in no ordinary sense.  Integrated into the roof are lights normally used in the treatment of SAD (seasonal affective disorder).  Yamada is known for such ingenious constructions as this that merge nature and technology but here the main question is, is it art or therapy?  The artist doesn’t want it pigeon-holed as either.  Art is therapeutic for a lot of people and, regardless of whether you suffer from SAD (and I think we all do a little bit), after ten minutes of exposure, the lights are meant to elevate your mood and change your body dynamic.  Yamada thinks that London is dreary in winter and wants the artwork to give people hope.  We visited just as it was getting dark and, although I didn’t have time for my ten minute stint, it did make me happy looking at the warm glow emanating across the terrace.

James Yamada, The Summer shelter retreats darkly among the trees, 2011. Own photograph.

Inside at Parasol is an exhibition of two Swedish artists – Cecilia Edefalk and Gunnel Wåhlstrand – that focuses on time and memory.

Cecilia Edefalk at Parasol. Own photograph.

Edefalk’s work carries a strong Scandinavian haunting melancholy.  Beautifully painted, her twelve completely different versions of the same nude (a Venus statue) focus on ideas of repetition, reproduction and historical memory.  Although all the paintings concentrate on the same subject, they could not be more different.  They allude to one another and form a complex exchange until all that remains is an abstracted, silhouetted image.  The artist is heavily involved in the exhibition and the physical set-up is an integral part of her practice – some works are displayed at angles, some upside down and so on until the exhibition becomes a performance of the artist’s own sensibilities.

Cecilia Edefalk at Parasol. Own photograph.

Upstairs, Wåhlstrand’s work blew me away.  Images do not do these justice – they are photo-realistic ink drawings, focusing on memory, that reconstruct her own personal history.  Exploring motifs from the family album, Wåhlstrand re-approaches her family history and the harrowing story of her father’s suicide when she was only one year old.  Although the images themselves are not particularly special by re-drawing them, Wåhlstrand gives them a poignant immediacy as she re-explores the past of her family that she never knew.

Gunnel Wåhlstrand, Walk, 2011. Own photograph.

As she approaches and moves beyond the stories they tell, the drawings are greatly enlarged from a normal family snapshot.  The images are soft and lacking in resolution, showing the fading of memories over time.  The softening dilutes the power of the photograph and the memory.  Both artists’ works have a profound sense of loss and distance.  We cannot get close to the figures depicted, we will never truly understand.

Gunnel Wåhlstrand upstairs at Parasol. Own photograph.

Three brilliant exhibitions and they’re next door to each other so what a bonus (I confess to having been in flats otherwise this would have been a perfect totter for me).  All the works deserve attention in different ways and then, if you’re tired from an art overload, you can sit down in Yamada’s happy house and get some energising light.  It’s a win win situation!

Alex Hartley: The world is still big is at Victoria Miro until 21st January 2012, www.victoria-miro.comJames Yamda: The summer shelter retreats darkly among the trees is at Parasol unit until 18th March 2012 and Time and Memory: Cecilia Edefalk and Gunnel Wåhlstrand is at Parasol Unit until 12th February 2012, www.parasol-unit.org.

Fitzrovia, Hoxton and a very good Fish Pie

26 Nov

The end of November seems to be overrun with new exhibitions.  Everybody is in a rush to display a host of new work before the Christmas calm hits London as people head home.  And so, on Thursday, I embarked on another plethora of gallery openings starting with the Josh Lilley Gallery – always high up on my must-see list.  For the next month, Josh Lilley is showing a debut exhibition of works by artist, Robert Pratt.  Pratt is fascinated by everyday details that most people would not observe – such as the dirty marks on a pane of glass or the effervescing bubbles in a fizzy drink.  His work seeks to turn these minutiae into a larger, physical reality, thereby forcing us to concentrate on subtle and transient moments.  His sculptures transform and revere the everyday, converting the overlooked into something full of personality that demands respect.  Through an imaginative play on found objects, the work carries a deeper message about the amount that goes unnoticed in our day-to-day lives and calls for us to slow down and admire the detail of the little things.

Robert Pratt, Star Rosette. Own photograph.

Pratt’s work has always been concerned with the gaze, although here it concentrates on the things our gaze misses.  He is not afraid to let these works stand alone; he does not seek to turn them into visually pretty objects but, instead, turns the banal subject matter into a beautiful form by allowing it to have its own presence.   The works all interact, forming trivial but inescapable relationships.  The academic theory behind these works is interesting but, personally, I didn’t find this particular exhibition as inspiring or exciting as the gallery’s previous shows.  However, Lilley sets an extremely high standard and I’m looking forward to their January exhibition of Matt Lipps’ work.

Robert Pratt downstairs at the Josh Lilley Gallery. Own photograph.

Just to make our lives difficult (and more interesting), we headed over to Hoxton.  A long and stressful day and inflexible stilettos necessitated a cab journey as the idea of the tube was rather horrific.  The Hoxton Art Gallery was packed.  Such a buzzy atmosphere is always enticing and passers-by were peering through the glass to see what was going on.  Pushing our way through, we came to a bar set up with local brews – this was certainly an interesting and well-thought out opening.

The Hoxton Art Gallery. Own photograph.

The exhibition celebrates the end of the Hoxton Art Gallery’s first year and showcases four of their artists – Guler Ates, Katie Sims, Lucy Wilson and Ha Young Kim – including new works by each of them.  Individually, there are some gorgeous pieces although there is no strong overriding theme to give the exhibition true coherence.  My works of choice were downstairs; Sims’ paintings draw you closer with her gorgeous technique and abstracted imagery gesturing to blurred landscapes and other worlds.  Ates’ work explores cultural hybrids through a series of haunting photographs.  Her works speak of her own personal experience as a Muslim woman in the 21st century.

Katie Sims, Brooks Ran Gold, 2011. Own photograph.

As it was only a five minute walk away, we headed to Spectra I, the first in a three-part survey presented by Future Tense.  I was pleased we made the effort to trip over the cobbles and make our way here.   This exhibition series focuses on artists for whom dynamic colour relationships is key to their practice.

Chuck Elliot, Radial/TWO, 2011. Own photograph.

Colour has always been an important focus in art but is something that frequently gets side-lined.  The exhibition press release quotes Paul Klee writing that ‘colour is the place where our brain and the universe meet’.  It’s certainly not just Klee who has these opinions.  In fact, it’s a topic that is under constant discussion.  John Ruskin, for example, said ‘The purest and most thoughtful minds are those which love colour the most’ and Oscar Wilde said Mere colour, unspoiled by meaning, and unallied with definite form, can speak to the soul in a thousand different ways’.  You get the idea!  The colours here certainly do speak to the soul.

Chuck Elliott, Blast FIRST/fractureRefract, 2010. Own photograph.

The sole connection here is the seven artists’ concentration on colour although the exhibition is not limited by media.  The project space itself is exceptional and the organisers have put tremendous care into the curation and this has really paid off.  Incredible lighting and installation has made some of the pieces come alive; this is a clever show – the works almost bounce off the walls with their addictive vibrancy.

One of the highlights for me was Lee Baker’s site specific installation – a mesmerising rainbow-like spider’s web of coloured yarns that brings out a childlike playfulness in viewers who can’t help but be intoxicated by the tonal harmonies.   Baker’s works explore the dichotomy between Japan’s fragile, intricate cultural aesthetic and the relentless forces of urbanisation that increasingly mark its landscape.  His wide-ranging influences are often apparent most particularly in his meticulous paintings.

Lee Baker, Refractive Monolith, 2011. Own photograph.

Adam Ball’s paintings radiate as if fuelled by an internal light source, reflecting the energy and life of an ephemeral world.  His intuitive use of colour and light, whether in his paintings or his papercuts, is brilliant.

Adam Ball, Coexistence, 2010. Own photograph.

As you enter the second part of the space, it’s impossible not to be grabbed by Kathrin Fridriks’ work which fuses contemporary imagery with architecture to form a uniquely expressive visual language made from explosions of colour.  The lighting of this piece is a tour de force and it’s hard to imagine it elsewhere.

Kathrin Fridriks, Crayons, 2011. Own photograph.

Although colour may be the overriding theme, there is so much more to these artists’ works than just the aesthetics of colour and their bold statements.  If Spectra II is going to be bigger and better then I’m already excited.

I was starving and just opposite is the perfect restaurant for the East London gallery circuit, accessed through a wonderful bakery and shop.  Albion Caff is wonderful but is certainly not a ‘caff’ and, having forgotten where it was, I was very happy to discover it once again and indulge in their fish pie and share a bottle of English wine and a good gossip.

Robert Pratt: From Table Top to Tiger Print is at the Josh Lilley Gallery until 22nd December 2011, www.joshlilleygallery.comWinter Exhibition is at Hoxton Art Gallery until 19th January 2012, www.hoxtonartgallery.co.ukFuture Tense: Spectra I is at the Londonnewcastle Project Space until 18th December 2011, www.thefuturetense.net.

 

Two Galleries for Tuesday: Stephen Friedman and White Cube

23 Nov

I often walk past the Stephen Friedman Gallery as I wander down Old Burlington Street – their wonderful frontage means it’s always easy to have a quick peek at the current exhibition without going in.  But their current exhibition of Catherine Opie photographs is reason enough to stop and take a closer look.  Although simple at first glance, Opie’s works have always been far more complicated and powerful than they initially appear.  They cross diverse genres including portraiture, landscape, and street photography, exploring complex issues of community and identity across her American homeland.  Opie has always been interested in the conditions that people live and how communities form and are defined.

Catherine Opie, The Gang, 1990. Image via www.stephenfriedman.com

This is a simply, but very well, curated show.  Opie’s work is known for moving between portraiture and landscape and this exhibition harmoniously combines these two realms, presenting two very different bodies of work: a selection of portraits from her Girlfriends series and a new series of landscapes, captured at sea – Twelve Miles to the Horizon: Sunrises and Sunsets.

Catherine Opie, Sunset 5, 2009. Image via www.stephenfriedman.com

Taken from the mid-eighties through to 2010, Girlfriends is a striking, stark series of black and white portraits showing a diverse range of friends and lovers.  Opie’s representation often aims to provoke.  With no excess allowed in her compositions, these sitters are themselves and they dare you to accept them as they are.  The works have a playful intimacy, often highly sexualised, that transforms them from voyeuristic objects into subtle peeks into the artist’s world.

Catherine Opie, Gabby (back), 1989. Image via www.stephenfriedman.com

Twelve Miles to the Horizon: Sunrises and Sunsets documents Opie’s journey on a Hanjin cargo vessel, travelling across the Pacific Ocean, from Korea to California.  Living on the ship for 11 days, Opie documented each sunrise and sunset.  The images work in pairs, in conversation with each other, focusing on the passage of time and the transience of a day.  For me, these aren’t as exciting as the series in the front gallery but they certainly are beautiful and Opie puts her mark on the well-worn genre of landscape photography.

Catherine Opie, Sunset 6, 2009. Image via www.stephenfriedman.com

Time for a drink so we headed over the cobbles into Mason’s Yard for White Cube’s exhibition of new works by Jeff Wall.  I know it’s cold, and there are Christmas decorations adorning the whole of London, but this was the first true indication that winter has arrived – for the first time in months there were more people inside the gallery than outside (where the bar is).  Quelle horreur!  As at Stephen Friedman, White Cube are showing two series of works.  The first, upstairs, Sicily, 2007 consists of only three photographs.  This was in complete contrast to Opie’s use of landscape.  Using his typical large-scale format, Wall evokes ancient settings, mingling eras in a timeless world that he creates.  The works came about after a holiday to Sicily where Wall was struck by the powerful rocky landscape and the sense of desolate beauty.  The sheer scale of the works is necessary to convey the impact of the landscape.  Wall doesn’t wish just to photograph stunning scenery but to explore the power of nature.  This is most successful in his black and white images, showing that colour is not important here, only shape and space.

Jeff Wall, Hillside, Sicily, 2009. Image via www.thisislondon.co.uk

Downstairs, White Cube are showing seven new works that depict a figure or a group of figures, who appear to be playing or enacting a role.  Again, the photographs seek to transport the viewer to Wall’s timeless world.  They are always carefully composed and staged.

One such work is Boy Falls From Tree that aims to show a contrast of calmness interrupted by drama.  Yet, the drama does not really impact on the tranquillity of the scene.  The boy is playing a role; although staged, the scene is real, it isn’t created digitally, Wall actually did have someone fall from a tree but ‘protected him from the consequences’.  It is this that gives his work such imaginative depth – staged reality (whether on TV or in art) always captures the public imagination most of all.

Jeff Wall, Boy Falls From Tree, 2010. Image via www.whitecube.com

These are good exhibitions but not really exciting and the whole evening lacked the normal buzz of PV nights in Mayfair.  Even though there are now PVs every night of the week, and the same people attend the majority, it’s always easy to lose track of time chatting.  The art world never sleeps and there’s always gossip to be shared and news to be exchanged.  Reports from friends dotted over London at other openings weren’t encouraging and, with little time to spare before they shut, I decided to put the others on my list on hold until later this week.  The joy and nightmare of living in London is the amount there is to see but I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Catherine Opie is at the Stephen Friedman Gallery until 21st January 2012, www.stephenfriedman.comJeff Wall is at White Cube until 7th January, www.whitecube.com.

 

Imagination Runs Wild – Noble’s Newtown at Gagosian

19 Nov

Nobson Newtown is an imaginary town that was first conceived by Paul Noble in the mid-1990s and has been growing ever since.  Noble’s imagination seems limitless; his latest exhibition of works plays on a new ‘civic monument on the roundabout at the outskirts of town.  The monument is a large, vertical structure that spells out the friendly message “Welcome to Nobson”’ that is also the title of the exhibition.  This is not just an idea, Nobson is where Noble’s artistic personality resides – a town comprised of labyrinths and often deserted, densely covered areas of land.

Paul Noble, Cathedral, 2011, pencil on paper. Copyright to Paul Noble, image via www.gagosian.com

Noble even wrote an introduction to his town in 1998 – a parody of a heritage guide book, describing the history of the area, even discussing geology and religion, up to the planning of the new town looking at the residential accommodation, the leisure areas, the shopping mall, and so on.  The depictions are all grey because, as the book explains, ‘there is no chemical industry in Nobson, and virtually no light…’.

As you enter Gagosian’s main gallery space through a curtain of hanging beads, you leave the chaos of London and enter the grey-scale calming dystopia of Nobson Newtown.  But, it is far from a conventional dystopia, the inherent contradictions of this place constantly confront us.  It is a perfect wasteland but how is that possible?

Entering the exhibition. Image via www.guardian.co.uk

The main piece here, and the penultimate drawing in the project, is Nobson.  The work is immense: seven metres high, it is made from 20 sheets of paper.  The sheer scale actually makes you dizzy and to study it closely you’d need both a ladder and the confidence to squat on the floor of Gagosian.

Paul Noble, detail of Welcome to Nobson, 2008-11, pencil on paper. Copyright to Paul Noble, image via www.gagosian.com

The drawing maps and marks the entrance into Nobson Newtown and two towering marble sculptures – Couple and Three – act as the sentries to the exhibition and to Nobson itself.  The huge central courtyard is fenced off, enclosing Noble’s public toilet, a separate drawing from a number of years ago.  In fact, many of the drawings focus on waste – Nobson is filled with endless rubbish sacks and turds that are also recreated in the marble sculptures.

Paul Noble, Public Toilet, 1999, pencil on paper. Image via www.frieze.com

Despite the disagreeable subject matter, the sculptures are beautiful.   The immediate comparison with Henry Moore is intentional as Noble had the marble cut from the quarry that Moore used.  I found they lack the delicacy and intimacy of the drawings but the Tetrus-like quality of the interlocking shapes is quite hypnotic and they felt like fitting custodians of the town.

Paul Noble, Couple and Three in the current Gagosian exhibition.  Image via www.guardian.co.uk

The works around the room are isolated, magnified from the main drawing.  Heaven, a walled rectangular space with no entrance or exit, seems more like hell. With broken glass on top of the walls, the scene isn’t very idyllic.  This macabre style is not out of keeping with Noble’s oeuvre.  In fact, Hell seems more like Heaven – Noble loves confusing us with incongruities.

Paul Noble, Heaven, 2009, pencil on paper. Copyright to Paul Noble, image via www.gagosian.com

One other work, A+B=C, shows two slides on a tiled floor – one has a normal gradient but, the other is too steep to be safe and, no doubt, would cause an unhappy ending.  Again the contradictory nature of Nobson rears its head as Noble depicts a malicious idea in a calmly picturesque way.  Nobson is an unsettled and unsettling place.

Paul Noble, A+B=C, pencil on paper. Image via www.guardian.co.uk

At one point, while I was walking around, I was in the room with four security guards.  There is no doubt the works are fragile but this seemed slightly OTT – maybe they, like the sculptures, were guarding the gateways to Noble’s imagination.

Paul Noble, Family is Infinity (or, Hard Labour), 2009-10, pencil on paper. Copyright to Paul Noble, image via www.gagosian.com

Many of the drawings are made from sheets of paper pinned together; they are so vulnerable, yet the drawings are incredibly solid visions into another world.  Noble apparently starts in the top left-hand corner of the paper and lets his imagination play havoc, developing his city as he goes along.  Nobson Newtown plays on the eccentricities of human life – it is a remarkable vision that is unrivalled elsewhere, one that is easy to get lost in as the viewer’s imagination mingles with that of the artist.

Paul Noble: Welcome to Nobson is at Gagosian, Britannia Street, until 17th December 2011, www.gagosian.com.

Out of London and out of Heels – A Dreary Day Out in Colchester

17 Nov

I’d been getting restless so it was time for a day trip to visit another of the new contemporary galleries popping up all over the country.  This time it was Colchester, only a hop skip and a jump away by Mini.  My sat-nav, Sean with his gorgeous Irish accent, has a real thing for the M25 and by deciding to ignore him and following my own geographical instincts the journey took a tad longer than it normally would have done.  Sorry Sean.  My route, however, enabled us to enjoy the scenery and the pretty country lanes of Essex and we arrived excited to see what Colchester has to offer.

Colchester. Own photograph.

Colchester is a hill town with typically English characteristics – a castle, a river, a market place and a strict Roman grid plan surrounded by a town wall.  It’s very walkable – in fact, we easily managed to see everything within the day and still get out in time to miss rush hour!

Colchester Castle. Own photograph.

Our first stop was the town’s Norman castle, built during the reign of William the Conqueror.  The interior doesn’t do justice to the excellent condition of the building and its impressive build.  It is designed solely with children in mind; OK, fair enough, they are the museum’s bread and butter but, here it speaks down to them with patronising and dark displays and is done in a way that practically excludes adults.  Wasted opportunity #1.

Inside the Castle. Own photograph.

A neatly manicured park sweeps down from the Castle to the River Colne and rather non-descript Roman wall.  The boating lake had dried up and was rather smelly and we hurried on.  Although the park itself is pretty, this certainly counts as wasted opportunity #2.

The River Colne. Own photograph.

The town’s Natural History Museum, that we happened on by chance, is housed within a pretty church. Unlike the castle, entry is free so it’s worth a quick peek if you’re in the area.  The churchyard is overgrown and has been left to deteriorate, a common theme in Colchester – wasted opportunity #3.  It feels a bit like a town that time has left behind and is in desperate need of some TLC.   There are some English Heritage properties in town too but everything is so badly signed that you need a degree in orientation and a great deal of common sense to get around.  Oh yes, #4.

The churchyard of the Natural History Museum. Own photograph.

After lunch, it was time to visit firstsite, our main reason for this trip.  Dubbed the Golden Banana, firstsite (annoyingly, with no capitals or spaces) opened in September this year.  Designed by Rafael Viñoly it was originally scheduled to open in 2008 with a projected budget of £18 million.  It finally came in £10 million over budget and a few years late – not a good start.  Designed as an art gallery for purposes of display, it is the strangest shape building.  The curved walls do not lend themselves to conventional picture hanging and, rather than confront this ‘problem’ with ingenious ceiling hangings or sculptural installations, the curators decided to leave vast expanses of the walls bare (and boring).  This space could be interesting to play with but the gallery just doesn’t make sense.

On approach, the building does look impressive with its distinctive gold colour.  But, although great at first sight (excuse the pun), the building peters off into a bungalow-like extension that is tedious compared with the statement-making front elevation.

Firstsite.  Own photograph.

Their current exhibition is inspired by Colchester’s history as Britain’s first city.  While all the other new galleries across the UK have gone for something big to mark their openings, this exhibition gets lost in the space.  It supposedly considers how history is represented and re-enacted and how art and archaeology invite us to think about everyday, functional objects as sources of information or symbols of our cultures, past and present.  In this vein, the gallery will permanently exhibit the Berryfield Mosaic, in almost exactly the same spot where it was discovered.  This is a nice touch as it was originally part of the dining room floor in a Roman townhouse that once stood here.  But, the amount of existing museums in Colchester concentrating on local history and civic pride meant that firstsite needed to take a braver leap.  Despite its striking design, the gallery has managed to be bland – peculiarly, one work is already missing for conservation reasons.

An empty wall at firstsite. Own photograph.

They have all the big names in there but there’s no wow factor and no feeling of excitement.  There’s a nice Bill Woodrow narrative sculpture and a good Ai Weiwei column-like sculpture that combines the traditional Chinese materials of porcelain and bamboo.  The Barbara Hepworth on loan from Tate is pressed against a wall in a specially air-conditioned room.  Visitors can’t walk around it and it seems cramped.  Yet, the leaflet proudly proclaims that at 3,200 square metres firstsite will rank among the largest contemporary art venues in the UK.  What a waste of space!

Bill Woodrow, Car Door, Boot and Wing with Roman Helmet, 1982. Own photograph.

Mostly, the gallery seems to be filled with loos – I reckon we passed about eight different toilet blocks as we went round.  Maybe they’d have been better getting a few more works in and fewer toilets.  Firstsite is a wasted opportunity (#5) and not a gallery that I’ll be rushing back to.

Inside firstsite. Own photograph.

Onwards…  We headed to the Minories, the gallery that used to house what is now firstsite.  Built in the last phase of the Palladian style, it is another stunning building although most of it is now shut off.  Again, it’s so disappointing (wasted opportunity #6).  Colchester has so much potential but most of it has been allowed to fade away.

The Minories. Own photograph.

The nearby Holytrees Museum was the most engaging stop of the day.  Built in 1719 on the site of an Elizabethan house, Holytrees is a beautiful 18th century building whose collections focus on themes of domestic life and childhood in Colchester over the last 300 years.

The Holytrees Museum. Own photograph.

We had an amble around the town with the aim of seeing Jumbo, the town’s Romanesque water tower, built by Charles Clegg in 1882-3, and standing where the Roman Forum would have been.   Construction required well over a million bricks and Jumbo can hold up to 230,000 gallons of water.  Although it was decommissioned in the 1980s, it is a beautiful structure that dominates the town and was worth the stroll to go and see it close up.  It is partly consumed by the modern developments that surround it and I think this area could have been more sensitively regenerated (that’d be #7).

Jumbo. Own photograph.

Architecturally, the old town is quite pretty but it lacked excitement.  Although there’s a lot to see, there are very many more places where I’d prefer to spend the day.  Luckily, we passed the time gossiping and we had a giggle but that was nothing to do with the ‘delights’ of Colchester – a town that hasn’t quite worked itself, or the tourist market, out yet.

Camulodunum is at firstsite, Colchester, until 22nd January 2011, www.firstsite.uk.net.

Tuesday is the new Thursday – Paul McCarthy at Hauser & Wirth and more…

15 Nov

Winter has certainly arrived and, after a quick amaretto latte at Caffè Nero (my winter essential), I was grateful to take refuge inside the first gallery of the evening. Tuesday seems to be the new Thursday and with openings all across London, I selected four within easy walking distance of each other.

I began at Hauser & Wirth on Piccadilly to see one part of their current Paul McCarthy exhibition which is spread over both their gallery spaces and St James’s Square.  Not Paul McCartney – this is an art blog!  As everyone will know, Paul McCarthy, is, of course, one of the world’s most celebrated living artists.  Jonathan Jones of the Guardian recently travelled to Los Angeles to visit McCarthy and was overwhelmed by the vastness of his studio – the size of the operation is not just a Hollywood essential but is vital to his work as the exhibition fills three spaces (four if you count the Savile Row split) with huge ambitious pieces.  He’s also currently showing in their New York gallery and his daughter, Mara, has curated their Zurich exhibition – Hauser seem to like keeping it in the family.

Paul McCarthy, The King, 2006-2011.  Copyright to, and courtesy of, the artist and via Hauser & Wirth, www.hauserwirth.com

Presiding over the ground floor at the Piccadilly space is McCarthy’s The King, a monumental installation raised on a platform and surrounded by large-scale airbrush paintings, supposedly created on the easel which stands on the said platform.  The main focus here is a silicone model of the artist – naked.  Slumped on a wooden throne, wearing a long blond wig, his limbs are partly severed, his eyes are closed (possibly in pain).  He is grotesque.  And, as is so often the case, we cannot help but look.  Church pews have been arranged in front of the piece so that the space becomes a chapel where visitors can worship at the shrine of the artist.  Incredibly, this created an almost holy hush across the gallery particularly noticeable to regular Hauser PV guests.  The King had cast an intense spell and everyone seemed intoxicated by his power.  There are other works in the vault rooms downstairs and the gallery spaces on the top floor but they didn’t have quite the same impact as the resonance of the initial piece. Neither, was it easy to access them; ascending or descending the stairs involved getting far too ‘up close and personal’ with the other guests.

Paul McCarthy, Mad House Jr., 2011.  Copyright to, and courtesy of, the artist and via Hauser & Wirth, www.hauserwirth.com

Next, I wandered along Piccadilly to Beaux Arts who have an exhibition of paintings by Jonathan Leaman.  There is no doubt that his skill as an artist is exemplary and the paintings are good but, for me, they were not sensational (maybe this is unfair considering the act they had to follow).

Jonathan Leaman, The Great Pipe, 2006-2011.  Own photograph.

Leaman is visibly inspired by narrative works from the 17th and 18th centuries and he saturates his works with meanings and emotional incidents.  Beaux Arts had one particularly special visitor in the gallery, intent on cleaning his paws whilst offering the occasional greeting to anyone who intruded on his space by the bar.

Beaux Arts’ dog and the first dog in the blog. Own photograph.

Cork Street was awash with visitors and I passed at least five other tempting openings as I headed to my number three.  But, alas, there was no time.  Well, I say that but an enticing display of shoes distracted us for at least ten minutes.  Research for Artista, of course!

Kurt Geiger. Own photograph.

TAG Fine Arts have taken over the Air Gallery on Dover Street with an exhibition of maps.  Map-making is an ancient art form that has helped to form a coherent geographical image of the world.  But, maps are no longer merely useful objects to be used for navigation and this is often the last thing on the mind of the cartographer.  This exhibition shows how traditional topography has evolved into territory for imaginative exploration.  These are not just two-dimensional pieces but windows into imagined lands.

The Art of Mapping at the Air Gallery, Dover Street. Own photograph.

The Art of Mapping celebrates cartography as an art form in which artists use maps to respond to their environments, creatively register ideologies, emotions and ideas and present selective records of real or fictitious worlds.  Highlights are new works by Stephen Walter and Rob Ryan but the exhibition showcases a number of contemporary artists concentrating on these themes including a range of new works as well as old favourites like Simon Patterson’s The Great Bear.  From Google’s controversial Street View project, to the British Library’s Magnificent Maps exhibition, cartography is increasingly in the public eye.  One vodka tonic and lots of chatting later and time seemed to be running away with me…again!

Simon Patterson, The Great Bear, 1992. Own photograph.

My final stop was part two of the McCarthy exhibition at Hauser & Wirth on Savile Row.  The North Gallery is taken over by Pig Island, a work that took seven years to complete, filling McCarthy’s studio, blurring the boundaries between a work and the workplace.

Paul McCarthy, Pig Island, 2003-2010. Own photograph from the viewing ladder.

The sculpture combines political and popular figures, placing them in a morally deviant world overrun with images of reckless abandon.  Constructed and raised on blocks of polystyrene, the work is littered with wood, cast body parts, clay, spray paint and old fast-food containers.

Paul McCarthy, Pig Island, 2003-2010. Copyright to, and courtesy of, the artist and via Hauser & Wirth, www.hauserwirth.com

Pig Island looks intentionally unfinished – a raw and never-ending work that could expand into infinity.  There is something in every nook and cranny but the state of the piece means we can see McCarthy’s thinking and the development of his skewed ideas.  Stepladders are placed around the work to allow visitors a better view of the piece.  But, stilettos and a short dress meant I didn’t dare embark on this particular climb.  Instead, my loyal friend ventured up the ladder for me (and for you) with the camera and somehow managed not to fall headfirst into the island.

The ladders/viewing platforms for Pig Island. Own photograph.

The South Gallery presents some of the offspring of Pig Island which McCarthy himself has described as a sculpture machine.  Train, Mechanical shows two pot-bellied caricatures of George W. Bush, sodomising two pigs.

Paul McCarthy, Train, Mechanical, 2003-2009. Own photograph.

As perverse as it sounds, once again, it was impossible not to stop and stare.  The sculpture was intriguing and the audience were in no hurry to move away.  The work certainly brings out the voyeur in everyone.  I dare you not to stare at the rhythmic motion of the arses of presidents and pigs alike.

Paul McCarthy, detail of Train, Mechanical, 2003-2009. Own photograph.

Round the corner of the gallery, I gave in and changed into flats for my journey home.

Regent Street.

Walking down Regent Street, I had my first glimpse of this year’s Arthur Christmas Christmas lights – the countdown has truly begun.

Paul McCarthy: The King, The Island, The Train, The House, The Ship is at Hauser & Wirth Savile Row, Piccadilly and St James’s Square until 14th January 2012 (Paul McCarthy’s outdoor sculpture Ship Adrift, Ship of Fools will be on view until 15 February at St James’s Square), www.hauserwirth.com.  Jonathan Leaman: As Above So Below, 5 Years in the Making is at Beaux Arts until 17th December 2011, www.beauxartslondon.co.ukThe Art of Mapping is at The Air Gallery until 26th November 2011, www.tagfinearts.com.

Crafted with Care – John Maine on Piccadilly

12 Nov

Before William and Kate knelt on the Cosmati pavement during their wedding ceremony in Westminster Abbey this spring not that many people knew about it.  I fell under its spell in my first year at The Courtauld.  Named after a Roman family of craftsmen who specialised in this technique, Cosmati became fashionable in the 12th and 13th centuries and the pavement is an eclectic mix of inlaid semi-precious stones (including purple porphyry, onyx and green serpentine), marble, glass and metal, some of which may be segments from the ruins of ancient Rome.  The intricate pattern of stones lies within a bed of Purbeck marble.  Composed of more than two hundred intertwined circles differentiated by various interlocking patterns, some based on triangles, the Cosmati was originally laid in 1267 to reach the first of the four steps to the Shrine of St Edward the Confessor and coordinate with the base of Henry III’s tomb.  It is possible that Henry III was inspired by the opus sectile pavement associated with St Thomas’s shrine at Canterbury.

Cosmati pavement at Westminster Abbey after restoration, 2011.  Image via http://blogs.getty.edu

Until this year, the medieval pavement had been covered by rolls of carpet that caused damage to the stones rather than protecting them.  This year, funding from the Getty has enabled the mosaic to be stabilised, the pavement to be cleaned and conserved, and damaged glass, stone and mortar to be repaired.  A protective coating has also been applied which allows the Cosmati to be on display once again.  John Maine RA was directly involved with this conservation process, acting as an advisor to the Abbey.  When I heard his talk at the RA this week, he anecdotally told that, although the pavement is now pristine, there is a scratch at the edge from Prince William’s spur.  Will was allowed to get away with it but I have a feeling they wouldn’t want me taking a closer look while wearing stilettos.

Conservators using a poultice solvent cleaning method on the Cosmati pavement with paper pulp and Shellsol.  Image via http://blogs.getty.edu

Maine’s new sculptural installation at the RA is in response to the Cosmati and the medieval use of stone.  For his new work, entitled After Cosmati, he sourced stones from Brazil, China, Cornwall, India, South Africa, Scotland and Russia, admiring the ability of the material to evoke a sense of place.  All of the stones have been selected for different reasons whether it is their aesthetics, grain or tonality.

John Maine, After Cosmati, 2011 – Blue Granite Monolith (held in straps).  Image via www.royalacademy.org.uk

There are variations of colour within the work but Maine hasn’t attempted to use the colour range in any way that could be conceived as rivalling or contrasting with Westminster’s Cosmati.   Although his work does depart a long way from the Cosmati, we are able to see the lineage of the piece.  Maine had more than one influence and he also references stone circles such as the ones found in Avebury.  He was fascinated by the way the varieties of stones in the Cosmati pavement sit together and work as a whole and it is this idea he plays with here.  It is not just the stones themselves that are important but also the spaces between them and the points at which they interact with the ground.

Avebury, July 2006. Own photograph.

For me, looking forward and back, this work is a perfect harmony of medieval and contemporary, of tradition and modern theory.  It is impossible not to engage with the sculpture.  Lines on the floor mark out a map-like ‘diagram’ which is continued in the etched stone drawings displayed in the Small Weston Room (one of which is a plan of the Cosmati pavement).  This room is like the shrine area of Edward the Confessor just beyond the pavement, representing infinity and the endless realms of representation.

John Maine, detail of Cosmati Drawing, 2011, incised Indian granite. Image via www.royalacademy.org.uk

Maine is known for his outdoor sculptures – he doesn’t usually exhibit in galleries and it is somewhat of a surprise to find him indoors.  The Large Weston Room where this piece is housed is 30m2 and this in itself was a stimulus as Maine didn’t want to restrict the size or the concept of the works.  For the Artists’ Laboratory, he has been able to exhibit work that diverges somewhat from his normal practice, although he has still created a piece that is inextricably bound to the natural world.

John Maine, Vortex for After Cosmati, 2011, granite.  Image via www.royalacademy.org.uk

One of Maine’s outdoor pieces isn’t very far away and, hurrying down Piccadilly, I was able to see his sculpture at the recently renovated Green Park underground station.   Art on the Underground commissioned Maine to make Sea Strata which uses simple forms to create a large-scale sculptural drawing in stone.  The artwork is multi-dimensional encompassing the granite pavement, where each slab is marked with an incised spiral, and the Portland stone-clad walls.  The pavement, with its turbulent sense of movement, evokes the reservoir that was housed here in the 18th century; this watery surface also gestures to the fact that these fossilised stones once formed a layer of the seabed.  Maine is fascinated by life having become rock and there is an unavoidable authenticity of the fossils found within stone.  The artist explained that he “wanted to use the Portland stone of the walls to explore the natural composition of the rock and to draw out the internal structure of the material, revealing the fossil remains of marine creatures from 150 million years ago.”   Playing on the idea of these fossils, Maine enlarged them through drawings on a band of clear stone around the tube buildings.  Portland stone is used throughout London and Maine aims to highlight its distinctive character.  In its urban setting next to the park, Sea Strata has an immediate visceral effect.

John Maine, Sea Strata, 2011. Own photograph.

I’ve rushed past the piece so many times over the past few months without really stopping to fully observe and understand it.  I imagine this is the case with many people but I urge you to stop for at least 30 seconds on your way into Mayfair and appreciate the power of the natural materials that Maine crafts with such care.

John Maine’s After Cosmati is at the Royal Academy until 18th December 2011, www.royalacademy.org.ukSea Strata at Green Park underground station is a permanent installation.

 

Masterminding Masterpieces: Leonardo at the National

10 Nov

Leonardo da Vinci at the National Gallery is one of the most talked about shows of the year and I had been eagerly anticipating my visit.

One of the world’s most famous artists, Leonardo moved to Milan in around 1483, gaining a position as a court artist for the Sforza family.  He remained there until 1499 and returned from 1506-13 when he finished his second version of Virgin of the Rocks, now housed permanently at the National Gallery.  The exhibition focuses on his time in Milan and traces the development of his work, analysing what made him the artist of all artists.  Leonardo had great ambitions for the art of painting; he revolutionised the medium to express feelings and bare the soul and this is the first exhibition to study his ambitions as a painter.

Leonardo’s Saint Jerome in the National Gallery’s exhibition. Own photograph.

Five years in the planning, the coming together of this exhibition is an immense achievement.  The sensational and unprecedented loans and the amassing of these works is something that will, in all likelihood, never be attempted again.  Nearly every surviving painting from Leonardo’s Milan period is exhibited including nine of his own works plus around 60 preparatory studies.  Curator, Luke Syson’s approach was “if you don’t ask, you don’t get” and his perseverance and sheer passion for the project paid off.   The Royal Collection and Her Majesty The Queen have generously lent 33 sketches and studies which are some of the highlights of the exhibition.  Very few works actually come from the National’s own collection – they are, of course, showing The Burlington House Cartoon which looks spectacular in its new temporary home in the Sainsbury galleries.

Leonardo da Vinci, Study of a man with his head turned, c. 1495, red chalk on red prepared paper.  Lent by Her Majesty The Queen, image via www.royalcollection.org.uk

Each room is based on a theme, focused around one Leonardo and supplemented by drawings and works from his followers.  Often, the works serve little purpose, detracting from the main focus of the show.

Room two is themed Beauty and Love and shows two of the three portraits completed in Milan.  Leonardo talks about a painting’s capacity to inspire love, a response that this room is certainly capable of eliciting.  The Lady with an Ermine shows the Mistress of the Duke of Milan, described at the time as being “as beautiful as a flower”.  The divide of her face is mesmerising – one side is tentative while the other is alert with a slight smile, drawing us in closer.  The portrait is so vivid that we almost believe she is real.  Painted in 1488-90, the work shows Cecilia Gallerani with a white ermine, a visual pun on her surname since the Greek for ermine is galay.  It may also represent her lover, Ludovico Sforza, who had been awarded the order of the Ermine and was often known as l’Ermellino.

Leonardo da Vinci, Portrait of Cecilia Gallerani (‘The Lady with an Ermine’), c. 1489–90, oil on walnut.  Courtesy of the Princes Czartoryski Foundation, image via www.theartsdesk.com

Shown in the same room is The Belle Ferronnière, a lady whose identity is much debated.  Syson thinks she may be the Duchess of Milan and, if so, the mistress and the wife are displayed here in the same room.  The figure’s head is a perfect oval and it is possible to see the ideal proportions of the face as Leonardo has imposed his geometrical workings onto a real face showing the ideal of womanhood.

Leonardo da Vinci, Portrait of a Woman (‘La Belle Ferronnière’), c. 1493–4, oil on walnut. Image via www.louvre.fr

There is a remarkable sense of encounter with his portraits, partly achieved through the power of the intoxicating gaze.  It’s easy to spend hours analysing one Leonardo but that is not my aim here.  Ironically, the popularity of the show will prevent you from affording these works the time they deserve.

Be warned.  Own photograph.

One of the highlights of the exhibition is the inclusion of the two Virgin of the Rocks – one from the Louvre and the National Gallery’s own recently restored version.  The Virgin of the Rocks was intended as an altarpiece for the Confraternity of the Immaculate Conception but, when the original work was finished in 1485, Leonardo decided that the price was too low.  When they wouldn’t give him more money, he sold the work to someone else.  So, the Confraternity were forced to commission a replacement which was not to be finished until 1508.  Despite having the same subject, there are notable variations between the two works.  However, they are not shown here in competition or for comparison.  Instead, they are displayed opposite one another in conversation as individual masterpieces.  Nobody before now has seen these two works together and I doubt anyone ever will again.

Leonardo da Vinci, The Virgin of the Rocks, c. 1491/2–99 and 1506-8, oil on poplar, thinned and cradled. Image via www.nationalgallery.org.uk

I know that wall colour is a constant gripe of mine but it is important and they’ve chosen a gloomy aubergine that consumes the works.  Journalists at the preview seemed united in this criticism.  The wall texts do not show off the achievements of the exhibition and can often be relatively mundane.  Yet, the catalogue is fascinating, beautifully laid out and riveting.  It just didn’t translate well enough from page to wall.

In a career covering roughly 50 years, Leonardo only completed 15 paintings.  Prolific he was not, but a genius he certainly was.   This exhibition is a crowd-pleaser and visitors are flocking to see the Leonardos. The National Gallery may have restricted entry numbers but this is going to be hell on earth for anyone visiting.  On Tuesday, the queues were forming to buy advance tickets even though the exhibition is nearly sold out for this year.

Queues at the National Gallery. Own photograph.

The catalogue is definitely worth buying and illustrates what an amazing concept this is.  This will be the most important exhibition of the year.  Although it doesn’t have the razzle dazzle I expected, the works themselves and the fact that they are here is incredible.

Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan is at the National Gallery until 5th February 2012, www.nationalgallery.org.uk.

The Shoe as Art (heaven!)

4 Nov

As you will have realised from reading Artista, I have a serious weakness for shoes.  This isn’t a new addiction either.  During my school days, I once donned Barbarella-inspired self-constructed silver boots for a fantasy fashion show.  Nowadays, practicality plays more of a part (well, slightly) and I am usually found tottering around Mayfair in stilettos.

My Barbarella-esque shoes on show a few years back. Own photograph.

So, I am devastated (and, no, that’s not an exaggeration) that I am still ill at home and can’t visit this exhibition myself.  It is surely one that would make my top 10 list for this year as it is an exhibition of spectacular shoes.  Just because I haven’t been able to visit in person, doesn’t mean I haven’t been able to indulge and spend an inordinate amount of time salivating over the photographs.

Shoes for Show in Brick Lane. Image via www.thisismission.com.

High heels date back to the Egyptian times when the upper classes were thought to have worn a form of raised heel for ceremonial purposes.  Over time, these shoes developed and progressed.  In the 15th century, the chopine could be seven or eight inches high acknowledging wealth or social standing.  The formal invention of the heel is thought to trace to Catherine de Medici who felt insecure when compared to the taller mistresses of her then fiancé, the Duke of Orléans.  To give her more allure, she donned two inch heels and well and truly ignited the fashion.  Now, heels are a familiar part of our culture, often in the press for their controversial designs or with safety warnings as models topple on the catwalk.

Beyonce’s shoe from the Rule the World video, designed by Gareth Pugh.  Image via www.thisismission.com. 

Organised by online shoe store, www.javari.co.ukShoes for Show: The Sculptural Art of High Heels is an exhibition after my own heart, displaying a selection of high couture designs from private collections dating back to the 1850s – shoes that were designed to be appreciated for their beauty, not their function.  An idea that I’ve long though should apply to shoes anyway.  The show aims to “focus on [the shoes’] beauty by placing them in the context of a gallery as sculptural pieces of art.”

Catwalk shoes in the exhibition. Image via www.thisismission.com. 

The word stiletto comes from the Italian for a pointed dagger or knife and,the exhibition includes Roger Vivier’s classic 1950s shoe for Dior, often credited with being the first stiletto.  Fittingly, Vivier was studying at art school and planning to be a sculptor when friends invited him to design a collection of shoes.  This surely shows the sculptural element of these phenomenal designs.  There is no doubt that these designers are artists.  Yantourny, for example, only made shoes as art objects with each work taking two to three years.  His only aim was to create a work that could be admired by future generations.  Many of these shoes are designed to make a statement such as, Rupert Sanderson’s designs for Verdi’s Aida at the Royal Opera House with figures from Greek mythology creating the undercarriage of the shoe.  To be worn by Princess Amneris, they were designed to stand out like diamonds on a beach full of pebbles.

Rupert Sanderson for the Royal Opera House.  Image via www.thisismission.com. 

Christian Louboutin (the god of shoes) designed jewel encrusted ballet slippers for the English National Ballet in June of this year; they are extraordinary, an innovative play on the verticality of the ballerina’s pointe shoe.  Identified by his trademark red soles, the shoes defy belief…and gravity.  He “could not help being inspired by English National Ballet…after all…isn’t the classical dancing ballet slipper the ultimate heel?  The heel which makes dancers closer than any other woman to the sky, closer to heaven.”

Christian Louboutin and Daphne Guinness shoes. Image via www.thisismission.com. 

These one-off designs are certainly artforms, capturing a range of designers’ sensational creativity.  Nicholas Kirkwood’s Alice in Wonderland heels designed for the spectacular window displays at Printemps in Paris (that I was lucky enough to see last year) involved the designer travelling the length and breadth of the UK’s car boot sales to find trinkets for adornment.

Nicholas Kirkwood for Printemps.  Image via www.thisismission.com. 

For those of you who scoff and say is it art?  For me, there is no doubt.  The exhibition presents ‘sculptures’ that are a clever fusion of fashion, art and design and inspire a powerful need in visitors to go shopping.  Even just viewing from my sofa, I’m having some serious shoe cravings.

Make sure you’re wearing your best heels to strut along this weekend.

Shoes for Show is at the Loading Bay, 91 Brick Lane only until 8th November 2011, http://www.trumanbrewery.com/cgi-bin/exhibitions.pl.

The Positive in Plath: Her Drawings at the Mayor Gallery

2 Nov

Sylvia Plath is one of the literary greats from the 20th century.  Married to Poet Laureate, Ted Hughes, Plath tragically committed suicide at the age of 30.  The themes of her work, with its often-alarming frankness and confessional nature, came to influence an entire generation of artists and writers.  Plath’s renown stems mostly from her poetry, rather than her art.

Sylvia Plath, Bull near Grantchester, 1956. Image via www.mayorgallery.com

The Mayor Gallery are showing 44 never-before exhibited drawings by Plath, accompanied by an exhibition of 18 works by Dadamaino, one of the key artists of the Zero Group, characteristic of her style: cut-out monochromatic canvases and stretched, perforated plastic works.

Dadamaino, Volume, 1959. Image via www.mayorgallery.com

Plath travelled in Europe and recorded it all through keenly observed drawings, many of from her time in Paris.  These carefully constructed pen and ink drawings depict a relatively serene world where Plath seems to have enjoyed natural beauty and stillness, finding incredible harmony and precision in the everyday.  There is a childish simplicity here that is certainly never evident in her writing.  The drawings have an incredible feeling of purity with no trace of despair.  They are not to be over-analysed but should be looked at in contrast to her written works; they take the form of escapism, showing a happier side to her character.

Sylvia Plath, Tabac Opposite Palais de Justice, 1956. Image via www.mayorgallery.com

Art had always been important to Plath and she received private tuition as a teenager.  The drawings focus on an art form that gave her pleasure and inspiration.  It was a form of passion that allowed her to flourish in a positive way in contrast to her decline into mental illness.

Sylvia Plath, Curious French Cat, 1956. Image via www.mayorgallery.com

Her early letters, diary notes and poems were often heavily decorated, and she hoped her drawings would illustrate the articles and stories that she wrote for publication.  Ted Hughes mentioned Plath’s art in his last collection of poems, Birthday Letters where he directly refers to her drawings of Paris roofs, a traffic bollard, a bottle, and himself.

Sylvia Plath, Beaujolais bottle, 1956. Image via www.mayorgallery.com

Art features in Plath’s own poetry too and, in 1958, she wrote eight poems inspired by the works of her favourite artists, Klee, Rousseau and De Chirico. She admired, what she called, their primitive forms and was greatly motivated by their works.  Plath described her imagination as visual and these paintings helped to spur her on.

Plath’s semi-autobiographical work, The Bell-Jar, is seemingly referenced in one of the drawings by the same name.  The BellJar tells of Esther Greenwood who travels to New York to work as a guest editor on a magazine.  Far from being a routine coming-of-age story, Esther regresses into madness.  For Esther, the Bell Jar itself symbolises madness.  The drawing depicts a pair of red patent shoes (I’ve always rather fancied a pair myself) that recall a passage in the book, “I had removed my patent leather shoes after a while, for they foundered badly in the sand. It pleased me to think they would be perched there on a silver log pointing out to sea, like a sort of soul-compass after I was dead.”

Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar, 1963. Image via www.mayorgallery.com

Plath’s written work is often permeated with themes of death, redemption and resurrection.  Here too, she uses details from everyday life as the raw material for her writing but transforms the mundane into actions charged with meaning, overwrought with images of rage, despair, love and vengeance.  It is difficult to understand her work unless you understand her life.

Sylvia Plath, The Ubiquitous Umbrella, 1955-56. Image via www.mayorgallery.com

The main question here is would these drawings been so admired if they were not by Plath?  I think probably not but I don’t think that matters.  They are not outstanding works of art in their own right but, this aside, they are beautiful.  This simple exhibition is well-curated, showing a range of gorgeous and life-affirming works – everything that we would not expect from Plath.

Sylvia Plath: Her Drawings & Dadamaino: Volumes are at The Mayor Gallery until 16th December 2011, www.mayorgallery.com.

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