Archive | February, 2012

An Exhibition of Everything – Lines of Thought at Parasol

29 Feb

Because it’s not right in the heart of Mayfair Parasol Unit often gets missed off the PV lists but art enclaves now exist all over London and Islington isn’t really as out of the way as many people think.  Last night, with dinner plans only a five minute drive away in Clerkenwell, I was determined and went to see Parasol’s new exhibition – Lines of Thought.

A mixed show, the exhibition includes work by Helene Appel, Hemali Bhuta, James Bishop, Raoul De Keyser, Adrian Esparza, Özlem Günyol & Mustafa Kunt, Sol LeWitt, Richard Long, Jorge Macchi, Nasreen Mohamedi, Fred Sandback, Conrad Shawcross, Anne Truitt, and Richard Tuttle.

Özlem Günyol & Mustafa Kunt, Ceaseless Doodle, 2009. Image via www.designweek.co.uk.

Line is one of most powerful forms of artistic expression in history.  The exhibition, therefore, was based around a very simple premise.  Whether seen as continuous, broken, curved or straight, it’s everywhere and forms the basis for everything.  Some of the works show the magnitude and extravagance that can now be achieved through a focus on linear exploration.

Fred Sandback, Untitled Nr 4, 1968/1983. Image via www.designweek.co.uk.

Raoul De Keyser’s paintings, upstairs at Parasol, recall the workings of such Abstract Expressionists as Mark Rothko, where he has divided the small canvases into black and white fields, playing with the horizontal.  His paintings are introverted, self-reflections on his varied life.

Downstairs is more dramatic; Hemali Bhuta’s Stepping down is a site-specific installation using thousands of wax stalactites to mimic candles.  The impressive installation is somewhat diminished by the range of works in the gallery but the piece is still visually striking, transforming one corner of the room into a cave-like space where dripping formations evolve out of the ceiling.

Hemali Bhuta, Stepping down, 2010. Image via www.parasol-unit.org.

Adrian Esparza’s new work, So Fast and Slow, shows a mounted Mexican blanket that has been partially unravelled.  Much of his inspiration comes from his borderland experience in El Paso, where he lives and works, and his daily encounters with political divides.  Although So Fast and Slow is a new work this year, Esparza has created similar pieces before.  Here, guided through a loom-like maze of nails, the cotton thread becomes a strikingly geometric colourful landscape looking at the turbulent history it represents.  Esparza shows the blanket both as a constructed object and as a deconstructed form suggesting the potential for new possibilities from past forms.

Adrian Esparza, So Fast and Slow, 2012. Image via www.parasol-unit.org.

Of course, no exhibition on line would be complete without Richard Long (fresh from Haunch of Venison) and Sol LeWitt’s Wall Drawing #103 from 1971.

For me, Conrad Shawcross’s Harmonic Manifold 1 (5:4) stands out and still has the same mysterious enigma as when I first saw it at Turner Contemporary and then again at Frieze – it’s been around quite a lot.  Placed on a raised platform surrounded by Shawcross’s drawings the work commands respect, bringing its own inspirational gravitas to Parasol.

Conrad Shawcross, Harmonic Manifold 1 (5:4), 2011. Own photograph.

The exhibition is a well-thought out idea, nothing radical, nothing subversive.  My fellow gallery-goer thought it had crossed the line and was dull.  I thought the strength of the disparate works kept it interesting.  The main problem is that line can be so manipulated that, in fact, the theme of the exhibition is everything, as everything uses line.

Outside at Parasol. Own photograph.

Parasol will always have the advantage that their stunning gallery space shows off works to their best no matter what they are.  It was a warm evening and people were milling outside by the pond, sipping champagne under Yamada’s SAD light and returning to the exhibition with smiles on their faces.

Lines of Thought is at Parasol unit until 13th May 2012, www.parasol-unit.org.

Rocking and Rolling: the fourth plinth, Hauser & Wirth and Sadie Coles

26 Feb

I didn’t manage to make it to Trafalgar Square for the 9am unveiling of Powerless Structures, Fig. 101 last Thursday but I did amble along in the afternoon while they were clearing away from the pomp and circumstance of the morning.  Tourists were giving the work a casual glance as if it had been there for years, nobody seemed too perturbed by the latest fourth plinth sculpture, shining resplendent in the sun.

This, the 8th commission, by artists Elmgreen & Dragset, is a 4.1m high, golden bronze sculpture of a boy astride a rocking horse.

Elmgreen & Dragset, Powerless Structures, Fig. 101, 2011. Own photograph.

The fourth plinth was originally intended for a bronze equestrian statue and the installation of this new work directly engages with the history of the plinth itself, taking it back to its roots.  The planned sculpture in the 1840s was of King William IV but now a child has been elevated to the status of the other heroes honoured in Trafalgar Square.  The work celebrates heroism – the heroism of youth and of growing up, asking us to look at events in our life that we often skip over without due reflection.  The child plays on his horse, conquering the world and leading his imaginary army to victory.

Elmgreen & Dragset, Powerless Structures, Fig. 101, 2011. Own photograph.

I don’t think the designers of the fourth plinth ever envisaged an equestrian statue like this.  Elmgreen & Dragset are gently mocking tradition but, at the same time, they have modernised it without being patronising, successfully engaging with past purpose and intention.  The monument cannot honour the figure’s history as he is only a child so it honours his future.  Cheeky?  Yes.  Derogatory?  No.  With a raised arm referencing classical works of the past, the work is both contemporary and historical.

Trafalgar Square. Own photograph.

It’s not my favourite piece to adorn the plinth and I do now rather miss Yinka’s boat but Powerless Structures is not offensive and I see why the Mayor’s Office may have wanted a relatively tame piece up for the Olympics.  The public are able to instantly engage with this work.  It’s obvious, it’s eye-catching, it’s pretty.

After a refreshing cup of tea, I headed over to Hauser & Wirth to catch their two new exhibitions, the openings of which I had missed a couple of nights previously but I hear that their brass band caused quite a stir and a distraction.

Michael Raedecker, pretence, 2012. Own photograph.

The North Gallery is showing a selection of works by Michael Raedecker who pushes the boundaries of his medium, exploiting texture using embroidery interwoven with the painted canvas.  The subject matter isn’t the most exciting – abstracted scenes of suburban architecture and everyday domesticity such as chandeliers and curtains – but the paintings explore the combination of fine art and craft, of a male painter enlivening a feminine craft.  There is something melancholic and unsettling about some of his scenes, shimmering worlds on distressed, punctured canvases where his use of silver paint adds a new dimension to the works.  The paintings seek to evade a specific interpretation or genre; they pull you in but they don’t quite have the required emotional intensity to keep you there.

Michael Raedecker, detail of strip, 2012. Own photograph.

People seemed to be using Hauser as a resting place and, at times, the window ledge was busier than the gallery.

Hauser & Wirth’s window ledge. Own photograph.

In Hauser’s South Gallery are works by Mary Heilmann – paintings, ceramics and her distinctive chairs.  Heilmann’s paintings conjure a diverse range of moods and atmospheres; they tell her on-going life story, recalling long road-trips or her visits to the sea, watching the wild waves break on the shore.  Rather than seeing her works as individual entities, Heilmann views the entire show as an installation piece and visitors are incorporated in the work.  This explains the chairs!  Ironically, no-one had stopped for a rest in these.  Heilmann wants people to sit down, relax and enjoy the work but the chairs didn’t look particularly stable and, although the security guards encouraged me to do so (with wry smiles) I didn’t fancy the chances of lowering myself into them wearing these boots; I had visions of rolling across the entire gallery.

Mary Heilmann at Hauser & Wirth. Own photograph.

Neither of these Hauser exhibitions has that ‘je ne sais quoi’ to keep me in the galleries very long.  I headed further down Savile Row to Situation, a new gallery at Sadie Coles HQ.  Devoted to the work of Sarah Lucas, Situation (just above the normal gallery space but accessed through a separate door) will show her new installations in February, May, August and November of this year.  The space is intentionally shabby – a disused office that has been transformed.

Entering Situation. Own photograph.

The opening exhibition is signature Lucas and recalls her once highly provocative works from the 1990s – sculptures using found domestic objects where fried eggs and a chicken reference her early works about sexual stereotyping.

Sarah Lucas at Situation. Own photograph.

Her new works use the same things we’re used to and stuffed tights play a strong role in Viz. Nice Tits where concrete casts of thigh-high boots stand on the floor.  Above them hangs a metal grill filled with stuffed tights in the shape of boobs and phalluses.

Sarah Lucas, Viz. Nice Tits, 2011. Own photograph.

The space is only small but I get the feeling Lucas is reeling us in and will expand over the year.  What will she do in May?  Make a bigger bang, I imagine.

Sarah Lucas in MumMum, 2012. Courtesy of Ben Springett.

In the conventional gallery space, there is an exhibition of new glazed ceramics by Paloma Varga Weisz.  Upstairs is quite calm and the works are small, muted and could be mistaken for decorative whereas downstairs is more overt.  Mother shows a figure in a shroud lying on a table, captured ambiguously in sleep or death, either emerging from or receding into the slab beneath.

Paloma Varga Weisz, Mother, 2011. Own photograph.

I had hoped for some more excitement but nothing that afternoon really enlivened me.  My sore feet needed a taxi to carry on to the tunnels for week three of VAULT.

Michael Raedecker: volume and Mary Heilmann: Visions, Waves and Roads  are both at Hauser & Wirth, Savile Row until 5th April 2012, www.hauserwirth.com.  Situation is on the first floor of 4 New Burlington Place for all of 2012, www.sadiecoles.comPaloma Varga Weisz is at Sadie Coles HQ until 25th February 2012, www.sadiecoles.com.

Parallel Painting Paths – Mondrian and Nicholson converse at The Courtauld

22 Feb

As you know, the exhibition space at The Courtauld is at the very top of the building.  Now, during a quiet afternoon it may be permissible to have a quick pant in-between floors or to embark on the climb wearing flat shoes but these weren’t options at an evening opening and so I bravely tottered all the way up, without stopping and without moaning (well, not that I recall).  This is an unusual exhibition in many regards: It is a more contemporary show than we would expect of The Courtauld, it successfully changes the gallery aesthetic and it pairs two artists who many wouldn’t otherwise have realised are connected.

The exhibition explores the creative relationship between Piet Mondrian and Ben Nicholson, allowing us to continue London’s exploration of Modern British, charting the parallel paths explored by the two artists during the 1930s when their works were often presented side-by-side.  The exhibition presents the two artists in parallel – in conversation – with the works leading us through their story.  When Nicholson first visited Mondrian’s studio in 1934 he had to rest in a café afterwards to try to take in what he had just seen – the elegant serenity of the works, the ambience of the studio and the energy of Mondrian himself.  This visit marked the beginning of a fascinating friendship that lasted until Mondrian’s death.

Ben Nicholson, 1936 (white relief). Image  via www.courtauld.ac.uk

At Nicholson’s invitation, Mondrian moved from Paris to London where the two worked in neighbouring studios in Hampstead.  They were separated by the outbreak of war when Mondrian moved to New York and Nicholson to Cornwall but there are over 60 letters from Mondrian to Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth (Nicholson’s then wife) covering the ten years of their friendship.

As they often do, The Courtauld has cleverly conceived a show around one of their own works – this time a Nicholson canvas, 1937 (painting).  It is part of a group of related works with powerful colour combinations of white, black, yellow and red, moderated by a cool blue.  Nicholson stretched his canvas over board, ensuring a flat and solid surface on which to work.  As ever, the painting is precise and disciplined; the colour planes are carefully ruled and there is no chance that colours will bleed into each other.  The painter’s mark is suppressed. The composition is actually very unlike Mondrian but these two artists are united by their use of forms.

Ben Nicholson, 1937 (painting). Image  via www.courtauld.ac.uk

Nicholson explores lines, shapes and spatial effects in a subtle way whereas Mondrian’s works radiate energy.  It is so easy to go around this exhibition comparing them but this should not be the point.  Yes, their lives are placed in comparison but Nicholson was never trying to imitate Mondrian and their works must be viewed as a relationship of influence.  Their art offers an alternative modern vision using a restrained vocabulary of colour and line.  Although, at times, the compositions may be strikingly similar and their vocabulary is harmoniously shared, they are very different.  They do work well as conversational pairs but there can be no denying their extreme differences. Mondrian’s works have a calming effect yet their vibrancy is uncontainable.

Before this show, I don’t think many people were aware of the depth of the mutually reinforcing friendship of Mondrian and Nicholson.  Like the exhibition, the catalogue is small and focused, a perfect reflection of a joyously academic and calming show.  It mentions the ‘opposites attract’ theory stating that Nicholson was a networker while Mondrian was a loner, Nicholson demanding and provocative while Mondrian was courteous and quiet and that Nicholson was intolerant while Mondrian was patient.  Further research into their lives has shown that this is probably a myth but a rather nice one as there is an interesting parallel in their works – they are similar but different.

Piet Mondrian, Composition C (no. III), with Red, Yellow and Blue, 1935. Image courtesy of Mondrian/Holtzman Trust and via www.courtauld.ac.uk

Mondrian painted using very specific rules where geometric figures were only ever to be the result of linear intersections and never to be separate forms.  Colour was reduced to the three most saturated primaries creating a stark contrast of black lines with bright colours.  His works have a forceful impact.

No spotlights are used to illuminate the paintings; instead, the white walls are floodlit bathing the works in light rather than starkly presenting them.  The show is beautifully and thoughtfully curated.   The exhibition space isn’t large and, therefore, the curators needed to be disciplined in their selection, presenting juxtaposing works that reveal the similarities and differences between these two artists.  Comments that the show is too small are unfair as this is what The Courtauld has to work with and they have done so brilliantly and in an astute fashion.

Mondrian and Nicholson present two strains of modernism that art history has often separated.  Now, thanks to this smartly masterminded exhibition, the two are no longer disjointed and are shown to be very much related.  Although Mondrian was Nicholson’s senior by 22 years, this only aided their reciprocal inspiration and willingness to develop.  The exhibition concludes with Nicholson’s 1936 (two forms) and Mondrian’s Composition No. III White-Yellow from 1935-42.  Nicholson’s painting, of which he produced nine variations over a period of great upheaval, is a transitional work that concludes his abstract paintings of the 1930s.  A small but intense rectangle sits proudly among three shades of grey; the work illustrates Nicholson’s highly refined use of colour relationships and the precise combinations he engineered.  The vertical format of the Mondrian is relatively unusual giving emphasis to the shape due to the obvious length of the lines.  No horizontals cross the full width of the composition.  Although the artists were apart when these works were conceived and painted, the paintings speak of the profound affinity that had developed between the two men as they worked in parallel.

Ben Nicholson, 1940-43 (two forms). Image via www.courtauld.ac.uk

The PV was so busy that I must return to this show another time, to view the works in a calmer atmosphere than amidst the bustling crowds of last Wednesday.  Not that there’s ever anything wrong with a bit of chatter and a glass of wine!  Dinner at Cigalon beckoned and I made my way a tad more cautiously back down the stairs.

Mondrian||Nicholson: In Parallel is at The Courtauld Gallery until 20th May 2012, www.courtauld.ac.uk.

Due to restrictions by the Mondrian estate, I have only been able to reproduce one image here without charge.

Two days left to catch the Burra Bug

17 Feb

By now, you’ve probably all seen the documentary and read about the Edward Burra exhibition which opened at Pallant House in October.  Various things have conspired against me and yesterday I realised how close I had come to missing this show.  So, off I went on a very Mini Adventure.  If I can’t take the car via the Strand and Waterloo Bridge then I tend to navigate via The Stoop (Harlequins’ home ground) and this was the way I zoomed yesterday.

This is the first major show for over 25 years of Burra’s works and he is finally getting a smidgeon of the recognition he deserves.  As well as his work being included in Tate Britain’s watercolour show, Zoot Suits fetched a record £1.8 million at Sotheby’s sale of the Evill/Frost Collection.  But, the art world elite have always been aware of his work.  It’s to everyone else that he has remained a mystery.

Edward Burra, Zoot Suits, 1948.  Image via www.voltcafe.com

The Edward Burra exhibition provides an opportunity to study Burra’s extraordinary creativity.  Burra was remarkable; suffering from severe arthritis and rheumatism, he was barely able to move his claw-like hands at the end of his life and grasped a paintbrush with his swollen fist.  Serious anaemia also left him debilitated and subject to collapse with no energy but, notwithstanding his constant ill health, he never wanted to be defined by this as it was something that he abhorred.  Burra was fortunate to be born to a wealthy family and to have humour and an indomitable spirit, qualities that allowed him to rise above his many illnesses.  For Burra, art was his drug and his escape; the only time that he didn’t feel any pain was when he was painting.

Edward Burra, The Snack Bar, 1930. Image via www.tate.org.uk

Burra lived in Rye, Sussex but he travelled far and wide drawing inspiration from diverse sources, creating complex artworks often redolent of the time in which he lived.  His sharp eye combined with a love and knowledge of art history that is often evident in his works.  He was fascinated by modern urban life – the cheap glamour of tarts and prostitutes who congregated in the Mediterranean seaports and the boulevards of Montparnasse and by the black culture he saw in Harlem where he was intoxicated by the violent colour, noise and heat.

Edward Burra, Harlem, 1934. Image via www.tate.org.uk

Apart from his collages, almost all of Burra’s incredible works are executed in watercolour and he was one of the most skilled exponents of the medium.  Initially, it’s hard to believe that they are not painted in tempera as the handling of the medium is so tight and the works lack the fluidity and tonal quality one would normally associate with watercolour.  It’s probable that he worked so heavily with this medium as it allowed him to paint at a table rather than being forced to stand at an easel.

Edward Burra, The Straw Man, 1963. Image via www.guardian.co.uk.  

Burra is an eccentric artist who resists categorisation.  The characters in his paintings jump out at you from their frames.  His compositions are often playful, provocative and powerful – nowhere else will you find such dynamism and life.   The Danse Macabre works look at Burra’s experimentation with collage; his strange composite beings are almost Surrealist and further heighten the confusion as to what movement Burra should be ‘shoved’ into.

Edward Burra, Dancing Skeletons, 1934. Image via www.tate.org.uk

The Pallant House exhibition is ordered by theme – High Art/Low Culture, Danse Macabre, A Sense of Unease, The Sussex Landscape, Late Landscapes and Painting The Stage – which works quite well because it is hung in relatively small rooms off the main gallery space.   It’s a difficult exhibition space to work and although a thematic display is successful sometimes the rooms feel too isolated and self-contained.

Most of the works here are on loan from private collections and are rarely seen.  The exhibition includes some very unusual Burra works, particularly the Sussex landscapes with which I wasn’t really familiar; these are rare as the majority of Burra’s work did not deal with Britain.  The room of Late Landscapes includes Burra’s painting materials and colour tests from the ’70s. Amidst these is an envelope that had become a testing page and a shopping list; in his distinctive writing Burra has scrawled ‘anchovies, paste, sardines, coffee, BRD, 4 batterys, savlon’.   This is a really lovely human detail.  In fact, as I write there is an envelope next to me that I have commandeered as a to-do list.

Edward Burra, Landscape near Rye, 1934-5. Image via www.pallant.org.uk

Burra was able to create an incredible atmosphere of suspense with heightened drama.  Although his subject altered radically over the years, there is always a sense that something isn’t quite right as he imbues even happy scenes with a sinister quality.  His works are humorous but disquieting, both comic but tragic; we are always left with questions and never quite know what Burra wanted us to think.  But that is the point.  After all, he famously said that he never ‘never tell[s] anybody anything’ so he wanted us to work it out for ourselves – or maybe not.

I was pleased to see how busy the exhibition was.  It is Burra’s seedy depictions of social scenes that grab us, opening windows into the underbelly of a world we have not visited.  John Rothenstein suggested that they may ‘constitute the most grand and the most vivid interpretation of the least reputable seams of society by any painter of our time’.  Although I’d have liked to see a few more of his idiosyncratic bustling urban scenes, the exhibition is great to allow an overview of the Burra that few people know.

Edward Burra, Three Sailors at a Bar, 1930. Image via www.hh-h.com

I’m not sure you’d leave Chichester loving Burra if you don’t already but if you have the Burra bug, like me, then it’s definitely worth rushing down to this.  I hope that before too long there will be another opportunity to talk more about Burra but, right now with only two days left, I urge you to jump on the train or head over via The Stoop and see his work for yourself.

Edward Burra is at Pallant House Gallery until 19th February 2012.  Also, in room four is a small David Dawson exhibition which includes his wonderfully intimate photos of Freud – some of which are at the NPG – and his own lesser known paintings.  David Dawson: Working with Lucian Freud is on until 20th May 2012, www.pallant.org.uk.

Pestilence in Palermo – Van Dyck in Sicily

15 Feb

As many of you will know, I’m somewhat geographically challenged.  When I was studying, I found a quick and easy way from home to the Strand.  As a result, when I drive around London (and I mean anywhere in London), I operate rather like a homing pigeon.  I can get to pretty much anywhere as long as I plan my route around the Strand.  So you can imagine my delight when the online route planner advised me to go exactly that way to get to the Dulwich Picture Gallery on Tuesday morning.  And better than that, the route then continued past VAULT.  I couldn’t stay away even for a day.

I got to Dulwich without any real mishaps and managed to park outside the Picture Gallery.  What a relaxing way to travel – well, apart from the traffic, speed cameras and red lights but that’s all par for the course.  At least I had heating the whole way!

Anyway, the reason for my visit to the other side of London was the opening of Dulwich’s new Van Dyck exhibition which focuses on the year and a half he spent in Sicily.  The exhibition brings together all 16 of the works believed to have been executed during his stay in Palermo.  Normally, when we think of Van Dyck we think of Charles I or the Swagger portraits and, until now, very little study has been devoted to this earlier period.

Van Dyck exhibition at the Dulwich Picture Gallery. Own photograph.

The key point to be aware of here is that Van Dyck only spent a short amount of time in Sicily and his paintings were quite time-consuming enterprises.  I warn you of this because I was initially surprised by the size of the show – half the normal amount of rooms used for Dulwich’s temporary exhibitions.  Admittedly, the three rooms used here are beautifully curated with deep purple and dark grey walls.  Although compact, it’s full of personality –the exuberance of Van Dyck, Dulwich and the curator, Xavier Salomon.  It’s a dramatic exhibition.

Sir Anthony Van Dyck, Emanuele Filiberto of Savoy, Prince of Oneglia, 1624.  Courtesy of the Trustees of Dulwich Picture Gallery and via www.dulwichpicturegallery.org.uk

Hearing Xavier give his exhibition tour took me back to my days at The Courtauld when he taught a survey course in my 1st year.  Until 1999 it had been thought that Van Dyck only spent four months in Palermo but recent discoveries, made possible by the Sicilian state archives, have been able to prove the full time frame using legal documents, invoices and papers regarding commissions.

Sir Anthony Van Dyck, St Rosalie in Glory, 1624. Courtesy of The Menil Collection, Houston and via www.dulwichpicturegallery.org.uk

Here, we are told the story of how Van Dyck arrived in Palermo in 1624 expecting to complete a commission to paint Viceroy Emanuele Filiberto of Savoy and head home.  But, things didn’t go quite to plan.  In May 1624, a ship from Tunis arrived at the busy port of Palermo carrying with it bubonic plague which, by December that year, had killed off most of the population.  Surrounded by death, catastrophe and disaster, Van Dyck had little choice but to prolong his stay and, amidst this panic, he set up studio, establishing a practice and producing a variety of works for local clients – many of which are thought to remain undiscovered.  Towards the end of summer, the bones of Saint Rosalia were discovered in a nearby cave and carried in procession through the city; after which the plague ceased and Saint Rosalia was declared Palermo’s protector.  In the final room, the exhibition brings together Van Dyck’s images of the patron saint.

The painting loaned from the Prado is the smallest of all his images of her and is particularly moving.  Although this is compositionally similar to the others, Van Dyck painted Rosalia in many different guises.  In this devotional image, she looks up to heaven while an angel offers her a crown of roses.  In her left hand she holds a skull, referencing the recent mortalities of the plague and the iconography of hermit saints, while her right clutches her breast and heart.  These paintings were made as forms of prayer and to give thanks to God and Rosalia for their benevolence which ended the city’s suffering (better late than never – Van Dyck himself must have been grateful for his survival).

Sir Anthony Van Dyck, Saint Rosalia, c. 1625. Courtesy of Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid and via www.dulwichpicturegallery.org.uk

The painting of the Viceroy is one of the highlights of the permanent collection here.  It is incredibly rare for the armour seen in the painting to have survived in such good condition and it is an interesting juxtaposition and point of comparison to see them side-by-side.  Armour was a very valuable possession (described by Xavier as the Porsche or Ferrari of the day) and, ironically, at the time, would have been worth more than any of the paintings now on show here.  But this image is a definitive one showing the viceroy majestically armoured and prepared against his enemies.  Sadly, shortly after the painting was finished and by July of that year, he too had been lost to the plague after leaving the confines of his palace to access the situation and inspect the city.

Maestro del Castello de Tre Torri, Armour of Emanuele Filiberto of Savoy, c. 1606. Courtesy of Patrimonio Nacional, Madrid and via www.dulwichpicturegallery.org.uk

Room two focuses on two large devotional works, that were most probably painted for the aristocracy of the island, as well as two highly emotive portraits of Sofonisba Anguissola.  A fragment of a larger portrait that has been cut down on all sides, Sofonisba Anguissola (1624) is touching evidence of the young artist’s encounter with an aged celebrity painter.

Sir Anthony Van Dyck, Sofonisba Anguissola, 1624.  Courtesy of the Sackville Collection, Knole and Matthew Hollow Photography and via www.dulwichpicturegallery.org.uk

This is a historical exhibition, using a limited number of paintings to elucidate a period of history.  The self-portrait of Van Dyck seen at the start is not actually from the period in Palermo (but through x-rays we actually know that he did paint a self-portrait under one of the paintings of Rosalia).  He’s dressed as an aristocrat – a young Flemish dandy arriving in Palermo.  He was dressed in rich attire and used to the company of noblemen.  He knew he was something special – a point that we see emphatically by looking at this exhibition.

Sir Anthony Van Dyck, Self-Portrait, 1620-21. Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art/Art Resource/Scala, Florence and via www.dulwichpicturegallery.org.uk

In contrast to the Picasso exhibition, I wish this show had been bigger.  But, no more works remain so that is hardly the fault of Dulwich or the curators and, in a way, it is refreshing to see such dedicated focus and concentration.  They haven’t tried to pad it out. This is a tight-knit, story-board exhibition.

Alongside this, the Picture Gallery are showing Ragamala Painting from India to highlight the work of Tilly Kettle, a relatively unknown artist from their permanent collections.  This is not so much a curated exhibition but a collection of 24 rarely seen objects.  A ragmala is a set of miniature paintings depicting various musical modes of Indian music.  Each painting is accompanied by a brief caption or poem, most frequently focused around love.  These were tactile objects for private consumption and were never intended to be seen on display.  Magnifying glasses have been provided to allow you to get up close and personal with the miniatures.  I didn’t really have the time to inspect these properly as I had spent a considerable time in the Van Dyck exhibition and I needed to head back to meetings, over Waterloo Bridge of course – where else?

Bhairava Raga, Pahari, Nurpur, c.1690. Courtesy of the Claudio Moscatelli Collection and Matthew Hollow Photography and via www.dulwichpicturegallery.org.uk

Ragmala Paintings from India: Poetry, Passion, Song and Van Dyck in Sicily: Painting and the Plague are both at the Dulwich Picture Gallery until 27th May 2012, www.dulwichpicturegallery.org.uk.

An Intoxicating Edge – Picasso and Modern British Art

13 Feb

February is over-saturated – more snow than London can cope with, hearts filling every shop window display (no matter how tenuous the connection) on every street and more blockbuster exhibitions than we have time to see.  This week alone I have four major openings marked in my diary plus a smattering of smaller ones that may well have to wait for a later date.

Picasso & Modern British Art at Tate Britain explores Picasso’s lifelong connections with Britain through a series of dialogues with the heroes of Modern British Art, examining his critical reputation and acclaim as both a figure of controversy and celebrity.

Pablo Picasso, Nude Woman in a Red Armchair, 1932. Image via www.tate.org.uk

The exhibition can be split into two – one strand that documents the exhibition and collecting of Picasso’s art in Britain which is interleaved with ‘conversation’ rooms showcasing the British Greats responding to Picasso’s work – Duncan Grant, Wyndham Lewis, Ben Nicholson, Henry Moore, Francis Bacon, Graham Sutherland and David Hockney.  This is a veritable treasure trove for any Modern British lover like me.  Picasso’s own versatility, in part, explains the range of these responses but the exhibition also seeks to show how these artists were responding to Picasso well before he had been embraced by the British public.

Picasso first exhibited in Britain in 1910 in an exhibition organised by Roger Fry.  After explaining this, the exhibition moves straight into a room looking at his influence on Duncan Grant who adopted African inspired figures and decorative patterns and later began to respond to Cubist collages.  Grant’s work does little for me; Tate don’t even dedicate a whole room to him and he shares wall space with Wyndham Lewis.  Although Lewis was a harsh critic of Picasso throughout his life, it’s not actually known if they ever met but his work suggests that he saw Les Demoiselles.

Wyndham Lewis room at the exhibition. Own photograph.

Throughout, the exhibition looks at Picasso’s trips to London with a stunning section on the scenery and costume designs he produced for Diaghilev and Ballet Russes in 1919 when he resided at the Savoy.  During the first few weeks of this stay, Picasso sat in the corner of the Ballet Russes rehearsal rooms, drawing away while they danced.  The Three Cornered Hat was the largest ballet that Picasso worked on and his designs were not just limited to costume and set – they even extended to the accessories and make-up, which, when possible, he applied himself.

Pablo Picasso, The Three Cornered Hat, 1919-20. Own photograph.

This is not an exhibition to be taken lightly; it includes some extraordinary works many of which are loaned from private collections.  Most works have hefty wall labels – I’m not saying this is a bad thing, but this is not a show to flit through during your ten minute lunch break.  It is altogether a more serious exhibition.

Obviously, there have been more responses to Picasso than the seven studied here but those included here illustrate variety and quality over a period of more than seventy years.  It is rare to have the opportunity to view these alongside the original Picasso’s that may have influenced them.

Inside the exhibition. Own photograph.

Ben Nicholson first encountered Picasso in Paris in the 1920s and recalled a specific Picasso of 1915 which he saw as the benchmark for the qualities in his own work.  In the following decade, he developed his own distinctive version of the Cubist composition where he adopted decorative patterning, intersecting forms and made use of materials such as sand to create a more physical presence.

Ben Nicholson, 1933 (coin and musical instruments), 1933. Own photograph.

Moving on, Sutherland acknowledges his debt to Guernica; he made several works where natural objects metamorphose into figurative presences – tortured anxious works reflecting the state of England at the time.  Sketchbooks throughout the exhibition allow us to see some real gems and we are teased here with some fabulous Sutherland studies.  I only wish Tate made more use of their technological ability, offering turning pages on a screen as they did in the Vorticism show last year.

Graham Sutherland, Thorn Head, 1946. Own photograph.

The exhibition includes some fabulous and intriguing early works by Bacon and Moore.   The Bacon’s are particularly remarkable and, if you are a fan, this room if worth a visit in its own right, bringing together seven of only nine works that are known to have survived Bacon’s attempts to destroy all his pre-1944 works.  Bacon said that ‘[Picasso’s work is closer] to what I feel about the psyche of our time [than any other artist]’; it was after he saw an exhibition of Picasso’s in the late 1920s that he abandoned interior design and began painting.  It was seeing Picasso’s representations of the body as a biomorphic structure that inspired him with the possibilities this medium could offer.  It would be a pleasure to write a whole piece on this one room looking at how Bacon’s works on the theme of crucifixion echo Picasso’s The Three Dancers (which Bacon may have seen a reproduction of in 1930 in Documents) or looking at his triptych, Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion.  As Bacon’s style developed and became more distinct, the debt to Picasso became more embedded.  The two artists shared an approach that would forever tie them together.

Francis Bacon, Crucifixion/Figure, 1933 and Composition (Figure), 1933. Own photograph.

The curators decided to stop at Hockney, feeling that after this point Picasso’s influence just becomes too universal and never-ending.  The exhibition finishes with Picasso’s The Three Dancers of 1925, taking us back to the Picasso we know and love and, in turn, slightly losing the dialogue which has been so excellently explored throughout.

Peering through to Pablo Picasso, The Three Dancers, 1925. Own photograph.

The sooner Tate finish their job-lot of grey paint the better; it’s a brilliant show often dulled by the monotonous, gloomy wall colour.  The works are all so sensational that the exhibition comes together despite the somewhat tenuous nature of some of the links and comparisons.

Picasso’s climb to fame in the UK was not easy and he received much criticism along the way – in 1949, Churchill even said he would like to kick the artist up the backside.  Yet when in 1960 Tate finally mounted its first Picasso retrospective, it attracted more than 460,000 visitors in two months.  The exhibition made a profit and received positive reviews.  It appeared we had at last embraced Picasso’s Cubist ways and we’ve never really let go.

Pablo Picasso, Head of a Woman, 1924. Own photograph.

This exhibition is extensive but the works here are something to behold.  Tate really shows off some Modern British masterpieces; somewhat ironically, it is these that stay with me most and they are what I recommend you go to see.  Don’t get me wrong, the Picasso’s are brilliant but the Modern British story has an intoxicating edge aided by the influence of the Spaniard.

Walking through… Own photograph.

It’s easy to get lost in the academia of the exhibition.  I wouldn’t advise reading all the wall text or you may never get out.  Instead, admire the paintings and let the excellent catalogue tell the story in depth at a later date when you’re able to sit in the warm by a fire and not having to stand up.

This is an exhibition to allow time for; an hour and a half felt like I’d only scratched the surface.  It doesn’t have the gloss or jazz of the RA’s Hockney or the NPG’s Freud (although Hockney is, of course included here).  Instead, it is quietly brilliant.

Picasso & Modern British Art will be at Tate Britain from Wednesday until 15th July 2012, www.tate.org.uk.

The Disorientating Diversity of Kusama and Some More Shrigley

12 Feb

Last Tuesday morning during our cold spell (which doesn’t seem to be abating) I battled it through the snow to Tate Modern where I was greeted by a number of over-sized polka-dot inflatables.  Yayoi Kusama has arrived in the UK.

The 4th floor at Tate Modern. Own photograph.

Now aged 82, Kusama, whose work spans six decades, is one of Japan’s best-known living artists.  Outside art circles, her work is not widely known but Tate is rightly propelling her into everyone’s consciousness.  This grand old lady of the visual arts travelled to the UK for the first time in 12 years to see her Tate show; she arrived at the exhibition, glowing in a polka-dot dress and red wig (matching the balls outside), laughing with a bright red lipstick smile.

Yayoi Kusama visiting her exhibition. Own photograph.

Even today, she is still innovative and ground-breaking and this broadly chronological unfolds with each sequence of rooms studying the emergence of a new artistic stance, showing off Kusama’s extensive and diverse body of work.  It allows us to learn about the artist; Kusama’s creative career can be divided into sections – beginning and ending in Japan, it includes a substantial period in New York where she was one of the forerunners on the alternative scene.  There is a natural dialogue between East and West in all of her work – sometimes subtle, sometimes more obvious.

The first two rooms show her rarely-seen early work as she moves away from her Japanese origins into a heavily-influenced Western style.  Her works on paper from the 1950s use abstracted forms that suggest natural phenomena with carefully worked, highly-detailed surfaces encompassing her own unique vocabulary.

Yayoi Kusama, early works on paper. Own photograph.

Kusama’s Infinity Paintings are breathtaking.  Seemingly endless scalloped brushstrokes of a single colour on a contrasting background have a calming effect on us yet are emotionally loaded with themes of obsession and compulsion.  They have a hypnotic quality with the same use of textured surface seen in her Accumulations.  This leads us into the middle part of the exhibition where Kusama’s obsession with sex comes to the surface.

Yayoi Kusama, detail of No. White A.Z., 1958-9. Own photograph.

While in New York, she appointed herself ‘High Priestess’ of the emerging hippie scene beginning a series of provocative performance pieces.  Chameleon like, she has always adapted to her surroundings.  Her Sex Obsession series includes phallus-covered chairs, tables and other day-to-day objects, mocking the macho nature of the US art scene.  This is complemented by her food obsession works that use macaroni to show her revulsion at the overabundance of food in the US.

Yayoi Kusama’s Sex Obsession works. Own photograph.

Her decision to return full-time to Japan from the US took a number of years as she see-sawed between the two countries; this was a difficult period of time in which her early hallucinations returned with a vengeance.  She admitted herself to a psychiatric hospital where, since 1977, she has voluntarily lived on an open ward.  This confined living gave her a sense of safety and ease and, once again, her approach to her art changed; she began creating small objects that were part of large, multi-faceted installations such as The Clouds (1984) which consists of one hundred sewn and stuffed cushions.  Although these are white for purity, they create a constellation and installation that is far from pure.  The phallic and sperm-like forms of her early years began to return.  Once again, her work is in dialogue with itself as Kusama uses her illness to make her art, channelling her warped energies to create her pieces.

Yayoi Kusama at Tate Modern with The Clouds, 1984. Own photograph.

Much of her art has a near-hallucinatory effect, triggered by her early use of polka dots that show her unique vision and outlook on the world.  This disorientation is closely intertwined with all Kusama’s work where nothing is straightforward and nothing is at it seems.  The polka dot, a seemingly pretty and decorative motif, actually relates to the troubling hallucinations of her childhood.  Her immersive installations illustrate this with particular intensity as dark, mirrored walls discombobulate, throwing the viewer off balance, causing confusion and disorientation.

Yayoi Kusama, I’m Here, but Nothing, 2000. Own photograph.

Kusama has always been ahead of her time.  Her art varies so much across her career that often you wouldn’t know it was by the same artist.  She was there before everyone else with performance art, wallpaper and installations.  The sheer diversity of her art is overwhelming; it’s easy to lose track of who Kusama is and her lack of a signature style is evident in the catalogue (which is, by the way, excellent).  She has never stayed in one place, in one genre, for long enough to make a mark on the public awareness.  Maybe now it’s time that she does.

Yayoi Kusama, detail of Flame, 1992. Own photograph.

One of the final works is stunning – Infinity Mirrored Room – filled with the Brilliance of Life which has been made specifically for this exhibition.  Lights flicker on and off, illuminating and hiding the room in a repetitive cycle.  The walls are clad with mirrored panels and a pool of water covers the floor.  Hundreds of lights, with endlessly changing colour sequences, are suspended from the ceiling.  It is not as disorientating as we expect and we quickly adapt to the coloured environment.  Maybe that is the point.  I think Kusama intends us to share her path as she has always adapted to her way of living and her confusion is now part of her life.  This work is pretty.  No doubt people will queue to walk through the glittering, mirrored maze.  It seems fun but there’s a deeper message; as we enter these installations we lose ourselves, joining Kusama on her journey of self-obliteration.

Yayoi Kusama, Infinity Mirrored Room – filled with the Brilliance of Life, 2011. Own photograph.

Kusama is a brand as the new merchandise in the shop shows.  But what a brand!  If any artist could achieve half of what this incredible woman has I imagine they’d be ‘well chuffed’.

I’m spending a lot of my time in Waterloo at the moment, working on Heritage Arts’ VAULT – an incredible festival in a new section of the Old Vic Tunnels.  This means that rather than being in Mayfair all day, I can often be found at Scooterworks on Lower Marsh – my new temporary ‘office’ where the lovely Stanley keeps me company.

Stanley the cat at Scooterworks. Own photograph.

I can’t, however, keep away from Mayfair for too long, and that evening I popped to the opening of yet another David Shrigley exhibition at Stephen Friedman – Arms Fayre.  A bucket of beers was waiting for guests outside the gallery.  They needn’t have bothered with the ice though.  Even in gloves, my fingers could have chilled a bottle quite adequately.

David Shrigley, new works on paper at Stephen Friedman.  Own photograph.

Bringing together three strands of Shrigley’s work, the exhibition is essentially an extension of the current show at the Hayward.  Bombs captures the archetypal image of a missile commonly found in cartoons.  This element of destruction and hurt is transformed in ceramic by Shrigley into something simple, fragile and alluring.

David Shrigley, Bombs, 2011. Own photograph.

The sculpture here had a stronger impact than the drawings.  All in all, it’s a small but good exhibition and one that they had to put on to complement the exhibition across the river.  It works well and helps to further illustrate the endlessness of Shrigley’s work.

Yayoi Kusama is at Tate Modern until 5th June 2012, www.tate.org.ukDavid Shrigley: Arms Fayre is at the Stephen Friedman Gallery until 10th March 2012, www.stephenfriedman.com.

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