Archive | April, 2012

Mad Mission to Manchester

29 Apr

Normally when I go out of London on an art trip I plan my day with military precision.  My companions are normally slightly scared by the colour-coded maps.  But the week had been exceptionally busy and, when I sat down on the train, I only had four galleries on my list and it was on track to be a relaxing visit.  As you may have realised though, relaxing doesn’t come easily to me and, with a two-hour train journey and  good internet connection on my side, I started having a look at what else I could be visiting.  And wow did I get a shock.  Manchester appeared to be a veritable treasure trove of museums, galleries, historic buildings and, of course, it has a cathedral.  The tourist board website lists 67 galleries – I had my work cut out.

So I picked a host of things for my to-do and see list – slightly ambitious even for me considering I didn’t know my way around Manchester.

I bounded off the train like an over-excited puppy and headed straight to the Whitworth Gallery as this was always number one on my list.

The Whitworth Art Gallery. Own photograph.

The Whitworth Art Gallery is set within Whitworth Park and is part of the University of Manchester.  Currently three exhibitions are on show – COTTON: Global Threads tells the story of the production, consumption and global trade of cotton, with exhibits showing worldwide diversity that afford particularly attention to the fashion and textiles from India.  This isn’t really my area of interest so, although I had a quick look, I didn’t spend too long studying the displays in depth but it is a very well-planned exhibition with brilliant movement-activated display cases that are triggered on approach.  The exhibition includes Yinka Shonibare’s Boy with a Globe 4 using the Dutch wax-printed cotton that has become a trademark of his work.

Yinka Shonibare, Boy with a Globe 4. Own photograph.

Upstairs is an interesting piece by Ahmed Mater, Magnetism IV, which evokes the feeling of the first day of pilgrimage to Mecca, when pilgrims walk around the Ka’ba seven times counter-clockwise, by using tens of thousands of iron filings placed between the fields of two magnets.  A couple of galleries were closed for re-hang but there is also a small Victor Pasmore exhibition upstairs showing a series of his later screenprints exploring geometrical forms, lines and colour that suggest elegant organic movement.

Ahmed Mater, Magnetism IV. Own photograph.

The main reason for my visit to the Whitworth was to see Idris Khan’s The Devil’s Wall, an installation that draws on the rituals of the Hajj (the pilgrimage to Mecca).  As always, Khan blurs the boundaries between the secular and the spiritual.  The main elements of the exhibition are three, black, cylindrical sculptures that slope down into infinite funnels.  Khan has printed text from the Quran (in English and Arabic) on the works, radiating outwards, sometimes disappearing into the black holes.  The sculptures reference the stoning of the Jamarat where pilgrims chant and throw seven stones at three walls in three different locations to crush the devil.

Idris Khan, The Devil’s Wall. Image via www.whitworth.manchester.ac.uk

The works are very contemplative; displayed in a darkened room they evoke the voyage of self-discovery that Khan took in making these works.  His parallel concepts of repetition are also seen in a series of drawings, 21 Stones, that were printed using a rubber stamp.  Again making use of a circular motion they repetitively show statements from the Quran in a chant-like format.  Also on show is Voices where Khan experiments with the repetitive nature of Philip Glass’s music in a series of spell-binding, tranquil works where the notes appear to move around the stave.

Idris Khan, Voices. Image via www.wallpaper.com

Although highly complex, Khan’s works do no alienate or intimidate.  Instead, they invite people to reflect on the messages and traditions on which they focus.  I don’t normally comment on the exhibition guides but this one deserves mention; it is really brilliant, clearly explaining the works without over-simplifying or over-complicating.

Idris Khan, The Devil’s Wall.  Image via http://margaret-cooter.blogspot.com

Onwards, I hailed a cab to go to see the Victoria Baths, a building that has been the focus of much heritage attention over the last few years.  Opened in 1906, the Baths were then described as “the most splendid municipal bathing institution in the country” and became famous, not only for its design but for the Olympic swimmers who trained there.  In 1993 the council could no longer justify the expense of keeping the baths open and a committee was formed to try to save the building.  Over the years it’s been consistently in the public eye, winning the first series of the BBC’s Restoration in 2003 as well as having been awarded a considerable amount from the Heritage Lottery Fund which then became embroiled in complications.

The multi-coloured brick façade is stunning and many of the original features remain.  Sadly, I wasn’t around on a day when the interior was open for tours although I have seen many pictures and the potential for great arts installations in the past but it is a stunning building and I was glad to take a peek at this architectural gem.

Victoria Baths. Own photograph.

I carried on in my cab to see the UMIST building – an imposing red-brick building on Sackville Street.  I was already gaining the impression that Manchester is architecturally a very rich city.

UMIST building. Own photograph.

My next stop was Cornerhouse, Manchester’s centre for contemporary visual art and film.  Their current exhibition, Subversion, brings together 11 artists to rethink ‘modern’ and ‘Arab’ identity.  The exhibition looks at the stereotypical preoccupations that we have come to know as, or associate with, the Arab world.  I particularly liked Larissa Sansour’s striking photographs.  There are lots of video-based works and the top floor gallery is an immersive space for visitors to tamper with, that includes video games, a retro cinema and jigsaw puzzles.  The venue has a project-space, experimental vibe to it.  Cornerhouse feels like a cultural hub and I decided to stop for a late lunch and soak up the buzzy atmosphere.

Larissa Sansour, Nation Estate – Jerusalem Floor. Own photograph.

From there I was able to walk up the road to Central Library but unfortunately, in my rushed research, I had amazingly omitted to notice that it’s shut for a huge restoration project.  From the tiny sections that weren’t covered in scaffolding I could see how beautiful the neoclassical circular space must be but, alas, there wasn’t much I could do so I hopped over the tram lines down Mosley Street to the Manchester Art Gallery.

Manchester’s Central Library. Own photograph.

Downstairs is A Sleek Dry Yell, 2008 by Haroon Mirza which uses everyday sound and objects to reassemble redundant analogue technology.  Sound becomes sculpture although it echoes annoyingly around the entire building.  Again, some of the permanent galleries were shut for re-hang but they have a great 18th century collection with all the usual suspects – Highmore, a very dirty Hogarth, Gainsborough, Romney, Reynolds…   It’s a pleasant enough gallery but not too thrilling. It is, however, a comprehensive collection and a much larger space that I expected partly due to a surprising modern extension at the back where Gormley’s Filter hangs from the ceiling; a figure (of course) made of welded steel rings showing the body as a container.  The work hangs in space, open to light and the elements.  The steel rings mean that the figure’s skin becomes porous so there is a fluid transition from internal to external expressing freedom of movement and experience.

Antony Gormley, Filter. Own photograph.

What the Manchester Art Gallery does well is present a small and manageable introduction to the various periods of art history with works by a number of key artists.  I was constantly surprised by the calibre of some of the works but, equally, I was often disappointed by how they had paired them.  The top floor presents a gallery of craft and design which was a bit too cluttered for my liking as well as an interesting exhibition of Roger Ballen’s photographs.  I’m not sure why these things keep happening to me but I managed to approach this from the wrong side and was consequently surprised to find that this is his first UK exhibition and is, in fact, a huge retrospective.  Ballen lived and worked in South Africa for over 30 years, exploring small rural towns with a different world and culture.  His works have a stark black and white format which blurs the line between fantasy and reality in what he used to term ‘documentary fiction’.

Roger Ballen, Puppy between feet. Own photograph.

Rushing to avoid the impending rain, I headed to the John Rylands Library, a memorial building erected by Rylands’ third wife to house his 70,000 books and manuscripts.  The building is thought to be one of the best examples of neo-Gothic architecture in Europe.  Built as a chapel with stained glass windows rising from either end, the magnificent vaulted ceiling of the historic reading room demands awe and respect.  Although the outside of the building is filthy, the interior is beautifully preserved and this was easily the artistic highlight of my day.

The historic reading room at the John Rylands library. Own photograph.

I wandered past the mega shopping area by The Royal Exchange and went to Manchester Cathedral. Building commenced in 1421 but it has undergone some fairly hefty restoration in its time. Although it’s a great building it couldn’t really compare with the library I’d just come from.  I was lucky that there was organ practice while I was there so, once I’d looked around, I was able to sit and soak up the architecture while appreciating the acoustic splendour.

Manchester Cathedral. Own photograph.

Needless to say, by cocktail time I was becoming quite exhausted and my legs were suffering so The Alchemist was a perfect refuge.  Thanks to google maps and my wonderful sense of geography I had managed to see everything without getting lost.   I had only one thing on my list for the following day; I have no doubt that there is more to do and there are some gorgeous buildings on the outskirts of the city but I’ll have to save these for my next visit.  For my Manchester night out I headed over to the Lowry for Opera della Luna’s modern reworking of Don Giovanni, a comic portrayal of opera’s infamous lothario.  The perfect end to my day!

The Lowry. Own photograph.

After exploring the canals of Salford on Saturday morning I popped back to the Lowry to see their exhibition space – after all you can’t come to Manchester and not have a true Lowry indulgence.  I have always loved Lowry so obviously I have a strong bias here but his works have such character, charm and life that it’s impossible not to love them.  This is a really good collection and doesn’t just show the typical paintings for which he is popular.  Also on display are a range of his beautiful seascapes inspired by the North Sea showing infinite open spaces, loaded with meaning and emotion.  As Lowry grew older he became more and more fascinated with bizarre characters although some of his collectors found this surreal twist to his work too radical a departure.

L.S. Lowry, Going to the Match. Image via www.thelowry.com

There is also an Annie Lennox exhibition offering insights into her life and career as a singer, songwriter, campaigner and activist. I’m not quite sure it fits here as there is no distinction between the spaces except for wall colour but Lowry Favourites and this are independently two very good shows.

It was sadly time to leave Manchester and head back to the torrential rain in the South.  Most of the buildings and galleries deserve far more attention than I’ve afforded them here but, due to the amount I somehow managed to cram in, I’ve tried to keep each section brief.  I had a really relaxing and exciting trip and was fascinated to see some of Manchester that people don’t normally talk about or bother to notice.

COTTON: Global Threads, Idris Khan: The Devil’s Wall and Victor Pasmore; Transformations are all at the Whitworth Art Gallery until 13th May 2012, www.whitworth.manchester.ac.uk.   Subversion is at Cornerhouse until 5th June 2012, www.cornerhouse.orgRoger Ballen: Shadowland, Photographs 1983-2011 is at Manchester Art Gallery until 13th May, www.manchestergalleries.orgLowry Favourites is at The Lowry until 6th July 2012 and The House of Annie Lennox is at The Lowry until 17th June 2012, www.thelowry.com.  For more details about any of the other places visited see: www.victoriabaths.org.uk, www.manchester.gov.uk/directory_record/3962/central_library, www.library.manchester.ac.uk/deansgate, www.royalexchange.co.uk/page.aspx, www.manchestercathedral.org, www.operadellaluna.org and www.visitsalford.info.

Titian’s Treasure at The National: The Flight into Egypt

22 Apr

As I have previously mentioned, I love the National Gallery – nothing really beats wandering through their rooms filled with artistic gems that tell the story of art history under one roof.  Whether you’re popping in for a ten minute peek when sheltering from the rain or to see a full-blown exhibition, it’s a wonderful place to visit.  Often their free exhibition programme is truly outstanding and it was to see one of these that I was there on a rainy afternoon earlier this week.

Now there’s no denying that Titian is an incredible artist and probably the greatest painter of 16th century Venice but this still isn’t my preferred period and consequently I wouldn’t pick him as one of my favourites.

Titian, Noli me Tangere, c. 1511-12. Courtesy of The National Gallery and via www.nationalgallery.org.uk

Currently on display is Titian’s first major commission (described by Vasari as his first masterpiece hence the exhibition’s title); The Flight into Egypt, on loan from the Hermitage Museum, is being shown for its first time out of Russia since 1768.  Due to this lack of visibility, it’s been pretty much ignored by scholars but has now been restored, cleaned and given due consideration.  This exhibition seeks to explore Titian’s journey in creating his first large-scale landscape (it’s over 10 feet wide), making comparisons with other contemporaneous artists both in subject and composition and showing the influences that shaped him.  The painting is shown alongside 28 other relevant works including those by Albrecht Dürer and Titian’s tutor, Giovanni Bellini.  The wall panels explain the decision of the various inclusions, looking at his inspirations for different sections of the painting.

Albrecht Dürer, The Vision of St Eustace, c. 1500-02. Courtesy of The Trustees of the British Museum and via www.nationalgallery.org.uk

The holy family’s escape was a popular subject although a work of this scale is unprecedented in Venice at this time.  Painted in 1507, when Titian was only 18, The Flight into Egypt is believed to be one of Titian’s earliest compositions, showing off his skill at landscape painting and his unprecedented sensitivity to colour and detail – elements that would later define his career and become known as his part of his signature style.

Titian, The Flight into Egypt, c. 1506-07. Courtesy of The State Hermitage Museum, St Petersberg and via www.nationalgallery.org.uk.   

The exhibition also gives an introductory look at Titian’s Venetian patrons, many of whom are unidentified but appreciated him before he became famous.   The Flight was almost definitely commissioned by Andrea Loredan for his new palazzo on the Grand Canal where it hung until the mid-18th century – we know this from frequent descriptions that record its location.

The Flight’s background shows off Titian’s highly accomplished skill as an artist.  His gift for landscape stems from his tuition under Bellini and the looser approach of Giorgione, another Bellini pupil.  For Titian, landscape was as important as figures and both are afforded equal detail even if his skill set wasn’t quite balanced at this stage.  The figures in the foreground are rather stiff and generic; they appear to be superimposed on the scene, frieze-like in their inflexibility.  Titian’s Virgin and Child here seem to recall a figure group from a Bellini painting with a comparable pyramidal structure and tilt of heads.  A few years later Titian changed direction and broke away from Bellini’s influence but, here, it is evidently visible.

Giovanni Bellini, The Madonna of the Meadow, c. 1495-1500. Courtesy of The National Gallery and via www.nationalgallery.org.uk

Titian hadn’t yet mastered portraits and The Flight doesn’t really enlighten us as to what a great artist he was to become; other works in the exhibition show how quickly he developed.

Although not visibly overloaded, The Flight is filled with everything Titian knew how to do; it’s a smorgasbord of his talent and an advertisement of his capabilities.  Notwithstanding its shortcomings, Titian was able to bring all these elements together into a great work.

Titian, detail of The Flight into Egypt, c. 1506-07. Courtesy of The State Hermitage Museum, St Petersberg and via www.nationalgallery.org.uk.   

Later this year, the work will be shown in Venice before returning to the Hermitage from where it will never travel again in our lifetimes.  Unless you book your tickets and visa to Russia this really is a once-in-a-lifetime viewing opportunity.  The fact that the National Gallery has been honoured with the exhibition of this work shows not just what a great gallery it is but also complements the strength of its own collection.

Titian, Portrait of Gerolamo (?) Barbarigo, c. 1509. Courtesy of The National Gallery and via www.nationalgallery.org.uk

The catalogue is an enlightening publication that looks at Titian and landscape, studying the painting to which so much time is being devoted.  Although small, the exhibition was actually more substantial than I expected and in a room and a half there is a lot to get your teeth into.  This is a rare opportunity to see this early work (masterpiece or not), with a small exhibition of superb quality to accompany it.  Don’t waste any time, go to have a closer look.

Titian’s First Masterpiece: The Flight into Egypt is at The National Gallery until 19th August 2012, www.nationalgallery.org.uk.

Concepts Greater than Works – Haunch and Hauser

20 Apr

Jamie Shovlin’s latest exhibition at Haunch is based around the cover designs of the Fontana Modern Master series – pocket guides from 1970-95 on eminent writers, scientists and philosophers.  The covers are iconic, instantly recognisable with their bright colours and abstract geometric shapes.

Shovlin has painted a series of works that represent titles scheduled to be published that, for reasons unknown, never appeared on the market.

Jamie Shovlin’s Fontana Modern Master covers. Own photograph. 

The actual cover designs, of course, remain unknown but Shovlin has used a process of deduction to imagine the designs, assuming the cover would reflect attributes of the subject.  Although his criteria are somewhat spurious, Shovlin stuck to his guns and his methodology is seen in the works in the first gallery where Colour Wheel illustrates the determining factors of his formula and Colour Reference shows the process of colour matching to the original inner pages of the Fontana Modern Masters.

The first gallery with Jamie Shovlin’s works at Haunch of Venison. Own photograph. 

These works recall Harland Miller’s paintings based on the dust jackets of Penguin books.  Although Miller uses the book covers as an often humorous method to include his own comments, they marry Pop Art with abstraction and figurative painting.

The series reflects Shovlin’s on-going interest in typography and graphic design.  The works are a commercial gallery’s dream – a coherent solid idea that has resulted in a large-scale series.  The system of creating the works and Shovlin’s Fontana formula is clever but the resulting canvases lack any excitement or dynamism.  The idea and the practice are more energising than the works.

Jamie Shovlin’s Fontana Modern Master covers. Own photograph. 

The same day I headed over to Hauser for the opening night of their Ron Mueck show in their South Gallery.  It has been a while since there was a solo Mueck show in London – the press release reliably informed me that it has, in fact, been over a decade.  The precision and detail of his works has always amazed and startled visitors and these are no exception.

Ron Mueck, Youth, 2009. Own photograph. 

The exhibition only includes four of Mueck’s contemporary sculptures, exploring traditional themes.  It is a staged exhibition where the works are shown individually, taking visitors on a journey of exploration.

Ron Mueck, Woman with sticks, 2008. Own photograph. 

Youth shows a young boy in jeans and a blood-stained t-shirt that he lifts to reveal an open stab wound, reminiscent of St Thomas inspecting Christ’s wound.  It is here that we begin to see the themes that Mueck is playing with and images from the Stations of the Cross come to mind.  Woman with sticks recalls the carrying of the cross while Drift, positioned high on the gallery wall, shows a tanned man in swimming trunks on a lilo with his arms outstretched in cruciform fashion, questioning the brevity of life – the work references Christ on the crucifix.

Ron Mueck, Drift, 2009. Own photograph.

Finally, Still Life, a work with which most of us are already familiar, shows a dead chicken, plucked and hung by its bound feet from the ceiling, again recalling Christ’s bondage.

These themes of religion, piety and death are not new to Mueck but his works still generate strong reactions, making many feel uncomfortable and uneasy.  The messages are discreet and leave you pondering while the pieces are beautifully crafted showing sensitivity and skill.  But, as with so many artists, we’ve seen this before and while the works may conceptually be strong they didn’t move me in the way I hoped they would, in the way his earlier works have done.

Ron Mueck, Still Life, 2009. Own photograph. 

Further down the street in the North Gallery is Medley Tour London.  Since 2010, artist Andreas Hofer has used the name Andy Hope 1930 and this is a display of his latest work, merging the worlds of comic books, science fiction and mythology with history, pop culture and literature.

Medley Tour London by Andy Hope 1930. Own photograph.

I fear I’m sounding like a broken record but yet again the concepts are more interesting than the works themselves.   Conceptually all these exhibitions were very good but in actuality they just weren’t great shows…again!

Jamie Shovlin: Various Arrangements is at Haunch of Venison until 26th May 2012, www.haunchofvenison.comRon Mueck and Medley Tour London by Andy Hope 1930 is at Hauser & Wirth until 26th May 2012, www.hauserwirth.com.

Li Tianbing at Stephen Friedman and a handful of other Mayfair Mentions

15 Apr

Last week I was charged with the responsibility of showing someone a few Mayfair Galleries.   This should have been an easy task really considering the amount of time I spend in and out of these places but the sheer volume of galleries in Mayfair did present me with a challenge.  However, with set start and finish times, a time restriction and a list of that evening’s private views, the journey mapped itself out with relative ease.

It was a luxury to spend the afternoon, strolling through these galleries and seeing the enormous diversity of brilliant art that such a small section of London has to offer.   We began at Alon Zakaim’s new space on Dover Street, currently displaying a mixed presentation of 19th century works.   Next, we dipped in and out of galleries on Cork Street including their original space as well as Flowers and Alan Cristea.

Marc Quinn, Sunspot (In the Night Garden), 2011 at Alon Zakaim, Cork Street.  Image via www.alonzakaim.com

Hooking round into Old Burlington Street, we visited Stephen Friedman.  To be honest, having missed the PV, I had forgotten what was currently on show here.  As soon as we walked in we were both struck by the power of the canvases – eight large paintings by Li Tianbing in his debut UK exhibition.  Friedman is known for having an eye for the crème de la crème and Tianbing is rightly regarded as one of the best Chinese-born artists of his generation.

Li Tianbing, Bullet holes, 2012.  Image courtesy the artist, Stephen Friedman Gallery, London and Pearl Lam Galleries, Hong Kong and via www.stephenfriedman.com

These semi-biographical works recall the artist’s upbringing under China’s one-child rule.  Introduced in 1979, the policy restricted married couples in urban areas to having only one child.  Families still find the emotional consequences of this legislation too difficult to discuss – Tianbing’s own parents, despite having seen his works, find them too painful to talk about.  It is thought that, since its inception, the one-child policy has prevented 400 million births as well as causing a serious increase in female infanticide, forced abortions and under-reporting of births.  Second children are often registered as someone else’s or not registered at all, creating a whole group of people who do not officially exist.  Those who are discovered are denied promotions, suffer benefit and pay cuts, are fined and are often made homeless.

Li Tianbing at Stephen Friedman. Image courtesy the artist, Stephen Friedman Gallery, London and Pearl Lam Galleries, Hong Kong and via www.stephenfriedman.com

When Tianbing moved to Paris at the age of 22 he took with him an album containing five slightly blurred black and white photographs – the sole memento of his childhood.  Even this in itself is rare and the images were taken on a camera that his father had borrowed from the People’s Army propaganda unit.  These images still have a profound effect on him, transporting him back to the lonely isolation of his youth.  The multi-layered paintings are instantly comparable to the monochrome detail of these photos and show an imagined upbringing with fictitious brothers and playmates – the ones he was never allowed.  Despite the multitude of figures often seen in these works, the children always seem alone, staring wide-eyed from the canvases, lost in their own thoughts.

In addition to his photographs, as a child, Tianbing only had one toy.  Don’t Touch my Dog shows a group of boys holding their toy dogs, a reminder that Chinese children hardly ever owned playthings.  The main figure holds his toy above his head and the others all look towards him.  The fragmentary nature of the work, enhanced by the use of a mixed palette, highlights the nature of these broken and adapted memories.

Li Tianbing, Don’t Touch my Dog, 2011.  Image courtesy the artist, Stephen Friedman Gallery, London and Pearl Lam Galleries, Hong Kong and via www.stephenfriedman.com

A mixture of abstraction and portraiture, Tianbing’s works use his own strong visual language which draws on Western contemporary art and traditional Chinese techniques.  Visual motifs recur repetitively such as his haunting use of staining which represents the corrosive power of political dictatorship.  There is no doubt that these pieces are striking.

The one-child system meant that Tianbing had an extremely lonely existence whilst growing up and, for him, art was the lifeline he grasped to survive this reality, taking refuge in his imagination and inventing his own life.  As well as showing the playmates he longed for, his works also show the hidden children of the regime.

Being able to spend time as a family is something that many Chinese never knew.  Tianbing, who now lives in Paris, already has a son and his second child is on the way.  This is something that we take for granted and don’t even consider but Tianbing feels as if he has won a prize.  His works are very moving and thought-provoking; they make us look at the cosy nature of our own existence and acknowledge the trials that Tianbing and others like him had to endure growing up under the oppressive Chinese administration.

Li Tianbing, Reverse Walk, 2012.  Image courtesy the artist, Stephen Friedman Gallery, London and Pearl Lam Galleries, Hong Kong and via www.stephenfriedman.com

Now that Tianbing is less lost and has found what he missed during his youth, his works have become more grounded with a glimmer of happiness.   Although the memory of the one-child policy will always be omnipresent, he has moved on to look at other issues affecting the Chinese economy.  Tianbing’s works have a powerful hold on viewers and, because they have room to breathe and are not over-crowded in the gallery, the children’s intense gazes do not let you go.

We wandered up Bond Street, past Sotheby’s who were preparing for the Munch viewing, to Opera Gallery where, for us, the highlight of their mixed contemporary show was two photographs by Gérard Rancinan.

Gérard Rancinan, On the Way Back from Disneyland, 2011. Image courtesy of the artist and via www.operagallery.com

For the first of our private views we headed back the way we’d come and turned onto Bruton Street.  Trinity Contemporary is tucked away upstairs and would be easy to miss if you didn’t know it was there.  We chickened out of going in the very creaky old lift and climbed up the stairs to their surprisingly light and neat space on the third floor to see a solo exhibition of drawings by Emma McNally.  Atoms Insects Mountains Stars is inspired by the work of French philosopher Gilles Deleuze and these works show the artist’s extensive working with graphite made of carbon which reflects her interest in philosophy, science and music.  McNally’s pencil works are highly detailed looking as if they may well be the result of scientific readings – their vocabulary has been compared both to musical scores and computer coding, due to its rhythmic and harmonic activity.  In some of her new works, McNally has turned drawing into a sculptural process, pouring pure graphite powder onto large surfaces and then hammering nails into them.  The works shimmer, forming an intricate network of lines and marks.

Emma McNally at Trinity Contemporary. Own photograph.

Back to near where we started, we popped into Simon Lee which has to win top marks for being the buzziest private view of the evening.  It was packed with people drinking and gossiping for Paulina Olowska’s first solo show here.  Her new works continue her exploration of feminist and socially-engaged themes, often channelling or paying homage to other women artists.  Here, she plays with the rudimentary idea of the muse and the imagined, or remembered, image of a mother.  The images have a sense of fragility, trying to preserve a moment in time as it passes by.

Paulina Olowska at Simon Lee. Own photograph.

My feet were now starting to suffer and as I limped to Sarah Myerscough I had a feeling that this may well have to be our final stop.  Tucked away on Brooks Mews, the gallery is presenting an exhibition with works by 11 artists on the subject of monochrome.  There is no pretension, just a few really nice works in black and white.

B&W (Monochrome), Sarah Myerscough Fine Art. Own photograph.

A simple one with which to finish but I couldn’t face walking another pace to another place.  I hobbled round the corner, changed into ballet pumps and scurried home.  The other three galleries on my overly ambitious list will have to wait until another day.

Li Tianbing is at the Stephen Friedman Gallery until 21st April, www.stephenfriedman.comEmma McNall: Selected Drawings, Atoms Insects Mountains Stars is at Trinity Contemporary until 27th April, www.trinitycontemporary.com.   Paulina Olowska: Mother 200 is at Simon Lee Gallery until 26th May 2012, www.simonleegallery.com. B&W (Monochrome) is at Sarah Myerscough Fine Art until 5th May 2012, www.sarahmyerscough.com.  For more information on the other galleries mentioned please see www.alonzakaim.com, www.flowersgallery.com, www.alancristea.com and www.operagallery.com

Ceçi n’est pas une chaussure…

12 Apr

This is a slightly strange one…  Blame it on last week’s illness if you like (I’m in need of an excuse) but, earlier this week, I set off for the Design Museum, excited to see their Louboutin exhibition.  I had been disappointed that it was scheduled to open on 28th March, while I was on holiday, and I therefore assumed that I’d missed all the press hype and a visit was overdue.

The Design Museum. Own photograph.

So, as I sat in the taxi from London Bridge station down to Shad Thames and loaded the Design Musuem website, imagine my surprise to see a picture of a gorgeous Louboutin shoe in the section for forthcoming exhibitions.  It would seem that the dates have changed and it’s now not opening until the 1st May.  Great!  As beautiful as it is to come to this part of London I didn’t really need to trek down the Thames to the Design Museum but, having done so, I thought I might as well see what was going on.

The River Thames by the Design Museum. Own photograph.

The Design Awards are celebrating their 5th anniversary this year.  Currently on show at the Design Museum is the longlist including The London 2012 Olympic Torch, the Duchess of Cambridge’s Wedding Dress, designed by Sarah Burton for Alexander McQueen, and the London 2012 Velodrome.  These are not designs to be taken lightly, with the exhibition including some of the big hitters from the worlds of architecture, digital, fashion, furniture, graphics, product and transport design.  The awards aim to be as wide-ranging as possible and the exhibition certainly shows off the diversity of design and the all-encompassing bracket of this term.  Many of the designs here have a conscience and seek to address vital needs.

Designs of the Year. Image courtesy of Luke Hayes and via www.designmuseum.org. 

The objects’ explanation panels help understand the motivation behind their creation and many of these deserve attention.  One work that caught my eye was the redesign for the ambulance by the Helen Hamlyn Centre at the Royal College of Art.  Their innovative new system enables a stretcher to be accessed from all sides and includes a digital communications and monitoring system that can send information ahead to the hospital.  The new ambulance is more efficient with a cleaner finish; it resembles a mini-hospital rather than the interior of a vehicle.

Ambulance redesigned. Own photograph.

Thisotropes by Conny Freyer, Sebastien Noel and Eva Rucki of Troika was commissioned by Selfridges.  It is a light sculpture formed of eight mechanised structures, each of which consists of a series of intersecting geometric profiles.  It’s a dizzying combination of science, technology and art which come together to create a beautiful and mesmerising moving chandelier.

Thisotropes. Own photograph.

Also included is the 2012 Olympic Torch that will be used to carry the Olympic flame this July. The piece has been designed to reflect the celebratory nature of the games; the body is made of aluminium alloy skins, held in place by a cast aluminium top and base.  The skin is perforated by 8,000 circular holes – one to represent every torch carrier.  As well as creating visual lightness, the holes enhance the piece on a practical level by significantly reducing its weight.  It is not only practical but deeply symbolic and very British.

2012 Olympic Torch. Own photograph.

Even The Hepworth Wakefield is included in these awards; when I visited last September I was struck by the confidence and power of the building.  Designed by David Chipperfield Architects, The Hepworth is very exposed and isolated; it rises from the River Calder, like an old mill or Venetian palazzo.  Made from warm grey concrete, the building consists of ten geometric forms that can be viewed from all aspects.   The Hepworth is a strong, yet sensitive, design far removed from the ubiquitous sterile, white-box gallery space.

The Hepworth Wakefield.  Image via www.hepworthwakefield.org

Although it includes some ingenious pieces of design, I found the exhibition to be messy; it appears cluttered and unforgiving to the objects on display.  The works are displayed on cylindrical drums that create an overload of ‘stuff’.  I was surprised by the lack of finesse and interior design here – quite ironic for a museum of design.

Clutter at Designs of the Year 2012. Own photograph.

Notwithstanding this, I will, of course, be back in May for the Louboutin exhibition – unless the dates change again!

Designs of the Year 2012 is at the Design Museum until 4th July 2012, www.designmuseum.org.  The winners of the seven categories and the overall winner will be announced on 24th April 2012.

More Surprised than Shocked – Hirst Takes Tate

4 Apr

There is a tendency to Hirst-bash which seems more prevalent since Gagosian recently oversaturated the public consciousness, concurrently displaying Hirst’s spot paintings in all of their galleries.  An alarming amount of negative press has led up to his Tate retrospective and, from conversations I overheard, people had turned up to Tate Modern on Monday morning determined to criticise.

I wasn’t expecting any surprises with this exhibition as we all know Hirst’s work inside out, nor was I aiming to analyse the individual pieces; this has been done before and I know what I like and what I don’t like.  I was more interested to see how these works had been collectively displayed.

Damien Hirst, Spot Painting, 1986. Own photograph.

The exhibition brings together works from across his entire oeuvre with over 70 pieces ranging from The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (his large shark in formaldehyde) to his notorious diamond encrusted skull.  Of course, the exhibition doesn’t seek to show everything he has ever produced and his paintings that were briefly shown (and slated) at the Wallace Collection are notably missing.

Damien Hirst, detail of The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, 1991. Own photograph.

Hirst first hit the art scene in 1988 when he conceived and curated Freeze, an exhibition of his own work and that of his fellow students from Goldsmiths.  Many of the works shown there are included in this exhibition for only their second public showing.

Damien Hirst with For the Love of God, 2007. Image via www.guardian.co.uk

Hirst once said that ‘becoming a brand name is an important part of life’ and he has certainly achieved that.  He does not deny the importance of money and the exhibition screams of blatant wealth; For the Love of God, a platinum cast of an eighteenth-century human skull encrusted with 8,601 diamonds, sold in 2007 for £50 million, has its own security guards and is displayed in isolation in the Turbine Hall.  For the first 12 weeks of the exhibition, his iconic skull stands as a distinct element to the main retrospective, a free display illustrating Hirst’s ideas of mortality and value that will tempt people to head upstairs and pay admission.  It’s harder to get in to see than the Crown Jewels.

The skull’s special exhibition room. Own photograph.

The wow factor and status associated by many with owning a Hirst overflows into the exhibition shop where they clearly believe people will pay £36,800 for a limited edition plastic skull!

Hirst’s shop at Tate Modern. Own photograph.

Hirst’s works present a study of the transience and frailty of life – areas with which he has been obsessed over the years in a repetitive process that can sometimes be tiring even for the most ardent fans.  But, whatever you think of him, everyone knows Damien Hirst and he has marked our culture like no other contemporary artist.

The exhibition is beautifully presented and the curators have succeeded in showing Hirst at his best.  Hirst has never been one to follow conventional artistic paths; in 2008, in an unprecedented event, he sold 244 of his works through Sotheby’s rather than through a commercial gallery, engaging directly with the art market in a method that enraged many.  The walls of room 13 are clad with wallpaper derived from the covers of catalogues from this sale and it is this sort of curatorial spark that excites the exhibition.

Room 13 at Tate Modern’s Damien Hirst retrospective. Own photograph.

My main criticism and dislike, however, is the room of live butterflies – a recreation of In and Out of Love, his installation from 1991 that was shown at the Anthony d’Offay Gallery where one floor contained five white canvases embedded with pupae from which butterflies hatched.  They then spent their lives eating, feeding and breeding.  Downstairs in the gallery, dead butterflies were pressed onto brightly covered monochrome canvases.

Damien Hirst, detail of In and Out of Love (White Paintings and Live Butterflies), 1991. Own photograph.

The butterfly installation can now be seen in a very humid room six which has been specially designed for this purpose.  Tate are quick to point out that the butterflies are all sourced from reputable UK butterfly houses and are known to thrive in these conditions (overcrowded galleries?).  They are also working with a professional consultant to check that the butterflies are comfortable.  There is no doubt they are stunning specimens but I found this work horrific.  Let Hirst play with dead animals but leave the live ones alone (I know I’m a hypocrite but I don’t feel as strongly when he kills flies).  Although there is a strict one-way system that allows staff to check that no one leaves with butterflies clinging to their clothes, the butterflies are still escaping all the time;  I saw several being returned on Monday morning, one even carried back to its habitat by Nick Serota.  I wouldn’t be surprised if this room has to shut; it is in a ridiculous location, forcing people into a hot room filled with live insects who keep flying towards the plastic sheeting in a bid for freedom.

Damien Hirst, detail of In and Out of Love (White Paintings and Live Butterflies), 1991. Own photograph.

Moving on, Pharmacy takes over an entire gallery with drug-filled vitrines and colourful jars creating an ecclesiastical aura.  Hirst’s art continues to become bigger, bolder and brasher.

Damien Hirst, Pharmacy, 1992. Own photograph.

Although it is a powerful work, I’ve never been keen on A Thousand Years.  When it was last shown at the RA, I found the smell quite nauseating.  But even worse was Crematorium, an oversized ashtray filled with cigarette butts and ash, a contemporary memento mori – a lifetime’s accumulation of the debris of smoking that also parallels the cremated remains of the human body.

Damien Hirst, Crematorium, 1996. Own photograph.

A Thousand Years shows Hirst’s overt debt to Bacon and, of course, this is not the only work that alludes to his greatest influence.  The Acquired Inability to Escape plays on Bacon’s methods of enclosing figures within cage-like lines.  The objects suggest a human presence within the vitrine while the structure generates a sense of confinement and distances the viewer to another remove.

Damien Hirst, The Acquired Inability to Escape , 1991. Own photograph.

The very clever titles that Hirst uses give his work more gravitas than it would otherwise have and they do not require too much close attention so the crowds may be more bearable than at most of the other London blockbusters.  Instead, this exhibition is about the concept of the retrospective and overall impression of the exhibition aesthetic as a whole.  Whatever you think of Hirst, he has made his mark on art history.

Hirst’s spin paintings at Tate Modern. Own photograph.

I was surprised by how good the exhibition is; in parts, it presents Hirst as a serious artist and shows a progression in his thinking.  It is generating a love/hate response but, this is what he does and really I don’t think he would want things any other way!

Damien Hirst is at Tate Modern until 9th September 2012 and For the Love of God can be seen in the Turbine Hall until 24th June 2012, www.tate.org.uk.

(I’ve come down with the dreaded lurgy so I’m sorry that there will only be one post this week.  Happy Easter!)

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