Archive | June, 2012

Better than Usual: The Mixed Bag of the Summer Exhibition

28 Jun

I am one of the first to criticise the Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition and maybe this year I enjoyed it more than usual because I entered the gallery with low expectations.  The Summer Exhibition is now in its 244th year and aims to cram in a mix of works by emerging and established artists.  This year the RA received over 11,000 entries that have been coordinated by Royal Academician, Tess Jaray.  There are all the usual suspects including Michael Craig-Martin, Michael Landy, Tracey Emin and Anselm Kiefer.  But, this year, the big names seem to have been better integrated with up-and-coming artists, in a way more in keeping with the RA’s philosophy.

Endless Walls at the Summer Exhibition.  Own photograph.

There can be no doubt that the exhibition has changed drastically since its inception.  The thing about the Summer Exhibition is that it’s important to remember that there is no overriding theme or connection between the works.  Fundamentally, this is a show of thousands upon thousands of unrelated pieces.  It is a selling show and people crowd the galleries like pictures crowd the walls.

Visitors to this year’s Summer Exhibition. Own photograph.

The first room that one enters has been painted in bright red, recalling Matisse’s The Red Studio.  After this though the RA have fallen back upon the old faithful wall colour of grey.  Now I’ve not mentioned wall colour in a while but, for such a popular exhibition that isn’t meant to appeal to art purists, I find this an odd choice.  After the impressive vibrancy of the first room we are met with one bland dreary wall after another.  While grey may be a neutral colour that can cause no offence it doesn’t do very much else.

Jaray has curated the largest gallery in a different way to usual and arranged the works in a wave design that rises and falls.  She has moved many of the smaller pieces, traditionally seen in the smaller rooms, to this gallery shifting the focus of the show and showing that the largest is not always the most impactful.  Although this undulating pattern makes it relatively hard to process the works individually, it is far more aesthetically pleasing and it is much better to enjoy this space as a visitor.  Jaray has made use of the works here to create more than just a hang – this is an installation.  This room also shows off the diversity of the Summer Exhibition – whether this is a good or bad thing comes down to personal taste.

Jaray’s wave. Own photograph.

However, rooms seven and eight really deteriorate with yet more grey walls, grey plinths and overcrowded poor sculpture.

Sculpture Galleries. Own photograph.

One room is showing a video work by Jayne Parker, proving that the exhibition is interacting with contemporary media but it is wrong to have this space dedicated to just one work by one artist.  It would be more appropriate if different pieces were on a loop, giving other artists more of a chance.

The Summer Exhibition does struggle to define itself.  It is still derided by the art world but it doesn’t actually make itself available as a public selling exhibition because you have to pay to go in. Whilst I understand charging for the catalogue, surely this should be the one time of year when entry to a Royal Academy exhibition is free of charge.  And so, the show sits in a difficult position and although it’s making progress, it will always be nigh on impossible to climb out of the rut it’s in.

The courtyard transformed.

As ever, the works all blur into one and I came out not really remembering too much of what we’d seen.  It’s a great game though to wander round with the list of works and see how well you know your artists and guess the prices.  There are some fairly good works this year.  There are some fairly bad ones too but this is the best Summer Exhibition that I’ve seen in a while.  I wonder what they’ll do next year…

The Summer Exhibition is at the Royal Academy until 12th August 2012, www.royalacademy.org.uk.

One for the kids… Andy Warhol and Philip Haas

20 Jun

The popularity of Andy Warhol will probably mean that many people will flock to Dulwich to see their latest exhibition.  And this is exactly what I did on Tuesday morning.  Sean, my trusty sat nav, took me round the North Circular and through the Rotherhithe Tunnel and soon as I was outside the gallery ready to have a coffee and a quick sunbathing session in the gardens of the Dulwich Picture Gallery.

Warhol is renowned for turning himself into a brand and he is one of the most recognisable and important figures in recent art history.  His iconic prints of Marilyn Monroe and Campbell’s soup in particular will never leave our visual vocabulary.  Andy Warhol: The Portfolios focuses on the period from 1962-84 when he worked almost exclusively with silkscreen printing.  Using a method more commonly practised in commercial reproduction, Warhol transformed famous faces and still lives into fine art using multiple colour combinations (that required separate screens).  Warhol was a master at this technique and although he set up a factory-like system where he was rarely present to pull the screens himself, he selected the colours, the design and the form, and chose which prints were to be published.  The quality of these prints is of the highest standard, the colours are dazzling and the finish is exemplary.

Andy Warhol, Grapes D. D., 1979. Own photograph.

I don’t think the exhibition fully shows off the impact of all of Warhol’s work.  It’s nice but it’s a bit of a gentle show that doesn’t do enough to draw people in beyond the fact that the works are Warhol’s.

Warhol prints at the Dulwich Picture Gallery. Own photograph.

The gallery is naturally long and narrow, providing a kind of viewing experience that is different from the norm.  The prints are densely hung, recalling an 18th century salon print room, as opposed to the usual white box hang customary for Warhol’s.  I often find the Dulwich space quite difficult and it certainly doesn’t work for all exhibitions.  Here, there are no wall panels or captions, instead the works are allowed to speak for themselves.  To be fair, we already know a lot about these works and many of them don’t require much explanation.

Andy Warhol: The Portfolios in situ at Dulwich. Own photograph.

Dulwich has chosen not to produce an exhibition catalogue to accompany the show as they’ve rightly said that there are so many books already in existence.  In general though, there seems to be something missing here.  Not just a catalogue but that ‘je ne sais quoi’ that would give this show more of a spark.

Running concurrently is an exhibition of Philip Haas works, a set of four 15-foot high fibreglass sculptures (found outdoors) and their maquettes.  The works are huge recreations of Giuseppe Arcimboldo’s 16th century paintings that Haas aims to bring into a physical reality.  The small maquettes are actually more effective than the finished pieces although, placed in the Gallery, they distract from Dulwich’s amazing permanent collection.  The setting of the gardens is more appropriate with Winter now a three-dimensional gnarled tree trunk emerging from the Gallery grounds but at this scale the pieces become too garish.

Philip Haas works in the Dulwich gardens. Own photograph.

A warden actually told me that ‘the kids love it’; although it’s great to attract all age groups into the Gallery I’m not sure that this should be the selling point of an exhibition at a gallery of such calibre.  In my opinion, although striking, these works make a mockery of the Arcimboldo paintings on which they are modelled.  The faces lose the profound sensitivity that Arcimboldo managed to create through assembled fruit.  It seems strange to have these comic playful pieces juxtaposed with the iconic imagery of Warhol.

For obvious reasons the Warhol exhibition is being given far more prominence in the literature produced but the Haas can’t help but make an immediate visual statement when you walk in.

Philip Haas works in the Dulwich gardens. Own photograph.

I did enjoy the Warhol but I left feeling a bit unsure.  Dulwich is always a treat but I think I expected a little more.  My lack of excitement wasn’t helped when Sean let me down on the homeward journey and decided that I should go home via Clapham and Chelsea.  I had no idea I’d set off in the wrong direction and so my cunning plan to avoid central London was foiled.

Andy Warhol: The Portfolios is at the Dulwich Picture Gallery until 16th September 2012, www.dulwichpicturegallery.org.uk.

C’est Magnifique – Gérard Rancinan’s Wonderful World

9 Jun

I tend not to write about exhibitions with which I am directly involved but every rule has an exception.  The Shoreditch exhibition of Gérard Rancinan’s Wonderful World is one such exception.

Gérard Rancinan, Desperate Marilyn. Image courtesy of the artist and via www.thefuturetense.net

Although Rancinan is represented by Opera Gallery, The Future Tense is responsible for mounting this museum-quality exhibition.  The Wonderful World series has never before been seen in the UK; it is the final part of Rancinan’s phenomenal Trilogy of the Moderns, a series that has been seven years in the making.  The works tell the story of a humanity that is obsessed with the cult of celebrity and guided only by an absolute desire for prescribed happiness.  Those in the works are the Moderns – people today who incessantly use electronic devices and who idealise celebrities and iconic figures, longing to lead their lives and play their roles.  Ultimately though, the joke is on us as Rancinan peels back the charade behind which these characters hide to look at the reality.  His photographs are about not taking everything at face value and the importance of individuality.

Gérard Rancinan, Jumping Gis. Image courtesy of the artist and via www.thefuturetense.net

As committed witnesses of the metamorphoses affecting society, Rancinan, and writer, Caroline Gaudriault, have engaged in an ongoing dialogue, delivering their dual observations on a generation seeking relentless progress at any cost.

Gérard Rancinan at the exhibition. Image courtesy of Paul Hampartsoumian and via www.thefuturetense.net

Rancinan’s works have incredible visual impact; he first picked up a camera when he was 15 years old and knew straight away that photography was for him.  Even today, he can’t imagine the idea of doing anything else, saying he wouldn’t know how.  He is a photographer and the master of his camera.  Rancinan began his career as a war photographer, capturing images on the front line, travelling the world and bearing first-hand witness to events of historical importance. Although different these new artworks are equally valid.  He delivers startling images of our contemporary world filtered through an ever-evolving aesthetic prism.  For Rancinan, photography is above all an instrument of thought, a militant perspective on our era.

Gérard Rancinan, Saint Sebastian. Image courtesy of the artist and via www.thefuturetense.net

Rancinan is already an international star having come to London fresh from La Triennale di Milano and it is now time for him to star in the UK as well.  On 17th May, in the Philips de Pury photography auction, his work Batman Family Girls set a new world record for him.  It was also a record sale for a living French photographer and showed the growing importance of Rancinan’s work and the high regard in which it is held among collectors and institutions.

Gérard Rancinan, Batman Family Girls. Image courtesy of the artist and via www.thefuturetense.net

Walking into the Londonewcastle Project Space, where this show is being held, one is immediately struck by a photograph of the head of Mickey Mouse served on a platter (a detail of his Salome).  If this doesn’t grab your attention then who knows what will.  Rancinan’s works don’t whisper; full of complex subtleties they scream.  Following the exhibition round past his Saint Sebastians we come across a wall of Batman masks, dramatically lit to create strong and striking shadows.  I first saw a Future Tense show last year and was immediately impressed, not only by the quality of the works, but also by the lighting.  The gallery ethos is about doing things properly and the lighting of this show is again exemplary.

The Future Tense presents Rancinan’s Wonderful World. Image courtesy of Paul Hampartsoumian and via www.thefuturetense.net

In the next room, alongside the Batman Family works, a chandelier lies on the floor, straight from the wall into real life.  It is an immersive exhibition that includes and captivates the visitor, displaying the 15 large format works cleverly integrated with props from Rancinan’s studio.  But in no way is it over the top.  The methods of display and the clever curatorial decisions successfully bring the works to life and portray the dramatic themes of the series.

Props with the works. Image courtesy of Paul Hampartsoumian and via www.thefuturetense.net

The barcode wallpaper in Family Watching TV has been theatrically extended onto the gallery wall – the exhibition becomes an installation piece in its own right.  Other such clever tricks continue.  A small enclave contains the dress from the Salome photograph, installed on chequerboard flooring, exuding an air of mystery and intrigue.

Theatrical installations. Image via www.thefuturetense.net

A video shows the making of these works and, through watching, the methods of the Rancinan studio become clearer.  All of Rancinan’s photographs are created in just one shot.  There’s no clever manipulation in Photoshop.  It is his perfection and eye for detail, his understanding of what makes an immediate impact that creates these amazing visions.

The head of Mickey Mouse. Image courtesy of Paul Hampartsoumian and via www.thefuturetense.net

The last room hosts a purpose-built set and studio.  Public auditions are taking place this weekend for the final composition for the entire body of work which will be shot on this set on Tuesday 12th June.  This presents a rare opportunity for visitors to see what goes on behind the scenes of a major fine art photo shoot and, potentially, to be immortalised in art history as part of the photograph.   A black rectangle on the wall shows where this work will hang – a solitary gas mask is hooked in the middle and Rancinan’s signature shines out in white paint.  There aren’t yet many clues about the content of this last piece (and, no, I’m not telling).  Repeat visits will reveal the organic nature of studio life – part art installation, part film set, part soap opera – as the shoot moves from concept, through production and postproduction, to the climactic unveiling of the finished work.

Rancinan’s studio comes to Shoreditch. Image courtesy of Paul Hampartsoumian and via www.thefuturetense.net

At first the works are striking, even rather comical, but look a bit closer and the many-layered meanings start to come through and hit home.  They are incredible works and Rancinan deserves the acclaim that this show is receiving.  Despite having now seen his photographs many times, every walk through the gallery offers me something new and reveals further detail.  Even without my involvement with this exhibition, I would still be urging people to visit and I would still be making several trips there myself.

Gérard Rancinan: Wonderful World is at the Londonewcastle Project Space, 28 Redchurch Street, until 24th June 2012, www.thefuturetense.net.

Stronger than the scar of Shibboleth – Doris Salcedo at White Cube

5 Jun

Whatever I thought of Doris Salcedo’s Shibboleth at Tate Modern, it is certainly the most enduring of the Turbine Hall installations.  Enduring because traces of it remain in the Turbine Hall and one can still walk down the scar that people once hopped across or tripped into if they weren’t looking where they were walking.

Doris Salcedo, Shibboleth. Image via www.guardian.co.uk

This is the first time since the crack that we have seen Salcedo’s work in London and, passing Mason’s Yard on the way back from a meeting, I decided to take a look.  I wasn’t sure what to expect of Salcedo’s latest exhibition at White Cube and I was more than pleasantly surprised.  The exhibition only includes two works – both large-scale installations – but they demand more time and respect than lots of the shows I have seen recently.

Doris Salcedo, A Flor de Piel. Image courtesy of the artist via www.whitecube.com.

Filling the ground floor gallery, A Flor de Piel is a huge shroud made from thousands of rose petals.  From a distance the medium is indistinguishable.  It was only when I read the press release that I realised what the shroud was made from.  Salcedo has used the solid and substantial wilted petals that remain after the beauty and intoxicating smell of the rose’s initial bloom has faded.  The work is about the simple but impossible task of presenting a floral offering to a victim of torture.   It is both an offering and a symbolic representation.  Like victims of torture, these petals still exist but they have changed from their initial form.

Doris Salcedo, detail of A Flor de Piel. Image courtesy of the artist via www.whitecube.com

A Flor de Piel is a work in flux that will change throughout the exhibition.  By using the rose, Salcedo has tried to push the limits of fragility, amazingly sewing the petals together to resemble a fluid, skin-like surface.

Downstairs, her work evokes a mass graveyard where each sculpture is the approximate size of a standard coffin, consisting of two oblong tables formed from aged wood.  Yet, despite the seemingly uniform nature of the coffins, each is individual, the wood coloured and cut to be distinctive.

Doris Salcedo, Plegaria Muda. Image courtesy of the artist via www.whitecube.com. 

The work was triggered by the murder of 1,500 men in Colombia (Salcedo is Colombian).  These men were innocent, lured with the false promise of a job in the army and then taken to remote areas of the country where they were killed.  The gallery is a silent memorial.  Even though there were only two of us, we found ourselves speaking in whispers, showing respect to the work around us and grieving the terrible rationale for this piece.  On the surface of the uppermost table, shoots of grass push their way through – a reminder of life amongst death.  There is hope in these works; the grass is a poignant message that life continues against all odds.

Doris Salcedo, detail of Plegaria Muda. Image courtesy of the artist via www.whitecube.com. 

This piece is a maze of sculptures yet this installation includes only 45 units out of the 162 that make up the full Plegaria Muda.

Both works are very private, intimate portrayals of loss, grief and suffering.  Salcedo’s sculptures are beautiful and graceful despite the horrors of which they speak.  They are troubling but peaceful.

This is a meditative show that forces us to engage with the political troubles in Colombia without being overtly-political in format.

Outside, London was preparing for Jubilee weekend with excitement and celebrations everywhere.  I left the gallery in a contemplative silence, really surprised by how touching and provoking these works are.

Although Shibboleth may still have a physical imprint on one of London’s most famous galleries, it never really had a profound effect on me when I visited and I felt it was lost in the cavernous space.  These two works at White Cube could not have been more different to that and I found the exhibition very moving.  I only hope that London will see more like this from Salcedo before too long.

Doris Salcedo is at White Cube, Mason’s Yard, until 30th June 2012, www.whitecube.com.

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