Slipping to Galleries on a Rainy Day in London

13 Jul

I was reticent to return to the BP Portrait Award this year as it’s become so predictable.  But, having attended a lunchtime talk downstairs it seemed churlish not to have a quick whizz round.  Now in its 33rd year at the National Portrait Gallery, the BP Portrait Award once again presents us with a selection of great portraits – great in the sense that these artists are obviously technically advanced and can paint well but the works don’t blow you away.  Portraiture does not have to resemble photography though and this is an important issue that the prize should remember – on this note, there’s slightly less photorealist work than usual which is refreshing.  This exhibition proves the age-old mantra that size isn’t everything and some of the smaller works capture remarkable intimacy and should be afforded more attention that their larger rivals.

BP Portrait Award at the NPG. Own photograph.

Painting portraits of unknown figures is a challenge; we demand an insight into the lives of complete strangers.   This year’s winner is American artist Aleah Chapin for her large-scale nude of a family friend – Auntie.  Chapin views the figure’s body as a map of Auntie’s life journey, she sees this woman as a strong role model, accepting and unguarded.   No doubt she is a talented artist but I’m not quite sure what Chapin was trying to invoke.  The stretched skin becomes almost repulsive while she smiles out at us.  This is not a sympathetic image.  Is she really content?  We don’t know what she’s doing, who she’s addressing.  It is, however, a great painting – one filled with empathy and emotion but the message seems diluted and somewhat confused.

Aleah Chapin, Auntie, 2012. Image via www.huffingtonpost.co.uk

Having missed Tuesday night’s PVs I had some catching up to do and so I headed over to Edgware Road for the Lisson Gallery’s latest double whammy.

My next comment may be a bit controversial as I know not everybody feels this way but I love Julian Opie.  I vividly remember seeing some Opie works during sixth form at school and devoting a section of my sketchbook to them and his practice.  Ignoring the rest of my beautifully executed sketchbook and all the work I’d done, my art teacher asked if I was taking the piss.  The Opie stayed in the sketchbook.  I most certainly wasn’t!

Julian Opie at the Lisson Gallery. Own photograph.

Famous for his portraits of Blur that now reside in the NPG, Opie’s work is easily recognised, looking at ideas of representation through the reinterpretation of the vocabulary of everyday life.  For this exhibition, Opie has returned to walking figures, working unusually to capture passers-by rather than using subjects he knows personally.  The apparent visual simplicity of the pieces is always striking and these new works are particularly effective looking at the idiosyncrasies of individual figures.

Julian Opie at the Lisson Gallery. Own photograph.

The exhibition also includes two major new bodies of work; first, a group of mosaic portraits bringing his portraits more into the realms of sculpture.  I have to say I don’t like these works and the idea is further extended with a series of painted busts.  For me, the exhibition would have been stronger without these.  I think Opie should have stuck with his bread and butter.  However, I still adored the show.  Also exhibited are six digitally animated landscapes on LCD screens that reminded me of Hockney’s recent iPad drawings at the RA.  Still using his trademark simplified vocabulary, the works offer an idyllic picture, enhanced by the calming soundtrack.

Julian Opie, Summer, 2012. Own photograph.

Outside in the courtyard are two more LED works; mounted on a plinth is a galloping horse so high that it can be seen from the street, referencing other equine monuments around London.  Next to it and on a vastly different scale is Peeing boy – the works couldn’t be more different in subject; the horse powerful and dominant while the boy quietly urinates alongside him, oblivious to anything else.  It is this juxtaposition that shows off how well Opie’s distinctive style can translate to different subjects.  You can’t help but smile.

Julian Opie, Galloping horse, 2012 and Peeing boy, 2012. Own photograph.

In Lisson’s other space is an exhibition of works by Ryan Gander.  My advice would be to read the press release before you go round.  Without knowing what this exhibition stands for, it comes across as rather bland but the concepts behind the work move the pieces to a whole new level.  The exhibition is about visibility and invisibility, Gander is the ultimate magician and joker, only revealing what he wants us to see, when he wants us to see it.  The Fallout of Living recalls the moment in an artist’s life when, having become so fluent in visual language, life and practice becomes indistinguishable.

The main gallery of Ryan Gander’s The Fallout of Living at Lisson Gallery. Own photograph.

One room is filled with a giant ball of discarded pieces of stainless steel but the work blocks the door and we can’t get into the room.  We have to leave the gallery to see it properly.  Equally, a sculpture of Gander’s nose in a glass cabinet turns opaque if we approach.  Gander holds all the control.  Upstairs, The Best Club encourages us to pull back the curtain but, of course, there’s nothing there.   The exhibition subtly explores the relationship between spectacle and spectator and, as ever, Gander knows how to make us think through layered systems of meaning that elude and obstruct the viewer.

Ryan Gander, More really shiny things that don’t mean anything, 2011. Own photograph.

Leaving the gallery and knowing I had a bit of walking to do, I changed into flipflops which seemed to trigger the heavens to open.  As I walked into Edgware Road station, I had to grab a post to stop myself going flying (I reckon the bruise will get more colourful today). This should have been my cue to change back into my far more reliable heels but for some reason, partly due to a lack of seats on the tube, common sense temporarily abandoned me.  I was in Oxford Street when I slipped for a second time. Thank heavens a kindly tourist caught me (I kid you not) or I’d have been on the floor in a giant puddle.  I changed back into my stilettos and feeling shaken but not deterred I continued on my gallery adventure.

I wanted to pop to Blain|Southern to see a work by Amelia Whitelaw.  I first met Whitelaw a few years ago when she installed a piece as part of our East Wing Collection VIII at The Courtauld, a mighty installation  of falling dough that explored the fragile balancing act between life and death, between stabil­ity and flux.  The flesh-like dough seeped through a labyrinth of nets at a variety of speeds, the dough constantly morphing and evolving along its downward path.  Whitelaw has a new work in Blain|Southern’s Gravity and Disgrace.  Based around a similar premise, a solid rock anchors a rope that, via a pulley, suspends a net of raw salt dough.  Both sculptural and performative, the organic material ends its journey on the gallery floor where it dries out leaving twisted, elongated shapes in stark contrast to its initial bulbous, clean appearance.  I would have liked to see the work at the very beginning but it is still effective and still manages to present the same unusual medium in a new guise.

Amelia Whitelaw, There are no Accidents, 2012. Own photograph.

The show also includes work by artists Jane Simpson and curator Rachel Howard, focusing on pieces where materiality is key.

It was time for a rest and I managed to resist strong alcohol and head to Joe & the Juice for a ‘stress down’ and a sit down.  Next stop was Haunch of Venison on Eastcastle Street showing a series of new works from Simon Patterson – the man famous for The Great BearUnder Cartel (a historic term regarding the status of exchanged prisoners of war or hostages) is a series of photographs of equestrian statues from around the world.  Each statue is paired with another, suggesting ideas of bartering or exchange.  The proposed swap is illustrated by flashing neon arrows that indicate the journeys the sculptures will take.  Additional photographs rest on the floor on foam blocks, waiting in reserve in case one of the first choice works was ‘unavailable’.

Simon Patterson’s Under Cartel at Haunch. Own photograph.

It’s a truly brilliant exhibition raising questions of ideological, historical, political and cultural values.  Patterson asks if we would notice if these works were swapped?  Are these statues and their ideas outmoded?  Opie obviously thought not with this modern version of an equestrian statue but maybe they are indeed relics of another time, relics that we would not want to live without and that form part of the heart of, not only London but, cities across the world.

Simon Patterson’s Under Cartel at Haunch. Own photograph.

We sheltered outside waiting for a taxi as no way was I risking another slip and we headed to White Cube, Hoxton Square for an exhibition of cast iron blockworks by Antony Gormley.  Now, of course, we knew what to expect – the gallery was filled with sculptures of the artist himself.  I joke but I do really like him and his work.  These pieces show a new direction in Gormley’ sculpture as he uses the blockwork to attempt to describe the internal mass and inner state of the body through architectural language.

Antony Gormley’s Still Standing at the State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg. Image via www.antonygormley.com 

The 17 figures on the ground floor gallery are each composed of small rectangular iron blocks that map the body’s internal volume, investigating the verticality of the human form in spatial and conceptual terms.  Upstairs is a work from Gormley’s Proper series which continues these ideas.  Here, the body is made playful and elongated, recalling childhood Jenga or high-rise towers.  The austere geometric blocks are remarkably emotional and receptive considering the formal nature of their construction.

Antony Gormley at the State Hermitage Museum in 2011. Image via http://www.flickr.com/photos/britishcouncil/6194705382/

I was getting hungry and it was time to pop to the final gallery of the evening.   Celebrating the launch of Dennis Morris’s photo essay of The Stone Roses, the Londonewcastle project space (where I spent most of June) has been temporarily transformed into a music festival.  With dry moss on the floor (that wasn’t easy to walk on), dim lighting, stage areas and loud music, the space is unrecognisable.  I’m not a big festival fan and I’ve never really seen the fun in standing in a muddy field and queuing for dirty toilets.  I think last night was the closest I will get as Londonewcastle even had the dodgy portacabins so I could truly do the festival thing.

Crowding in at Londonewcastle. Own photograph.

Morris’s works showing The Stone Roses live at Spike Island and Glasgow Green are projected onto the gallery walls.  The photographs offer a glimpse into the world of the band, showing their timeless image and the hysteria of their fans.  The atmosphere was electric.  It was no longer a gallery.  My stomach won and we popped across the road to the Albion for dinner but we couldn’t resist heading back for another look.  It was even louder, even grimier and generally what a festival should be at the mid-way point!

BP Portrait Award 2012 is at the National Portrait Gallery until 23rd September 2012, www.npg.org.ukJulian Opie is at Lisson Gallery until 25th August 2012 and Ryan Gander: The Fallout of Living is at Lisson Gallery until 24th August 2012, www.lissongallery.com.  Gravity and Disgrace is at Blain|Southern until 25th August 2012, www.blainsouthern.comSimon Patterson: Under Cartel is at Haunch of Venison, Eastcastle Street until 31st August 2012, www.haunchofvenison.comAntony Gormley: Still Standing is at White Cube, Hoxton Square until 15th September 2012, www.whitecube.comDennis Morris: This is the One will be at the Londonewcastle Project Space until 19th July, www.londonewcastle.com.

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