Archive | November, 2012

Get Drawn into Stephen Walter’s Wonderland

25 Nov

Amazingly, I now know my way around Hackney Wick.  Despite the fact that I regularly get lost in central London, I can ‘do’ Hackney Wick.  Well, that may be a slight exaggeration.  I can get from the station to Britannia Works where two artists I know currently have their studios.  So, after the tube and the mainline and a rather hazardous walk over the canal where I was nearly blown away (that bit is not an exaggeration), I arrived.

I love visiting artists’ studios and Stephen Walter’s is always a highlight – there’s frequently something new to see, a work in which to lose myself or something exciting to pour over while having a good catch up.

Stephen Walter’s studio. Own photograph.

Many of you have probably seen Stephen’s maps of London.  His most renowned work, The Island, took two years to complete and, on seeing it or one of the borough works (offshoots from the central piece), you can’t help but try to find your home or other landmarks across the city that are personal to you.  I have Barnet hanging on a wall at home and take great pleasure in spotting my house on it.  I blogged this particular series when it was installed at the National Trust’s Fenton House last year where you could climb the 18th century staircase and take in all the boroughs on the way up.

Stephen Walter, The Island.  Image via www.stephenwalter.co.uk

Obviously, Stephen knows London well but the detail included in these maps was extensive and he had to study numerous historical documents, travel literature and antique maps.  Plus, he used Wikipedia to source place names and amusing trivia on important historical and artistic figures as well as contemporary celebrities, on purely capricious grounds.

Stephen also mapped out Liverpool in his own inimitable way.  The map was far larger and more detailed than he initially planned.  Here again, the map is geographically accurate highlighting many of Liverpool’s main roads, railway lines, built-up areas, monuments and green spaces, with an enlarged section of the city centre added in the bottom left corner. It also records several memorable viewpoints that translate the city’s character onto paper.

A poster of Stephen’s Liverpool map on the studio wall. Own photograph.

This year the buzz has been about Walter’s London Subterranea which was on show at the London Transport Museum.  One of these maps is currently hidden away in a chest of drawers in Stephen’s studio; based on the tube network, Stephen painstakingly recorded buried rivers, bunkers, sewers, government tunnels and other hidden parts of London’s underground networks.  He found out about, and included, pagan burial sites, ley lines and murder mysteries.   Unusually, the map is set against a striking black background and crammed in typical ‘Stephen style’.

A detail from London Subterranea. Own photograph.

Stephen is currently finishing Nova Utopia based on the shape of Abraham Ortelius’s map, which was designed to entertain his friends and provide an illustration for their copies of Sir Thomas More’s Utopia (1516).  In Greek utopia means ‘a place that doesn’t exist’ but has also come to mean ‘an ideal place’; Stephen’s map brings together a number of different imagined worlds forming his own island of Utopia.

Abraham Ortelius, Utopia.  Image via www.blogs.artinfo.com

More’s Utopia depicted what its narrator, Raphael Hythloday, claimed to be an ideal human society.  There are many ways to interpret Utopia but, ultimately, the book attempts to navigate a course between the ideal and the real, a desire to create perfection while understanding that perfection is unattainable.

The detail in Stephen’s works is very special.  Despite having seen his Nova Utopia on a number of occasions I can’t help gazing at the detail and soaking it all up.  I’m not going to spoil the treat for you by revealing any images before the work is finished.

A work in progress. Own photograph.

Walter’s drawings have evolved from his fascination with maps, public signs, symbols and obsessive tendencies.  But, he doesn’t just create maps; he also produces beautiful landscape works where he takes emblems to describe often fictitious places and amazing totem-like drawings, playing with mirrored imagery.  One work pinned to the wall is exploring 1960s popular culture with figures like The Beatles jumping out at us.  But, what will fill the other half of the totem pole?  Well, Stephen’s works are always a wonderful surprise and a mystery so I guess I’ll just have to wait until my next visit to see what transpires.

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Tate needed to make a Bigger Splash

18 Nov

I don’t enjoy being offensive about exhibitions as I know how much hard work goes into their planning.  It gives me no pleasure to leave a great gallery and be so disappointed and bored by a show that I don’t really have anything to say.  But, Tate’s latest exhibition is so bland and irrelevant that I feel it is one of the worst shows I have seen in years.

A Bigger Splash claims to look at the ‘dynamic relationship between performance and painting from 1950 to the present day’, bringing together artists such as Yves Klein, Cindy Sherman, Nike de Saint Phalle, Wang Peng and Sam Gilliam.  It apparently ‘shows how the key period of post-war performance art has challenged and energised the medium of painting for successive generations’.  I felt the need to include this quote as, without it, I don’t think you’d have a clue as to their intentions.

Sam Gilliam, Simmering, 1970. Own photograph.

The exhibition, of course, opens with David Hockney’s A Bigger Splash – Tate obviously felt they had to include the work around which the exhibition marketing revolves.  After all, this is the title that’s going to pull in the punters.  Make sure to read the subtitle of Painting after Performance as this is not a Hockney show and the painting doesn’t really fit here at all.  Is Hockney’s painting a meditation on performance?  I think not.  Hockney’s work is certainly not the best link to performance art.

Alongside, A Bigger Splash is Pollock’s Summertime and then both artists are shown ‘performing’ in the accompanying films.  Although slightly random, this room seems quite good – it poses questions and it juxtaposes exciting major works.  But, don’t hold your breath, as this excitement swiftly fades away.  In fact, the more we think about this room and the lack of continuity between the works, the more we realise the exhibition is fundamentally flawed.

David Hockney, A Bigger Splash, 1967. Own photograph.

Both Hockney and Pollock look at the action of painting. If we want to call these artists ‘performers’ then surely any artist, in fact any creator, is a performer and then what the hell is the point of the exhibition.  Neither artist was, in my opinion ‘energised’ by performance art.

Pollock’s Summertime seen horizontal as it was painted.  Image via www.independent.co.uk

Most of the works in the exhibition are accompanied by film footage – dreary archive material that cannot make up for the lack of actual performance.  The exhibition is a mess, bringing together every sort of art, performance and media that the curators could possibly cram into one space.  Plus it’s hung on Tate grey – my favourite wall colour!

I’m not going to discuss the individual works as to see them in this context does them a disservice.  There are some powerful works if you have the energy to seek them out but, more often than not, they are lost in the ruckus.

Painting after Performance at Tate. Own photograph.

The exhibition takes a dramatic turn half-way through, concentrating on one artist per room, looking at large-scale installations.  Here, I felt the connection to painting pretty much faded away completely.  The exhibition did improve but not sufficiently to pull me out of the depression that the first six galleries had induced.  It was still pretty lacklustre.

Joan Jonas, The Juniper Tree. Own photograph.

My favourite part of the show was the last room.  Not only because it was the exit but because Lucy McKenzie’s work is thought-provoking and beautiful.  Her paintings make use of trompe l’oeil techniques that mimic architectural surfaces and the gallery becomes an imaginary room with fake walls, the interior of a stylish house.

Lucy McKenzie at Tate. Own photograph.

Even though I hoard books, I didn’t want this catalogue which, from the reviews I’ve read, seems to be an abomination, even worse than the exhibition itself.  A perverse part of me wants to get one just to see how Tate has gone so wrong with this too but, to be honest, I just can’t be bothered.

There are no performers in an exhibition surveying performance art.  It becomes very difficult to engage, difficult to feel invigorated and difficult to spend very much time at all in there.  Tired archive footage heard through headphones cannot capture the spirit of performance.  So, was painting affected by performance art?  I don’t think we leave the exhibition any the wiser.  Tate may ask the question but they certainly don’t attempt to give us an answer.

A Bigger Splash: Painting after Performance is at Tate Modern until 1st April 2013, www.tate.org.uk.

Sunday morning at Tate Britain with the Turner Prize and the Pre-Raphs

11 Nov

Early this morning I popped in the car and, managing to skirt around the very impressive Remembrance Sunday crowds and consequent road closures, I headed to Tate Britain.  Comfy clothes and comfy shoes (sorry but even I’m not that committed to my heels) were the order of the day for a weekend gallery outing.

Remembrance Day services.  Image via www.itv.com

I’m not a huge Turner Prize fan but it’s still nice to have it back in London (last year it was in Gateshead marking the start of its biennial staging away from Tate Britain).  The Turner Prize takes over the downstairs space at Tate Britain but is hung differently to usual with the entrance being where we used to find the exit.  This seems to work much better though I can’t quite fathom why.

Unusually, all of the shortlisted exhibitions that led to these nominations have taken place in Britain so many of you may well have seen the works before.

To start, we are greeted by Paul Noble’s drawings.  I blogged his exhibition at Gagosian earlier this year, where we saw his sprawling drawings detailing the minutiae of Nobson Newtown.  I’m a fan!  But, the exhibition at Gagosian was far better and maybe this is a larger problem with the Turner Prize – it fundamentally reproduces shows from the last year but diminishes them so they aren’t normally as good.  For me, the marble sculptures are slightly too crude and provide an unwelcome distraction from the densely fabulous pencil drawings.

Nobson Newtown at Tate Britain.  Image via www.standard.co.uk

Luke Fowler’s film is a full-length documentary but I did not have 93 minutes to spare this morning.  Whether or not I will return to watch in full remains to be seen.  The film is about RD Laing and the anti-psychiatry movement but, unlike a normal film, it does not have a narrative.  Instead, it is a collage of short scenes and snapshots that come together to tell its strange story.  Is this art that is film or a film masquerading as art?

Still from Luke Fowler’s All Divided Selves.  Image via www.guardian.co.uk

I wasn’t able to watch Elizabeth’s Price video work as there was a technical fault this morning but, from what I understand, The Woolworths Choir of 1979 is an overpowering piece in three acts, bringing together old photographs, archive footage, rhythms, words and sound.  The piece is an act of commemoration, exploring the horror of the fire in the Manchester branch of Woolworths.

Elizabeth Price, The Woolworths Choir of 1979.  Image via www.telegraph.co.uk.

Finally, we reach Spartacus Chetwynd’s work but I wasn’t around at the correct time to see one of the actual performances.   Chetwynd’s work seems intended to shock; Tate describes her team as an energetic “16th-century wandering troupe”.  What makes her work stand out, despite its silliness, is that Chetwynd’s commitment to her absurdity is entirely sincere – a contradiction in terms perhaps but one with often spectacular results.  I never made it to her 2011 Sadie Coles show but have heard it was far more dramatic, exciting and fun.  These feelings are nowhere to be found at Tate.

Spartacus Chetwynd with co-performers as part of Odd Man Out 2011.  Image via www.telegraph.co.uk.

Tate has gone for non-traditional media this year.  I’d like Noble to win but I imagine one of the video artists will take the prize.

Although I walked around the whole exhibition, I left feeling I had seen very little of the Turner Prize and didn’t really know what to make of this year’s submissions.  The winner of the prize will be announced live by Jude Law(!) at the award ceremony on Monday 3rd December 2012.  I worry that Tate may be going too far to popularise the Turner.  Before long the artists will have to do live tricks on air to cement their win.

Elizabeth Price – not working. Own photograph.

 The main reason for today’s visit though was to see Tate’s Pre-Raphaelite exhibition.  By 10.30am it was already packed out although the guard told me that what I thought was busy was in fact quiet.  As snobby as this will sound, I do find it hard to enjoy exhibitions that are flooded with people.  I began to regret not wearing sharp stilettos that would have helped me to encourage people to move out the way (don’t worry, I’m only joking).  Luckily, I was very familiar with most of the works here so didn’t feel I was missing out when I couldn’t get near to them.  Walking through the seven rooms, was like reliving my Courtauld first year survey course with Holman Hunt’s The Hireling Shepherd, Ford Maddox Brown’s An English Autumn Afternoon, Hampstead – Scenery in 1853, Millais’ Christ in the House of his Parents and many more besides.

William Holman Hunt, The Hireling Shepherd, 1851-2.  Image via www.artchive.com.

Visitors to the show are heading straight to the work hanging opposite the entrance – Millais’ Isabella that created rather a buzz in the press before the opening.  One of the curators spotted that the foremost figure has a large erection.  He leans forward, with his leg stretched out in front of him and, although his groin is covered, a shadow is cast on the table.  It’s unmissable, yet we have missed it since 1848 when the work was conceived.

John Everett Millais, Isabella, 1848-9.  Image via www.theartsdesk.com

The Pre-Raphaelites’ recognition of women as sensual and sexual people is obvious and one of their defining features.  Desire pours forth and we know that many of these artists were enjoying themselves and their models.

We can feel the curators’ passion as we walk around the show.  With 180 works, they’ve certainly tried to cram in all their favourites (although a few notable works are missing).  Now, the Pre-Raphaelites may not be to everyone’s fancy and I have heard some describe their work in horribly derogatory terms.  But, whatever you may think, all opinions are subjective and however ‘bad’ some of the works are it’s important to remember that everyone has different tastes.  As such, the popularity of this period reigns supreme and there are some fabulous works included here.

Ford Madox Brown, An English Autumn Afternoon, Hampstead – Scenery in 1853,1852-3.  Image via www.telegraph.co.uk

Many of the works do merge into one – partly because the Pre-Raphs often painted with a prescribed artistic formula and relied on this through and through.  The works don’t often take too long to look at, they initially captivate with their bright and bubbly colours but their joy can fade away quickly when we start to note their cramped scenes, sickly colours and lack of perspectival understanding.  Some of the works are moving and many, like Ophelia, are so familiar that they are part of our everyday life.

 

John Everett Millais, Ophelia, 1851-2.  Image via www.tate.org.uk.  

I don’t think the exhibition has managed to prove anything new academically and, in fact, I disagree with the arguments that encourage us to view the movement through the eyes of Modernism but it’s a beautiful exhibition, presenting a well-known story and some well-known paintings alongside a mix of Victorian works.  Although it is a neatly summarised show, this is also its main problem.  Chronology has been abandoned here and themes imposed on the work often lead to confusion rather than distinction, such as Salvation, Beauty, Mythologies and History.  This does make it difficult to follow the progression of individuals as they get lost in the melée.

The exhibition doesn’t end on a bang and the last two rooms lose something for me – perhaps because this is actually no longer Pre-Raphaelitism but Arts and Crafts.  They clearly intend to show the influence of the Pre-Raphaelites on the later movement of Arts and Crafts but Tate fail to separate the two.

William Morris, Peacock and Bird Carpet, 1885-90.  Image via www.tate.org.uk

I certainly don’t loathe this period.  In fact, I rather enjoyed the exhibition and, although there are a lot of works shoved in this space, I do think it’s a very well-curated show with great wall colours and good lighting (something I don’t often say about Tate).

William Holman Hunt, The Scapegoat, 1854-6.  Image via www.wikipedia.org

The curators have taken care to stress the female artists from the circle with Julia Margaret Cameron and Elizabeth Siddal making bold appearances.  This is a very British show and we’ve had a very British year so Tate could not have timed this better.

One thing that still upsets me is the lack of an artist-designed Christmas tree at Tate.  Although the rotunda is no longer visible due to the major building work currently in progress I fail to believe that there is no room anywhere in the gallery to have kept this tradition alive.  The rest of London once again embraces Christmas while Tate stays in the dark.

Turner Prize 2012 is at Tate Britain until 6th January 2013 and Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde is at Tate Britain until 13th January 2013, www.tate.org.uk.

Seduced and Surprised by the National Gallery

4 Nov

Early on Tuesday morning, I joined the throng of commuters walking across Green Park.  I was freezing and realised that fingerless gloves don’t do very much now it’s winter!  I was off to a bloggers’ breakfast at the Queen’s Gallery – the Palace are embracing new technology – to view their new exhibition, The Northern Renaissance ­­.

The exhibition apparently reunites the enemies and allies of Henry VIII’s court, a place characterised by political intrigue and betrayal.   With around 130 works, it is a great excuse to show off some of the Royal Collection’s Renaissance gems including Lucas Cranach the Elder, Urs Grat and Pieter Bruegel the Elder.  Artists responded to changing ideas and a revival in humanism by producing ingenious works with advancing technical skill.

The Northern Renaissance at The Queen’s Gallery.  Own photograph.

The period saw an increase in the demand for tapestries, moveable furnishings that demonstrated the wealth and power of the owner.  When this exhibition was on display in Scotland, these weren’t shown as the exhibition was in a smaller form.  This show also teaches us that the Renaissance is not only Italian and concentrates on Northern Europe with particular emphasis on Albrecht Dürer and Hans Holbein the Younger.

One of the tapestries in the exhibition. Own photograph.

Without Holbein we wouldn’t even know what Henry VIII looked like and he also immortalised many of the personalities of Henry’s court.  The exhibition opens with a lovely collection of Holbein drawings.

The Apocalypse was a popular subject for illustration in the Middle Ages.  In 1498, Dürer published the Book of Revelations with 15 illustrations – incredible nightmarish scenes including figures from all sections of society, reminding viewers that no-one would be spared the day of judgement.  Dürer understood how to brand himself and his AD monogram, placed on all his works, made his art instantly identifiable.

Dürer’s The Apocalypse. Own photograph.

The Bruegel work, Massacre of the Innocents, which is normally on view in isolation in Windsor, is here seen in context.  But, this piece presents an interesting conundrum; during its lifetime, when owned by Emperor Rudolph II in Prague, nearly all the slaughtered children and babies were painted over to change the tone of the scene.  Evidence of them can be found using infra-red reflectography.  Do we intervene or accept that this is the history of the work?

Bruegel, Massacre of the Innocents. Own photograph.

In this vein, the gallery has conserved eight paintings for this exhibition, bringing them back to life.  One example of this is Holbein’s Hans of Antwerp – the cleaned portrait reveals new details and clues as to who this sitter may actually be but how much conservation is too much?!

Holbein, Hans of Antwerp. Own photograph.

The Queen’s Gallery do get their brightly coloured walls right and the exhibition is dark but not gloomy.  This is a much more serious exhibition than their usual and the curators haven’t gone for tricks to attract punters.  It’s a bit of a mix but maybe that is the point – to show the truly varied practice of this period.  This is a large and thoughtful exhibition (although sometimes the delicacy of the drawings is lost) and I don’t really know if it is right for their audience.  It’s alright but it’s not mind-blowing.

One exhibition, however, which is mind-blowing is Seduced by Art at the National Gallery.  I didn’t know what to think about the ideas behind this show so my expectations were low but it is sensational.

As soon as I walked into the first room I was grabbed (not literally).  Visitors are greeted by Jeff Wall’s The Destroyed Room, 1978, where he evokes the destructive frenzy of Delacroix’s painting The Death of Sardanapalus.  This is Wall’s earliest attempt to quote the past and he incorporates spectacle into the photograph, showing the aftermath of man-made disaster.  This room looks at how photographers responded to fine art traditions, especially painting; it’s called Setting the Scene which is what it does – it is a room of theatre.

Jeff Wall, The Destroyed Room.  Image courtesy of the National Gallery of Canada and via www.ng-london.org.uk

This is an exhibition that constantly surprised me.  If I had any doubts, they were gone by room two (portraits) where I was greeted by Gainsborough’s Mr and Mrs Andrews (one of my all-time favourite paintings, loved all the more for its inclusion in Freya North’s Chloë) alongside Martin Parr’s Signs of the Times from 1991.  Parr recognised the satiric potential of a protracted pose.  His discomfort contradicts the couple in Gainsborough’s work but this is a clever and fascinating juxtaposition that is still making me smile that nearly a week on.  Parr’s work has a real edge but he also takes a well-considered look at social portraiture through pose and stance, among other things.  It encapsulates something very different to the usual snapshot, showing a young couple at the beginning of their married life in their first home – in this way, the work is very sympathetic to Gainsborough.

Parr and Gainsborough.  Own photograph.

Moving on, the Learoyd photo of Man with Octopus Tattoo II,which has been used for all the publicity, is here compared with the Laocoön group.  The National Gallery argues that they have a similarly sensuous and disturbing impact.   The resemblances don’t go very far aesthetically but the ideas are shocking in both.

Learoyd and surrounding works at the National Gallery. Own photograph.

The National Gallery is once again giving their large middle room a church-like atmosphere and here the exhibition presents provocative religious imagery.  Included is Thomas Struth’s photograph of visitors to the National Gallery viewing one of their altarpieces.  Is this photo real?  What are we looking at, a snapshot or a carefully contrived and created moment?  We will never really know and this helps to teach us to question what is presented to us.  The exhibition also shows the incredible advances that have taken place within the medium.

Religious imagery.  Own photograph.

Three photographs have also been incorporated into the permanent collections offering a sensational effect.  Each comparison is a revelation making a statement using the most incredible works to support its arguments.  It’s hard to keep superlatives from my writing as the exhibition really was so good!

Seduced by Art is not trying to be a survey, nor is it a history of photography.  It’s making an argument.  Whether or not you agree, the exhibition is a dialogue that looks at significant moments.  A survey of photographs can be found anywhere but this exhibition is different.  People who know and understand painting are led into photographs, people who love early photographs can see their relevance to contemporary work and so on.  It presents historical painting, alongside historical photography, alongside contemporary photographs.  It is a tripartite exhibition with various points of access that all knit together perfectly.  The rooms work into each other, offering wonderful vistas.  They bring connections between old, new and subject matter through a series of amazing loans.

Julia Margaret Cameron, Kate Keown, c. 1866.  Image courtesy of the Wilson Centre for Photography and via www.ng-london.org.uk

This is a very darkly lit, theatrical and beautiful exhibition.  It is an enthralling show and, rare as this is for me to say, I genuinely cannot get over how great it is.  It took me by surprise.  The curators have surpassed themselves.  The press release describes the exhibition as ground-breaking and I find myself agreeing.  I will certainly be back for another visit as it deserves a lot of time, attention and awe.

 

The Northern Renaissance: Dürer to Holbein is at The Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace until 14th April 2013.  Seduced by Art: Photography Past and Present is at the National Gallery until 20th January 2013.

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