Archive | December, 2012

2012 Highlights

27 Dec

When it comes picking my highlights of the last year, I am impossibly indecisive – as ever there have been been the usual disappointments but there have been a fair few stunners in the arts calendar.  I can’t believe how many shows I’ve seen but I also feel I’ve missed a lot – if only there were a few more hours in every day.

As I did last year, I’ve chosen the exhibitions that stand out for me as being remarkable; they include stunning art work, and are interesting and well-curated.  Here we go…

Triumphant at Tate – Way back in February, I visited Yayoi Kusama at Tate Modern and I can still vividly picture the exhibition.  Kusama has always been ahead of her time – her work is beautiful, innovative and ground-breaking.  The exhibition worked broadly chronologically with each sequence of rooms studying the emergence of a new artistic stance.

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

Radiant at the Royal Academy  – while the rest of the world is still raving about Bronze, the RA’s highlight for me was their exhibition Johan Zoffany RA: Society Observed.  I admit that, as an 18th century art historian, I may be slightly biased but through these 60 or so works, the RA successfully argued his importance to the artistic culture and heritage of his time.

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Johan Zoffany, Three Sons of John, Third Earl of Bute and Three Daughters of John, Third Earl of Bute, 1763-4. Own photograph.

Nailing It at the National GallerySeduced by Art is still on show at the National Gallery and is an unmissable exhibition.  This divided opinion but, for me, it was a stunning and enthralling.  Seduced by Art is not a survey, nor a history of photography.  Instead, it offers an argument and dialogue that presents historical painting, alongside historical photography, alongside contemporary photographs. The National Gallery has had a strong year and I feel its Metamorphosis: Titian 2012 (with Wallinger’s Diana in particular) is also worthy of mention.

The Destroyed Room, 1978

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

Leaving LondonEdward Burra at Pallant House was the first major show for over 25 years of the artist’s works in which Burra is finally awarded a smidgeon of the recognition he deserves.  It offered an opportunity to study his extraordinary creativity.

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

Also with podium finishes were:

Glistening GoldMondrian||Nicholson: In Parallel, The Courtauld Gallery

This explored the creative relationship between Mondrian and Nicholson, charting the parallel paths explored by these two artists during the 1930s.  It was a far more contemporary show than we would normally expect from The Courtauld and it successfully changed the gallery aesthetic, pairing two artists who many wouldn’t otherwise have realised are connected.

Composition C (No.III) with Red, Yellow and Blue

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

Scintillating SilverNowhere Less Now, Tin Tabernacle

Artangel’s commission by Lindsay Seers, took place in the Tin Tabernacle; Nowhere Less Now was a poignant amalgam of film, photography, sculpture, performance, animation, philosophy and writing.  Its complexities still offer food for thought many months afterwards.

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The Tin Taberacle. Own photograph.

Brilliant BronzePainting from Life: Carracci Freud, Ordovas

Having successfully juxtaposed Bacon and Rembrandt in the past, Ordovas knows how to get its shows right: Painting from Life was a tiny exhibition bringing together head studies by Carracci and Freud.  This was an intimate, simple and stunning juxtaposition.

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Ordovas. Image via www.ordovasart.com.

Last but by no means least – Runner Up  – Alberto Burri: Form and Matter, Estorick Collection of Modern Italian Art

Before this exhibition, I didn’t really know who Burri was but he is undoubtedly a master of the 20th century who revolutionised the vocabulary of post-war art.  From the simplest materials, Burri was able to create something monumental and striking, imbued with energy and movement.

6. Burri White Cretto 1975

Alberto Burri, White Cretto, 1975. Image courtesy of the Fondazione Palazzo Albizzini, Collezione Burri and Città di Castello and via www.estorickcollection.com.

But, there was also David Shrigley: Brain Activity at the Hayward Gallery, Leonardo da Vinci: Anatomist at the Queen’s Gallery, Rothko/Sugimoto: Dark Paintings and Secrets at Pace London, Tim Lewis: Mechanisms at Flowers, Doris Salcedo at White Cube and Louse Bourgeois: The Return of the Repressed at The Freud Museum and numerous great little shows at Josh Lilley.

I’m sure I’ve forgotten lots of gems.  We are so fortunate to have such varied and high calibre art to admire on our doorstep.  It’s so easy to get from gallery to gallery however precarious your footwear may be and, of course, there’s always a taxi around the corner.

It seems only fitting to include some of my favourite shoe pictures from the past year and to thank my principal shoe photographer (you know who you are).

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Shoes

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Thank you, as ever, for reading Artista.  I hope you had a very Merry Christmas and wish you all a Happy Shoe Year.

Ski boots

The Surreal World of a Spellbinding Genius

24 Dec

Somerset House has been transformed into a veritable fairyland, a surreal world belonging to the magical stylings of Tim Walker.  Walker has always been fascinated by the make-believe since as a 19-year old intern at Vogue he established their Cecil Beaton Archive.  After completing his studies at the age of 25 he shot his first Vogue fashion story; the rest, as they say, is history.  He was the recipient of the second ‘Isabella Blow Award for Fashion Creator’ at the British Fashion Awards in 2008 and the following year he received an Infinity Award from the International Center of Photography in New York. His photos are instantly recognisable including many famous fashion campaigns such as those of Mulberry (who are supporting the exhibition), Hèrmes and Valentino.

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Tim Walker, Giant doll kicks Lindsey Wixson, Eglingham Hall, Northumberland, 2011.  Image via www.somersethouse.org.uk and courtesy of Tim Walker.

The extravagant and dazzling exhibition seeks to replicate the photos.  The first room contains a life-sized Spitfire, a prop used for a 2009 Burberry shoot for Vogue starring Lily Donaldson.  Here, it has crashed and erupted through the fireplace.  There’s no slow start.  This is Walker – take it or leave it.

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Tim Walker, Lily Donaldson and Blue Spitfire, Glemham Hall, Suffolk, 2009. Image via www.somersethouse.org.uk and courtesy of Tim Walker.

The exhibition guides us through Walker’s collaborations with some of the biggest names in contemporary fashion and culture: Alber Elbaz sporting a pair of rabbit ears (fairy tales are frequently referenced); Karen Elson up against it with a giant crocodile; Agyness Deyn in the sand dunes of Namibia; Tilda Swinton in Iceland; Alexander McQueen and a memento mori of skull and cigarettes; Helena Bonham Carter and Tim Burton turning an Essex garden centre into a danse macabre; Stella Tennant in a pink cloud among the rhododendrons of an English country garden and a visitor from outer space who surprises a foxhunt in Northumberland.  Some of the scenes are a bit bizarre to say the least but they are not scary – in fact they are mesmerising.  Walker’s images are characteristically British – from the models and design to the background.

© 2009 Tim Walker. All rights reserved. Moral rights asserted.

Tim Walker, Stella Tennant and pink powder cloud, Eglingham Hall, Northumberland, 2007. Image via www.somersethouse.org.uk and courtesy of Tim Walker.

As with the Spitfire, props from the photographs are brought into the gallery.  I, for one, love bringing props into exhibitions and so they were onto a winner here with me but, when busy, this can make the display seem cluttered.  In particular, the room with the giant swan is very difficult to navigate especially as all the cold skaters from the Somerset House ice rink are migrating inside, seeking warmth from anywhere, even an art gallery.  The wall labels are also quite amateurish and some are even peeling off – a shame considering how the rest of the show has been thought out.  The wall labels and quotes are printed on corners making you move with them – the photos aren’t straightforward and the display follows this.  Despite these flaws this is a really fabulous show where the new East Wing at Somerset House has truly found its feet .

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Skaters at Somerset House.  Image via www.bbc.co.uk

In this exhibition, we are transported to Walker’s world where his imagination comes alive. And what a world it is!  Walker shoots entirely in film – for him, the easy part is pointing and shooting and the camera ‘is simply a box put between you and what you want to capture’.  The magic, and his genius, lies in the designs of these amazing sets that show off his models and all their couture finery.  The team involved here includes hair and make-up artists, fashion stylists, costume fitters, model makers, set designers, builders, producers, painters, prop suppliers and models with Walker at the centre waving his magic wand.

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Tim Walker, Olga Shearer on blue horse, Sennowe Park, Norfolk, 2007. Image via www.somersethouse.org.uk and courtesy of Tim Walker.

Somewhat surprisingly, Walker’s preference when looking at this show is his portraits, favouring the stripped back contrast of the faces to his previous flamboyance.  He feels it’s time for something new but I find it very hard to believe he’s going to leave all this behind.  Who knows?  Let’s see.

Alexander McQueen

Tim Walker, Alexander McQueen with skull and cigarettes, Clerkenwell, London, 2009. Image via www.somersethouse.org.uk and courtesy of Tim Walker.

Looking at Walker’s photographs feels as if we are somewhere else, in his own surreal land.  The soft focus, framing devices and clever lighting enhances this.  It is, in fact, the experience of viewing the photograph that stays with us longer than some of the specific images.  The works are an incredible cross between fashion, theatre, design and art.  They don’t have to come down in one place as they encapsulate all these things; and they encapsulate them faultlessly. 

And so it was time for me to journey to my own winter wonderland and don some skates at the Tower of London to be whisked away once more, this time onto the ice.

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Tim Walker: Story Teller is at Somerset House until 27th January 2013, www.somersethouse.org.uk.

Something Old, Something New, Five Exhibitions and Some Shoes

16 Dec

The thing I discovered when doing my gallery crawls is you need to be selective.  Deviate from your list and you’ll never leave the first street so I decided on this route and, with quite a tight time frame, I knew I had to stick to it.

Josh Lilley are currently showing a group exhibition with Analia Saban, Belen Rodriguez Gonzalez, Christof Mascher, Gabriel Hartley, Marita Fraser, Nicholas Hatfull, Nick Goss, Robert Pratt and Ruairiadh O’Connell.  There will be no surprises when I tell you this is another beautiful show – particularly notable is Robert Pratt’s Display Unit which grabs you as soon as you walk through the door.  The seemingly precariously placed pieces of clay on the display unit are Pratt’s body parts, positioned at the correct height, in proportion to his own body.

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Robert Pratt, Display Unit (Pieces of a Man), 2012. Image via www.joshlilleygallery.com

The show gets even better as you go downstairs with works erupting from the ceiling that provide immediate visual impact.  It’s particularly lovely to see a selection of Goss works on paper after his recent solo show which included his more monumental paintings.  Although many of the works in the exhibition have obvious connections through materiality, process, colour, form, expressiveness and so on, Lilley has not attempted to impose a specific theme here which is quite refreshing.  Instead, the gallery has aimed to bring together certain artists – many of whom studied together or have maintained friendships over the years.  Through this, new and unexpected dialogues are initiated and connections made.

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Downstairs at Josh Lilley with Ruairiadh O’Connell’s work in the foreground.  Image via www.joshlilleygallery.com

Next up was Blain Southern.  Sadly, I missed their opening show so this was my first visit to their new Hanover Square gallery – it’s a beautiful, glass-fronted, space, with a very traditional white box aesthetic.  Their current exhibition is Francesco Clemente’s Mandala for Crusoe.

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Clemente at Blain Southern.  Own photograph.

For Clemente’s first show in seven years, they are exhibiting fourteen large-scale paintings, using raw linen, paint, verdigris, silver pigment, mica, oil sticks and lithographic ink, which gather myriad cultural references and merge timeless motifs from Buddhism and Hinduism.   In Eastern spiritual traditions, the mandala is identified as a conduit to a deeper level of consciousness.  Yet, Clemente uses the mandala in unexpected ways uniting it with the banality of everyday life.

One of the strongest works for me was The Dove of War where the dove, a symbol of peace, filled with silhouettes of planes and bombs, flies through a tinged pink sky.  Clemente divides his time between New York and India, feeling a nomadic affinity with the completive visual tradition of both the East and the West and this is clearly brought out in his works.  Not all of the images, however, have the same strength; the choice of imagery isn’t the most exciting and it is sometimes quite crudely applied.

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Francesco Clemente, The dove of war, 2012. Own photograph.

In contrast, I popped into Gimpel Fils to see Richard Smith’s kite paintings.  Smith has long been interested in paintings which work in three dimensions, having created kite works since the early 1970s.  The kite paintings are so successful partly due to their contrasts – the hard poles and the soft canvas, the string and the rope – and meticulous finish.  Known for emphasising the importance of shape, support, colour and surface, these works focus on the physical constitution of painting.  The tenser and more exaggerated they are, the more I find myself enjoying them.

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Kite paintings at gimpel fils. Own photograph.

I strolled round the corner, past the currently closed Gagosian Davies Street and headed to Timothy Taylor, resisting the temptation to walk further down Mount Street to see what Christian Louboutin had in store.

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Louboutin’s Christmas shoe tree.  Image via http://theexhibitionlist.wordpress.com/

Their latest exhibition presents new work by Lucy Williams who has redefined the concept of collage through her mixed media bas-reliefs of unpopulated mid-century Modernist architecture.   It’s difficult to decide if these works are sculptures or collages or even how they are made.  They look so simple but I have no doubt they are ridiculously complex to execute due to the high level of detail and finish.  Williams starts by creating a technical drawing that can take several drafts to get right.  She then picks her materials and starts to build her layers, one on top of each other.  It’s the geometry of the buildings that interests her most and, from a distance, it is the modular structure of her pieces and the predominant patterns that stand out.

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Lucy Williams, the tiled cathedral, 2012. Own photograph.

Although hints of activity can be seen behind closed curtains, the works are always unpopulated.  People could return at any moment but, instead, we are allowed to explore these miniature and obsessively realised worlds in an oasis of calm.  The works are presented on architectural supports, providing the perfect context and framework for these beautiful pieces.

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Pavilion at Timothy Taylor Gallery. Own photograph.

My final stop of the day was the Royal Academy for Constable, Gainsborough, Turner and the Making of Landscape.  This show particularly appeals to me as walking through its doors was like re-entering my Masters – some Sandby watercolours brought back very vivid memories indeed.  The exhibition looks at the formation of landscape painting through John Constable, Thomas Gainsborough and JMW Turner, highlighting the discourses surrounding the Beautiful, the Sublime (mainly Burke this time round) and the Picturesque (championed by William Gilpin) and looking at the changing styles of landscape.  The works by the three key figures are contextualised with paintings by their 18th century counterparts and prints made after 17th century Masters, showing the roots of the tradition which comes from the Carracci brothers, Nicolas Poussin, Salvator Rosa and Lorraine Gaspard Dughet.  They used landscape to inform the drama in their subjects and this was important in shaping what we see in this exhibition.

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Paul Sandby, Wenlock Abbey, Shropshire, The South Transept and Converted Prior’s Lodge Seen from the North Transept, 1779.  Image via www.racollection.org.uk

And, of course, there’s Richard Wilson, often regarded as the father of British landscape, who introduced an aesthetic scaffolding that encouraged a particular view with framing devices to send the viewer’s eye to the subject and referenced the landscape as a useful and enterprising place.

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After Richard Wilson, Engraved by Joseph Wood, The Lake of Nemi, 1764. Image via www.racollection.org.uk

Looking at the shift from the idealised view of the landscape, to a celebration of the particular, imbued with ideas of morals and emotions, the works here show the discovery of the landscape of the British Isles and a move away from the Grand Tour imagery that was so popular.  Specificity of landscape was very important to these artists all of whom took meticulous sketch notes.

The exhibition has been put together in a wonderfully engaging way – the first room looks at the work of Richard Long, Norman Ackroyd, Michael Kenny and John Maine showing the lasting legacy of the three artists on which the show focuses.  This offers a fascinating framework through which to see the exhibition and I hope will quash any silly comments that landscape is boring.  After this bold start, the exhibition continues more as one would expect, charting the progression of landscape and introducing its key themes.

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Richard Long, Heaven and Earth, 2001. Image via http://azurebumble.wordpress.com

Perhaps, most importantly, the exhibition looks at the significance of printmaking in popularising and disseminating the genre.  It does rely heavily on prints but this is certainly a positive thing as it’s rare to see so many excellent works on paper together.  For this reason though, it can sometimes seem quite gloomy – but there’s no choice as these works require low light levels and the walls have been painted to show off the paper (drawings and prints) rather than the canvases.

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Thomas Gainsborough, Romantic Landscape, 1783.  Image via www.telegraph.co.uk

I am deliberately not writing anymore as otherwise I fear I will be at risk of regurgitating my MA.  But, the joy of this exhibition is that it informs so well and specifically that I would urge you to go and learn about the period for yourself.  The RA has not produced a catalogue for this which is a great shame.  Instead, they’ve produced a lovely small exhibition guide that takes the format of their normal student guides.

Leaping Horse

John Constable, The Leaping Horse, 1825. Image via www.royalacademy.org.uk

The show is displayed in the Fine Rooms and the Weston Rooms which we’re not so used to but it certainly makes a change.  The big names will no doubt pull in the punters (it’s worth visiting just to see the popular oils that appear later in the show) but this exhibition is so much more than a 19th century blockbuster and many of the works are a rare delight.  It follows the evolution of the tradition of British landscape through 120 works all of which have been sourced from the RA’s own impressive collections.  This is the first Burlington House show to do this in 50 years and illustrates the veritable treasure trove they house.  I’d love to get down there to see the rest.

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Something New is at Josh Lilley Gallery until 10th January 2013, www.joshlilleygallery.com.   Francesco Clemente: Mandala for Crusoe is at Blain Southern until 26th January 2013, www.blainsouthern.com.  Richard Smith: Kite Paintings is at gimpel fils until 12th January 2013, www.gimpelfils.com.  Lucy Williams: Pavilion is at Timothy Taylor Gallery until 11th January 2013, www.timothytaylorgallery.comConstable, Gainsborough, Turner and the Making of Landscape is at the Royal Academy until 17th February 2013, www.royalacademy.org.uk.

Ditzy and Disorientated in Fitzrovia

9 Dec

After having popped into The Piper Gallery, I decided to meander down Eastcastle Street before heading to my next set of meetings.  This is an area of London that I know well – after all I’m here most days.

I intended my first stop to be Haunch of Venison and as I opened the door to the gallery I thought how different the space looked, they’d completely gutted it.  And, as I walked further in, it seemed they’d even excavated and added a basement floor.  Yet alarm bells weren’t going off in my head and I even sent a text to a friend informing him that Haunch had opened up their basement!  As I wandered back upstairs it finally struck me that the whole aesthetic of the show didn’t really seem in keeping with Haunch’s normal style.  I picked up a press release and the reason became all too clear – I had unknowingly wandered into Carroll/Fletcher, which is a few doors down the street.

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Upstairs at Carroll/Fletcher. Own photograph.

I don’t really have a bona fide excuse for these five minutes of sheer ditziness.  But, it did allow me to explore a gallery I hadn’t previously visited and discover that it is a beautiful, and large, space.

Carroll/Fletcher is currently presenting the first solo exhibition of Manfred Mohr, a concise survey of his fifty-year practice.  Mohr makes use of the automatic processes of the computer, uniting his interests in music and mathematics to create minimal but lyrical works.  He claims his key influence is the composer Pierre Barbaud who is responsible for introducing Mohr to the innovations of computer programming.  As such, the artist works by a set of restrictive rules that culminate in abstract shapes often formed using a plotting machine.  Although many of these works are similar and related to one another they are not the same.

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Manfred Mohr at Caroll/Fletcher. Own photograph.

In 1972 Mohr began to work with the cube, exploring a rigorously methodical system of art-making often comparing the cube to a musical instrument.  Using a simple shape (perhaps comparable to a musical riff) he is able to improvise endless possibilities.   Upstairs, Morh’s obsessive experimentation with cubes is demonstrated in every possible configuration and distortion, progressing into hyper-cubes with multi-dimensions and elements.  These hard-edged systems and codes show a growing interest in systematic art.

Downstairs, his early works are displayed in a scatter hang.  This is effective to gain an overall impression but it is impossible to see the detail in some works; sitting on the gallery’s bench allowed me to soak up the ideas and concepts (well, some of them) behind Mohr’s practice.

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The hang downstairs. Own photograph.

The final room of the exhibition plays his film Cubic Limit through an old-fashioned juddery projector – the film constructs and deconstructs the cube, outlining the limitless variations that can be created.

After having worked in monochrome for nearly forty years, Mohr returned to the use of colour in 1999 to emphasise and distinguish subtleties in spatial relationships.  Some of the concepts here no doubt went way over my head – especially as I’d struggled even to walk into the right gallery – but the subtlety of his work made the exhibition very palatable.

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Mohr’s Cubic Limit. Own photograph.

As I headed out of Carroll/Fletcher I realised quite how many times I’ve walked past it.  It’s definitely going on my Fitzrovia list for the future.

Finally, I headed into Haunch (looking as it normally does) who are showing Isca Greenfield-Sander’s Second State, a body of work that explores the physical and metaphorical enormity of landscape and the sublime.

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Isca Greenfield-Sander’s Second State at Haunch. Own photograph.

Greenfield-Sander uses vintage slides as the starting point for her multi-layered paintings.  The imagery is easily recognisable but the paintings are expanded, physically referencing the magnitude of the subjects.  But size alone cannot illustrate the sublime.

Using the power of painting to convey the sublime is a tricky business to say the least.  The sublime represents nature at its grandest scale and is both powerful and awesome although remains an indeterminate concept.   In Kant’s Critique of the Power of Judgement of 1790, he divided the sublime into two types:  the mathematical sublime deals with size and the immeasurable and refers to something huge beyond all comparison, in particular the majesty of nature; and the dynamic sublime deals with the incomprehensibility of the great power of natural forces.  Experiencing the mathematical sublime makes all else small and insignificant; it is a magnitude that cannot truly be experienced and, therefore, reminds us of the limitations of our own relationship with nature.  The mathematical sublime overwhelms our mental faculties so that we are unable to comprehend fully what we see.   Traditionally, an example that inspires awe due to its magnitude is an ocean or a mountain range, but Kant also relates to ideas of reason such as absolute totality and absolute freedom.

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Greenfield-Sander works. Own photograph

While the mathematically sublime is based on the incomprehensibility of an infinite measure, the dynamically sublime is based on incomprehension of absolutely great power as produced by the vast forces in nature. This is exhibited by the power of a hurricane, a tumultuous ocean, a high waterfall or a mountain range in relation to which we realise our own physical powers are puny yet are forced by our insignificance to try to understand the faculty of practical reason.  Both types of sublime are complex feelings of frustration at the inability to comprehend such absolute vastness, but the mathematically sublime takes pleasure in the ability of imagination, while the dynamically sublime takes pleasure in the superiority of reason.

Probably the best representation of dynamic sublime in art is Turner’s Snow StormSteam-Boat Off a Harbour’s Mouth of 1842 where the whirling boundaries between the chaos of the sea and sky are totally confused.  Turner tied himself to the ship’s mast to experience at first hand the powerful forces of nature; viewers of the painting are not in danger but appreciate the magnificence and power knowing that from their vantage point they are safe.

Snow Storm - Steam-Boat off a Harbour's Mouth exhibited 1842 by Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851

JMW Turner, Snow Storm – Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth, 1842.  Image via www.tate.org.uk

With this in mind, I think claiming that Greenfield-Sander’s works explore ‘the power of painting to convey the sublime’ only confuses matters.  Taking this element out of the equation, her use of a bright tonal range and abstracted areas is very effective.  Overall, for me, there’s some excitement lacking and this exhibition doesn’t quite live up to Haunch’s usual standard.

Across the road Scream are showing Greg Miller work which make use of the diverse cultural and geographical make-up of Miller’s American roots, exploring the contradictions between urban streetscape and history.  These works have a huge energy to them, montaging different images that Miller has collected over time, layering meanings, stories and narratives into a dense melée of artistic factions.  His use of resin to glaze the works preserves their history and transience, saving these otherwise impermanent memories.  The nostalgia of these works is poignant despite their busy and bold constructs – the personal touch recalling the artist’s youth and fonder memories from his upbringing in Northern California.

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Greg Miller at Scream. Own photograph.

To finish the day off I went for a marked contrast, popping into the Piacenti Art Gallery for a glass of champagne and their winter exhibition of old Master works.  Sadly this was a short run and has now shut but it’s a lovely space to visit in the New Year.  Although be warned with all those galleries on Duke Street, who knows where you’ll end up.

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New Possibilities: Abstract Paintings from the Seventies is at The Piper Gallery until 21st December 2012.  Manfred Mohr: one and zero is at Carroll/Fletcher until 20th December 2012.  Isca Greenfield-Sanders: Second State is at Haunch of Venison, Eastcastle Street, until 25th January 2013. Greg Miller: Four Corners is at Scream until 5th January 2013.

Flesh, Despair and Glistening Oil – Haunch and Saatchi

4 Dec

This is certainly not the first time we have seen Patricia Piccinini at Haunch of Venison and I doubt it will be the last but this is her first solo UK exhibition.  I popped into the opening one night last week but I have to say it lacked the normal buzz of Haunch’s exhibitions.  I don’t know if it was the cold or that this has been done and seen before – it’s impossible not to mention Mueck when looking at her works.

Piccinini’s work blurs the boundaries between the artificial and the natural, encompassing many different media along the way.  She explores our desire to homogenise the human body and considers if we do, or do not, accept those who don’t measure up to a manufactured ideal of perfection.

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Looking at Piccinini’s The Carrier at Haunch. Own photograph.

Her fascination with medical science is obvious and she uses this to attempt to explain our contemporary world.  Piccinini’s figures are far removed from the people we are used to seeing – they are mutated human/animal hybrids that are alarmingly lifelike.  The panels on the walls have been presented in a square format – silicone, fibreglass and human hair resembling a slab of butchered meat.  Her anthropomorphised machines reference both a universal instinct to apply human emotions to all animals and things as well as a consideration that people and technology are increasingly, and unavoidably, intertwined.

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Patricia Piccinini, The Lovers, 2011. Own photograph.

Haunch haven’t overcrowded this exhibition or been over-ambitious.  The space afforded to the works allows us to form a baffling relationship with the pieces as we look at these familiar, yet alien, forms.  Piccinini is fetishising scarred and damaged flesh but the honesty of the material and her process removes some of the repulsion which we may otherwise feel here.

The hyper-realism draws us in closer.  Although I was disgusted by the sculptures, I couldn’t stop looking at them, admiring her technique and ideas.  Haunch state that the works both ‘attract and unsettle the viewer’ and this could not be more accurate.  This contradiction of emotions is Piccinini’s aim and couples perfectly with the juxtaposition of ideas in the works.

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Scarred Flesh. Own photograph.

On Sunday afternoon, I popped to Saatchi who have just opened Gaiety is the Most Outstanding Feature of the Soviet Union: Art from Russia.  Saatchi like to do things big and recent exhibitions have looked at art from India, America, Germany, Korea and China.  This time they tackle Russia but this exhibition presents Russia in a grim and unforgiving light, with little optimism.

Before I make any comment, I have to say this is one exhibition that truly teaches the importance of being able to put aside personal taste.  To be honest, I am not a fan of the works in this show but it cannot be ignored that this is a powerful and well put together exhibition that doesn’t cower from conveying its messages.

A mono photo-like print of a bare chested man with tattoos

Sergei Vasiliev, Russian Criminal Tattoo Encyclopedia Print No.12, 2010.  Image via www.guardian.co.uk

The exhibition opens with works by Sergei Vasiliev, possibly the images that, for me, were the most enduring.  Put simply, Vasiliev, a former prison warden, has photographed tattoos.  But there is so much more here.  Tattoos were, in fact, illegal and these images aren’t just about making a mark and an image but an act of defiance created with a scalpel using blood and urine.  This isn’t a subtle veil but a coded message that we see recur again and again on worn flesh.  These men are in prison and many don’t ever expect to be released.

All of the works in this exhibition are intertwined with the unavoidable political history of Russia.  The works are immediate and exposing; Vikenti Nilin’s photographs show people sitting on the windowsills or roofs of towering buildings.  They don’t seem as if they are about to jump or are on the verge of falling, instead they sit calmly on the edge – a fascinating comment about their day-to-day existence.

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Vikenti Nilin, from the Neighbours Series. Image via www.culture24.org.uk

Boris Mikhailov’s works repel and mesmerise us, in the same way that Piccinini does at Haunch, and two galleries here are dedicated to his work.  These photographs are a small portion of 400 images he took in his homeland of Ukraine showing the distressed, desperate, dying, destitute and decaying.  The drama and theatricality of the poses would be comic if the people weren’t baring all to reveal gashes, cuts, bruises, cancerous cysts and far worse.

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Boris Mikhailov photographs.  Image via www.saatchi-gallery.co.uk

The photographs are at the epicentre; not all of the works deliver their messages in such a compelling way and I don’t think some of the pieces translate to a London audience.  It would have been stronger if it wasn’t quite so big and determined to show a survey of Russian contemporary art.  Of the 18 artists on show, many have never been seen outside Russia.

The title Gaiety is the Most Outstanding Feature of the Soviet Union comes from a speech by Joseph Stalin but there is no gaiety here and the work comments on the aftermath of the regimes that have gone before.  The irony could not be more poignant.

A dummy of a man hangs in a hand-built row of cells

Gosha Ostretsov, Criminal Government, 2008  Image via www.guardian.co.uk

The highlight of visiting the Saatchi has to be the opportunity to gaze into Richard Wilson’s 20:50, an incredible reservoir of metal, filled with engine oil, that takes the shape of the room.  You’ve probably seen it before; the oil reflects its surroundings, it glows and glistens.  It perfectly harmonises with the architecture around us, confounding our ideas of distance and space.  Sadly, the walkway into the pool of black was closed on Sunday but I had experienced this at County Hall.  It could not be simpler; it could not be more perfect and concrete despite the fluidity.

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Richard Wilson, 20:50.  Image via www.saatchi-gallery.co.uk

As strange as this may sound, 20:50 provides the perfect counter-balance to the grim despair of the Russian exhibition.  For me, this work is timeless and whatever Saatchi may be showing make sure you get lost in Wilson’s black depths.

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Patricia Piccinini: Those who dream by night is at Haunch of Venison, New Bond Street, until 12th January 2013, www.haunchofvenison.comGaiety is the Most Outstanding Feature of the Soviet Union: Art from Russia is at the Saatchi Gallery until 5th May 2013, www.saatchi-gallery.co.uk.

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