Archive | April, 2013

The Risk That Paid Off – Tate brings Choucair to London

30 Apr

We normally expect Tate Modern to put on blockbuster shows from exceptionally well-known artists who pull in the punters.  Lichtenstein is the perfect example but just a couple of floors above this popular current exhibition is a retrospective by an artist that I doubt many people have actually heard of.   You’d be forgiven for not having heard of her too as she is still relatively unknown.  Tate has taken a risk here as this is not what people expect of them; they have mounted the world’s first major museum exhibition of Saloua Raouda Choucair who has never really exhibited outside her homeland of Lebanon – she is now 97.  Older artists are certainly on trend at the moment.

Saloua Raouda Choucair in 1974

Saloua Raouda Choucair in 1974.  Image via www.guardian.co.uk

Choucair is a truly cosmopolitan artist and Tate ask us to consider this exhibition on level four in the context of Tate’s collections.  Although she rarely left Lebanon, Choucair did visit Egypt in 1943 and spent a few years in France from 1948 when she joined the studio of Fernand Léger.  Her crude copies of Léger’s works are a long way from mere imitations although this is how they may appear at first glance.  She imbues his style with a very personal reading and a new strident sense of dynamism and movement.  The women shown here aren’t fussed by our viewing them; they carry on with their activities, looking at art books, oblivious and uncaring.  The women who do look at us are forceful. Choucair lacks the crispness for which Léger is known, her figures are much rougher and less precise.  Through these works we instantly see her humourist and proto-feminist position.  The works articulate abstract forms and interlocking planes with an incredibly strong sense of colour.  Although, due to her use of natural materials, the palette in her sculpture is much reduced the forms recur again and again.

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Crude copies?  Own photograph.

To put together this exhibition, the curators were allowed to rummage through Choucair’s studio and one room includes a cabinet of hundreds of maquettes, drawings and documents that are actually stored in similar glass cabinets in her Beirut studio.  Through these maquettes we are able to see her thought processes in 3D and her varied and prolific output.  Choucair was very interested in architecture and architectural inventions; her sculptures illustrate her knowledge of architecture and her clear position on form where she liberated herself from the monolith of sculpture.  The creative energy of this artist is seen through her constant experimentation and need to be making things.  A lot of these objects remain small but she imagined them all big!

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Choucair’s cabinet of curiosities.  Own photograph.

Choucair has not had an easy journey and did not even sell a work in Lebanon until 1962 when she was in her 50s.  Of course, looking back through art history this in itself is far from unique but the political struggles that she had to endure add a further element.  Plus, through all this, we must not forget that to be a woman in this environment was exceedingly difficult.  One painting with holes and splinters of glass is the direct result of a nearby bomb during the civil wars; the violent history of Beirut can be followed through her art and much of her public art no longer survives.  Yet, she has continued producing and left us with an extraordinary body of work that constantly strives to break the boundaries of her environment and seek independence from her culture.  We must not underestimate how hard it was for her to create figurative works and even her choice of materials is extraordinary within the culture.

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The interlocking forms of Choucair’s sculptures. Own photograph.

Chouchair is fascinated by endless lines in her sculptures and the potential of the infinite.  She succeeds with the idea of playing with modular systems that can be taken apart and re-ordered in our mind’s eye.  The sculptures shown here are a highlight – ingeniously crafted and pulsating with life.  The forms of western design merge with Islamic motifs to create interlocking geometric puzzles.  Her works known as ‘duals’ present two carefully interlocking parts while some pieces stack together in a similar but more flexible way.

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Choucair, Infinite Structure, 1963-5. Own photograph.

The final room presents a completely different Choucair – a much more contemporary, altogether different artist.  But, look closer and the same ideas and principles are still very much hovering beneath the surface.  The tension, movement and dynamism is omnipresent.

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The final room of the exhibition. Own photograph.

Tate has produced a wonderful catalogue to accompany the exhibition that further elucidates Choucair’s career with remarkable insight and clarity.  This is a small show with only four rooms but I think it is the right size (entry is priced slightly lower than usual to reflect the size difference); I don’t think we would have been ready for a bigger exhibition of her work yet.  This is a well considered show.  Tate has kept it simple and not tried to cram in too much.  They have let us learn about Choucair for the first time.  They have let us come away intrigued and ready for her next exposure wherever and whenever that may be.

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Saloua Raouda Choucair is at Tate Modern until 20th October 2013, www.tate.org.uk.

From Bermondsey to Victoria and all places in between…

14 Apr

I don’t make it over to White Cube Bermondsey as often I’d like. I know it’s not really that far away but it’s just not somewhere I amble past on a very regular basis. So when I found myself with a meeting on Bermondsey Street it was too good an opportunity to miss.

Their primary exhibition is Chuck Close Prints: Process and Collaboration which explores the artist’s graphic oeuvre from when he made his first print in 1972. This isn’t the side of Close with which most of us will be familiar – we’re more au fait with his large-scale ‘heads’ – but this is a side that definitely deserves attention. Close’s experimentation with the media of printmaking is endless and fascinating; he is able to bring it to life, even turning mistakes or problems to his advantage. Alex/Reduction Block from 1992 was never intended to be end up like this which highlights the flexibility and ingenuity of both Close and his collaborators. The work was planned as a block reduction print but when the original linoleum cracked in the cold, they had to substitute it with an inferior material. More problems followed. They continued to cut the replacement linoleum despite knowing it was never going to work as a block reduction and documented the progressive stages by printing them in black on Mylar which resulted in a project perfect for silkscreen printing. The various shades of grey give Alex Katz’s face a shimmering metallic quality.

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Alex/Reduction Block in the distance at White Cube. Image via www.distortedarts.com.

Process has always been of the utmost importance to Close. If he has tried one method of printmaking he’s tried them all over the past forty years and it is his perseverance (he now works from the confines of a wheelchair after a spinal artery collapse) with his artworks and interrogatory use of materials that creates such wonderful qualities.

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Moving through the exhibition. Image via www.whitecube.com.

Close also breaks down the methods of printmaking, revealing the various stages involved through his reworking of the same subjects. Rather than diluting his intention this often enhances it, encouraging us to study a face in the same way that he must. This is a truly excellent, explorative and engaging exhibition and one that caught me rather by surprise – especially as it hadn’t been in my schedule for last week or even on my current list of things to try to see.

I would have liked more time in the gallery but I did manage to stop to see Eddie Peake’s installation – I just couldn’t walk past the naked figure in a see-through costume on roller-skates without seeing what was going on. It was all part of Peake’s Adjective Machine Gun, a major sculptural installation closely based around the old penguin enclosure at London Zoo – an iconic and easily recognisable structure. The walls act as an enclosing amphitheatre that both reveal and conceal the performer and the other works that form part of this. This is the first time Peake has married the two parts of his practice as he previously kept his sculpture and painting separate to his performance. I felt that this combination didn’t quite gel and the static works lacked some of the coherence of the performance elements.

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Eddie Peake, Adjective Machine Gun. Image via www.whitecube.com.

As is so often the case with performance, it was fascinating to watch the reactions of others: one man seemed quite affronted as the performer sped past him – I don’t think he’d anticipated being quite that close; one girl seemed embarrassed; while someone else was revelling in the intentional voyeuristic qualities of the piece. And I became so caught up with people-watching that after about five minutes I started to wonder where the skater had gone. He had crept up behind me and seemed to be leaning against the wall watching me. Is he meant to be oblivious to the audience and just contemplating the static works or is part of the wonder of the piece the duality of the voyeurism as we watch him watching us?

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Eddie Peake, Adjective Machine Gun. Image via www.contempoaryartsociety.org.

The following evening I decided to crack on with the shows I had intended to see. It had been a while since I last went on a private view evening but Wednesday promised some exciting openings and so we set off with a route in mind and a beady eye on the clock, determined to fit everything in.

First up was Art First – I have spent a few days in a quandary over this exhibition as I was drawn to the works but found they presented quite a bland group. Get up close and sometimes they are individually remarkable. On discovering Thomas Shelton’s 17th century system of shorthand, Simon Lewty found the perfect written code with which to experiment. His fascination was further heightened when he learnt that Samuel Pepys had used the very same method in his diary. Lewty taught himself Tachygraphy – no easy challenge – and has used this script to tell his own narratives. How often do people sit and write now? For so many, handwriting is becoming a thing of the past yet Lewty uses this time-honoured method to take us on a journey. So what was missing? I truly don’t know and maybe I need to return to reflect on the works in the gallery at a quieter time.

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Simon Lewty’s language. Image via www.artlyst.co.uk.

One of the shows I had been most excited to see was Tell Me Whom You Haunt at Blain Southern but I left disappointed – the show seeks to place works by ten contemporary artists in conversation with Marcel Duchamp but at times it feels irrelevant, confusing and bland. So many artists can relate their ideas and concerns back to Duchamp that I don’t think anything ground-breaking is going on between these walls. The first room is stronger and also aesthetically more pleasing but the second rooms loses its life. The exhibition title stems from an age-old French proverb referring to the idea that readymades spatially relinquish their previous significance and assume a shifting identity when they are re-contextualised. They cease to become the objects that they were intended to be and, instead, become something of the artist’s own making. The ideas behind some of the individual works are lost here and would have been far stronger seen in a different form of exhibition at the gallery. Maybe their connection to Duchamp needn’t have been articulated in such an explicit way. Any exhibition revolving around Duchamp sets its bar high and, for me, Blain Southern didn’t quite vault to greatness this time.

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Sislej Xhafa, Rocket Ship, 2011. Image via www.blainsouthern.com.

Next I made a flying visit to Hannah Barry to see Nathan Cash Davidson’s new drawings. Unusually, the drawings are executed on board which does present a weightier texture than we might expect from the delicacy of some of these works but I remained unexcited. Then onto Orion Contemporary’s celebration of print-making; there is a diverse range of works on display from Swedish Kent Karlsson to Pablo Picasso. Although this is a small show, it is one that must be praised for its brilliant lighting; the works were so well-displayed and the sensitivity of the hang really allows for close study.

The drizzle turned into heavy rain and my shoes weren’t cut out for puddles. Luckily we needed a cab to get to our last venue and we headed to Victoria to Edel Assanti.

Edel Assanti have now been in their new space for over a year and I feel awful to admit that this is the first time I have made it through the doors. However, the gallery is stunning and really shifts Edel Assanti to a whole new level from their previous project space just a few doors down the same road. Their current exhibition of works by Jodie Carey is very striking: seven plaster slabs have been arranged within the gallery, connecting and conversing with one another despite their differing formats. The backs of the slabs are intentionally exposed, revealing the wire and timber used to reinforce the plaster and the hessian sandbags weighting the sculptures down. Carey doesn’t want to hide these elements, instead she reduces these monuments back to their bare bones, challenging the reverence that public commemorations traditionally command. The type of monument that they evoke is left ambiguous and to different people Carey’s slabs will have different resonances.

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Jodie Carey, Untitled (Slabs), 2012. Image via www.edelassanti.com.

The works have a real presence in the gallery – fragile yet monumental, they rose with impressive dominance above the people crowding into the space. Closer inspection reveals that the hand-cast slabs have been painstakingly coloured in pencil crayon by the artist again providing a contrast from the usual industrial mechanics of large-scale monuments. The pastel colouring conflicts with the apparent strength and verticality of the forms presenting another inherent contradiction on which Carey leaves us to ponder. But the fragility and vulnerability of these works is what makes them arresting and, in fact, it is this fragility that makes a seemingly simple abstract form somewhat inescapable.

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Jodie Carey, Untitled (Slabs), 2012. Image via www.edelassanti.com.

I was so impressed by the exhibition that I have no doubt I will be visiting far more regularly. After all Victoria is only ten minutes from Fitzrovia in a taxi and we know I’m good at hailing those.

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Chuck Close Prints: Process and Collaboration and Eddie Peake: Adjective Machine Gun are at White Cube Bermondsey until 21st April 2013, www.whitecute.com.  Simon Lewty: Absorption is at Art First until 11th May 2013, www.artfirst.co.ukTell Me Whom You Haunt: Marcel Duchamp and the Contemporary Readymade is at Blain Southern until 18th May 2013, www.blainsouthern.com.  Nathan Cash Davidson: Your’e French Gerdarmes with Me is at Hannah Barry Gallery until 8th May 2013, www.hannahbarry.com.  A Celebration of Printmaking is at Orion Contemporary until 20th April 2013, www.orioncontemporary.com.  Jodie Carey: Untitled (Slabs) is at Edel Assanti until 11th May 2013, www.edelassanti.com.

Oh Woe is Woking

6 Apr

I’ve long been aware of The Lightbox and, when I read Florence Water’s article in January’s Apollo, I decided that it was time for a Mini adventure to Woking.

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The Lightbox, Woking, Own photograph.

In 1993, a group of 70 arts and heritage enthusiasts decided it was time to create an arts centre in Woking. Through their endeavours they achieved this goal raising more than £7 million and in September 2007 The Lightbox opened its doors (be careful on your way in as the automatic doors open outwards). Although the gallery does have a permanent body of staff, it still relies largely on the support of its 150 volunteers showing the strength of community in these parts. Education is obviously where this gallery comes into its own – as well as having great learning facilities, they run a young curators’ group, after-school arts clubs and more structured schools’ programmes that work within the national curriculum.

The Lightbox is located alongside numerous shopping centres, endless multi-storey car parks, lane after lane of traffic and more traffic lights than I’d care to count; its striking design sticks out like a sore thumb. This is obviously the most impressive building in town although I’m not sure there is much competition; designed by Marks Barfield Architects it is found, clad in wood with gold and silver aluminium panels, alongside the Basingstoke Canal. The canal-side garden is protected by a gabion wall, gesturing to Renaissance fortifications. Inside is the most wonderful expanse of wall, lit from an atrium that stretches the entire length of the south side. Currently there’s a mobile of hands hanging in the space but there is a painfully ‘blank canvas’ of white wall. Considering the surroundings this architecture is challenging but it is successful and effective.

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The white wall. Own photograph.

Most of the time, The Lightbox is filled with Chris Ingram’s spectacular collection of Modern British Art, helping to fulfil his desire to make this period more accessible to a wider public. The drawback of visiting during the Frink exhibition meant I saw very little of the collection I had hoped to view; it is usually on permanent rotating display in the Lobby galleries (aka the corridors). I made do with buying the books to give me a greater insight into the Ingram Collection which really is incredible, showing the works that Ingram likes and chooses to share with the nation. The generosity of his loan programme across the country and, indeed, his permanent loan here is fabulous.

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Chris Ingram at The Lightbox. Image via www.surreylife.co.uk.

You’d be forgiven for not knowing that Woking is the home of Kenwood food mixers and also where HG Wells wrote War of the Worlds. Part of the aim of the gallery is to house Woking’s Story which tells the social history of the town looking at the railway, the history of mental health through Brookwood Hospital, Brookwood Cemetery (once the largest cemetery in Europe) and Britain’s first purpose-built mosque. This display is aimed at a young audience and, although simplistic in format, it does well at highlighting the cultural importance of the area.

Woking's Story

Woking’s Story. Own photograph.

Currently, The Lightbox is mounting a retrospective of Dame Elisabeth Frink’s career. In the 1960s, while other artists turned increasingly to abstraction, Frink continued to pursue an interest in figurative and naturalistic imagery.

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The sculpture gallery on the ground floor. Own photograph.

In the double-height gallery on the first floor we are introduced to Frink’s main artistic concerns: Frink had no interest in sculpting the female body saying it didn’t act as a suitable vehicle for her ideas. Her fascination with man (whether standing, walking, running or seated) extended across her career, expressing ideas of masculine courage, strength and heroism. Her men are complicated vessels of emotion, sensuality and vulnerability.

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The main gallery. Own photograph.

Her interest in animals – horses, dogs and birds – also comes to the forefront here. She admired the strong bonds between man and beast – the loyalty, intimacy and interdependence.

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Frink’s horses. Own photograph.

Throughout the exhibition, which is spread across the building, we also see her heads, religious iconography and her vast array of print work which strongly complemented her sculptural processes.

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Frink’s Rolling Over Horse, 1979, and Lying Down Horse, 1977 from The Ingram Collection. Own photograph.

But, the gallery just hasn’t done very much with this amazing body of work – the pieces lose something by being plonked in the corridors and placed higgledy-piggledy across the space. We encounter the first Frink sculpture within seconds of walking through the front door before we’ve even seen a welcome panel.

The labels are sheets of sticky paper that are peeling off the walls. The lids of the Perspex cases aren’t actually screwed down (possibly not the best protection then) and are so smeared in places that it’s difficult to see the works beneath them. Ingram, the inventor of the modern media agency, has a fascinating background and obviously understands the importance of quality finish and appearance. Perhaps it would be worth him sharing a little of his expertise, as well as his art, with the gallery. Water wrote that ‘he loathes preciousness’ which I get and I have the utmost admiration for the aims of this space but The Lightbox comes off as distinctly amateur – it is not doing justice to the great works of art that it has the privilege to display.

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Victoria Way runs next to the gallery. Own photograph.

Hepworth Wakefield, Pallant House and Turner Contemporary can all get it right so being out of London is not an excuse. If The Lightbox wants people to come to see their gallery a little more work needs to go into the presentation and the curation needs more thought. The exterior is wonderful and I hope that, in time, the interior will match it. There was a huge party of men in fluorescents walking around so maybe they are planning some work to The Lightbox.

All the enthusiasm and dedication that formed this gallery in the first place needs now to be used to take The Lightbox to the next level.

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Elizabeth Frink: A Retrospective is at The Lightbox until 21st April 2013, www.thelightbox.org.uk.

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