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Li Tianbing at Stephen Friedman and a handful of other Mayfair Mentions

15 Apr

Last week I was charged with the responsibility of showing someone a few Mayfair Galleries.   This should have been an easy task really considering the amount of time I spend in and out of these places but the sheer volume of galleries in Mayfair did present me with a challenge.  However, with set start and finish times, a time restriction and a list of that evening’s private views, the journey mapped itself out with relative ease.

It was a luxury to spend the afternoon, strolling through these galleries and seeing the enormous diversity of brilliant art that such a small section of London has to offer.   We began at Alon Zakaim’s new space on Dover Street, currently displaying a mixed presentation of 19th century works.   Next, we dipped in and out of galleries on Cork Street including their original space as well as Flowers and Alan Cristea.

Marc Quinn, Sunspot (In the Night Garden), 2011 at Alon Zakaim, Cork Street.  Image via www.alonzakaim.com

Hooking round into Old Burlington Street, we visited Stephen Friedman.  To be honest, having missed the PV, I had forgotten what was currently on show here.  As soon as we walked in we were both struck by the power of the canvases – eight large paintings by Li Tianbing in his debut UK exhibition.  Friedman is known for having an eye for the crème de la crème and Tianbing is rightly regarded as one of the best Chinese-born artists of his generation.

Li Tianbing, Bullet holes, 2012.  Image courtesy the artist, Stephen Friedman Gallery, London and Pearl Lam Galleries, Hong Kong and via www.stephenfriedman.com

These semi-biographical works recall the artist’s upbringing under China’s one-child rule.  Introduced in 1979, the policy restricted married couples in urban areas to having only one child.  Families still find the emotional consequences of this legislation too difficult to discuss – Tianbing’s own parents, despite having seen his works, find them too painful to talk about.  It is thought that, since its inception, the one-child policy has prevented 400 million births as well as causing a serious increase in female infanticide, forced abortions and under-reporting of births.  Second children are often registered as someone else’s or not registered at all, creating a whole group of people who do not officially exist.  Those who are discovered are denied promotions, suffer benefit and pay cuts, are fined and are often made homeless.

Li Tianbing at Stephen Friedman. Image courtesy the artist, Stephen Friedman Gallery, London and Pearl Lam Galleries, Hong Kong and via www.stephenfriedman.com

When Tianbing moved to Paris at the age of 22 he took with him an album containing five slightly blurred black and white photographs – the sole memento of his childhood.  Even this in itself is rare and the images were taken on a camera that his father had borrowed from the People’s Army propaganda unit.  These images still have a profound effect on him, transporting him back to the lonely isolation of his youth.  The multi-layered paintings are instantly comparable to the monochrome detail of these photos and show an imagined upbringing with fictitious brothers and playmates – the ones he was never allowed.  Despite the multitude of figures often seen in these works, the children always seem alone, staring wide-eyed from the canvases, lost in their own thoughts.

In addition to his photographs, as a child, Tianbing only had one toy.  Don’t Touch my Dog shows a group of boys holding their toy dogs, a reminder that Chinese children hardly ever owned playthings.  The main figure holds his toy above his head and the others all look towards him.  The fragmentary nature of the work, enhanced by the use of a mixed palette, highlights the nature of these broken and adapted memories.

Li Tianbing, Don’t Touch my Dog, 2011.  Image courtesy the artist, Stephen Friedman Gallery, London and Pearl Lam Galleries, Hong Kong and via www.stephenfriedman.com

A mixture of abstraction and portraiture, Tianbing’s works use his own strong visual language which draws on Western contemporary art and traditional Chinese techniques.  Visual motifs recur repetitively such as his haunting use of staining which represents the corrosive power of political dictatorship.  There is no doubt that these pieces are striking.

The one-child system meant that Tianbing had an extremely lonely existence whilst growing up and, for him, art was the lifeline he grasped to survive this reality, taking refuge in his imagination and inventing his own life.  As well as showing the playmates he longed for, his works also show the hidden children of the regime.

Being able to spend time as a family is something that many Chinese never knew.  Tianbing, who now lives in Paris, already has a son and his second child is on the way.  This is something that we take for granted and don’t even consider but Tianbing feels as if he has won a prize.  His works are very moving and thought-provoking; they make us look at the cosy nature of our own existence and acknowledge the trials that Tianbing and others like him had to endure growing up under the oppressive Chinese administration.

Li Tianbing, Reverse Walk, 2012.  Image courtesy the artist, Stephen Friedman Gallery, London and Pearl Lam Galleries, Hong Kong and via www.stephenfriedman.com

Now that Tianbing is less lost and has found what he missed during his youth, his works have become more grounded with a glimmer of happiness.   Although the memory of the one-child policy will always be omnipresent, he has moved on to look at other issues affecting the Chinese economy.  Tianbing’s works have a powerful hold on viewers and, because they have room to breathe and are not over-crowded in the gallery, the children’s intense gazes do not let you go.

We wandered up Bond Street, past Sotheby’s who were preparing for the Munch viewing, to Opera Gallery where, for us, the highlight of their mixed contemporary show was two photographs by Gérard Rancinan.

Gérard Rancinan, On the Way Back from Disneyland, 2011. Image courtesy of the artist and via www.operagallery.com

For the first of our private views we headed back the way we’d come and turned onto Bruton Street.  Trinity Contemporary is tucked away upstairs and would be easy to miss if you didn’t know it was there.  We chickened out of going in the very creaky old lift and climbed up the stairs to their surprisingly light and neat space on the third floor to see a solo exhibition of drawings by Emma McNally.  Atoms Insects Mountains Stars is inspired by the work of French philosopher Gilles Deleuze and these works show the artist’s extensive working with graphite made of carbon which reflects her interest in philosophy, science and music.  McNally’s pencil works are highly detailed looking as if they may well be the result of scientific readings – their vocabulary has been compared both to musical scores and computer coding, due to its rhythmic and harmonic activity.  In some of her new works, McNally has turned drawing into a sculptural process, pouring pure graphite powder onto large surfaces and then hammering nails into them.  The works shimmer, forming an intricate network of lines and marks.

Emma McNally at Trinity Contemporary. Own photograph.

Back to near where we started, we popped into Simon Lee which has to win top marks for being the buzziest private view of the evening.  It was packed with people drinking and gossiping for Paulina Olowska’s first solo show here.  Her new works continue her exploration of feminist and socially-engaged themes, often channelling or paying homage to other women artists.  Here, she plays with the rudimentary idea of the muse and the imagined, or remembered, image of a mother.  The images have a sense of fragility, trying to preserve a moment in time as it passes by.

Paulina Olowska at Simon Lee. Own photograph.

My feet were now starting to suffer and as I limped to Sarah Myerscough I had a feeling that this may well have to be our final stop.  Tucked away on Brooks Mews, the gallery is presenting an exhibition with works by 11 artists on the subject of monochrome.  There is no pretension, just a few really nice works in black and white.

B&W (Monochrome), Sarah Myerscough Fine Art. Own photograph.

A simple one with which to finish but I couldn’t face walking another pace to another place.  I hobbled round the corner, changed into ballet pumps and scurried home.  The other three galleries on my overly ambitious list will have to wait until another day.

Li Tianbing is at the Stephen Friedman Gallery until 21st April, www.stephenfriedman.comEmma McNall: Selected Drawings, Atoms Insects Mountains Stars is at Trinity Contemporary until 27th April, www.trinitycontemporary.com.   Paulina Olowska: Mother 200 is at Simon Lee Gallery until 26th May 2012, www.simonleegallery.com. B&W (Monochrome) is at Sarah Myerscough Fine Art until 5th May 2012, www.sarahmyerscough.com.  For more information on the other galleries mentioned please see www.alonzakaim.com, www.flowersgallery.com, www.alancristea.com and www.operagallery.com

Well Heeled in Dover Street

30 Mar

This is not a piece about specific exhibitions, more about the gallery spaces on a certain, very fashionable road – Dover Street!

Dover Street is happening.  It’s always been on the right side of trendy but now the art market is really moving in and it’s another enclave of galleries, fashion, clubs and restaurants.   Dealers and business owners must be waiting eagerly for leases to become available.

Dover Street. Own photograph.

I first began working on Dover Street at the Air Gallery for Rob Ryan’s The Stars Shine All Day Too at the end of 2010.  Unfortunately, due to rising rents, the Air Gallery has been taken over by Wolf & Badger (which will open shortly).

Wolf & Badger. Own photograph.

So, although I know this street well, I wanted to have a stroll to see how it’s developing.  Starting at the Piccadilly end, I popped into Alon Zakaim’s new space.  Zakaim opened his gallery on Cork Street in 2006 at the address of Peggy Guggenheim’s first London gallery.  His second space shows the gallery’s development; a good ten times bigger than Cork Street, Zakaim has transformed what used to be Alexia Goethe into a striking new gallery with dark walls, wooden floors focused lighting and a reflective atmosphere.  Although it’s too big to have the intimacy of his first space, the gallery does envelope you in a private, but friendly, atmosphere.  It has been designed to show off top quality art and it does just that.  Their opening exhibition covers 100 years of art history including a handful of top names to demonstrate their prestige.

Alon Zakaim Fine Art.  Image courtesy of Rob Ewen and via www.alonzakaim.com

Directly opposite is Clarendon Fine Art where I was greeted warmly on arrival and complimented on my shoes.  I knew, at that point, that I’d struck a winner here.  Their space is also stunning but about as different from Zakaim’s as possible with split levels and bright lights.  Clarendon tend to follow a pattern of solo shows to highlight one of their established gallery names, interspersed with two-week mixed exhibitions to show off their less prominent stable of artists.  It’s an elegant space with a tempting looking bar installed at the back.  They aim to introduce contemporary art to a wide-ranging audience and their artists include the likes of crowd-pleaser Rolf Harris.

A mixed exhibition at Clarendon Fine Art. Own photograph.

Heading up the street I passed the Arts Club, still the hot spot of Mayfair since its refurb and relaunch and the current place to be seen and sip a drink watching the gliteratti and the art world elite.

Next up, occupying the space where Richard Green used to be, is another newcomer  – Gazelli Art House, run by a dealer from Azerbaijan.  Azerbaijan has been in the arts press recently, since the launch of the 012 Baku Public Art Festival at the end of February where 20 local artists are working on site specific projects across Baku, presenting newly-commissioned, public work.  The works will be unveiled every Friday until September, embracing Baku’s heritage through contemporary culture.   Most of us cannot even spell Azerbaijan on first attempt, let alone explain where it is so it’s bizarre to see its art suddenly being propelled into the public horizon.  Azerbaijan will also be more press conscious as hosts of the Eurovision this year and wish to send out a very positive image of their city.

Baku. Image via www.en.99ys.com

Since moving to London, director Mila Askarova ran a number of pop-up spaces and has now launched Gazelli’s first permanent London space.  The actual gallery space is quite small; most of the building seems to be closed off for private viewing.  Gazelli’s inaugural exhibition includes a mix of six international artists one of whom is Shan Hur, a young Korean artist who I spotted at his graduate show in 2010 and picked as one to watch.

Gazelli Art House. Own photograph.

Crossing the road again and walking up past Dover Street Market and Brown’s Hotel, I arrived at Philip Mould – one of the original incumbents of Dover Street and a leading specialist in British art and Old Masters.  Mould always has an impressive display and his 18th century works – including a rather lovely Gainsborough and Kauffman – made me swoon.

Philip Mould. Own photograph.

Passing Hay Hill, which offers yet more galleries, I headed up the street.  As Dover Street turns into Grafton Street, Spruth Magers crowns the street.  Housed on Dover Street since 2003, the gallery represents a handful of internationally-renowned artists and their current Boetti show complements Tate Modern’s retrospective.

Spruth Magers. Own photograph.

Two more prestigious dealers are set to open here and, this October, the 18th century townhouse at number 24 Grafton Street will be taken over by David Zwirner.  This will be another gallery with an historically important location; prominent past residents include Lord Robert Cecil, the 3rd Marquis of Salisbury (who was twice Prime Minister) and Helena Rubinstein.  Spread over five floors, the gallery will have almost 10,000 square feet of exhibition space.

Grafton Street. Image via www.fadwebsite.com

Of course, just a stone’s throw from the wonders of Cork Street, Old Bond Street and Savile Row, the development of Dover Street is only natural.  There’s a real buzz building and it’s not to be ignored.

It was time to stop for tea at Aubaine, a contemporary French bistro, boulangerie and patisserie, recently opened in the place of Chez Gerard on Dover Street.   It’s a bit quiet and lacking atmosphere at the moment but, no doubt, in time it will become more popular as they are serving the most amazing Nutella crème brûlée pots that are guaranteed to tempt even those without a sweet tooth.

Another Shocker? Jake or Dinos at White Cube

15 Jul

Thursday evening. PV night. Heels at the ready. Boys to direct me.

Beginning on Cork Street with Alon Zakaim’s wonderful summer show including works by David Breuer-Weil, Will Thorburn, Lorenzo Agius, Terry O’Neill and Lynn Chadwick, I then popped into Flowers.  Flowers have devoted both their gallery spaces to the artist Patrick Hughes.  Kingsland Road presents a retrospective, whilst Cork Street, which opened last night, shows his new works – a range of exciting three-dimensional Reverspective images which appear to be moving, confounding the viewer and drawing us in for a closer look.  As we move, so do his works – his optical illusions have enticed viewers for 50 years and show no sign of stopping.  Patrick, now aged 71, who was wandering around the private view, was a delight to chat to – you can’t help but be charmed by him and his works.

Patrick Hughes, Corner Stores, 2011. Image via www.flowersgalleries.com

Maybe I chose the wrong heels for last night as my feet were already a tad sore when we crossed Piccadilly, which didn’t bode well with another two galleries to go.  Jake and Dinos Chapman have supposedly not collaborated for a year and this exhibition presents the results of them breaking free from the shackles of their partnership. For two brothers who have always prided themselves on being one artist, the cynic in me doubts the complete truth in this claim.

But that’s by the by…

Boldly spread over both White Cubes, ‘Jake or Dinos Chapman’ (originally entitled ‘F*** you Jake’ and ‘F*** you Dinos’) presents a mixture of work by both artists as individuals.  We are not meant to know whose work is whose but the secret seems to have been badly kept and, apparently, Jake’s work appears at Mason’s Yard while Dinos is at Hoxton Square.  Some still claim the works are muddled (who knows?) but all the pieces distinctly bare the Chapman Brothers’ trademark style returning to their previous themes that we love and hate – themes that once shocked us but that we have come to expect.  They haven’t managed to depart from their norm enough.  Either that, or their individual styles are not strong enough to triumph. But is this the point?  Let’s see…

Jake and Dinos installing the Nazi mannequins.  Image via www.guardian.co.uk.

These are a pair of remarkable exhibitions. The PVs were cleverly timed so that when Mason’s Yard closed at 7.30pm, those with enough stamina (of which I was, of course, one) headed over to Hoxton Square. The Great City Road Race caused London to grind to a halt and a queue of taxis approached Hoxton in near-stately procession (the lengthy taxi ride gave my feet a chance to rest). The paparazzi were out in force capturing the celebs and art world elite who attended both exhibitions.  And, what a crowd!  White Cube had certainly worked their magic and both galleries were chock-a-block.

Hoxton Square.  Own photograph.

Now this may be a wonderful coincidence but Jake and Dinos, who were both at both PVs, chatting jovially to guests, were never seen together.  Whenever I saw Jake, Dinos had vanished.  Whenever I saw Dinos, Jake was nowhere to be seen.  Is this me projecting a continued performance of their separation or was this the case?  Who can say!

Downstairs at Mason’s Yard a mass of large scale mannequins are surrounded by typically-defaced Goyas.  The often sexually explicit black-fleshed Nazi-like characters (their swastikas have ironically been replaced by smiley faces) were perversely fascinating; they became art connoisseurs, gazing at the works.   The mannequins were the audience and we joined them.

A Jake or Dinos Nazi up close.  Image via www.guardian.co.uk.

For me, upstairs disappointed with the corrugated cardboard works attempting to depart from the Chapmans’ norm and not quite making it.  Admittedly, these are some of the most shocking pieces in the exhibition – shocking in the sense that we did not expect to see them and they are not trying to shock.

Upstairs at Mason’s Yard.  Own photograph.

Hoxton Square, in my opinion, is the more impressive of the two exhibitions.  If it wasn’t for the absurd number of people pushing their way through, I could have gazed at the sculptures for ages. As much as I loved it, I did, however, know what to expect – on the ground floor, a group of seemingly-identical, brown-hooded mannequins sport disturbing animal faces.  They, like the Nazis in Mayfair, are looking at the paintings on the walls.

A disturbing mannequin at Hoxton Square.  Image via www.guardian.co.uk.

Upstairs, the works move to a more profound, possibly more harrowing, level with installation sculptures based on traditional altarpieces, transforming the gallery into a chapel.

Hoxton’s new chapel.  Image via www.guardian.co.uk.

So who did which work? Is it Jake at Mason’s Yard?  Is it Dinos in Hoxton?  You can’t help but ask yourself as you go round and it’s very difficult not to engage in a guessing game.  Apparently, they both viewed each other’s pieces two weeks ago and were startled by the profound familiarities and differences.  So is it a coincidence that they both use corrugated cardboard or is this the work of one brother?!

Their work is about teasing and manipulating their audience.  Here, this is taken to a new extreme.  It is important to remember that whoever produced the works, or whether they are indeed still working together and this is a clever White Cube PR hoax, Jake and Dinos have produced some remarkable and thought-provoking new works that will, no doubt, generate mirth, criticism and praise in abundance.  Fine, they aren’t nearly as shocking as they once were and we do now know what to expect but I don’t think this is a problem.  In fact, I think we’d be disappointed if they didn’t produce these sex-crazed, disturbing figurines.

Whether you love them or hate them, and I think I’m still firmly in the camp of the former, this exhibition deserves praise and attention.  Years on, two of the most talked about YBAs are still shocking, startling and delighting us.

Summer Contemporary Exhibition is at Alon Zakaim Fine Art until 12th August 2011, www.alonzakaim.com.

Patrick Hughes: Fifty Years of Show Business is at Flowers (Cork Street and Kingsland Road) until 3rd September 2011, www.flowersgalleries.com.

Jake or Dinos Chapman is at White Cube (Mason’s Yard and Hoxton Square) until 17th September 2011, www.whitecube.com.

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