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2013 Highlights

29 Dec

As I’ve said before, I haven’t been able to write nearly as regularly as I would have liked.  2013 has flown by with excitement, hustle and bustle and some truly fabulous exhibitions.  Again, there has been more grey paint on gallery walls than I care to remember but the point of this post is to celebrate some of the remarkable things I have seen.  I have missed a lot too, particularly in the last couple of months, but it is testament to the incredible art programme across the UK that it is impossible to see everything.

Here we go with my highlights of 2013…

Towering at TateSchwitters in Britain  

Cast your mind back to February when Tate Britain brought us an exhibition showing off Schwitters’ incredible multi-disciplinary practice that expressed his determination to make art using whatever was to hand.  Tate successfully showed how Schwitters’ figurative works moved into abstraction and vice versa.  Schwitters never gave up and his drive and enthusiasm, as well as his interaction with British art and culture, was excellently applauded by Tate.

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Kurt Schwitters, Picture of Spatial Growths/Picture with Two Small Dogs, 1920 and 1939. Own photograph.

Number One at the National GalleryFacing the Modern  

There is no doubt that, in parts, Facing the Modern was a confusing show and it has been suggested that curatorially it was in the wrong order.  But, notwithstanding these comments, it is one of the best shows I have seen this year.  Using portraiture, the exhibition tells the story of Vienna’s middle classes – works are commemorative, critical, cautious, radical and chart the changing fortunes and times of the incredibly diverse city.  This is a subtle exhibition that requires thought and tenderness whilst viewing.  It may not include the most famous and familiar works by Klimt or Schiele but that is what makes it so special and the fact some of these works have been loaned is a triumph.  The National Gallery are continuing to go from strength to strength with their exhibition programme and Michael Landy’s Saints Alive is also worthy of mention.

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Walking around Facing the Modern. Image via www.theupcoming.co.uk

Captivating Courtauld The Young Dürer: Drawing the Figure 

The Courtauld are rightly renowned for the quality and strength of their exhibitions and The Young Dürer was another golden gem from this small gallery.  The exhibition concentrates on the artist’s journeyman years from 1490-96 when he travelled widely and was exposed to a range of new influences.  Here, The Courtauld follow Dürer’s path to greatness as he learnt the intimacy and delicacy for which he came to be famous.

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Detail of Albrecht Dürer, A Wise Virgin, 1493. Image via www.courtauld.ac.uk

Blazing Barbican The Bride and the Bachelors

The title of alone was going to be enough to pull in the punters but The Bride and the Bachelors was the first ever exhibition to explore Marcel Duchamp’s impact on John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns.  This was a challenging exhibition that blurred the boundaries between stage and gallery in a style that I think would have delighted Duchamp.  Due to the exhibition’s design, the conversations between these creative genii were still very much ongoing.  Duchamp governed the creativity of the period as well as our enjoyment of the show.

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Duchamp stars at the Barbican. Own photograph

Leaving LondonFrom Death to Death and Other Small Tales, Modern One (Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art), Edinburgh

As any regular reader will know, I spend at least one month of the year in Edinburgh and this summer I was able to see the sublime From Death to Death and Other Small Tales.  The exhibition sought to create a conversation between works from the gallery’s own collection and pieces from the collection of Dimitris Daskalopoulos that focus on the human body.  Some works referenced the body explicitly while others made subtle gestures to bodies that may or may not be present.  It was so extensive it took over the entire building with around 130 works of top quality – an exhibition that really worked without compromise.

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Ernesto Neto, It Happens When the Body’s Anatomy of Time, 2000. Own photograph.

Also with podium finishes were:

Glittering Gold – Leon Kossoff’s London Landscapes, Annely Juda

London Landscapes focused on Kossoff’s life in London looking at the congestion, the dirt and the real life of London.  Kossoff made us fall in love all over again with the vigour and vibrance of the city.

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Leon Kossoff, Dalston Lane No. 1, 1974.  Image via www.onestoparts.com

Shimmering SilverDeath: A self-portrait, The Wellcome Collection

Death: A self-portrait is an exhibition that showcased the collection of Richard Harris with approximately 300 objects from his strange and unique collection devoted to death.  It was incredibly diverse – there were paintings, drawings, artefacts, sculptures, photographs, anatomical illustrations and much more. This was a giant cabinet of curiosities!

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June Leaf, No stomach for death: Gentleman on Green Table, 1999-2000.  Image via www.standard.co.uk

Bright Bronze – Caitlin Art Prize 2013, Londonewcastle Project Space

The Catlin Art Prize is a highlight of the calendar and the brilliant eye of the curator means that we can normally expect great things from the nine chosen graduates who have had to produce new work for the exhibition.  This year was no exception and the Londonewcastle Project Space was transformed with the latest ‘ones to watch’.

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Terry Ryu Kim, Screening Solution I,II and III. Image courtesy of Peter Hope and via www.artcatlin.com

Last but by no means least – Runner Up  – Jodie Carey: Untitled (Slabs), Edel Assanti

Every exhibition at Edel Assanti is so very different but powerful in its own way.  Although very simple in conception, the striking display of Jodie Carey’s works stayed with me.  Seven plaster slabs were arranged within the gallery, connecting and conversing with one another despite their differing formats.  The works had a real inescapable presence in the gallery – fragile yet monumental, they rose with impressive dominance.

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

There have been so many more shows, some that I have written about and some that I haven’t.  There are a lot of fabulous exhibitions planned for next year, including some that I am working on, and I shall totter from one to another in skyscraper heels or by taxi if it’s too chilly.

As many of you enjoy the shoe signatures here my favourite three shoes pictures of 2013 plus a new one with which to wish you all A Merry Christmas and a Happy Shoe Year.  Thank you, as ever, for reading Artista.

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Last of the Summer Time

9 Oct

Finally, I’ve found some time to write a blog post and I’m ashamed to see how long it has been since the last one.  I’ve been gathering catalogues, notes and bits of paper from the inordinate amount I have seen over the past month but now there are far too many to tell you about them all.

At this time of year we’re all looking ahead to Frieze week – in fact, LAPADA in Berkeley Square already heralded the beginning of art month.  But, to look over some of my highlights I have to journey back to Edinburgh and an exhibition at Talbot Rice Gallery showing works by Korean artist, Nam June Paik.  I have to confess, that I wasn’t at all familiar with his work even though he is dubbed the founder of video art.  Born in 1932, Paik had a remarkable insight into the ways that technology would change everyday life and our approach to art.  Unusually for Talbot Rice this is a posthumous retrospective; Paik died in 2006 but the gallery saw this as the perfect opportunity to celebrate this artist’s work – art and technology was the theme of the Edinburgh International Festival this year so this could not have been a more fitting choice.

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Nam June Paik at Tabot Rice Gallery.  Image via www.journal-online.co.uk

It is a confusing exhibition as there is so much going on around the galleries that at times it becomes hard to digest – the main floor exhibits a survey of Paik’s video works, sculpture (including two of his handmade robots) and documentary pieces, while the upper gallery shows objects from his important debut solo exhibition in Germany that took place 50 years ago.  Whatever direction you turn to Paik’s works include old-fashioned television sets whether in their entirety, showing montages of found documentary footage, or included in strange sculptures.  The works are often noisy and at times almost aggressive in their crude aesthetics.  Paik was intent on getting his message across and there can be no denying that he succeeded in conveying his overflowing ideas that combine television with contemporary art.

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Nam June Paik at Tabot Rice Gallery.  Image via www.re-photo.co.uk

In contrast, was Franz West at Inverleith House.  In all my years in Edinburgh I don’t think I’d ever visited the Botanic Gardens and I had most certainly been missing out.  Aside from the incredible glasshouses, which I’d definitely recommend particularly because of the sculptures dotted around them, the Gardens and House are free of charge.  Walking around this space is like entering another world, particularly in August when Edinburgh is taken over by the Fringe.

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Sculptures in the glasshouses at the Botanic Gardens.  Own photograph.

It is rare that we enter a gallery and are encouraged to touch the works on display.  Here we’re not just asked to gently touch but to play full on with West’s pieces that are solely in collaboration with other artists.  This exhibition contains more than 50 examples of these mad collaborations.  The list of artists in the press release shows quite how influential West is for all these artists to want to work with him – examples are Sarah Lucas, Michelangelo Pistoletto or Douglas Gordon.  Although there are some serious works the exhibition feels exciting and fun – if you don’t participate with the pieces you won’t get very much out of them.  West allows us to escape the conventions of gallery-going where many feel constrained, forced to whisper and look from afar.  The gallery staff make sure we’re doing it right as well – “Have you laid down here yet?” one young girl asked me as I walked through a room, “You can’t see the piece properly unless you do.”  Well, that told me and before I knew it I found myself prostrate on a work of art.  Thank you Franz West.

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Franz West at Inverleith House.  Image via www.rbge.org.uk.    

Inverleith aren’t attempting to exhibit the sculptures that many of us would normally associate with West – their exhibition is solely about the creativity of collaboration.  Sometimes West integrated works by other artists with his own, sometimes he invited artists to ‘complete’ one of his works and sometimes the collaboration began with him asking an artist to provide him with something.  West was, however, always the conductor of these exchanges, the master of collaboration and of artistic harmony.

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Franz West at Inverleith House.  Image via www.rbge.org.uk.    

The Edinburgh Art Festival spans the whole city and there are always wonderful installations dotted around in the most unusual o places.  One such example is Peter Liversidge’s work where he was invited anyone in the city with a flag pole to fly a white flag which bears the text: HELLO.  Hello is a word so commonly used in everyday life – to express a greeting, answer a telephone, attract attention and so on.  Liversidge aims to remind us that a flag is also a way to say hello and, here, they wave at us from across the city’s public buildings, blowing their greetings across Edinburgh with each gust of wind.

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A collective greeting in Edinburgh.  Own photograph.

When I was at school aged only 7 or 8, one of the first artists we studied was LS Lowry and he has always had a special pull for me.  Now Lowry’s time has come with a huge exhibition at Tate Britain.  For me, Lowry’s works don’t work well in bulk so this exhibition was always going to be difficult in that regard.  But that was never any doubt that no matter what Tate did I would be instantly won over.  Even ignoring my own personal love for Lowry, this is a very important show and one that is curated by two senior curators who give it an immediate element of gravitas.  But, both are art historians who live in America; they aren’t specialists in Lowry or British art and perhaps this is why they have decided to mix things up a bit, not always successfully.

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Lowry at Tate Britain. Image via www.telegraph.co.uk.  

The exhibition offers direct comparisons between Lowry’s work and that of 19th century French artists tackling the same subject which is the big let-down of the exhibition.  Why have Tate not let Lowry stand in his own right?  Nor is the exhibition hung chronologically so it is very hard to see the developments across more than 60 years of work.

Lowry’s depictions of England and his acute powers of observation are still something special.  His depictions of modern life hold a simplicity and rusticity to them that capture the true feeling of the town – some of the scenes haven’t even changed that much since Lowry painted them in his work.  Although the poverty and hardship of the times is there, he often idealises his scenes to make them more palatable for his audience.  He is often criticised for the almost one-dimensionality of his tiny stick figures but look closely at the work that has gone into them.  This is Lowry’s unique record of changing times – his very own texture and timbre of the world in which he lived and the specifics he chose to see.  Love or hate Lowry this is a must-see show.

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Walking through the exhibition.  Image via www.demotix.com

Idris Khan was one of the artists included in our East Wing VIII exhibition at The Courtauld but his latest show at Victoria Miro marks an important departure from the photographic based work he then showed.  Beyond the Black comprises a suite of black paintings, a monumental site-specific wall drawing and a series of works on paper, considering the metaphysics of creation.  Using a mixture of black pigment, rabbit-skin glue and slate dust the paintings’ darkness shines from the walls.  Whereas previously Khan has used the writings of famous philosophers in his pieces, here he incorporates his own writings in response to his readings of Nietzsche, building up strands of text applying densely one on top of the other until the words disappear into the saturated surface, slipping away from us beyond our understanding.  The further we try to look into the works, the less we can comprehend.

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Idris Khan at Victoria Miro.  Image via www.londonist.com

The wall drawing upstairs consists of more than 120,000 lines of text forming a giant radial form.  It’s possible to get lost within this work for hours and I do mean get lost as we are incapable of following the complicated overlays of words at play here.  Throughout the exhibition we are offered glimpses of words that may, or may not, give us a window into Khan’s thinking.

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Complicated overlays. Image via www.fadwebsite.com

Edel Assanti’s latest show (and one on which I have worked) is of Alex Hoda’s incredible new sculptures where the cutting-edge technological processes of 3D-modelling are applied to traditional sculptural materials to create sublime forms.  Alex’s work is an investigation into how discarded objects can provide a valid starting point for wider discussion and critique of contemporary society’s ‘throwaway’ culture.  He sees chewing gum as the perfect embodiment of this area of consumer culture. The chewing gum undergoes a metamorphosis when translated into Carrara marble, imbuing the final piece with an importance that is more often exclusively reserved for classical iconography. The bronze works undergo a comparable transformation, only the source objects are delicate hand-sculpted maquettes formed from entwined dry banana skins.  Despite the medium of bronze, the ‘banana skins’ have an incredible delicacy and tactility that defies their medium and recalls the source objects in a beautiful way.

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Alex Hoda’s new works at Edel Assanti. Image via www.edelassanti.com

David Zwirner is currently showing Philip-Lorca DiCorcia’s East of Eden, a large-scale body of photographs ranging from strangers, family members and pole dancers.  He takes everyday happenings and pushes them beyond the realms of banality and normality asking the viewer to question the truth of the image.  The works, partly inspired by John Steinbeck’s book of the same name and the Book of Genesis convey a sense of disillusionment, with lone figures contemplating their surroundings and remaining beyond our reach.  While some are compositionally stimulating and powerful others don’t quite hit the mark for me.

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Installed at David Zwirner.  Image via www.davidzwirner.com

Finally, I was lucky enough to visit Stanley Spencer’s Sandham Memorial Chapel at Burghclere just before it closed to the public for a long programme for conservation and renovation.  Words cannot do justice to the feeling of walking through the modest chapel doors and being overwhelmed by the inspirational scenes that Spencer created, a series of large-scale epic murals that honour the ‘forgotten dead’ of the First World War, inspired by Spencer’s own experiences both as a hospital orderly in Bristol and a solider on the Salonika front.

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Approaching the Chapel.  Image via http://en.wikipedia.org

Peppered with personal and unexpected details, they combine the realism of everyday life with dreamlike visions drawn from his imagination.  His recollections, painted entirely from memory, focus on the domestic, rather than combative, and evoke everyday experiences – washing lockers, inspecting kit, sorting laundry, scrubbing floors and taking tea – in which he found spiritual resonance and sustenance.  The poignancy of the works is powerfully emotive.  The main 16 panels from this English ‘Sistine Chapel’ are journeying to Somerset House for an exhibition next month.

Sandham Memorial Chapel Full View

Inside the Chapel.  Image via  www.siue.edu.

This is by no means a survey of all I have seen but a taster of some shows that are currently on.  The winter programme across London and the UK looks particularly exciting and I’ve recently bought a host of new heels in which to enjoy them.

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Transmitted Live: Nam June Paik Resounds is at Talbot Rice Gallery, Edinburgh, until 19th October 2013, www.ed.ac.uk/about/museums-galleries/talbot-rice.  Mostly West: Franz West and Artistic Collaborations was at Inverleith House, Edinburgh.  Lowry and the Painting of Modern Life is at Tate Britain until 20th October 2013, www.tate.org.uk.  Idris Khan: Beyond the Black is at Victoria Miro until 9th November 2013, www.victoria-miro.comAlex Hoda: D-Construction is at Edel Assanti until 26th October 2013, www.edelassanti.comPhilip-Lorca diCorcia: East of Eden is at David Zwirner until 16th November 2013.  Stanley Spencer: Heaven in a Hell of War will be at Somerset House from 7th November 2013 – 26th January 2014, www.somersethouse.org.uk.

There’s a big blue cock in Trafalgar Square

30 Jul

The days have long gone when we can feel shocked or surprised at what is mounted on the fourth plinth.  Even more so now as the plans to install Hahn/Cock received much opposition before it was even unveiled.  So, the time had gone for exclamations of disbelief at the giant blue cockerel by Katharina Fritsch that now occupies the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square that was originally intended for an equestrian statue.  At 4.7m high, we are invited to laugh at this incongruous bird who has taken prime position in London.

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Katharina Fritsch’s Hahn/Cock. Image via www.standard.co.uk

A cockerel can be seen as a leader and a chief – it is a symbol of strength and power.  Amazing really that a chicken can represent so much.  Of course, there’s no avoiding the double entendre and people are sure to be childishly sniggering that there’s now a giant cock standing proudly alongside Nelson’s column.  With his crest erect, this plump breasted bird is waving his tail feathers at all tourists to London.  Fritsch wanted to play with the English sense of humour and laugh with us.  She decided to move the focus away from Nelson atop his phallic column and all the male dominance and power displays for which this area is known.  The carefully placed plumage is intended to echo the folds of Nelson’s uniform while the cockerel’s crest may even mimic Nelson’s hat.  If we read the work in this way, Hahn/Cock is certainly laughing at Nelson and inviting us to join in.  Personally, I don’t feel it is respectful or appropriate to laugh at a national hero but Fritsch is a feminist and she sees this work as a female victory in a male-dominated square.

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Katharina Fritsch’s Hahn/Cock. Own photograph.

The humour extends in various directions – this is a work by a German artist in an English square.  But, of course, the cockerel is also the national symbol of France and even its colouring here exemplifies that even though it has been placed next to a monument that commemorates victory against the French.  Fritsch claims she didn’t even realise the French association until she had planned the work.  If that’s true what wonderful coincidental irony to happen upon. Fritsch doesn’t intend the sculpture to be offensive or mocking our history but she sees it has a talking point.

On a simpler level the piece, with its vibrant and unmissable colour, does bring an injection of life into the grey stone works that surround it.  It creates a contrast with the more formal aesthetics to which we are accustomed.  It’s not an incredible work of art by any means but it’s sufficiently imposing and noticeable to satisfy this position and it’s certainly a bit of fun.  Yes, there is meaning behind it but I don’t think Fritsch is all worried about that – it lightens the gravitas and isn’t afraid to laugh at itself.  This cocky sculpture reminds us that the fourth plinth is, among other things, now meant to be a talking point.

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Katharina Fritsch’s Hahn/Cock. Image via www.visitlondon.com

Fritsch clearly enjoys being provocative and this work is certainly going to ruffle feathers.  The dialogue with the surrounding area and other sculptures can be read on many levels which I think is part of the joy of public art.  On the whole, it doesn’t have to be academically invigorating.  Ben Lewis notably said of Antony Gormley’s work, which invited members of the public to stand on the plinth, that he had created “public art work that the public like”.  I think Fritsch has done this too and this is an important factor.  The fourth plinth is meant to get the public talking – while it can tackle issues along the way – and the big blue chicken has certainly done this.  This is a site with one of the biggest footfalls in London so we don’t want a work here that alienates viewers or that people don’t understand.  It was absolutely pouring this morning but I could see the sculpture from inside the safety of a taxi where my driver expressed his opinion that it is a ‘bloody eyesore’.

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Katharina Fritsch’s Hahn/Cock. Own photograph.

There have been a lot of works on the fourth plinth and this is certainly far from being the worst.  In fact, it’s probably one of the ones that will be most remembered.  My favourites have been Mark Wallinger’s Ecce Homo and Rachel Whiteread’s Monument.  While not as impressive as either of those works, Hahn/Cock stands proudly in its own right.  Even if you don’t like it and you think the cock is cack, you can’t miss it and it won’t be there forever.

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Hustle and Bustle

14 Jun

It’s been a little while since I gallery hopped and, as a result, I’m feeling a little behind on exhibitions so I thought it was time that I did the rounds.

I started my ‘tour’ with lunch at Raffety Clocks on Kensington Church Street – such a beautiful shop.  Aside from admiring the antiques, this is the place to go for relaxing (well, I think it is anyway).  It beats meditative spa treatments.  Five minutes sitting in Raffety listening to the tick tock of tens of chiming beauties can relax anyone.  I even stayed to hear them chime the hour at 2pm which was a delight.

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Inside Raffety Clocks.  Image via www.raffetyclocks.com

The Dairy Art Centre has been open for a little while now.  Hidden down a side street in Bloomsbury, the space is amazing and unexpected (the premises of a former dairy, it’s big with a wonderful industrial atmosphere).  The first thing that stood out was the warm greeting from the gallery staff – so often galleries ignore visitors or glance up coldly from their work but The Dairy is actively welcoming people.

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Finding The Dairy. Own photograph.

The space is the brainchild of Frank Cohen and Nicolai Frahm, a non-profit exhibition space that is said to be showing art, dance and music.  It has a lot of potential for cross-disciplinary exploration with a quirky layout and small spaces opening at unexpected angles so this is an interesting statement and I will be curious to watch as their programme develops.  But the opening exhibition but John Armleder wasn’t as inspiring as I’d hoped.  The main gallery, the first room that I entered, is hung with a number of large paintings and twelve fairly large glitter balls.  I half expected dancers to appear and for the gallery attendants to crank up some music for visitors to boogie to but, no, this is the installation.

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Glitter balls in the gallery. Image via http://dairyartcentre.org.uk

Throughout the space there are projections, fake and real flowers, taxidermy, strange installations and more paintings (relaxed relations of Abstract Expressionism).  Armleder certainly makes the most of the space and uses the gallery as a whole in a fluid style of curation that seems uncluttered and coherent.  His work extends further than we may originally think as the gallery is also full of his design – the first example being the multi-coloured bar stalls in the entrance space.

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Armleder’s installations at The Dairy. Own photograph.

The exhibition wasn’t my thing but the space is worth talking about.

I walked out of Wakefield Street to find that Google Maps on my phone wanted re-loading.  Of course, I did sort of know where I was but decided it wasn’t worth the risk of ambling in the wrong direction in the drizzle.  Taxi time!

It’s always a slight disadvantage seeing the Deutsche Börse Prize after the winner has been announced as it spoils the fun of guessing who you think might win.  As it happens, my money would have been on Broomberg and Chanarin anyway.  The prize rewards living photographers for a specific body of work in an exhibition or publication format which has significantly contributed to photography in Europe in the previous year.  This year the finalists were Mishka Henner’s images of sex workers sourced from Google Streetview cameras, Chris Killip’s black and white documentary photographs of Northern English communities in the 1970s and 1980s, Cristina De Middel’s faux documentary images inspired by an actual space programme in Zambia and Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin’s documentation of the War on Terror using images sourced from the internet and mobile phones which pays homage to Bertold Brecht’s 1955 War Primer in which he matched poems with newspaper clippings about World War II.  Broomberg and Chanarin’s project requires far more attention that I was able to give it – it is bold and powerful, challenging the relationship between text and image, looking at the re-appropriation of past photography.  The duo are always pushing boundaries in everything they do and their extreme works, and views, normally garner significant interest.

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Broomberg and Chanarin’s winning piece in the foreground.  Image via www.125magazine.com

This year’s prize focuses on different aspects of documentary photography with a particularly strong focus on found imagery.  As ever, the show makes us question what photography is and challenges the very essence of the art form.

Deutsche Borse prize 2013: Chris Killip's Boo and his rabbit, Lynemouth, Northumberland (1983)

Chris Killip’s Boo and his rabbit, 1983.  Image via www.guardian.co.uk

As I was heading to Dering Street and still in the mood for photography I popped into Ronchini Gallery who have mounted a mixed exhibition illustrating photographic diversity in terms of techniques, locations and motifs.  With only one or two works by each artist we’re not really able to get a proper feel for the works or their investigation into the media.  There were a couple of interesting pieces all the same.

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Mixed photography at Ronchini Gallery. Image via www.ronchinigallery.com

My real reason for coming in this direction was to see the exhibition of Leon Kossoff’s London Landscapes at Annely Juda.  Curated by the director of visual art at the British Council, this exhibition focuses on Kossoff’s life in London from City bomb sites of the early 1950s to recent drawings of Arnold Circus.  Drawings look at sites in the 1960s and then again recently post-renovation, reconstruction and revitalisation.  Kossoff has grown with this city and, like it, he never seems to stop.  Aged 86, he is still working.  Through his works we see the vibrance and fast-paced nature of the constantly changing city; they express the rawness and true grit of his hometown.  Kossoff isn’t trying to clean up London in his works.  What he loves is the congestion, the dirt and the real life.  And I agree with him; it is the vigour of London that makes it special and, if you’re feeling slightly disillusioned having just walked down Oxford Street, Kossoff can make you fall in love with the city again.  These ninety drawings show his life and work over the past 60 years.

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Leon Kossoff, Dalston Lane No. 1, 1974.  Image via www.onestoparts.com

The thick impastoed surfaces of the paintings stand out one, possibly two, inches from the canvases, the paint blurring our vision while imbuing the works with the same sense of energy and dynamism.  In spite of this, his paintings are far less effective than his works on paper.

The upstairs gallery, of course, is flooded with light from the fabulous skylight that makes Annely Juda such a wonderful space.  The floor below is a bit too yellow for my liking and could do with being softened slightly to allow the works to speak more for themselves.  The works are quite dark and the contrast with the natural light is just what they need.

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The light filled upper galleries.  Own photograph.

Next up couldn’t have been much more different with Thomson & Craighead’s exhibition at Carroll/Fletcher, exploring the dissemination of information through the World Wide Web.  One wall is papered with Tweets gathered from within a one-mile radius of the gallery that have been printed as posters with a political feel.  The wall is personally edited by the artists and changes every day – it would be interesting to monitor the progression and the changes if you’re in the area.  It documents the idle thoughts and passing observations that saturate the Twittersphere almost like a form of collective poetry looking at the mundanity of the everyday.  Another work in the same room turns text from spam emails into song lyrics on a karaoke-style machine, accompanied by the kind of anodyne music favoured by supermarkets and shopping centres.  Are we really expected to pick up the microphone and engage with the work?  How far do these pieces go?

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Upstairs at Carroll/Fletcher. Own photograph.

Spam email, the web and social media generate new data all the time at an extraordinary pace.  Thomson & Craighead create new meaning from what, by many, is considered as junk in the online sphere.  Read about this exhibition before you go or while you’re there.  It’s truly fascinating but if you haven’t done your homework then the sophisticated essence of the works will completely pass you by.

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Thomson & Craighead, Beacon, 2007. Own photograph. 

Finally, as it’s practically next door I headed into Pilar Corrias to finish with some more photography – their exhibition of Julião Sarmento’s 75 Photographs, 25 Women, 42 Years.  Drawing on themes of memory, sexuality, transgression, morality and duality, Sarmento’s portraits of women explore the relationship of each of them with the artist.  The work’s titles reveal the woman’s name and connect her to a time and place in Sarmento’s life.  The shots are candid – showing intimate exchanges but also impulsive playful moments.

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Pilar Corrias. Image via www.galleriesnow.net

And, with that, it was time to stop tottering from gallery to gallery and return to the hustle and bustle of Kossoff’s London.

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John Armleder: Quicksand is at The Dairy Art Centre until 17th August 2013, http://dairyartcentre.org.uk/Deutsche Börse Photography Prize 2013 is at The Photographers’ Gallery until 30th June 2013, http://thephotographersgallery.org.uk/Summer Photography Show is at Ronchini Gallery until 19th June 2013, www.ronchinigallery.comLeon Kossoff: London Landscapes is at Annely Juda Fine Art until 6th July 2013, www.annelyjudafineart.co.ukThomson & Craighead: Never Odd or Even is at Carroll/Fletcher until 6th July 2013, www.carrollfletcher.com/Julião Sarmento: 75 Photographs, 35 Women, 42 Years is at Pilar Corrias until 27th June 2013, www.pilarcorrias.com.

Here, there and everywhere

26 May

The past few weeks have been a whirlwind – as soon as I seem to be back in London and on top of my to-do list I’m heading off somewhere new.  Of course, I’m loving every minute but it has certainly been chaotic which is why this particular post ranges from France to Sussex and back to Shoreditch and Trafalgar Square.

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Monet’s House at Giverny. Own photograph.

A few days after Berlin Gallery Weekend I was woken up in the very early hours to head over to France for the Bank Holiday weekend.  I’ve always wanted to visit Giverny and, as it was only an hour off route (heaven forbid that I could just relax and enjoy French wine and cheese), we programmed the sat-nav and off we went.  Entry to Giverny provides access to Monet’s house and garden.  This was the second pink house with green shutters in which Monet had lived and the second time his house had been separated from the garden by a road.  Colour is everything here – both inside and out.  The walls of the house are adorned with works – there are Japanese prints everywhere plus his huge collection of paintings including works by Delacroix, Cézanne and Renoir.

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Inside Monet’s House. Own photograph.

Even on an overcast day, the garden cannot help but make you smile with its full-to-the-brim flowerbeds and radiant colours.  Monet had started gardening while living at Argenteuil but not on a scale that would suggest the passion he imbued into the gardens at Giverny.  His garden was designed with his paintings in mind – he planted what he wanted to paint so, in a sense, he created the scene that resided in his imagination.  When Monet arrived at Giverny there were no ponds but it had always been his dream to have them and it is, of course, his water lily ponds and the Japanese bridge that have become synonymous with his name.

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The Japanese bridge. Own photograph.

Monet was severely afflicted by cataracts despite two operations towards the end of his life.  As his sight worsened, his works turned from fresh, bright colours to a heavier palette, almost certainly as a result of his blurred colour vision.  Whether or not his gardens became lost to him is hard to say but what can be certain is that his pronounced choices of colour infused his world with light and life for many years and helped to create some of the scenes we remember him for today.

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Monet’s garden. Own photograph.

After settling in at Nogent-Le-Rotrou, it was irresistible to visit the Chateau Saint-Jean as it was only two minutes away.  Built around 1020 on the site of an earlier castle, the building has suffered a lot of intervention over the years and much of what remains is of a later period.  It is an imposing and impressive fortress perched on a point with a vantage over the entire area.  Inside there is a museum dedicated to the history of the town and, strangely enough, a contemporary art gallery with an exhibition of works by Patrick Loste, evoking the often crude portrayals of cave paintings.  I can find art anywhere!

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Chateau Saint-Jean. Own photograph.

It was a flying visit to France but, on the way back home, there was just time to stop in at the Holy Trinity Abbey in Vendôme enabling me to indulge my love of the Gothic period.  The feature of most note has to be the 12th century frescoes that were discovered behind the 14th century chapter house walls.  The sections that remain are badly fragmented the sections but have been preserved remarkably well and one scene showing the Miraculous Catch after Christ’s Resurrection is still strikingly clear consider its age.

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Holy Trinity Abbey, Vendôme. Own photograph.

Back in the UK, it was time for the opening of the opera season at Glyndebourne, the wonderful opera house in Sussex founded in 1934.  As tempted as I am to do so, I will resist touching on the opera but do have to mention their art programme.  As many of you will know, I am very into public installations and making the most of outdoor spaces through art.  Glyndebourne are very much on the same page and this season is marked by an exhibition of works by Sean Henry who does exactly this, creating monumental works in bronze for the urban landscape.  His works capture the mundane, subjects caught in a moment of introspection with which we can identify.  Glydnebourne don’t have the strongest selection of his sculptures but they are unavoidable in the picturesque landscape of the house.

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Sean Henry, Catafalque, 2003. Own photograph.

Finally, it seemed I was back in London for long enough to get around some exhibitions here.  The Catlin Art Prize is a highlight of the calendar and the brilliant eye of the curator means that we can normally expect great things from the nine chosen graduates who have had to produce new work for the exhibition.

Catlinexterior2013 The Catlin Prize takes over Londonewcastle. Image courtesy of Peter Hope and via www.artcatlin.com

The winner Terry Ryu Kim forced the visitor to become part of her installation – manipulating the viewer’s path through architecture and technology.  The work explores how structures can exert power, the installation becomes a stage that dictates our actions.  It is haunting and beautiful, both intimate and evasive at the same time.

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Terry Ryu Kim, Screening Solution I,II and III. Image courtesy of Peter Hope and via www.artcatlin.com

Juno Calypso who won the visitor vote has garnered a lot of attention, using the more traditional medium of photography.  Calypso staged scenes in which she performs as a character called Joyce, always obscuring her face and thereby forcing us to focus on other elements of the scene.  The narrative of the unsettling seems to be a theme in this year’s award.

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Juno Calypso, 12 Reasons You’re Tired All The Time. Image via www.artcatlin.com

All of the finalists deserve mention but I think praise must be given to Nicky Deeley.  Of course, performance art is common now but for a young graduate to produce a work of such maturity is impressive.  The piece sits deftly on the line between creepy, cute and fascinating.  Admittedly I only saw one costume change but the crowds of people gathered around the work certainly suggested everyone was hooked.

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Nicky Deeley performing Island Year. Own photograph.

I can often be hard to please and so regularly gallery spaces rest on their laurels.  One may think this is more true of traditional spaces that are guaranteed the crowds come what may.  Well, The National Gallery is currently shaking things up.  Michael Landy’s Saints Alive is a result of a two year residency with an in-house studio.  Many artists in the past have failed this challenge but Landy has risen to it.  He wasn’t scared of the esteemed regard in which everyone holds the National Gallery’s collections.  Everything that made him seem the most inappropriate person for this position has actually made him the best.

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Saints Alive at The National Gallery. Own photograph.

Asked my thoughts on The NG I would normally name it as a place of calm, a space where one can think and admire some of the most wonderful art in London.  It was the first gallery I visited as a child and somewhere I still regularly visit.  As I approached the Sunley Room I could hear crashes and bangs, normally such noises would have the guards running to find the source of the disturbance.  But the disturbance is, in fact, part of the exhibition.  Landy has subverted the serenity.

Walking in I was met by Saint Apollonia, a nine-foot sculpture made of fibre glass, recalling a sculpture painted in a Lucas Cranach work.  I nervously edged towards the pedal at her feet, balancing precariously on a stiletto and pressing it down.  At this point the pliers she was holding smashed persistently into her mouth.  There’s a spare head ready for when this one becomes a tad too battered.  She is not the only one who is bringing to life the suffering the saints endured.

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Saint Apollonia in the Sunley Room. Own photograph.

Landy has been inspired by the stories of the saints – stories which were once known by everybody yet today have fallen into obscurity. Towering over visitors are seven large-scale kinetic sculptures that swivel and turn, evoking the torment of each saint’s life.  These sculptures are interactive; there are buttons to press, a handle to crank and foot pedals to push. There are T-shirts to be won and a Saint Francis of Assisi donation box activated by coins.

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One of Landy’s kinetic sculptures. Own photograph.

Landy doesn’t intend to cause offence with these sculptures; his research into the works in the collection and his retelling, through these kinetic beasts, of the saints’ stories is remarkable.  Each saint has a symbolic attribute that makes him or her instantly recognisable.  Landy has transformed the saints from objects of spiritual devotion into artworks, made from pieces of junk that play on his interest in destruction.  Landy brings the saints from the walls of the gallery to life.  They are fascinating.  We want to press the buttons again and again – are they unnerving or are they funny?  I don’t think anyone was quite sure.  The legends themselves are often ridiculous and Landy has captured this with his own unique magic, comedy and an enticing undertone of the macabre.  The awful and gruesome ordeals these saints underwent were meant to show their patience and endurance.  As the sculptures break under the strain there is a certain irony here.  And don’t think that’s not fully intentional either.  Landy’s past works have always been about selflessness, generosity and virtue so he wasn’t actually as far removed from these topics as many thought.

Alongside the sculptures are his drawings and collages made from cut-up reproductions of works in the collection.  I’d urge you not to get so distracted by the sculptures that you miss these.

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Saint Jerome in action. Own photograph.

As I turned back to take one last look at the exhibition Saint Jerome was still quivering behind me.  Legend tells that he used to beat himself with a rock to prevent him from having impure sexual thoughts.  But as he stands there quivering you can’t help but wonder what is going on beneath the excessive drapery around his legs.  However, before there was a chance to cast any aspersion onto the virtue of the saint, someone else had crept towards the pedal and Saint Jerome had returned to whacking himself.

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Michael Landy’s Saints Alive is at The National Gallery until 24th November 2013, www.nationagallery.co.uk.

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.

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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.

Claustrophobic alleyways or a delightful treasure trove?

22 Mar

The V&A could not really have fitted much more into one gallery for their latest exhibition. Entitled Treasures of the Royal Courts: Tudors, Stuarts and the Russian Tsars it doesn’t sound the most inspiring but it’s a treasure trove with 150 or so objects including silverware, jewellery (with magnifying glasses sensibly attached to the cases), taxidermy, armour, coats of arms, firearms, paintings, sculptures, clothing, Shakespeare’s first folio and maps. In spite of being an academic exhibition looking at a weighty topic, it clearly highlights an often neglected area of history, using important examples from the history of art.

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Armour design for Sir Henry Lee, c. 1585. Own photograph.

I must say from the outset that I’m really torn – on the one hand, I think the exhibition is a fascinating study of the development of cultural diplomacy and trade between Britain and Russia from its origins in 1555 when the Muscovy Company was founded. But, on the other hand, the way the exhibition is curated is confining and doesn’t do any of these objects justice.

It starts with Henry VIII’s consolidation of the Tudor dynasty, after his accession to the throne in 1509, and then follows the exchange between British sovereigns and ambassadors until the end of Charles II’s reign in 1685 when the British monarchy had resumed contact with Russia.

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A selection of fabulous armour on display. Image via www.dailymail.co.uk.

On entry to the exhibition we are greeted with carved wooden sculptures of beasts – a red bull, a black griffin, a white ram and a crowned white dolphin. These particular pieces were created to commemorate Thomas, Lord Dacre, who fought at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485. Power becomes immediately apparent here and is seen in various guises throughout this exhibition; it’s seen in the majestic armour on display as well as through the culture of possessing beautiful objects and costume. Power was not just dictated by exquisite jewels, it was far more subtle.

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Beasts at the entrance. Image via www.dailymail.co.uk.

The audio guide is in Russian and English – a nice touch to welcome Russian visitors, showing that our relations weren’t always frosty. In fact, one of the objects getting a lot of attention is a large white pelican – a gift from Russia that we still hold dear and can usually found at the Natural History Museum. I hasten to add that in 1662, it was alive and with a partner. The pelican is a strong heraldic emblem and, of course, the successors of this pair can still be found in St James’s Park. Gift-giving is a theme explored throughout the exhibition – there’s the lavish chariot presented in 1604 by British ambassador Thomas Smith to the Russian ruler Tsar Boris Gudunov. It’s represented here by a specially commissioned film and beautiful scale model. This film is one example of the successful use of multimedia; informative videos are dotted around to explain interesting points or arguments – there’s one looking at how miniatures were made.

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Model of an English Coach, 1974-1982. Own photograph.

At the very centre of the exhibition is a showcase of British and French silver, not just showing off these pieces but charting their extraordinary survival. The low lighting suits the works excellently. But, we really are led round the show and there isn’t much choice in where to go. These alleyways of art can become quite claustrophobic. The objects are amazing but heaven help you if you want to go back to see something again. The one way system doesn’t allow for any flexibility.

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Alleyways at the exhibition. Own photograph.

The Tudor and Stuart courts are explored in far more depth than the Russian court and it seems a bit unbalanced. Maybe this was different when the exhibition was shown in a slightly different format at the Kremlin last year.

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Finery.  Image via www.thetimes.co.uk.

The shop, as ever, really gets it right and knows how to maximise its market potential – there’s English mead created exclusively for the V&A, stained glass transfers, coins and goblets.

Despite all these positives, I can’t forgive that I felt I was frog-marched around this exhibition. If the objects had had more room, I’d have enjoyed it so much more.

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Treasures of the Royal Courts is at the V&A until 14th July 2013, www.vam.ac.uk.

Let there be light (but not quite this much)

10 Mar

I have fond memories of the two recent light exhibitions in London – Anthony McCall and James Turrell. Maybe they were so impressive as concentrated explorations of work by individual artists. Maybe they were just good exhibitions.

Light Show at the Hayward did not leave me feeling so warm. I know I’m in the minority here and I have no doubt that many of you will disagree with me but I found the show bland and, in parts, facile.

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Conrad Shawcross, Slow Arc Inside a Cube IV, 2009. Image via www.endoftheline.co

The exhibition examines light’s potential as a sculptural medium. What I find to be more fascinating is how we couldn’t manage without light and this becomes apparent as we struggle to find our way in and out of some of the installations. Light has always been at the forefront of science, technology and art and the exhibition makes use of the whole spectrum from a standard light bulb to cinema projectors with fabulous uses of technology and special effects. The work varies from small pieces to huge installations where you lose yourself and enter another world. Famous works are seen alongside pieces that have never before been exhibited in the UK.

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David Batchelor, Magic House, 2004/7. Image via www.haywardlightshow.co.uk.

The brutalist architecture of the Hayward is, in theory, the perfect setting for this. The lack of windows means that light can be used to totally transform the space but the density of works means that the Hayward haven’t taken enough advantage of their daylight-deprived space. Dan Flavin, the founder of light art, began this pioneering movement in 1961. His work is found upstairs, combining daylight, yellow and pink fluorescent tubes. But the gallery is too infused with light from other works for this to be effective. The work needs more dark space and this is a problem throughout. What is amazing is to be able to look back to the 1960s and see how our control of this media has developed and how artists have embraced new technologies in inventive ways.

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Dan Flavin, untitled (to the “innovator” of Wheeling Peachblow), 1966-68. Image via www.bbc.co.uk.

The exhibition opens with a work by Leo Villareal that is hypnotic to watch. Random patterns, operated by complex computer programming, cascade in endlessly changing waves evoking fireworks, waterfalls and the like. The speed is constantly in flux; the patterns morph from gentle twinkling to fast scatterings in a unique design where the same sequence will never be seen more than once.

Light Show at Hayward Gallery, London. Photo by Linda Nylind. 27/1/2013.

Leo Villareal, Cylinder, 2011. Image via www.onestoparts.com.

Cerith Wyn Evans’ columns in the second room make us think about electricity, light and energy as living things; consisting of floor-to-ceiling columns that ‘breathe’ giving off heat, brightening and dimming and affecting the surrounding space.

The changing colours in Carlo Cruz-Diez’s work are marvellous. This is a specially made optical environment where the three colour chambers (red, green and blue) dazzle and appear to change colour before your very eyes. Since the retina usually perceives a wide range of colours simultaneously, experiencing these monochromatic situations causes visual disturbances. I thought this was great but I’m reliably told it’s not a patch on his installation at MoMA. Many of the works illustrate how light affects mood and the sensory overload here was very moving. This was one of the works that required visitors to scramble around putting on overshoes, causing a hold up and just an altogether unpleasant experience. Stilettos and overshoes are not a good combination.

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Carlos Cruz-Diez, Chromosaturation, 1965-2008. Image via www.theartsdesk.com.

I decided to queue for the Turrell piece but, for me, this was one of his weaker works. Stumbling down the dark corridor we are guided to sit down in a pitch black room containing a full height proscenium. Beyond is another room but it’s hard to fully understand what we’re looking at. Turrell began this series of work in 1969, using light to diagonally divide the space in a room, creating what seem like tangible shapes. The longer we spend here, the more we see as shadowy apparitions and random twinkles appear. Perhaps I wasn’t prepared to stay long enough for the work’s full effects to reveal themselves but I felt let-down. In fact, from the looks on people’s faces as they left this work I’d say that I wasn’t alone.

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James Turrell, Wedgework V, 1974. Image via http://tobelikeafeatherby.wordpress.com/.

Upstairs was far weaker and it felt as if the curators were trying to cram works in without much thought of harmony and juxtaposition. I didn’t queue to go into the Tardis-like piece where illuminated space expands around you (your reflection never appears) and beneath your feet is a plunging black abyss. The illusion is created by one-way mirrors, like those used in interrogation rooms. Most visitors seemed to be missing the political undertones at play with this work; they were cooing at the pretty lights, when, in fact, the work attempts to recall a torture chamber associated with the artist’s own experience of the control and repression in Pinochet’s Chile.

For me, the best work was Olafur Eliasson’s piece. In a pitch black room we see jets of gushing water illuminated by fast-flashing strobe lights. It takes a while for your eyes to adapt but, when they do, this is magical. When a strobe light is used to illuminate flowing streams of water, the cascade appears as individual droplets of liquid and, by adjusting the frequency of the strobe, the droplets appear to freeze in mid-air.

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Olafur Eliasson, Model for a timeless garden, 2011. Image via www.newscientist.com.

I think the most disappointing was McCall’s work which lost all its power in such a small space. This is a horizontal light film, working on the same principles as the vertical structures we saw at Ambika P3, with a video projector, haze machine and computer scripting creating a large light sculpture that can be explored. Where was the magic, the intrigue and the delight that I had experienced there? Last time, I saw McCall’s works I felt my whole body being affected and I remember describing the sensation of losing myself in the light. That certainly didn’t happen this time round.

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Anthony McCall, You and I, Horizontal, 2005. Image via www.artwednesday.com.

I could see nothing worthwhile in most of the pieces. It’s an exhibition all about experience and entertainment. Although the exhibition guide and catalogue are fascinating and elucidate many of the works, people are missing the point and coming into the Hayward to play. There are no related works and no preparatory studies. But, I can’t criticise the Hayward for what they have set out to do – simply called Light Show it isn’t pretending to do anything complex.

I just don’t think this is worth the hype and I came away disappointed. It’s a bit like walking round a theme park of special effects. Some of these pieces that I have no doubt would be sublime in isolation lose something here. It’s not quite the sensory journey I expected – it’s so hit and miss.

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Light Show is at the Hayward Gallery until 28th April 2013, www.southbankcentre.co.uk.

From Ben-Day to Man Ray

1 Mar

As soon as the escalator emerged at level 2 of Tate Modern, I knew I had made a mistake. Why oh why would I have thought a Friday morning in half term was a good time to visit an exhibition of one of the most popular and recognisable artists in the world who was one of the central figures of American Pop Art? A momentary oversight I think. But, I was there and, as I’d been looking forward to seeing the Lichtenstein exhibition for quite some time, in I went.

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Queues to get into Tate’s latest exhibition. Own photograph.

Tate say that this is the first major Lichtenstein retrospective in over 25 years – I’m not sure why everyone is forgetting the Hayward’s 2004 retrospective which was then billed as the first major retrospective in 35 years. It’s obviously a catchy marketing line. Tate’s show brings together one hell of a lot of works, just over 125 to be precise, including some of Lichtenstein’s most well-known paintings and some less-known sculptures in steel and brass alongside early works, monochrome images of everyday objects, unseen drawings, collages and works on paper.

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Roy Lichtenstein, Wham!, 1963. Image via www.theweek.co.uk.

Everyone knows Lichtenstein for his work based on comic strips with Ben-Day dots but this exhibition seeks to show that there is so much more to him than this. Inspired by the commercial imagery of advertising, Lichtenstein transformed this aesthetic, painting everything by hand in a strangely depersonalised way.

Lichtenstein’s most well-known pieces are displayed in room four which, ironically, is easy to miss as it juts off to one side and does not provide a link to the end of the exhibition as you would expect. These comic book scenes are certainly not as simple as they initially appear; they capture the zeitgeist of their era, funny but with a poignant and often desolate overtone. They are often a reflection of Lichtenstein’s own life – in his Masterpiece a blonde tells the artist ‘…this painting is a masterpiece! My, soon you’ll have all of New York clamouring for your work.’ Of course, it wasn’t just New York clamouring for a slice of Lichtenstein. His work has now been the subject of over 240 solo exhibitions and there can be no doubt that he defines the enduring legacy of Pop. It seems the blonde was on the money.

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Roy Lichtenstein, Masterpiece, 1962. Image via www.londonist.com.

The first few rooms are engaging and momentous and then we sit on a downward slide (sadly, the more exciting slide of Carsten Höller are long gone). This exhibition isn’t doing Lichtenstein any favours. It certainly isn’t fair to say he was a one-trick pony but he knew what he was good at and some of his experiments should really not be hanging on Tate’s walls. The lack of soul in his pieces (a self-conscious decision of his style that dictated success) means his landscape works and, indeed, his self-portrait give very little away and so don’t require very long to view. Maybe the less-known works are diminished by the strength of his more recognisable pieces. Maybe they just aren’t as good. Room seven looks at works where he plays with pieces by other artists – his rip off works – and here I saw how he had ruined works by Picasso, Matisse, Mondrian and many others. I began to groan.

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Roy Lichtenstein, Non-Objective I, 1964. Image via www.independent.co.uk

Yet, it’s hard not to like his art and the simplicity of the subjects often makes us smile. The works aren’t as simply executed as they appear and required careful calculation and meticulous planning, bringing together his thoughtful techniques with the exact reproduction of found images. He may have repeated the system but he worked continuously to ensure he was exploring new subjects and themes. He was an avid producer.

The show offers a fabulous overview and exploration of Lichtenstein’s career and progression, something we are rarely allowed to see by galleries showing the popular pieces that pull in the punters. My worry at the beginning had been the huge numbers of visitors but actually it was lovely to see so many people engaging with the works. If the crowds weren’t enough of an indication that this show will do well, the shop says it all. It won’t be long before we start to spot tourists wearing Tate’s dotty t-shirts and carrying Lichtenstein canvas bags.

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The Lichtenstein shop. Own photograph.

I, of course, couldn’t resist the catalogue – another beautiful Tate publication – and had to lug it around for the rest of the day. No wonder I have a sore back, it’s carrying all these irresistible books in stilettos.

i5VhtnWvSoHQRoy Lichtenstein, Step-on Can with Leg, 1961. Image via www.bloomberg.com.

A couple of days later I found myself at the National Portrait Gallery for their Man Ray exhibition. We think of Man Ray and we think of dazzling photographs of fashionable people. This exhibition doesn’t disappoint, following him around Paris, New York, Hollywood and London, watching his style transform but never diminish.

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Man Ray, Catherine Deneuve, 1968. Image via www.ultravie.co.uk.

His portraits often reference great painters and known works of art. While he made his living as a commercial photographer for fashion magazines such as Vogue, Vanity Fair and Harper’s Bazaar, he was first and foremost an artist, a Surrealist and a Dadist who pushed boundaries to create exciting and exemplary portraits. He was a visual innovator who often stripped scenes or poses right back, the bare bones providing all the beauty he required – narrative wasn’t necessary. Not of all of his works do this however and some just capture a prescribed pose.

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Man Ray, Le Violon d’Ingres, 1924. Image via www.londonist.com.

There can be no doubt that Man Ray’s photographs are beautiful; his photographs of Lee Miller, his lover and muse, are stunning. But she’s certainly not the only lover we see here – before her was Kiki and after her Ady Fidelin, then Juliet Browner who he married and remained with until his death. These women guide us through his life. It’s not just women though – Man Ray’s photographs show us his friends and colleagues; there’s Picasso, Braque, Duchamp, Stravinsky, le Corbusier, Hemmingway, Peggy Guggenheim, James Joyce and many more.

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Man Ray, Pablo Picasso, 1933. Image via http://arthistory.about.com.

Man Ray was a photographer who had the gift of being able to capture the life and soul of his subjects. He manages to immortalise these people in the way they wanted to be seen whilst retaining their natural beauty and truth.

Man Ray’s images are so familiar to us that it seems hard to believe that this is the first show of his work at a British gallery. The NPG have included over 150 prints dating from 1916 to 1968, tracing his career. It is well-arranged curatorially in sections that focus on different periods of Man Ray’s life, finishing off back in Paris.

Many of these images are small-scale and it’s hard to appreciate them fully when seen, black and white, en masse. I’ve probably spent longer pouring over the catalogue (yes I bought another one) than I did in the exhibition. Their energy gets somewhat lost in the gallery but the creativity of Man Ray still shines through.

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Lichtenstein: A Retrospective is at Tate Modern until 27th May 2013, http://www.tate.org.uk. Man Ray Portraits is at the National Portrait Gallery until 27th May 2013, http://www.npg.org.uk.

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