Berlin Gallery Weekend 2013

12 May

Although I was excited to be going to Berlin for Gallery Weekend 2013, I have to confess that part of the excitement stemmed from our mode of transport – we were travelling over on a private plane.  Spending a short time in a large city especially over a weekend devoted to art, openings and parties there will always be far too much to see.

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Off we go… Own photograph.

On Friday morning we made the most of the short-lived sunshine and wandered around galleries – two, in my opinion, deserve particular note.  Wentrup Gallery had just opened its doors to Session by Nevin Aladag.  The key work for me was a video piece addressing the interplay of instruments with which the artist make sound by using found objects from the environment.  The film shows different area of Sharjah, from the industrial district to the desert as well as the heritage areas.  Through this diversity, Aladag makes the instruments symbolically traverse different levels, places and hierarchies.  The composition of the film is beautifully created allowing a framework for these instruments to move about, as if on journeys of their own volition.  The other highlight was Import Projects – a truly fabulous project space in an old building.  Its atmosphere is conducive to the kind of great shows that they mount.  The current group exhibition, The Possibility of an Island, explores the relationship between the real and the imaginary, utopia and dystopia, selfhood and otherness and centre and periphery.

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Session, Wentrup Gallery. Own photograph.

Friday night saw nearly every gallery in Berlin hosting some form of opening.  With dinner booked, we had to plan our itinerary with military precision which involved mapping everything out so we could get the order right.  Our first stop was at Blain Southern – what a fantastic space!  For Gallery Weekend, they were showing a new group of video works by Douglas Gordon, exploring the collision between Europe and the Orient, desire and fear, light and dark, reality and fantasy and life and death.  This show remains one of my standout Berlin exhibitions.  Screens are dotted around the gallery and we journey through cityscapes in Morocco with Gordon.  The majority of the projections shown here are large-scale, inescapable and all-consuming, appealing to our sensory perceptions.

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Berlin’s Blain Southern.  Image via http://englishmaninberlin.wordpress.com

Directly opposite their courtyard was 401 Contemporary.  The gallery director was on hand to explain the mechanisms in Thomas Feuerstein’s works but I have to say I’m still slightly confused although I’ll try to retell the complexity at play here.  The main work is a process-based sculpture which attempts to give human form to books through biotechnical machines.  The work transforms books into sugar through fermentation.  Glucose produced from the cellulose of the books functions as fuel which facilitates the growth of invitro cultivated brain cells.  Even as I write this, I find myself getting muddled again but here goes – the brain cells in the exhibition are exclusively fed by literature from Hegel but other pieces of literature produce material for sugar glass which has been used to make the sculptures around the room.  It wasn’t that the works were particularly invigorating but the process was incredible – even if I may not have fully understood it.  We quickly popped downstairs where Mærzgalerie was showing a paintings exhibition by Sebastian Schrader.

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Thomas Feuerstein at 401 Contemporary.  Own photograph.

We decided to hire a taxi for our mad dash around Berlin and thank heavens we did as I’ve never seen rain start quite as suddenly as Friday’s downpour did.  We sped across Berlin where Tanya Leighton was showing an exhibition of Aleksandra Domanović which did little for me although the gallery space itself is intriguing.

Next, Reception Gallery was showing Leigh Ledare’s piece An Invitation.  When we arrived the gallery was practically deserted but it is a fascinating exhibition that I hope drew in the visitors over the weekend.  For one week in 2011, Ledare was commissioned by a woman, who remains anonymous in the works, to spend time at the home of herself and her husband in order to make a series of erotic photographs in which she featured as the subject.  This body of work looks at ideas of anonymity, legality and non-disclosure, raising questions about how we are presented as subjects through compelling textual and social frameworks.

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Leigh Ledare’s An Invitation at Pilar Corrias in London. Image via www.artnews.org

We tried to visit the Duve Gallery but sadly, after we climbed several dodgy looking flights of stairs in very high heels, it hadn’t followed the trend of opening on Friday evening for Gallery Weekend.  Instead, we headed to the exhibition of Jodie Carey’s works at Galerie Rolando Anselmi which involved walking through a whole series of industrial looking buildings and climbing another never-ending staircase.  The galleries in Berlin certainly are tucked into every conceivable corner of the city.  Carey’s works concern themselves with the dynamic between remembering and letting go, creating works that blur the boundaries between documentary-style archiving and poetic narrative.  One of the most poignant works was the Elegy series, five prints from original photographic glass plates.  Such plates are now extremely rare; these were probably produced in the 1920s.  By not cleaning these plates, Carey has kept the original physical defects in her digital prints memorialising the entire history of photographic printing.

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Jodie Carey’s Elegy series. Image via www.artslant.com

The exhibition at Galerie Crone is one of the most aesthetically memorable.  The ground floor gallery shows a film, following an S-Bahn that circles Berlin with performers, who appear and disappear, wrestling for a bloody bone.  The story plays on the quest for the Holy Grail.  This seemed good but not particularly sensational until we headed upstairs to find a sandy beach complete with boulders, stones, bones, animal skulls, painted bricks and branches.  In amongst these were frogs in small containers; apparently, they were meant to be hopping around but when we were there, they were doing their very best to bury themselves deep in the soil.  The first floor is meant to be the ‘Brain Cave Spaceship’ and the hopping frogs are meant to prompt thoughts about breaking out of the order of things and making transitions from different environments, maybe even different universes. This was another quite confusing exhibition but it did leave food for thought.  Plus, there’s the obvious simple excitement of people playing in the sand.  Many took off their shoes and socks and ran around – not what you normally expect to see in a gallery.

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Galerie Crone’s beach. Own photograph.

Galerie Crone is in a little arts hub in the same courtyard as the popular Alexander Levy who was showing works by Julius von Bismarck.  They share a building with Galerie Isabella Czarnowska who had mounted a joint exhibition of works by Annette Messager and Alina Szapocznikow (whose works were included in the East Wing VIII exhibition with which I was involved at The Courtauld).  Plus there was Veneklasen/Werner with an exhibition of paintings by Peter Saul whose works the gallery describes as ‘lurid’ – well that certainly is one way to put it!

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Partying on all floors around the courtyard. Own photograph.

After dinner, by which time the monsoon had got even worse, our evening ended at Carlier Gebauer – I will confess that seeing as we were at the gallery for late night drinks, I didn’t see as much of the exhibition as I would have liked.  What I did see though has ensured that this gallery is high on my list for my next trip to Berlin.

On Saturday it was time to abandon commercial art for a bit, having overdosed the night before, and we headed to Museum Island which is both an incredible and overwhelming set-up with its five mammoth museums.  The current building work (I say current but I believe it’s been going on for over a decade) means the museums aren’t as well connected as they could be and quite a lot of walking is involved.

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Bode Museum. Own photograph.

The Bode Museum rises from the water with two impressive copper roofed domes.  It is a stunning building and the recent restoration and conservation work – both to the exterior and interior – that has been carried out on this architectural giant deserves praise.  Entering into the grand circular hall, we are greeted by a majestic equestrian statue.  The building is designed like a palace rather than a museum although we are used to equally grandiose buildings in London.  The French classical Baroque style imposes unity and symmetry on the building.  The central basilica is an architectural treat, a passageway that suggests an ecclesiastical setting.  Where we might expect to find an altarpiece we find a corridor, flanked by columns and crowned with a half balcony.  The Museum contains one of the world’s largest collections of sculpture and, with nearly 70 rooms, it shows sculptures and paintings ranging from the 10th to 18th centuries, Byzantine art and an unrivalled coin collection.  Paintings and sculptures are not separated out into different galleries but shown alongside one another elucidating contextual and thematic relationships between works.  There is a strange lack of information around the museum; we don’t learn much about what we are looking at and it’s easy to get lost but what the museum does offer is a visual feast where our eyes are invited to learn and soak up the history of art under one roof.

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The basilica at the Bode Museum. Own photograph.

As you can imagine, the day disappeared quickly while we wandered around the Bode Museum but we still had enough time to head to the Neues Museum.  This holds around 6,000 objects studying the European prehistoric cultures, Nordic mythology, artefacts from Troy, Roman archaeology, the Stone Age, Bronze Age and the pre-Roman Iron Age.  The building suffered severe damage in World War II and an international competition was launched to find an architect to reconstruct the museum building.  David Chipperfield won (no surprises there) and the building is a joy to look at.  After being closed for 70 years it reopened to the public in 2009.  Chipperfield has incorporated the past structure with a fresh and modern approach – this is a lesson in how to merge new and old, retaining the past spirit while imbuing a space with life and contemporary dynamism.  His response is different in every room, reacting to what he found; his design is perfectly suited to this museum – in parts the old fabric is almost intact, some rooms contain fragments and some have an entirely modern feel.  What Chipperfield does triumphantly is works with what is there; his hallmark has been stamped on the building yet its distinctive style still shines through.

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The main entrance at the Neues Museum. Image via http://aaron-m-sweeney.blogspot.co.uk.

All in all, we saw a lot of great things.  I did feel some of the galleries were trying just a little too hard.  They were mounting racy exhibitions of what they thought the public wanted with not enough regard to what worked coherently for their programmes.  But, all in all, it was a wonderful weekend and we still headed back to the plane with smiles on our faces.

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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.

Oh Woe is Woking

6 Apr

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

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The Lightbox, Woking, Own photograph.

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

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

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The white wall. Own photograph.

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

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

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

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Woking’s Story. Own photograph.

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

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The sculpture gallery on the ground floor. Own photograph.

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

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The main gallery. Own photograph.

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

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Frink’s horses. Own photograph.

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

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

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

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

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Victoria Way runs next to the gallery. Own photograph.

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

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

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

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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