Tag Archives: Courtauld Institute

Tate’s Tanks: Did they tank or triumph?

21 Jul

The build-up for the opening of Tate’s Tanks has been immense as this is the first major stage in the opening of the new section of Tate – The Tate Modern Project.

The Tanks at Tate. Own photograph.

The galleries will be permanently dedicated to exhibiting live art, performance, installation and film – the first spaces in the world to have these objectives as their focus.  This is a hugely important moment in the progression of the art world; one day in the not too distant future the Tanks will be part of the Survey course at the Courtauld, included in an introduction to art history and we are witnessing this at its inauguration.  It is all part of the evolution of Tate Modern, as Nick Serota cornily said the Tanks are a “new instrument in the orchestra that is Tate Modern.”  Tate wants the tanks to challenge the arts, they aren’t simply white cubes or black boxes, they are a new zone that falls somewhere in between.

The Tanks at Tate. Own photograph.

To kick-start this space Tate has launched, Art in Action, a fifteen week programme that will allow visitors to explore these art forms.  Originally designed to hold one million gallons of oil, the tanks are found industrial spaces of a particular shape.  I must say that I expected something more spectacular, the three interlinking spaces that attach to the Turbine Hall are beautiful but not domineering.  These are not neutral spaces, there is a lot of history associated with the tanks and all artists are responding very differently.  But, the reopened Tanks, for me, don’t connect strongly enough architecturally with their antecedents.

The Tanks at Tate. Own photograph.

The Turbine Hall has always felt as if it is the heart of the power station; the space is often compared to that of a cathedral in its proportions, the cavernous architecture lending power and majesty.  We know what this was and we know what it has become.  It perfectly gestures to its past while acting as one of London’s most well-known and best-loved public art spaces.  The Tanks are too austere to beckon to their heritage.  Whilst they use concrete and an industrial language, Herzog & de Meuron could have taken this further to better effect.  However, it’s great to see the spaces of hidden London being utilised.

The Turbine Hall at Tate Modern.  Image via www.powerinspace.org

At the press preview, we were able to watch a dance performance, Fase: Four Movements to the Music of Steve Reich choreographed by Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker with Ann Veronica Janssens.  The piece explores the relationship between music and dance, outlining the principles of music composition rather than just dancing to music.  As they closed the doors to this tank, the space became appropriately claustrophobic for this hugely repetitive piece of structured dance.  The audience watch from around the dance floor, enclosing the dancers and creating the walls of the room with their bodies.  Although Fase didn’t really grab me, it is a very accomplished performance linking the genres of dance and art and Tate has produced some very interesting programme notes to accompany the whole series that are well worth a read.

Fase in the Tanks. Own photograph.

The next stage in expanding Tate’s orchestra (ick!) will use the foundations embedded in the Tanks to support the creation of ten new storeys that radically reinterpret the brickwork of the original power station.  Due to the amazing pace that this project is unfolding, Tate has been fortunate enough to work again with Herzog & de Meuron for this extension.  The new part of Tate will use the same language with a literal twist.  Herzog & de Meuron have ensured that the Tanks seamlessly open from the Turbine Hall (which will remain as the building’s backbone), showing that they intend to maintain the integrity of the building with a continuous flow.  Due to these ambitious plans, the Tanks won’t yet remain open full time but they are giving us a taster of what is to come.  By 2016 we should have access to it all.

The plans for the next stage.  Image via www.hughpearman.com.

The Tanks are currently quite confusing.  We didn’t really know what was where, the labels are outside the galleries and don’t guide people satisfactorily and generally we weren’t sure what was going on.  But I imagine these are all teething problems and by the end of the fifteen weeks when over 40 artists will have performed, the Tanks will be an integral part of the London art scene and we’ll be starting the countdown to the opening of the next section of Tate.

Fifteen Weeks of Art in Action will be in Tate Modern’s Tanks until 28 October 2012, www.tate.org.uk.

Slipping to Galleries on a Rainy Day in London

13 Jul

I was reticent to return to the BP Portrait Award this year as it’s become so predictable.  But, having attended a lunchtime talk downstairs it seemed churlish not to have a quick whizz round.  Now in its 33rd year at the National Portrait Gallery, the BP Portrait Award once again presents us with a selection of great portraits – great in the sense that these artists are obviously technically advanced and can paint well but the works don’t blow you away.  Portraiture does not have to resemble photography though and this is an important issue that the prize should remember – on this note, there’s slightly less photorealist work than usual which is refreshing.  This exhibition proves the age-old mantra that size isn’t everything and some of the smaller works capture remarkable intimacy and should be afforded more attention that their larger rivals.

BP Portrait Award at the NPG. Own photograph.

Painting portraits of unknown figures is a challenge; we demand an insight into the lives of complete strangers.   This year’s winner is American artist Aleah Chapin for her large-scale nude of a family friend – Auntie.  Chapin views the figure’s body as a map of Auntie’s life journey, she sees this woman as a strong role model, accepting and unguarded.   No doubt she is a talented artist but I’m not quite sure what Chapin was trying to invoke.  The stretched skin becomes almost repulsive while she smiles out at us.  This is not a sympathetic image.  Is she really content?  We don’t know what she’s doing, who she’s addressing.  It is, however, a great painting – one filled with empathy and emotion but the message seems diluted and somewhat confused.

Aleah Chapin, Auntie, 2012. Image via www.huffingtonpost.co.uk

Having missed Tuesday night’s PVs I had some catching up to do and so I headed over to Edgware Road for the Lisson Gallery’s latest double whammy.

My next comment may be a bit controversial as I know not everybody feels this way but I love Julian Opie.  I vividly remember seeing some Opie works during sixth form at school and devoting a section of my sketchbook to them and his practice.  Ignoring the rest of my beautifully executed sketchbook and all the work I’d done, my art teacher asked if I was taking the piss.  The Opie stayed in the sketchbook.  I most certainly wasn’t!

Julian Opie at the Lisson Gallery. Own photograph.

Famous for his portraits of Blur that now reside in the NPG, Opie’s work is easily recognised, looking at ideas of representation through the reinterpretation of the vocabulary of everyday life.  For this exhibition, Opie has returned to walking figures, working unusually to capture passers-by rather than using subjects he knows personally.  The apparent visual simplicity of the pieces is always striking and these new works are particularly effective looking at the idiosyncrasies of individual figures.

Julian Opie at the Lisson Gallery. Own photograph.

The exhibition also includes two major new bodies of work; first, a group of mosaic portraits bringing his portraits more into the realms of sculpture.  I have to say I don’t like these works and the idea is further extended with a series of painted busts.  For me, the exhibition would have been stronger without these.  I think Opie should have stuck with his bread and butter.  However, I still adored the show.  Also exhibited are six digitally animated landscapes on LCD screens that reminded me of Hockney’s recent iPad drawings at the RA.  Still using his trademark simplified vocabulary, the works offer an idyllic picture, enhanced by the calming soundtrack.

Julian Opie, Summer, 2012. Own photograph.

Outside in the courtyard are two more LED works; mounted on a plinth is a galloping horse so high that it can be seen from the street, referencing other equine monuments around London.  Next to it and on a vastly different scale is Peeing boy – the works couldn’t be more different in subject; the horse powerful and dominant while the boy quietly urinates alongside him, oblivious to anything else.  It is this juxtaposition that shows off how well Opie’s distinctive style can translate to different subjects.  You can’t help but smile.

Julian Opie, Galloping horse, 2012 and Peeing boy, 2012. Own photograph.

In Lisson’s other space is an exhibition of works by Ryan Gander.  My advice would be to read the press release before you go round.  Without knowing what this exhibition stands for, it comes across as rather bland but the concepts behind the work move the pieces to a whole new level.  The exhibition is about visibility and invisibility, Gander is the ultimate magician and joker, only revealing what he wants us to see, when he wants us to see it.  The Fallout of Living recalls the moment in an artist’s life when, having become so fluent in visual language, life and practice becomes indistinguishable.

The main gallery of Ryan Gander’s The Fallout of Living at Lisson Gallery. Own photograph.

One room is filled with a giant ball of discarded pieces of stainless steel but the work blocks the door and we can’t get into the room.  We have to leave the gallery to see it properly.  Equally, a sculpture of Gander’s nose in a glass cabinet turns opaque if we approach.  Gander holds all the control.  Upstairs, The Best Club encourages us to pull back the curtain but, of course, there’s nothing there.   The exhibition subtly explores the relationship between spectacle and spectator and, as ever, Gander knows how to make us think through layered systems of meaning that elude and obstruct the viewer.

Ryan Gander, More really shiny things that don’t mean anything, 2011. Own photograph.

Leaving the gallery and knowing I had a bit of walking to do, I changed into flipflops which seemed to trigger the heavens to open.  As I walked into Edgware Road station, I had to grab a post to stop myself going flying (I reckon the bruise will get more colourful today). This should have been my cue to change back into my far more reliable heels but for some reason, partly due to a lack of seats on the tube, common sense temporarily abandoned me.  I was in Oxford Street when I slipped for a second time. Thank heavens a kindly tourist caught me (I kid you not) or I’d have been on the floor in a giant puddle.  I changed back into my stilettos and feeling shaken but not deterred I continued on my gallery adventure.

I wanted to pop to Blain|Southern to see a work by Amelia Whitelaw.  I first met Whitelaw a few years ago when she installed a piece as part of our East Wing Collection VIII at The Courtauld, a mighty installation  of falling dough that explored the fragile balancing act between life and death, between stabil­ity and flux.  The flesh-like dough seeped through a labyrinth of nets at a variety of speeds, the dough constantly morphing and evolving along its downward path.  Whitelaw has a new work in Blain|Southern’s Gravity and Disgrace.  Based around a similar premise, a solid rock anchors a rope that, via a pulley, suspends a net of raw salt dough.  Both sculptural and performative, the organic material ends its journey on the gallery floor where it dries out leaving twisted, elongated shapes in stark contrast to its initial bulbous, clean appearance.  I would have liked to see the work at the very beginning but it is still effective and still manages to present the same unusual medium in a new guise.

Amelia Whitelaw, There are no Accidents, 2012. Own photograph.

The show also includes work by artists Jane Simpson and curator Rachel Howard, focusing on pieces where materiality is key.

It was time for a rest and I managed to resist strong alcohol and head to Joe & the Juice for a ‘stress down’ and a sit down.  Next stop was Haunch of Venison on Eastcastle Street showing a series of new works from Simon Patterson – the man famous for The Great BearUnder Cartel (a historic term regarding the status of exchanged prisoners of war or hostages) is a series of photographs of equestrian statues from around the world.  Each statue is paired with another, suggesting ideas of bartering or exchange.  The proposed swap is illustrated by flashing neon arrows that indicate the journeys the sculptures will take.  Additional photographs rest on the floor on foam blocks, waiting in reserve in case one of the first choice works was ‘unavailable’.

Simon Patterson’s Under Cartel at Haunch. Own photograph.

It’s a truly brilliant exhibition raising questions of ideological, historical, political and cultural values.  Patterson asks if we would notice if these works were swapped?  Are these statues and their ideas outmoded?  Opie obviously thought not with this modern version of an equestrian statue but maybe they are indeed relics of another time, relics that we would not want to live without and that form part of the heart of, not only London but, cities across the world.

Simon Patterson’s Under Cartel at Haunch. Own photograph.

We sheltered outside waiting for a taxi as no way was I risking another slip and we headed to White Cube, Hoxton Square for an exhibition of cast iron blockworks by Antony Gormley.  Now, of course, we knew what to expect – the gallery was filled with sculptures of the artist himself.  I joke but I do really like him and his work.  These pieces show a new direction in Gormley’ sculpture as he uses the blockwork to attempt to describe the internal mass and inner state of the body through architectural language.

Antony Gormley’s Still Standing at the State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg. Image via www.antonygormley.com 

The 17 figures on the ground floor gallery are each composed of small rectangular iron blocks that map the body’s internal volume, investigating the verticality of the human form in spatial and conceptual terms.  Upstairs is a work from Gormley’s Proper series which continues these ideas.  Here, the body is made playful and elongated, recalling childhood Jenga or high-rise towers.  The austere geometric blocks are remarkably emotional and receptive considering the formal nature of their construction.

Antony Gormley at the State Hermitage Museum in 2011. Image via http://www.flickr.com/photos/britishcouncil/6194705382/

I was getting hungry and it was time to pop to the final gallery of the evening.   Celebrating the launch of Dennis Morris’s photo essay of The Stone Roses, the Londonewcastle project space (where I spent most of June) has been temporarily transformed into a music festival.  With dry moss on the floor (that wasn’t easy to walk on), dim lighting, stage areas and loud music, the space is unrecognisable.  I’m not a big festival fan and I’ve never really seen the fun in standing in a muddy field and queuing for dirty toilets.  I think last night was the closest I will get as Londonewcastle even had the dodgy portacabins so I could truly do the festival thing.

Crowding in at Londonewcastle. Own photograph.

Morris’s works showing The Stone Roses live at Spike Island and Glasgow Green are projected onto the gallery walls.  The photographs offer a glimpse into the world of the band, showing their timeless image and the hysteria of their fans.  The atmosphere was electric.  It was no longer a gallery.  My stomach won and we popped across the road to the Albion for dinner but we couldn’t resist heading back for another look.  It was even louder, even grimier and generally what a festival should be at the mid-way point!

BP Portrait Award 2012 is at the National Portrait Gallery until 23rd September 2012, www.npg.org.ukJulian Opie is at Lisson Gallery until 25th August 2012 and Ryan Gander: The Fallout of Living is at Lisson Gallery until 24th August 2012, www.lissongallery.com.  Gravity and Disgrace is at Blain|Southern until 25th August 2012, www.blainsouthern.comSimon Patterson: Under Cartel is at Haunch of Venison, Eastcastle Street until 31st August 2012, www.haunchofvenison.comAntony Gormley: Still Standing is at White Cube, Hoxton Square until 15th September 2012, www.whitecube.comDennis Morris: This is the One will be at the Londonewcastle Project Space until 19th July, www.londonewcastle.com.

Fond Memories of The Courtauld: The Spanish Line

28 Dec

The Spanish Line explores the diversity of the Spanish drawings in The Courtauld’s own collections, spanning from the Renaissance to Modern periods – although the majority of works date from the 17th century.  This exhibition allows the wonderful Prints and Drawings department to unleash some of its magic and display a mere fraction of their 3,000 strong collection.

With approximately 100 works on paper, The Courtauld holds one of the most important collections of Spanish drawings, outside Spain.  This is the first exhibition in London to focus on the tradition of Spanish draughtsmanship and marks the culmination of a major, four-year, research project; one of its aims is to highlight how Spanish artists drew inspiration from the Dutch and Flemish schools – their work and ideas having been transmitted through the study of prints, as can now be seen, in part, by the bold graphic lines of the drawings.  That this exhibition has been managed by a drawings’ curator is instantly apparent – the works are well-lit and well-hung and provisions have been made to allow us to see the recto and verso of some sheets.

The Spanish Line at The Courtauld. Own photograph.

An exhibition of Spanish drawings has to include the extraordinary drawings of Jusepe de Ribera – although I will not go into detail about his work here, the subtlety of his line illustrates his exemplary skill.  The exhibition is broadly chronological with many highlights including Juan de Juanes’s Saint Stephen taken to his martyrdom, produced in preparation for an altarpiece, now housed in the Museo del Prado in Madrid, that is celebrated as one of the early masterpieces of Spanish art.

Jusepe de Ribera, Man tied to a tree and a figure resting, 17th century. Image via www.artandarchitecture.org.uk

In fact, every drawing is notable.  The Nine Worthies of Antiquity and Modern Worthies (c.1683-85), attributed to Matias de Torres, is a sheet of small drawings, probably intended as models for educational playing cards, displaying illustrious ancient and biblical heroes alongside modern worthies.   The detail is gorgeous and figures include Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar with moderns such as the Emperors Charles V and Leopold I.

Another work that really stood out was Antonio del Castillo y Saavedra’s Four studies of the head of a young man (c. 1645-55). I love studying studies and researching the unknown, looking at the purpose of a drawing – more of that later though.  This work demonstrates the artist’s great skill with pen and ink.  Symmetrically arranged in two rows, the heads leave space for the artist’s monogram, AC, at the centre – an unusual inclusion in a preparatory sketch.  It, therefore, seems likely that the sheet may have served either as a model for studio assistants or as a design for a pattern book.

Antonio del Castillo y Saavedra, Four studies of the head of a young man, c. 1645-55. Image via www.criticscircle.org.uk

Tucked away on one of the far walls, quite separate from the other works is Study of a left hand (c. 1685-1800).  I couldn’t help but stop to reminisce.  Early on in my Masters at The Courtauld, sitting in the Prints and Drawings room, we were presented with folded up pieces of paper that we each had to pick from a hat (or some such).  They were ‘mystery’ works and at the time I thought I pulled the short straw – a study of a hand by John Vanderbank.  At first, I was rather horrified and, by the end of my essay, I never wanted to see a Vanderbank sketch again.  Strangely, now I can’t walk past a study of a hand without fond memories resurfacing – isn’t it funny how things turn out?

John Vanderbank, Study of a Man’s Hand, c.1727-39 (?). Image via www.artandarchitecture.org.uk

The hand has always been given primary importance in preparatory studies, such as Albrecht Dűrer’s Study of Praying Hands (1508), and Leonardo da Vinci’s A Study of a Woman’s Hands (1490) and its gestures can lead to the understanding of a finished work.  The anatomical construction of the hand makes it the most pliable part of the body, able to contort around any object; its complexity allows the artist great dexterity and innovation in its depictions.  Considered by artists as particularly demanding to render, the convention of drawing hands is long established.  My hand – Vanderbank’s Study of a Man’s Hand also, of course, from The Courtauld’s own collections – appeared to be a preparatory sketch for a painting.  I was able to establish it was an elegant hand (seen through the unblemished skin and the choice of costume), the drawing of which broadly conformed to a conventional pattern of using chalk on coloured paper for preparatory studies: initially a method championed by Sir Anthony Van Dyck and mediated through intervening generations.  Through the positioning of ‘my’ hand, I was able to ascertain that the study may have been for either John Michael Rysbrack (c. 1728), or A Youth of the Lee Family, Probably William Lee of Totteridge Park (1738) but the highly conventional pose did make it difficult to link it to any one painting.  I could get carried away quite easily here but I think enough is enough…

Albrecht Dűrer, Study of Praying Hands, 1508. Image via www.wga.hu

The hand is far more important than you may originally realise and there were even books written on the language of the hand and how gesture can be used to communicate and show intention.  The preparatory drawing of body parts was not an innovative practice and follows a well-established lineage of portraiture and gesture, which conveyed the social and aesthetic values of the time.  Portrait drawing, the importance of which is stressed in artists’ manuals, encompasses many different categories including drawings for the sitter’s retention and studies executed from life, used to help complete the finished portrait.  These preparatory works were conventional forms of studio practice. This Spanish hand, in black and white chalk on faded grey blue paper, reaches towards the viewer in a startlingly direct manner.  It appears to have been drawn as part of an exercise in foreshortening and the careful modelling is typical of academic studies.  It is unclear whether a live model was used or whether the drawing was made from a plaster cast but the sheet is certainly an example of early academic practice in Spain, which began informally in Seville in the 1660s.

Study of a left hand, c.1685-1800. Image via www.artandarchitecture.org.uk

Possibly the most famous Spanish draughtsman is Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes whose work stands out for its energy and freedom of execution.  Goya pushed the conventional boundaries of drawing, experimenting with stain drawings where he rubbed and brushed ink onto the paper leaving different textures and marks.  In fact, only one Goya is included in the exhibition alongside, a Eugenio Lucas y Padilla (c. 1845-60), a Baldemiro Galofre y Ximenez (c. 1880-90) and two Pablo Picasso’s.  Picasso’s Pigs (1906) was made when he spent a summer in Gosol with Gertrude Stein.  It was the year they first met and they quickly formed a strong friendship.  As one of the most regarded female writers of her time, Stein saw herself as an equal rather than a patron although she already owned a number of Picasso’s works in her collection.  This charming drawing was almost certainly Picasso’s gift to Stein who ‘was always fond of pigs’.  His command of line is effortless.  Pigs is delightful and shows Picasso’s skill – he has made something so simple, wonderful to behold.

Pablo Picasso, Pigs, 1906. Image via www.artandarchitecture.org.uk

The Courtauld’s last exhibition had nearly 100,000 visitors in three months and it seems this show is also doing well.  The Courtauld is obviously right not to underestimate the public, as so many other galleries do, and deserves praise for providing us with such specialised exhibitions.  As the lift was out of order (something I became used to at the Institute), I had to totter back down the uneven spiral stairs, watching my step and trying not to make too dramatic an exit.

The Spanish Line:  Drawings from Ribera to Picasso is at The Courtauld Gallery until 15th January 2012, www.courtauld.ac.uk.

What a Year! A Summary of 2011…

24 Dec

Trying to pick my favourite exhibitions from this year has been quite a difficult task.  I’ve seen some rubbish but I’ve also seen an awful lot of amazing shows – 2011 has been a strong year for the art calendar.  In fact, reading back through Artista, I wonder how I have I managed to totter to so many galleries in the last few months.  But, there’s always so much to see…

My favourite exhibitions really left their mark, those I can still immediately recall that still delight me.  I’ve chosen the shows that weren’t just aesthetically pleasing but were also well-curated and academically interesting.  These are the ones that tick all the boxes.

Towering at Tate – The Gerhard Richter exhibition that is still on show at Tate Modern is breath-taking, looking at Richter’s diverse oeuvre as an unbroken panorama.  At Tate Britain, Vorticists win the prize – charting a short-lived movement, Tate aimed to place Vorticism in an international context, studying the impact of World War I on these artists.

Detail of one of Gerhard Richter’s Cage Paintings, 2006. Own photograph.

Rocking at the Royal Academy  – The Royal Academy’s upstairs gallery has to have one of the strongest exhibition programmes in London.  It’s a tie for the best show there this year between the recent Soviet Art and Architecture and Eyewitness: Hungarian Photography.

Martin Munkácsi, Four Boys at Lake Tanganyika, c. 1930.  Image via www.bbc.co.uk.

Knockout at the National Gallery – For me, Drenched in Devotion stole the show this year.  Looking at altarpieces in their context, the NG examined their structure and relationship to the surrounding architecture, following the formal, stylistic and typological developments across the period of focus.  One room was even turned into a chapel.

Room two in Devotion by Design. Image via www.independent.co.uk.

Leaving LondonRevealed: Turner Contemporary Opens was an extremely strong exhibition to launch another new public art gallery designed, of course, by David Chipperfield.  Highlights were from Daniel Buren and Conrad Shawcross.

Daniel Buren, Borrowing and Multiplying the Landscape, 2011. Own photograph.

Also with podium finishes were:

Going for Gold – Haunch’s Mystery of Appearance with some of Britain’s most important painters – Michael Andrews, Frank Auerbach, Francis Bacon, Patrick Caulfield, William Coldstream, Lucian Freud, Richard Hamilton, David Hockney, Leon Kossoff and Euan Uglow.  Need I say more…

Upstairs at Haunch with David Hockney, The Room Tarzana, 1967. Own photograph.

Striking SilverThe Cult of Beauty at the V&A looked at art, from 1860-1900, created purely for its own sake to provide pleasure and beauty.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Bocca Baciata, 1859.  Image via www.vam.ac.uk.

Bright Bronze – Future Tense’s Spectra I focused on colour – a simple concept but one that was wonderfully addressed with some of the best lighting I’ve seen this year.

Lee Baker, Refractive Monolith, 2011. Own photograph. 

and last but by no means least – Runner Up  – the brilliant Anthony McCall taking over Ambika P3 with his entrancing light works that combined cinema, drawing and sculpture.

Anthony McCall, Vertical Works, 2011. Image via http://www.dontpaniconline.com. 

Aaah… but there was also the shoes exhibition, Rembrandt and Bacon at Ordovas, Nicola Hicks and Mona Kuhn at Flowers, the many brilliant shows at Josh Lilley and the poignant timing of Lisson’s Ai Weiwei show.  What a year!  To look back at these exhibitions, use the categories or tags on the right hand side of the screen to make scrolling that bit easier.

Carla Busuttil at the Josh Lilley Galley.  Image via www.joshlilleygallery.com

Let’s hope that 2012 can move on from the success of these shows and be bigger, better and braver than ever before.  I’ll be there, in my stilettos, doing the rounds.

In the meantime, thank you for reading Artista.  A Merry Christmas and a Happy Shoe Year to you all.

(Check back next week for a look at The Courtauld’s current drawing exhibition.)

Octoberfest – Tuesday of Frieze Week

12 Oct

After visiting the Royal Academy Degas show (which will be the subject of a later post), we went for a brilliant lunch at Cecconi’s to sustain us for the busy day ahead.  With openings and art parties all across London, I wanted to see as much as possible and, although, I didn’t make it to everywhere on my to-see list, I did pretty well.

We began at Selfridges’ Museum of Everything.  Launched by art collector, James Brett, in 2009, this is the 4th incarnation of this Outsider Art charity installation.  This weird exhibition has taken over all the store windows (which are completely product-free for the first time ever) and a space on the lower ground floor, normally the Ultralounge, and now unrecognisable.

The Museum of Everything #4 at Selfridges. Own photograph.

Although I love the idea, and I’m pleased that Selfridges are embracing charity exhibition opportunities and exposing unknown artists, the art isn’t great.  In parts, it’s downright creepy and I wish they’d used this opportunity to unearth some real talent.  With over 400 works on display, nothing really struck me in a positive way.  I love the concept of the Museum of Everything and believe it has great potential which I hope they will better fulfil in their next exhibition.

The Museum of Everything #4 at Selfridges. Own photograph.

On to 20 Projects at 64 Margaret Street, who are showing a series of new sculptures by Alex Hoda based on small pieces of nicotine gum – chewed, used and spat out by the artist.  Installation hadn’t really finished when we arrived at 6pm and they were still stencilling the title onto the wall, strangely oblivious of the fact that they had guests.  Hoda’s works reminded me of Alina Szapoznikow’s chewing gum photographs that we exhibited in The Courtauld’s East Wing Collection VIII which concentrated on temporality and the act of leaving some form of mark, making something that is intrinsically rubbish into a work of art.  Obviously both artists are approaching their work from different angles, but the choice of subject is interesting.  Hoda uses a special machine to scan and then enlarge the bits of gum to ensure 100% accuracy when making the pieces in bronze. For him, the sculptures also represent the human form responding to Jean Fautrier’s Hostage series of the 1940s. The sculptures are beautiful but somehow the chewing gum detracts from this for me.

Alex Hoda’s Hostage at 20 Projects. Own photograph.

Moving on, we headed to the Josh Lilley Gallery who are showing Incredulous Zealots – works by four artists from Los Angeles.  Regular readers will know this is one of my favourite spaces in London (and the secret is out after an article in last weekend’s newspapers) – this is another brilliant show which presents the next generation of LA art and shows that the talent there is certainly not diminishing.  The works of two artists immediately grabbed my attention.  One of the girls in my group was so entranced by Annie Lapin’s work that we almost had to drag her away to a different part of the gallery.  Lapin is now exploring the abstract image, using colour and shapes that recall primitive art forms.  Her palette is luminous, using browns, creams, Courbet green, small doses of deep reds and sky blues.  Lapin’s paintings harness monumental experiences, drawing the viewer closer into her work, looking at the depth of layers, like a coloured fog over a hidden scene.

Annie Lapin. Image via www.joshlilleygallery.com

Analia Saban, one of the other LA artists, burns, cuts and destroys her paintings, almost to the point of annihilation before pulling them back to a supreme delicacy.  This destruction of an art form shows Saban’s desire to stand alone and take complete control of her practice, resulting in a re-assessment of the history of painting through a minimal, but beautiful, object.

Incredulous Zealots at Josh Lilley Gallery with Analia Saban work in the distance. Own photograph.

The gallery has been transformed to a more traditional, white contemporary exhibition space, allowing the individual works room to breathe and to be examined in a contemplative space.  Incredulous Zealots seeks to draw on the passion of Los Angeles painters who demand that painting be taken to a new level, persisting with, torturing, and ultimately loving, their chosen art forms.

I was also lucky enough to be able to take a peek at a new Nick Goss work, unusually (for him) painted on board.  Although his act of mark-making continues in the same mould, the painting is in a wholly new style, evoking a completely different feel to his usual works.  Brilliant!

Our feet were already starting to feel sore and, with more galleries still to go, it was taxi time. Have you ever tried to get a taxi in London, in art week, at about 7pm?  It’s impossible.  Finally, we saw one and hailed it, only to have it nabbed, from under our noses, by a ‘taxi thief’.  After my fairly loud comments of shock and belligerence, the driver decided to take pity on us four girls and, much to his surprise, the ‘taxi thief’ found himself moving over, sharing his cab and also letting us use the internet on his iphone (Blackberries still being dead, of course).  So, chivalry is not dead after all.  I have no doubt he was amused by the giggling and gossiping but he made our lives a lot easier and, we are grateful for his generosity.  Thank you, ‘taxi thief’.

Having been dropped at Dering Street, where we briefly, coincidentally coincided with ‘the boys’, we went to Blain Southern to see Rachel Howard’s Folie à Deux. The title is the clinical definition for a shared psychosis, where two or more people enter into a delusional belief induced by an intimate relationship.  Howard’s works play on the minds of people who have wandered far from reality and reason.  Technically, the works are very good – making use of media, including household gloss paint, oil, acrylic and varnish, Howard doesn’t overplay it.  Her paintings are strong and striking but seem to be more subtle variations on her normal work, exploring the intricacies of the human condition.

Rachel Howard’s Folie à Deux at Blain Southern. Own photograph.

The clock was ticking and it was time to head over to the new White Cube at Bermondsey.  Now, as any Blackberry user will know, and as I mentioned before, we’re not having much luck at the moment – unadulterated hell in fact – which meant I was without the internet or my trusty google maps app.

Following advice of ‘the boys’, we headed to Southwark station – not the closest tube as it turns out.  So much for me being geographically challenged.  A short cab ride (no helpful man this time though) took us to the end of a very long queue down Bermondsey Street.  No!  This couldn’t be right.  Sadly, it was.  As our stilettoed feet began to throb, we queued and moaned.  Security guards came down the line telling us to give up, I tried to phone friends who may already have been inside but to no avail.  We waited!

The queue. Own photograph.

And, our waiting paid off.  It felt like we deserved a prize where we finally made it into the forecourt where a thronging mass of people lunged towards the crowd prevention barriers that surrounded the gallery.  I’m not joking.  White Cube has taken hype to a whole new level, as they do so expertly.

Jay Jopling ‘walking’ around the new gallery. Image via www.metro.co.uk

At one point a security guard, atop an office chair, somewhat ironically yelled out, ‘This is not Titanic. There will be a way in. Stop shoving’.  But, of course, people didn’t.  Being small and in sharp shoes had its advantages though and, before too long, we were waiting our turn at the front of the mob.  When at last we got in, I felt slightly underwhelmed.  At 58,000 square feet, this White Cube is the largest commercial gallery in Europe and the space is obviously gorgeous – beautifully lit white boxes much like their other two spaces but on a mammoth scale – though after so much hassle and fuss I had expected more of an opening spectacle.  There seemed to be more private spaces than open gallery rooms so it is hard to gauge the enormity of the gallery.  With 2,000 people supposedly inside, and who knows how many in the courtyard, this was the place to be.  But, aside from serving mini hot dogs (possibly to appease those stuck outside), it wasn’t that different from any other White Cube PV.

Outside the new White Cube. Own photograph.

While many galleries are struggling in the current financial climate, White Cube has defiantly shown that these problems do not affect them or the upper echelons of the art world.  The new gallery is extensive and goes on and on with doors everywhere.  So endless, in fact, that we, along with many others, mistakenly wandered straight into the loos – the entrance looks like just another gallery. Ooops!  The Bermondsey space is stunning with wonderful floors of polished concrete, or something very akin to it.  It is, of course, a triumph.

White Cube on Bermondsey Street. Own photograph.

I’m not going to talk much about their opening exhibition which gets lost among everyone clammering to explore the space, although a smattering of their famous names are included – Gary Hume, Gabriel Orozco, Damien Hirst, Andreas Gursky and so on.  It’s a great show, with a monochrome chic feel running through.  It’s very impressive – the third hub in their never-ending expansion programme.  Where will White Cube turn up next?!

Andreas Gursky, Dusselstrand, 1996, is reflected in Damien Hirst’s Neverland, 2002. Image via www.metro.co.uk

Hobbling out of White Cube and changing, at last, into ballerinas, we stumbled on The Hide where we were able to rest our weary limbs and sink into their comfy sofas with big glasses of wine and dinner.  What a day!

The Museum of Everything #4 is at Selfridges until 25th October 2011, www.musevery.com or www.selfridges.comAlex Hoda: Hostage is at 20 Projects until 23rd October 2011, www.20projects.co.ukIncredulous Zealots: 4 Painterly Interrogations from LA is at the Josh Lilley Gallery until 19th November 2011, www.joshlilleygallery.comRachel Howard: Folie à Deux is at Blain Southern until 22nd December 2011, www.blainsouthern.comStructure & Absence is at White Cube Bermondsey until 26th November 2011, www.whitecube.com.

Naked or Nude? The Simplicity of Mona Kuhn

7 Oct

Wednesday night was one of those mad evenings of PVs across London; my main aim was to get to Art London – the first of the October art fairs – but, on the way, I decided to pop into Flowers to see their new exhibition of works by Mona Kuhn.  I’m familiar with Kuhn’s photography by sight but don’t maintain to have had much, if any, knowledge of her actual practice before this.  Her photos struck me in a way that made me want to find out more.

Mona Kuhn, Portrait 33, chromogenic print, 2011. Image © Mona Kuhn, courtesy Flowers, London (www.flowersgalleries.com). 

Each year, Kuhn, a Brazilian artist living in Los Angeles, heads to a remote area of France, near Bordeaux, where she lives with no electricity or unnecessary distractions.  She takes on a simple life and, instead of valuing worldly possessions, she concentrates on, and cherishes, the people with whom she surrounds herself.  This is the parallel reality in which Kuhn is able to work, where she is influenced by her surroundings and the calm state she is able to invoke (I don’t think that living with such bare necessities would inspire me in the same way).

Mona Kuhn, Paysage 5, Silver gelatin fibre based paper, 2011. Image © Mona Kuhn, courtesy Flowers, London (www.flowersgalleries.com). 

Amusingly, the reason why Kuhn chooses France as her hideaway is that, in France, people are very casual about being naked, and the nakedness is probably the first thing that one notices about the work.

But her models aren’t naked.  They are definitely nude…  Although Kuhn is a contemporary artist, her use of the nude has an overriding Classical feel (Kuhn is a classically trained artist and has studied art history extensively).  Nakedness as such did not exist in the Classical period; nearly all the sculptures of that era were nude.  This is a debate that I have always relished and, as an art historian, was something we delved into quite early at The Courtauld.  Although nude and naked are officially synonyms, in art they have subtly different connotations; nude is an ideal form of nakedness that has been prepared in some way, whereas naked is more of a startled appearance.  The nude, implying a suggestive display, has no discomfort to it whereas the naked has a sense of embarrassment.  Naked tends to connote vulnerability at being found undressed, or deprived of clothes, whereas nude is often posed or modelled nakedness, designed to be aesthetically pleasing especially in artistic contexts.  Nude is the body re-formed that stands proud and prosperous, the body on display, and this is exactly what Kuhn powerfully presents.  Due to the complexity of the English language, these charged words add a confusing dimension to the discussion that we project onto works of art.  German art historians, for example, only have the word ‘nackt’ to describe the naked state, which limits the confusion surrounding this argument.

Mona Kuhn, Portrait 14, chromogenic print, 2011. Image © Mona Kuhn, courtesy Flowers, London (www.flowersgalleries.com). 

Kuhn rarely looks at the fact that her models are naked.  She only photographs them in this way as she does not wish them to be limited by clothes, wanting them to be more timeless than fashion allows.  The body is a place where our mind resides and that is what Kuhn’s work focuses on.  For her, nakedness or nudity is a form of abstraction.  She is interested in the body as an element of culture rather than a gender.  Her works request that we look at the compositions and relationships in the image rather than studying individual elements.

Kuhn is a figurative artist and only works with models who are her friends and family.  This latest body of work shows these people posed against a red-patterned drape with nothing else but a chair.  The simplicity of the surroundings forces us to concentrate on the composition and Classic approach of her work.  Bare natural light floods in, no artificial lights are used, no distractions can be found.

Mona Kuhn, Portrait 34, chromogenic print, 2011. Image © Mona Kuhn, courtesy Flowers, London (www.flowersgalleries.com). 

Kuhn doesn’t dictate to her sitters; instead, she allows them to move around freely, finding a position that makes them comfortable.  This means the works truly express the sitters’ characters.

For her, photography is fast and fascinating.  Kuhn’s works are intimate and natural explorations of compositions.  You can’t just look at the photographs, which however beautifully executed and interesting, lack something.   When you know more, they come to life.

Mona Kuhn at Flowers. Own photograph.

So, now that you understand Kuhn’s incredible working environment, enjoy this exhibition in a different light.  Don’t just view, understand.

Mona Kuhn’s Bordeaux Series is at Flowers, Cork Street, until 29th October 2011, www.flowersgalleries.com.

Cancan at The Courtauld: Toulouse-Lautrec and Jane Avril

19 Jun

Those of you that know The Courtauld well, will know you need to be fit to reach the exhibition, unless, of course, you chicken out and take the lift.  Running up the stairs in stilettos is only for the ‘highly’ experienced!

Own photograph.

I always find the exhibition galleries at The Courtauld warm and calming, rather like this well-thought out and researched exhibition, examining the identity of the famous dancer, Jane Avril, looking at her both as a private individual and as Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s muse.

Own photograph.

Most of us know of Jane Avril because of Lautrec.  Born to a courtesan mother, Jeanne Beaudon had a troubled and distraught childhood.  After running away from home, she was committed to a mental hospital with female hysteria.  Nervous mannerisms were always present in her frenzied dancing and her unique style became apparent at a hospital fancy dress ball, a bal des folles.  When she was discharged, at the age of 16, she headed straight to the Latin Quarter to follow her dancing dreams.  Although she danced at many venues, she is perhaps most famous for her time at the Moulin Rouge who first hired her in 1889; within a short period she became one of their headline dancers under her stage name, Jane Avril.  She met Lautrec in the early 1890s when they were both in their twenties.  In 1895, Avril replaced Louise Weber, Paris’s most famous dancer, and soon became a star.

Jane Avril at the Moulin Rouge.  Image via www.telegraph.co.uk

The exhibition starts with, and rotates around, Jane Avril in the Entrance to the Moulin Rouge (1892), a work from The Courtauld’s own collection.  The strength of the exhibition is that The Courtauld takes one of its own works, draws it to our attention and enhances our understanding by shaping the exhibition with prestigious loans from collections around the world.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Jane Avril in the Entrance to the Moulin Rouge, 1892.  Image via www.artandarchitecture.org.uk

One of the first pieces you’ll see is the most iconic pose captured by Lautrec: a gouache on paper of Jane Avril Dancing (1893).  This pose could have been based on a publicity photograph of the dancer but the vivacity and fluidity of Lautrec’s brushwork suggest parts were worked from life.  It is not just a study, it is a work in its own right.  We can feel Avril’s movement as she raises her leg, balancing on her heel (my heels are slightly higher than hers, so I won’t give this a go right now).  Although her quadrille naturaliste is a provocative dance, Avril’s action somehow lacks sexuality and there is a dark undertone; her facial expression is hard to read but she seems sad, far older than her years.  The pose recurs in the lithograph, from the same year, Jane Avril at the Jardin de Paris, lent by MoMA and exhibited to the right of the gouache.  A darker, more faded version of the poster appears in the second room of the exhibition, this time loaned from the V&A – I told you the extent of loans was impressive.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Jane Avril at the Jardin de Paris, 1893 (MoMA).  Own photograph.

The internal frame of the lithograph is created by the double bass of the orchestra.  I’d never read this poster as a sexualised work until I read Waldemar Januszczak’s review of the exhibition where he talks about the hand grasping the double bass as an image of male masturbation, the double bass as a penis and Avril as an object of desire.  And he has to be right – this clever reading certainly changes how we regard the work.  He was a very sexual being and his diminutive height never hampered Lautrec’s lively libido.  He is known to have bragged “I may only be a small coffee-pot, but I have a big spout.”

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Jane Avril at the Jardin de Paris, 1893 (V&A).  Own photograph.

The poster was an instant hit – its strong colours and eye-catching design guaranteed that people would stop to look.  The importance of a carefully-crafted publicity image was key to a celebrity status in the entertainment industry of Montmartre.  The sophistication of Avril’s image contrasted with the explicit styling of some of the other dancers.  Lautrec’s works were landmarks in the history of art and of advertising.

The exhibition has clear progression, revealing new stages of research about the lives of the artist and his muse.  A sense of their relationship and friendship is revealed through the sketches shown alongside his paintings and lithographs.  Lautrec not only created Avril’s commercial persona, he understood her as an individual.  He was closer to Avril than to any of his other Montmartre subjects and the two remained loyal friends until the artist’s death at the age of 36.  One photograph on display even shows Lautrec wearing Avril’s hat and scarf to a fancy dress party in 1892.  While the lithographs show her as an exotic cancan dancer, the painted portraits and sketches show her as solitary and withdrawn.  They were drawn together by their differences, both outsiders in the seedy world of Montmartre.

One such highly intimate sketch is Jane Avril: Back View (1892-3). Apparently before a sitting, the artist and model would eat together on the Boulevard de Clichy allowing Lautrec to study Avril’s expressions and gestures while at ease.  Maybe this was the product of such a meal.  Wherever it was executed, there is a relaxed intimacy. The tense raised shoulders and delicate hands seen here became signature traits of Lautrec’s depictions of Avril.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Jane Avril: Back View, 1892-3.  Own photograph.

Another work that caught my eye was Jane Avril (1899), made just a few weeks before Lautrec suffered a breakdown.  Though famous now, the design, showing Avril in a different light to most of his portrayals, was never used.  As she stands with parted lips, a serpent coils round her body stopping at her breasts.  Lacking the subtlety of the earlier poster, this is an unusually obviously sexualised image and was probably considered out of keeping with her established image.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Jane Avril, 1899.  Own photograph.

Although there is no evidence they were anything more than friends, it is clear that Lautrec was infatuated with Jane Avril.  Avril wasn’t your normal dancer – she was elegant yet solitary, confident and intelligent.  Her mixture of sensuality and detachment captured audiences and artist alike.

The second room includes works by the likes of Munch and Biais as well as newspaper articles, photographs and books, following Avril’s extraordinary life and career.  I would have liked to see some more Lautrec’s in room two and did feel that The Courtauld diluted its focus by including so many other pieces.

Photographs in the second room.  Own photograph.

Lautrec’s enduring friendship with Jane Avril was different to his seedy portrayals of other Montmartre dancers.  Alongside his striking portraits, The Courtauld has presented the exuberant Lautrec posters that we know and love as pieces of artwork rather than just the iconic PR tools that made Avril famous.  This is a good lunchtime visit before relaxing by the fountains in the courtyard of Somerset House and enjoying the sun (if it ever re-appears).

The Courtauld only has a small exhibition space to work with and for it to stand a chance of being effective, as it is here, it must tackle small subjects that allows it to focus on a narrow body of works.  This exhibition celebrates a unique working relationship and brings both the artist and his muse into the limelight.   Jane Avril headlines once again!

Toulouse-Lautrec and Jane Avril: Beyond the Moulin Rouge is at The Courtauld Gallery until 18th September 2011, www.courtauld.ac.uk.

Making a Mark – Richard Long: Human Nature and Giuseppe Penone at Haunch of Venison

12 Jun

Friday evening marked my second visit to Haunch of Venison’s Richard Long exhibition.  The two visits could not have been more different.  A couple of weeks ago, when I first popped in, the gallery was a space of peaceful tranquillity with only a few people admiring the works.  Last Friday, the gallery was taken over for The Courtauld Summer Party with hundreds of Courtauld alumni buzzing around the rooms.  The exhibition was almost forgotten as the hub swelled and gossip escalated.  Mine were not the only heels in the gallery and the sweeping staircase that leads to the first floor acted as a ‘would-be’ red carpet for glamorous alumni.

Haunch of Venison staircase with Giuseppe Penone, Ripetere il bosco – frammento 28, 2007.  Own photograph.

In spite of the fun that overwhelmed Haunch that evening, this exhibition is certainly not one to be missed.

Long is the walking artist, a pioneer both in Land and Conceptual art; his works are characterised by simplicity, precision and economy, exploring complex ideas about time and space, movement, natural forces and human experience.  The exhibition features works in a variety of media that have arisen from, or been inspired by, his walks.  Whether huge stone sculptures or smaller photographs, the works all share this common theme, focusing on the effects of his recent travels.

Richard Long, Stone Print Spiral, 2011.  Own photograph.

Although the show presents new works, there is no doubt that Long is following his well-trodden path using a tried and tested motif that he first happened upon in his teens (when he photographed the tracks created by a rolling snowball and poured plaster into the sunken holes and crevices that remained) and has developed over the years.

Long’s work is created outside the traditional artist’s studio.  His studio is the landscape and his tools are nature’s creations.  These works, often in the form of huge sculptures, appeal to our sensual natures while his photographs and text-based works allow our imaginations to do the work.  These two practices come together most successfully in the largest room at Haunch where, in North South, the white Portland stone circle, divided by an upright line of Cornish Delabole slate, is surrounded by text works.  Compass points in North South evoke the world outside the gallery – although Long has brought nature inside, it is impossible to confine his natural ideas.

Richard Long, North South, 2011, and other works.  Own photograph.

The text works range from small framed pieces to word-installations that take over entire walls.

Richard Long, Fibonacci Walk, Somerset, 2009.  Own photograph.

As Long introduces nature’s materials into the galleries, imposing himself on the works, they become objects of contemplation rather than mere evocations of his journeys.  With society’s continuous destruction of our natural landscape, Long’s work is still as powerful as it ever was.  His relationship with our environment strikes a resounding chord.   Long studied at St Martins under Anthony Caro alongside some of our greatest modern artists and was encouraged to pursue whatever art form he wished.  His own interpretation of painting is seen in one work, from which the exhibition takes its title, where he has thrown watery clay and pigment at the wall, using his hands, rather than man-made tools, to create shapes.  The pigment in this work is an unusual inclusion for Long but aims to show the often necessary and harmonious marriage of man and nature.  Long’s work is very much about himself, the way he interacts with natural forms.

Richard Long with Human Nature, 2011.  Image via www.thisislondon.co.uk

Long’s work is about journeys and, as we walk around the exhibition, we make our own journey.  You may remember that I wrote about the Fabien Seiz exhibition (at the Josh Lilley Gallery) a few weeks ago where visitors’ footprints mark the bitumen on the gallery floor.  Here again, although less explicitly, we can think about our own journeys, conscious of the marks we leave behind all day whilst walking along the streets, running for the tube or ambling through London’s parks.

Also using the natural landscape as its focus, the concurrent exhibition at Haunch shows the works of Giuseppe Penone.  Take care not to confuse the two artists as a number of the larger upstairs galleries are filled with Penone’s work, not Long’s!  The press release at the reception desk has a helpful map to guide you through – sense the irony that a map is helpful to understand the journeys taken by these two artists.  Working with natural elements, Penone’s work seeks to reveal realities through mark-making, studying the interaction between
man and his environment, showing nature’s resilience in spite of our frequent interventions.

Giuseppe Penone in the mezzanine gallery.  Image via www.haunchofvenison.com.    

Haunch is not the only place where Long is currently exhibited – as well as being included in major collections across the world, he also has a work in the Summer Exhibition, just a short walk down Burlington Arcade.  The Summer Exhibition work, which I’m fairly sure also appears downstairs at Haunch, Untitled (2010), is made using white china clay on black card showing a journey of hands.  Maybe this is a designed as a taster to lure people up to Haunch – you see one, you love it and you want to see more.

Richard Long, Untitled (2010).  Image via www.haunchofvenison.com.    

Or if you’re heading abroad there are two further Long shows in Berlin and New York.

Richard Long: Berlin Circle, installation view.  Until 31st July 2011 at the Haumburger Bahnhof Museum für GegenwartImage via www.therichardlongnewsletter.org.

Long has quite a busy exhibition schedule at the moment and maybe this explains why the Haunch show was, sadly, a tad smaller than I expected.  Although he may not have succumbed to the celebrity that compels some artists, Richard Long is undoubtedly one of the most important talents to have emerged since the 1960s.

Richard Long: Human Nature is at Haunch of Venison until 20th August 2011, www.haunchofvenison.com.

A Salon for Summer: the RA’s Summer Exhibition

5 Jun

It’s that crazy time of year again – the summer season has begun.

Since the Royal Academy’s Foundation in 1768, the Summer Exhibition has been an annual fixture.  Historically, the exhibition was an opportunity for Royal Academicians to showcase their work but, today, it is renowned as the show where amateurs stand proudly alongside the gods of the modern-day art world.  It is part of the social calendar with all the glossies covering the grand party that marks the opening.  It is the show that is hated by the art world (many don’t even bother to visit) but it is packed every day until August.  You couldn’t hold this exhibition without the expected criticism.  Now, I won’t pretend that I’m not a Summer Exhibition critic but I did enjoy this year’s more than most.

Visitors at The Summer Exhibition.  Image via www.guardian.co.uk

I’d been eagerly anticipating the exhibition since Jeff Koons’ sculpture was installed in the courtyard a few weeks ago.  Although quite abstract, the work stems from a line drawing of Piglet in Winnie the Pooh – one of my all-time favourite children’s’ books.  Koons explores the joyous playfulness of child-like marks in a colouring book.

Jeff Koons, Colouring Book.  Own photograph.

Royal Academicians Christopher Le Brun and Michael Craig-Martin (both of whom have wonderful works on display) have played major roles in this year’s curation.  Key to the changes introduced this year is that there is no theme.  I applaud their decision to accept the random nature of the exhibition and to go with it.

Unusually this year, visitors enter the exhibition through the central octagon filled with large-scale photographic works and Martin Creed’s Work No. 998 (familiar from his exhibition at The Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh, last year) where he has stacked chairs one on top of the other.  Although the chairs are different from each other they appear the same through the calming influence of rhythm, sequence and harmony.

Martin Creed, Work No. 998.  Image via www.guardian.co.uk

 The selling point of the show has been the ‘Salon Hang’ in the RA’s grandest space.  Room III is certainly a success but, ironically, what I think works best is that it isn’t quite as crammed as in previous years.  The Royal Academy was originally housed at what is now The Courtauld Gallery and an 18th century salon hang was a dense floor-to-ceiling collective of works where the prime positions were ‘on the line’, a moulding placed at eye level.  This was excellently re-created in the ambitious exhibition, Art On The Line, in 2002.

Art On The Line, The Courtauld Gallery, 2002, curated by Professor David Solkin.  Image www.courtauld.ac.uk

Although not necessarily as busy as these hangs once were, Le Brun has followed traditional ideals with pieces radiating out from the large-scale works in the centre of each long wall.  He wanted visitors to find their own way through the gallery rather than being controlled by curatorial ideas.  He succeeds.  The strong grey wall colour suits the gravitas of many of the pieces on display.

Room III.  Image via www.guardian.co.uk

For me, in this room and across the whole exhibition, Keith Tyson’s Deep Impact has to take first prize.  This mixed media on aluminium is a burning fire of molten fury, the swirling colours conjuring passion, turmoil and power, grabbing viewers’ attention as they amble through the thousands of works on display.

Keith Tyson with his work, Deep Impact.  Image via www.guardian.co.uk

It is very hard to discuss this exhibition without pinpointing particular works.  As ever, at the Summer Exhibition, the best works stand out and the others merge into a panoply of dross.  I clacked around (the RA floors have some of the best heel acoustics in London) clutching my champagne, list of works and pen, noting interesting pieces.  But, flicking back, I now see I circled more than I expected so I will try to be brief.

Anselm Kiefer’s Aurora haunts the Large Weston Room.  This room, usually subdivided into sections on one side, has been left open and this is very successful.  There are still loads of works but, finally, there is the space to see them.

The Lecture Room, curated by Craig-Martin with his own specially invited artists, gathers together all the famous names of art with Allen Jones, Gary Hume, Michael Craig-Martin himself, Tracey Emin, Jenny Saville, Anish Kapoor, Christopher Le Brun, Antony Gormley, Richard Long… I could go on!  The works are all signature pieces from the artists as Craig-Martin wished the works to reveal ‘the true, distinct, and singular voice of an individual artist’.

Allen Jones, Think Pink.  Image via www.telegraph.co.uk

There are the usual ‘pretty’ works (Ice-Hiss by Vanessa Cuthbert and Mr Muscle by Tor Hildyard) and, yes, there is a lot of rubbish (including some disappointing pieces from big names) and the last room is particularly weak.  But, if you search thoroughly, there are some wonderful things: David Nash’s Funnel, an amazing severed trunk that we can peer through, and Dae Kwon’s 250510R, that has won the Jack Goldhill award, both stood out for me.

Dae Kwon, 250510R.  Image via www.telegraph.co.uk

Dog In a Bin by Simon Brundret is a kinetic sculpture made from silicone, rubber, bin and a motor, showing a dog devouring rubbish.  There is no doubt that this has the novelty factor but it left me with a smile.  I dare you not to look at it and grin.

Simon Brundret, Dog In A Bin.  Image via www.telegraph.co.uk

The RA receives no public money and the Summer Exhibition generates much revenue for the gallery.  Sales from the Summer Show also contribute to funding the RA schools (the only non-fee paying UK art school) which produce some of our greatest artists.

No-one is pretending that the Summer Exhibition is a collection of the best art in the UK today – accept it for what it is and enjoy it for all those reasons.  It is a gathering both of art and people, a mish-mash and an essential fixture in our summer calendar that provides an opportunity to see what’s going on in all echelons of the art world.

Anish Kapoor, Untitled.  Image via www.guardian.co.uk

The Summer Exhibition at The Royal Academy opens on 7th June until 15th August 2011, www.royalacademy.org.uk.

Lost in China: The Absence of Ai Weiwei

13 May

On 3rd April, as he was about to board a flight to Hong Kong, Ai Weiwei was arrested.  He has not been seen since.  Ai has become the most high-profile victim of Beijing’s crackdown and heavy-handed suppression of political dissidents.  

Where is he?  Unconfirmed reports refer to his torture and the world fears the worst after the state-run newspaper wrote that he “will pay a price for his special choice”.  His disappearance has certainly made us more aware of the atrocities that occur in China.  Between 7 and 8 million Chinese are held in prison or camps, enduring torture or enforced labour with around 5,000 suffering the death penalty every year.  More than the rest of the world combined.  This behaviour is ‘impossible’ – a term Ai himself coined last year in his criticisms of China’s authoritarian government.

Ai Weiwei.  Image via www.frumforum.com.   

Recently acclaimed for his Turbine Hall installation, Ai is a polymath – an artist, architect, designer, activist and blogger.  His work at Tate Modern consisted of one hundred million porcelain sunflowers seeds all made and hand-painted in China.  It’s easy to read this figure and not realise the gravitas of such a number – one hundred million is five times the population of Beijing.  Each seed is unique, deeply symbolic, representing food, comfort and social interaction; sunflower seeds saved many from starvation and despair during the Cultural Revolution.  As in many of Ai’s works, the seeds explore ideas of mass production (we live in an era where everything bears a Made in China sticker) challenging traditional craftsmanship and the importance of individualism. 

Ai Weiwei, Sunflower Seeds, The Unilever Series, 2010, courtesy of Ai Weiwei.  Image via www.tate.org.uk

When the work was first installed in the Turbine Hall, visitors could walk, lie, sleep on and dance in the installation but, ironically, after only two days, Tate was forced to cordon off the work due to lung-damaging dust, depriving visitors of all that the seeds represented.   Ai can now be compared to one of his seeds – unique as an individual who wasn’t afraid to speak his mind, he has been ‘cordoned off’ for fear of the damage he may cause.  Before this work opened, the state police beat Ai for condemning the government’s reaction to the 2008 earthquake in Sichuan resulting in a life-threatening brain haemorrhage that required emergency surgery.  Yet, Ai was never afraid.  As a tribute, Tate plan to create a giant stack of the sunflower seeds on the 5th floor of the gallery, in the way Ai used to display them.

In light of what has now become one of the Chinese regime’s most controversial arrests, the two exhibitions of Ai’s work that open in London this week are particularly provocative.

Own photograph.

Twelve traditional Chinese animal heads stand in the courtyard at Somerset House.  These oversized bronze replicas of the zodiac sculptures that once adorned the fountain clock of Yuanming Yuan, an 18th century imperial summer retreat of the Qing dynasty Emperor Qianlong, are installed in an arc around the fountains, displayed in a close recreation of how they originally stood.  In my opinion, had the sculptures been placed within the fountains there would be a heightened drama but there is no denying that they look brilliant.  Through the oversized scale (the head and base together are approximately 10 feet), Ai focuses on the fake and the original and on issues of looting and repatriation (only seven of the original heads have been found).  These are hefty bronzes dealing with hefty issues and the works have a powerful impact.

Own photograph.

Since studying at The Courtauld Institute, I have always had a soft spot for the courtyard and, with this beacon in the teaching of art history just a stone’s throw away, the positioning of the sculptures could not be any more fitting.  This is the first contemporary exhibition within the magnificent, 18th century surroundings and the sculptures rise majestically alongside the spurting fountains, tranquil despite their somewhat alarming expressions.    

Own photograph.

The animals of the Chinese zodiac are thought to influence personality and destiny.  2011 is the year of the Rabbit – ambitious and confident.  A cultural insider and political outsider, Ai has never been afraid to speak out against injustice; confidence and ambition is needed by us in the campaign for Ai’s release.  Indeed, there has been an overwhelming response to Ai’s capture with worldwide protests, petitions, artworks, dedications (Anish Kapoor opened his Paris exhibition this week in dedication to the artist), demonstrations, and so on.

Own photograph.

The second London exhibition of sculpture and video is at the Lisson Gallery – the works fill both the echoing galleries perfectly.  The Chinese government’s CCTV cameras have monitored Ai’s comings and goings for years and a marble sculpture of such a camera is included in the Lisson exhibition facing a real surveillance camera on the exterior of the gallery.

Own photograph.

The theme of absence is omnipresent here; on entering the gallery, visitors are greeted by empty marble chairs.  Ai may have foreseen his fate, the chair awaits his return, and the question of where he is now is made unavoidable.

Own photograph.

His political opinions cry out from these deceptively simple yet beautifully crafted works.  Through saturating ancient Chinese vases with garish colours, he questions the opposition of commercialism to traditional values.  His works are subtle in their subversiveness, full of hidden meanings.  The extraordinary range of his practice blends traditions, cultures and media. 

Ai Weiwei, Colored Vases, 2006, Neolithic vases (5000-3000 BC) and industrial paint, 51 pieces, dimensions variable, Courtesy the artist.  Image via Lisson Gallery.

At the Lisson private view, guests were given the opportunity to be photographed with a sign declaring ‘Free Ai Weiwei’, uniting us in our support.

Own photograph.

To show the art world’s solidarity and as testament to Ai’s stature all planned projects are going ahead.  Ai’s detention is illegal even under Chinese law but, ironically, he is probably more dangerous now.  The Chinese government have failed to be culturally aware and his arrest has shocked the world.

Would these exhibitions have such poignancy if it wasn’t for Ai’s disappearance?  It is hard to say but that Ai’s whereabouts are still unknown gives gravitas to his work.   He is an artist of great talent but now his art stands for something far greater.

Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads is at Somerset House until June 26thhttp://www.somersethouse.org.uk/visual_arts/1326.asp.

Ai Weiwei is at the Lisson Gallery until July 16th, http://www.lissongallery.com/.

Sign the petition calling for the release of Ai Weiwei – http://www.change.org/petitions/call-for-the-release-of-ai-weiwei.

%d bloggers like this: