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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.

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The New Hockney – another RA Blockbuster

20 Jan

2012 is the year of the big names and the big shows that will pull in the punters and the RA has hit gold with one of their own – David Hockney RA.   This is the first ‘countdown event’ for the London 2012 Festival and advance ticket sales have reportedly already outsold their van Gogh exhibition.

David Hockney, Woldgate Woods, 21, 23 and 29 November 2006, oil on six canvases. Courtesy of the artist and via www.royalacademy.org.uk

David Hockney: A Bigger Picture is the first exhibition in the UK to showcase Hockney’s landscape work, a genre with which, until a few years ago, we would not have readily associated this artist. Hockney has always been innovative – famous for his ‘portraits’ of boys with Californian swimming pools in an idealised gay aesthetic.  His works are recognisable – he shows LA as a landscape of pleasure and sexual freedom with cloudless blue skies and idealistic fantasies.  His raunchiness has long gone and his recent work is far more mainstream and conservative, more acceptable to many audiences; he has returned to the area around his hometown of Bradford and settled down.  But maybe his work hasn’t changed as much as we initially think – yes, the subject matter may be different but the ideas, use of colour and idealism still underlie the canvases.  Hockney has tricked us with his change of aesthetic focus.

David Hockney, The Road across the Woods, 1997, oil on canvas. Courtesy of the artist and via www.royalacademy.org.uk

So, here we have a Hockney exhibition that is a display of vivid paintings inspired by the Yorkshire countryside.  This is not simply a show about nature, although the theme may lead us to believe it is.  It is an exhibition about the importance of an artistic tradition and the British landscape.

Walking into the Royal Academy, you are instantly engulfed by Hockney’s work.  So much so, that the use of a room with multiple doorways means visitors don’t actually know where to start from.  My advice is head to the right.  Once you’re in Room Two you’ll find that curatorially the show flows like a dream.  The wall colours change in almost every room, often successfully alternating between deep red and putty grey (which is a surprisingly nice colour).

David Hockney: A Bigger Picture at the Royal Academy. Own photograph.

The second gallery contextualises the exhibition, looking at landscapes from earlier in Hockney’s career, showing how he has always been a landscape artist.  Hockney has a skill with colour and, while landscape may have been present earlier in his career, this is still fairly a dramatic shift in subject.  Many of his works are made up of numerous panels, reflecting the dominance of nature and A Closer Grand Canyon from 1998 comprises 60 stunning canvases.  Due to its vastness, the Grand Canyon is not an easy subject for any artist to tackle but size has never scared Hockney.  This painting extends the boundaries of the conventional landscape genre, focusing on the depiction of space and the experience of being within such a space at one of the most spectacular vantage points.

David Hockney, A Closer Grand Canyon, 1998, oil on 60 canvases. Own photograph.

I adore Hockney’s landscapes so, for me, this exhibition is generally a delight.  They are beautiful works that can’t help but make you smile; Hockney’s exuberant use of colour creates bright, happy, idealistic paintings.  The recurring motifs of idealism and the importance of colour still pervades Hockney’s work.

Moving around the exhibition, the dense hang, in Room Four, of the paintings from 2004-5 reflects the unusual smaller scale of these works  and, here,  it’s possible to really get a sense of Hockney’s passion for his re-discovery of landscape.   Hockney has become extremely well-attuned to the natural world, studying seasonal changes.  Continuing this progression, Room Five is the first of four consecutive galleries devoted to a particular subject or motif, often the same place at different times of day.  It is fascinating to study the scene in its different guises.

David Hockney, A Closer Winter Tunnel, February-March 2006, oil on six canvases.  Courtesy of the artist and via www.royalacademy.org.uk

Despite Hockney’s nod to a tradition of British painting, one of the most distinctive elements of the show is his new iPad works where he is able to celebrate the new and enliven the old.  Now I’m not particularly adept on any Apple product but Hockney certainly is.  At 74 years old, Hockney has re-invented a tradition using his iPad as an electronic sketchbook and the stylus as his new paintbrush.  He delights in the immediacy of the medium but retains the hallmarks of his style to very different effect; the painterly skill he has achieved using an App is impressive.  This is apparent when comparing his iPad works to his painting, which reveals a bolder composition and use of mark-making.

David Hockney, The Arrival of Spring in Woldgate, East Yorkshire in 2011 (twenty eleven) – 2 January,    iPad drawing printed on paper.  Courtesy of the artist and via www.royalacademy.org.uk

The iPad works document the changing season, recording the transition from winter to spring along a small Roman road that leads out of Bridlington.  Filling the central room, all these works form The Arrival of Spring in Woldgate, East Yorkshire in 2011 (twenty eleven)which comprises 51 iPad drawings and one large painting made from 32 canvases.  This gallery is stunning;  light and airy, there is a deliberate sense of theatricality where the viewer is centre stage, surrounded by drama and change, engulfed by the natural landscape.  Hockney has applied his obsessive energy to this new medium and this project, designed with these rooms specifically in mind.  The iPad works all have dates on the walls next to them so that we can follow Hockney’s journey.  He scrutinises the natural world and nothing passes him by.  The works in The Arrival of Spring are strong because they are a group.  Whether the paintings would retain this impact individually cannot be assessed here but, in this configuration, they are gorgeous.

David Hockney, The Arrival of Spring in Woldgate, East Yorkshire in 2011 (twenty eleven), oil on 32 canvases, Courtesy of the artist and via www.royalacademy.org.uk

To leave the exhibition, you have to pass through Hockney’s reflections on Claude.  The less said about these the better.  Inspired, by the spatial effect seen in Claude’s Sermon on the Mount, Hockney has made a life-sized transcript and a number of studies exploring Claude’s geographical compression of space.  These are bad and unforgivable, a sad way to end a beautiful show.  I actually walked round again and exited through the front door so that I could end with a feel-good factor.

David Hockney, The Sermon on the Mount II (After Claude), 2010, oil on canvas.  Courtesy of the artist and via www.royalacademy.org.uk

One of the final rooms in the exhibition presents a bank of screens – multi-camera footage of Yorkshire mixed with interior films and motifs from Hockney’s paintings.  The videos have been filmed simultaneously using nine and eighteen cameras, fitted on customised cars, providing a spell-binding, immersive experience.  Once again, Hockney enjoys pushing technology to its limits, playing with a medium with which we think we are familiar.

David Hockney, Nov. 7th, Nov. 26th 2010, Woldgate Woods, 11.30 am and 9.30 am, film still. Courtesy of the artist and via www.royalacademy.org.uk

Critics say Hockney wanted to get away from his recognisable signature style but, although now concentrating on a different subject, these works still retain everything that has always been important to the artist.  The exhibition is about the importance of seeing and of observing and studying change.   Hockney’s commitment to the landscape is evident by the close study necessary to produce some of these works.  The exhibition also includes a number of drawings showing Hockney’s dedication to the fundamentals of his art.  Sometimes the colours can be a bit garish and some of the works aren’t quite as good as others but, more often than not, they are beautiful – simple expressions of the joy of the natural landscape.  Hockney transforms what, from any other artist, may be polite works into spectacular visions of England, filled with energy and life.  Hockney’s work is ahead of its time, answering questions that have not yet been asked.

 

David Hockney, Under the Trees, Bigger 2010–11, oil on twenty canvases.  Courtesy of the artist and via www.royalacademy.org.uk

The exhibition is immense with more than 150 works, the majority of which have been created in the last eight years.  It’s a wonderful show; Hockney is now considered the greatest living artist – he’s brilliant, the British public love him and why the hell not!

David Hockney RA: A Bigger Picture is at The Royal Academy until 9th April 2012, www.royalacademy.org.uk.

From West to East and a Walk in the Park – Thursday of Frieze Week

14 Oct

Thursday of Frieze week and I was already exhausted with so many things yet to see.

Walking down Savile Row, I decided to pop into a new gallery and I’m pleased I did. Pilar Ordovas made headlines earlier this year when she announced plans to open her own gallery space. She was already well-known among the art world elite, partly for organising the famous, record-breaking sale of Lucian Freud’s Benefits Supervisor Sleeping. She isn’t shy of press. Having worked at Christie’s and managed London’s Gagosian, Ordovas decided to go it alone. One of the things that will make this space successful, other than Ordovas’ skill and vision, is her access to, and unique relationships with, artists. This first exhibition perfectly highlights her past experience. Having managed the estate of Valerie Beston (the private director of the Marlborough Gallery to whom Bacon bequeathed an astonishing collection of his works) in 2006, Ordovas was able to conceive this exhibition.

Ordovas on Savile Row. Image via www.ordovasart.com

Irrational marks: Bacon and Rembrandt is a museum-quality, academic exhibition, hidden within the walls of a commercial gallery. This will be the first show to explore the connections and influences of Rembrandt’s late self-portraits and Bacon’s own self-portraits. The creative dialogue between the two artists is extraordinary. The exhibition also displays a number of working documents, found in Bacon’s studio after his death, splattered with paint, discarded after they had inspired the great artist. They are absolutely fascinating. Ordovas is certainly doing something new.

Downstairs at Ordovas on Savile Row. Image via www.ordovasart.com

An art history professor friend once asked me if I’m conservative (I don’t think he meant in the political sense). ‘Yes’, I replied. ‘And, do you like Francis Bacon?’ he asked. ‘No, I love Francis Bacon’ was my response. ‘Well, then you are definitely not conservative’. Many years on, having seen people’s often extreme reactions to Bacon’s work I more fully understand what he meant but, to me, Bacon’s works are exquisite. The style may often be grotesque but they are sublime.

25 Savile Row is a beautiful space although the ‘frosting’ in the window actually looks as if they have not finished unpacking and we were unsure if they were actually open. Directly opposite Hauser & Wirth, I don’t think the galleries will conflict with one another as they are so different. Pilar Ordovas is helping to create a new arts hub in the heart of Mayfair.

Ordovas. Own photograph.

After lunch, I headed over to Frieze which, this year, felt like a chore. With more galleries than ever before, I thought the fair was remarkably bland. Still obviously feeling the effects of this long drawn-out recession, no-one had taken any risks. The VIP day having passed, most of the gallerists weren’t that bothered by the ‘general public’ bustling past their stands. Desks piled high with coffee cups and ipads (normally about three per stand) were far more amusing than the art and I couldn’t resist capturing the ennui.

Fed up at Frieze. Own photograph.

When we finished the long trek and my fellow fair-goer said his feet were hurting, I knew my moaning was justified. My legs ached. My stilettos clacked with less vigour than usual.

With no cabs to be found, I hobbled to Haunch craving the glass of wine that awaited me. This exhibition at least perked me up again – or was that the wine? Ahmed Alsouandi is an Iraqi artist who lives in New York. He uses the grotesque to explore war and conflict and the consequences of these atrocities. His deformed figures rework, and are inspired by, greats such as Goya and Bacon.

Ahmed Alsouandi at Haunch of Venison. Own photograph.

His vivid, over-saturated, palette both enhances the horror and detracts from the subject matter in an ironically joyous tone. Whilst his many influences are apparent, his work is certainly unique and his style his own. The turbulence and disfiguration are more a comment on general human conflict and physical disruption than specific warfare. From a distance, they could be mistaken for bright abstract patterns. Get closer, and you see tortured bodies, dismembered limbs and even a lone eyeball.

I’d forgotten how great the floor here is – a wonderful dark wood that works so well with whatever they hang. My signature photo would have shown this but my friend refused to squat on the floor of one of London’s major galleries to photograph my feet. The gallery was buzzing and, considering the competition this week, that is a mark of how good this show is.

Ahmed Alsouandi at Haunch of Venison. Own photograph.

Next on my list was Flowers Gallery – not the one in Mayfair unfortunately, I like to make my life difficult. Nicola Hicks has long been recognised as an important British artist. Having exhibited with Flowers for many years now, this demonstrates how astute the gallery were in picking her as a major talent after her selection in 1984 by Elisabeth Frink for their annual Artist for the Day exhibition. Her latest exhibition, which takes over the downstairs galleries at Flowers on Kingsland Road, is a new series of plaster sculptures based on Aesop’s Fables, the well-known children’s’ stories supposedly written by a slave in Ancient Greece in the 5th century BC.

Nicola Hicks’ Aesop’s Fables at Flowers. Own photograph.

Don’t be mistaken and think Hicks is merely depicting the Fables in illustratory form, as you couldn’t be more wrong. Instead these stories act as a catalyst for her work, providing a creative springboard for her wonderful imagination. The detail is incredible – the loose, tactile nature of the plaster means these works need, and deserve, closer inspection.

Although Hicks’ works have developed over time, she has been interested in animal forms from day one. Always heartfelt, she is able to do extraordinary things to her materials and contorts plaster in fantastic ways.

All of the anthropomorphic characters from the Fables are present, frozen in time for us to admire. The creatures are loveable and endearing, a humble theme for a wonderful artist who here explores empathy and beauty in a stunning new series of work. I have always loved Hicks’ sculpture so this exhibition was a treat for me. Who couldn’t fall for her dogs, gazing lovingly out with puppy dog eyes?

One of Hicks’ gorgeous dogs. Own photograph.

Upstairs is an exhibition by artist, Simon Roberts. Roberts is obviously a talented artist – he travelled across England in a motorhome for a year from 2007-2008 photographing England at leisure. His large horizons and country scenes play on a tradition of English landscape painting, studying our national identity in turn raising key social, economic and political issues. He finds beauty in the mundane but the photographs do not stand up to the brilliance of the exhibition downstairs.

Simon Roberts, Keynes Country Park Beach, Shornecote, Gloucestershire, 11th May 2008. Image via http://we-english.co.uk/. 

I had planned to head to an exhibition at the Hospital Club but gossiping away over dinner next door and resting my weary limbs made me realise how tired I was. Or was that the wine too? Anyway, there was no chance I was going back into the West End again that night.

Irrational Marks: Bacon and Rembrandt is at Ordovas until 16th December 2011, www.ordovasart.com.  Ahmed Alsoudani is at Haunch of Venison Yard until 26th November 2011, www.haunchofvenison.com. Nicola Hicks: Aesop’s Fables and Simon Roberts: We English are both at Flowers, Kingsland Road, until 19th November 2011, www.flowersgalleries.com. For more of my Frieze photos, see www.facebook.com/chloenelkinconsulting.

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