Tag Archives: Jodie Carey

2013 Highlights

29 Dec

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

Here we go with my highlights of 2013…

Towering at TateSchwitters in Britain  

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

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

Number One at the National GalleryFacing the Modern  

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

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

Captivating Courtauld The Young Dürer: Drawing the Figure 

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

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

Blazing Barbican The Bride and the Bachelors

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

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Duchamp stars at the Barbican. Own photograph

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

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

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

Also with podium finishes were:

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

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

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

Shimmering SilverDeath: A self-portrait, The Wellcome Collection

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

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

Bright Bronze – Caitlin Art Prize 2013, Londonewcastle Project Space

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Berlin Gallery Weekend 2013

12 May

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

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Off we go… Own photograph.

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

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Session, Wentrup Gallery. Own photograph.

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

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

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

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Thomas Feuerstein at 401 Contemporary.  Own photograph.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Galerie Crone’s beach. Own photograph.

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

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Partying on all floors around the courtyard. Own photograph.

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

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

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Bode Museum. Own photograph.

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

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The basilica at the Bode Museum. Own photograph.

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

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

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

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From Bermondsey to Victoria and all places in between…

14 Apr

I don’t make it over to White Cube Bermondsey as often I’d like. I know it’s not really that far away but it’s just not somewhere I amble past on a very regular basis. So when I found myself with a meeting on Bermondsey Street it was too good an opportunity to miss.

Their primary exhibition is Chuck Close Prints: Process and Collaboration which explores the artist’s graphic oeuvre from when he made his first print in 1972. This isn’t the side of Close with which most of us will be familiar – we’re more au fait with his large-scale ‘heads’ – but this is a side that definitely deserves attention. Close’s experimentation with the media of printmaking is endless and fascinating; he is able to bring it to life, even turning mistakes or problems to his advantage. Alex/Reduction Block from 1992 was never intended to be end up like this which highlights the flexibility and ingenuity of both Close and his collaborators. The work was planned as a block reduction print but when the original linoleum cracked in the cold, they had to substitute it with an inferior material. More problems followed. They continued to cut the replacement linoleum despite knowing it was never going to work as a block reduction and documented the progressive stages by printing them in black on Mylar which resulted in a project perfect for silkscreen printing. The various shades of grey give Alex Katz’s face a shimmering metallic quality.

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Alex/Reduction Block in the distance at White Cube. Image via www.distortedarts.com.

Process has always been of the utmost importance to Close. If he has tried one method of printmaking he’s tried them all over the past forty years and it is his perseverance (he now works from the confines of a wheelchair after a spinal artery collapse) with his artworks and interrogatory use of materials that creates such wonderful qualities.

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Moving through the exhibition. Image via www.whitecube.com.

Close also breaks down the methods of printmaking, revealing the various stages involved through his reworking of the same subjects. Rather than diluting his intention this often enhances it, encouraging us to study a face in the same way that he must. This is a truly excellent, explorative and engaging exhibition and one that caught me rather by surprise – especially as it hadn’t been in my schedule for last week or even on my current list of things to try to see.

I would have liked more time in the gallery but I did manage to stop to see Eddie Peake’s installation – I just couldn’t walk past the naked figure in a see-through costume on roller-skates without seeing what was going on. It was all part of Peake’s Adjective Machine Gun, a major sculptural installation closely based around the old penguin enclosure at London Zoo – an iconic and easily recognisable structure. The walls act as an enclosing amphitheatre that both reveal and conceal the performer and the other works that form part of this. This is the first time Peake has married the two parts of his practice as he previously kept his sculpture and painting separate to his performance. I felt that this combination didn’t quite gel and the static works lacked some of the coherence of the performance elements.

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Eddie Peake, Adjective Machine Gun. Image via www.whitecube.com.

As is so often the case with performance, it was fascinating to watch the reactions of others: one man seemed quite affronted as the performer sped past him – I don’t think he’d anticipated being quite that close; one girl seemed embarrassed; while someone else was revelling in the intentional voyeuristic qualities of the piece. And I became so caught up with people-watching that after about five minutes I started to wonder where the skater had gone. He had crept up behind me and seemed to be leaning against the wall watching me. Is he meant to be oblivious to the audience and just contemplating the static works or is part of the wonder of the piece the duality of the voyeurism as we watch him watching us?

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Eddie Peake, Adjective Machine Gun. Image via www.contempoaryartsociety.org.

The following evening I decided to crack on with the shows I had intended to see. It had been a while since I last went on a private view evening but Wednesday promised some exciting openings and so we set off with a route in mind and a beady eye on the clock, determined to fit everything in.

First up was Art First – I have spent a few days in a quandary over this exhibition as I was drawn to the works but found they presented quite a bland group. Get up close and sometimes they are individually remarkable. On discovering Thomas Shelton’s 17th century system of shorthand, Simon Lewty found the perfect written code with which to experiment. His fascination was further heightened when he learnt that Samuel Pepys had used the very same method in his diary. Lewty taught himself Tachygraphy – no easy challenge – and has used this script to tell his own narratives. How often do people sit and write now? For so many, handwriting is becoming a thing of the past yet Lewty uses this time-honoured method to take us on a journey. So what was missing? I truly don’t know and maybe I need to return to reflect on the works in the gallery at a quieter time.

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Simon Lewty’s language. Image via www.artlyst.co.uk.

One of the shows I had been most excited to see was Tell Me Whom You Haunt at Blain Southern but I left disappointed – the show seeks to place works by ten contemporary artists in conversation with Marcel Duchamp but at times it feels irrelevant, confusing and bland. So many artists can relate their ideas and concerns back to Duchamp that I don’t think anything ground-breaking is going on between these walls. The first room is stronger and also aesthetically more pleasing but the second rooms loses its life. The exhibition title stems from an age-old French proverb referring to the idea that readymades spatially relinquish their previous significance and assume a shifting identity when they are re-contextualised. They cease to become the objects that they were intended to be and, instead, become something of the artist’s own making. The ideas behind some of the individual works are lost here and would have been far stronger seen in a different form of exhibition at the gallery. Maybe their connection to Duchamp needn’t have been articulated in such an explicit way. Any exhibition revolving around Duchamp sets its bar high and, for me, Blain Southern didn’t quite vault to greatness this time.

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Sislej Xhafa, Rocket Ship, 2011. Image via www.blainsouthern.com.

Next I made a flying visit to Hannah Barry to see Nathan Cash Davidson’s new drawings. Unusually, the drawings are executed on board which does present a weightier texture than we might expect from the delicacy of some of these works but I remained unexcited. Then onto Orion Contemporary’s celebration of print-making; there is a diverse range of works on display from Swedish Kent Karlsson to Pablo Picasso. Although this is a small show, it is one that must be praised for its brilliant lighting; the works were so well-displayed and the sensitivity of the hang really allows for close study.

The drizzle turned into heavy rain and my shoes weren’t cut out for puddles. Luckily we needed a cab to get to our last venue and we headed to Victoria to Edel Assanti.

Edel Assanti have now been in their new space for over a year and I feel awful to admit that this is the first time I have made it through the doors. However, the gallery is stunning and really shifts Edel Assanti to a whole new level from their previous project space just a few doors down the same road. Their current exhibition of works by Jodie Carey is very striking: seven plaster slabs have been arranged within the gallery, connecting and conversing with one another despite their differing formats. The backs of the slabs are intentionally exposed, revealing the wire and timber used to reinforce the plaster and the hessian sandbags weighting the sculptures down. Carey doesn’t want to hide these elements, instead she reduces these monuments back to their bare bones, challenging the reverence that public commemorations traditionally command. The type of monument that they evoke is left ambiguous and to different people Carey’s slabs will have different resonances.

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

The works have a real presence in the gallery – fragile yet monumental, they rose with impressive dominance above the people crowding into the space. Closer inspection reveals that the hand-cast slabs have been painstakingly coloured in pencil crayon by the artist again providing a contrast from the usual industrial mechanics of large-scale monuments. The pastel colouring conflicts with the apparent strength and verticality of the forms presenting another inherent contradiction on which Carey leaves us to ponder. But the fragility and vulnerability of these works is what makes them arresting and, in fact, it is this fragility that makes a seemingly simple abstract form somewhat inescapable.

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

I was so impressed by the exhibition that I have no doubt I will be visiting far more regularly. After all Victoria is only ten minutes from Fitzrovia in a taxi and we know I’m good at hailing those.

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Chuck Close Prints: Process and Collaboration and Eddie Peake: Adjective Machine Gun are at White Cube Bermondsey until 21st April 2013, www.whitecute.com.  Simon Lewty: Absorption is at Art First until 11th May 2013, www.artfirst.co.ukTell Me Whom You Haunt: Marcel Duchamp and the Contemporary Readymade is at Blain Southern until 18th May 2013, www.blainsouthern.com.  Nathan Cash Davidson: Your’e French Gerdarmes with Me is at Hannah Barry Gallery until 8th May 2013, www.hannahbarry.com.  A Celebration of Printmaking is at Orion Contemporary until 20th April 2013, www.orioncontemporary.com.  Jodie Carey: Untitled (Slabs) is at Edel Assanti until 11th May 2013, www.edelassanti.com.

Don’t Dwell on Death – the Wellcome Collection

22 Jan

I don’t get down to the Wellcome Collection nearly enough yet it’s a gem.  So, having battled through the snow to make it into town I decided to pop in after brunch on Saturday.  How I was walking round with one boot cuff turned up and one down is still slightly beyond me – no-one mentioned it so perhaps people thought I was making a new fashion statement!

Death: A self-portrait is an exhibition showcasing the collection of Richard Harris, a former antique print dealer based in Chicago.  The exhibition itself is an unusual portrait of Harris’s collecting and includes approximately 300 objects from his strange and unique collection devoted to death.  It is incredibly diverse – there are paintings, drawings, artefacts, sculptures, photographs, anatomical illustrations and much more.  His entire collection comprises over 2,000 objects and I’d love the opportunity at some point to get to see the whole of it.  The collection is growing all the time and Harris regularly finds and commissions new items.  It’s probably even expanding as I write this piece.

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Advertising Death.  Image via www.londonist.com

This is a truly fabulous collection showing comic portrayals of death alongside the more serious and harrowing.  The Wellcome hasn’t been precious about separating out the categories and they have celebrated its diversity.  Rare prints by Rembrandt, Dürer and Goya are displayed alongside anatomical drawings, war art and antique metamorphic postcards; human remains are juxtaposed with Renaissance vanitas paintings and twentieth century installations celebrating Mexico’s Day of the Dead.  There’s a group of Incan skulls alongside Jodie Carey’s In the Eyes of Others, a chandelier made from 3,000 plaster-cast bones.

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Jodie Carey, In the Eyes of Others, 2009.  Image via www.happyfamousartists.com

One room focuses on the art of violent death communicating the dehumanising effects of war and the brutality of death on a gargantuan scale.  Here, we find Goya’s The Disasters of War displayed alongside Otto Dix’s The War.  Dix’s memories of fighting as a soldier provided the source material for these 51 prints, showing the depravity of war.  He was wounded a number of times and the horror he illustrates is no doubt in part related to his own experiences.

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Otto Dix, Stromtroopers Advance under Gas, 1924.  Image via www.ottodix.org

The John Isaac sculpture was getting a lot of attention – a life-size sculpture of a semi-dissected man missing both arms and one leg sitting on a packing case.  In a room that focuses on our fascination with the disturbing or morbid, this work seeks to highlight the rawness of anatomical investigation and, coupled with some of the surrounding anatomical studies and engravings, reminds us that doctors first learnt about prolonging life through the study of death and the dead.

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John Isaac, Are you still mad at me?, 2001.  Image via www.huffingtonpost.co.uk

The whole exhibition is a giant cabinet of curiosities.  Harris never intended this to be a private collection and always planned for everything to be exhibited to ‘capture the essence of Death through its iconography’.  I gave up writing down which works particularly intrigued me as the list grew and grew and we’d have never got out of there.  There was a series of anonymous photographs from the 20th century showing people, in backyards, classrooms and studios, posing with macabre artefacts that perhaps foreshadowed their destinies.   They are certainly worth very little commercially but together they make a wonderful and fascinating group – some comic, some serious, all engrossing.  Three of these photographs conclude the catalogue – a beautifully produced small album of objects in the exhibition.

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Unknown photograph, 20th century.  Own photograph.

The thing that’s really great is that this exhibition isn’t morbid or depressing.  Maybe I am alone in this opinion but, strangely, the exhibition didn’t make me dwell on death – of course this is the subject the objects all relate to but they’re so absorbing that we don’t have time to ponder our own morbid curiosities.

Ironically, my only criticism highlights the strength of the show; there’s actually too much to take in and I would have needed a good couple of hours to study everything properly.

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

I don’t think the exhibition is trying to say anything particularly poignant.  It’s not trying to look at what we think about death or about the experience of death.  If they’d wanted to do that then this exhibition wouldn’t be a self-portrait of Harris.  Maybe it’s making us think.  Maybe it’s showing us the different ways in which death can be portrayed and considered.  Or perhaps, as the pamphlet claims, it’s investigating the value of art in communicating ideas about death and the body.  Whatever it’s up to, I’m on board.

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Death: A self-portrait is at the Wellcome Collection until 24th February 2013, www.wellcomecollection.org.

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