Tag Archives: Old Burlington Street

Li Tianbing at Stephen Friedman and a handful of other Mayfair Mentions

15 Apr

Last week I was charged with the responsibility of showing someone a few Mayfair Galleries.   This should have been an easy task really considering the amount of time I spend in and out of these places but the sheer volume of galleries in Mayfair did present me with a challenge.  However, with set start and finish times, a time restriction and a list of that evening’s private views, the journey mapped itself out with relative ease.

It was a luxury to spend the afternoon, strolling through these galleries and seeing the enormous diversity of brilliant art that such a small section of London has to offer.   We began at Alon Zakaim’s new space on Dover Street, currently displaying a mixed presentation of 19th century works.   Next, we dipped in and out of galleries on Cork Street including their original space as well as Flowers and Alan Cristea.

Marc Quinn, Sunspot (In the Night Garden), 2011 at Alon Zakaim, Cork Street.  Image via www.alonzakaim.com

Hooking round into Old Burlington Street, we visited Stephen Friedman.  To be honest, having missed the PV, I had forgotten what was currently on show here.  As soon as we walked in we were both struck by the power of the canvases – eight large paintings by Li Tianbing in his debut UK exhibition.  Friedman is known for having an eye for the crème de la crème and Tianbing is rightly regarded as one of the best Chinese-born artists of his generation.

Li Tianbing, Bullet holes, 2012.  Image courtesy the artist, Stephen Friedman Gallery, London and Pearl Lam Galleries, Hong Kong and via www.stephenfriedman.com

These semi-biographical works recall the artist’s upbringing under China’s one-child rule.  Introduced in 1979, the policy restricted married couples in urban areas to having only one child.  Families still find the emotional consequences of this legislation too difficult to discuss – Tianbing’s own parents, despite having seen his works, find them too painful to talk about.  It is thought that, since its inception, the one-child policy has prevented 400 million births as well as causing a serious increase in female infanticide, forced abortions and under-reporting of births.  Second children are often registered as someone else’s or not registered at all, creating a whole group of people who do not officially exist.  Those who are discovered are denied promotions, suffer benefit and pay cuts, are fined and are often made homeless.

Li Tianbing at Stephen Friedman. Image courtesy the artist, Stephen Friedman Gallery, London and Pearl Lam Galleries, Hong Kong and via www.stephenfriedman.com

When Tianbing moved to Paris at the age of 22 he took with him an album containing five slightly blurred black and white photographs – the sole memento of his childhood.  Even this in itself is rare and the images were taken on a camera that his father had borrowed from the People’s Army propaganda unit.  These images still have a profound effect on him, transporting him back to the lonely isolation of his youth.  The multi-layered paintings are instantly comparable to the monochrome detail of these photos and show an imagined upbringing with fictitious brothers and playmates – the ones he was never allowed.  Despite the multitude of figures often seen in these works, the children always seem alone, staring wide-eyed from the canvases, lost in their own thoughts.

In addition to his photographs, as a child, Tianbing only had one toy.  Don’t Touch my Dog shows a group of boys holding their toy dogs, a reminder that Chinese children hardly ever owned playthings.  The main figure holds his toy above his head and the others all look towards him.  The fragmentary nature of the work, enhanced by the use of a mixed palette, highlights the nature of these broken and adapted memories.

Li Tianbing, Don’t Touch my Dog, 2011.  Image courtesy the artist, Stephen Friedman Gallery, London and Pearl Lam Galleries, Hong Kong and via www.stephenfriedman.com

A mixture of abstraction and portraiture, Tianbing’s works use his own strong visual language which draws on Western contemporary art and traditional Chinese techniques.  Visual motifs recur repetitively such as his haunting use of staining which represents the corrosive power of political dictatorship.  There is no doubt that these pieces are striking.

The one-child system meant that Tianbing had an extremely lonely existence whilst growing up and, for him, art was the lifeline he grasped to survive this reality, taking refuge in his imagination and inventing his own life.  As well as showing the playmates he longed for, his works also show the hidden children of the regime.

Being able to spend time as a family is something that many Chinese never knew.  Tianbing, who now lives in Paris, already has a son and his second child is on the way.  This is something that we take for granted and don’t even consider but Tianbing feels as if he has won a prize.  His works are very moving and thought-provoking; they make us look at the cosy nature of our own existence and acknowledge the trials that Tianbing and others like him had to endure growing up under the oppressive Chinese administration.

Li Tianbing, Reverse Walk, 2012.  Image courtesy the artist, Stephen Friedman Gallery, London and Pearl Lam Galleries, Hong Kong and via www.stephenfriedman.com

Now that Tianbing is less lost and has found what he missed during his youth, his works have become more grounded with a glimmer of happiness.   Although the memory of the one-child policy will always be omnipresent, he has moved on to look at other issues affecting the Chinese economy.  Tianbing’s works have a powerful hold on viewers and, because they have room to breathe and are not over-crowded in the gallery, the children’s intense gazes do not let you go.

We wandered up Bond Street, past Sotheby’s who were preparing for the Munch viewing, to Opera Gallery where, for us, the highlight of their mixed contemporary show was two photographs by Gérard Rancinan.

Gérard Rancinan, On the Way Back from Disneyland, 2011. Image courtesy of the artist and via www.operagallery.com

For the first of our private views we headed back the way we’d come and turned onto Bruton Street.  Trinity Contemporary is tucked away upstairs and would be easy to miss if you didn’t know it was there.  We chickened out of going in the very creaky old lift and climbed up the stairs to their surprisingly light and neat space on the third floor to see a solo exhibition of drawings by Emma McNally.  Atoms Insects Mountains Stars is inspired by the work of French philosopher Gilles Deleuze and these works show the artist’s extensive working with graphite made of carbon which reflects her interest in philosophy, science and music.  McNally’s pencil works are highly detailed looking as if they may well be the result of scientific readings – their vocabulary has been compared both to musical scores and computer coding, due to its rhythmic and harmonic activity.  In some of her new works, McNally has turned drawing into a sculptural process, pouring pure graphite powder onto large surfaces and then hammering nails into them.  The works shimmer, forming an intricate network of lines and marks.

Emma McNally at Trinity Contemporary. Own photograph.

Back to near where we started, we popped into Simon Lee which has to win top marks for being the buzziest private view of the evening.  It was packed with people drinking and gossiping for Paulina Olowska’s first solo show here.  Her new works continue her exploration of feminist and socially-engaged themes, often channelling or paying homage to other women artists.  Here, she plays with the rudimentary idea of the muse and the imagined, or remembered, image of a mother.  The images have a sense of fragility, trying to preserve a moment in time as it passes by.

Paulina Olowska at Simon Lee. Own photograph.

My feet were now starting to suffer and as I limped to Sarah Myerscough I had a feeling that this may well have to be our final stop.  Tucked away on Brooks Mews, the gallery is presenting an exhibition with works by 11 artists on the subject of monochrome.  There is no pretension, just a few really nice works in black and white.

B&W (Monochrome), Sarah Myerscough Fine Art. Own photograph.

A simple one with which to finish but I couldn’t face walking another pace to another place.  I hobbled round the corner, changed into ballet pumps and scurried home.  The other three galleries on my overly ambitious list will have to wait until another day.

Li Tianbing is at the Stephen Friedman Gallery until 21st April, www.stephenfriedman.comEmma McNall: Selected Drawings, Atoms Insects Mountains Stars is at Trinity Contemporary until 27th April, www.trinitycontemporary.com.   Paulina Olowska: Mother 200 is at Simon Lee Gallery until 26th May 2012, www.simonleegallery.com. B&W (Monochrome) is at Sarah Myerscough Fine Art until 5th May 2012, www.sarahmyerscough.com.  For more information on the other galleries mentioned please see www.alonzakaim.com, www.flowersgallery.com, www.alancristea.com and www.operagallery.com

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Two Galleries for Tuesday: Stephen Friedman and White Cube

23 Nov

I often walk past the Stephen Friedman Gallery as I wander down Old Burlington Street – their wonderful frontage means it’s always easy to have a quick peek at the current exhibition without going in.  But their current exhibition of Catherine Opie photographs is reason enough to stop and take a closer look.  Although simple at first glance, Opie’s works have always been far more complicated and powerful than they initially appear.  They cross diverse genres including portraiture, landscape, and street photography, exploring complex issues of community and identity across her American homeland.  Opie has always been interested in the conditions that people live and how communities form and are defined.

Catherine Opie, The Gang, 1990. Image via www.stephenfriedman.com

This is a simply, but very well, curated show.  Opie’s work is known for moving between portraiture and landscape and this exhibition harmoniously combines these two realms, presenting two very different bodies of work: a selection of portraits from her Girlfriends series and a new series of landscapes, captured at sea – Twelve Miles to the Horizon: Sunrises and Sunsets.

Catherine Opie, Sunset 5, 2009. Image via www.stephenfriedman.com

Taken from the mid-eighties through to 2010, Girlfriends is a striking, stark series of black and white portraits showing a diverse range of friends and lovers.  Opie’s representation often aims to provoke.  With no excess allowed in her compositions, these sitters are themselves and they dare you to accept them as they are.  The works have a playful intimacy, often highly sexualised, that transforms them from voyeuristic objects into subtle peeks into the artist’s world.

Catherine Opie, Gabby (back), 1989. Image via www.stephenfriedman.com

Twelve Miles to the Horizon: Sunrises and Sunsets documents Opie’s journey on a Hanjin cargo vessel, travelling across the Pacific Ocean, from Korea to California.  Living on the ship for 11 days, Opie documented each sunrise and sunset.  The images work in pairs, in conversation with each other, focusing on the passage of time and the transience of a day.  For me, these aren’t as exciting as the series in the front gallery but they certainly are beautiful and Opie puts her mark on the well-worn genre of landscape photography.

Catherine Opie, Sunset 6, 2009. Image via www.stephenfriedman.com

Time for a drink so we headed over the cobbles into Mason’s Yard for White Cube’s exhibition of new works by Jeff Wall.  I know it’s cold, and there are Christmas decorations adorning the whole of London, but this was the first true indication that winter has arrived – for the first time in months there were more people inside the gallery than outside (where the bar is).  Quelle horreur!  As at Stephen Friedman, White Cube are showing two series of works.  The first, upstairs, Sicily, 2007 consists of only three photographs.  This was in complete contrast to Opie’s use of landscape.  Using his typical large-scale format, Wall evokes ancient settings, mingling eras in a timeless world that he creates.  The works came about after a holiday to Sicily where Wall was struck by the powerful rocky landscape and the sense of desolate beauty.  The sheer scale of the works is necessary to convey the impact of the landscape.  Wall doesn’t wish just to photograph stunning scenery but to explore the power of nature.  This is most successful in his black and white images, showing that colour is not important here, only shape and space.

Jeff Wall, Hillside, Sicily, 2009. Image via www.thisislondon.co.uk

Downstairs, White Cube are showing seven new works that depict a figure or a group of figures, who appear to be playing or enacting a role.  Again, the photographs seek to transport the viewer to Wall’s timeless world.  They are always carefully composed and staged.

One such work is Boy Falls From Tree that aims to show a contrast of calmness interrupted by drama.  Yet, the drama does not really impact on the tranquillity of the scene.  The boy is playing a role; although staged, the scene is real, it isn’t created digitally, Wall actually did have someone fall from a tree but ‘protected him from the consequences’.  It is this that gives his work such imaginative depth – staged reality (whether on TV or in art) always captures the public imagination most of all.

Jeff Wall, Boy Falls From Tree, 2010. Image via www.whitecube.com

These are good exhibitions but not really exciting and the whole evening lacked the normal buzz of PV nights in Mayfair.  Even though there are now PVs every night of the week, and the same people attend the majority, it’s always easy to lose track of time chatting.  The art world never sleeps and there’s always gossip to be shared and news to be exchanged.  Reports from friends dotted over London at other openings weren’t encouraging and, with little time to spare before they shut, I decided to put the others on my list on hold until later this week.  The joy and nightmare of living in London is the amount there is to see but I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Catherine Opie is at the Stephen Friedman Gallery until 21st January 2012, www.stephenfriedman.comJeff Wall is at White Cube until 7th January, www.whitecube.com.

 

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