Tag Archives: Paul Klee

Worth the Walk down Upper Street: Burri at The Estorick

27 Mar

It was a sunny spring day and I hopped off the tube at Angel for a stroll to lunch at Byron, opposite the Business Design Centre, before heading to the Estorick for their latest exhibition of Alberto Burri.  But wow!  I always forget quite how long Upper Street is and this is not a walk to be undertaken by the faint-hearted.  The Estorick is at the Highbury and Islington end of the road and there is a good reason why this street is serviced by two tube stations.  By the time I eventually arrived, I imagine I looked a little worse for wear.

As popular as it is, I still feel that the Estorick is one of London’s hidden treasures; it is a small but marvellous gallery that many people have still never visited, including many of my colleagues in the art world.  I know that there are always far too many things to see in London but the Estorick is a gem.

The Estorick Collection.  Image via http://citygirldiariesec1.blogspot.co.uk

I didn’t really know what to expect on entering their Burri exhibition as he is an artist I knew very little about, partly because this is the first major retrospective of his work in this country.  In fact, only one of the works in this exhibition is a British loan – a piece owned by Tate who currently house it in storage.  Made of acrylic and collaged hessian sack, the painting resembles a field with a burning red sky.  Its energy appeals to all our senses.  Burri is known and admired internationally (and a work of his recently sold at Sotheby’s in London for over £3 million) but people seem to have had difficulty placing him in art history.   So, perhaps this is why he has been sidelined but this exhibition seeks to change that and open our eyes.

Alberto Burri, Sacking and Red, 1954. Image courtesy of the Fondazione Palazzo Albizzini, Collezione Burri and Città di Castello and via www.estorickcollection.com

Initially working in an Expressionist style, Burri’s work developed swiftly.  He quickly abandoned this mode and began exploring the boundaries of the two-dimensional nature of wall-mounted artwork.  The first piece I encountered was iron on painted wood and stretcher – a dark and truly emotive work with textures that really grab you and don’t let go.  Burri is famous for using such unorthodox materials as sacking, twine and PVA glue.  I’m a fan of heavily textured works anyway but these pieces have a new depth to them enhanced by Burri’s abstract vocabulary.

Alberto Burri, Iron, 1960. Image courtesy of the Fondazione Palazzo Albizzini, Collezione Burri and Città di Castello and via www.estorickcollection.com

The first room also includes a selection of his Klee-like tempera on card and paper works.  Although these are more intimate, they lack the passion and dynamism of the more striking mixed media works.

Alberto Burri, Untitled, 1952.  Image courtesy of the Fondazione Palazzo Albizzini, Collezione Burri and Città di Castello and via www.estorickcollection.com

Room two opens with Black from 1961, another powerful and dynamic canvas.  Burri constantly plays with surface; the Cretto works, with zinc oxide and PVA glue on cellotex, look like giant crevices splitting the earth yet they retain a harmonic delicacy, exemplifying Burri’s skill.

Alberto Burri, White Cretto, 1975. Image courtesy of the Fondazione Palazzo Albizzini, Collezione Burri and Città di Castello and via www.estorickcollection.com

Burri’s interest in unconventional materials was, in part, inspired by Umberto Boccioni’s 1912 Technical Manifesto of Futurist Sculpture in which he exhorted artists to reject the exclusivity of such materials as bronze and marble.  Burri has certainly taken this to heart (or as I accidentally wrote in my first draft, taken this to art – spot on I think!) and makes use of simple materials to create his own unique masterpieces.  His sacking often resembles lacerated and stitched flesh which some scholars have suggested may be autobiographical, referencing his own medical background.   Burri was trained in medicine and had served as a doctor in North Africa during the Second World War before being taken prisoner in 1943.  It was here, interned in a camp that Burri began to paint with materials supplied by the YMCA.  As well as this medical interpretation, other works invite political readings while some resemble the landscape of his Umbrian homeland enhanced by his use of earthy colours.  But, Burri dismissed analysis that gave the works symbolic value.  For him, it was about the simple integrity of material and the work’s formal quality; he said its meaning was to be found within the composition and nowhere else.

Alberto Burri, Sack, 1954. Image courtesy of the Fondazione Palazzo Albizzini, Collezione Burri and Città di Castello and via www.estorickcollection.com

From 1954, Burri introduced fire to his work – charring, scorching and melting materials.  This development shows his power to manipulate his materials.  The exhibition demonstrates the incredible range with which Burri worked.  His methods show that he concentrated on one material until he exhausted the possibilities it offered him, pushing the boundaries of what was considered acceptable.  Burri’s works are as far from traditional representation as possible; instead, they are an exploration of the aesthetic potential of materials.  So much of art is inherently contradictory and Burri is no different – the works are aggressive but romantic and protective.

Alberto Burri, Combustion, 1961. Image courtesy of the Fondazione Palazzo Albizzini, Collezione Burri and Città di Castello and via www.estorickcollection.com

The wall labels are perfect, informative without overloading visitors; they help us to understand his life, theoretical approach and the rationale behind his artwork.  Burri is recognised as one of leading protagonists of Art Informel, a movement that focused on the instinctive and irrational aspects of the artistic process as much as on the finished product.  From the simplest materials, Burri is able to create something monumental and striking, imbued with energy and movement.  These are works about process and about the fundamentals of material.  Although I didn’t really know who Burri was, he was undoubtedly a master of the 20th century who revolutionised the artistic vocabulary of post-war art.  I have long been planning a trip to Sicily and now I have even more desire to go as Burri’s work Cretto is a must-see.  After a devastating earthquake destroyed Gibellina, Burri used the city’s ruins to create a concrete cemetery, preserving the layout of the hillside town.  It’s said to evoke a comforting gravestone that transforms a horrific catastrophe into something beautiful and poignant.

Alberto Burri, Cretto, 1985-89. Image via http://palermo.for91days.com/tag/cretto-di-burri/

Although only a three-room exhibition (the rest of the Estorick is taken over by their permanent collection), this show was definitely worth the walk.  If you don’t already know Burri’s works, it is important to look at them in the way that he intended and to learn about him and his influences afterwards.  We may have previously failed to acknowledge Burri as truly important but it is now time to do so and this beautiful exhibition does just that.

Alberto Burri:  Form and Matter is at The Estorick Collection until 7th April, www.estorickcollection.com

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Fitzrovia, Hoxton and a very good Fish Pie

26 Nov

The end of November seems to be overrun with new exhibitions.  Everybody is in a rush to display a host of new work before the Christmas calm hits London as people head home.  And so, on Thursday, I embarked on another plethora of gallery openings starting with the Josh Lilley Gallery – always high up on my must-see list.  For the next month, Josh Lilley is showing a debut exhibition of works by artist, Robert Pratt.  Pratt is fascinated by everyday details that most people would not observe – such as the dirty marks on a pane of glass or the effervescing bubbles in a fizzy drink.  His work seeks to turn these minutiae into a larger, physical reality, thereby forcing us to concentrate on subtle and transient moments.  His sculptures transform and revere the everyday, converting the overlooked into something full of personality that demands respect.  Through an imaginative play on found objects, the work carries a deeper message about the amount that goes unnoticed in our day-to-day lives and calls for us to slow down and admire the detail of the little things.

Robert Pratt, Star Rosette. Own photograph.

Pratt’s work has always been concerned with the gaze, although here it concentrates on the things our gaze misses.  He is not afraid to let these works stand alone; he does not seek to turn them into visually pretty objects but, instead, turns the banal subject matter into a beautiful form by allowing it to have its own presence.   The works all interact, forming trivial but inescapable relationships.  The academic theory behind these works is interesting but, personally, I didn’t find this particular exhibition as inspiring or exciting as the gallery’s previous shows.  However, Lilley sets an extremely high standard and I’m looking forward to their January exhibition of Matt Lipps’ work.

Robert Pratt downstairs at the Josh Lilley Gallery. Own photograph.

Just to make our lives difficult (and more interesting), we headed over to Hoxton.  A long and stressful day and inflexible stilettos necessitated a cab journey as the idea of the tube was rather horrific.  The Hoxton Art Gallery was packed.  Such a buzzy atmosphere is always enticing and passers-by were peering through the glass to see what was going on.  Pushing our way through, we came to a bar set up with local brews – this was certainly an interesting and well-thought out opening.

The Hoxton Art Gallery. Own photograph.

The exhibition celebrates the end of the Hoxton Art Gallery’s first year and showcases four of their artists – Guler Ates, Katie Sims, Lucy Wilson and Ha Young Kim – including new works by each of them.  Individually, there are some gorgeous pieces although there is no strong overriding theme to give the exhibition true coherence.  My works of choice were downstairs; Sims’ paintings draw you closer with her gorgeous technique and abstracted imagery gesturing to blurred landscapes and other worlds.  Ates’ work explores cultural hybrids through a series of haunting photographs.  Her works speak of her own personal experience as a Muslim woman in the 21st century.

Katie Sims, Brooks Ran Gold, 2011. Own photograph.

As it was only a five minute walk away, we headed to Spectra I, the first in a three-part survey presented by Future Tense.  I was pleased we made the effort to trip over the cobbles and make our way here.   This exhibition series focuses on artists for whom dynamic colour relationships is key to their practice.

Chuck Elliot, Radial/TWO, 2011. Own photograph.

Colour has always been an important focus in art but is something that frequently gets side-lined.  The exhibition press release quotes Paul Klee writing that ‘colour is the place where our brain and the universe meet’.  It’s certainly not just Klee who has these opinions.  In fact, it’s a topic that is under constant discussion.  John Ruskin, for example, said ‘The purest and most thoughtful minds are those which love colour the most’ and Oscar Wilde said Mere colour, unspoiled by meaning, and unallied with definite form, can speak to the soul in a thousand different ways’.  You get the idea!  The colours here certainly do speak to the soul.

Chuck Elliott, Blast FIRST/fractureRefract, 2010. Own photograph.

The sole connection here is the seven artists’ concentration on colour although the exhibition is not limited by media.  The project space itself is exceptional and the organisers have put tremendous care into the curation and this has really paid off.  Incredible lighting and installation has made some of the pieces come alive; this is a clever show – the works almost bounce off the walls with their addictive vibrancy.

One of the highlights for me was Lee Baker’s site specific installation – a mesmerising rainbow-like spider’s web of coloured yarns that brings out a childlike playfulness in viewers who can’t help but be intoxicated by the tonal harmonies.   Baker’s works explore the dichotomy between Japan’s fragile, intricate cultural aesthetic and the relentless forces of urbanisation that increasingly mark its landscape.  His wide-ranging influences are often apparent most particularly in his meticulous paintings.

Lee Baker, Refractive Monolith, 2011. Own photograph.

Adam Ball’s paintings radiate as if fuelled by an internal light source, reflecting the energy and life of an ephemeral world.  His intuitive use of colour and light, whether in his paintings or his papercuts, is brilliant.

Adam Ball, Coexistence, 2010. Own photograph.

As you enter the second part of the space, it’s impossible not to be grabbed by Kathrin Fridriks’ work which fuses contemporary imagery with architecture to form a uniquely expressive visual language made from explosions of colour.  The lighting of this piece is a tour de force and it’s hard to imagine it elsewhere.

Kathrin Fridriks, Crayons, 2011. Own photograph.

Although colour may be the overriding theme, there is so much more to these artists’ works than just the aesthetics of colour and their bold statements.  If Spectra II is going to be bigger and better then I’m already excited.

I was starving and just opposite is the perfect restaurant for the East London gallery circuit, accessed through a wonderful bakery and shop.  Albion Caff is wonderful but is certainly not a ‘caff’ and, having forgotten where it was, I was very happy to discover it once again and indulge in their fish pie and share a bottle of English wine and a good gossip.

Robert Pratt: From Table Top to Tiger Print is at the Josh Lilley Gallery until 22nd December 2011, www.joshlilleygallery.comWinter Exhibition is at Hoxton Art Gallery until 19th January 2012, www.hoxtonartgallery.co.ukFuture Tense: Spectra I is at the Londonnewcastle Project Space until 18th December 2011, www.thefuturetense.net.

 

The Positive in Plath: Her Drawings at the Mayor Gallery

2 Nov

Sylvia Plath is one of the literary greats from the 20th century.  Married to Poet Laureate, Ted Hughes, Plath tragically committed suicide at the age of 30.  The themes of her work, with its often-alarming frankness and confessional nature, came to influence an entire generation of artists and writers.  Plath’s renown stems mostly from her poetry, rather than her art.

Sylvia Plath, Bull near Grantchester, 1956. Image via www.mayorgallery.com

The Mayor Gallery are showing 44 never-before exhibited drawings by Plath, accompanied by an exhibition of 18 works by Dadamaino, one of the key artists of the Zero Group, characteristic of her style: cut-out monochromatic canvases and stretched, perforated plastic works.

Dadamaino, Volume, 1959. Image via www.mayorgallery.com

Plath travelled in Europe and recorded it all through keenly observed drawings, many of from her time in Paris.  These carefully constructed pen and ink drawings depict a relatively serene world where Plath seems to have enjoyed natural beauty and stillness, finding incredible harmony and precision in the everyday.  There is a childish simplicity here that is certainly never evident in her writing.  The drawings have an incredible feeling of purity with no trace of despair.  They are not to be over-analysed but should be looked at in contrast to her written works; they take the form of escapism, showing a happier side to her character.

Sylvia Plath, Tabac Opposite Palais de Justice, 1956. Image via www.mayorgallery.com

Art had always been important to Plath and she received private tuition as a teenager.  The drawings focus on an art form that gave her pleasure and inspiration.  It was a form of passion that allowed her to flourish in a positive way in contrast to her decline into mental illness.

Sylvia Plath, Curious French Cat, 1956. Image via www.mayorgallery.com

Her early letters, diary notes and poems were often heavily decorated, and she hoped her drawings would illustrate the articles and stories that she wrote for publication.  Ted Hughes mentioned Plath’s art in his last collection of poems, Birthday Letters where he directly refers to her drawings of Paris roofs, a traffic bollard, a bottle, and himself.

Sylvia Plath, Beaujolais bottle, 1956. Image via www.mayorgallery.com

Art features in Plath’s own poetry too and, in 1958, she wrote eight poems inspired by the works of her favourite artists, Klee, Rousseau and De Chirico. She admired, what she called, their primitive forms and was greatly motivated by their works.  Plath described her imagination as visual and these paintings helped to spur her on.

Plath’s semi-autobiographical work, The Bell-Jar, is seemingly referenced in one of the drawings by the same name.  The BellJar tells of Esther Greenwood who travels to New York to work as a guest editor on a magazine.  Far from being a routine coming-of-age story, Esther regresses into madness.  For Esther, the Bell Jar itself symbolises madness.  The drawing depicts a pair of red patent shoes (I’ve always rather fancied a pair myself) that recall a passage in the book, “I had removed my patent leather shoes after a while, for they foundered badly in the sand. It pleased me to think they would be perched there on a silver log pointing out to sea, like a sort of soul-compass after I was dead.”

Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar, 1963. Image via www.mayorgallery.com

Plath’s written work is often permeated with themes of death, redemption and resurrection.  Here too, she uses details from everyday life as the raw material for her writing but transforms the mundane into actions charged with meaning, overwrought with images of rage, despair, love and vengeance.  It is difficult to understand her work unless you understand her life.

Sylvia Plath, The Ubiquitous Umbrella, 1955-56. Image via www.mayorgallery.com

The main question here is would these drawings been so admired if they were not by Plath?  I think probably not but I don’t think that matters.  They are not outstanding works of art in their own right but, this aside, they are beautiful.  This simple exhibition is well-curated, showing a range of gorgeous and life-affirming works – everything that we would not expect from Plath.

Sylvia Plath: Her Drawings & Dadamaino: Volumes are at The Mayor Gallery until 16th December 2011, www.mayorgallery.com.

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