Tag Archives: Tate Modern

The Risk That Paid Off – Tate brings Choucair to London

30 Apr

We normally expect Tate Modern to put on blockbuster shows from exceptionally well-known artists who pull in the punters.  Lichtenstein is the perfect example but just a couple of floors above this popular current exhibition is a retrospective by an artist that I doubt many people have actually heard of.   You’d be forgiven for not having heard of her too as she is still relatively unknown.  Tate has taken a risk here as this is not what people expect of them; they have mounted the world’s first major museum exhibition of Saloua Raouda Choucair who has never really exhibited outside her homeland of Lebanon – she is now 97.  Older artists are certainly on trend at the moment.

Saloua Raouda Choucair in 1974

Saloua Raouda Choucair in 1974.  Image via www.guardian.co.uk

Choucair is a truly cosmopolitan artist and Tate ask us to consider this exhibition on level four in the context of Tate’s collections.  Although she rarely left Lebanon, Choucair did visit Egypt in 1943 and spent a few years in France from 1948 when she joined the studio of Fernand Léger.  Her crude copies of Léger’s works are a long way from mere imitations although this is how they may appear at first glance.  She imbues his style with a very personal reading and a new strident sense of dynamism and movement.  The women shown here aren’t fussed by our viewing them; they carry on with their activities, looking at art books, oblivious and uncaring.  The women who do look at us are forceful. Choucair lacks the crispness for which Léger is known, her figures are much rougher and less precise.  Through these works we instantly see her humourist and proto-feminist position.  The works articulate abstract forms and interlocking planes with an incredibly strong sense of colour.  Although, due to her use of natural materials, the palette in her sculpture is much reduced the forms recur again and again.

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Crude copies?  Own photograph.

To put together this exhibition, the curators were allowed to rummage through Choucair’s studio and one room includes a cabinet of hundreds of maquettes, drawings and documents that are actually stored in similar glass cabinets in her Beirut studio.  Through these maquettes we are able to see her thought processes in 3D and her varied and prolific output.  Choucair was very interested in architecture and architectural inventions; her sculptures illustrate her knowledge of architecture and her clear position on form where she liberated herself from the monolith of sculpture.  The creative energy of this artist is seen through her constant experimentation and need to be making things.  A lot of these objects remain small but she imagined them all big!

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Choucair’s cabinet of curiosities.  Own photograph.

Choucair has not had an easy journey and did not even sell a work in Lebanon until 1962 when she was in her 50s.  Of course, looking back through art history this in itself is far from unique but the political struggles that she had to endure add a further element.  Plus, through all this, we must not forget that to be a woman in this environment was exceedingly difficult.  One painting with holes and splinters of glass is the direct result of a nearby bomb during the civil wars; the violent history of Beirut can be followed through her art and much of her public art no longer survives.  Yet, she has continued producing and left us with an extraordinary body of work that constantly strives to break the boundaries of her environment and seek independence from her culture.  We must not underestimate how hard it was for her to create figurative works and even her choice of materials is extraordinary within the culture.

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The interlocking forms of Choucair’s sculptures. Own photograph.

Chouchair is fascinated by endless lines in her sculptures and the potential of the infinite.  She succeeds with the idea of playing with modular systems that can be taken apart and re-ordered in our mind’s eye.  The sculptures shown here are a highlight – ingeniously crafted and pulsating with life.  The forms of western design merge with Islamic motifs to create interlocking geometric puzzles.  Her works known as ‘duals’ present two carefully interlocking parts while some pieces stack together in a similar but more flexible way.

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Choucair, Infinite Structure, 1963-5. Own photograph.

The final room presents a completely different Choucair – a much more contemporary, altogether different artist.  But, look closer and the same ideas and principles are still very much hovering beneath the surface.  The tension, movement and dynamism is omnipresent.

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The final room of the exhibition. Own photograph.

Tate has produced a wonderful catalogue to accompany the exhibition that further elucidates Choucair’s career with remarkable insight and clarity.  This is a small show with only four rooms but I think it is the right size (entry is priced slightly lower than usual to reflect the size difference); I don’t think we would have been ready for a bigger exhibition of her work yet.  This is a well considered show.  Tate has kept it simple and not tried to cram in too much.  They have let us learn about Choucair for the first time.  They have let us come away intrigued and ready for her next exposure wherever and whenever that may be.

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Saloua Raouda Choucair is at Tate Modern until 20th October 2013, www.tate.org.uk.

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From Ben-Day to Man Ray

1 Mar

As soon as the escalator emerged at level 2 of Tate Modern, I knew I had made a mistake. Why oh why would I have thought a Friday morning in half term was a good time to visit an exhibition of one of the most popular and recognisable artists in the world who was one of the central figures of American Pop Art? A momentary oversight I think. But, I was there and, as I’d been looking forward to seeing the Lichtenstein exhibition for quite some time, in I went.

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Queues to get into Tate’s latest exhibition. Own photograph.

Tate say that this is the first major Lichtenstein retrospective in over 25 years – I’m not sure why everyone is forgetting the Hayward’s 2004 retrospective which was then billed as the first major retrospective in 35 years. It’s obviously a catchy marketing line. Tate’s show brings together one hell of a lot of works, just over 125 to be precise, including some of Lichtenstein’s most well-known paintings and some less-known sculptures in steel and brass alongside early works, monochrome images of everyday objects, unseen drawings, collages and works on paper.

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Roy Lichtenstein, Wham!, 1963. Image via www.theweek.co.uk.

Everyone knows Lichtenstein for his work based on comic strips with Ben-Day dots but this exhibition seeks to show that there is so much more to him than this. Inspired by the commercial imagery of advertising, Lichtenstein transformed this aesthetic, painting everything by hand in a strangely depersonalised way.

Lichtenstein’s most well-known pieces are displayed in room four which, ironically, is easy to miss as it juts off to one side and does not provide a link to the end of the exhibition as you would expect. These comic book scenes are certainly not as simple as they initially appear; they capture the zeitgeist of their era, funny but with a poignant and often desolate overtone. They are often a reflection of Lichtenstein’s own life – in his Masterpiece a blonde tells the artist ‘…this painting is a masterpiece! My, soon you’ll have all of New York clamouring for your work.’ Of course, it wasn’t just New York clamouring for a slice of Lichtenstein. His work has now been the subject of over 240 solo exhibitions and there can be no doubt that he defines the enduring legacy of Pop. It seems the blonde was on the money.

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Roy Lichtenstein, Masterpiece, 1962. Image via www.londonist.com.

The first few rooms are engaging and momentous and then we sit on a downward slide (sadly, the more exciting slide of Carsten Höller are long gone). This exhibition isn’t doing Lichtenstein any favours. It certainly isn’t fair to say he was a one-trick pony but he knew what he was good at and some of his experiments should really not be hanging on Tate’s walls. The lack of soul in his pieces (a self-conscious decision of his style that dictated success) means his landscape works and, indeed, his self-portrait give very little away and so don’t require very long to view. Maybe the less-known works are diminished by the strength of his more recognisable pieces. Maybe they just aren’t as good. Room seven looks at works where he plays with pieces by other artists – his rip off works – and here I saw how he had ruined works by Picasso, Matisse, Mondrian and many others. I began to groan.

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Roy Lichtenstein, Non-Objective I, 1964. Image via www.independent.co.uk

Yet, it’s hard not to like his art and the simplicity of the subjects often makes us smile. The works aren’t as simply executed as they appear and required careful calculation and meticulous planning, bringing together his thoughtful techniques with the exact reproduction of found images. He may have repeated the system but he worked continuously to ensure he was exploring new subjects and themes. He was an avid producer.

The show offers a fabulous overview and exploration of Lichtenstein’s career and progression, something we are rarely allowed to see by galleries showing the popular pieces that pull in the punters. My worry at the beginning had been the huge numbers of visitors but actually it was lovely to see so many people engaging with the works. If the crowds weren’t enough of an indication that this show will do well, the shop says it all. It won’t be long before we start to spot tourists wearing Tate’s dotty t-shirts and carrying Lichtenstein canvas bags.

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The Lichtenstein shop. Own photograph.

I, of course, couldn’t resist the catalogue – another beautiful Tate publication – and had to lug it around for the rest of the day. No wonder I have a sore back, it’s carrying all these irresistible books in stilettos.

i5VhtnWvSoHQRoy Lichtenstein, Step-on Can with Leg, 1961. Image via www.bloomberg.com.

A couple of days later I found myself at the National Portrait Gallery for their Man Ray exhibition. We think of Man Ray and we think of dazzling photographs of fashionable people. This exhibition doesn’t disappoint, following him around Paris, New York, Hollywood and London, watching his style transform but never diminish.

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Man Ray, Catherine Deneuve, 1968. Image via www.ultravie.co.uk.

His portraits often reference great painters and known works of art. While he made his living as a commercial photographer for fashion magazines such as Vogue, Vanity Fair and Harper’s Bazaar, he was first and foremost an artist, a Surrealist and a Dadist who pushed boundaries to create exciting and exemplary portraits. He was a visual innovator who often stripped scenes or poses right back, the bare bones providing all the beauty he required – narrative wasn’t necessary. Not of all of his works do this however and some just capture a prescribed pose.

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Man Ray, Le Violon d’Ingres, 1924. Image via www.londonist.com.

There can be no doubt that Man Ray’s photographs are beautiful; his photographs of Lee Miller, his lover and muse, are stunning. But she’s certainly not the only lover we see here – before her was Kiki and after her Ady Fidelin, then Juliet Browner who he married and remained with until his death. These women guide us through his life. It’s not just women though – Man Ray’s photographs show us his friends and colleagues; there’s Picasso, Braque, Duchamp, Stravinsky, le Corbusier, Hemmingway, Peggy Guggenheim, James Joyce and many more.

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Man Ray, Pablo Picasso, 1933. Image via http://arthistory.about.com.

Man Ray was a photographer who had the gift of being able to capture the life and soul of his subjects. He manages to immortalise these people in the way they wanted to be seen whilst retaining their natural beauty and truth.

Man Ray’s images are so familiar to us that it seems hard to believe that this is the first show of his work at a British gallery. The NPG have included over 150 prints dating from 1916 to 1968, tracing his career. It is well-arranged curatorially in sections that focus on different periods of Man Ray’s life, finishing off back in Paris.

Many of these images are small-scale and it’s hard to appreciate them fully when seen, black and white, en masse. I’ve probably spent longer pouring over the catalogue (yes I bought another one) than I did in the exhibition. Their energy gets somewhat lost in the gallery but the creativity of Man Ray still shines through.

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Lichtenstein: A Retrospective is at Tate Modern until 27th May 2013, http://www.tate.org.uk. Man Ray Portraits is at the National Portrait Gallery until 27th May 2013, http://www.npg.org.uk.

Tate needed to make a Bigger Splash

18 Nov

I don’t enjoy being offensive about exhibitions as I know how much hard work goes into their planning.  It gives me no pleasure to leave a great gallery and be so disappointed and bored by a show that I don’t really have anything to say.  But, Tate’s latest exhibition is so bland and irrelevant that I feel it is one of the worst shows I have seen in years.

A Bigger Splash claims to look at the ‘dynamic relationship between performance and painting from 1950 to the present day’, bringing together artists such as Yves Klein, Cindy Sherman, Nike de Saint Phalle, Wang Peng and Sam Gilliam.  It apparently ‘shows how the key period of post-war performance art has challenged and energised the medium of painting for successive generations’.  I felt the need to include this quote as, without it, I don’t think you’d have a clue as to their intentions.

Sam Gilliam, Simmering, 1970. Own photograph.

The exhibition, of course, opens with David Hockney’s A Bigger Splash – Tate obviously felt they had to include the work around which the exhibition marketing revolves.  After all, this is the title that’s going to pull in the punters.  Make sure to read the subtitle of Painting after Performance as this is not a Hockney show and the painting doesn’t really fit here at all.  Is Hockney’s painting a meditation on performance?  I think not.  Hockney’s work is certainly not the best link to performance art.

Alongside, A Bigger Splash is Pollock’s Summertime and then both artists are shown ‘performing’ in the accompanying films.  Although slightly random, this room seems quite good – it poses questions and it juxtaposes exciting major works.  But, don’t hold your breath, as this excitement swiftly fades away.  In fact, the more we think about this room and the lack of continuity between the works, the more we realise the exhibition is fundamentally flawed.

David Hockney, A Bigger Splash, 1967. Own photograph.

Both Hockney and Pollock look at the action of painting. If we want to call these artists ‘performers’ then surely any artist, in fact any creator, is a performer and then what the hell is the point of the exhibition.  Neither artist was, in my opinion ‘energised’ by performance art.

Pollock’s Summertime seen horizontal as it was painted.  Image via www.independent.co.uk

Most of the works in the exhibition are accompanied by film footage – dreary archive material that cannot make up for the lack of actual performance.  The exhibition is a mess, bringing together every sort of art, performance and media that the curators could possibly cram into one space.  Plus it’s hung on Tate grey – my favourite wall colour!

I’m not going to discuss the individual works as to see them in this context does them a disservice.  There are some powerful works if you have the energy to seek them out but, more often than not, they are lost in the ruckus.

Painting after Performance at Tate. Own photograph.

The exhibition takes a dramatic turn half-way through, concentrating on one artist per room, looking at large-scale installations.  Here, I felt the connection to painting pretty much faded away completely.  The exhibition did improve but not sufficiently to pull me out of the depression that the first six galleries had induced.  It was still pretty lacklustre.

Joan Jonas, The Juniper Tree. Own photograph.

My favourite part of the show was the last room.  Not only because it was the exit but because Lucy McKenzie’s work is thought-provoking and beautiful.  Her paintings make use of trompe l’oeil techniques that mimic architectural surfaces and the gallery becomes an imaginary room with fake walls, the interior of a stylish house.

Lucy McKenzie at Tate. Own photograph.

Even though I hoard books, I didn’t want this catalogue which, from the reviews I’ve read, seems to be an abomination, even worse than the exhibition itself.  A perverse part of me wants to get one just to see how Tate has gone so wrong with this too but, to be honest, I just can’t be bothered.

There are no performers in an exhibition surveying performance art.  It becomes very difficult to engage, difficult to feel invigorated and difficult to spend very much time at all in there.  Tired archive footage heard through headphones cannot capture the spirit of performance.  So, was painting affected by performance art?  I don’t think we leave the exhibition any the wiser.  Tate may ask the question but they certainly don’t attempt to give us an answer.

A Bigger Splash: Painting after Performance is at Tate Modern until 1st April 2013, www.tate.org.uk.

Frieze Fever and Frenzy: Too Many Galleries to Count

14 Oct

The week just gone is affectionately known by the art world as Frieze week – it is when Frieze (and this year Frieze Masters) takes over Regent’s Park and art lovers flock to London from across the world.  Frieze is accompanied by a host of other fairs (my favourite, and the most stylish, being PAD) as well as gallery openings that compete with each other on every night of the week.

Monday night saw the opening of PAD – the most chic and classy fair by far.  As I don’t ever write about fairs all I will say is that, although we were there for a considerable amount of time, I felt I needed to go back.  I also fell in love with numerous pieces including a Gerrit Rietveld Billet Chair from 1927.

Gerrit Rietveld, Billet Chair, 1927.  Image via www.pad-fairs.com

From PAD, we strolled out the square planning to go to Gagosian.  But the opening was at Britannia Street not Davies Street.  Oops!  Peering through the window we could see the Penone exhibition but not get near the works.  One black cross for me.  Next we tried Ordovas which my Frieze companion assured me was open.  One black cross for him.

Post PAD… Own photograph.

So, with very tired feet (well mine were already and it was only Monday) we went to Stephen Friedman who are exhibiting works by Tom Friedman (no relation).  Friedman’s work explores everyday objects, elevating the mundane beyond its original purpose to extraordinary new forms.  He deconstructs ideas and materials, rebuilding them into sculptural or artistic forms with a new level of genius.  What we think we see and what we actually see are very different things.

Tom Friedman at Stephen Freidman Gallery.  Image via www.stephenfriedman.com

The main gallery space holds the biggest and the best work in this exhibition – a mass of tangled wires that take over the entire room.  As we move around the installation, we can see the hidden silhouettes of human figures and faces trapped within the forms, interlocked within the wires, emerging and evaporating depending on our position.  Friedman is obsessive and, for every piece, he distils each material back to its essence and rebuilds it, presenting a new structure that crosses between the mundane and the magical.

Tom Friedman at Stephen Freidman Gallery.  Image via www.stephenfriedman.com

Everyone is opening a blockbuster this week (which makes this time of year both amazing and horrendous) and the National Gallery has gone for Richard Hamilton who was still planning this exhibition days before his death last year.  The painted white walls present a very modern space in the middle of this traditional gallery.  Previewing on Tuesday, the same day as Frieze, the exhibition is a powerful statement of intent – this is Hamilton challenging the art world.  It traces several themes of Hamilton’s career from the 1980s until his death, showing how he was moving towards a more traditional iconography at the end of his life.

The exhibition allows us to study his engagement with Marcel Duchamp, particularly in his works looking at the nude descending the staircase (addressed here in two works).   The works are perfectly executed but have a sense of disquiet; they are quite hard to read, it is often very ambiguous as to what we are looking at.

Richard Hamilton exhibition at the National Gallery. Own photograph.

Hamilton was one of the great experimenters with the computer, creating images that were entirely new, clean and crisp.  This exhibition of his work shows areas of interest that had obsessed him for so long.  One series of works remained unfinished at the time of Hamilton’s death – a trio of inket prints that visualise a moment from Balzac’s The Unknown Masterpiece, telling the story of a painter who loses his mind trying to achieve the perfect nude.   Hamilton knew he would not live to finish the work and made the decision that the exhibition would culminate in the initial presentation of these three large-scale variations.  We will never really know what Hamilton intended and this makes us sombre and reflective.  Each work features Courbet, Poussin and Titian contemplating a reclining female nude.  For me, these works would still be mysterious even if they were finished but, in this state, they just leave us to wonder.

Richard Hamilton exhibition at the National Gallery. Own photograph.

These later paintings aren’t my favourite Hamiltons – they are quite clinical in parts – but there is no denying that this is a beautiful, and surprisingly moving, exhibition.  Seemingly simple, there is so much going on; the paintings lead into one another, as the ideas progress from work to work.

Next, I headed down the road to Hauser & Wirth Piccadilly who are showing Fire by Days – paintings by the New York-based Rita Ackermann.  The idea for these resulted from an accident, a paint spillage on the floor of her studio that she was hastily forced to clean.  It was through these splurges of paint that she began to see suggestions of forms, abstracted but also figurative.  The works are very striking in this space, their strong and vibrant colours complementing the style of the room.  The pages from Ackermann’s sketchbooks, upstairs on the wood panelling of the American Room, look as if they have always been there.  There is nothing wrong with this exhibition but it failed to move me or make enough of an impact (rather like several things recently).

Rita Ackermann at Hauser & Wirth.  Image via www.royalacademy.org.uk

Continuing down Piccadilly to White Cube Mason’s Yard, I popped in to see Magnus Plessen – another artist who oscillates between abstraction and figuration.  Figurative elements cry out to us but they are juxtaposed with abstract passages that seek to disorientate the viewer.  Plessen’s techniques are the most interesting aspect of his work – he often physically turns the canvas to reposition and confound the arrangement of the piece.  It appears that he has scraped away the paint in parts using gestural washes of colour over heavier oils to muddle the picture planes.  With psychedelic acid yellows and hot pinks, there is often too much going to fully understand his intentions.  The show is well-curated and the works are afforded a lot of space – they need a white cube to shine which is exactly what has been allowed to happen here.

Magnus Plessen upstairs at White Cube.  Own photograph.

My list was looking daunting as the day hurried by and I headed up to Pace, the newly opened New York gallery which is now housed in the west wing of the Royal Academy’s Burlington Gardens’ space.  They have juxtaposed the paintings of Mark Rothko with the seascape photographs of Hiroshi Sugimoto.  The eight Rothkos included here make use of a limited palette of predominantly black and grey while the Sugimoto’s use a similar grey-scale colour scheme.  The artists form an aesthetic and quite superficial dialogue that, at times, becomes more of a battle.  It is a stunning exhibition that prompts interesting comparisons – another simple show that achieves its aims stylishly without any fuss.  Pace claim not to have opened in London sooner as they hadn’t found the right person to run the gallery or the right space – well they certainly seem to have hit the nail on the head here and I’m sure they will prove themselves during their four-year tenure.

Pace London. Image via www.manoelabowles.com

After visiting a few shops on Regent Street (to give my brain a well-needed art break), I headed to Savile Row where Thomas Houseago has taken over both of Hauser & Wirth’s gallery spaces there.

Heading to Hauser. Own photograph.

He has chosen not just to split the works between the two galleries but also to give the two spaces different titles: I‘ll be Your Sister (in the North Gallery) comes from a very raw Motorhead song while Special Brew is a strong beer that Houseago used to drink every day before school, getting drunk and avoiding normal school-time activities.  It allowed him to step outside the box.  The North Gallery presents his monumental sculptures, intentionally big and messy, these works have the wow-factor.  His works are brutally straightforward but still manage to appear mysterious and unworldly.  Houseago spends a lot of time drawing and planning the process of his work and this is evident in the highly-textured surfaces that resemble sketching.  The scale in the North Gallery is far more impactful than that in the South and the works are actually causing passers-by to stop and gape.

Thomas Houseago’s I’ll be Your Sister. Own photograph.

By nature of the sheer overload that is Frieze week, I’m having to be brief in my descriptions.  Most of these exhibitions deserve more time and attention but this overview of my mad run around London should give you a taster.

Just over the road, Ordovas are presenting Painting from Life: Carracci Freud, a tiny exhibition that brings together a group of head studies by Annibale Carracci and Lucian Freud.  This is a beautiful juxtaposition – intimate, simple and stunning.  Ordovas knows how to get their shows right and this rare collaboration between them and a public art collection (Dulwich Picture Gallery has loaned a work) shows the esteem in which this gallery is held.  The connections between Freud and Carracci have never before been explored but comparisons reveal intriguing affinities in technique, style, viewpoint and subject.  This isn’t the gallery’s first show of this type as they previously juxtaposed Bacon and Rembrandt and attracted over 10,000 visitors in their first month alone!

Ordovas. Image via www.ordovasart.com

The second of three New York galleries to open in London is David Zwirner (I’ve still not managed to pop into Michael Werner but hope to do so next week).  The gallery has certainly chosen a statement show of Luc Tuymans’ work with which to open their 18th century Grafton Street townhouse.  What a way to inaugurate this space.  Again, the gallery knows how to keep it simple, allowing the paintings space to breathe and space to be viewed.  Tuymans has lacked a proper presence in London since his 2004 Tate Modern retrospective but things are changing.  Allo! is inspired by The Moon and Sixpence, a film loosely based on the life of Paul Gauguin.  But Tuymans’ interest in this topic has to do with a general negation of modernism and Hollywood’s long-standing idealisation of the artist as a romantic savage.  This gallery adds a frisson of excitement to the already vibrant area – Dover Street and Grafton Street only continue to improve.

Luc Tuymans’ exhibition at David Zwirner’s new gallery.  Image via www.davidzwirner.com

After a very late lunch, I headed to Gagosian Gallery on Davies Street to see the Giuseppe Penone exhibition I’d planned to see on Monday night.  I seem to have seen a lot of Penone recently.  Here, he has engaged with the long narrow space of the Davies Street gallery, filling it with Pelle di foglie—sguardo incrociato, a large-scale standing sculpture comprised of delicately arranged tree branches and leaves defined in bronze.  Positioned to conceal a human face, two long branches jut outwards in place of the eyes in a projective act of looking, recalling Penone’s long-held fascination with the process of seeing.  It’s only a small show but, if you like Penone, then it’s worth popping in.

Gisueppe Penone, detail of Pelle di foglie—sguardo incrociato.  Image via www.arttribune.com

Further along the road at Gimpel Fils is Shana Moulton’s Preventation, a series of news videos in the on-going saga of Cynthia, her alter-ego.  The films are accompanied by a number of the artworks that feature in her films.

I was nearly all art-ed out for the day but had a final stop for the opening of Tess Jaray’s Mapping the Unseeable at The Piper Gallery.  This exhibition is definitely worth a visit partly to see how paintings need to be appreciated first-hand for the full experience.  Jaray has always maintained a fascination with geometry, pattern, colour and repetition culminating in her distinctive, subtle yet penetrating works.  As with many of the works I saw on Tuesday, Jaray plays with a carefully wrought tension between opposites: serenity and intensity, silence and sound, stasis and motion and two and three dimensions.  The exhibition includes over twenty identically-sized works from Jaray’s recent series, After Malevich; inspired by Malevich’s Red Square, they have an energy and intensity that grabs you as soon as you enter.  Despite the vast number of openings on Tuesday night, the gallery was packed!

Peaking into Tess Jaray’s Mapping the Unseeable.  Image via www.thepipergallery.com

Wednesday was my fairs day and, as well as a return trip to PAD, I spent time at Frieze and Frieze Masters which took up most of the day and evening.  But, I did make a small window to pop to The Courtauld for a private tour of their Peter Lely exhibition.  Lely is an important artist in British history but I don’t actually think very many people are familiar with, or excited by, his work so this is a brave choice of exhibition from The Courtauld.  Lely was appointed Principal Painter to Charles II in 1661 and his paintings define the glamour and debauchery of the period.  The works in this exhibition, however, concentrate on the period in the 1640s and 1650s when he was working in England, painting pastoral landscapes and large-scale narratives.  The exhibition is organised around The Courtauld’s own unfinished The Concert – originally thought to depict Lely and his family, it seems to be a highly personal and allegorical interpretation of Music in the service of Beauty.  This particular piece hasn’t been on display for a while and it’s nice to have the opportunity to view it in the context of other similar works.

Peter Lely, detail of The Concert. Own photograph.

The Courtauld is making the most of this exhibition with a Lely-fest; two other Lely’s are on show downstairs and room 12 boasts a display of drawings from Lely’s own celebrated and rare collection.

What this week has proved is how effective simple exhibitions can be.  Exhibited on putty-coloured walls with beautifully focused lighting, this exhibition gets it right.  Lely is a confusing artist with a mixture of styles that often betray his Flemish origins.  The paintings on show here are far more powerful than his Court portraiture of later years and this is another winner from The Courtauld.

Lely exhibition at The Courtauld. Own photograph.

Thursday was my final day of rushing round fairs and exhibitions and the evening saw two conveniently close openings on Riding House Street.  You may remember that I wrote about visiting Nick Goss’s studio a while ago.  I popped back a couple of weeks ago to see his new works and, as a result, was ridiculously excited by the prospect this exhibition.  The works here concentrate on portrayals of two different kinds of space – rehearsal spaces and the artist’s studio – where Goss seeks to investigate the detritus associated with the spaces used when playing in a band.  Cheap and simple, the limitations of these rooms allow creativity to flourish which promulgates the development of musical ideas.  Yet, devoid of players and instruments, the spaces have an uncharacteristic, melancholic atmosphere.  Goss has developed the theme of the shabby rehearsal space in a study of fakery and idealisation, filled with a sense of nostalgia and an elusive sensibility.  His are beautiful works, subtle paintings that pull you into his unique world.

Nick Goss’s new works at Josh Lilley. Image via www.joshlilleygallery.com

Over the road at TJ Boulting is an exhibition by Juliana Leite; her new work stems from consistent investigations into the physical action of her own body in space.  The centrepiece is a large sculpture, of two separate latex forms joined in the centre; describing the artist’s movement up and down a staircase, the piece strikes a resonance with Marcel Duchamp’s Nude descending a staircase (a common theme this week).  The two parts were cast from a large mould composed of a set of stairs covered with a wooden tunnel, slowly lined with clay.  The work is immense and we are drawn to walk around it, exploring its textures and crevices several times before we feel we have understood its form.

Juliana Leite’s impressive new sculpture.  Image via www.tjboulting.com

Even thinking about the week just gone slightly exhausts me.  I have seen such a wealth of incredible art (some not so incredible too) and I have the sorest feet to show for it.  I still have 12 exhibitions to cover that I didn’t manage to have the time for, I’d have loved to get to the other art fairs and I would have relished more time at the fairs I did explore.  But, there are only a set number of hours in the week and I think I didn’t do badly!

Tom Friedman is at Stephen Friedman Gallery until 10th November 2012, www.stephenfriedman.comRichard Hamilton: The Late Works is at the National Gallery until 13th January 2013, www.nationalgallery,org.ukRita Ackermann: Fire by Days is at Hauser & Wirth Piccadilly until 3rd November 2012, www.hauserwirth.comMagnus Plessen: Riding the Image is at White Cube Mason’s Yard until 10th November 2012, www.whitecube.comRothko/Suginoto: Dark Paintings and Secrets is at Pace London until 17th November 2012, www.pacegallery.comThomas Houseago: I’ll be Your Sister and Special Brew are at Hauser & Wirth Savile Row until 27th October 2012, www.hauserwirth.comPainting from Life: Carracci Freud is at Odovas until 15th December 2012, www.ordovasart.comLuc Tuymans: Allo! Is at David Zwirner until 17th November, www.davidzwirner.comGiuseppe Penone: Intersecting Gaze / Sguardo Incrociato is at Gagosian Davies Street until 24th November 2012, www.gagosian.comShana Moulton: Prevention is at Gimpel Fils until 17th November 2012, www.gimpelfils.comTess Jaray – Mapping the Unseeable is at The Piper Gallery until Friday 9th November 2012, www.thepipergallery.comPeter Lely: A Lyrical Vision is at The Courtauld Gallery until 13th January 2012, www.courtauld.ac.ukNick Goss – Tin Drum is at Josh Lilley Gallery until Friday 23rd November 2012, www.joshlilleygallery.comJuliana Cerqueira Leite: Portmanteau is at TJ Boulting until 10th November 2012, www.tjboulting.com.

Tate’s Tanks: Did they tank or triumph?

21 Jul

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

The Tanks at Tate. Own photograph.

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

The Tanks at Tate. Own photograph.

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

The Tanks at Tate. Own photograph.

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

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

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

Fase in the Tanks. Own photograph.

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

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

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

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

Stronger than the scar of Shibboleth – Doris Salcedo at White Cube

5 Jun

Whatever I thought of Doris Salcedo’s Shibboleth at Tate Modern, it is certainly the most enduring of the Turbine Hall installations.  Enduring because traces of it remain in the Turbine Hall and one can still walk down the scar that people once hopped across or tripped into if they weren’t looking where they were walking.

Doris Salcedo, Shibboleth. Image via www.guardian.co.uk

This is the first time since the crack that we have seen Salcedo’s work in London and, passing Mason’s Yard on the way back from a meeting, I decided to take a look.  I wasn’t sure what to expect of Salcedo’s latest exhibition at White Cube and I was more than pleasantly surprised.  The exhibition only includes two works – both large-scale installations – but they demand more time and respect than lots of the shows I have seen recently.

Doris Salcedo, A Flor de Piel. Image courtesy of the artist via www.whitecube.com.

Filling the ground floor gallery, A Flor de Piel is a huge shroud made from thousands of rose petals.  From a distance the medium is indistinguishable.  It was only when I read the press release that I realised what the shroud was made from.  Salcedo has used the solid and substantial wilted petals that remain after the beauty and intoxicating smell of the rose’s initial bloom has faded.  The work is about the simple but impossible task of presenting a floral offering to a victim of torture.   It is both an offering and a symbolic representation.  Like victims of torture, these petals still exist but they have changed from their initial form.

Doris Salcedo, detail of A Flor de Piel. Image courtesy of the artist via www.whitecube.com

A Flor de Piel is a work in flux that will change throughout the exhibition.  By using the rose, Salcedo has tried to push the limits of fragility, amazingly sewing the petals together to resemble a fluid, skin-like surface.

Downstairs, her work evokes a mass graveyard where each sculpture is the approximate size of a standard coffin, consisting of two oblong tables formed from aged wood.  Yet, despite the seemingly uniform nature of the coffins, each is individual, the wood coloured and cut to be distinctive.

Doris Salcedo, Plegaria Muda. Image courtesy of the artist via www.whitecube.com. 

The work was triggered by the murder of 1,500 men in Colombia (Salcedo is Colombian).  These men were innocent, lured with the false promise of a job in the army and then taken to remote areas of the country where they were killed.  The gallery is a silent memorial.  Even though there were only two of us, we found ourselves speaking in whispers, showing respect to the work around us and grieving the terrible rationale for this piece.  On the surface of the uppermost table, shoots of grass push their way through – a reminder of life amongst death.  There is hope in these works; the grass is a poignant message that life continues against all odds.

Doris Salcedo, detail of Plegaria Muda. Image courtesy of the artist via www.whitecube.com. 

This piece is a maze of sculptures yet this installation includes only 45 units out of the 162 that make up the full Plegaria Muda.

Both works are very private, intimate portrayals of loss, grief and suffering.  Salcedo’s sculptures are beautiful and graceful despite the horrors of which they speak.  They are troubling but peaceful.

This is a meditative show that forces us to engage with the political troubles in Colombia without being overtly-political in format.

Outside, London was preparing for Jubilee weekend with excitement and celebrations everywhere.  I left the gallery in a contemplative silence, really surprised by how touching and provoking these works are.

Although Shibboleth may still have a physical imprint on one of London’s most famous galleries, it never really had a profound effect on me when I visited and I felt it was lost in the cavernous space.  These two works at White Cube could not have been more different to that and I found the exhibition very moving.  I only hope that London will see more like this from Salcedo before too long.

Doris Salcedo is at White Cube, Mason’s Yard, until 30th June 2012, www.whitecube.com.

More Surprised than Shocked – Hirst Takes Tate

4 Apr

There is a tendency to Hirst-bash which seems more prevalent since Gagosian recently oversaturated the public consciousness, concurrently displaying Hirst’s spot paintings in all of their galleries.  An alarming amount of negative press has led up to his Tate retrospective and, from conversations I overheard, people had turned up to Tate Modern on Monday morning determined to criticise.

I wasn’t expecting any surprises with this exhibition as we all know Hirst’s work inside out, nor was I aiming to analyse the individual pieces; this has been done before and I know what I like and what I don’t like.  I was more interested to see how these works had been collectively displayed.

Damien Hirst, Spot Painting, 1986. Own photograph.

The exhibition brings together works from across his entire oeuvre with over 70 pieces ranging from The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (his large shark in formaldehyde) to his notorious diamond encrusted skull.  Of course, the exhibition doesn’t seek to show everything he has ever produced and his paintings that were briefly shown (and slated) at the Wallace Collection are notably missing.

Damien Hirst, detail of The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, 1991. Own photograph.

Hirst first hit the art scene in 1988 when he conceived and curated Freeze, an exhibition of his own work and that of his fellow students from Goldsmiths.  Many of the works shown there are included in this exhibition for only their second public showing.

Damien Hirst with For the Love of God, 2007. Image via www.guardian.co.uk

Hirst once said that ‘becoming a brand name is an important part of life’ and he has certainly achieved that.  He does not deny the importance of money and the exhibition screams of blatant wealth; For the Love of God, a platinum cast of an eighteenth-century human skull encrusted with 8,601 diamonds, sold in 2007 for £50 million, has its own security guards and is displayed in isolation in the Turbine Hall.  For the first 12 weeks of the exhibition, his iconic skull stands as a distinct element to the main retrospective, a free display illustrating Hirst’s ideas of mortality and value that will tempt people to head upstairs and pay admission.  It’s harder to get in to see than the Crown Jewels.

The skull’s special exhibition room. Own photograph.

The wow factor and status associated by many with owning a Hirst overflows into the exhibition shop where they clearly believe people will pay £36,800 for a limited edition plastic skull!

Hirst’s shop at Tate Modern. Own photograph.

Hirst’s works present a study of the transience and frailty of life – areas with which he has been obsessed over the years in a repetitive process that can sometimes be tiring even for the most ardent fans.  But, whatever you think of him, everyone knows Damien Hirst and he has marked our culture like no other contemporary artist.

The exhibition is beautifully presented and the curators have succeeded in showing Hirst at his best.  Hirst has never been one to follow conventional artistic paths; in 2008, in an unprecedented event, he sold 244 of his works through Sotheby’s rather than through a commercial gallery, engaging directly with the art market in a method that enraged many.  The walls of room 13 are clad with wallpaper derived from the covers of catalogues from this sale and it is this sort of curatorial spark that excites the exhibition.

Room 13 at Tate Modern’s Damien Hirst retrospective. Own photograph.

My main criticism and dislike, however, is the room of live butterflies – a recreation of In and Out of Love, his installation from 1991 that was shown at the Anthony d’Offay Gallery where one floor contained five white canvases embedded with pupae from which butterflies hatched.  They then spent their lives eating, feeding and breeding.  Downstairs in the gallery, dead butterflies were pressed onto brightly covered monochrome canvases.

Damien Hirst, detail of In and Out of Love (White Paintings and Live Butterflies), 1991. Own photograph.

The butterfly installation can now be seen in a very humid room six which has been specially designed for this purpose.  Tate are quick to point out that the butterflies are all sourced from reputable UK butterfly houses and are known to thrive in these conditions (overcrowded galleries?).  They are also working with a professional consultant to check that the butterflies are comfortable.  There is no doubt they are stunning specimens but I found this work horrific.  Let Hirst play with dead animals but leave the live ones alone (I know I’m a hypocrite but I don’t feel as strongly when he kills flies).  Although there is a strict one-way system that allows staff to check that no one leaves with butterflies clinging to their clothes, the butterflies are still escaping all the time;  I saw several being returned on Monday morning, one even carried back to its habitat by Nick Serota.  I wouldn’t be surprised if this room has to shut; it is in a ridiculous location, forcing people into a hot room filled with live insects who keep flying towards the plastic sheeting in a bid for freedom.

Damien Hirst, detail of In and Out of Love (White Paintings and Live Butterflies), 1991. Own photograph.

Moving on, Pharmacy takes over an entire gallery with drug-filled vitrines and colourful jars creating an ecclesiastical aura.  Hirst’s art continues to become bigger, bolder and brasher.

Damien Hirst, Pharmacy, 1992. Own photograph.

Although it is a powerful work, I’ve never been keen on A Thousand Years.  When it was last shown at the RA, I found the smell quite nauseating.  But even worse was Crematorium, an oversized ashtray filled with cigarette butts and ash, a contemporary memento mori – a lifetime’s accumulation of the debris of smoking that also parallels the cremated remains of the human body.

Damien Hirst, Crematorium, 1996. Own photograph.

A Thousand Years shows Hirst’s overt debt to Bacon and, of course, this is not the only work that alludes to his greatest influence.  The Acquired Inability to Escape plays on Bacon’s methods of enclosing figures within cage-like lines.  The objects suggest a human presence within the vitrine while the structure generates a sense of confinement and distances the viewer to another remove.

Damien Hirst, The Acquired Inability to Escape , 1991. Own photograph.

The very clever titles that Hirst uses give his work more gravitas than it would otherwise have and they do not require too much close attention so the crowds may be more bearable than at most of the other London blockbusters.  Instead, this exhibition is about the concept of the retrospective and overall impression of the exhibition aesthetic as a whole.  Whatever you think of Hirst, he has made his mark on art history.

Hirst’s spin paintings at Tate Modern. Own photograph.

I was surprised by how good the exhibition is; in parts, it presents Hirst as a serious artist and shows a progression in his thinking.  It is generating a love/hate response but, this is what he does and really I don’t think he would want things any other way!

Damien Hirst is at Tate Modern until 9th September 2012 and For the Love of God can be seen in the Turbine Hall until 24th June 2012, www.tate.org.uk.

(I’ve come down with the dreaded lurgy so I’m sorry that there will only be one post this week.  Happy Easter!)

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