Tag Archives: Tracey Emin

It’s Edinburgh time again…

18 Aug

The Edinburgh Art Festival is always a highlight of my August and I decided to start with the big players and see the blockbuster shows first of all.

The National Galleries of Scotland are showing a Peter Doig exhibition – a homecoming for the Edinburgh born artist although I don’t think many would instantly associate him with Scotland.  After all, he moved to Trinidad when he was two and, despite much moving around in the meantime, he has now moved back there.  The exhibition focuses on works from the last ten years and, naturally, his paintings reflect more the Trinidadian lifestyle and culture than the rugged Scottish landscape.

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Peter Doig, Paragon, 2006. Image via www.telegraph.co.uk.

Doig really is a master of paint.  One of the highlights for me, and I’m sure for many others too, was Man Dressed as Bat from 2007 – a beautifully washed out work that can no doubt be read as a study in evanescence and transparency. Before Doig started this work, the canvas was affected by rain coming into the studio. Doig liked the effect and allowed it to suggest an approach to the painting whereby successive layers of paint barely mask those underneath.  The result is ghostlike; we are trapped in a dream that slowly reveals itself to us. There are other similar works with an equally wonderful diaphanous texture.  Although I don’t like all of Doig’s works, it is his subtlety and the transparent fading hues that form his true masterpieces and this exhibition captures the impressive quality of Doig’s oeuvre showing his over-riding commitment to one media.

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Peter Doig, Man Dressed as Bat, 2007. Image via www.nationalgalleries.org

One room shows his Studio Film Club Posters – Doig and Lovelace established this club in 2003 and Doig made hand-painted posters to advertise the weekly films that have a raw spontaneous quality almost reflecting some of the makeshift signs found in Trinidad.  The paintings throughout the exhibition have been arranged in a way to challenge each other and show the development of ideas through his works.  Doig does not paint from real life but devises his images from diverse sources including photographs, films and even memories.  This does sometimes make it hard to connect truly with the canvases – they aren’t abstract but they aren’t fully present, they remain tantalisingly inaccessible to us, trapped in Doig’s own ‘foreign land’.  His works linger in one’s mind and don’t quite disappear, the ghostly images calling from room to room.

Although I was short of time, with the Fruitmarket Gallery just across Princes Street Gardens, I couldn’t resist a quick visit.

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Princes Street Gardens. Own photograph. 

This summer their focus is on Gabriel Orozco and the exhibition takes his 2005 painting The Eye of Go as a starting point – a computer-generated pattern of black circles.  The thinking behind this show requires time and concentration but demonstrates the enormous range of materials and practices he uses to exploit the circle’s capacity to be an ‘instrument’ rather than just a geometric form in a composition.  His re-workings of this motif are rigorous and obsessive.  Circles appear as gestural sweeps of ink on paper, or points on meticulous grids in pen and graphite, as cuttings, inscriptions on tickets, letters and photographs and cedar wood, as wet pools of colour or dense ink impressions and shaded graphite spheres.  The possibilities are endless.  But these are far from just circles and at times you almost forget that this is the focus of the exhibition so fascinating are the works.

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Gabriel Orozco, The Eye of Go, 2005. Image via www.edinburghartfestival.com

You may not automatically think of an exhibition around circles to be the most dynamic that you will see but this exhibition seeks to shine light on Orozco’s practice and diverse methods.

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Upstairs at Fruitmarket Gallery. Own photograph.

I decided to have an art day and headed over to Modern One for what has to be described as a sublime exhibition – From Death to Death and Other Small Tales – which I was lucky enough to be shown around by Simon Groom as part of a Courtauld alumni event.  The title stems from a Joseph Beuys work and the exhibition seeks 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 reference the body explicitly while others make subtle gestures to bodies that may or may not be present.  The works presented often confront art historical tradition through similarity in subject matter.

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Sarah Lucas, Bunny Gets Snookered, 1997. Image via www.fadwebsite.com

There are the works we’d expect such as Sarah Lucas’s Bunny Gets Snookered which picks up on the tradition of full frontal female nudes.  But for it to be seen in this context is unusual and it really is good.  Every show about the body has to have a Tracey Emin and we aren’t left disappointed but then there are also some extraordinary surprises, particularly the 15 or so rarely seen works by American artist Robert Gober.  These turn everything on its head, often focusing on duality and collision of ideas.

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Robert Gober, Untitled (Torso), 1990. Image via www.thisispipe.com

Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain for once is not taking centre stage.  Here, it is removed from its pedestal and placed in a corner, allowing the other works to come forward and take their rightful place in the spotlight.  Chadwick’s Piss Flowers are very simple but utterly beautiful.  Chadwick pissed in the snow and cast the remains, memorialising something that did not even exist.

The smell permeating through the ground floor galleries comes from Ernesto Neto’s labyrinth-like installation, It Happens When the Body’s Anatomy of Time where columns, made from gauze, are weighed down with aromatic spices, dividing the space. It is a very contradictory piece that feels like it was made for the space.

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

The exhibition also includes all of Matthew Barney’s Cremaster series in one gallery – five feature length films set in a folkloric world of his own invention.  It would take a day to get through these incredible films and, indeed, I was quite upset I hadn’t known sooner that they were here.  Seeing them all together in this incredible performance/installation is mind-blowing.  Not many rooms are given over to one single artist but this room is all-encompassing and mesmerising.

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A still from the Cremaster series. Image via www.artsbournemouth.org.uk

Nearly every work in this exhibition deserves a mention which is a surprising feat (there are of course always some pieces that don’t float your boat and I will never be a fan of Paul McCarthy’s Pirate Party that takes over an entire room and can be heard in a couple of others).  I’m used to exhibitions at Modern One occupying only the ground floor but this one is so extensive it takes over the entire building with around 130 works of top quality, playing to the gallery’s own strengths while showing their curatorial expertise.  It’s fabulous with contrasting atmospheres throughout.  This is an opportunity to see works that get very little exposure. The gallery have created an exhibition that really works without compromise.  There aren’t many wall texts around the exhibition – we are allowed to make up our own minds without intervention and can then read the excellent catalogue at a later date.

This exhibition has been open since the end of last year and is closing early in September.  If you were having an urge to pop to Edinburgh then seize it – after all you can always go for the day like I crazily did last week.

I popped back to London for a few days last week too and took the opportunity to see Conrad Shawcross’s Timepiece which is currently transforming the Roundhouse.  As a Shawcross fan, this was always going to be a winner for me.  He describes the piece as ‘an engine driving a functioning clock’.  Each hand is fitted with a 1000-watt bulb and solely the light from the installation illuminates the room.  The shadows are sent over the entire Roundhouse creating a huge sundial.

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Conrad Shawcross at the Roundhouse. Own photograph.

We are normally used to seeing the Roundhouse as a concert venue filled with loud noise and hubbub.  Timepiece has completely transformed the space.  It is now one of hushed contemplation with people sitting on the floor gazing at the four-metre high contraption as it rotates and moves at different speeds.  The work is poetic and isn’t just something to take a quick glance at.  It deserves consideration.  Ironically it is easy to lose track of time watching Timepiece work its magic.

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Peter Doig, No Foreign Lands is at the Scottish National Gallery until 3rd November, http://www.nationalgalleries.org/Gabriel Orozco: Thinking in Circles is at Fruitmarket Gallery until 18 October, http://fruitmarket.co.uk/.  From Death to Death and Other Small Tales | Masterpieces from the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art and the D.Daskalopoulos Collection is at Modern One (Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art) until 8th September, http://www.nationalgalleries.org/Conrad Shawcross’s Timepiece is at the Roundhouse until 25th August, http://www.roundhouse.org.uk/conrad-shawcross-timepiece

Who’ll Stop The Rain – Tate, Barbican and The Courtauld

19 Feb

So many exhibitions have opened in the last week or so that it is nearly impossible to keep up.

Last Monday, I started at Tate’s latest BP British Art Display – Looking at the View – which brings together a multitude of landscape works from Tate’s stores. The works span 300 years and vary in quality and excitement but there are some pieces worth seeing including works by Julian Opie, Paul Graham, Wolfgang Tilmans, Gilbert & George, Willie Doherty, Patrick Caulfield and JMW Turner. Landscape has often been used to highlight changing social or political conditions and this display demonstrates the usage of the genre, showing how unconnected artists, centuries apart, have looked at our landscape in surprisingly similar ways and asked similar questions of their audiences.

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Julian Opie dominates in the distance. Own photograph.

The display has been publicised using Joseph Wright’s Sir Brooke Boothby partnered with Tracey Emin’s Monument Valley (Grand Scale). Wright shows Boothby reading Rousseau’s first Dialogues, of which he was the publisher, while Emin is also seen reading her own book – a comment on literary self-regard and the act of reading itself. It’s quite different to a normal Tate exhibition (and I breathed a sigh of relief that thankfully they haven’t painted the walls grey) but there is a lack of information as you wander round the space which, combined with the lack of narrative, can be confusing. It’s meant to be simplistic, an exhibition about looking, but a tad more guidance wouldn’t go amiss.

Tate Britain Looking at the View

Joseph Wright’s Sir Brooke Boothby next to Tracey Emin’s Monument Valley (Grand Scale). Image via www.guardian.co.uk

I’m not sure all of the works quite fit in with the thematic arrangement of landscape but it’s certainly a diverse survey. It isn’t as worthy of consideration as a proper exhibition in its own right. It’s a bit of a hotchpotch; there are some beautiful juxtapositions but some strange ones too.

The display does act as a prelude to the Tate Britain re-hang that will be completed this May and aims to pull together the varied media of Tate’s collection and unite the works across the periods, providing coherence and solidarity. Let’s see shall we.

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Looking at the View at Tate Britain. Own photograph.

Next up for me was the Barbican; I was excited about The Bride and the Bachelors and my expectations didn’t let me down. This is the first exhibition to explore Marcel Duchamp’s impact on four other modern greats – John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns. It traces and studies their exchanges and collaborations blurring the boundaries between stage and gallery. Of course, it’s not quite as simple as mere creative relationships – Cage and Cunningham were life partners while Johns and Rauschenberg were long-term lovers – and the Barbican cast light on this spider’s web.

Press Preview At The Barbican Art Gallery Their New Exhibition The Bride And The Bachelors

The Bride and the Bachelors at The Barbican. Image via www.gettyimages.com

The personal and creative relationships of these artists are no doubt complicated and Barbican has not gone down an easy or over simplistic route in making these connections. It’s well-interconnected throughout, bringing the group together at every unexpected turn. By avoiding the obvious, the exhibition is challenging and really makes us think about what was going on during this important period.

Of course, there’s Duchamp’s The Bride (the show’s title piece) but there’s so much more including ghostly piano and dance performances and live dance pieces smack bang in the middle of the gallery, challenging our ideas about what a gallery can be in a fascinating cross-fertilisation of the arts. We can’t help but become part of the performance as we walk around the stage, encountering the art from every conceivable angle and viewpoint. This radical curation would have delighted Duchamp who sought to do things differently and change perceptions. Due to the exhibition’s design, the conversations between these creative genii are still very much ongoing today. The works of the ‘bachelors’ are saturated with Duchamp but often in such subtle ways that we are shocked to realise the inherent connections. Where would these artists have ended up without Duchamp? Duchamp oversees the power and poetry here, an invisible figure governing the creativity of the period as well as our enjoyment of the show. The soul of Duchamp is a persistent presence as we look at how important he was for the ‘bachelors’ and how important they were for him.

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Exploring the upper galleries. Own photograph.

The exhibition has been partly devised by artist Philippe Parreno and the juxtapositions he creates on the main stage are quite remarkable. I believe the live dance pieces will be performed on Thursday evenings and during the weekends and, to make the most of this exhibition, I’d recommend going at these times.

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Dancers in action on the main stage. Own photograph.

Some of Duchamp’s most seminal works are here and, in the same way that we still talk about them in any discussion of this period, I feel sure that this exhibition will be talked about long after its closing.

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Duchamp is the star of the show. Own photograph.

While at the Barbican, and with only two weeks until its closing, I decided to make the most of my visit and go to see the Rain Room. Having been told to change my shoes (heels aren’t recommended for walking over a wet metal grid), I slipped my ballerinas on and headed into the Curve Gallery.

The piece, created by Random International, invites us to control the rain and puts our trust to the test. It goes against our better nature and our very instincts to walk headlong into this torrential sheet of water. I must say, having heard mixed reports, I wasn’t very trusting but eventually fought my demons and walked into the water with my arms outstretched hoping they would trigger the sensors before I did. I didn’t think It would make for a very good blog if I wussed out and walked round the edge. I’m not upset that I must have looked like someone from the Ministry of Silly Walks wandering about in this somewhat strange fashion as my coat sleeves had been rained on by the time I emerged. Maybe I should have gone in more casual attire and worn a raincoat but, needs must, and straight hair and a smart dress were required.

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The nervous beginning… Own photograph.

You walk round a dark curving corridor and are confronted by a large patch of thundering rain. It must be that we don’t see quite enough rain in the UK because people are going wild to get into The Rain Room. The piece is activated by sensors and the falling water is meant to stop as you walk through the installation. You are forced to walk slowly and sedately through the piece allowing for greater and calmer appreciation of your experience. The sense of power and control is bewildering and surreal. Standing in the middle of the 100 square metre grid, enclosed by rain, is exciting. I can’t deny the wonder I felt at being part of the work. But, after a couple of minutes I was done. I’d walked through the rain, I’d stood in the rain and I’d narrowly avoided getting drenched. Maybe the inner child in me didn’t want to come out to play but I didn’t really see the point in hanging around.

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Inside the installation. Own photograph.

The technology behind the work is amazing. It’s memorable but I’m not sure it was as satisfying and spellbinding as I had expected it to be. There can be no doubt that it has caused a great deal of excitement and that the work is innovative but when I got outside I just wanted to dry off my arms.

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Looking back. Own photograph.

Numbers are limited to five people in the rain at any one time which explains the four hour queue at peak periods. Is it really worth it?

It was a busy day and, with wet arms and my heels back on, I headed over to The Courtauld to have a look at their Becoming Picasso which revolves around the artist’s work in 1901. The Courtauld’s recent exhibitions have gone from strength to strength focusing around one work from their own collection with a series of exceptional, rarely lent, loans to reinforce their message. This exhibition, in that sense, is no exception and they deserve to be very highly commended for the loans they have achieved here.

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Picasso, Seated Harlequin, 1901. Image via www.arthistory.about.com

The Courtauld’s own Child with a Dove is one of the stars of the show, looking at when Picasso ‘found his own voice as an artist’. The exhibition title is apt as it was in 1901 that Picasso went to Paris and really began to find his feet as an artist and concentrate on his art rather than his more vivacious lifestyle in Spain.

Pablo Picasso's Child with a Dove, 1901

Picasso, Child with a Dove, 1901. Image via www.guardian.co.uk

The exhibition is ordered differently from usual and the entrance is where we would expect to find the exit, partly for practical reasons to avoid queuing on the stairs but also to make this space curatorially clearer. It is an unmissable exhibition with an exemplary selection of works, a fascinating look at Picasso becoming Picasso, developing his own style and identity in preparation for his debut exhibition at Ambroise Vollard’s gallery. A selection of works from that exhibition fills the first small room, setting a context for this period and allows us to get a feel for the pace at which Picasso worked, influenced by the bustle of Parisian life – the colours, the art and the daring nightlife.

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The new first room of The Courtauld Gallery exhibition space. Own photograph.

The second room looks at Picasso’s change in direction as we see him introduce themes that would come to dominate his works throughout his career. The works here introduce a more melancholic mood which the gallery explain in part by the tragic suicide of Carles Casagemas, one of Picasso’s closest friends. Here, the pieces are emotionally powerful, anticipating his later Blue Period. He moved so quickly from the saleable and marketable artist we saw in the first room to someone who the Parisian market struggled, at the time, to understand – this was the seminal year when he found his artistic voice and began to make his mark that will never fade in the history of art. These paintings explore the interplay between innocence and experience, purity and corruption and life and death, bound up both with his friend’s death and a number of visits he made to the Saint-Lazare women’s prison.

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Picasso, Yo – Picasso, 1901. Image via www.bbc.co.uk

Although it is no doubt a brilliant exhibition, it doesn’t quite live up to some of The Courtauld’s recent shows and something was lacking here. These are certainly not Picasso’s most palatable paintings and herein lies one of the problems with the exhibition – for a Picasso lover or scholar it is a masterpiece. But, for someone finding Picasso (as he was indeed finding himself) I’m not sure you’ll come away enraptured by the artist.

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Becoming Picasso at The Courtauld. Own photograph.

With only 18 works, The Courtauld don’t fuss around or waste space and their exhibitions are always academically enlightening. They have also produced a wonderful catalogue which looks in depth at the profound changes of 1901.

I haven’t even made a ripple in the water of all the shows that have recently opened, my list at the moment is ever growing but then again I wouldn’t like it any other way. I’m not too sure I’ll be hurrying back to any installation that requires flat shoes though – not really my thing at all.

Looking at the View is at Tate Britain until 2nd June 2013, www.tate.org.uk.  The Bride and the Bachelors: Duchamp with Cage, Cunningham, Rauschenberg and Johns is at The Barbican until 9th June 2013 and The Rain Room is at The Barbican until 3rd March 2013, www.barbican.org.uk.  Becoming Picasso: Paris 1901 is at The Courtauld Gallery until 26th May 2013, www.courtauld.ac.uk.

Better than Usual: The Mixed Bag of the Summer Exhibition

28 Jun

I am one of the first to criticise the Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition and maybe this year I enjoyed it more than usual because I entered the gallery with low expectations.  The Summer Exhibition is now in its 244th year and aims to cram in a mix of works by emerging and established artists.  This year the RA received over 11,000 entries that have been coordinated by Royal Academician, Tess Jaray.  There are all the usual suspects including Michael Craig-Martin, Michael Landy, Tracey Emin and Anselm Kiefer.  But, this year, the big names seem to have been better integrated with up-and-coming artists, in a way more in keeping with the RA’s philosophy.

Endless Walls at the Summer Exhibition.  Own photograph.

There can be no doubt that the exhibition has changed drastically since its inception.  The thing about the Summer Exhibition is that it’s important to remember that there is no overriding theme or connection between the works.  Fundamentally, this is a show of thousands upon thousands of unrelated pieces.  It is a selling show and people crowd the galleries like pictures crowd the walls.

Visitors to this year’s Summer Exhibition. Own photograph.

The first room that one enters has been painted in bright red, recalling Matisse’s The Red Studio.  After this though the RA have fallen back upon the old faithful wall colour of grey.  Now I’ve not mentioned wall colour in a while but, for such a popular exhibition that isn’t meant to appeal to art purists, I find this an odd choice.  After the impressive vibrancy of the first room we are met with one bland dreary wall after another.  While grey may be a neutral colour that can cause no offence it doesn’t do very much else.

Jaray has curated the largest gallery in a different way to usual and arranged the works in a wave design that rises and falls.  She has moved many of the smaller pieces, traditionally seen in the smaller rooms, to this gallery shifting the focus of the show and showing that the largest is not always the most impactful.  Although this undulating pattern makes it relatively hard to process the works individually, it is far more aesthetically pleasing and it is much better to enjoy this space as a visitor.  Jaray has made use of the works here to create more than just a hang – this is an installation.  This room also shows off the diversity of the Summer Exhibition – whether this is a good or bad thing comes down to personal taste.

Jaray’s wave. Own photograph.

However, rooms seven and eight really deteriorate with yet more grey walls, grey plinths and overcrowded poor sculpture.

Sculpture Galleries. Own photograph.

One room is showing a video work by Jayne Parker, proving that the exhibition is interacting with contemporary media but it is wrong to have this space dedicated to just one work by one artist.  It would be more appropriate if different pieces were on a loop, giving other artists more of a chance.

The Summer Exhibition does struggle to define itself.  It is still derided by the art world but it doesn’t actually make itself available as a public selling exhibition because you have to pay to go in. Whilst I understand charging for the catalogue, surely this should be the one time of year when entry to a Royal Academy exhibition is free of charge.  And so, the show sits in a difficult position and although it’s making progress, it will always be nigh on impossible to climb out of the rut it’s in.

The courtyard transformed.

As ever, the works all blur into one and I came out not really remembering too much of what we’d seen.  It’s a great game though to wander round with the list of works and see how well you know your artists and guess the prices.  There are some fairly good works this year.  There are some fairly bad ones too but this is the best Summer Exhibition that I’ve seen in a while.  I wonder what they’ll do next year…

The Summer Exhibition is at the Royal Academy until 12th August 2012, www.royalacademy.org.uk.

How the Tate stole Christmas…

18 Dec

For the past 23 years, Tate Britain has exhibited artist-designed Christmas trees in their magnificent rotunda.

There have been some wonderful reinventions, starting in 1988 with Bill Woodrow’s ‘ecological tree’.  This was followed with trees designed by Tim Head, Lisa Milroy, Boyd Webb, Craigie Aitchison, Shirazeh Houshiary’s up-side down design, Cathy de Monchaux and Cornelia Parker whose tree was laden with dried fruit while the air was magically scented with the aroma of brandy.  In 1996, Julian Opie created a group of ‘model’ trees, constructed from two planes of wood.  Although they were instantly recognisable as fir trees, there were also instantly recognisable as Opie’s.  The group evoked the idea of a forest, drawing people into a mystical Christmas playground.

Julian Opie, Christmas Tree, 1996. Image via www.guardian.co.uk.

Michael Landy followed this installation the next year.  Then came Richard Wilson, Mat Collishaw, Catherine Yass (whose undecorated tree that was suspended and bisected by a thin beam of blue neon), Yinka Shonibare, Tracey Emin and Mark Wallinger.

Catherine Yass, Christmas Tree, 2000. Image via www.telegraph.co.uk

A bare tree cropped up again for Wallinger’s installation.  He used a large aspen (the wood of the cross on which Christ was crucified), hung with 500 lightly-scented Catholic rosaries.  Then there was a tree by Richard Wentworth and a traditional spruce by Gary Hume decorated with hand-painted steel-plate blackbirds.  The blackbird is a typical Christmas bird and an iconic part of the festival – the ‘four calling birds’ of the popular song are blackbirds (calling birds, originating from colly birds where colly refers to the black soot of coal).

Mark Wallinger, Populus Tremula, 2003. Image via www.tate.org.uk

Important artists continued to adorn Tate’s rotunda with their festive spirit.  Sarah Lucas in 2006, then, Fiona Banner, Bob and Roberta Smith, Tacita Dean and, finally, last year, Giorgio Sadotti’s unadorned tree.  At the bottom of his Norwegian Spruce, rested a coiled bullwhip, intended to drive away the spell of Christmas on twelfth night.  Sadotti asked us to recognise the tree’s natural elegance in its state of undress.

Giorgio Sadotti, Christmas Tree, 2010.  Image via www.artswrap.co.uk

And so, it’s the time of year again when Tate should be unveiling its tree but, sadly, there is nothing.  “Due to building works” (that haven’t yet affected the rotunda), a wonderful British tradition has been left to fizzle out and Tate has disappointed Christmas-loving art fans.  I, for one, am missing this festive eccentricity normally embraced by one of our favourite galleries.  If for some reason they don’t want to use the rotunda this year, you’d think they would have enough space across both their London galleries that they wouldn’t have to be the gallery that stole Christmas.

Please Tate let us have our Christmas tree back next year!

Bill Woodrow, Christmas Tree, 1988. Image via www.guardian.co.uk.

Tim Head installing his tree, 1989. Image via www.tate.org.uk

Lisa Milroy, Christmas Tree, 1990. Image via www.guardian.co.uk.

Boyd Webb, Christmas Tree, 1991. Image via www.guardian.co.uk.

Craigie Aitchison, Christmas Tree, 1992. Image via www.tate.org.uk

Shirazeh Houshiary, Christmas Tree, 1993. Image via www.tate.org.uk

Cathy de Monchaux, Christmas Tree, 1994. Image via www.guardian.co.uk.

Cornelia Parker, Christmas Tree, 1995. Image via www.tate.org.uk

Michael Landy, Christmas Tree, 1997.  Image via www.telegraph.co.uk

Richard Wilson, Christmas Tree, 1998. Image via www.guardian.co.uk.

Mat Collishaw, Christmas Tree, 1999. Image via www.guardian.co.uk.

Yinka Shonibare, Christmas Tree, 2001.  Image via www.telegraph.co.uk

Tracey Emin, Christmas Tree, 2002. Image via www.tate.org.uk

Richard Wentworth, Christmas Tree, 2004. Image via www.guardian.co.uk.

Gary Hume, Christmas Tree, 2005. Image via www.guardian.co.uk.

Sarah Lucas, Christmas Tree, 2006. Image via www.telegraph.co.uk

Fiona Banner, Christmas Tree, 2007. Image via www.flickr.com/photos/practise

Bob and Roberta Smith, Christmas Tree, 2008.  Image via www.telegraph.co.uk

Tacita Dean, Christmas Tree, 2009. Image via www.guardian.co.uk.

I could have danced… Degas at the Royal Academy

17 Oct

Degas is loved the world over so there has been much excitement around the Royal Academy’s latest exhibition.  So much so, that they have even changed their admission system whereby friends of the RA now also have to book tickets to avoid over-crowding and ‘enhance their experience’ (really?).

The exhibition focuses on Edgar Degas’s preoccupation with movement, the obsession that led him to concentrate on the ballet imagery which made him famous.  These iconic images range from rehearsal scenes to innovative pastels produced towards the end of his career.

Edgar Degas, Two Dancers on a Stage, c. 1874.  Image via www.artandarchitecture.org.uk.

Degas was yet another artist who was meant to pursue a different path.  His father, an art lover and collector, had earmarked his son for a career in law, and Degas had to persuade his father to let him attend the École des Beaux-Arts.  He was fortunate enough to receive advice on drawing from J.A.D. Ingres but was largely self-taught, travelling extensively and gaining experience by copying the works of the great Renaissance artists.

This exhibition follows Degas’s attempts to capture movement similarly to photography of the time.  The concept behind the show is brilliant and really reveals the artist’s pioneering ingenuity but, at times, the exhibition becomes more about movement than Degas and a number of key masterpieces are missing here.

Edgar Degas, Dancer Posing for a Photograph, 1875. Image via www.topofart.com.

The exhibition opens with projections of a ballet dancer, shown on the blackened walls.  There is no doubt that this is an unusual start but presents a fascinating beginning, revealing that, as important as Degas’s paintings are, the key focus is movement – the graceful, elegant dance of a beautiful ballerina (I’ve always liked tu-tus).

The RA has erected temporary walls to encourage flow and movement around the exhibition.  Their gorgeous putty colour and the dim lights do make this very dark (I almost needed a torch) but this is for conservation reasons, so unavoidable.

Sometimes, we peer into dancers’ classrooms, at other times we, too, are watching a performance on stage; Degas’s vivid realism, seen through both his finished compositions and preparatory drawings, is intriguing.

One entire room (with atmospheric, murky cassis walls) is focused around Little Dancer, Aged Fourteen, the largest sculpture Degas made and the only one displayed during his lifetime.  Degas made 26 figure studies providing a comprehensive study of the girl in the round, analysing the figure in a way that was easy to translate into three dimensions.  Unusually, it is apparent that here the artist moved while the model remained still.  Some of the sketches, consisting of only a few fluid chalk lines, tell us that Degas was moving quickly.  Degas had an innovative approach to representing modern individuals and the power of these drawings shows that there is no one way to see this figure.  This sculpture was based on Marie van Goethem, a dance student at the Paris Opera School.  Modelled in wax, supported by a metal armature, the figure is dressed in a muslin skirt, lace-trimmed bodice and ballet slippers.

Edgar Degas, Little Dancer, Aged Fourteen, 180-81. Image via www.tate.org.uk

The work caused a sensation when exhibited in the sixth Impressionist exhibition in the spring of 1881.  The dancer appeared so real, that people were shocked, commenting that she looked like a horrible, repulsive guttersnipe.  We have seen this piece so frequently, and in so many forms, that we are no longer as struck by it as we should be.  But it’s important to remember that for its time, it was shocking.  It is the forerunner of many contemporary works that initially provoke dramatic reactions.  Remember the torn opinions caused by works
such as Damien Hirst’s shark or Tracey Emin’s bed.  Now we are used to them, we are immune to their shocking nature.  The same goes for this work, we have become over-familiar, which is a travesty as this sculpture is far from boring and deserves all this attention.

The exhibition also presents Degas’s work juxtaposed against the photography and film of the day, primarily by photographers Etienne-Jules Marey (a leading French scientist specialising in movement) and Eadweard Muybridge.  By doing so, the curators have attempted to show that, as well as being an artist known for his beautiful images, Degas was modern and radical – fully attuned to the developments of his time.  This is really a second exhibition and, in one sense, it was fascinating.  In another, it rather got in the way.  I’d come to see Degas, we’ve seen plenty of Muybridge recently with Tate’s large-scale retrospective.

Eadweard Muybridge, Woman Dancing (Fancy), plate 187 of Animal Locomotion, 1887.  Image via http://makingamark.blogspot.com/

The exhibition includes a series of six wide, narrow canvases from the 1870s which are extraordinary, not least because they are such unusual works.  The curators here suggest that they may have been inspired by photography of the time showing panoramic scenes.  The works mostly depict wide exercise rooms where the dancers are positioned rhythmically, in rehearsal.  The viewer is invited to scan the scene as one would have with popular panoramas.

Edgar Degas, detail of The Dance Lesson, c. 1879. Image via www.guardian.co.uk

Continuing with the theme of photography, the exhibition focuses on Degas’s own photographs. Having bought his first camera in 1895 (when he had just turned 60), Degas became an instant enthusiast and his photographs reflect the compositions of many of his paintings.  Several of the self-portraits are startlingly intimate, focusing on the solitude of his later life.  Although his own photographic equipment was unable to capture movement, he used his photographs to make drawings.

Edgar Degas, detail of Dancer Adjusting Her Shoulder Strap. Image via www.telegraph.co.uk

We became fully aware of quite how busy the exhibition was when we went into Colour and Dynamism – a dead-end room that traps visitors on one side.   Here, pastels from later in Degas’s life have been showcased.  The ballerinas, who we saw in such active and lively poses, seem to have aged along with Degas and these works are have less movement, but the highly saturated colours of the pastels help to animate the dancers.

A room full of pastels. Image via www.timeout.com

The last room contains a video work but it was absolutely freezing and, not having dressed for the Arctic, I was forced to hurry out rather than watch.

The exhibition is actually not as extensive as I anticipated although it did allow me to indulge and study many of Degas’s exquisite drawings. Hung here en masse the works do, for me, lose some of their charm and intimacy but this is a remarkable, and very focused, exploration of a great artist.  Degas was unusual as an Impressionist, his preoccupation with movement setting him apart from the others, whose concerns centred around the transient effects of light and atmosphere.  Degas’s ballet scenes and passionate focus on contemporary subjects is wonderful and this show re-teaches us to appreciate his genius.

Edgar Degas, Three Studies of a Dancer in Fourth Position, c. 1878–81. Image via www.royalacademy.org.uk

Degas and the Ballet: Picturing Movement is at the Royal Academy until 11th December 2011, www.royalacademy.org.uk.

A Salon for Summer: the RA’s Summer Exhibition

5 Jun

It’s that crazy time of year again – the summer season has begun.

Since the Royal Academy’s Foundation in 1768, the Summer Exhibition has been an annual fixture.  Historically, the exhibition was an opportunity for Royal Academicians to showcase their work but, today, it is renowned as the show where amateurs stand proudly alongside the gods of the modern-day art world.  It is part of the social calendar with all the glossies covering the grand party that marks the opening.  It is the show that is hated by the art world (many don’t even bother to visit) but it is packed every day until August.  You couldn’t hold this exhibition without the expected criticism.  Now, I won’t pretend that I’m not a Summer Exhibition critic but I did enjoy this year’s more than most.

Visitors at The Summer Exhibition.  Image via www.guardian.co.uk

I’d been eagerly anticipating the exhibition since Jeff Koons’ sculpture was installed in the courtyard a few weeks ago.  Although quite abstract, the work stems from a line drawing of Piglet in Winnie the Pooh – one of my all-time favourite children’s’ books.  Koons explores the joyous playfulness of child-like marks in a colouring book.

Jeff Koons, Colouring Book.  Own photograph.

Royal Academicians Christopher Le Brun and Michael Craig-Martin (both of whom have wonderful works on display) have played major roles in this year’s curation.  Key to the changes introduced this year is that there is no theme.  I applaud their decision to accept the random nature of the exhibition and to go with it.

Unusually this year, visitors enter the exhibition through the central octagon filled with large-scale photographic works and Martin Creed’s Work No. 998 (familiar from his exhibition at The Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh, last year) where he has stacked chairs one on top of the other.  Although the chairs are different from each other they appear the same through the calming influence of rhythm, sequence and harmony.

Martin Creed, Work No. 998.  Image via www.guardian.co.uk

 The selling point of the show has been the ‘Salon Hang’ in the RA’s grandest space.  Room III is certainly a success but, ironically, what I think works best is that it isn’t quite as crammed as in previous years.  The Royal Academy was originally housed at what is now The Courtauld Gallery and an 18th century salon hang was a dense floor-to-ceiling collective of works where the prime positions were ‘on the line’, a moulding placed at eye level.  This was excellently re-created in the ambitious exhibition, Art On The Line, in 2002.

Art On The Line, The Courtauld Gallery, 2002, curated by Professor David Solkin.  Image www.courtauld.ac.uk

Although not necessarily as busy as these hangs once were, Le Brun has followed traditional ideals with pieces radiating out from the large-scale works in the centre of each long wall.  He wanted visitors to find their own way through the gallery rather than being controlled by curatorial ideas.  He succeeds.  The strong grey wall colour suits the gravitas of many of the pieces on display.

Room III.  Image via www.guardian.co.uk

For me, in this room and across the whole exhibition, Keith Tyson’s Deep Impact has to take first prize.  This mixed media on aluminium is a burning fire of molten fury, the swirling colours conjuring passion, turmoil and power, grabbing viewers’ attention as they amble through the thousands of works on display.

Keith Tyson with his work, Deep Impact.  Image via www.guardian.co.uk

It is very hard to discuss this exhibition without pinpointing particular works.  As ever, at the Summer Exhibition, the best works stand out and the others merge into a panoply of dross.  I clacked around (the RA floors have some of the best heel acoustics in London) clutching my champagne, list of works and pen, noting interesting pieces.  But, flicking back, I now see I circled more than I expected so I will try to be brief.

Anselm Kiefer’s Aurora haunts the Large Weston Room.  This room, usually subdivided into sections on one side, has been left open and this is very successful.  There are still loads of works but, finally, there is the space to see them.

The Lecture Room, curated by Craig-Martin with his own specially invited artists, gathers together all the famous names of art with Allen Jones, Gary Hume, Michael Craig-Martin himself, Tracey Emin, Jenny Saville, Anish Kapoor, Christopher Le Brun, Antony Gormley, Richard Long… I could go on!  The works are all signature pieces from the artists as Craig-Martin wished the works to reveal ‘the true, distinct, and singular voice of an individual artist’.

Allen Jones, Think Pink.  Image via www.telegraph.co.uk

There are the usual ‘pretty’ works (Ice-Hiss by Vanessa Cuthbert and Mr Muscle by Tor Hildyard) and, yes, there is a lot of rubbish (including some disappointing pieces from big names) and the last room is particularly weak.  But, if you search thoroughly, there are some wonderful things: David Nash’s Funnel, an amazing severed trunk that we can peer through, and Dae Kwon’s 250510R, that has won the Jack Goldhill award, both stood out for me.

Dae Kwon, 250510R.  Image via www.telegraph.co.uk

Dog In a Bin by Simon Brundret is a kinetic sculpture made from silicone, rubber, bin and a motor, showing a dog devouring rubbish.  There is no doubt that this has the novelty factor but it left me with a smile.  I dare you not to look at it and grin.

Simon Brundret, Dog In A Bin.  Image via www.telegraph.co.uk

The RA receives no public money and the Summer Exhibition generates much revenue for the gallery.  Sales from the Summer Show also contribute to funding the RA schools (the only non-fee paying UK art school) which produce some of our greatest artists.

No-one is pretending that the Summer Exhibition is a collection of the best art in the UK today – accept it for what it is and enjoy it for all those reasons.  It is a gathering both of art and people, a mish-mash and an essential fixture in our summer calendar that provides an opportunity to see what’s going on in all echelons of the art world.

Anish Kapoor, Untitled.  Image via www.guardian.co.uk

The Summer Exhibition at The Royal Academy opens on 7th June until 15th August 2011, www.royalacademy.org.uk.

Same Old, Same Old: Tracey Emin at The Hayward

27 May

I think I picked the worst day weather-wise to visit this exhibition. Yesterday, disregarding the weather forecast, and with eternal optimism, I hadn’t dressed for what was to come – after all it hadn’t rained for ages.  The wind blew my dress like Marilyn’s in The Seven Year Itch and I tried hard not to flash the whole of London. As I ran through London’s streets, squelching around in my stilettos, avoiding flooded drains, the driving rain made me look like a drowned rat.

What better refuge than the Hayward, or so I thought.  I have always been an Emin fan.  I remember writing at school about the re-emergence of feminine crafts in the visual arts with an in-depth discussion of Emin’s quilts so now that she is a ‘grande dame’ I was eagerly anticipating this mid-career retrospective, the biggest show of her work to date.

The show starts strongly, opening with 12 of Emin’s quilts, hung two deep on the lofty Hayward walls.  If you aren’t altogether familiar with Emin’s work, you’ll quickly get the idea – they are real, dirty, rude and explicit.  In my opinion, these are the best works on display, the beautiful blanket stitch framing the sordid content surrounded by delicate appliquéd pattern work. 

Emin’s appliquéd quilts.  Image via www.guardian.co.uk

The room is dominated by Knowing my Enemy (2002), a derelict wooden pier with an unstable hut at the end; the structure seems precarious, reminiscent of the Kent coast line, teetering in a by-gone era.  The room is illuminated by a pink glow from one of her neons, Meet me in Heaven and I will wait for you.  Alas, the strength of this spectacular installation was not to continue. 

Own photograph.

Next, her amassed neon works create a corridor of smut.  Neon is commonly associated with advertising – indeed, Emin first used this media to advertise her own shop. Now she uses it to advertise those things that are unadvertisable, gesturing to clubs and amusement arcades –  a barrage of abuse attacking the Margate she left behind and now claims to love. This method no longer shocks; it has become staid and kitsch.

Neon works.  Image via www.telegraph.co.uk

Music from the film The Good, The Bad and the Ugly, accompanying one of Emin’s video works, resonates around the entire gallery.  Sadly, I do indeed mean entire.  At first this is effective but, after a while, when the theme is drumming in your head around the whole exhibition, it becomes annoying, and apparent that it is far too loud. 

Tracey Emin has never been one to hold back, in fact we know everything about her life – her art is about revealing herself.  Through this exhibition, however, we swiftly realise that Emin has never been able to cast off the negative shackles of her youth.  Her film Why I Never Became A Dancer (1995) recalls her bid to leave Margate by winning the British dancing championship.  While she danced, a gang of local boys she had slept with began chanting ‘Slag Slag Slag’ so loudly that she ran from the dance floor – her dancing career finished, she became an artist.  This video ends with Emin dancing triumphant saying ‘Shane, Eddy, Tony, Doug, Richard…this one’s for you’.  But there’s nothing triumphant about the work or this dedication.  In fact, it’s rather sad.

Why I Never Became A Dancer, 1995.  Image via www.loveiswhatyouwant.com.

In whichever of the many media that Emin has worked, she has always been self-absorbed, self-obsessed and self-pitying.  In the works of her masturbating she is even self-satisfying.  Emin’s spindly drawings, watercolours and embroideries are dotted throughout the exhibition, the majority featuring her favourite subject of a woman (most probably herself), legs spread-eagled, masturbating.  For me, one work takes her self-aggrandisement a step too far.  Presented in glass cases are a series of hospital nametags, pregnancy tests, plasters pills and…old tampons.  Emin herself has said that she’s a little bit embarrassed by this work and now thinks she should have cast them.  Maybe this would have helped but, as it remains, these disgusting memorials to Emin’s troubled journey bear more comparison to an over-flowing sanitary bin in the ladies’ loos than art works to gaze upon and contemplate. 

The History of Painting, Part I, 1999Image via www.dailymail.co.uk

The second half of the show, upstairs and outside at the Hayward, presents works from the last decade and these are particularly weak with no real impact. 

Sculptures on the outside terraces.  Own photograph.

There can be no doubt that Emin is a pioneering female artist but she’s made her point.  This mish-mash of work may have once been shocking but repetition has weakened the effect.  We’ve seen photos of Emin touching herself, we’ve seen the intentionally badly-spelt and hurriedly-scrawled expletives, we’ve seen all of Emin before.

Emin wants the show to focus on love but the only love we see is her narcissism.  The exhibition acts as a confessional, looking at the young slutty girl from Margate who became a celebrity, the queen of the British art world, suffering abortion, rape, alcoholism and various other trials along the way.  We have been there throughout.

Tracey Emin. Image via www.guardian.co.uk

Individually, some of her works are exciting and controversial but putting them together like this makes you sigh at their repetitive nature.  Has Emin only had one idea in the past 20 years?  There is nothing more to many of these works than shock and shock is a quick reaction, one without long-lasting resonant impact. 

No doubt most people will love this exhibition; Emin is a celebrity artist and people will flock to it.  I wanted to like the show but I left disappointed by this boring exhibition.  Tracey Emin’s work is about Tracey Emin.  It is about revealing herself.  But sadly, she revealed herself long ago and doesn’t seem to have done much with her time since.

Tracey Emin: Love is What You Want is at the Hayward Gallery, Southbank Centre until 29th August 2011, www.southbankcentre.co.uk.

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