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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.

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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.

Schwitters the Chamaeleon

5 Feb

I thought I knew Schwitters.  That is until I walked around Tate Britain’s latest exhibition.

It is said of so many people that they are forerunners of their time but Schwitters really was and his incredible multi-disciplinary practice brought together not only collage, assemblage, painting, sculpture and installation but also performance – sound poem Ursonate is screaming from room 4.

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Kurt Schwitters, Dancer, 1943. Own photograph.

This exhibition asks us to re-consider many of Schwitters’ later works.  After fleeing Hanover, he emigrated to Norway and, two years later, he boarded the last ship to leave before the Nazi occupation.  In Edinburgh, he was detained as an ‘enemy alien’ and interned until 1941 at the Hutchinson Camp on the Isle of Man with a significant number of artists and intellectuals with whom he became friends.  His creativity increased during captivity and he produced over 200 works during his 16 month internment.  On his release, he moved to London where he remained until the end of the war when he moved to the Lake District.  His was not an easy life; he suffered from misfortune, hardship and, in his latter years, extreme ill health.

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

His determination to make art meant he used whatever was to hand.  His works are shaped and influenced by location and the materials he was able to find, and it’s fascinating to trace the changes in his environment through his work.  His unique concept of Merz includes three-dimensional, everyday objects, discarded packaging and ephemera forming collages that used the detritus of everyday.  The compositions are considered and controlled but filled with emotional poignancy about Schwitters’ constant flight expressed through tickets, postage stamps, identity papers – the remnants of travel and upheaval.  His works from his period in London include such objects as sweet wrappers, bus tickets, metal toys and even a scrubbing brush.

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Kurt Schwitters, Untitled (Quality Street), 1943. Own photograph.

The first room, looking at his earlier years in Germany is stunning, and contains the crème de la crème of the exhibition.

His portraits are fascinating and are a part of his oeuvre of which I was not at all aware.  Not all were commissions, although those that were enabled him to earn a small living for his art.  They are also wonderful works in their own right, allowing us an insight into the people who surrounded him – his German and Austrian friends and his fellow internees.

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Portraits in the exhibition. Own photograph.

The room focusing on the Merzbarn lends itself to sober thoughtfulness – Schwitters had been forced to abandon this installation in Germany and it was later destroyed by bombing; he had only just begun to rebuild the piece in Cumbria – the biomorphic abstract plaster relief extended from the interior wall with embedded objects such as twigs and stones – when 6 months into the project he died, aged 60, never able to realise his aspirations.  Although born in Germany and having previously gained Norwegian citizenship, he was only offered British citizenship on the day before his death.

merzbarn

Fragments from the Merzbarn with slides by Richard Hamilton. Own photograph.

Tate has also commissioned young artists, Adam Chodzko and Laure Prouvost, to think about what Schwitters means in current times and the final two rooms of the exhibition are devoted to their new pieces.

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Responding to Schwitters. Own photograph.

My only criticism of this show (and regular readers of Artista will probably know what’s coming) is that Tate have whipped out their store of grey paint.  I have to say it’s not quite as bad as usual but for works on paper that have no doubt faded quite dramatically with time, a dull grey would not have been my chosen colour on which to represent such an exciting artist.

This is Tate’s second Schwitters’ retrospective – the last one was in 1985.  He had an amazing but tragic life that’s further outlined in the fabulous exhibition catalogue through which I’m slowly working my way.  By bringing together all these works, Tate has succeeded in showing how Schwitters’ figurative works move into abstraction and vice versa.

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Tate grey. Own photograph.

This is a big exhibition covering an incredibly varied output.  Schwitters never gave up and his drive and enthusiasm is excellently applauded by Tate.  Here, we see his interaction with British art and culture and the profound effects his locations had on him throughout his life.  Like a chamaeleon, Schwitters always adapted to his surroundings!

The following day, I popped in to the opening of Hauser & Wirth’s three new exhibitions.  Philippe Vandenberg takes over the space in Piccadilly, presenting strongly textured and powerful works that are explorations of his own psyche.  His visceral and tormented works help him to overcome his demons as he mutilates the canvas as much as he does the figures he depicts.  The feeling is immense but the works didn’t scream out to me in the way I had hoped – the inner turmoil remained stuck within the canvas.

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Philippe Vandenberg, Now Patience Is Flowering Into Death 2, 1980-1990-1999.  Image via www.londoncalling.com

Savile Row hosts two very different shows.  In one gallery is an exhibition of works by Eva Hesse from 1965 when, with her then husband, she unhappily spent a year working in a former textile mill in her native Germany; when she was two, she and her sister were sent by Kindertransport to Holland because of the Nazi threat.  This period of time in the factory marked a significant transformation in Hesse’s practice where she re-assessed her approach to colour and materials and began to move towards sculpture.  Like Schwitters, she was inspired by her surroundings.  It’s a must-see show for any Hesse fan.  I may well have to go back as the opening was too crowded for words and I was heading off on a shoe shopping mission that was sadly unsuccessful but I’ll be going back to that too.

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Eva Hesse in 1965. Image via www.aestheticamagazine.com.

Next door, in a small survey exhibition, there are five enormous Bruce Nauman pieces that easily fill the gallery – you have to be dazzled by Nauman.  The exhibition concentrates on his iconic neon sculptures and installations.  The ‘flashy works’ aren’t what won me over.  Instead, it was his Untitled (Helman Gallery Parallelogram) where you have to hunt out the work, pushing your way through a narrow entrance until you’re absorbed by his green fluorescents.

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Bruce Nauman, Untitled (Helman Gallery Parallelogram), 1971.  Image via www.theartsdesk.com

The lights inspired me and reminded me that I must get over to the Hayward Light Show as soon as I have the time – though who knows when that may be.

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Schwitters in Britain is at Tate Britain until 12th May 2013, www.tate.org.uk.  Philippe Vandenberg: Selected Works is at Hauser & Wirth Piccadilly until 13th April 2013, www.hauserwirth.comEve Hesse 1965 and Bruce Nauman / mindfuck are at Hauser & Wirth Savile Row until 9th March 2013, www.hauserwirth.com.

Two in One at Tate

7 Jan

Tate’s current ‘blockbuster’ brings together the works of William Klein and Daido Moriyama, exploring modern urban life in New York and Tokyo from 1950s to the present day.  The exhibition seeks to demonstrate the visual affinity between their urgent, blurred and grainy styles of photography and also their shared desire to convey street life and political protest, from anti-war demonstrations and gay pride marches to the effects of globalisation and urban deprivation.

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Heading into the Tate Modern exhibition.  Own photograph.

The exhibition doesn’t so much juxtapose the two artists as present two completely separate exhibitions that run parallel to each other and interlock in the middle, like a nicely fitted jigsaw.  We are meant to be able to see the influence of Klein on Moriyama.  Yes, there are no doubt obvious aesthetic similarities but wouldn’t the influence be easier to trace if the two artists were shown side by side?  The exhibition fails to present a dialogue between the two – the shows are just too separate but there’s not necessarily anything wrong with that as both, in their own right, are fabulous.

Tate Modern opens William Klein + Daido Moriyama exhibition

Klein + Moriyama exhibition.  Image via http://pcruciatti.photoshelter.com

The exhibition opens with Klein whose work, for me, has a more inherent power.  Maybe this is because I was blown away by him in the first half but I don’t think I’m that fickle.  The several rooms of Klein’s powerful images are mind-blowing to say the least.

Klein’s enormous prints knock us sideways.  They are clear and crisp and the images are juxtaposed one after the other after the other. It’s a beautifully curated exhibition on almost-white walls (thank heavens that Tate’s grey hasn’t reared its head).

Born in New York in 1928, Klein was an art lover from a young age and came to photography after a meandering path where he touched on design and painting (room four of the exhibition includes some of his early abstract wooden panels and it is nice to see his origins).  His early experiments with photography were so impactful that he was offered a job at Vogue and his career as a fashion photographer kicked off with great momentum.  Concurrently, he began documenting the city in a photo diary that eventually formed the basis of his first book.  There was no stopping this man.  Unusually, Klein wanted the viewer to be aware of his own presence at the scene and provoke a response.

William Klein, Candy Store, New York, 1955 from Indy

William Klein, Candy Store, New York, 1955.  Image via www.independent.co.uk

Perhaps because Klein has worked in so many forms, he has always been versatile when transferring ideas from one medium to another and the exhibition progresses to show his experimentation with techniques such as photograms and enlarged photographs graffitied with enamel paint.

Klein is not just a photographer but a documentarian, graphic designer and filmmaker – sections of his film are looped throughout the exhibition.  Klein works in the present.  His works are very powerful and this is an all-encompassing exhibition; this is Klein’s photographs as they are meant to be seen.

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William Klein, Piazza di Spagna, Rome 1960. Image via http://thewomensroomblog.com.    

And then halfway through the exhibition turns to Daido Moriyama. The two artists are so different yet they sit alongside each other seamlessly.  I think this level of harmony is rare.  Tate hasn’t compared or contrasted, they haven’t commented – it’s up to us if we do that.

Moriyama does not go for such a polished aesthetic – his photos are grim and gritty.  They lack the passion that we came to expect from Klein in the first half of this double retrospective.  Moriyama’s works are much more introspective, playing with light and dark, abstracting his scenes so we have to search within the image in a bid to reveal its subject.  He claims his approach was simple – he wanted to show the truth.

Daido Moriyama, TOKYO, 2011 from Indy

Daido Moriyama, TOKYO, 2011.  Image via www.independent.co.uk

His early works can be seen as coming from a Japanese documentary tradition but even at a young age this artist stood out.  He continually questions his subjects and his images explore and seek to understand the very nature of the urban experience.  Many of his photographs present a cross-section of society, looking at anonymous passers-by one alongside the other.  Moriyama uses photography as a form of investigation – both into city life and into the medium itself.  In the third room we see his series Farewell Photography from 1972 where the images are dominated, and often obliterated, by blurs, grains and scratches.  We see a mass of abstract grey.  His images often have deep personal meanings, relating to his own experiences and sense of place.  These grainy grey-scale works appear like fleeting memories that could fade away at any point.

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Looking at Moriyama’s works. Own photograph.

This is Tate Modern’s biggest photography exhibition since its inception but it’s not really one exhibition. There is no evidence that these two artists are properly connected which is possibly why the dialogue fails – it’s unclear how well they knew each other and how much inspiration they took from one another’s work.  But, they are both sensational photographers who produced revelatory work. The monochrome works of both artists push photography to its large-scale limits.  Whether it’s one or two exhibitions, it’s overwhelming and highly enjoyable.

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William Klein + Daido Moriyama is at Tate Modern until 20th January 2013, www.tate.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.

Sunday morning at Tate Britain with the Turner Prize and the Pre-Raphs

11 Nov

Early this morning I popped in the car and, managing to skirt around the very impressive Remembrance Sunday crowds and consequent road closures, I headed to Tate Britain.  Comfy clothes and comfy shoes (sorry but even I’m not that committed to my heels) were the order of the day for a weekend gallery outing.

Remembrance Day services.  Image via www.itv.com

I’m not a huge Turner Prize fan but it’s still nice to have it back in London (last year it was in Gateshead marking the start of its biennial staging away from Tate Britain).  The Turner Prize takes over the downstairs space at Tate Britain but is hung differently to usual with the entrance being where we used to find the exit.  This seems to work much better though I can’t quite fathom why.

Unusually, all of the shortlisted exhibitions that led to these nominations have taken place in Britain so many of you may well have seen the works before.

To start, we are greeted by Paul Noble’s drawings.  I blogged his exhibition at Gagosian earlier this year, where we saw his sprawling drawings detailing the minutiae of Nobson Newtown.  I’m a fan!  But, the exhibition at Gagosian was far better and maybe this is a larger problem with the Turner Prize – it fundamentally reproduces shows from the last year but diminishes them so they aren’t normally as good.  For me, the marble sculptures are slightly too crude and provide an unwelcome distraction from the densely fabulous pencil drawings.

Nobson Newtown at Tate Britain.  Image via www.standard.co.uk

Luke Fowler’s film is a full-length documentary but I did not have 93 minutes to spare this morning.  Whether or not I will return to watch in full remains to be seen.  The film is about RD Laing and the anti-psychiatry movement but, unlike a normal film, it does not have a narrative.  Instead, it is a collage of short scenes and snapshots that come together to tell its strange story.  Is this art that is film or a film masquerading as art?

Still from Luke Fowler’s All Divided Selves.  Image via www.guardian.co.uk

I wasn’t able to watch Elizabeth’s Price video work as there was a technical fault this morning but, from what I understand, The Woolworths Choir of 1979 is an overpowering piece in three acts, bringing together old photographs, archive footage, rhythms, words and sound.  The piece is an act of commemoration, exploring the horror of the fire in the Manchester branch of Woolworths.

Elizabeth Price, The Woolworths Choir of 1979.  Image via www.telegraph.co.uk.

Finally, we reach Spartacus Chetwynd’s work but I wasn’t around at the correct time to see one of the actual performances.   Chetwynd’s work seems intended to shock; Tate describes her team as an energetic “16th-century wandering troupe”.  What makes her work stand out, despite its silliness, is that Chetwynd’s commitment to her absurdity is entirely sincere – a contradiction in terms perhaps but one with often spectacular results.  I never made it to her 2011 Sadie Coles show but have heard it was far more dramatic, exciting and fun.  These feelings are nowhere to be found at Tate.

Spartacus Chetwynd with co-performers as part of Odd Man Out 2011.  Image via www.telegraph.co.uk.

Tate has gone for non-traditional media this year.  I’d like Noble to win but I imagine one of the video artists will take the prize.

Although I walked around the whole exhibition, I left feeling I had seen very little of the Turner Prize and didn’t really know what to make of this year’s submissions.  The winner of the prize will be announced live by Jude Law(!) at the award ceremony on Monday 3rd December 2012.  I worry that Tate may be going too far to popularise the Turner.  Before long the artists will have to do live tricks on air to cement their win.

Elizabeth Price – not working. Own photograph.

 The main reason for today’s visit though was to see Tate’s Pre-Raphaelite exhibition.  By 10.30am it was already packed out although the guard told me that what I thought was busy was in fact quiet.  As snobby as this will sound, I do find it hard to enjoy exhibitions that are flooded with people.  I began to regret not wearing sharp stilettos that would have helped me to encourage people to move out the way (don’t worry, I’m only joking).  Luckily, I was very familiar with most of the works here so didn’t feel I was missing out when I couldn’t get near to them.  Walking through the seven rooms, was like reliving my Courtauld first year survey course with Holman Hunt’s The Hireling Shepherd, Ford Maddox Brown’s An English Autumn Afternoon, Hampstead – Scenery in 1853, Millais’ Christ in the House of his Parents and many more besides.

William Holman Hunt, The Hireling Shepherd, 1851-2.  Image via www.artchive.com.

Visitors to the show are heading straight to the work hanging opposite the entrance – Millais’ Isabella that created rather a buzz in the press before the opening.  One of the curators spotted that the foremost figure has a large erection.  He leans forward, with his leg stretched out in front of him and, although his groin is covered, a shadow is cast on the table.  It’s unmissable, yet we have missed it since 1848 when the work was conceived.

John Everett Millais, Isabella, 1848-9.  Image via www.theartsdesk.com

The Pre-Raphaelites’ recognition of women as sensual and sexual people is obvious and one of their defining features.  Desire pours forth and we know that many of these artists were enjoying themselves and their models.

We can feel the curators’ passion as we walk around the show.  With 180 works, they’ve certainly tried to cram in all their favourites (although a few notable works are missing).  Now, the Pre-Raphaelites may not be to everyone’s fancy and I have heard some describe their work in horribly derogatory terms.  But, whatever you may think, all opinions are subjective and however ‘bad’ some of the works are it’s important to remember that everyone has different tastes.  As such, the popularity of this period reigns supreme and there are some fabulous works included here.

Ford Madox Brown, An English Autumn Afternoon, Hampstead – Scenery in 1853,1852-3.  Image via www.telegraph.co.uk

Many of the works do merge into one – partly because the Pre-Raphs often painted with a prescribed artistic formula and relied on this through and through.  The works don’t often take too long to look at, they initially captivate with their bright and bubbly colours but their joy can fade away quickly when we start to note their cramped scenes, sickly colours and lack of perspectival understanding.  Some of the works are moving and many, like Ophelia, are so familiar that they are part of our everyday life.

 

John Everett Millais, Ophelia, 1851-2.  Image via www.tate.org.uk.  

I don’t think the exhibition has managed to prove anything new academically and, in fact, I disagree with the arguments that encourage us to view the movement through the eyes of Modernism but it’s a beautiful exhibition, presenting a well-known story and some well-known paintings alongside a mix of Victorian works.  Although it is a neatly summarised show, this is also its main problem.  Chronology has been abandoned here and themes imposed on the work often lead to confusion rather than distinction, such as Salvation, Beauty, Mythologies and History.  This does make it difficult to follow the progression of individuals as they get lost in the melée.

The exhibition doesn’t end on a bang and the last two rooms lose something for me – perhaps because this is actually no longer Pre-Raphaelitism but Arts and Crafts.  They clearly intend to show the influence of the Pre-Raphaelites on the later movement of Arts and Crafts but Tate fail to separate the two.

William Morris, Peacock and Bird Carpet, 1885-90.  Image via www.tate.org.uk

I certainly don’t loathe this period.  In fact, I rather enjoyed the exhibition and, although there are a lot of works shoved in this space, I do think it’s a very well-curated show with great wall colours and good lighting (something I don’t often say about Tate).

William Holman Hunt, The Scapegoat, 1854-6.  Image via www.wikipedia.org

The curators have taken care to stress the female artists from the circle with Julia Margaret Cameron and Elizabeth Siddal making bold appearances.  This is a very British show and we’ve had a very British year so Tate could not have timed this better.

One thing that still upsets me is the lack of an artist-designed Christmas tree at Tate.  Although the rotunda is no longer visible due to the major building work currently in progress I fail to believe that there is no room anywhere in the gallery to have kept this tradition alive.  The rest of London once again embraces Christmas while Tate stays in the dark.

Turner Prize 2012 is at Tate Britain until 6th January 2013 and Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde is at Tate Britain until 13th January 2013, www.tate.org.uk.

Seduced and Surprised by the National Gallery

4 Nov

Early on Tuesday morning, I joined the throng of commuters walking across Green Park.  I was freezing and realised that fingerless gloves don’t do very much now it’s winter!  I was off to a bloggers’ breakfast at the Queen’s Gallery – the Palace are embracing new technology – to view their new exhibition, The Northern Renaissance ­­.

The exhibition apparently reunites the enemies and allies of Henry VIII’s court, a place characterised by political intrigue and betrayal.   With around 130 works, it is a great excuse to show off some of the Royal Collection’s Renaissance gems including Lucas Cranach the Elder, Urs Grat and Pieter Bruegel the Elder.  Artists responded to changing ideas and a revival in humanism by producing ingenious works with advancing technical skill.

The Northern Renaissance at The Queen’s Gallery.  Own photograph.

The period saw an increase in the demand for tapestries, moveable furnishings that demonstrated the wealth and power of the owner.  When this exhibition was on display in Scotland, these weren’t shown as the exhibition was in a smaller form.  This show also teaches us that the Renaissance is not only Italian and concentrates on Northern Europe with particular emphasis on Albrecht Dürer and Hans Holbein the Younger.

One of the tapestries in the exhibition. Own photograph.

Without Holbein we wouldn’t even know what Henry VIII looked like and he also immortalised many of the personalities of Henry’s court.  The exhibition opens with a lovely collection of Holbein drawings.

The Apocalypse was a popular subject for illustration in the Middle Ages.  In 1498, Dürer published the Book of Revelations with 15 illustrations – incredible nightmarish scenes including figures from all sections of society, reminding viewers that no-one would be spared the day of judgement.  Dürer understood how to brand himself and his AD monogram, placed on all his works, made his art instantly identifiable.

Dürer’s The Apocalypse. Own photograph.

The Bruegel work, Massacre of the Innocents, which is normally on view in isolation in Windsor, is here seen in context.  But, this piece presents an interesting conundrum; during its lifetime, when owned by Emperor Rudolph II in Prague, nearly all the slaughtered children and babies were painted over to change the tone of the scene.  Evidence of them can be found using infra-red reflectography.  Do we intervene or accept that this is the history of the work?

Bruegel, Massacre of the Innocents. Own photograph.

In this vein, the gallery has conserved eight paintings for this exhibition, bringing them back to life.  One example of this is Holbein’s Hans of Antwerp – the cleaned portrait reveals new details and clues as to who this sitter may actually be but how much conservation is too much?!

Holbein, Hans of Antwerp. Own photograph.

The Queen’s Gallery do get their brightly coloured walls right and the exhibition is dark but not gloomy.  This is a much more serious exhibition than their usual and the curators haven’t gone for tricks to attract punters.  It’s a bit of a mix but maybe that is the point – to show the truly varied practice of this period.  This is a large and thoughtful exhibition (although sometimes the delicacy of the drawings is lost) and I don’t really know if it is right for their audience.  It’s alright but it’s not mind-blowing.

One exhibition, however, which is mind-blowing is Seduced by Art at the National Gallery.  I didn’t know what to think about the ideas behind this show so my expectations were low but it is sensational.

As soon as I walked into the first room I was grabbed (not literally).  Visitors are greeted by Jeff Wall’s The Destroyed Room, 1978, where he evokes the destructive frenzy of Delacroix’s painting The Death of Sardanapalus.  This is Wall’s earliest attempt to quote the past and he incorporates spectacle into the photograph, showing the aftermath of man-made disaster.  This room looks at how photographers responded to fine art traditions, especially painting; it’s called Setting the Scene which is what it does – it is a room of theatre.

Jeff Wall, The Destroyed Room.  Image courtesy of the National Gallery of Canada and via www.ng-london.org.uk

This is an exhibition that constantly surprised me.  If I had any doubts, they were gone by room two (portraits) where I was greeted by Gainsborough’s Mr and Mrs Andrews (one of my all-time favourite paintings, loved all the more for its inclusion in Freya North’s Chloë) alongside Martin Parr’s Signs of the Times from 1991.  Parr recognised the satiric potential of a protracted pose.  His discomfort contradicts the couple in Gainsborough’s work but this is a clever and fascinating juxtaposition that is still making me smile that nearly a week on.  Parr’s work has a real edge but he also takes a well-considered look at social portraiture through pose and stance, among other things.  It encapsulates something very different to the usual snapshot, showing a young couple at the beginning of their married life in their first home – in this way, the work is very sympathetic to Gainsborough.

Parr and Gainsborough.  Own photograph.

Moving on, the Learoyd photo of Man with Octopus Tattoo II,which has been used for all the publicity, is here compared with the Laocoön group.  The National Gallery argues that they have a similarly sensuous and disturbing impact.   The resemblances don’t go very far aesthetically but the ideas are shocking in both.

Learoyd and surrounding works at the National Gallery. Own photograph.

The National Gallery is once again giving their large middle room a church-like atmosphere and here the exhibition presents provocative religious imagery.  Included is Thomas Struth’s photograph of visitors to the National Gallery viewing one of their altarpieces.  Is this photo real?  What are we looking at, a snapshot or a carefully contrived and created moment?  We will never really know and this helps to teach us to question what is presented to us.  The exhibition also shows the incredible advances that have taken place within the medium.

Religious imagery.  Own photograph.

Three photographs have also been incorporated into the permanent collections offering a sensational effect.  Each comparison is a revelation making a statement using the most incredible works to support its arguments.  It’s hard to keep superlatives from my writing as the exhibition really was so good!

Seduced by Art is not trying to be a survey, nor is it a history of photography.  It’s making an argument.  Whether or not you agree, the exhibition is a dialogue that looks at significant moments.  A survey of photographs can be found anywhere but this exhibition is different.  People who know and understand painting are led into photographs, people who love early photographs can see their relevance to contemporary work and so on.  It presents historical painting, alongside historical photography, alongside contemporary photographs.  It is a tripartite exhibition with various points of access that all knit together perfectly.  The rooms work into each other, offering wonderful vistas.  They bring connections between old, new and subject matter through a series of amazing loans.

Julia Margaret Cameron, Kate Keown, c. 1866.  Image courtesy of the Wilson Centre for Photography and via www.ng-london.org.uk

This is a very darkly lit, theatrical and beautiful exhibition.  It is an enthralling show and, rare as this is for me to say, I genuinely cannot get over how great it is.  It took me by surprise.  The curators have surpassed themselves.  The press release describes the exhibition as ground-breaking and I find myself agreeing.  I will certainly be back for another visit as it deserves a lot of time, attention and awe.

 

The Northern Renaissance: Dürer to Holbein is at The Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace until 14th April 2013.  Seduced by Art: Photography Past and Present is at the National Gallery until 20th January 2013.

Double Whammy at the Royal Academy

7 Oct

The Royal Academy is back in Burlington Gardens and to re-launch the space they are hosting RA Now, an exhibition and auction that offers the opportunity to view a selection of works by current Royal Academicians (there are 80) and Honorary Academicians.  Be prepared, as the exhibition includes work by 121 artists!  It has been co-ordinated by Allen Jones and feels like the Academicians’ version of the Summer Exhibition.  By nature a broad range of media and artistic disciplines are encompassed here and not all of the art is good – the show doesn’t exactly enthuse and excite visitors.  The accompanying catalogue is designed to offer an overview into today’s Royal Academy rather than a survey of the exhibition and it is a lovely book.

RA Now in Burlington Gardens. Own photograph.

Although we are used to seeing their works individually, this is the first time that the current membership has exhibited exclusively together.  All the pieces have been donated and funds raised from the works auctioned on 9th October will contribute to the Royal Academy’s long- term plans for this site – a veritable price-war for some of the biggest names in the art world today.  Works not auctioned at this time will be available to buy during the course of the exhibition.

I think the next exhibition here in December will afford us more opportunity to see exactly what they are going to do with the space.  Due to this being a selling exhibition and auction, the curation isn’t very intelligent but it isn’t intended to be.

RA Now in Burlington Gardens. Own photograph.

The RA seem to be setting up this venue as a cultural hub; Pace have opened a gallery downstairs plus there is a new RA shop, the 42° RAW café and The Burlington Social Club – an incredible, huge scaffold construction in the central room of the Burlington Gardens’ space.  Sadly, the Club wasn’t open for us to try at the preview but it looks like a fairly special pop-up restaurant.  Seats are placed around the main rectangular area which is where I’m reliably informed the magic happens – chefs and mixologists brush arms, vying for space in the laboratory.  I think I may have to pop in to sample a cocktail.  The Burlington Gardens’ space is stunning and I, for one, am pleased to see it reopened.

The Burlington Social Club. Own photograph.

Just round the corner in the main Royal Academy is Bronze, the show that everyone is going mad for, the current must-see.

There are no surprises with this exhibition which is a delight.  It does exactly what it says on the tin – presenting around 150 bronze works from across the world that span over 5,000 years, many of which have never been seen before in the UK, certainly not in public.  The achievement of some of the loans is magnificent.  It is straightforward, a blockbuster show both in terms of scale and ambition.

Adriaen de Vries, Vulcan’s Forge, 1611.  Image via www.telegraph.co.uk

Bronze is arranged thematically with rooms focusing on the human figure, animals, objects, reliefs, gods, and so on, including works by Ghiberti, Donatello, Rodin, Picasso, Moore and Jasper Johns.  Everyone is here!  Chronologically, the show is intentionally messy but it is best to forget about this and enjoy the wonderful objects that continue to delight us as we stroll slowly from gallery to gallery.  In fact, this arrangement seeks to show how the medium has not changed too much over the years and the curators would argue that the juxtapositions allow this point to be clearly illustrated.  Works from thousands of years ago look as if they may have been made only yesterday. – such is the power of this medium.  The individual objects are magnificent and the skill is awe-inspiring.

Trundholm Sun Chariot, Fourteenth century BCE.  Image via www.guardian.co.uk

Intelligently, the show also seeks to teach us about bronze – an alloy consisting mainly of copper, with lesser amounts of tin, zinc and lead.  One room is given over to explaining the complex processes behind bronze looking at various casting techniques and giving step-by-step explanations.

Chimera of Arezzo, Etruscan, c. 400 BCE.  Image via www.telegraph.co.uk

There is, however, a large but.  Painting is designed to be hung on a wall and stared at from the front.  Sculpture is three-dimensional and, for this reason, it should be circumnavigated and lit from all angles.  The majority of works here are pushed back against the wall, inaccessible and lost.  The entire method of display makes me uneasy.  Even when the works are accessible, you still can’t see them.  There is a fabulous Cellini in room one of Perseus and Medusa.  When you are behind the work, the lights blind you.  Perseus’ bum hasn’t been lit at all, which is a real disappointment.

Cellini, Perseus and Medusa. Image via www.pbase.com

I also have an objection to the stark white cases and statement walls used throughout.  The lighting is too bright and not well enough directed and the white walls only make it worse.  There is no daylight allowed through, this is a dark exhibition that has been floodlit looking like a bad light extravaganza.  The exhibition isn’t actually cluttered but many of the objects here need at least twice the space to be studied properly.  There are far too many things to take in and enjoy.  I’d recommend buying the excellent catalogue to appreciate fully some of the wonders or to visit several times in small bursts.  It is impossible to walk around this show in one hit and attempt to appreciate everything on display.

Donatello, Lamentation over the Dead Christ, c. 1455-60.  Image via www.theartsdesk.com

When even slightly busy, the space is really quite claustrophobic.   I found it quite exhausting to walk round and needed to sit down with a glass of water after my visit.  Bronze certainly seems to be dividing opinion and I’m sure many of you will think I’m mad.  Although I’m not a fan of the layout, it is still an unmissable show that celebrates the medium.  The idea of focusing a show around medium does mean that just about anything can be put together without rhyme or reason.  But, what the hell, some of the sculptures are so incredible that it’s impossible not to be blown away.

It was time to head to the Residence of the Ambassador of Sweden for some rather different sculpture in HIT

RA Now is at 6 Burlington Gardens until 11th November 2012 and Bronze is in the Main Galleries at Burlington House until 9th December 2012, www.royalacademy.org.uk.

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