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Parallel Painting Paths – Mondrian and Nicholson converse at The Courtauld

22 Feb

As you know, the exhibition space at The Courtauld is at the very top of the building.  Now, during a quiet afternoon it may be permissible to have a quick pant in-between floors or to embark on the climb wearing flat shoes but these weren’t options at an evening opening and so I bravely tottered all the way up, without stopping and without moaning (well, not that I recall).  This is an unusual exhibition in many regards: It is a more contemporary show than we would expect of The Courtauld, it successfully changes the gallery aesthetic and it pairs two artists who many wouldn’t otherwise have realised are connected.

The exhibition explores the creative relationship between Piet Mondrian and Ben Nicholson, allowing us to continue London’s exploration of Modern British, charting the parallel paths explored by the two artists during the 1930s when their works were often presented side-by-side.  The exhibition presents the two artists in parallel – in conversation – with the works leading us through their story.  When Nicholson first visited Mondrian’s studio in 1934 he had to rest in a café afterwards to try to take in what he had just seen – the elegant serenity of the works, the ambience of the studio and the energy of Mondrian himself.  This visit marked the beginning of a fascinating friendship that lasted until Mondrian’s death.

Ben Nicholson, 1936 (white relief). Image  via www.courtauld.ac.uk

At Nicholson’s invitation, Mondrian moved from Paris to London where the two worked in neighbouring studios in Hampstead.  They were separated by the outbreak of war when Mondrian moved to New York and Nicholson to Cornwall but there are over 60 letters from Mondrian to Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth (Nicholson’s then wife) covering the ten years of their friendship.

As they often do, The Courtauld has cleverly conceived a show around one of their own works – this time a Nicholson canvas, 1937 (painting).  It is part of a group of related works with powerful colour combinations of white, black, yellow and red, moderated by a cool blue.  Nicholson stretched his canvas over board, ensuring a flat and solid surface on which to work.  As ever, the painting is precise and disciplined; the colour planes are carefully ruled and there is no chance that colours will bleed into each other.  The painter’s mark is suppressed. The composition is actually very unlike Mondrian but these two artists are united by their use of forms.

Ben Nicholson, 1937 (painting). Image  via www.courtauld.ac.uk

Nicholson explores lines, shapes and spatial effects in a subtle way whereas Mondrian’s works radiate energy.  It is so easy to go around this exhibition comparing them but this should not be the point.  Yes, their lives are placed in comparison but Nicholson was never trying to imitate Mondrian and their works must be viewed as a relationship of influence.  Their art offers an alternative modern vision using a restrained vocabulary of colour and line.  Although, at times, the compositions may be strikingly similar and their vocabulary is harmoniously shared, they are very different.  They do work well as conversational pairs but there can be no denying their extreme differences. Mondrian’s works have a calming effect yet their vibrancy is uncontainable.

Before this show, I don’t think many people were aware of the depth of the mutually reinforcing friendship of Mondrian and Nicholson.  Like the exhibition, the catalogue is small and focused, a perfect reflection of a joyously academic and calming show.  It mentions the ‘opposites attract’ theory stating that Nicholson was a networker while Mondrian was a loner, Nicholson demanding and provocative while Mondrian was courteous and quiet and that Nicholson was intolerant while Mondrian was patient.  Further research into their lives has shown that this is probably a myth but a rather nice one as there is an interesting parallel in their works – they are similar but different.

Piet Mondrian, Composition C (no. III), with Red, Yellow and Blue, 1935. Image courtesy of Mondrian/Holtzman Trust and via www.courtauld.ac.uk

Mondrian painted using very specific rules where geometric figures were only ever to be the result of linear intersections and never to be separate forms.  Colour was reduced to the three most saturated primaries creating a stark contrast of black lines with bright colours.  His works have a forceful impact.

No spotlights are used to illuminate the paintings; instead, the white walls are floodlit bathing the works in light rather than starkly presenting them.  The show is beautifully and thoughtfully curated.   The exhibition space isn’t large and, therefore, the curators needed to be disciplined in their selection, presenting juxtaposing works that reveal the similarities and differences between these two artists.  Comments that the show is too small are unfair as this is what The Courtauld has to work with and they have done so brilliantly and in an astute fashion.

Mondrian and Nicholson present two strains of modernism that art history has often separated.  Now, thanks to this smartly masterminded exhibition, the two are no longer disjointed and are shown to be very much related.  Although Mondrian was Nicholson’s senior by 22 years, this only aided their reciprocal inspiration and willingness to develop.  The exhibition concludes with Nicholson’s 1936 (two forms) and Mondrian’s Composition No. III White-Yellow from 1935-42.  Nicholson’s painting, of which he produced nine variations over a period of great upheaval, is a transitional work that concludes his abstract paintings of the 1930s.  A small but intense rectangle sits proudly among three shades of grey; the work illustrates Nicholson’s highly refined use of colour relationships and the precise combinations he engineered.  The vertical format of the Mondrian is relatively unusual giving emphasis to the shape due to the obvious length of the lines.  No horizontals cross the full width of the composition.  Although the artists were apart when these works were conceived and painted, the paintings speak of the profound affinity that had developed between the two men as they worked in parallel.

Ben Nicholson, 1940-43 (two forms). Image via www.courtauld.ac.uk

The PV was so busy that I must return to this show another time, to view the works in a calmer atmosphere than amidst the bustling crowds of last Wednesday.  Not that there’s ever anything wrong with a bit of chatter and a glass of wine!  Dinner at Cigalon beckoned and I made my way a tad more cautiously back down the stairs.

Mondrian||Nicholson: In Parallel is at The Courtauld Gallery until 20th May 2012, www.courtauld.ac.uk.

Due to restrictions by the Mondrian estate, I have only been able to reproduce one image here without charge.

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Fitzrovia, Hoxton and a very good Fish Pie

26 Nov

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

Robert Pratt, Star Rosette. Own photograph.

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

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

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

The Hoxton Art Gallery. Own photograph.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lee Baker, Refractive Monolith, 2011. Own photograph.

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

Adam Ball, Coexistence, 2010. Own photograph.

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

Kathrin Fridriks, Crayons, 2011. Own photograph.

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

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

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

 

Lost Potential – Barry Flanagan: Early Works at Tate Britain

26 Sep

Everyone knows Barry Flanagan – love them or hate them – we’ve all seen one of his bronze hares somewhere or other.  There are certainly enough of them dotted around!

Tate Britain’s latest exhibition deliberately tries to steer clear of the overtly commercial, second half of Flanagan’s career and, instead, concentrates on his early works that are often forgotten or overshadowed.  The exhibition begins at the end of Flanagan’s time at St Martin’s, where he used varied tactile media, such as cloth, felt, clay, plaster and rope, to create sculptures that explored process, material and tradition.  Displayed in a carefully planned yet organically haphazard way, I had to be careful not to catch a stiletto and trip over the materials that trailed on the floor.  His sculptural objects play with basic, raw materials that often use the wall as a support, thereby blurring the boundaries between the two-and three-dimensional.  It is easily evident in this exhibition that Flanagan liked to play although he was sometimes evasive in his method.

Barry Flanagan at Tate Britain. Own photograph.

Flanagan’s work often defies conventions in unconventional ways.  His pre-sewn canvas shapes are filled with plaster or sand, allowing them to create their own forms during the process.  He let the materials guide him playing with chance, simplicity and shape.  Flanagan, in his early days, was a craftsman with a deep understanding of material; both and then among Celts, for example, have a delicacy and tactility with the authenticity and humility of material hinting at his true personality.

Barry Flanagan, and then among Celts N. ’77,  and then among Celts N.W. ’77, 1977. Own photograph.

He was also a superb draughtsman and some of his drawings are included in the later rooms.  But only the very last room introduces his hares.  The curators decided to curtail the retrospective at 1982 because the large bronzes are already so well-known and accessible.  Instead, they wanted to look at the more private, intimate works of Flanagan’s beginnings.  For me, here lies the problem.  Many of Flanagan’s works are personal and this exhibition does not teach, or tell, us enough about the artist and his inspiration to allow these works to capture our attention.  The wall labels are scant and uninformative.  He was intensely private from a very young age and did not even speak until the age of 7.  Instead, he constructed internal worlds to which only he was privy.  This echoes in his art.  Without knowing Flanagan, we are not privy to the ideas that manifest themselves in his art.

Barry Flanagan at Tate Britain. Own photograph.

The show aims to argue a continuity of practice across Flanagan’s oeuvre but, I think, it still leaves his career split very much into two polarised sections.  What unites his works, however, is their lack of pretension; whether his mighty bronzes or his small-scale sand sculptures, his personal touch and often humorous approach brings these pieces down to earth.  The large hare at the end of the exhibition heralded a new phase and the end in more ways than one – the end of Flanagan’s manipulation of materials and the beginning of his obsession with the idea that took off and brought him commercial success.

His early works are so different and have the potential to be interesting, but the exhibition fails to present them in a powerful light.  No, I’m not using a hidden meaning here.  Once again, the awfully low light levels take away any wow-factor the works may otherwise have had and leave a rather bland, unexciting exhibition. For once, Tate seem to have used white paint for the walls but they have managed to give a grisaille effect with the lighting!  The dimness gives the gallery an almost reverential feel which is wrong here.  The works aren’t meant to be deified and admired in this way.  They are light-hearted explorations of craft, showing an exciting artistic progression; they need to be presented in a lively way.

Barry Flanagan at Tate Britain. Own photograph.

Well lit, Line 3 ’68 could be beautiful if displayed properly but here it looks static.  In fact, the catalogue shows how great this work can look – it’s a shame its potential is lost.

Barry Flanagan, line 3 ’68, 1968. Own photograph.

It is important not to underestimate Flanagan’s stature as an artist and it is interesting to see these works.  So much of the exhibition’s problem (in fact, maybe all of it) is to do with the method of display.  The exhibition is flat and non-descript and does not do justice to these works.  The catalogue, however, does!

As we passed one of the monumental hares ‘running’ along the Duveen Galleries, we too decided we needed to hurry off for a revitalising glass of wine (or two).

Barry Flanagan at Tate Britain. Own photograph.

(Spot the stilettos – due to popular demand, whenever possible, pictures that include ‘the shoes’ will now be appearing at the end of my posts.)

Barry Flanagan: Early Works 1965-1982 is at Tate Britain until 2nd January 2012, www.tate.org.uk

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