Adrian Villar Rojas at The Serpentine Sackler Gallery

2013-10-02 15.15.45We’d had a coffee in the courtyard cafe at the Victoria and Albert Museum, still able to comfortably sit outside on the unseasonably warm October morning, once the rain had stopped, and decided that we should go and have a look at the new Serpentine Gallery.  All we knew about the new space had been gleaned from newspaper articles: it was somewhere in Hyde Park, had been a munitions store, and the refurbishment had been designed by Zaha Hadid.

With no discussion, but deep in conversation, we headed down Brompton Road towards Knightsbridge.  It was only after we’d navigated the crossroads by Harvey Nicks that we looked at each other , and in near unison, said, we should have just walked up Exhibition Road.

I like to congratulate myself on the London map that I have in my head.  There are whole areas that are blanks, there be dragons,: tracts  of the City, most of what is South of the River, but the West End and west as far as South Kensington, I like to think I’ve got well mapped as it were.  But walking two long sides of quite a big triangle, instead of taking the direct route, is a reminder that it can sometimes be quicker to think about where you are before setting off.

Having said that, it was a lovely afternoon for a walk in Hyde Park; the sun was so warm that we both ended up carrying our jackets, and because of our ridiculously roundabout route, I saw areas of the Park from new angles.  Our wandering tour was worth it in the end.

The inaugural exhibition at the Serpentine Sackler is a huge installation by Adrian Villar Rojas.  When we arrived, the gallery was being evacuated because of a fire alarm, so we walked around the outside of the building to examine the curves and sweeps of the Zaha Hadid 2013-10-02 15.11.07extension.    From some angles, the whole looks rather incongruous: a square building of golden bricks with a white curve stuck on the side; but the curving roof does have a pleasing shape, and cries out to be stroked – a possibility in those places where it swoops to the ground.  It appears to be made of painted plastic and canvas.  Light flows into the space from light wells in the roof, which are integrated into the support pillars, shapes reminiscent of the depiction of Triffids on 1960s editions of the John Wyndham novel. (There are T-shirts sporting the design shapes, in the minimalist shop for a mere £45.)

It clearly wasn’t a major fire emergency, as by the time we had complete the circuit of the exterior of the building, we were allowed to go inside.

The whole gallery is dedicated to the Villar Rojas installation, even down to the bricks on the floor, which the young man who greeted us at the door informed us were specially made, and had been laid loose, so that they respond with creaking and chiming as you walk on them; like a distant relation to the nightingale floors of Imperial Japan.  Evidently, all of the bricks are newly made using traditional South American methods.  It’s an astonishing feat of concentrated hard work and industry.

The entrance area is dominated by a sculpture of an elephant, made from textured concrete and plaster, apparently ramming itself into the wall, pushing its way into the gallery.  There is something both powerful and poignant about it – its great shoulders stuck underneath a lintel, and its trunk curling helplessly below it on the floor.  The surface is rough, and cracked, as the concrete has dried.  Interior walls of slowly drying and cracking concrete surround the rest of the installation.  The temptation to touch and to feel the surface is near overwhelming (and I gave in, but only for a moment, and really, really gently on tippy tippy finger tips), and there is that smell of fresh plaster in the air, that reminder of every hellish home refurbishment project ever undertaken.

Villar Rojas has created a collection of apparently random objects, the detritus of bits and pieces of contemporary life, and displayed them on racked shelved reaching to the ceiling.  Many are coated in concrete, or sprout vegetation growing from green potatoes.  It’s as if we are looking at a vision of our world which has been dug up by slightly confused archaeologists of the future.

I’m not sure I understood it, but it’s one of those exhibitions that will stay in the memory, if only for how much fun it was to walk on the brick floor.

Seeing the Art in Portcullis House

2013-07-09 17.32.22Portcullis House wouldn’t seem to be the obvious choice for an ‘art tour’ – it’s part of the Parliamentary Estate, in plain language, a building containing Committee rooms and offices for Members of Parliament.  It’s built directly above Westminster tube station, and dates from the extension of the station for the Jubilee Line.  But, in line with my current project of trying out new things in London, when I saw that they offer tours on the Fridays when there is scheduled to be no sitting in the House, it seemed like a good opportunity to see inside a building I wouldn’t necessarily otherwise visit and therefore was a  thing to add to the list.

It turns out that it’s not a brilliant place for art, what it does have is a collection of portraits, selected, by a cross party Parliamentary Committee, more on the basis of the subject of the painting than the quality of its execution.  They seek to have portraits of all significant parliamentarians, representing the first this, the first that, the longest serving the other.  The tour was confined to the corridors of the first floor of the building, where there are a number of the Committee Rooms, satisfyingly like the ones seen on the television news. It may be that all the good paintings are on the higher floors.

It was the stories about the works, and the paintings of the House of Commons in session, packed with faces and bodies all scrunched up together on the benches, that were the most interesting.  There is no hiding the vanity of those who actively seek public office.  The works I found the most satisfying were not portraits at all.

Print for a Politician by Grayson Perry, a monochrome line etching, was like a map of prejudice, and then I found this interview with him about it

Gerald Scarfe has gifted a couple of his caricatures to the Collection, one of Thatcher at war and, to be even handed, one of Blair at War.

The tour group were standing in a corridor outside a busy committee room when we had to stand to one side to allow a group of people, besuited, lanyards bumping against their chests, phones pinned to their ears, to pass by and go into the room.  The guide had just started to speak again, when another group came through.  I recognised Oliver Letwin, a Cabinet Minister, leading the pack, and looking much more diminutive than I would expect (but then so many people are).  It began to feel like one of those comedy skits showing an apparently inexhaustible supply of people appearing from around the corner and going into a room which must already be overfull.  What with that, the passage of several members of the government, and it looking like a scene from The Thick  of It, it wasn’t perhaps that surprising that David Cameron thought I was smiling at him when he walked by and gave me a nod of acknowledgement.

Both the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer had the same, half smiling, a little vacant expressions on their faces.  I’m not sure what my face would say if I was walking along a corridor towards a meeting, but it is unlikely that it would have that slightly bland, slightly blank expression.  It must be something they learn to do; an expression for walking about the place when you don’t know who you might see……rather like many of the portraits on display.

It turns out that the House of Commons was sitting on Friday to discuss the European referendum,and there was some kind of side meeting of the Conservative Party members mid morning.

All our guide could say afterwards was ‘That never happens. That really never happens.’

Patrick Caulfield and Gary Hume at Tate Britain

2013-06-05 14.44.33Oh Lordy, this was another one of those art exhibitions that I have wandered around thinking that everyone else must know something I don’t.

For a start, it’s not even one exhibition; it’s two in parallel, but for which only one ticket is required.  There is a communicating door between the two show spaces, but we were told not to use it by one of the Tate custodians.  Instead we had to go from one show to the other via the main lobby area, and subsequently suppress a desire to tell those people who did manage to sneak through the forbidden door that they should count themselves lucky not to have been caught.

We went around the Hume rooms first.  Most are large pieces, flat colour on sheets of shining metal.  I couldn’t work out what it was I was meant to be looking at.  Nasty colour combinations with the same sheen and finish as the bonnet of a recently polished car.  Some pieces, like Tulips and The Whole World have raised textured areas, underneath the gloss paint.

Since visiting the exhibition, I’ve read the newspaper reviews to try to understand why these things warranted a show at the Tate, because the show itself gave me no clue.  The reviews of Hume are mixed, but many are glowing about the enigmatic works and the use of colour in them.  Few of these words corresponded to my experience.

The Patrick Caulfield rooms were more interesting.  The style, areas of flat colour, strong black outlined shapes, has become familiar through its adoption by advertising graphic designers, so I think it would have been helpful to me to have had more information about his historical context, to get over that rather decorative first impression.

The black lines play with perspective, so that each painting takes a few moments to understand, and they are focussed on the banal places we inhabit: cinema foyers, bars and restaurants.  Each place is portrayed after all the people have left, abandoning unwanted remnants behind them.  There’s quite a lot of 1970s wallpaper in backgrounds and the common tropes of still lives in the foreground; so there are Matisse’s goldfish in After Lunch, and Picasso’s bull’s head in Hemingway Never Ate Here.  

I did enjoy the bold colours in these paintings, and could appreciate the great skill employed in creating the smooth surface, by largely eliminating the idea of the gestural brush stroke; making it even more noticeable when in, After Lunch the landscape view seen through the window (or painted on the back wall) of the restaurant, is rendered in a more realistic fashion, challenging, I suppose, our way of looking at painted representations of the world.

As I’ve been writing this, I’ve resolved that I should probably revisit the Caulfield to see if I can get more out of it on a second attempt, because I know I’ll be back at Tate Britain to spend more time with Simon Starling‘s current installation in the main central hallway.  Images of past exhibitions are shown on large screens while around you ambient sound is broadcast, the murmuring suserating  of large spaces, and the echo of footsteps from the past.

One mystery remains: how does Tate decide where to exhibit modern British artists?  Why was Hirst at Tate Modern, while Hume is at Tate Britain?

The Cloud Leopard

I have recently started following the Sequins and Cherry Blossom blog which talks about Japanese related events in London, and it was thanks to a post there a couple of weeks ago that I heard about the exhibition of Kusama works at the Victoria Miro gallery.  Since seeing the Kusama show at the Tate early last year, I’ve thought a lot about her work, especially the compulsive covering of surfaces with dots, and the endless repetition evident all of her work.

The remarkable thing about the new work on display, is that it is all about love and happiness, and it’s a life affirming message from someone in her 80s who has had a life not without difficulties.  There are bright sculptures, made of stuffed material shapes, painted in contrasting tones with the signature dots and eyes; their pointy edges and spottiness made me smile.  They did, as the gallery notes suggested, look as if they had jumped out of the accompanying canvases, making their forms three dimensional and dancing across the floor.

2013-05-20 08.48.20From there, maintaining the Japanese flavour, we headed down to Craft Central in Clerkenwell to see The Cloud Leopard by Nahoko Kojima.  It is an incredibly intricate piece of work.  Cut from a single sheet of black paper and suspended from the ceiling it gives an extraordinary impression of a big cat creeping across the air.  From some angles the lines from which it is suspended are invisible, and it looks like it is floating.  How the artist managed to work on a two dimensional sheet of paper, which when suspended creates a coherent three dimensional shame is a wonder.

The artist apparently currently has a life size polar bear as her work in progress to be revealed later this year.  I shall certainly be looking out for it.

The morning’s outings were complete with a lunchtime concert of chamber works from three members of the Bach family and Telemann, at St Anne’s Lutheran church in Gresham St in the City.  As it was my first experience of a lunchtime concert like this, I hadn’t realised that it was all right to sit and eat your lunch while you listen, so I sat, feeling a touch peckish, watching other people eat sandwiches and salads out of boxes while we listened to the music.  The Ten Commandments on panels behind the musicians reminded me not to covet my neighbour’s lunch, however.  I had thought there would be more City types in suits, but the audience looked to be mainly comprised of retired people, or others like me who had wandered in on a day off.

Another low cost day of entertainment in the city.

‘In The Beginning Was The End’ at Somerset House

20130306_181323It was partly curiosity about the idea of what a site specific promenade performance might entail, but mostly it was interest in seeing  what the cellars and underground spaces of Somerset House are like that took me there to see In The Beginning Was The End by dreamthinkspeak.

Invited inside in small groups of about 10 at a time, you are led across a back courtyard between Somerset House and Kings College and downstairs into a subterranean warren of corridors and small rooms.  Walking through, either following signs or being pointed in one direction or another by either performers or silent guards, you process through a series of tableau and scenes, performed live or projected on large screens.  Some of it was incomprehensible, other segments surreal or comedic, all of it disorientating, so that it is a surprise (to me at least) when,  at the end, we emerge at the opposite side of the Somerset House courtyard.

They very specifically ask that we not say too much about the surprises of the event, so as not to spoil it for people who are yet to see it, and I will try to honour that, so you can be sure, there is more to it than I am telling you.

The literature says that the piece was inspired by a Leonardo Da Vinci drawing entitled A Cloudburst of Material Possessions, depicting an apocalyptic downpour of man made objects.  The question of whether technological invention for its own sake is good or a bad for the soul is broadly what is being explored in the show.  So we walk through a room filled with out dated electronic scientific equipment, and witness demonstrations of useless devices, explained in a babel of different European languages, and we see unhappy employees of the fictional Fusion company fighting and shouting.

Because it is a promenade, such that you determine your own pace through the event, I suspect each person’s experience will be unique, as not everything is happening all the time.  In some of the reviews I have read in newspapers, the reviewer has written about elements that I simply didn’t see; but I don’t think that matters.  Each person will take something different from it anyway.

I think the bits I liked the best were those showing surreal business meetings.  How often have you sat in an internal meeting room with no windows listening to someone talking about a not very interesting topic and wished that something, anything, different would happen?  Scores of times.  How much more fun would it be for the meeting room to be flooded so that everyone had to put on the scuba diving gear they had brought with them for just such an eventuality?  Or what if the table started to tilt at one end so that everyone’s papers slid off the end, and you could all leave by sliding down the table top?

My overall feeling was that it thinks it’s more profound than it is, that there were some elements that amused me, and kept me standing waiting to see how it would develop, while other things didn’t connect at all; but when you’re promenading, you just walk on.  They say on average it takes between 70 and 90 minutes to go around, and my experience held true to that.

Have you seen it?  What did you think?  And how many times a night do you think the performers have to take all their clothes off and put them back on again?

Lichtenstein – A Retrospective at Tate Modern

IMG_3001 Lichtenstein is best known for his paintings of comic strip type images. The canvasses are large, the images of weeping blondes and lantern jawed fighter pilots are close ups in bright primary colours, with areas of flat colour delineated by black outlines juxtaposed with dots of colour, simulating the way cheap comics are printed, but magnified so that they are a challenge to the way we look at the works.  There are speech bubbles telling us the thoughts of the characters, and descriptions of the narrative in the picture, and every element is a cliché of the all America action hero comic books.

 The challenge is there to consider where popular and ‘high’ culture meet.  Is he endorsing the stereotypical images, or has he put them in high relief to make us look at them more closely?  It’s a very dispassionate, analytical way of looking at the world.

The large retrospective at the Tate Modern starts with his first pop art works, and although there are a couple of examples of his earlier works shown towards the end of the show alongside some reworkings of abstract pieces he did at the end of his life, it is as if he arrived at his distinctive style fully formed.

I feel as if I’ve seen a lot of dots and spots at Tate Modern in the last couple of years; first there was Yayoi Kusama with her obsessive application of dots to whole scenes and three dimensional installations, then the repetitive, factory produced spots from  Damien Hirst.  Lichtenstein has  his own style of dots, produced, I’ve now learnt, using something called Ben-day, a sort of stencilling process, to mimic the printing process used in pulp fiction.

I’ve seen some of the comic strip paintings before, but what I enjoyed mist about this exhibition was seeing the other groups of works he created: a series of monochrome still lives, a golf ball,  a tire, a dissolving alka selter, all sharp lines and shapes making strong graphic images, making me think about how little in line and shape are necessary to construct an image.

The next rooms contained pastiches or parodies of other great works, a sort of conversation with other artists and paintings about paintings.  It becomes clear that once he’d established his visual language, and we have become familiar with it, we can recognise it anywhere.  I enjoyed the wit and humour of these works.   His playing with the ideas of Chinese landscape where he captured a sense of perspective by using different sized dots, were a surprise too.

By the end of the exhibition, I had a much better understanding of the range of things which had interested him, and the conversation he had through his work with the history of painting.

‘Light Show’ at Hayward Gallery

Leo Villareal, Cylinder, 2011

Leo Villareal, Cylinder, 2011

Artists have explored the effects of light probably as long as there have been artists, but it was the advent of electric  light that made it possible for them to make work entirely out of the medium of light itself.

The exhibition currently on at the Hayward Gallery brings together a collection of works made in the last 50 years, starting with works made in the 1960s when it was radical enough for Dan Flavin to simply use off the shelf neon strips stood on their ends and grouped together like columns.  I’m afraid though that these didn’t detain me very long.

You and I, Horizontal (2005) by Anthony McCall on the other hand kept us fascinated for ages.  In a dark room, a light is projected onto the back wall; the light is a slowly moving line describing an ellipse which breaks into lines and curves.  Artificial mist gives the light rays a three dimensional sculptural quality.  You can walk through the light, change your perspective and see cones and angles and wonder at the feeling of being on the outside one moment and then on the inside at another.  You go from trying to work out how the effect is achieved to simply experiencing it.

There are a number of works which remind us that sight can be the most unreliable of our senses, when our brain makes us see something which may not actually be there in its efforts to interpret the observable clues.  One way and two way mirrors either eliminate reflections or repeat them infinitely.

The one overtly political work, Reality Show (Silver) by Ivan Navarro, is a shiny Tardis like structure which visitors can stand inside, on top of what appears to be infinitely repeating reflections, but where their own reflection disappears.  As everyone waiting outside for their turn can see the person inside, there is a voyeur/subject relationship which speaks to the political situation  in Chile when the artist was growing up.

Many of the works were intriguing, where the visual impression depended on the combination of where the image was in an ever changing cycle as well as the position of the viewer, sometimes requiring us to move around and wait patiently to see the overall effect.

There were a fair number of flashing aggressively bright lights and some strobe effects which I cannot properly evaluate as I found them too difficult to look at, but overall I found the whole exploration fascinating.  If you do go, go early, as there is a limit to the number of viewers allowed into some of the rooms at one time, and queues were already forming by late morning on a Wednesday.

And then there’s the plastic overshoes you have to put on to enter a couple of the installations, where the floor covering was apparently part of the overall immersion experience; regrettably neither of these works did much for me, although Chromosaturation by Carlos Cruz-Diez was so penetratingly bright that it did induce a near immediate headache.


Luca Cutrufelli at Bendana Pinel Art Contemporain


La Palude, on the left

There are lots of small commercial galleries in the Marais district of Paris, but it just so happened that last weekend many of them had rented themselves out for pop up clothes shops for the city’s fashion week.  Of course, it wasn’t immediately apparent.  What after all is the essential difference between the sort of shop which displays four single shoes suspended from the ceiling on fishing wire, and a gallery selling sculpture made from found objects? so yes, we did have that conversation, ‘Is it art, or is it actually a shoe shop?’

We did find artwork in the Bendana Pinel gallery, by Luca Cutrufelli.  We were drawn in through the door by the stark monochrome of the interior.  Deep black, nearly matt charcoal on paper works with hints of white, suggesting the trace of something passing leaving a light trail behind it.  From my own inexpert attempts to use charcoal in drawing class, I know how difficult it must be to achieve the intensity and smoothness of the black surface, a sort of absolute darkness, leavened by the small areas of absence.  The name ‘La Palude’ meaning marsh in Italian, echoes Le Marais, the equivalent in French, and also the name of the area suggesting that the work might have been inspired by the location of the exhibition.

I liked the contrasts both explicit and implicit in the installation of black obsidian, a solid block at the bottom of a glass tank topped with a floating layer of off white pumice; the two rock types, the opposite of each other in both colour and density.  It was hard to resist the temptation to shake the tank to see if it was filled with water or some kind of solid gel, but the description did say water…..  The juxtaposition was a clever way to make you think about the different textures and nature of the materials used, and to subvert the assumption that every rock will sink like a stone.


Art of Angel (2)


A Demographic Mapping of a Corner of Holbeck

I enjoy people watching, working out who is with whom, wondering where this or that person is going, admiring that coat, thinking that person needs a friend to tell them that skirt doesn’t fit, but Gillian takes that observation of stranger to a different level all together.  All those people form the subject of some of her large pieces of work, and taken together, they make a sort of snapshot tapestry of a place and time.

In July 2011, she took a snap or made a sketch of every person who passed her while she was sitting in a corner of Holbeck in Leeds.  Holbeck is a mixed area of light industrial units at one end and refurbished brick factory buildings now occupied by architects and chichi coffee shops at the other.  The Demographic Mapping tracks that from construction workers, through pram pushing young women to besuited gents.  It’s summer, so there are floral print skirts and shirt sleeves, and one mysterious figure wrapped up in a duffel coat defying the warmth of the day; most are in motion, and through the drawing we get a feel for their gait and posture and how quickly they are walking.

IMG00727-20130117-1842I’ve had the opportunity to look at this piece a few times now, and each time I spot something new.  I thought it was the most interesting of the pieces on show at the Art of Angel exhibition at the Candid Arts Trust.

I wrote yesterday about the posters of art works on display at Angel Tube station at the moment.  Many of the original pieces are on display at the exhibition just around the corner.  It gave an opportunity to consider the effect of photographing a piece of art.

What does it mean if the photograph is more appealing than the original?  The photograph can flatten or flatter a piece, it can blur the colours or sharpen them.  It adds another layer to the process of communication between viewer and creator, and creates something which exists in its own right.

Might it be a helpful rule of thumb that if the original piece is more interesting and engaging than a photograph of it, then that it a successful artwork?

Art of Angel

IMG00726-20130117-1802There are so many images on the walls and the platforms of London Underground stations, that, unless there is a particularly irksome delay that leaves me stranded on a platform with no reading material other than that plastered to the walls, I tend to filter it all out without paying attention.

Occasionally I do pause to read the Poems on the Underground which are posted on trains, and now, for a short while, there are art works on display in the corridors of Angel Tube station.  Organised by ArtBelow, they are being shown in conjunction with an exhibition at a nearby gallery space.

I knew to look out for them, as one of the pieces is by my friend Gillian Holding, so you can imagine how slowly and carefully I looked at everything on the walls to find it.  Or I would have done it slowly had I not been caught up in full on rush hour crowds.  Gillian’s piece is right at the foot of the escalator, so I had to step out of the throng and press myself against the wall in order to have a look at it, and to attempt a little basic photography. (It’s really not at all easy to take a photo in a moving crowd!) A few heads turned to look at me, not because of the photography, but for the fact that I wasn’t rushing towards the exit like everyone else.  Why would anyone stop there? their quizzical expressions asked.

IMG00730-20130117-2124The piece is called ‘Family Man’, and was, I think, part of Gillian’s response to the financial crisis, reflecting that inside each city gent in a suit there might be a person with more emotions than just greed and ambition, that there might be a gentle caring father; combined with the idea that the child is father of the man.

I’m very proud of her to see Gillian’s work in such a public place, and I hope that some of the hundreds of people who huddle in this spot waiting for their turn to step onto the escalator pause for a moment to look at it.

There are posters of the works of 20 artists at the station; go and have a look, although it’s probably best to avoid rush hour.

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