Tuesday, 20 December 2011

136. BOY FALLS FROM TREE by JEFF WALL


WHITE CUBE GALLERY

I like the way that Wall's pictures often lie there flat on the screen, not answering back, but prepared to hold a conversation with anyone who has the patience to look at what is (or is not) there. He has the gift of paying genuine attention to his subject, unmarred by condescension or sentimentality. He makes me look at family snaps with a fresh  eye.

 Wall calls his large-scale photographs prose poems (Charles Baudelaire), wanting the viewer to experience, even savour, a picture rather than be confronted with a specific narrative. Digitalisation makes this  possible in new ways. When Yves Klein made his unforgettable Leap IntoThe Void  (see Blog 45 on Ciprian Muresan) he had to use collage... Now photographs can be stretched, compressed, edited and excised. 

This photograph ‘records’ one instant in a quiet suburban garden where nothing very much has been happening.  On the left a ball has been abandoned in the mown grass, and garden implements are stacked up against the shed ready for action.  But we've caught a moment of drama. Did the boy catch his foot as he started to jump? Has a branch broken? Was it a ‘dare?’  And what will happen? Will he manage a soft landing rolling over the lawn or will he hurl headlong onto the concrete path? Perhaps he’ll manage to grab the rope of the swing which will break his fall. Unlike documentary photography, a prose poem allows multiple interpretations. A cool precise picture with a vague, diffuse and moody meaning ratchets up the tension.

But did Wall intend a deeper meaning? Boys have often appeared in art: as young princes, warriors, naked bathers, guides, shepherds. They are inclined to stand there secure in what they’re doing. But this boy’s future is uncertain. We might be witnessing an event which, if it were true, might change the course of several lives. Even if he’s unharmed,  what will become of him? Is Wall reviving the power and portentousness of Allegory, reminding us of ‘the alienation and loneliness of individuals in a globalised civilisation emptied of tradition’? He says 'It's magical to be able to make a picture that imparts a strong aesthetic experience in spite of unprepossessing subject matter. It's much more interesting to conjure something out of nothing'.

The exhibition at The White Cube is of photographs but Wall is best known for his light boxes, which he discovered and perfected as an ideal medium for his work. For a tour round his 2005/6 show at Tate Modern go to tate.org.uk/modern/exhibitions/jeffwall


Saturday, 10 December 2011

135.VIEW OF CHIMNEY POTS, GABLES AND ARTISTS' SKYLIGHTS FROM ROOM 26

copyright Frieda Hughes


Mayor  Gallery

Sylvia Plath is perhaps known best for her semi-autobiographical novel The Bell Jar - and as one of the most gifted  poets of the last century. She hoped that her pen and ink drawings would illustrate the articles and stories that she wrote for publication. Now for the first time (and probably the last) her drawings are on public display. I think this was the first time that I have walked into a gallery and seen a small red spot stuck on every one of the art works. A sell out.

The drawings were given to Plath’s daughter Frieda by Plath’s husband, Ted Hughes, a former Poet Laureate. The unveiling of Hughes’ memorial in Poets’ Corner, Westminster Abbey, took place four days after the Mayor Gallery exhibition opened on December 2nd.It was only after I’d visited the gallery and gained permission to use the image that I realised I had broken one of my own rules. My blog is strictly about living artists - but not this time.

Plath and I  both went up to Newnham College Cambridge in October 1955, I an undergraduate, she a prestigious Fulbright scholar. I suspect we were all writing letters home to our mothers that first term, but they did not get published, as Plath’s did, nor, I suspect, did they have anything like Plath’s astonishing capacity to bring to life the college, the city, the rooms we occupied and the maelstrom of emotions running through our veins. 

Over the years I’ve read her poetry, her letters and some of the many books written about her, but never seen her art. I was told that View...from Room 26 1956  illustrated above is of Cambridge rooftops, but I'm not sure. Most of her fresh, calm, almost calligraphic drawings were executed around that time or a year or two later. She drew single objects: bottles, trees, flowers, even The Ubiquitous Umbrella (was that a reference to the gloomy Fens?) as well as agglomerations, such as a harbour or roof tops.

I too was a young mother struggling with depression in an unfamiliar place when I heard on the wireless in February 1963  that Sylvia had killed herself. She was 31. It’s an event which still lives with me. She clearly loved drawing, took lessons and was serious about it. She said 'I have a visual imagination. For instance, my inspiration is painting and not music when I go to some other art form. I see these things very clearly'. It's comforting to walk  through the Mayor Gallery and glimpse a serene, absorbed young woman during that part of her life when she was not being shipwrecked by family relationships  and her own inner turmoil.

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Tuesday, 6 December 2011

134. WAVE STUDY by HELEN CAMPBELL



 OPEN STUDIOS
SE1 7DR

Standing in front of this painting, in a cabin/studio at the end of Hercules Road (where William Blake once lived), there’s a real feeling of danger and wonder. That wall of water is both beautiful and terrifying.


The work is based on a photograph taken by the artist at West Bay, Dorset. ‘I was particularly proud of the photo as I managed to almost crawl under the wave before it broke and I caught the shape in precise detail’. Campbell says she spends  hours ‘sketching and shooting wave movement, sometimes painting on site to capture the immediacy then working on a larger image back in the studio’.

Talking of this work she comments, ‘Translated into a painting, however, it simply looked static; none of that sense of movement came across.  Adding texture with a mix of oil paint and polyfilla gave the weight that was missing, but how to capture the 'zing'?  The answer came to me at 3.a.m. when I woke with a start thinking 'a plastic ruler!'.  Dragging the side of a ruler through trails of bright paint and arcing the streaks across the wave caught the movement that was lacking and gave the combination of weight and light I had been looking for’.

 What also struck me about Wave Study was that sinister, flat, heavy floor of water at the bottom of the painting, and nearest to us. I was once sitting by the Aegean sea when the waves became noticeably bigger. There were no passing ferries to set up such a wash. The waves mounted higher and higher but none was as scary as the moment after the largest crashed against the sea wall and instantly pulled away from the shore. For a split second the sandy sea bed, normally covered by a metre of water, was sucked bare.. Later I learned there'd been a minor earthquake close to Athens, 500 miles away.
I mentioned the cabin/studio at the beginning. I was at Open Space situated beside the track on the way into Waterloo station. Once a set of abandoned and derelict buildings, it’s now an inspirational creative space where in over 40 rented studios art happens; ceramics, fashion design, glass, mosaics, jewellery, cutting edge digital technology, sculpture, painting and illustration exist side by side. And they have Open Days and Weekends, with tea and cakes and something stronger.

I mentioned  'The Secret Lives of Waves' to the artist as it's one of the most remarkable BBC4 documentaries I’ve ever seen. (This picture is a still and  the link below leads to a clip). She reminded me that the presenter, David Malone, describes how each wave is uniquely born, grows and dies back into the water. She continued ‘It is that sense of individuality and life force I want to bring to the viewer’.


Sunday, 4 December 2011

133. OXBLOOD AND WHITE PERSIAN SET by DALE CHIHULY



Oxblood and White Persian Set
Halcyon Gallery 



This gallery has opened with a spectacular show.  Dale Chihuly may not be a household name but his work has probably been seen by more people in London than any of the other works I’ve featured. For example, millions of visitors walking through the grand entrance hall of the V&A Museum will have encountered his breath-taking 27-foot high glass chandelier, specially commissioned for an exhibition of his work there in 2001.



And then in 2005 there was Gardens of Glass  at the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew.  Boats floating on the lakes were filled with glass sculptures, and inside the greenhouses the exotic shapes and colours of growing plants and trees found they had rivals: the beds were pierced with Chihuly’s fantastical forms  bursting with every imaginable colour. Gardens of Glass was seen by 860,000 people.


This Chijuly exhibition is housed in Halcyon's new gallery, one of the most distinguished buildings in one of London's major shopping areas. It was designed as an art gallery in 1911 and now Chihuly's work sits in a brand new contemporary art space which incorporates original architectural features, such as magnificent curled stairways and a delicious Mezzanine area. It's an event to savour. Oxblood and White Persian Set (above) is but one of dozens of works found on  three floors. It appears to dance over the table top. It’s as light as a butterfly and hard as rock.

Mille Fiore (detail) 
Mille Fiore, which stands alone on the Mezzanine floor, is a site-specific work, a 24-foot long garden of glass. The image you see here is of but a small section. You walk round the garden and with each step some new explosion of colour or shape comes into focus.One visitor remarked that if the work were set in granite in order to make a shallow pool, the reflections would give the piece yet another stunning dimension.


Chihuly is said to have revolutionised how glass is perceived as an art form. He himself says ‘I'm pushing the boundaries of the medium as far as they can go in terms of scale and new techniques ...over time I developed the most organic, natural way of working with glass, using the fewest number of tools that I could. The glass looks as if it has come from nature. I don't really know where the ideas come from'.
 
Minimalist Chihuly’s work is not. For some his art is too Gothic and overwrought. Chihuly himself is open and inclusive ‘One of the most important inspirations for me is the glass itself, the glass blowing process, this wondrous event of blowing human air down a blowpipe and having this form appear. I’m obsessed with color – never saw one I didn’t like’. 

The art critic and broadcaster Matthew Collings comments in the catalogue, ‘The mood of positive energy in Chihuly’s sculptures leaves no room for sneers or nihilism, nor for chin-stroking philosophising, or airy spirituality; in fact their sheer exuberant, material joyfulness makes them unlike much else that is considered centre-stage in contemporary art.’

Friday, 2 December 2011

132. UNTITLED 2011 by GEORG HEROLD

GESAMTKUNSTWERK: new art from Germany 
 Saatchi Gallery

 
Some artwork is shown in buildings so lovely that there's a great pleasure in just being there. That’s true of Saatchi’s gallery just off the Kings Road. It's dusk and through tall windows you can just see on the green outside a class of young children  playing ball, their uniforms making a harmonious pattern . The scene could be an illustration from a 1930s children’s book. Beyond the railings stand a group of women waiting with their prams and push chairs, chatting in every language.

You walk through large airy spaces.Turn a corner on the corridor of the first floor and through the archway this languorous figure comes into view. She’s still far away at the end of Gallery7. Is she a drawing or sculpture? Closer, the black silhouette is transformed into a purple painted figure. She is made of roof batten, canvas, lacquer, thread and screws, materials Herold has been working with for decades.

We’re used to seeing images of women’s bodies which have been pulled this way and that. The Barbie doll may the patron saint of distortion, but she is only part of a spectrum of fashion illustration which gives women emaciated arms and narrow hips, giraffe legs and shoes that crimp, . One commentator says she looks as if she’s been dragged along the ground with her hands tied above her head. Isn’t that taking things a bit far?  Perhaps she’s enjoying being young and supple and beautiful and is celebrating with a good stretch (and maybe a hidden yawn) ?

The gallery notes on Untitled 2011 (115 x 510 x 65 cm) say ‘The artist’s ironic, pop-tinged humour is an irresistible part of the process.’  Why humour? In the late 1970s in Western Germany it had begun to look as if the idealistic projects of the 60s had disappeared,  Herold became one of a wave of radical young German artists, including Martin Kippenberger, who chose to create work which was obscure and playful rather than heavy with overt political messages.  Kippenberger’s masterpiece - The Happy End of Franz Kafka’s Amerika. 1994 , based on Kafka’s unfinished novel Amerika - was shown  at Tate Britain in 2006 and is unforgettable. It’s a fictional ‘utopia’ of universal employment, a ‘circus in town’ and consisted of an astonishing assembly of over 40 tables & many more chairs from Eames designs to furniture bought at a flea market. It had tall Dickensian desks & ‘ dentists’ chairs on a merry go round. Most memorable was a desk with the middle panel missing so that the work would fall through to the floor.

Herold himself says of his art 'I intend to reach a state that is ambiguous and allows all sorts of interpretations'.

Thursday, 1 December 2011

131. MIRROR WALL 2010 by JEPPE HEIN

Mirror Wall  2010  200 x 356 cm

GESAMTKUNSTWERK: new art from Germany
 Saatchi Gallery

Interactive art gets my vote any day. It’s playful and surprising. In Gallery 7 of the new Saatchi show, when you get close up to what seems like a large plain wall mirror, it trembles, then shakes, then gets so agitated it seems to be battling against whatever constrains it against the wall. You stare at your reflection, which is at first  shimmering, then convulsing into tremors. You look as if you’re in an early movie when people jerked along the street, rather than walked. The floor appears to shake. The head of someone beside you with big hair stretches into an alarming oval.  You think of the funfair at Great Yarmouth with its funky distorting mirrors.  You glance slyly at other viewers. 

The trouble is that there is a limit to the number of times you can be surprised. Last week I went to the Beaconsfield Gallery in Vauxhall to see Svein Flygari Johansen’s work.  When I moved into a space where a pool of Thames water was suspended from the ceiling, I saw the image of a trout swimming with  sinuous beauty. When I stopped, it stopped. A few yards further on, a small square kitchen table started to rattle and shake, triggered by the sound of overhead train traffic to and from Waterloo station. On its surface was a  glass of milk which, despite appearances, never quite makes it to the edge, to fall and smash on the concrete floor.Johansen's work is available until 12 February and the show has an illuminating title: Am I Making Up What Really Happened?  Incidentally the Beaconsfield has a small cafe with delicious home cooked food at a reasonable price, welcoming staff and comfy chairs...

Lucy Gunning
Intermediate II, 2001
© Lucy Gunning
Photo: © Tate
My first interaction was in 2002 at Tate Britain’s ART NOW series when  I came across Lucy Gunning’s installation. It was a room which looked like a simple wooden box or crate which turned out to be a miniature ballet studio, with mirrors on all sides, an exercise barre and a polished wooden dance floor. I stayed inside for about 10 minutes, alone yet  surrounded by an audience of dozens, perhaps hundreds, of life size reflections of myself, each different, each copying my every move.  I was both performer and spectator. I’d never been so aware of my physical existence, now watched by me, an outsider. So I could browse and perhaps feel tender towards this stranger, a woman in a black coat with a small white carrier bag, thick dark hair caught back in a slide.
Then a group of young people came in and started to dance and frolic, which was both jolly and strangely  reassuring.
 
What each of these works do is find you, the viewer, totally unprepared. Yet they set up a dialogue with you, unasked,  in a public space. At first sight I was reminded of the Minimalist sculptures of the 1960s, yet those pieces knew their place. Now is there a bit of a tussle between who’s in charge: the artist, the viewer, the curator, the gallery/ museum space - or the other people in the room, whom we usually ignore?

Friday, 25 November 2011

130. ST MARTIN DIVIDING HIS CLOAK by BRIAN WHELAN



© 2011 Brian Whelan
ST MARTINS IN THE FIELDS CHURCH, TRAFALGAR SQUARE

‘Looking at a Whelan painting is like looking at a medieval stained glass window through the eyes of Bart Simpson’, says the writer and critic Steven Martin.


He’s right. Most group paintings hint at narrative, but they either tell a story already known to the viewer (from the classics or history or the bible), or something too obscure to interrogate. But Whelan’s work is like a poetic ballad, ‘bold, concentrated, detailed and focused’. And leaving a great deal to the imagination. That duck squawking its way across the picture maybe in a vicious mood and out to protect the good St Martin - but it may be running for its life. The image doesn’t convey how plump and luscious it is: highly likely to be chased round the yard by the farmer’s wife, knife in hand.

There are lots of riddles. The man on the left (the sinister side in any picture) , wrapped in nothing but his loin cloth and a starry cloak, looks like a holy prophet. And on the right is his counterpart, a resplendent rider. Any morality tale would have this perky knight as the villain, knife in hand, oppressing the poor.  Not so. It’s no less than St Martin himself, a 4th century saint, at times soldier, monk and hermit.
Even the horse is ambiguous. It has an all knowing eye and a muscular presence – but couldn’t you also see it as a lovable nursery toy with shaggy fetlocks and a spotty coat? 


I saw Whelan’s work is in the Crypt Gallery of St Martins in the Fields, Trafalgar Square.  According to legend, St Martin once came upon a poor man on the road shivering in the cold, and cut in half his military cloak to share  with him. That night Christ appeared to St Martin in a dream wearing the piece of cloak he had given away. The story is a straight lift from St Matthew’s Gospel chapter 25, where Jesus says that when anyone feeds  the hungry, clothes the naked and visits the sick and those in prison etc , ‘you do it unto me’.


It’s a story which has been depicted in many centuries by many hands. Sometimes the beggar looks up gratefully as a towering saint bends over him (Lorenzo Lotto); sometimes he’s a huge strapping (and naked) fellow sitting on straw but preparing to make way as a VIP on horseback comes by with a magnificent cavalcade.   

© 2011 Brian Whelan
Here's Champion of the World, the fight between good and evil: Jesus, still wearing his crown of thorns, keeps his eye on the matter in hand. Beelzebub on the right looks a bit flaky, even pitiful, and his devils are clearly deserting him in droves. Above it all God the Father hovers with that air of concentration all good judges should have, plus a pointed beard and a hand mike shaped like a golden ice cream cone.

Below ships and islands are calmly doing what ships and islands usually do. 

 Joe Horgan, winner of the Kavanagh Poetry Award puts it this way: ‘He goes to dark, grim places, places that in the modern world we like to pretend don’t exist and when he gets there he cracks jokes. This work is the work of the medieval jester’.