Monday, 28 March 2011



When I saw 
Alex Cave's painting, my first thought was of Robert Delaunay’s exquisite Tour Eiffel  painted a hundred years earlier. It was in the Royal Academy's 2002 exhibition PARIS CAPITAL OF THE ARTS 1900-1968. Delaunay showed the viewer the Eiffel as no one had ever seen it before.  Like Leger and the Futurists, he wanted to express the dynamism of the machine age and honour a building which some saw as its most illustrious symbol.

Cave too is looking afresh at a familiar scene. Just as the rigid motif of the Eiffel tower – reproduced in millions of paperweights and key rings - is shattered and planes merge with the forms of the surrounding buildings, here we glimpse what’s going on when Kings Cross, St Pancras (with which it shares an underground station) and  Euston join the party a hundred years later.

The viewer is plunged knee deep into clutter and excitement. Nothing and no one is content with where they are at the present moment. Anything is possible - Paris, Lille, Brussels, Edinburgh, Cambridge, Mornington Crescent... Two large clocks ratchet up the anxiety,  reminding travellers that their time is not their own. And it’s not only people who are on the move, the very bricks and stones join in. The buildings themselves seem to lean forward so as not to miss one minute of the technicolour circus below. 

The text accompanying the exhibition says that Cave is developing what he describes as ‘‘combinatorics art’, inspired by his fascination with technologcal and mathematical concepts. I’m out of my depth here. What I do know is that these abstract figurative/landscape works are arresting. There's an eerie third dimension he manages to get us to see. A stolid Kings Cross station, which next year celebrates its 160th birthday, looks almost fragile, unstable. It’s as if you could stretch out your hand and pluck a building from the picture. Or walk round and see what’s behind a barrier or a person. There’s a paradox in this. It’s so real – and so fantastical.  The colours are a surprise too: beautiful, romantic, lucid, like a fairy tale or a children’s picture book. Except that they’re not. This picture is not sweet. Like a still life, there’s also change and fragmentation. But it is energising, optimistic, innovative.

While I was writing this blog, two things happened
  •  St Pancras held a Spring event: 12 hours  of live art and cultural performance
  • And it was reliably reported in the  newspaper that a tame ferret alighted on a Scottish platform having caught the train at Kings Cross. No wonder paintings of railway stations need to be revisited with combinatorics art...

Wednesday, 23 March 2011


            ST JOHNS CHURCH, WATERLOO 23.3.11

‘Can incendiary thought-provoking art bring an end to poverty, from the dust towns of Afghanistan to the forgotten tenements of Liverpool and London’s East End?
If Mel Howse has anything to do with it, the answer is yes’. This is the opening sentence from a recent blog by Alison Jane Reid on world_593.html

This glorious pair of bowls, reduced by the image to look like finger bowls, is in fact big enough for a small child to bathe in. It’s made of enamel on steel. Christian Aid, an international development charity working with all faiths and none in over 50 countries, commissioned it as part of their POVERTY OVER campaign. It’ll be on tour for the next two years. Presently it’s at St Johns Waterloo and moves to Ely Cathedral on May 7th (2011). 

Like Ian Davenport’s Poured Lines, it’s another example of a dynamic collaboration between great, innovative art, this time from a master glass painter, and manufacturing excellence, this time British, not German. The giant kilns she used at the firm of AJ Wells in Newport on the Isle of Wight. are the same as those used make London Underground’s iconic signage. Howse says she ‘likes working in industrial environments because it allows me to achieve results I could never attain in a studio’.

She also says that she is ‘very drawn to surrealism’. One of her cousins was Paul Nash, probably best known as a war artist, but also the person who organised the first international surrealist art exhibition in London in 1936:, So we have two giant all-seeing human eyes, a surrealist motif. According to the campaign publicity, the one at the top 'stares challengingly at us. This eye is society’s conscience’. The one below is partly hidden but as you move towards the sculpture  you see it looking up at you from the base. ‘The eye of the poor – unseen from a distance and lost as we walk away.’
It looks as though one bowl has power over the other – but essentially they're the same. ‘Poverty is staring at us and we are uncomfortable’.

POVERTY OVER is a bold campaign slogan. (Alas I didn’t even see pOVERty OVER at first).  But one good piece of news at the moment is that poverty worldwide  has fallen faster in the last 50 years than in the previous 500.

And it was an encouraging moment when the United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon  ventured recently into a cautiously optimistic frame of mind. He said there was ‘no question but that poverty could be ended’. It would, he said, require ‘an unswerving, collective long-term effort’. This art work is a piece of Christian Aid's world wide involvement. 

Friday, 18 March 2011



There are many reasons for 
viewing a painting:
 - the artist is famous;
 - I like the subject matter e.g. East Anglia;
 - I like the genre e.g. self-portraiture;
 - the artist’s work has challenged or delighted me in the past;
 - I really don’t like it and am curious to know why...

 But when I visited the Medici Gallery's show Debut (on until 29/3/11), I chose this work initially because of colour, both glowing and gentle, with a curious receding pale blue/white which is definitely not sky-with-clouds, nor even clouds with circles of sky.

I next noticed the three dimensional shapes which remind me of my scientific daughter’s delight as a child in making them out of paper or card. But these shapes are made of air, some standing firm, others looking as though they may be rolling along the ground or in flight.

Lastly the alchemists on the left. What about them? It’s a topical subject. On February 24th    this year, The Economist published an article about an academic who wants to rehabilitate them. They are a maligned bunch, he says, not buffoons, not at all like the characters in Ben Johnson’s The Alchemist, ruthlessly  satirized as vain, greedy, gullible fools. They were instead respectable seekers after knowledge working with well-constructed theories (even if misguided).It was their bad luck to be both despised as riff raff who got their hands dirty doing real experiments, and undermined by  amateur gentlemen-scientists who came from a different class altogether. 

Back to the painting and the artist. Green spent a year in Africa and an extended stay in Central America and his use of ornamental, hypnotic patterns is said to be drawn from Mexican and African iconography.  He also enjoys including vintage commercial images, putting the retro and the exotic side by side to achieve ‘a quirky, but dynamic composition’. Humour is there too, which adds a further complexity.

Is the artist, any artist,  an alchemist, trying to turn paper and oil and canvas and lapis lazuli and hogs’ hair into gold? Gold not just in terms of cash, but also gold in the viewer’s heart and mind. And is art theory spun by a series of well intentioned alchemists minting a currency which just happens to exude enough social respectability to get a place at the academic high table?  And what of us, the viewers? Are we also alchemists who persuade ourselves that we can see what we want to see when it isn’t really there? Finally the blogger as alchemist? No cash and very little status, I fear.

 I blame the ugly word – it’s hard to love a small collection of letters which include BGGR.

Thursday, 17 March 2011


There are several stunning pictures of this artwork on the internet - but this is the best I can do.
I’ve already wasted too much time trying to get access and permissions. Nor is it a DIY job.  We're talking of something which is 48 metres long (longer than 5 London buses laid end to end) and 3 metres high, one of the largest pieces of public art in London. Hardly a case of dusting down a Box Brownie and pointing it in the direction of a work which runs along a wall supporting a dingy low-slung Victorian railway bridge.

Ian Davenport was shortlisted for the Turner prize in 1991, the year that Anish Kapoor walked away with the prize (see Kapoor blogs Sky Mirror and Spire). In 2003 he was the artist  commissioned to make this major London landmark, close to Tate Modern, the National Theatre and The Globe Theatre.

It was 2 years in the making and has to withstand grime, rain, vandals and pigeons. And it took 6 months to research materials tough enough and big enough for the job.  His 1m x 3m steel panels were fired at 825^C at a remote factory in Germany, where Davenport set up a studio to mix 300 different colours, each applied by syringe allowing the paint to be poured in vertical stripes.There is a delicate balance between controlling the flow of paint and allowing it to run free. The result is full of surprises and unexpected colour combinations which pulsate and fluctuate: a painting with joie de vivre, which is just what you need scurrying along under a noisy, grubby railway bridge. One writer describes it as ‘countering the endless traffic noises by undulating with its own rhythms, riffs and moods’.

The statistics say that it’s viewed by 1.2 million people who pass that way every year, most of whom never set foot inside an art gallery.  But I wonder? Is ‘viewed’ the right word? You can stand on the pavement and watch people hurry by. I like to think they know it’s there as a friendly presence. And that they would be outraged to lose it.

Tuesday, 15 March 2011



Cradle to Grave is the name of a 14 metre-long installation which runs down the middle of the Wellcome Trust Gallery at the British Museum. The gallery walls are lined with ancient gold artefacts and sculptures from all over the world on the theme of Living and Dying, but Cradle to Grave attracts the crowds.

 It lays out for our delectation a lifetime supply of prescribed drugs which illustrate the medical stories of one woman and one man. Some of the treatments are common to both: each starts at birth with an injection of vitamin K and immunizations, and both take antibiotics and painkillers at various times. Other treatments are more specific. The woman takes contraceptive pills, and hormone replacement therapy in middle age. The man has asthma and hay fever when young, but enjoys good health until his fifties. He finally stops smoking after a bad chest infection when he is seventy. He is treated for high blood pressure for the last ten years of his life and has a heart attack and dies of a stroke in his seventies. He takes as many pills in the last ten years of his life as in the first sixty-six.

The pills are captured by  ‘pocket knitting’, a technique devised by one of the artists, Susie Freeman,  who  uses fine transparent nylon yarn to  construct pockets which are woven into a flexible fabric.  She says 'Aged seven my Allen & Hanburys bead swap-tin often came with me to school. At playtime I especially longed for the glittering, this desire once getting the better of me when I swapped most of my collection for a single faceted iridescent gem. Since then the collecting of tiny objects and their subsequent ordering has become a lifetime obsession. The methodology of pocket knitting, which as an artist I have used for the past thirty years, enables me to ensnare, arrange and use this system of containment to extract new meaning from the process of juxtaposition.” Each length contains over 14,000 drugs, the estimated average prescribed to every person in Britain in their lifetime. Family photographs and health-related memorabilia are there too.

Pharmacopoeia is the work of Susie Freeman, a textile artist, David Critchley a video artist and Dr Liz Lee a G.P. But is it art? Or science? Or craft? Or a learning device?   Or all of that? 

In the past craft and art seemed to run along parallel lines with a high degree of mutual suspicion. Craft was lowlier than art – and women did more of it. Art and science do not have a long and distinguished history of collaboration either. So is it a learning device? If it is, this is not new in art. You could say that conceptual art cannot help but be just that, as new insights rearrange the furniture of the mind. Some artists, such as Joseph Beuys, do not mince their words about what they are doing.
This piece has been so successful that Pharmacopoeia aims to turn its gaze from Britain to Africa.   The charity Keep a Child Alive supports work with antiretroviral treatments for AIDS. Pharmacopoeia, by documenting the pharmacological history and the photographic history of a number of children, plans to take their sci-art collaboration into new territory. 
condom packets

selection of pills

Friday, 11 March 2011



One thing I have to keep in check when selecting representational work is a tendency to chose places and subjects close to my heart. If I did that the blog would be full of East Anglia. Cornwall of course. And the Greek island of Symi. But here we’ve come to Rye, a place I’ve visited and once bought a deep Belfast sink in which to plant garden flowers, but whose main associations are non-pictorial. Remember that witty son of a former Archbishop of Canterbury, E. F. Benson, who wrote the Mapp and Lucia books, immortalised on TV ? Whose mother was said to be the cleverest woman in Europe? He’s a man from Rye and was once Mayor there.

Back to the picture. I love the composition, the emptiness, the calm. Three horizontal bands of gentle colour but with a hint of unease. A solitary, silent, blind house, its warm red roof picked up by the red at the top of the pole. And look at that fence. Who or what is it keeping in or out?

There’s no one there. No children kicking a rainbow ball around, no teenagers having a quiet smoke leaning against that sharply white-painted door, no one hanging out the washing.  Nothing is happening. It’s where you wait for someone or something. It’s the space between the notes of music when you wait for what you know will come next. Or think you know.

 And this is Rye Harbour I. Here is a very Heath Robinson contraption, something useful strapped on to a post put there earlier for a purpose which was important at the time - and perhaps still is. It’s leaning slightly – as one would after having the sea lapping round you every hour of the day and night.

I never get tired of minimalism. You don’t have the chance to fritter your attention away on this or that. All you see is the brilliance and warmth of that sky and a human gesture   erected by an unknown person wanting to make the world a safer or more intelligible place. 

Thursday, 10 March 2011



The Quintet of the Unseen video by Bill Viola I found a few hundred steps south of Oxford Street – this picture is a few hundred metres north. It’s in Asia House, New Cavendish Street, a splendid Grade II* listed building, originally planned by Robert and James Adam in the 1770s but in 1775 the neo-classical architect John Johnson took over the site. It's magnificent, with a breathtaking spiral staircase, filigree plasterwork, classical paintings and elaborate marble chimney pieces.

On the lower ground floor is the gallery, presently showing Contemporary Art from Sri Lanka 2011, with work from 15 well-established or emerging artists, women and men who may well have spent their teenage years living in a highly chaotic political and social environment. The civil war which tore their country apart for 30 years only ended in 2009. A new generation has grown up with an understanding of the artist as political commentator, determined to engage with contemporary problems.

Kumara sees this work as outside the Western canon, dismissing conventions like pictorial balance, perspective and spatial depth. He describes his practice as ‘predominantly an art of surprises’. It’s a work in which I find his unconventional use of colour exhilarating and I like to be puzzled and challenged and disturbed by Surrealism. I do not understand why there is a musical instrument in the bottom right hand corner and a gun in the left.  What is that open-palmed hand doing top left? Why is that beautiful sinuous figure upside down – and still, it seems to me, on top of things?

I think I chose it because here is a rarity: a picture with a strong sense of colour, design and pleasure, which refuses to be merely decorative.

P.S. The two other 'political' works on the blog are the first - Fiona Banner's huge jets hanging from the ceiling of Tate Britain (18.9.10), and the ninth - Jeremy Dellar's crushed tank in the Imperial War Museum (12.10.10). Intriguingly different from Kumara's delicate allusive work.

Monday, 7 March 2011


                                     BLAINSOUTHERN GALLERY, LONDON 7.3.11
In 1996 Viola was present when a man died suddenly at the Getty Research Institute. Helpless, he went into the museum to find his special painting, Dieric Bout’s The Visitation. His father had died one month earlier and Viola started studying Christ’s Passion and other representations of extreme emotional states in medieval & renaissance art. Simon Morley, writing for Art and Christian Enquiry reckons that Viola is one of handful of contemporary artists who can be truly considered religious’.

The above picture is a still photograph by Kira Perov from Viola's silent video installation now showing at the Blainsouthern gallery, a series of four works showing a group of five individuals close standing together while they experience a wave of intense emotion which threatens to overwhelm them. The white cracks in the image are unintentional – the paper I brought back from the gallery got crushed in my bag and the ink fell away.

The thin plasma screen in a darkened room is on a pedestal, so the picture is as respectfully situated as any Old Master. The video opens, and for a moment there is nothing wrong. Then we notice slow, incremental changes as each is overcome by some strong reaction to what they are seeing. Each person reacts differently. All this at a speed so slow a passerby could be forgiven for thinking it was a still. The video lasts 15 minutes

The green lady clutches her heart and her smooth cardigan crumples. Her hand touches her neck as if to comfort herself. The man at centre back starts by looking rugged and isolated but turns towards the woman in red as if to offer comfort. At her most intense her head is thrown back, her eyes are closed and her hands are crossed as if she can no longer bear the intensity of what is happening. It’s not an unfamiliar pose in religious imagery.  Horror, disbelief and misery pass like shadows over the faces of the group. When it is too much to bear they glance away, but stay rooted to the spot.

The background of the video is dark and formless with no suggestion of the outside world. The incident they are watching is left to our imagination since it could be happening just where we are standing. There isn’t a single clue as to what is going or where. No one walks out of the frame. 

 When, years ago, I saw Viola's video The Visitation  at the Haunch of Venison, featuring  the moment when two pregnant women - Mary the mother of Jesus and Elizabeth her cousin -  embrace as they meet,  it moved me to tears. We are used to slow motion in films or crime reconstruction or sports fixtures. But these pieces bypass rationality. They touch our inner capacity to attend patiently to the nuances of real feelings. And to stay in the here and now, however terrible. It is what some now call mindfulness. 

The paradox is that all this is happening while we know we are watching actors, we know that they are feigning emotion. But Viola’s work is charged with a peculiar energy. We are disturbed, more than spectators. 

Bill Viola, The Passions, John Walsh (ed)

Sunday, 6 March 2011



Walk into a smallish room on the first floor of the National Portrait Gallery and you’re breaking into a group of artists, dealers and curators who know each other well. They eye each other across the room. At least that’s what it feels like: 12 fragile pencil-on-paper drawings have been selected from a project Michael Landy worked on  8 hours a day, 7 days a week for nearly a year. He said it was like making an inventory of the face, starting with the left eye and working outwards in the hope that it’ll make a likeness.The gallery says the work shows 'imperial detachment'.
Michael Landy, self-portrait, 2008 (c) National Portrait Gallery

I find Landy’s work remarkable. I haven't forgotten Break Down, when I watched a roller conveyor circulate round a disused C & A store near Marble Arch , systematically, obsessively destroying everything he owned.  I saw his O level certificate and a Chris Ofili print in a rubbish tray. He'd made an inventory of 7,227 items and classified everything into 10 categories – Artworks, Clothing, Equipment, Furniture, Kitchen, Leisure, Motor Vehicles, Perishables, Reading Material and Studio Material. It was then systematically smashed, pulped, granulated – whatever it took to destroy it entirely. All this took place amid C & A's still and silent escalators and crisp ‘Pay Here’ signs pointing to nothing. It remined me that everything we have - including the ground we stand on, the food we eat, the water we drink - is not really ours but is on temporary loan.
Writing about  those who sat for him in Art World Portraits, the present exhibition, he comments that some of  his sitters 'found my concentration-face rather off-putting and said I looked angry'. I presume this is the face we see here. He also remarks that ‘Some people found it disconcerting having to sit so close to me. I would use my legs to lock their legs into a vice-like grip, some people liked that. 1 or 2 of the sitters wrote on the back of my drawing board things like ‘I’m bored’ or ‘Landy can’t draw’. 

Charles Booth-Clibborn by Michael Landy (c) Michael Landy / Courtesy the
artist and Thomas Dane Gallery, London

I chose this portrait from among the 12 because his was the only  name I did not recognise - and because it's such a famous surname. Is he related to Stanley, the exceptional Bishop of Manchester (1979-1992), who was such a controversial and energetic priest in the Thatcher years and in the campaign for women's ordination?

Charles is here as founder of the Paragon Press which commissions contemporary artists to create unique print series and portfolios - including a suite of etchings of weeds by Landy called Nourishment. The title was inspired by the way 'street flowers - shepherd's purse, fat hen or oxtongue - proliferate in pavement cracks with so little nourishment'. The etchings are said to be intricate and detailed with 'shapes which criss-cross like dancing figures'. Their publisher, Charles Booth-Clibborn, says they are 'somewhere between Dürer and Odilon Redon'.

Landy describes Booth-Clibborn as 'the ideal a human statue, I kept wanting to check for a pulse'. He says that some sitters found the experience 'revelatory and disconcerting'. What  interests me is that  there are no art critical notes in the exhibition. Instead we have a novel account of what the sitters and the artist felt about the experience. Pretty rare in the history of portraiture.

Friday, 4 March 2011


© Melissa Scott-Miller c/o Mark Jason Gallery, London
The joy of stepping in to The Mall Gallery to see the exhibition Pure Gold: 50 years of the Federation of British Artists is twofold: a peep at some previously unseen works by well known artists such as Walter Sickert and John Singer Sargent, but, more importantly, a glimpse at what some of our best contemporary figurative artists are up to. 

What attracts me to this large panoramic painting is its energy and its physicality, (Such a tiny image gives little indication of its power). I love the thickness and crunchiness of the paint.  It’s a celebratory work, It’s a giddy view, slightly vertiginous, painted from the roof of Peter Jones store. It certainly doesn’t look like a studio painting done from photographs. It has weather inside it. And where many painters might be tempted to tidy up the panorama and be a bit squeamish about what is not 'picturesque', the artist is meticulous about the glory of untidy traffic, awkward corners, the tops of trees not planted with an aerial view in mind. There are subsequent pleasures as you examine the Dickensian detail. You sit inside the red bus, peer into windows, loiter on the pavement, feel the shade of the canvas canopy.

There’s no background information on the walls of the Gallery, nothing except a title and the artist’s name. You can walk round 'just looking', with an empty head, no art history buzzing around, no questions about process or technique. Just wait until a work comes off the wall and shake you by the hand.  Three did this to me, (but I’m having trouble getting images of the other two). 

The Federation of British Artists, which set up this exhibition, comprises eight groups including The Pastel Society, the Society of Wildlife Artists and the Royal Society of Portrait Painters, of which Melissa is an award-winning member. 

Brian Pearson is a member of the Royal Society of Marine Artists, another group represented here, and I’ll be able to include his stunning Sailing Round South Georgia if he replies to my email...