Monday, 27 June 2011


(c) Matthew Day Jackson   Photo: Peter Mallet
HOUSER & WIRTH 27.6.11

You are prepared for most things – from taupe spats to discreet hats - as you walk along Saville Row’s gentlemen’s outfitters, some of which have been creating "the finest bespoke garments for over 200 years". But you are hardly prepared for this magnificent sculpture: the reconfigured cockpit of a B29,  which glitters and glows, seeming almost to billow out from Hauser and Wirth’s  huge plate glass windows. It's an arresting piece, dwarfing mortals as they stroll by. Inside its surface, polished to a high mirror finish, reflects back distorted images of the kind you see at a fun fair.  You cannot detach yourself from this monster. 

This sculpture is constructed from a reconditioned B29 cockpit – the first pressurised bomber, and the type of aircraft that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Inside the cockpit is a Wunderkammer, a cabinet of archeological and anthropological curiosities. In the past such cabinets contained collections gathered  by individuals for their own pleasure and learning, and many became the nucleus of our national collections and museums. Indeed when I was a student, the Cambridge University Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology had more in common with a Wunderkammer than with the clean lines of its present day counterpart.

Axis Mundi means ‘axis of the world’, something which symbolises a place or time where earth and sky (heaven) seem to connect. Jacob had his ladder in the Old Testament, churches have steeples.  People’s experience differs from culture to culture but you could argue for an underlying communality. Only last month Nick Mayhew Smith published Britain’s Holiest Places, a guide to 500 sacred sites, designed to appeal to people of all faiths or none. It includes entries on the British Museum, the Victoria and Albert Museum, the National Gallery and the British Library, all Wunderkammer of a sort.

Day Jackson's Axia Mundi has been described as a modern day ark, containing within it 'the beginning of a new world through the use of the world's most destructive technology'. Wonder, beauty, terror intermingled. It's surrounded by other pieces in the gallery which demonstrate Day Jackson's versatility and justify the exhibition title Everything Leads to Another.

 ‘The aim of all commentary on art now should be to make works of art – and , by analogy, our own experience – more, rather than less, real to us’. So said Susan Sontag about 50 years ago in her essay ‘Against Interpretation’.   ‘Our task is not to find the maximum amount of content in a work, much less to squeeze more content out of the work than is already there. Our task is to cut back on content so that we can see the thing at all’

You might look out for a showing of Harrier and Jaguar by Fiona Banner which once filled the Duveen Hall at Tate Britain - a decommissioned Sea Harrier and a Jaguar Jet, former killing machines of great beauty and awesome elegance, now challenging our concept of war. (See my Blog No 1).

Sunday, 26 June 2011


c the artist

 Oil on canvas   1700 x 1300 mm
BP Portrait Award 2011

 Wendy Elia is a painter, lecturer and tutor. The work shows the artist with her children and grandchildren, some appearing in the photographs and postcards scattered around her studio.But this is no ordinary family portrait.

Just look at the title. ‘...I could have had class, I could have been a contender, I could have been somebody...’. It’s a quote from  On the Waterfront’. Below is a link to a video clip from the film.  

The irony and wit of the title gives us an unconventional introduction to her non-professional life. She is naked. We know that our clothes have an instrumental function (to keep us warm/cool/safe from cuts and bruises etc) as well as an expressive function (to tell the world who we are or would like to be). Yet she stands there vulnerable, courageous, almost daring us to judge.  Her nipple seems to point at the picture (low down on the floor, not high up on the wall)  of Jesus Christ wearing a crown of thorns at his crucifixion. Another vulnerable figure. Her feet are beautifully painted. They may not win an advertising contract for stilettos, but they are sturdy and strong and human.

I think this portrait brilliantly and poignantly illustrates the self-reflection on ageing, career, family and the meaning of it all in a post modern age, which is a major concern (among men as well as women) in this year’s BP Portrait Award show. Another example is Angela Reilly’s striking self-portrait Departure  which ‘marks the departure from youth to passing middle age’. She scrutinises the physical changes in the upper part of her body, making her consider what is yet to come in her life.  And Thea Penna’s self-portrait in triptych form is another moving example of telling it how it is.

You can see all these portraits and their captions on the link below.

There can hardly be a greater contrast than with the portrait which took the second prize. It’s 8ft high and encased in an ornate  gold frame. A very lovely naked girl is chained to a rock. Her face is not stained with tears, her eyes are lifted calmly to the skies. She waits with calm and equanimity whatever fate is going to befall her. The critic Jonathan Jones, one of the judges, writes ‘(it)  creates a tension between art and pornography. The urge to dismiss it as kitsch may be a defence mechanism, to avoid confronting its uninhibited sexuality’.  The urge to dismiss it may also be because we cannot afford the luxury of celebrating images which reinforce the humiliation and violence millions of girls and women experience worldwide every day. (To read the case against what I've just said, use the link to Jonathan Jones.

That painting reminds me of  The Execution of Lady Jane Grey by Paul Delaroche. Another innocent helpless young woman facing death while we all stand round and watch. This time it's a fictionalised account of a real event. There is deep pathos as she emerges from the shadows, blindfold and wearing virgin white, appearing to grope towards the execution block.

More postcards of this picture are sold at the National Gallery than any other.
‘Human kind cannot bear very much reality’ (T.S.Eliot: Burnt Norton)

Tuesday, 21 June 2011


    MEDICI GALLERY, LONDON     21.6.11
This image doesn’t do justice to the depth and richness of the original oil painting, but it captures beautifully the sweep of light and the echo of faded beauty in a room which has clearly been witness to many a jollification. Rupert Dixon's work – which often features unnamed and unpopulated grand villas, ballrooms and palaces - has an ethereal, dreamlike quality. The artist has been described as having ‘an almost Dickensian sense of light and darkness’. 

By distancing the room from its intended purpose we feel a sense of loss, but it allows our imagination to move around the space without let or hindrance.  He takes images of interiors that he likes, then rips them up and recreates something which is partly abstract, as if leaving us with a canvas for our own imagination. He sometimes uses a mixed medium of gouache and heritage colours, household emulsion, oil on canvas, matt and gloss, intending the work to be both finished and unfinished.

This painting is in the Medici Gallery's exhibition The Influence of Historicism, referring back to artistic styles of the past, often a return to classicism and architectural subjects. The paintings I saw were accompanied by extracts from Lord Byron’s Childe Harold Pilgrimage, Canto the Third. I confess I cannot recall reading Byron but have a daughter who is an expert so I hope she’s got it right...

‘Tis the last remnant of the wreck of years,
And looks as with the wild-bewildered gaze
Of one to stone converted by amaze;
Yet still with consciousness; and there it stands
Making a marvel that it not decays.

I saw this work shortly before I went to the breath-takingly original Magical Consciousness exhibition at the Arnolfini Gallery in Bristol. That’s more than a short walk from my flat (Paddington station is near enough but after that you need a train...). I thought of this work when I read some words of the philosopher Vilem Flusser, who suggests that there is more potential to touch reality in the act of looking in itself, than in what is actually being looked at or read in a descriptive text. The latent potential is your imagination.  I

Dixon’s painting is from a current series called A State of Interiors. An arresting title. ‘State’ has so many associations: a nation, a statement, stateliness - perhaps even  our own ‘state of mind’ or ‘state of grace’?

Friday, 17 June 2011


                                          MEDICI GALLERY 17.6.11

(c) Medici Gallery

They call it photo-realism: a couple of words which scoop up the transformation of
a flat surface of paint and canvas into objects which cry out to be touched, handled, enjoyed.  I can feel the grain of the linen cloth, the cool of the silver, the fragility of the shells. It's best to stop thinking and simply absorb what Tony de Wolf has achieved with such a limited range of subtle colours and shapes: peace, calm, harmony.

Tony de Wolf is a Belgian artist who draws on the classical tradition of still life painting by the great Flemish artists of the 16C and 17C. But it’s impossible to stand in front of the stillness and the sense of presence of his pictures  without recalling the work of the Italian artist Georgio Morandi (1890 – 1964). Yet his exquisite painting is never derivative.

Why egg shells? Each one is unique. Hard, fragile, protective and life-giving. A friend of mine had to eat them as a source of calcium when a child in the 1940s. Her family, living in China,  was interned in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp.

Egg shells have been sculpted and drawn and painted in art of every kind. Only the other day I saw a sculpture of a large and arresting bird made from them (they may have been papier mache?) at the Polka, a children’s theatre in Wimbledon.
I wonder about the title? Is it a witty reference to contemporary royalty? Yesterday Carol Midgley in The Times recalled that she’d read how the staff of the Prince of Wales make seven boiled eggs for his breakfast to ensure that one is of his preferred consistency. Myths abound when it comes to royalty. Perhaps the story attracted the attention of the artist?

And that egg yolk winking at us from the bottom right hand corner? A fiery sun with all its associations of health, wholesomeness, nourishment. But don't forget salmonella...


Thursday, 16 June 2011



,,,and then there’s the title - in quotation marks. It has a tangy, witty flavour. A phrase from a comic turn at the music hall? Or it it words wrung out of a parent to a child who has persisted in the battle to go out to play or have an ice cream long enough to win? 

But this is no trivial matter. this digital C-type print is a strikingly remodelled version of Jean Frederic Schall's The Suitor Accepted ( see below), painted in 1788. It references a binding decision as to marital intentions, 

Our hero in Maisie Broadhead’s beautifully tinted picture shows off his lively calves in stockings which end in trainers, and his finely cut jacket would not look out of place in Canary Wharf.  The three models have the uncanny look of having just come from a photo shoot for a glossy Sunday supplement. The eye searches for other contemporary insertions. The carpet is patterned with a brick wall. An exquisite china tea cup on the right is balanced on a cut glass stand like an interior design feature. It's almost a chalice. Suddenly you are aware that the elegant dog is staring back at you, the viewer, so you almost feel apologetic for giving the picture your close scrutiny.
This parody is in Rococo style, favoured by (mainly)  French artists of the  18C. The style is marked by elegant and ornate furniture, lavish drapery, mirrors and tapestries. Sometimes it carries a narrative, sometimes it takes a snapshot of a highly improbable event. It’s been called frivolous, even modish – but others say it's the champion of sensuous vitality. Reality painting it is not. Maisie Broadhead is one of six artists displaying at the Medici Gallery’s exhibition The Influence of Historicism,  a show full of surprises: portraits in oil, still life, sculpture in bronze and marble, architectural interiors and what appear to be Rococo/Baroque paintings – none of them quite what you expect.The whole exhibition challenges notions of what is real and what is fake. First impressions really do not count. 

Maisie Broadhead’s first reputation was as an outstanding jeweller. Her website gives an indication of the range of her work.

Jean Frederic Schall's The Suitor Accepted 

 Maisie Broadhead's work makes an interesting contrast with Tom Hunter's work. He won the John Kobal Photographic Portrait Award in 1998 with his iconic Woman reading a Possession Order, a take on Johannes Vermeer’s A Girl Reading a Letter by an Open Window,1647-9. He  talks candidly about photography sometimes being like an act of prayer, a moment of suspense and concentration,  timeless, allowing the atmosphere to pour in. I wrote about his work in Blog 46

Tuesday, 14 June 2011


My godmother, taking my hand and pointing to the sky, would said to me as a child ‘Just look at those clouds! If people had to pay to see them, there'd be queues all round the block...'

Acrylic on perforated paper 58.4x76.2cm

I don’t believe you can have too many paintings of the sky.  This beautiful study at the Bernard Jacobson Gallery is part of a series based on an area on the edge of Ryedale in North Yorkshire, and it’s easy to see it as part of an historic English landscape tradition.  I saw the picture on the day when The Times newspaper ran a weather feature about how, even in London at the moment, ‘if you blotted out the buildings and looked up it has felt a bit like stepping into a picture by Constable'.

I first saw Tillyer’s work in 1998 when he was shortlisted for the Jerwood Painting Prize in a year when the judges ‘found it a most difficult challenge to reduce the numbers. The ten selected artists are all exceptional exponents of painting as a versatile and exciting medium’. This picture is built on the accumulated experience of half a century of innovation, of making works which strive towards a fresh interpretation of the landscape tradition - and painting in general. 
Helmsley Sky Studies sees Tillyer working on a perforated lattice, suspended above a white background. The paint weaves its way through the broken surface. We are reminded that seascape – and landscape and skyscape - are shaped and valued by our imaginative capacity for symbolism.  

What is especially delightful about Tillyer’s distinctive way of painting is that however beautiful his work, it’s rooted in the real world of air, water and earth. I wonder if he saw Cloudspotting, the BBC TV documentary presented by Gavin Pretor-Pinney last April, which drew on science, meteorology and mythology for a playful trip round distinctive cloud types. Another way of responding to the sublime without losing touch with science, meteorology and the here and now.

Image by kind permission of the Bernard Jacobson Gallery 

Monday, 13 June 2011


Not alas within walking distance in London but a viewing of the opening of the graffiti street artist Sandman's art gallery on Symi - a paradise island a ferry distance from Rhodes.  It's a gentle, warm night and the Aegean sea is almost lapping at your feet ...

Here is the picture you can see through the door.

My next blog - number 80 - will be available in the next 48 hours.