Saturday, 28 April 2012


Photo Mike Bruce
Hauser&Wirth Gallery until May 26
It took two trips in the pouring rain – including navigating 6ft wide puddles in the gutter – to see this exhibition. (I had failed to notice that the gallery closes on Mondays). Was the effort worth it? 

Woman with Sticks is a pared down version of a fleshy, naked, middle-aged woman, about half life-size.  She’s bent backwards, struggling to keep hold of a bundle of bristling sticks which spike out in all directions. You certainly wouldn’t want to get in her way.  Lay your head on your right shoulder and you can look straight into her eyes, She’s not unfriendly, but she’s giving nothing away. You marvel at the technical perfection. Her hair and skin, her toenails, her red roughened elbows, muscles, tendons, a hint of blue veins are rendered perfectly.

She’s certainly a surprise. We’ve all seen middle aged ladies and bundles of wood and nakedness – but not all together. Why is she on her own? No helping hand from child or neighbour. Where is she going? To light a fire, fuel a furnace, sweep a ballroom floor? Is she a woodcutter’s wife from a fairy tale or a symbol of women of a certain age who struggle through life when they can no longer make men’s hearts beat faster? Perhaps she's political, designed to remind us how women (and children) are exploited  in the workplace.

I first saw Mueck’s work at the Sensation exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts in 1997. Like many other people I was bowled over by Dead Dad, a 3ft long sculpture of the artist’s father, a man undoubtedly dead, not sleeping, stretched out on a plinth which was also a tomb. I know that no work of art can claim attention solely on the feelings it arouses. Feelings come and go. But this was a poignant image, made stronger by the fact that it was child-sized. I was moved by the figure’s helplessness, his vulnerability, how his unique  repertoire  of memories, skills, knowledge, ways of speaking and dressing and laughing had all been  emptied out.

Muek's critics say that 'soul' is missing; that we marvel at his precision but then can only stand and stare. I don't think that was true of Dead Dad, an intimate, haunting reminder of death and of our own mortality. It's one son's unfinished conversation with the father with whom, he says, 'he didn't get on'.

All Mueck's work tries to get round 'the deadening effect of habit'. Viktor Shklovsky in a famous essay of 1917 declared that that is the essential purpose of art.
Habituation devours works, clothes, furniture, one’s wife, and the fear of war . . . And art exists that one may recover the sensation of life; it exists to make one feel things, to make the stony stony. The purpose of art is to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are known.
(Quoted in  David Lodge’s The Art of Fiction).

Captain Spock put it another way. In Startrek he talked of 'life, but not as we know it...'


Thursday, 19 April 2012


Above is a detail of a cedar wood sculpture by Jilly Sutton. I found it on the CASS Sculpture Foundation website. No image can do justice to the glowing colour of the wood, nor to the tantalisingly beautiful surface (sand blasted?) which is aching to be touched. But it captures the whorls and rings and curls which record the sculpture's history, how a living breathing sapling became a mature tree. (Emily Young still has six magnificent carved heads on display in Berkeley Square until April 25 which, being fossilised marble,  can be handled without damage. As in Jilly's work, you see the past in the present).

Here are two images of Mars. This is not a work you stand full square in front of. Instead you explore by walking round to find another perspective

Jilly Sutton's work has been described as peaceful, tranquil. calm. What is she doing with Mars then? Perhaps because unlike most gods of war - which are malicious, destructive and destabilising - the Roman god Mars represented military power used as a way of securing peace and tranquility, It's a concept we've been using rather frequently in the last couple of decades to justify our own military interventions.

Why are sculptured heads so popular?  Artists have used marble, clay, bronze, concrete,  - even frozen blood, They've decorated cathedrals and chateaux, temples and tombs, fountains, horse troughs and sphynxes. Some are fantastical. They laugh or leer down at us from on high. Others stand close by and bear witness to an uncanny likeness to a real person dead or alive. Do we like these sculptures because they are more 'natural' than paintings, being 3 dimensional, just like us? Think of the time it took to transfer an exact likeness of a head to a flat 2-dimensional surface.

The artist has a studio on the banks of the river Dart in Devon.
'Experimenting with the 'plasticity' of wood and working with the vagaries of the organic nature on the material, never cese to be a challenge'.

 And this is  Fragment:Olivestone



Wednesday, 18 April 2012


Science Museum
'Who Am I? Gallery

Some people think it's creepy at first'. says Gine Czarnecki. She's talking about a large translucent sculpture - a cross between a glowing fairy castle and a cave full of stalactites. If you look closer, you discover the stalactites are made of little human teeth. It's a work in ptrogress and as more children donate. the palace will turn from shiny glass-like resin into a coral of tooth enamel.

This is didactic art (so too was Song Dong’s Waste Not Want Not at the Barbican, Blog 150) As the artist says, ‘It’s looking at our attitudes to waste, to recycling and to taboos'. She wants us to reflect on what happens to those parts of us we no longer need.  Milk teeth are lost naturally and may have a particular significance in a family as a step towards growing up. What  happens when the tooth fairy has finished with them?  Stem cells can be extracted and may in the future be used to repair damaged organs. Indeed whether it’s a damaged joint, a suspect lump or unwanted fat, all kinds of tissues are removed from people’s bodies every day, for both medical and cosmetic reasons. They may have the potential to heal.
Czarnecki is interested in what happens to that tissue - to whom does  clinical waste belong, what information about ourselves does it give away, what scope does it have medically and what does  ‘informed consent’ mean?.
It's at the Science Museum and  later Cantre of the Cell. an interactive science education centre at Queen's College, London. It's one of the works in WASTED, a show which is a collaboration between the artist and Professor Sara Rankin from Imperial College London, and part-funded by the Wellcome Trust.

P.S. I've had to break my rule about only writing about art which I've seen, as I was careless enough to crack a bone in my hand. Life is much slower and a trifle disorganised, So I researched this piece and Gina has been in touch with me. She'd like to know if you have any ideas about how to get more people to donate teeth. Is there a primary school near you that might help? You can contact her on

Thursday, 12 April 2012


Angela Flowers Gallery

If Stephen Chambers were a poet or a novelist, people would say he has a distinctive ‘voice’. I think I first saw his work when he was on a shortlist of seven for the Jerwood Painting prize in 1999, and have been looking out for his work ever since. 

What first attracted me was his inspired use of colour: flat, uniformly dense across the whole canvas, utterly unwilling to nudge or beguile you into looking at this or that aspect of the picture. And then the lack of perspective, the mystery of it all. How can this be an interior? Perhaps it’s a still life?

The title presumably refers to the exquisite pots lined up on the rungs on the ladder like beads on an abacus. There’s no past or future in this picture, no clues as to how or why the objects got there and nothing to indicate that anything will change. Some of Chambers’ paintings have been described as ‘an atmosphere waiting eternally for something to happen’. Is this what the world looks like when no one is looking? Except that it is no longer an empty room, when we are present, looking in.

It is paradoxical that Chambers' work, noted for its stillness and restraint, has inspired dance works for the Royal Ballet, where choreography demands constant change and animation. This image is from This House Will Burn, Covent Garden 2001. Chambers co-designed the set with Jon Morrell.

It’s said that for Stephen Chambers the scope and possibilities of art were enlarged by seeing the work of the Umbrian artist Piero della Francesca. This is his The Baptism of Christ painted between 1448 and 1450. It’s based on a story written down 2,000 years ago, one which has been told and read across continents ever since.

 A photograph catches a fleeting moment but the moments captured here are not fleeting. The bird overhead, the Holy Spirit, appears to be motionless, echoing the shape of the cloud. The people are in communion with God yet alert, engaged in the present moment.

The painting is known for its deep stillness and restraint.        for the dell Francesco painting    for a review by Tom Lubbock

Sunday, 8 April 2012


Flowers Gallery until April 21

Julie Cockburn takes found photographs and by stitching, collage and judicious cutting makes them her own, a new work linking past and present. I think the main image of Bond is from the cover of a 1950s copy of Marie Claire, a popular French womens' weekly which first appeared in 1937. Along with most  other magazine titles, it was banned in 1942 by the German authorities who had occupied France. It reappeared in 1954 as a monthly publication.
But why is the face of this top notch model obscured by a studio photograph of a 1930s baby? She looks as though she might fall out of the picture, since she should have been shown horizontally but has been tipped anti clockwise into a scarily precarious position. No doubt originally destined to be a passive artefact passed around delighted family and friends, the photograph is turned on its head so that the child looks straight out at us, the viewer.

Why did the artist choose Marie Claire? Today’s magazine bids you to ‘Think Smart, Look Amazing’. To help you get there, it offers News, Fashion, Hair and Beauty, Celebrity, Lifestyle, Health, Travel and much more, such as ‘a peek at our top picks from Cheryl Cole’s new stylistic shoe collection’. One possible reading of Bond is that, like Damien Hirst’s butterflies and sharks currently on show in Tate Modern, the viewer is invited to reflect on  the transience of life, even our own mortality.
By literally defacing the model’s image Cockburn has transformed the subject. Cockburn says ‘Something happens beyond my control with a successful work; it is greater that the sum of its simple parts , becoming a new image with a new history to unfold'.

I can’t guess who this beautiful woman is  nor do I know why she has a such a rapt and intense expression while sewing. What I do know is that the enigma is intensified by the delicate pearl-like thread which encircles her head. It summons up a number of responses. The cartoonist drawing Desperate Dan in a comic of that name would use lines like this to signify a blow to the head or shock or surprise – from which he would surely scramble up unscathed. Or, someone who through spite or jealousy was intent on spoiling a photograph, might scribble just these lines.  Or perhaps the beauty of the thread and of the woman suggests a halo? Perhaps it's an annunciation scene? The artist has succeeded in turning a humble, repetitive though creative task into an enigma posing an intellectural and political challenge.
I enjoy the freshness, thoughtfulness and provocation of Cockburn’s work. As I walk away I reflect that most of us don’t know what to do with photographs. They used to be stored in albums and were largely untitled and unseen. Later came a host of slides – bursting with colour and vitality - but only coming to life with the help of projector. Now photographs languish inside some electronic device or other, competing with trillions of others for an airing.
Why not risk making a collage? This is on the front of a  birthday party invitation I made and sent out in 2006. A figure cut from a studio photograph is pasted on to a postcard sent from Adelboden in Switzerland in the 1930s. It certainly isn’t art but it intrigued the recipients: is the baby nestled warm and snug in the natural hollow of the mountain or is she poised to slide down into the black lip of the lake?
It’s artists like Cockburn who make the familiar strange - and maybe  give a stamp of approval to our own creativity?

Tuesday, 3 April 2012


until April 28

This kind of art asks the question
‘Is less more?’  

Unlike Michaelangelo it doesn’t arrange limbs, noses and drapery. Unlike the theatre it doesn’t ape real life. It doesn’t remind us of anything or anyone. There is nothing to see but  acrylic paint on canvas. It reminds me of sculptors like Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth who wanted to stay true to the inner beauty of the materials they worked with such as wood and stone.  
Peter Kalkhof - like Terry Frost, Patrick Heron and Bridget Riley  - have each in their different ways made us see colour anew. Kalkhof grew up in post-war Germany having experienced the Fall of Berlin as a child. He’s lived and worked as an artist in London for nearly fifty years, developing an individual vocabulary with which to tempt the viewer to engage with ‘far-reaching issues pertaining to human life in general and to the universe in which we find ourselves’. This latest show reminds us of his gift of being able to paint with optimism, enjoyment and ambition. His work is as fresh and relevant to contemporary thinking as it was for those artists in the 1960s when it all began.

This piece (Colour and Space 2008,16 parts, overall 162 x 162 cm) reminds me of some of Donald Judd’s wall sculptures. And of Phillip Glass’s music (if you don’t know his work try Glassworks or the film Koyaanisqatsi). It just stays in the room waiting to engage with us Its repetition is s oothing, meditative. Rearranged in different permutations, it all adds up to something very beautiful, even transcendent.         a slide show of 5 paintings in the National Collection and where you can see them

Sunday, 1 April 2012



 Oxford Street is in distress. Roadworks are making bits of roads and pavements out of bounds to pedestrians. It’s a hot, noisy, sunny day in March and there are so many of us that it’s a problem to find a space for the next footstep. Instead turn down quiet and empty Dering Street to the Annely Juda gallery, push open the glass double doors and take the lift to the 3rd floor.  Step out and take a moment to puzzle out where the gallery door is. You spy a small handle in the white wall…

Inside is a magic space. Breathe in the calm and the light. It’s as if the artworks have subtly transformed the space they inhabit. I was told that the exhibition was curated and hung by the artist himself. Rippling across the walls are beautifully crafted sculptures, small scale, quiet and strong.  The image above shows a work which consists of 14 pieces and the overall mesurement is a mere 15.5 x 32 x 1.5cm.
Ackling belongs to a generation of artists who decided in the 60s that art could be anything they wanted it to be: in his case it is wood marked by the sun. He collects found objects such as driftwood,  clothes pegs, picture frames and transforms them by burning them with sunlight through a hand-held magnifying glass.  It is ‘an intense and meditative process: each mark, like a tiny sun, measuring the existence of a ray of light on its passage to earth from a source millions of miles away’.
The image on the right (45.5 x 30.5 x 4.3cm) may look like an abstract painting not a sculpture. It is of course wood burned by sunlight. And, unlike a painting, it does not hang flat against the wall. Which means that the sun plays its part for the second time in the here and now in the studio, creating shadows which gently move round in their own time.

‘Ackling’s work releases a renewed awareness of the small, the silent, the marginal, the overlooked’.