Sunday, 25 November 2012


Samuel Aranda, Spain, for The New York Times.
The glimpse of the woman's face which breaks through  the solid black plane of her drapery and the gloved hand tenderly holding her son's arm makes a striking picture. But it's not a pose adopted by models - it took place in real time. The date is 15 October 2011. The place is specific too - a Yemeni woman, Fatima al-Qaws, is cradling her son Zayed in Sanaa, Yemen.  It's the winning photograph  chosen from over 100,000 images aubmitted from 124 countries  to the 2011 World Press annual competition in press photography, currently on show at the Royal Festival Hall, Southbank..

 Zayed was suffering from the effects of tear gas after being fired at as he approached a government checkpoint during protests against President Ali Abdullah Saleh. Zayed remained in a coma for two days after the incident. The image was taken at a mosque that was being used as a temporary field hospital where Ms Qaws found her son among the wounded.

 Anyone familiar with European art might see the composition as an echo of  Michaelangelo's Pieta. Another mother, Mary, is grieving over her beloved son, Jesus, an event which took place 2,000 years ago. It was translated into one of the world's greatest sculptures 500 years ago. It's a grief which does not change from generation to generation and is probably being experienced in various parts of the world even as you read this.

Samuel Aranga's photograph is on display at the Royal Festival Hall amid a dazzling and powerful exhibition of  169 images from across the world, including award-winning images from each of the other nine contest categories.  There is a warning that some of the work is very disturbing.

Wednesday, 21 November 2012


28 CORK STREET  until November 24

A brief note as the show will close soon:

Patrick Gibbs' oils and acrylics are largely inspired by the people and dramatic landscapes of Burma, Sri Lanka, Zanzibar and Kerala. In Fishing Boat in Surf, Sri Lanka 2 (84 x 98cm) the viewer looks up at this astonishing moment when surf and skill and strategy converge into a white wall  as frozen as a glacier. But the stillness is an illusion: in a moment the wave will burst with energy and topple and sway and reach out towards who-knows-where...

In contrast  Four Fishermen, Lake Inle, Burma ( 70 x 184cm) is at first sight a placid, pleasing rather romantic view of boats  gliding over calm waters, sea and sky making a pleasurable unity. But this is real life: the picture is packed with dynamism and the composition highlights the poise and skill of men absorbed in making a living, not making a picture.

The third picture Women Harvesting Sugar Cane, Burma (40 x 40 cm) confirms the physicality which is so powerful in Gibbs' paintings. The hot, dry air impacts on us and  colours  are bleached out by the sun. It is a modest, quiet, dreamy scene, those shady hats giving away nothing about the mysterious women  crouched over their exhausting daily labour.

Monday, 19 November 2012


 Tate Britain  until January 6th 2013

Why go and see a series of scaled up leather bicycle saddles scattered on the floor of  the ART NOW room at Tate Britain?

Not for the first time in her work, the artist is reminding us that things as well as people have a biography; and goods have an emotional as well as a monetary value, especially notable when they change hands. The title reminds us of the 2011 London riots. Just over a year ago David Lammy, Labour MP for Tottenham, described the rioters as 'mindless, mindless people'. Is that what they were?  Jess Flood Paddock has chosen her title in order to challenge his way of thinking.

Saddles are easy to steal, are highly valued by cyclists, can be quickly sold and resold and have become a sort of alternative currency. The very word ‘saddle’ conjures up a history of speed and daring: horses, races, cowboys, highwaymen.  In the second picture you can glimpse  on the far wall a video displaying the empty scruffy streets, barricaded shops, barred gates and doors around London’s Broadway Market, where these bicycle seats used to zip along.  Each image moves slowly, pausing long enough to discomfort us. 

For the viewer is inside a beautiful and well-loved gallery, Tate Britain, standing in a quiet, well-lit room looking at these elegant sculptures. The artist's gift is to 'tell it slant', to stop us in our tracks, to conjure up a fresh awareness before we have time to gather up an armful of defensive  clich├ęs.  Pause for a moment and imagine streets with a proliferation of chained up bicycles, without seats,  the main stem poking up to the sky: an eye watering picture.  In the studio the saddles are humbled, grounded, detached from what gave them purpose and meaning in life. She's asking how far do circumstances dictate what we see, think and feel? 
The result is visceral.  How far are we all complicit? Do we all need to exchange mindlessness for mindfulness?

Saturday, 10 November 2012


Visiting the Wellcome Collection yesterday for another reason, Georgie Meadows' arresting exhibition stopped me in my tracks as soon as I stepped into the Foyer.. Using a domestic sewing machine to sew through two pieces of cloth, separated by wadding, Meadows has created a series of delicate, evocative, profound portraits of old people. The title of the show is Stitched Drawings and sometimes she uses black thread to create an outline as if she's sketching the subject.And tight-knotted threads combine and contrast with loose stuffing, with softness and jagged edges. The notes on the exhibition point out that 'the tangled threads are both a metaphor for the scrambling of neural connections during degenerative illness and a tender and tactile form of portraiture'.

 And deeply moving as the portraits are, the artist has a practical purpose in mind - to help us understand some of the concerns that need to be addressed when caring for - or just being with - some older people.Meadows' concern is with the primacy of visual communication in the act of caring, when logic and speech are often elusive. This gives the portraits a meditative quality; when the confusions and distress of illness are set beside the kindness held in the simple act of empathetic looking and seeing.. 

The captions accompanying the pictures movingly outline the daily challenges and triumphs of her sitters: the woman wearing a party paper hat looks as if this is not the sort of headgear she has ever relished, young or old; the success of a man's day is measured by dressing himself; a woman is hungry but her brain will no longer tell her how to eat. There is also a short film Thursday Afternoons.about a community on the Welsh border where Georgie Meadows has organised a weekly tea dance to bring together a mixture of people.

Meadows' works are a gentle and beautiful testament to courage and resilience in the face of a loss of control and identity. I hope this exhibiton will go on tour.

Friday, 9 November 2012


Hedgerow (New Forest) 2003 lightjet print mounted on aluminium 122x155cm © The Artist, courtesy Anthony Reynolds Gallery, London

The Cornfield 1826 John Constable, oil on canvas 143x122 © The National Gallery, London
The picture at the top of a shining golf course  beyond a serpentine path, framed and held by a wreath of dark foliage, is shown beside none other than The Cornfield, the purpose being to find out  'how photographers use fine art traditions to explore and justify their work.'

The National Gallery has mounted its first major exhibition in photography, Seduced by Art, using work from the mid 19 century onwards to illuminate some of its Old Masters. Hedgerow (New Forest) is the work of one of our most exciting contemporary artists, Richard Billingham. People may recall first encountering his stark, painful, sympathetic and unforgettable photographs in the 1990s when he pictured his parents and brother in their domestic environment.

Death of Sardanapalus 1827 by Eugene Delacroix

Hedgerow and The Cornfield are in Room 34 and the pair are used as a taster to invite you downstairs into the Seduced by Art exhibition which I cannot include because you have to buy a ticket (half price on Tuesday afternoons). This blog is about free art. I should mention that the National Gallery is open and free (except for special temporary exhibitions) for 361 days in the year.

Seduced by Art has had mixed reviews but at its best it is magnificent. In the first room is this work by Delacroix. It comes to life with  the great late Tom Lubbock's review in The Independent 02.07.2010. He described a scene of 'beautiful chaos', where there is 'rich fabric and gorgeous colours' among 'turbulence, cruelty, opulence, ruin, decadence, slaughter... a masscre coming to its end'. Beside it in the exhibition are three contemporary photographs: Jeff Wall's Barbaric Destruction, Tom Hunter's single figure at a bedside and Sarah Jones' sheet slipping from a plinth. You may find the juxtoposition  overwhelmingly powerful.

© The Artist, courtesy Anthony Reynolds Gallery, London