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Sandy Smith (5) 5mbThe weather outside may be frightful but artist, Sandy Smith, has five warmer, and far more appealing propositions for you. Smith’s exhibition at Space in Between, Five Propositions for the Tourist, doesn’t merely make a performance out of transporting the viewer to sunnier climes: the installation literally radiates heat.

The sauna-style decking, ‘Take your time, embrace your misunderstanding’, boasts a grid of white-hot bulbs, while ‘Sometimes it goes deeper than you think’ warms the skin with the burnt orange of reptile lamps. The sea-blue printed wallpaper of this, our retreat, reflects the ambient glow and forgets the grey it faces outside the gallery window.

A seeming mash-up of existential philosophy, popular psychology and obscure poetry; the names of the works in the show might have already revealed that there is far more to this exhibition than the simple reptilian pleasure of basking in the artificial heat.

Five Propositions for the Tourist grapples with two underlying grand influences: a photograph taken in 1934 showing the façade of the Fascist Party’s headquarters, wrapped in a banner repeating the word SI over and over, and a story about Ludwig Wittgenstein who, for most of his later life, lectured in a room unfurnished bar a safe containing his notes; those invited to the lecture brought deck chairs to bask in the attempted murder of philosophy by a vortex of logic.

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It is not instantly clear how Smith has rationalised these two big ideas and it’s easy to be sceptical of the feat, but it’s also possible to see these distilled into two harmonious elements. The repetition of IS, an inversion of the Fascist slogan, is described by Smith as “simultaneously an affirmation and a questioning, a churning out of meaningless language and an overstimulated form of zen meditation.”

As language plays at being more complex (expanding in the poem which accompanies the show and the poetic fragments of the works list) this overstimulation radiates through the breezy slogans which Wittgenstein might very well see as a fresh assault on philosophy.

Smith explains that, “for a long time I’ve been fascinated with self-help and other pop-psychology texts, I’ve used slogans and mantras from these for some time, such as ‘every day in every way I’m getting better and better’ by Emile Coué, to name a familiar one. I think a lot about texts (and materials) which hover between intent, or vibrate between positive and negative interpretations.”

Thus, depending on our mood, we might find our own solace or menace in A hyperactive field of indecision is not without form or Stretch your legs, interact, and remember.

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Perhapthe most incredible thing about the show is the wallpaper, the only element which was created off-site in New York and transported to London in Smith’s hand-luggage. Three hundred foot of paper was printed in just three hours after Smith had spent 6 months building and perfecting his own rotary printing press. By turning everything together the press allows for “a continuous stream of printed text”.

“I prefer to make quite a rigid environment that contains the possibility for free movement within it, my thinking being that it is much more genuinely generous than the space that pretends to be lax and laissez-faire but actually has quite specific intentions laid out for you in how you interact with it.”

The repetitive formula of ‘IS’ from that vinyl wallpaper will burn on in your retina, along with the respite of those grids of heated lamps; there’s certainly plenty to keep you thinking even after you’ve left the remit of Five Propositions for the Tourist’s warm aura

Five Propositions for the Tourist will be at Space in Between until 27 th April: http://
www.spaceinbetween.co.uk/event.asp?index=0

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This review of the Residence Gallery’s exhibition, Finish Fetish, was originally written for the March edition of the Hackney Citizen.

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During the 1960s and 70s, the Minimalist movement saw a group of Californian artists begin working with synthetic and machine-made materials such as plastic, glass, light and resin to create high-sheen artworks associated with the phrase, ‘Finish Fetish’. From Larry Bell, to John McCracken: the Finish Fetish was something of a love affair with the perfect polish of new surfaces.

Now that 3D Printers are just the latest technological development in our economy of constantly evolving synthetic substitutes, that fascination with new materials is perhaps even more relevant some 50 years on. It isn’t surprising then, amidst accelerating innovations in manufacture and sustainable material, that the Finish Fetish lives: moving from the States to East London, Ben Gooding, Clive Hanz Hancock and Patrick Morrissey are all part of the Residence Gallery’s new exhibition.

But these contemporary finish fetishists aren’t so much concerned with the perfect plastic luxury which these machines can produce, but with what, with an obsessive perseverance, the human hand can reproduce. In an inverted emulation of that industrial and automated process, surfaces are painstakingly hand-crafted to mimic the work of machines.

Gooding etches the undulating flow of his surfaces with individual rhythms of line. He does this by hand and over long periods of time. Yet they look as though they have been brushed by the controlled arm of a machine with one single sweep: this specious casualness is truly seductive. Meanwhile Morrissey’s complex numerical systems, his sequential developments and interest in geometry, also give his aluminium prints the appearance of machinated, programmed patterns: but they follow his own logic.

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Finish Fetish’s attention to superficial detail is immediately evident in the fetishistic alliteration of the title, and even the Gallery’s Director, Ingrid Z, has been finish-fetishized: when I go to visit, her woollen hat is decorated with metal studs which catch the spotlights, and her leggings are a monochromatic zig-zag print, an echo of Patrick Morrissey’s aluminium works.

The Residence is a compact gallery, so it is a virtue that most of the works are individually compelling: in a small exhibition a single work has the power to keep you. In Gooding’s lacquer on perspex it is my own silhouette which captures me in its shifting, meticulous pattern. In the copper, it is a burnished parallel flash of light which moves me. Whether you are a curious toddler or a sophisticated surface-connoisseur, it is one of those simple effects of light and shadow which makes you softly want to coo.

The triumph of the exhibition is in the intimation of a personal fetish, and its successful communication as a shared passion between artist and viewer. The works are not the curiosities of niche fanaticists, offered to the viewer to gawp at without comprehension; it is easy to feel the lure of these materials.

This is where Clive Hanz Hancock’s works failed for me: there was nothing sexy about his geometric abstractions. The bright colours deviated too far from the monochromes and other deep metal shades, and looked instead like the fat tips of crayolas displayed in little cylindrical windows. Perhaps I am letting my own minimalist, black & white fetish, get the better of me here.

The good news is that the exhibition will be replenished with other temptations for March’s First Thursday and the second half of the show. This also means that if you want to buy a work the Residence will happily pluck it from the wall there and then and let you walk away with it: you need not be separated from the new object of your desire.

Finish Fetish will be on at the Residence Gallery until 24 March. For more information: www.residence-gallery.com

This is a copy of a review I wrote for the Hackney Citizen’s February Issue on Cornelia Baltes’ exhibition at Limoncello Gallery.

Here’s a little quote from James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man to explain just what I mean when I throw out a Joycean comparison:

‘Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was a moocow coming down along the road and this moocow that was coming down along the road met a nicens little boy named baby tuckoo’

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Until the 9th March Limoncello Gallery on Kingsland Road will host Cornelia Baltes’ graphically playful and pastel-teasing solo show, ‘Schnick Schnack Schnuck’. Working across a panoply of media, Baltes presents painting, photographic works, installations and anthropomorphic hybrids of all three, in an exhibition where even the walls and picture frames are self-painted in a curation of the whole.

The title of the exhibition comes from the German name for the game of ‘Rock, Paper, Scissors’, but this seems to be more than just a preference of nationality (Baltes is German herself); the linguistic tripping of ‘Schnick Schnack Schnuck’ is onomatopoeic of painting style and visual personality too.

The exhibition has all the taunting psychology of its namesake, both in its seeming randomness and Baltes’ skill for the inconspicuous exploitation of her audience. She knows just when we’ll be schnucking, and when we’ll be schnacking too.

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There is pleasure and play sensitive to our most infantile senses. The joke is always light, just enough to push us to a giggle. Girl with a Pearl Earring is mounted on bubble-gum pink, her tactile painterly white hair revealing the fluoro-orange of a stud. Elsewhere the humour is less wry and more silly; dangledoo’s papier mache and wool beads hang down from above the doorway just waiting for the sideways glance of our attention.

By far the cheekiest of works is Jim and Jill: two photographic portraits of landscape scenes made human in the framing. Jill brings her own sexiness into the mix; her rich pink belly softly dented by the shadow of her belly button. Even Baltes’ photographs reveal themselves to be graphically painterly.

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The gallery’s Assistant Director, Rosa Tyhurst, speaks of Baltes ‘expanding painting’. It’s certainly true that her work refuses to be contained in a single frame: Discoteaser’s necklace hangs from the awkward space between wall and ceiling to let the starry pendant rest on canvas-cleavage; the very corners of Ding Bats’ lost frame have slipped underneath itself to become awkward bird-legs; and Ghost Owl stares out at us from the black painted wall behind the work, it’s eye-sockets incised holes in the canvas. In fact there are eyes everywhere – lines, slits, marks, brushstrokes – which offer the unnerving sense that from the surfaces of 2d canvases, a whole woodland of animals might one day creep.

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Trained as Graphic Designer, Baltes’ ‘Schnick Schnack Schnuck’ reads like a children’s book cut out and reassembled in 3d: its characters and colours, the hide and seek of identifying the anthropomorphic in visual signifiers, the Joycean linguistic pleasure of naming the dangledoo, Ding Bats, and Discoteaser. This storybook is a jumping and leaping through newly invented games.

Baltes’ graphic design background is stamped clearly on the work: in style, sign and symbol, the soft colours designed for printing and the perfectionism of detail. This brings her humour to the fore in a fresh way. There seems to be no obligation in the choices she makes; the rules are all her own. Stylised and sharp, ‘Schnick Schnack Schnuck’ is an enjoyable show, making a game out of the verbal and the visual.

This month I wrote an article about Georgia Hayes’ exhibition at Transition, Sing Out Loud for the Hackney Citizen.

singing together

On the 11 January Georgia Hayes’ Sing Out Loud opens at Transition Gallery, celebrating colour, paint and imagination with large-scale figurative paintings.

Whether the setting is the opera, safari or a museum, Hayes’ canvases are a window onto the magic realism of an imagination. “The paintings feel completely observed from life and completely invented by a free imagination all at once”, writes Barry Schwabsky in an essay to accompany the exhibition.

When I ask Georgia Hayes how she came to painting, she answers: “When I was a child my favourite thing was making a mark on white paper, an excitement I still feel.” That vital pleasure communicates itself to the viewer in every bright sweep of paint.

When she was younger Hayes was not allowed to go to art school but she “was always dreaming anyway”. At thirty, with a young family, Hayes found herself finally able to study at adult education classes under the teaching of Roy Oxlade.

Her simplified graphic style is often attributed to her late training, a style which, as Schwabsky points out, might “at first glance, be mistaken for aesthetic ingenuousness.”

But Hayes  is adamant that, “it is a mistake to think I am self-taught – although I started late, that teaching encouraged me to look for and value original ways to work rather than trying to acquire academic skills, which is the usual way of teaching art.”

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Georgia Hayes’ artistic influences read like the personal plotting of a route through a vast national museum: “Egyptian, Mexican folk art, Early Italian fresco, Hajj paintings, Indian miniatures and Spanish Medieval illuminations, also Manet, Matisse and the late works of Picasso and Philip Guston.”

These interests are collected and curated into the museum setting of many of her paintings; cabinets of crocodiles and boxes packed with canopic jars displayed in museums of fishing, singing and dancing.

“Museums have a slightly stagey reverential feel that appeals to me,” says Hayes, but her settings aren’t museums in any dim, dusty-cabinetted or conventional sense: her own feeling of child-like wonder brings them to new life. The exuberant colours of her figurative paintings are display cases for animals more commonly found in the zoo, her visitors are dressed up for podiums in hot pink platform shoes; nothing is as we might assume.

“When the painting needs it, I am happy to borrow other things/characters that come to my attention and put them into the museum space.  Odd things which I come across or am thinking about at the time often seem to fit happily into the museum.”

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Beyond the frivolity of the gaze there is a tipping into the sinister too. Never explained or fully revealed: much comes to rely on our own reading. In Cathy Lomax’s essay, ‘To Paint Is To Be,’ she describes the “imaginative joining-up-the-dots of seeing” involved in Hayes’ paintings, where bizarre menageries and cabinets of curiosities are disarrayed by obscure narratives.

But do we need to try to make structure and sense of her graphic nouns? Hayes invites us to relish the pure joy of looking: perhaps there is a joke, a touch of nostalgia, a memory dipped in fantasy, but all we have to do is look.

Roald Dahl once urged, “above all, watch with glittering eyes the whole world around you because the greatest secrets are always hidden in the most unlikely places. Those who don’t believe in magic will never find it.” Hayes’ way of looking at the world, with the glitter of vibrant oil paints, is one which draws magic and the surreal into the foreground.

Sing Out Loud will be on at Transition Gallery from 12th January until the 3rd February. For more information: http://www.transitiongallery.co.uk/

Recently it has been books more than art which have absorbed me so it’s unsurprising that literary references have crept into my art reviews. For my latest piece on CAN JM Barrie’s Peter Pan and Dickens’ London streets all fed their way into my enjoyment of light and shadow.

Whether it’s the wild fraying of hair, curled-up boots, or the loose confident stance: there is a little of Peter Pan in the silhouetted shadows of Tim Noble and Sue Webster.

“If he thought at all, but I don’t believe he ever thought, it was that he and his shadow, when brought near each other, would join like drops of water, and when they did not he was appalled. He tried to stick it on with soap from the bathroom, but that also failed. A shudder passed through Peter, and he sat on the floor and cried.” Peter Pan, JM Barrie

It is not just the figure of the boy who never grew up which strikes a resemblance either, Noble and Webster’s sculptures and installations for their Blain | Southern show Nihilistic Optimistic are an equally familiar play of fiction and fantasy.

The six large-scale works included in the solo show are concerned with materiality and form, deconstruction and half-formed chaos, disintegration and materialisation; they are the paradox of ‘Nihilistic Optimistic’. Assemblages of step ladders, splintered wood, saw-dust and other debris are arranged in the dark and a series of light projectors transform their seeming chaos into perfect shadows.

The installations appeal to the fascination of storytelling in the warm dark of the gallery. The allusion isn’t pretentious or obscure, Noble and Webster continue with their exploration of self-portraiture by borrowing from Victorian silhouettes and the rubbish of the streets. But they don’t need to be about more than this to work.

There was a kind of deliberate choice not use such recognisable objects any more, and to start fracturing things up -splintering things. So the mind has to wander in a different way, like you’re giving and taking, and it’s as much about the gaps and holes in between.” Tim Noble

The transformation of layers of urban waste into a solid shadow is explicable, but enough to instil awe and wonder. The splinters and fragments are perfect for describing the rougher edges, but how do these assemblages come to reflect a familiar person? The silhouettes are all larger than life and yet they are imbued with a visible character which makes them feel alive, as though they might in fact be shadows which have slipped from their true owners to create an independent mischief.

But for Peter Pan the slippery materiality of his shadow is not all fun and games: the shudder, the tears; these are reactions the viewer might grow to feel in the presence of these imperfect silhouettes. The titles of the works all suggestively point towards the darker side of the playful; ‘Wild Mood Swings’, ‘The Individual’, ‘Nasty Pieces of Work’. ‘Self-imposed Misery’. They are named to be as unstable as the illusion.

Noble and Webster describe these works as ‘street compositions’ but if they belong to any street it seems to be the fantasized labyrinth of a Dickensian London; street sweepers, flickering gas lamps and paranoid shadows, all move within our imagination.

Nihilistic Optimistic will be at Blain | Southern until the 24th November.

I recently went to see Christ Ofili’s exhibition at Victoria Miro with an East London Fawcett art tour. I had fun writing a review for the CAN Journal.

I am about to do something which will either seem quite clever or very foolish: I’m going to compare Chris Ofili to Pablo Picasso.

If you look closely enough the parallels are there.  Take for instance, Chris Ofili‘s 90s obsession with embellishing his paintings with elephant dung, and compare it with Picasso’s own comment that the pigeon  droppings which decorated the paintings stored in the atelier of an apartment on Rue de la Boetie created “an interesting unpremeditated effect.”

But animal shit is really the least of their connections.

 

The comparison struck me at Ofili’s current show at Victoria Miro, to take and to give which brings together “a substantial suite of paintings and works on paper” inspired by Ovid’s Metamorphoses and produced as part of a collaboration with the National Gallery and the Royal Opera House. Here I thought of Picasso’s collaboration with the Ballet Russes on Parade and Le Train Bleu which led to incredible cubist costumes and sets, his marriage to dancer, Olga Khoklova, and a series of of Picasso’s own etchings and illustrations of Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

Comparisons should strive to be generative rather than merely indicative. In this case it generates a picture of where Ofili is at in his career and what significance this might hold from an art historical perspective. Ofili’s 2010 Tate Britain show proved that the YBA and former Turner Prize winner had spent a good long time maturing in the heat of Trinidad and had emerged from night-time jungle walks a painter with a future as well as a past, the works on show at Victoria Miro show Ofili confidently settling into this future.

to take and to give is a beautiful show, both energetic and lyrical, exploratory and decisive. The real opera d’art is off stage and out of focus in a now past exhibition at the National Gallery, Metamorphosis: Titian 2012, and yet like many of Picasso’s studies, Ofili’s experiments and working studies are independently captivating.

Inspired by Ovid’s story of Diana & Actaeon and dancers from the Royal Opera House, Ofili’s collaboration has sparked frenzied work and an exciting new corpus for fans to devour. While the Hound‘s heads, with their puppet like photo-collaging, and the viciously surreal Nymphs, all communicate the wildness of a cannibalisitc myth, the cut paper portraits of Diana and Actaeon suggest all the elegance of the ballet’s performance of this.

There is an absolute sense of Ofili’s confidence in his line, a line which follows the speed and strength of movement and transforms it into the telling of myth. Study for Ovid-Desire, luxuriously patterned and framed, negotiates the feeling and submission to desire in the direction of line alone. There is a style to these drawings which now feels fully developed and completely Ofili’s own.

When the studies work up to colour they take on the grandness of the ballet. The smaller works in watercolour, charcoal and pastel are patchworks of the incredible colour palette Ofili developed in Trinidad, and they bring the strength of a single artist’s mythos to bear on an all-pervasive story. It is to take and to give of course, the giant acrylic on canvas, which is the centrepiece of the show; a mountain of writhing coloured female flesh and an offering to the gods.

to take and to give will be at Victoria Miro until the 10 November

My love for Ofili goes back a long way to bad quality images on Google printed out for sketchbook studies. If you’re interested in hearing me wax lyrical about Ofili some more here’s an old post from an old blog about his Tate Britain show.

‘quando n’apparve una montagna, bruna                                                                                                            per la distanza, e parvemi alta tanto                                                                                                                     quanto veduta non avea alcuna.

Noi ci allegrammo, e tosto tornò in pianto;                                                                                                         chè della nova terra un turbo nacque,                                                                                                                                  e percosse del legno il primo canto. 

Tre volte il fè girar con tutte l’acque:                                                                                                                                alla quarta levar la poppa in suso                                                                                                                         e la prora ire in giù, com’altrui piacque,

infin che ‘l mar fu sopra noi richiuso.’ 

Dante’s Inferno, the Ulysses Canto

Bouvetøya at Space in Between is an exhibition about the most isolated place on earth, an island in the Antarctic of the same name, which possesses a human history that is at once precisely documented and romantically fabricated.

Artist, Freddy Dewe Mathews explains that Bouvetøya lies somewhere between the realms of fiction and reality; it has been both the imagined setting for Alien vs Predator, at one extreme, and the subject of detailed scientific explorations. Dewe Mathews has negotiated these two ideals, blending the decipherable lines between them by bringing together archive materials with his own sculptures and overlaying this with a sound piece narrating a potentially fictionalised expedition to the island.

The exhibition takes its backdrop from the luminous iced blue of the archive photographs along with the neat blue of log books from real expeditions. Although this physical paraphernalia represents the technical records of the island, they are also the stimuli for our own fantastical adventures when juxtaposed with Dewe Mathew’s geometric concrete castings or his wall-based work.

For the exhibition Dewe Mathews has had to carry out his own scientific research, looking into accounts of expeditions to the island and the online archives of the Norwegian Polar Institute which he admits has been “a very different learning process”. The archives represent what Dewe Mathews’ describes as the “quantifiable mass of stuff on a place” which helps to bring the drifting, distant landmass of Bouvetøya closer to us here in Space in Between, in Hackney. 

The exhibition feels like something of a personal quest made by the artist in his studio towards Bouvetøya. What the viewer is left with are the relics of an expedition which will either satisfy our faith or confirm our disbelief.

Dewe Mathews’ concrete cast sculptures are made from a process of mould-making which builds around negative form, “creating something by creating everything around it.” They are in reality a casting of the impossible, a physical relic of a place he never reached.

In working towards this exhibition Dewe Mathews has found a parallel between his process as an artist and the journey of an explorer, “that’s part of being an explorer; you grapple with a small amount of facts and from this you begin to dream and imagine what you might find there. The reality is always a lot further away, and that’s a bit like making work.”

The real appeal of the exhibition is in the universal romance of the remote, the isolated, and the virgin possibility glimmering within this which offers discovery. There is a quest to be pursued in the frosted-blue beauty of the photographs of Bouvetøya and its temptation seems to be at work in all of us in some way or another.

Bouvetøya appealed to Dewe Mathews as “an extraordinary place in what it could stand for” and he explains that the work is “deliberately open” so that each individual viewer can read their own yearnings and ambitions into the exhibition’s narrative.  In the lift just outside the gallery a white meteorological balloon takes the light, “its blankness leaves it ready to be interpreted.”

For me Bouvetøya was a reminder of Dante’s Ulysses in the Inferno because of its interest in the gap between illusion and experience. Dante’s Ulysses is a deluded hero who leads his crew to their death in pursuit of a mountain which, darkened by distance, appears higher than any seen on earth before.

When Dante eventually reaches this same mountain he finds that it is nothing more than a small promontory and that Ulysses’ noble heroism was merely a dream.  As Dewe Mathew’s says, “The feeling of a dream is very different to the feeling of reality.”

Bouvetøya is on at Space in Between until 27th October and is funded by Arts Council England.

This is a copy of an article published in October’s Hackney Citizen