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Exhibition reviews – London

Anselm Kiefer Walhalla at White Cube

Anyone who is familiar with this German artist’s paintings will have gone to White Cube expecting work on a monumental scale, perhaps undertones of death and rebirth, with references to past historical events. In a nutshell, this is Walhalla, but it goes so far beyond this thematic description into a visceral, physical experience that it makes if difficult to describe.

Before even entering the exhibition, you’re handed a warning. Do not touch anything inside; many components are created from lead which is potentially hazardous if accidentally ingested. Children, this is not a play space – stay close to your parents. The physical presence of the work immediately demands to be paid attention, taken seriously.  

Walhalla has a double meaning in German, the Norse hall of those chosen ones slain in battle (which you may know as Valhalla) and a collection of busts forming a German Hall of Fame populated by dignitaries. Kiefer plays on this duality throughout the work. The physical burden of Germany’s past sits as an unspoken guest in every room of this installation, but we also have a sense of the mystical and steps toward another world, or perhaps a version of our world which is yet to come.

You enter into a darkly imposing grey metal corridor, where 22 rusting hospital beds, some with name labels, and three piles of heavy bedding line the narrow walls. White Cube as we know it has gone, replaced by an eerie bunker, empty of life and full of markers of those departed. There are three more underground vaults leading off this space, two also containing beds and other relics. One shows a huge pair of feathered wings cast out to the side, with the owner of those wings seemingly pulverised by the giant lead boulder which has smashed onto the surface of the bed. Here we have perhaps the ultimate sign of doom, a fallen angel.

My favourite space: a ransacked museum-esque storeroom or repository, messily packed floor to ceiling with half empty boxes, hastily discarded strewn reels of photograph or film, stacks of paperwork and open safes containing remnants of dusty, ashy contents. One can’t help think about the stolen and desecrated heritage from recent wars. Opposite this space is, at last, an open white gallery where a rusty staircase spirals up to the ceiling, where hang those most tangible traces of the dead: dirtied, listless clothing.

The  two other white-walled spaces contain Kiefer’s instantly recognisable large-scale paintings, showing deserted, smoking landscapes and broken buildings. In the far space, more piles of rusty human markers are contained within glass display cases. For all the symbols of lives lived these rooms are markedly empty of inhabitants, apart from us, of course. And here we are not art lovers or culture tourists, we are those middle-class Germans taken to clean up the camps after the war, we are scarred frightened things emerging from a bomb shelter, we are forced witnesses to the end of a civilisation. And if there are no humans left, then what we have here is a God’s collection of relics of humankind; their very own museum. The objects and paintings speak of things we have already become used to seeing and of things that are, unavoidably, apocalyptically yet to come.

There is often a disconnect between photography of artwork and the real thing, particularly when trying to capture installations. Here they are as different as chalk and cheese. I couldn’t photograph the oppressive feel in that abandoned hospital corridor, capture accurately the dank slickness of the slate grey walls or the weighted presence of those empty beds. You have until 6pm today to enter Kiefer’s vision for yourself.

On display until 12th February 2017.  

http://whitecube.com/exhibitions/anselm_kiefer_bermondsey_2016/

Pearls at the Victoria and Albert Museum

I went to the opening night of Pearls at the Victoria and Albert Museum, but even amid the Boris Johnson speech, the free champagne and the impeccably dressed expensive attendees, this exhibition failed to sparkle.

Pearl divers holding onto the rope attached to the collecting baskets, reproduction of original photograph. © Qatar News Agency Archives

Pearl divers holding onto the rope attached to the collecting baskets, reproduction of original photograph. © Qatar News Agency Archives

Past historical tale about the history of pearl trading, showcase of beautiful things past and present and travelogue for the Gulf, this is a slightly pointless and staid display overall. Of course pearls are an innately stunning thing, glittering and mesmerising they offer us a glimpse into wealth we will never possess. There are some mind-blowing pieces on show here, from the gorgeously frail and intricate to the biggest blingiest neck pieces you can imagine. Accompanying the jewellery are a number of interesting portraits and contextual prints. All of these elements should combine to create one of the exquisitely rich exhibitions which the V&A are so good at.

As you wander through the display a number of things are striking and stand out. It is a curiosity to see the oyster shells and the pearls in rawest form. When placed next to highly ornate finished products like the Snow White bracelet by Nora Fok or the impressive Gothic choker by Mikimoto you start to appreciate the scale of the journey that has taken place. Which of course leads you to the most pressing and obvious question you are inclined to have (and which will remain unanswered), how much are these worth?

The cynic in me would suggest that this exhibition fails as it’s trying to be too much to too many people. Partly (perhaps in large part?) funded by the Qatar Museums Authority, both museums are cited as equal partners. Who had the overall curatorial decision-making is impossible to tell but there is an unusual educational slant not normally present in shows at this museum of art and design. The end result speaks of a vanity project and the inclusion of a lot of contextualisation which simply won’t be interesting to a paying public who come to the V&A to be wowed by beauty. If they want a history lesson in pearl fishing they can consult Google.

Nora Fok, Snow White Wrist Piece 'A Fusion of Winter Snow and Spring Flowers' (2012). © Frank Hills

Nora Fok, Snow White Wrist Piece ‘A Fusion of Winter Snow and Spring Flowers’ (2012). © Frank Hills

On display until 19th January 2014.

http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/exhibitions/exhibition-pearls/about-the-exhibition/

V&A Illustration Awards 2013

There’s plenty to see at the V&A without even having to venture anywhere near their pay-for-entry exhibitions. A wealth of art and design mastery is on display and you can lose literally hours wandering through the confusing network of gallery spaces. But by far the best thing I’ve seen there in a while is this year’s illustration awards, only disappointing in the tiny space they dedicated to the entrants.

The winner of the Book Cover, Book Illustration, Editorial and Student Illustration categories are all represented in hardcopy with original artwork while the rest of the shortlisted designs are shown on a rotating screen and have web space on the V&A website. If they’d actually wanted to do more to raise the profile of illustration as they might claim by hosting this annual award, you’d think they’d give it more prominence. The up-coming ‘Pearls’  exhibition (part funded by the Qatar Museums authority…) has got much more of a buzz surrounding it.

The winner of the 'Book Cover' category: Pietari Posti (represented by Début Art), Swallows and Amazons.

The winner of the ‘Book Cover’ category: Pietari Posti (represented by Début Art), Swallows and Amazons.

Winner of the 'Book Illustration' category: Anna and Elena Balbusso, Illustrations for Eugene Onegin.

The winner of the ‘Book Illustration’ category: Anna and Elena Balbusso, Illustrations for Eugene Onegin.

The winner of the 'Editorial' category and 'Overall Winner': George Butler, Illustrations for ‘Syria: the point of no return’.

The winner of the ‘Editorial’ category and ‘Overall Winner’: George Butler, Illustrations for ‘Syria: the point of no return’.

The winner of the 'Student Illustrator' category: Grace Helmer, The Fugitive.

The winner of the ‘Student Illustrator’ category: Grace Helmer, The Fugitive.

Free display, on show until 1st December 2013.

http://www.vam.ac.uk/b/villa-2013

Bold, strident and easy to admire, the selection of work by Laura Knight which is currently on display at the National Portrait Gallery provides a welcome glimpse into the artist’s character as well as the times she lived in. It is refreshing to wander through the display and become acquainted with a talent who drew and painted for the joy of it. Knight made a solid career from her work but it’s evident that she lived for the act of putting colour and mark on canvas and creating something that only a human can. Although critics might suggest that her success is a product of Knight’s situation, they cannot argue with the loveliness of her work.

The exhibition is small, the NPG makes most of its money from the crowd pleasers like Lucian Freud and the majority of the temporary gallery space is currently taken up by the dated BP Portrait Prize. However there is room for a whirlwind tour of the different stages in Knight’s oeuvre and the different groups of people she painted. Starting out with family, friends and acquaintances she developed her observational portraits whilst spending time in the states. There are some exquisite pastel drawings of black patients at the Johns Hoskins Hospital in Maryland where Knight spent some time getting to know some of the nurses. The nature of the material means these are infused with an immediacy which isn’t achievable through paint.

One of Knight's Johns Hopkins Hospital sketches, 1926.

One of Knight’s Johns Hopkins Hospital sketches, 1926.

Knight was obviously someone who gained peoples trust with ease. She was invited into the private worlds of groups of people who formed their own subcultures at that time. In the NPG show are a section of warm portraits she painted of both the traveller and circus communities. Far from being twee or resembling caricatures these works show a real connection and intuitive understanding of the subjects. Perhaps more difficult for the artist to capture are the military men and women who were part of the British war effort in the 1940s. Knight was invited to paint official works and some of the sitters appear thoroughly unimpressed at being captured on canvas whilst in the midst of their important duties.

The most powerful works in this exhibition were, quite understandably, the sketches and paintings revealing the Nuremburg Trials following the war. Knight was one of the artists who travelled out to Germany to bear witness to and record this life-altering event. A simple charcoal and wash drawing from a trial date in 1946 is powerful in capturing the banality of the greatest war trial in modern history. Some of the men sit with their heads bowed, hands covering shamed faces, but many sit comfortably with legs crossed and heads held high. The image of civility, they resemble vaguely attentive lecture goers. The accompanying painting elevates the tension and brings the true horror of WW2 to life, but for these men I felt like the drawing was more honest. Knight kept a diary of the proceedings and a chilling little sketch of Hermann Göring from this is also on display.

The last room is just luminous. Suzie and the Washbasin painted in Cornwall in 1929 aches to be gazed at and is technically accomplished, as is a later study of Joan Rhodes from 1955. The curator obviously designed this section as the icing on the cake; many of the postcard images for the show are to be found within this space. It’s the perfect end to a whistle stop tour of this great female artist’s work, a real one of a kind talent.

Laura Knight, Suzie and the Washbasin (1929)

Laura Knight, Suzie and the Washbasin (1929)

On display until 13th October 2013.

http://www.npg.org.uk/whatson/laura-knight-portraits/exhibition.php

London is less crowded (everyone and their uncle are away on holiday) and the sun is now out for good. What more of an excuse do you need to become a tourist in your own city? If you’re looking for the best exhibitions to devote a Saturday afternoon to, look no further….

1 – Miles Aldridge: I Only Want You to Love Me

You’ll have seen this one advertised in the press, these gorgeously slick images of beautiful damaged women sell themselves brilliantly. Aldridge combines all of the elements we can’t get enough of: sexual glamour, barely concealed violence, and the fallen woman who populates film noir, fairytale and modern cinema. On display at Somerset House until 29th September 2013. Adults £6, concessions available.

2 – Recent acquisitions Arcimboldo to Kitaj

A real hidden gem which will get overshadowed by bigger and bolshier exhibitions, this varied display contains 130 prints and drawings acquired by the British Museum over the past five years. This number represents a small fraction of the works on paper that have been added to the collection in that time. Some lovely, curious and important pieces, including highlights from R.B. Kitaj’s estate. On display until 1st September 2013. Free entry.

3 – Michael Landy: Saints Alive

Now that the furore about this exhibition has died down slightly you might avoid the worst of the queues; admissions into the display area are controlled. This quirky artist has reinvented historical saints for the modern age, here at the National Gallery you’ll meet seven of his mobile creations and get to see some of the madcap sketches behind the engineering. On display until 24th November 2013. Free entry.

Miles Aldridge, Home Works #3 (2008).

Miles Aldridge, Home Works #3 (2008).

FreshFaced + WildEyed 2013 at the Photography Gallery

To be chosen as one of the 22 top photography graduates of visual arts BA and MA courses across the UK is staggering if you consider the sheer amount of talent that is spewed out of the arts education system annually. It surely indicates a real eye for a narrative, technical skills, a strong body of work and even stronger things to come. This annual exhibition at the Photographers Gallery is designed to showcase exceptional talent and to give graduates a platform to grow.

The resonating theme this year was political and social unrest and upheaval. It isn’t surprising that this captured the imagination of the judges with a year of conflict and clamouring for change across many parts of the Middle East (two of the entrants work included work in this very area – Julian Bonnin and Harry Mitchell). Similarly, the winners of this year’s Deutsche Börse Photography Prize were Broomberg & Chanarin with War Primer 2, perhaps further indication of a growing need to understand conflict and it’s far reaching repercussions within our wider culture.

Within this impressive exhibition there were standouts for me. Andrei Nacu’s body of images were focused on the lives left behind after conflict in Eastern Europe. Tension and unexpressed, unfathomable powerful emotion lie just under the surface. In one work a man and a woman face each other across either side of a living room sofa, representing opposing sides. The elderly man stands upright as a soldier, his face impassive as a woman who could be his wife or mother gestures in frustration. He is impervious to her actions, completely self-contained.

Another photograph is the view through a window where tower blocks outside are partially obscured by a floral curtain. We are placed in the position of the inhabitant of the flat, gazing out warily at an unknown and unquantifiable enemy. A sense of claustrophobia, of being trapped or contained, is increased by the framing of the shot. War, and its aftermath, seems to be full of waiting. Waiting to die, waiting to live, waiting for the man with the gun, or the hand grenade or the aerial attack, waiting for news of family or friends, for the call to arms, for the end. Nacu’s work doesn’t sensationalise or highlight the violent, very visible aspects of war. It quietly displays the restless despair, the utter waste of time and of huge chunks of people’s lives which have choked.

Andrei Nacu, part of the collection of work entitled 'In the Forsaken Garden Time is a Thief' (2013).  © Andrei Nacu

Andrei Nacu, part of the collection of work entitled ‘In the Forsaken Garden Time is a Thief’ (2013). © Andrei Nacu

Equally powerful was the work of Sunil Shah exploring he and his family’s migration from their home in Uganda in 1972. Shah was a three-year old child when they were expelled from the country by Idi Amin’s aggressively racist regime. His work is a fragmented part-history, part-memory, part-fictionalised narrative illustrating the tension between personal and public memory, between family histories and collective accounts.

Under the guise of documentary photography family photographs sit alongside purposefully detached statements. We are told about a man being hanged, a close friend of a member of Shah’s family, the account all the more powerful for the lack of emotive language. We are left to fill in the bulk of the imagery, to create in our minds the feeling of dislocation, humiliation and loss. Here is a study of the all too common violent upheaval of a group of people being forced to leave their homes, lives and possessions behind, told through one set of subjective eyes. The result is quietly unnerving, a body of work which compels self-reflection and interrogation.

Whilst the exhibition is no longer in existence if you have a curiosity for the medium you could do little better than keeping track of the movements of some of these fresh faced newcomers. It will be interesting to see how far they’ve developed when the new batch comes through post-graduation 2014.

Sunil Shah, part of the collection of work entitled 'Uganda Stories' (2013). © Sunil Shah

Sunil Shah, part of the collection of work entitled ‘Uganda Stories’ (2013). © Sunil Shah

The exhibition was on display from the 9th to the 21st July 2013.

http://thephotographersgallery.org.uk/freshfaced-and-wildeyed-2013

http://www.andreinacu.ro/

http://www.sunilshah.info/

Tate have put together an intelligent pairing in sixties figurative painter Patrick Caulfield and YBA nineties prodigy Gary Hume. Whilst Hume was only just born in the same decade where Caulfield discovered his artist’s voice and began teaching at the Chelsea School of Art, there is more to link the work of these two men than the materials they choose, or chose, to employ.

Caulfield flourished in a period of growth and positivity in Britain, his works reflect stylish interiors, clusters of ornate objects and holiday locations glowing with the trappings of wealth. But he was a child born of the war and the stark realities of growing up in Bolton, where both of his parents worked in factories, and the tight claustrophobic feel of his canvases, the persistent menacing air, point toward a man uncomfortable with fripperies and material success. Hume’s seemingly gaudy abstract scenes, at first appearance, if not celebrating the tacky excesses of modern lifestyles at least seem to collaborate with them. This was the man who first came to prominence as part of the now iconic, then controversial and widely critically panned, Saatchi “Sensations” show. Closer inspection reveals ambivalence, a teetering between slickness and a void, both perfectly captured in the high gloss finish of the works.

Patrick Caulfield, Still Life with Dagger (1963). © The estate of Patrick Caulfield

Patrick Caulfield, Still Life with Dagger (1963). © The estate of Patrick Caulfield

After seeing both shows at the Tate I can certainly attest to the gaping emptiness which yawned out of each perfectly rendered image. In some sense both artists feel quite old-fashioned, dinosaurs from another era. They paint because they want to, because this is what they are best at and so approach from perhaps a more practical angle than some of their contemporaries who theorise and paint to express grander ideas. Caulfield was a filing clerk and RAF pilot before decidedly changing careers by taking evening classes at art school. In a recent interview Hume stated that his “desire to be an artist really came out of being broke and unemployed and incapable of holding a job down.” Before attending art school he too had a varied, chaotic sort of job history.

Both men, then, very different from those strategic careerists such as Damien Hurst who no longer match the stereotype of the mad loner artist in his paint-splattered studio, relentlessly churning out work that no one will see. Apart from this last statement, this could still be truthfully said of Hume and (before his death) Caulfield. The latter seemed to be the major draw on my visit. His bright, but dated, colour palette and almost cartoon style was entrancing in the first room; it’s easy to understand his popular appeal. Pushing into the further rooms of the exhibition the unpopulated hotel-style scenes and empty holiday streets became much like an all-inclusive vacation, sickly sweet, too garish, too much. Like a British holidaymaker unaccustomed to the relentlessness of daily sunshine and rich food, Caulfield feels ill-at-ease with the grandeur of the lives he is depicting.

Patrick Caulfield, After Lunch (1975). ©Tate

Patrick Caulfield, After Lunch (1975), acrylic on canvas. © Tate

I wanted to not enjoy the Hume show as much, put-off by the vacancy inherent in the door paintings he began his career with. The works were framed perfectly, designed to be gathered together in a white cube environment. There were a number of works which I’d have been happy to go home with, art which you’d like to hang above your fireplace telling of their obvious commercial appeal. Hume speaks of the stillness and calmness he wants to instil in his paintings, the lack of a biographical narrative which he purposefully seeks. I think his work is more telling than he’d hope. There is bleakness in these flat images which belies the finish. Here is another man disillusioned, uncomfortable in his new surroundings and perhaps with the pace of modern life. A man who chooses to paint what he sees in the outside world, in contemporary culture, but isn’t convinced by it and so cannot convince us.

This is a very interesting look at painting and the themes that unite these two artists who, despite their successful careers and popular acclaim, remain outsiders in a corporate capitalist reality. If you’re yearning for something solid, something which will encourage you to slow down, you should take a step out of your busy London life for a look at the work of these old-fashioned modernists.

Gary Hume, The Cradle (2011). © Gary Hume

Gary Hume, The Cradle (2011). ©Gary Hume

Both on display until 1st September 2013.

http://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-britain/exhibition/gary-hume

http://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-britain/exhibition/patrick-caulfield