Colour Coded at Weston Park, Museums Sheffield

It was always going to be a tall task. The temporary exhibition space at Weston Park has barely the same floor footage as a two-bedroom flat, and Colour Coded aims to ‘celebrate[s] the history, science and significance of colour throughout the ages’. Colour and man’s gradual harnessing of it is a huge and multi-faceted topic. It feels as though the Curators stumbled upon a  broad idea and then haphazardly filled in the blanks of the exhibition with as much stuff from the collection as possible. The result is a chaotic medley of items, some of which are no doubt very pleasing to look at, but where a more focussed approach could really have resulted in an interesting show.

One of the main draws for the Museum are the selection of Patrick Caulfield prints which take up a significant space near the entrance and command immediate attention. For those who haven’t been able to make it down to London to the Tate show of the artists’ work this could act as a (much reduced) substitute. There are some other nice items, the pretty yellow tea dress from the 1950s appealed to my inner Sandy, and the 1960s Fidelity record player was probably the coolest I’ve ever seen. It’s hard to remain interested in the dialogue, though, as the show seems to concentrate on the different technological advances in colour dyes through the passage of time whilst having a real paint by numbers approach to the ‘emotional power’ of the topic.

Girls Tea Dress (1956-7). © Museums Sheffield

Girls Tea Dress (1956-7). © Museums Sheffield

The inclusion of contemporary artist Ella Robinson confuses things further, especially when each of her works features a price tag. Robinson’s practice is craft-driven rather than fine art, making pieces from driftwood; here in Colour Coded are rainbows of found plastic detritus ordered beautifully within plain white frames. They would look nice on the wall of a children’s nursery (with the exception of the cigarette lighters) but what are they saying here? That today’s young artists are still interested in colour? There must be many more interesting illustrations of this claim than this bland selection. It seems obvious that pretty coloured things are pleasing to look at, but for this simple discovery you could go to a shop. I failed to see the impact.

Weston Park has given six months of display time to this exhibition. For a museum which boasts such varied treasures as a stuffed polar bear called Snowy, Peak District stone carvings, a mummy and recreation dinosaurs this probably seems to them to make sense. School groups must be one of the biggest target audiences and there are enough vividly bold, pretty and intriguing objects for them to look at here. If you’re looking for a potted history of colour, dyes and fashions in both this could provide something of what you’re after, if not I wouldn’t rush to visit.

Ella Robinson, One Little Lie (2011), found beach plastics and glass. © Ella Robinson

Ella Robinson, One Little Lie (2011), found beach plastics and glass. © Ella Robinson

On display until 26th January 2014.


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.

The top three London exhibition recommendations for you should you tire of the tennis:

1 –Psycho Nacirema

The British press have been very curious over the past couple of years of the standing of James Franco as Hollywood actor and credible artist. Why shouldn’t it be possible to be both? Visit this Pace Gallery exhibition, presented by Douglas Gordon and re-visiting Hitchcock’s Psycho, and consider for yourself. On display until 27th July 2013. Free entry.

2 – Laura Knight Portraits

Opening on the 11th of this month and sure to be well received, the National Portrait Gallery show will be celebrating the work of this popular British twentieth-century painter. It should be a bright and diverse collection of works, likely to bring the Knight’s work a new audience. On display until 13th October 2013. Adults £6.30 (without donation), concessions available.

3 – Leaps Jumps and Bumps

Perhaps the polar opposite of the above, the Serpentine Gallery presents a solo show of the American artist Sturtevant. She draws on popular culture and modern art production, questioning our consumption of both. Most famous for her “copies” of the work of other contemporary artists, the show will also reveal her more recent forays into video art and photography. On display until 26th August 2013. Free entry.

Installation view of the work of Sturtevant at the Serpentine Gallery. © 2013 Jerry Hardman-Jones

Installation view of the work of Sturtevant at the Serpentine Gallery. © 2013 Jerry Hardman-Jones


…Force of Nature: Picturing Ruskin’s Landscape at Millennium Gallery, Sheffield

Having been born in Sheffield I can account for the beautiful wild spaces which surround the city and define the local area. Though nearby Chesterfield, my home town, is known as the “Gateway to the Peak District” this huge expanse of rugged hills, rocky outcrops, moorland and copses is a stone’s throw away from the city as well and seems to match the weathered, down-to-earth disposition of its inhabitants. The greenness that rewards the eyes, the height of the peaks, the fresh air and the smell of damp spring foliage in the rain are all things I miss now I’m in London; this exhibition is a welcome reminder of what is great about this part of the country.

John Ruskin, Matterhorn from the Moat of the Riffelhorn (1849).  ©Museums Sheffield

John Ruskin, Matterhorn from the Moat of the Riffelhorn (1849). ©Museums Sheffield

Slightly put off by the title I was pleasantly surprised at the breadth and range of works which were on display. Ruskin dominates as the artist with the most works in the show, but there is a mix of contemporary and classic with Turner, Constable, Blackadder, Brett, Opie, Holdsworth present as well as local artists like Emilie Taylor. Not all of the landscapes originate from the Peaks either, this is an exploration of the relationship with artists and nature, a celebration of the land and of looking. Ruskin wrote extensively on the intimate bond which can be formed with nature, the wonderful gifts and sights which she’ll reveal if you take the time to get to know her properly. This idea is as relevant now as it was in his day, if not more so, with each of us so far removed from the real “outside”.

John Brett, Mount Etna from Taormina, Sicily (c.1870). ©Museums Sheffield

John Brett, Mount Etna from Taormina, Sicily (c.1870). ©Museums Sheffield

I had some favourites. There were a couple of small but stunning Turner watercolours lent by the Tate and a pretty glass vase demonstrating the skill of artist Peter Layton in Turquoise Glacier Standing Form. Dan Holdsworth’s Andoya, a pattern of human light against a snowy backdrop, looked like a Christmas film still or an advertising photograph, while Kathy Prendergast’s Land tent was a definite talking point. I was most pleased to be introduced to the earthy pots of Emilie Taylor, at first glance Grayson Perry-esque minus the bright colours. On closer reflection these ceramic vases also share figurative details and form with much more classic designs, and the surface illustration is much less crowded than a Perry work. Taylor’s work is very much about her city, her landscape, her relationship to her surroundings; summing up the exhibition quite neatly.

Emilie Taylor, So High I Almost Touch the Sky (2013), detail.

Emilie Taylor, So High I Almost Touch the Sky (2013), detail. ©Museums Sheffield

The exhibition closes today (June 23rd 2013) at 4pm.

Julie Mehretu at White Cube Bermondsey

There is some well-ordered confusion on display in WC Bermondsey this month, in the form of Julie Mehretu’s topographical masterpieces: a series of ‘drawn’ paintings resembling scribbled over blueprints.

In the first room a series of grey, multi layered works hit you from all sides, asking to be read like landscpes. At first glance these are monochromatic Twombley-esque creations, but closer inspection reveals that they are perfectly formed geometric city grids lushly covered in expressive symbols, shapes and motifs. On the surface of things they are lightly beautiful, of the ilk of Japanese ink drawings, but they leave you itching to peel back the layers and systematically lay them side by side for a clear reading. Mehretu isn’t going to make this so easy for you, these works demand to be deciphered.

Multiple explanations are possible. These could be indications of trace: the jumbled mass of information and imagery which would form the visual representation of our interaction with the globe and its inhabitants. Each drawing could be the biography of a city, a city where a storm is brewing if the moody hues and fierce areas of dense layering are any indication. They could show the new replacing the old, civilised order being replaced and old epochs crumbling into chaos. The artist was born in Ethiopia but now lives and works in Berlin and New York. Her world view is evident; every painting is seeped in a sense of place, is deeply grounded in a location, however abstract it may at first seem.

The last cavernous room along the corridor as always contains the masterpieces. In this case they are ‘Mogamma: A Painting in Four Parts’, works which are described as the outcome of investigation by the artist into urban spaces becoming sites for political and mythological projection. Whilst speaking of politics and, particularly, the conflict between differing ideologies the paintings are not politicised. They reveal complexities in the usage of space and the upheaval in our common histories, yet they conceal truths and form no answer or alternative. The present is as fragmented as ever, the city is a site of riot, agression, totalitarian displays of power, poverty, terrorism and discontent. Even the gallery has been reconfigured, the walls angle in towards the centre for a more inclusive feel, as threatening as it is intimate.

In attempting to read this exhibition via symbols and imagery patterns we recognise (city maps, architectural plans, weather patterns, landscapes, written code…) we are missing the point. The paintings reflect our community back at us, in both a local and global sense, and as such are too vast and chaotic to ever be cohesive in this way. This is a strong and compelling display.

Julie Mehretu, A Painting in Four Parts (2012), on display here at dOCUMENTA (13)

Julie Mehretu, A Painting in Four Parts (2012), on display here at dOCUMENTA (13)

Curated by Douglas Fogle. On display until 7th July 2013.

I came across the work of this French photographer and video artist on a recent trip to Toulouse. Extracts from four series of her work were on show within one exhibition, so visitors could receive a crash course in her practise on one visit. Roux seems to focus on the dispossessed and the invisible, the unspoken barriers which fall between the haves and have-nots of this world.

In Les Dépossédés (The Dispossessed) Roux entered the world of the Uyghur population who live in northwest China, an ethnic minority group of Turkish Muslims. Possessing the difficult history of unassimilated migrants the Uyghur live outside of the main national identity. Roux photographed the women, in their gaudy finery, and the men, clothed in dusty tired rags, within the ruins of destroyed buildings. You could almost be looking at the proud faces of people showing you their former homes, asking you to imagine the architecture reborn in glory and the lives that were once lived there. In fact the artist selected these locations to strategically demonstrate the ruination and breaking down of the people and their culture, depicting the absence that will soon be. In some of the images the figures look superimposed. There is a blurry line in most of Roux’s work between the real and the staged: we are asked to question her intent and in a wider sense the ability of photographs to lie to us, to create false truths.

Edith Roux, part of Les Dépossédés (2010-11), inkjet print.

Edith Roux, part of Les Dépossédés (2010-11), inkjet print.

Another set of images entitled Walled Out the artist depicts herself, in the form of the back of her head, gazing at settlements ensconced behind high walls. By positioning herself some distance away, as a faceless outsider gazing into a world she is barred from, Roux is sited halfway between a figure to be pitied and a menace to be feared. The photographs were shot in Los Angeles and Phoenix, though the bland surroundings hint towards the universal nature of the gated community; they could have been taken anywhere. By their very nature as much as these compounds keep people out they also keep people in, forming quasi-prisons where everybody is watched and no human eye is the watcher.

There is humour to be found in some of Roux’s work. A video piece with a jaunty backing track shows her mooching around a nameless British city, exploring spaces with her body and using public areas in unorthodox ways. She creeps through the bushes, walks along the grass barefoot, leapfrogs over bollards and climbs on top of bins. Every time she carries out one of these supposed transgressions a CCTV camera is seen swivelling round and the voice of this CCTV tells her off. At the end of the video, Are you talking to me?, Roux slopes off with the droop of her body showing that all of the joyful exuberance which she threw at the city has been taken away. The rules and the overbearing surveillance have drained her energy, 1984 style.

Edith Roux, part of Walled out (2006), lambda print.

Edith Roux, part of Walled out (2006), lambda print.