Looking On…

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Image credit: Garth Evans Blue No. 30 (1964) observed by Kerry Stewart Untitled (Lucy) (1996), Arts Council Collection, Southbank Centre, London copyright the artists 2016 Photo: Anna Arca.

Night In The Museum curated by Ryan Gander is currently running (till 21st May 2017) at the Attenborough Centre, Leicester.  Drawn from the Arts Council Collection, and with over 8000 works to go at, so you might be tempted to suggest it would be easy to bring together a lively and coherent collection. Not so…quite a few of these collection shows over the years have just been random and unsatisfactory bundles, others so turgidly polemical they bored your pants off. So bringing together a hugely diverse selection of material is something of a triumph.

The premise is simple (like most of the best ideas) a selection of figures from the collection are paired with a work that in some way or another feature the colour blue. In a Ben Nicholson the blue is a fulcrum accent in a multi colour composition in the Roger Hiorns pieces the blue is effectively the piece, copper sulphate crystals that have engulfed a pair of engines.

Amongst many imaginative highlights the John Davies piece staring intently at a Robyn Denny canvas is a pairing of two real crackers. Gander’s own piece is oddly affecting, the prone figure (after Degas’ Little Dancer) set against an enormous blue cube, with a tiny white one adjacent to it. It is both strangely old fashioned (the figure) and boldly contemporary (the coloured cubes).

It was a little disappointing that William Scott’s magnificent Berlin Blues VI has not found space in this hang but to be fair this display does work well…and shows off these new galleries (a major addition to the spaces available in the region and a vital component of what’s available in Leicester itself) to really good advantage. The handsome central space facilitates the potential of some things and accentuates the vacuity of others… Sadly (and it grieves and disturbs me as an ‘abstract’ painter myself) its often the non-figurative paintings (and their varients) that suffer the most after a few years of existence. I’d reference the coloured factory trolleys (dollies?) by David Batchelor that now look a wee bit tired and ever so ‘turn of the century’ passé to me at least.  But thats perhaps a point…that overall a survey of this kind does throw up surprising, encouraging and arguable juxtapositions and does exactly what Ryan Gander suggested it would.

 

The Ha Ha Man gets serious

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Jonathan Monk likes to make jokes…and he’s pretty unapologetic about it (take a look at Wool Piece II from 2014). Although pretty well known across Europe he’s less so over here. Much of his reputation rests on his insider art world jokes (witty commentaries on artists as diverse as Ed Ruscha, Bruce Nauman, Mark Rothko etc.).  As he was born in the city and studied at the Leicester Poly back in the eighties it’s not inappropriate he’s back at De Montfort’s new gallery space with a solo show titled The Sound of Laughter isn’t Necessarily Funny. Quite.

First the rather lovely space has been sparingly populated…five pieces in fact. The centrepiece is a work that betokens the other main direction for his activity, a more serious and intimate personal reflection on his own life and family rather than those insider art world jokes that made his name. This other strand of his earlier work is writ large here. It comprises an elegant mechanical piano that plays a musical score ‘created’ by his mother cleaning the piano at home and the beautifully notated sheet music sitting on its stand is quite affecting and poignant. It looks magnificent in the space with the sunlight streaming in, pointing up the dust that necessitates the regular process of cleaning. Away towards the darker corner of the gallery a Grandfather clock faces off against a Grandmother clock, the time on each slightly asynchronous with the internal workings partially exposed. Adjacent to this a small cuddly toy, dismembered and missing a limb or two, is embalmed in a perspex box forever locked in almost imperceptible rocking motion between repose and upright, operated it would seem by an overelaborated atomic clock device that sits beneath it. Away to the far side of the space facing out onto the campus is a self portrait bust of the artist himself…one of a series where he invited prominent artists (initially from the Art Povera movement) to use a specially chosen hammer to smash off his nose. Here it’s the post pop conceptualist Maurizio Cattelan (or perhaps, famously, his stand-in) who has done the honours.

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Senza Titulo 1, 2012, Jesmonite bust with nose broken by John Baldessari

So the theme is, appropriately enough, a kind of family reminiscence, grandparents, parents, perhaps the infant artist or siblings and a self portrait…accompanied by a riff on his students days with a small lightbox mounted high on a wall opposite the portrait bust of the artist’s hand holding a picture of Steven Morrissey (The Smiths) – a band he has referenced before in his work. It is all too easy to dismiss Monk’s work as just more ‘stuffism’ but that misses the quiet symbolism that lurks here. Whilst much of the riffing on art pieces that many of even a relatively informed audience might struggle to identify these works that explore familial relationships, test our notions of nostalgia and ultimately cross convincingly from the personal to the universal have both elegance and depth.

Richard Perry

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5 ceramic sculptures, including 3 water columns and 2 marker pieces. Heights 4, 3, 2 and I metres.  Commissioned by Grosvenor Estates for Festival Square, Basingstoke, 2002

This is a rarity for this blog…let me explain.  I’ve known Richard Perry for over thirty years.  He got in touch with me not long after he graduated and had taken a loft studio in Newark, Nottinghamshire whilst I was working for the regional Arts Council.  From the off I recognised both his talent and his seriousness. Over the years he has developed a substantial reputation, mainly for a succession of major public commissions.  Recently we’ve become near neighbours and with his solo show in the Angear space at Lakeside coming up (criminally a rather rare event), he asked me to write a short piece for the text panel in the gallery.  So this is not a review  but the expanded text from which the panel in the gallery is abridged…

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Work in progress, studio

No surprise that in his public works the form of the tree plays a significant part of the repertoire: the sculpture of Richard Perry stands up solidly and elegantly like a fully grown English Oak full of surprising twists, turns and original features. Few contemporary carvers, especially those drawn to geometry, have been so cavalier with those most obdurate materials, such as marbles and that especially hard limestone from Kilkenny. A glance at, say, Interlocking Oaks, a piece at the old Boots HQ here in Nottingham from 2000 is indicative of the striking quality of the distinguished track record of public work right across the British Isles and beyond.

In this exhibition (a relatively rare opportunity to see a body of his work) the artist features recent studio sculptures, a few paintings and a suite of drawings, all of which in various ways touch upon ongoing concerns for the interactions and relationships of basic geometric forms in space. If there is a key component that best sums up the ambition in the work as a whole then poise might be it. Indeed this is a contemporary artist willing to engage in and admit to one of the greatest taboos in current art, beauty, and worse still for many so whisper it, craft.

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Perry is fully aware of the dangers that lurk in these waters. No-one visiting his lean-to studio, exposed to the elements and (one suspects) perishing in winter, could be in doubt that the artist (given to standing and pondering the work for long spells of time) takes very seriously the pitfalls that both form and material can easily fall into – that ‘homes & gardens’ aesthetic as it were. These are lovely materials and in Richard’s experienced hands, fashioned into just as seductive formal characteristics.

A great deal of deliberation is required – hard, painstakingly concentrated looking – to ensure that this plane, or that surface, set against another is ‘right’ or more precisely has that quality that the great ceramicist Bernard Leach called ‘thusness’ (after his studies on the work of Soetsu Yanagi) and yet is also full of surprises. Indeed it is hard to see how these interlocking forms, planes, surfaces and voids could be arranged in any other manner once they are frozen in space. Each work becomes a game of Jenga, that pastime where towers are constructed from regular wooden blocks and the removal of a single piece can bring the whole thing crashing down.

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To return to the notion of poise, and to use it in its archaic sense, it is the balance achieved in the sculpture (and just as surely in the paintings where colour is deployed with great sensitivity to both invite and contradict the sensations of moving through space) that solidifies the equilibrium of all the competing elements. That all this happens with material that is solid, stubborn and hard to fashion is a real testament to ability and durability in the character of the artist. Poise is also a technical term for a unit of dynamic viscosity, the act of resistance in shearing flows where layers move parallel to one another at differing speeds. This too seems apt in pieces where planes shift and tilt both in parallel and opposed to one another, and where the eye speeds across the surfaces but is then arrested by surprising conjunctions and original tropes.

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It is in the drawings that these twists and turns of expected and then wholly unexpected formal arrangements are sent racing along at astonishing speed. With a myriad of variated marks, tones and intervals the images reveal something of the artist’s endlessly inventive and quizzical exploration of what form and material might be able to achieve in space that is both real and imagined. Perry opens up possibilities for what sculpture might achieve were we to crack open our three physical dimensions and discover one, two, three or more that some physicists and mathematicians tell us are already out there.

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Barbara Hepworth – Small One, Two, Three (Vertical) 1975

Of course geometric sculpture (emerging in the early twentieth century) went through many reiterations of all kinds over the succeeding decades but pretty much fell out of favour by the mid sixties as the minimalists boiled it down to its essences. But curiously a small late (perhaps the last complete) work by Barbara Hepworth – Small One, Two, Three (Vertical) 1975 – might be seen as something of a precursor to these pieces by Richard.  In it she precariously balances a group of planes across three blocks atop each other. It is intriguing to imagine how these might have been extrapolated and developed into more complex arrangements had she lived…I’m taken with an idea that they might well have resembled a Richard Perry piece in this gallery.

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Halley 3, 2013

 

Abstract Expressionism – Royal Academy

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Well…its a James C. Brooks work from 1954 (and isn’t it terrific) but it isn’t there!  More of that later.  And what am I doing straying so far from the A52?  Well…

One friend of mine called it a ‘once in a generation’ show…and to have assembled all these greats in one location is just that. Above all the largest central gallery that we might call the ‘Still’ room is pretty special…after all the vast majority of his canvases are usually holed up in Denver. And the use of ‘vast’ is rightly pertinent. The three in a row along one wall are towering achievements in the entire history of painting. So its  a show that warrants attention even though Piccadilly is a long haul from here.

Plenty has been said about the ‘movement’ over the years and in truth a lot of it nonsense. And though there’s some revisionism going on here its a decent round up of the main suspects. I was minded to take issue with David Anfam’s introductory text but on reflection I’m warming to it. Though its didactic consequences for the selection especially in the earlier days are quixotic to say the least.

And selection issues are writ large here. For example there is the rightful inclusion of Joan Mitchell – but no Grace Hartigan…her River Bathers easily the equal of De Kooning, a testimony to her year spent revisiting the Old Masters that pissed off her pals (and crucially Clem Greenberg) but shows (to my mind at least) a genuinely thoughtful and independent streak to her artistic research).  Of The Iracibles we see nothing from Stamos, maybe no surprise there after the Rothko debacle but I was impressed back in the early 90’s when I saw a large retrospective in Athens especially by some of his later work that echoes colourfield painting. In that context perhaps Friedel Dzubas’ Ab Ex work might have pointed up the connections between these two movements as might have James Brooks who might well vie with Helen Frankenthaler for pole position in the development of staining as a technique? No Hedda Sterne either though I’m quite taken with the two mid fifties works owned by the Whitney & MOMA.

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Hedda Sterne  New York, N.Y., Airbrush & enamel on canvas, 36 1/4×60 1/4 ins. 1955

There is a modest Tomlin…but hardly a major work…what a pity…surely No. 20 from 1949 or the following year’s magnificent Number 9:In Praise of Gertrude Stein would have been available (neither has been on display when I’ve visited MOMA!) and would have been a fitting inclusion. The second generation in particular have been rather overlooked… so no place for Alfred Leslie or Michael Goldberg and to my mind nobody exemplifies second generation ab ex better!

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Michael Goldberg  Untitled, 1957

But overall this is an opportunity to see more great paintings of the period in one place than is ever likely again in the UK. There are many important pictures to evaluate and re-evaluate and some interesting and valuable juxtapositions to mull over. That said some of the hang is a tad unfortunate… the trio of Guston, Mitchell and Frankenthaler in Room 4 (titled Gesture as Colour) are cramped and, pitted against the magnificently luminous Sam Francis’ canvases on the adjacent wall, look a bit poky which they most definitely are not! Barnett Newman isn’t exactly well served either and there are more odd omissions, I love  Francis but it seems perverse to give him (and Mark Tobey) such a solid outing but completely omit Cy Twombly.   David Smith is dotted through the rooms fairly liberally and of course he sits at the centre of the contribution from sculpture to the party but surely there was room to feature some others (I know Louise Nevelson is here…though quite how her work sits stylistically is more questionable) Herbert Ferber, Ibram Lassaw, Theodore Roszak and of course Louise Bourgeois all spring readily to mind.

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Ibram Lassaw  Moons of Saturn, Bronze 1954

The inclusion of photography is interesting and speaks to our current mindset of inter and cross disciplinary work. Aaron Siskind has long been seen as operating in similar territory to the others but I knew little of Barbara Morgan’s abstract work nor had seen Harry Callaghan’s extraordinary early prints – Detroit 1945 is exquisite or the Minor White pictures. Herbert Matter was completely unknown to me. The famous Pollock images by Namuth merited inclusion but why none of Fred McDarrah’s photos…his image of Norman Bluhm (another omission) sums up the period just as much as the Namuth.

But again I’m falling into carping. This is, overall, a magnificent show that immerses one in an extraordinary and exciting period of painting history – and is a must see event if one cares about abstraction.

Known Masterpieces…

img_9896HMS OPEN STUDIOS & THE UNKNOWN MASTERPIECE by ARTEMIS POTAMIANOU

This is a rather strange outing for me…after all its only just two years back that I was a part of this event rather than simply a visitor. But hopefully distance lends at least some critical judgment. HMS is, in the main, very much a painters place and there is a good deal of work here that shows how accomplished much of it is.

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As usual Jackie Berridge has some excellent work underway. There are drawings on show that amply demonstrate the solid underpinning this gives to her work (and underlines the excellence that comes from her background as an illustrator) but it is the paintings that go from strength to strength. In the larger canvases it is the astonishing variety of technical devices allied to the myriad of narrative vignettes of human behavoirs that show just how good a painter Jackie is. But I was also struck by this wonderful small painting that pairs the vulnerability of the single figure matched only by the vacant sofa that is her companion.

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Justine Nettleton as always is full of exuberant painterly activity, alongside much else, including some intriguing new works that weld re-quoted painterly passages with digital photographic elements. Alison Whitmore is exhibiting some fascinating new box works but also a riveting and nakedly honest set of small self portrait drawings that repay close examination.

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John Paul Cooke tackles the sense of place that is the Peak with a surer touch and an unerring ability to capture the light than most of the battalions who choose this location as subject matter. Patrick Prentice amply demonstrates both his powerful sense of place and a delightfully playful sureness of arrangement. The painting here is as good as it gets.

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Carole Hawthorn has a number of her beautifully calibrated colour studies on show and several of them glow with a luminous intensity like the one I’ve posted here.

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Clay Smith is perhaps best known for his moody, atmospheric and compelling photo montages (and several were on display) but he has, over the past decade or so, experimented with painting. Alongside a large recent canvas that displays a sureness of touch and is infused with a similar sense of ethereality there were two, I think, new experimental canvases that look very exciting.

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Sculpture makes a statement with work by Lesley Kelly, Louise Garland and Dee Shiels. Louise has an unerring ability to fashion fresh juxtapositions with humble found materials.

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Dee shows a range of media including some light, airy and yet oddly disturbing and provocative hanging pieces.

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Is the work of Chris Wright categorisable? I suspect she hopes not, with its address to a wide range of disciplines and media allied by her ongoing interest in exploring transitional spaces and borders. Her pieces throw up strong and powerful emotional and intellectual congruences and dissonances. All in all, there was much to see here.

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Including this years invited artist, Artemis Potamianou, from Athens, who sadly couldn’t be present at the weekend. Rather than explain the project I’m attaching the introduction to it. Suffice to say that these alterations and improvisations put the works that had been riffed into new and disturbing conjunctions.

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Urban and urbane…

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Having taken our eye off the ball these past few months its good to get back to the hard business of reviewing whats about. And where better to start than the home of the Premiership Champions?   So away from the A52 south to Leicester. It’s here that De Montfort University have picked up the University ball as far as gallery spaces go (excepting the Djanogly at Nottingham – clearly our best HE gallery in the region by a country mile) by opening this lovely new space in the Vijay Patel building.

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The opening show cleverly and wittily picks up the theme of what’s happening outside, viz. extensive on going landscaping activity that currently means that one has to enter the space from the rear rather than the main entrance. Indeed Simon & Tom Bloor’s installation – Urban Studies might almost be part of the external H&S doings…obviously part of the point. At first its tempting to write off this work as just another example of ‘stuffism’ and there is a whiff of the facile about some of the thinking at play here. It’s plainly lazy and absurd to argue that the row of brightly splashed plaster coke cans represents the ‘idea’ of “the crushing of a can is a creative gesture equal to chisel on marble” as is claimed in the accompanying blurb. But, to be fair to the artists, they may have had nothing to do with that.

img_9795The mainstays of the display are the dotted about arrangements of the (albeit over elegantly coiffeured) security fences decked out with canvases on which paintings have been made. Curiously these are styled as ‘graffiti’ in the text panel but they actually seem altogether more ‘aesthetic’ in their construction and could, at a pinch, have come out of any savvy Bushwick atelier over the past twenty years. I suspect that there may even be a specific referent at work here as that seems to be the lads usual MO. Indeed I may be over egging the pudding but the gaily coloured sandbags that weigh down the base blocks of the fences suggested to me a nod in the direction of dear old Barry Flanagan’s early outings before the hare production took over. Overall however despite the lack of real depth the work did have a brash, indeed urbane and witty feel to it and played well in a space that will suit free standing pieces well enough but be a tad more problematic for those of us wedded to more traditional and old fashioned wall based outputs.

img_9801Still fair play the DMU – this is an impressive space in a lively building on what is rapidly becoming a very stylish campus. And a welcome addition to the few spaces for contemporary art in the ‘Premier’ city in the region!

Without feeling? but really felt…

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We were due to go directly to Lincoln but I suggested a detour to the small market town of Sleaford to visit the National Centre for Craft & Design.  I knew the venue had opened “a few years back” as I told my partner in crime, the estimable Simon, but it turns out that was 13 years ago – so high time we paid it a visit! And in truth although rather tucked away in this – to be honest – remote corner of Lincolnshire it is a real delight. I shall certainly be keeping my eyes open for future shows there and for us its actually not that long a journey so there really isn’t an excuse if you’re a driver (I’ve no idea how the rail links are to here but I imagine not too good if you’re a distance away?).

The show that had caught my eye was Anton Alvarez’ ‘Autonomous Manufacturing System 1.0’ that between publication of the Feb/May programme and the opening became ‘Alphabet Aerobics’. In essence the show comprises a machine that makes ceramic sculpture without human intervention, the paraphernalia required to do so (including a gallery technician/invigillator, drying racks for the sculptures and a range of plinths on which finished works sit.

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This is an intriguing and elegant show that is both visually interesting and conceptually questioning. The machine itself is cleverly though quite simply constructed…the clay is pushed down through a tube that ends with a die or mould that forms the material as it oozes out of this device onto a bed beneath that can be tilted forward or back further determining the ensuing shape. My pal and myself have just had a little debate over exactly what to call the various metal dies or moulds…suffice to say they are discs with shaped cut outs in them…but the key to the titling of the show comes from the idea that they are based (to my eye loosely) on the letters of the alphabet and that this is apparently related to a rap song? Whatever the specifics of this it is the delight of the machine demonstrated and occasioning a unique artwork on each occasion of its doing so.

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The device, the moulds, the whims of the operator (we were told that each operator makes decisions on the actions and movements), and I imagine too, climatic conditions, subtle differences in material contents, and so on, determine outcome on each operation. It is a curious and chaotic means of predicting form although being machine driven there is an odd kind of unpredictable predictability at work too. It seems rather as if a Richard Deacon or Tony Cragg (more visually contingent?) or Ken Price(more materially so) were an automaton rather than a thinking emotional human, the sculptures being curiously both regimented and not. The use of the alphabet as a kind of cypher or metaphor is amusing too…as pieces are mounted to plinths will the alphabet emerge visually? This is a terrific exhibition that truly begs plenty of questions of us as viewers.

AA2The Centre is an enterprising and delightfully rounded venue, alongside Alvarez the show at the top of the building ‘The Other Mountain:Contemporary Chinese Jewellery’, was surprising and delightful by turns, a crazy material mix and imagery that both emphasises cultural origins and again then often confounds them. Next to it Kathryn Parsons’ eclectic mix of objects, a narrative thread held together by the obsessive delight in the life and work of John Clare, and small displays of wall hangings by Robyn Hinchcliffe and jewellery by Flora Bhattachary added up to collection of displays that makes a visit so much more rewarding than a single show venue where you are confronted with a ‘take it or leave it’ experience. Oh and the cafe is lovely too…the cakes were marvellous!

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