Hot Rocks

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There was a time when pretty much all sculpture was weighty intractable stuff that always felt as if it had been wrestled into submission.  Those days may be long gone in a flurry of provisional and found materials more often than not thrown together with what at least looks like less than careful aesthetic consideration.  So it comes as something of a surprise on entering the Boulder exhibition by Denis O’Connor at the New  Court Gallery in Repton to see solid pieces that are obdurate and stubbornly there.  In his case the central – and title providing – motif is that boulder that crops up in most of the works on show in this satisfying and delightful show.  O’Connor is one of a generation of Midlands sculptors that have made most of their artistic careers making works that have entered the public realm and consequently like many of them opportunities to view studio pieces, unfettered from commissioning restraints, have been relatively few so this is an event not to be missed.

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Not that the artist hasn’t been able to maintain a vision that carries through into a third decade of practice where a number of tropes suggest ideas around journeys and mystical narratives that, albeit un or at least sub -consciously derive from a wry humorous nod towards his cultural heritage.  Here too the hard won wrestling of steel into forms that are seemingly inimical to the process is another metaphor that adds an intensity to several of the works, that and the trick of raising up the obviously solid and weighty material to seem, if not weightless, light and airy as if lifted by the breeze.  It is fair to say that here is an artist at the top of his game, a serious but jocular work out, with plenty of rewards for the viewer in this excellent space.

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Optical and Optimistic

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Works from the show at the Longside Gallery, YSP left to right Philip King, Tim Scott, John Dee, Tess Jaray, Barry Flanagan, William Tucker

Kaleidoscope – Colour & Sequence in 1960’s British Art at the Djanogly Gallery, Lakeside Arts Centre, Nottingham

It’s difficult to argue with the curators sub-title viz. colour as the gallery is full of it – so much so that one imagines that a certain amount of ‘restoration’ (read that as code for a ‘paint job’) has gone on here. But its a very jolly romp through the early to late sixties of UK art with the focus on the New Generation sculptors (excepting the talented South African born Isaac Witkin, who – seemingly – is the one key figure written out of this narrative) augmented by a more eclectic selection of painters from the same period. This latter aspect rather jumbles up some of the argument being presented here (though in conversation Sam Cornish rightly makes as much of the idea of symmetry as sequence) with the notion that something deep connects artists as diverse as Riley, Steele (and apparently in the shows first outing in Yorkshire, Peter Sedgley) representing Op with Mary Martin the constructivist and the sculptor Philip King. Superficially there are connections but a quick glance at how careers advanced subsequently suggests that any connections are far more nuanced than that.

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However it warms my heart to see works that are optimistic and untroubled by post modernist angst – on entering the gallery one is confronted by Richard Smith’s painting Trio and what immediately sprang to mind was the double page bleed photo of the young artist in his hammock fresh back from the United States full of the new spirit of the sixties and casting off the dull grey of 1950’s post war Britain. But as I looked around I couldn’t help seeing the ghosts of the later works by many of the sculptors especially Tucker, King and Anthony Caro as examples of how their concerns turned inward, not only as regards form and materials, but ideas that seem more subtle, elegiac and even –  in a late work by Caro for instance – Shadows of 2013 – to thoughts of mortality. Of course the painters, by and large, cleaved closer to their initial interests or, perhaps most tellingly in the case of Riley, went far further in embracing colour wholeheartedly. Overall the show works well and brings a good deal of material into view that gets relatively little airing nowadays. Of course one thinks of omissions – I’d have loved to have seen Roger Cook’s painting brought out of the store – it is surely a close fit with the theme – as is Witkin’s Vermont 111.  But then there’s a deal of work that would equally fit the remit, Paul Huxley, Jack Smith and Noel Forster to name check just a few of the painters.  All that said…the show is fitted into the three spaces well and all the works need the space they have to breathe. And despite that they are all into their fifties now, by and large, most of them do.

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.

 

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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Hepworth Connections

 

2015-12-02 12.34.39-1I’ve written several glowing reports on the Hepworth in my personal blog but now I want to wax lyrical here in what I’m thinking will be one of Cloughies away games (this blog started life confining itself to the A52 corridor between Nottingham & Derby but hell those down South just think its all ‘oop North’ anyway). On this occasion I’d no expectations ahead of the visit as my pal had suggested it and I’d not looked it up.

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It turned out to be a richly rewarding visit to a venue that has provided us with many excellent shows since our first when it opened back in 2011. Indeed as a roughly three times a year visitor I reckon there’s always fresh material to mull over in a building devoted to a single figure, albeit highly distinguished, where one might have thought displays would be rather static. This time the clever curatorial pairing pitted the female English modernist Gertrude Hermes against the male Italian born post modernism of Enrico David.  As I often tell students ‘compare and contrast’…and here the connections are many, various and highly instructive, and, wrapped together with several other displays, deeply satisfying.

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David is an artist I first encountered through his paintings but here the focus is appropriately more on 3D. Think English 50’s figuration meeting Arte Povera…so a wall figure piece in cardboard reminds me of something that might have been commissioned from Lynn Chadwick for a provincial theatre in the Midlands.  He has a particular and peculiar way with the human figure, a lugubrious and serial approach that sees them shoe horned into strange geometries and put through odd contortions.  Other commentators have described the work as ‘odd’ and that’s fair enough but I also saw a poetry that is rather beautiful. The use of materials is quite fascinating…I was especially taken with something I’ve not come across before now – Jesmonite – that seems (at least in his hands) to be just about anything you want it to be…ebony, ivory, polished limestones etc.

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He occupies the large temporary exhibition gallery with aplomb…a scattering of small lead spheres that are dotted around the space brings the various pieces together so that a satisfying whole is created from what might otherwise appear as disparate pieces. In a second room there are some lovely drawings with a spare, delicate touch as well as more mystifying though genuinely considered pieces. This is a show I can’t recommend highly enough.

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Gertrude Hermes, I freely confess, wasn’t known to me at all until this trip out. Her exhibition was a revelation – a tour de force – as regards the art of woodcut but also an astonishing array of sculpture and print and drawing. She ranged freely across the subject matter of the figure and of nature in a manner that is of course in part reminiscent of the English Romantics but also betokens a tougher, more structurally rigorous, sensitivity and, occasionally, a peculiarity that to me she shares with Enrico David. One of my favourites in the show is the small terracotta Baby 11, that could be slotted into his smaller room here, assuming of course that it was fashioned from Jesmonite! Hermes’ astonishing fecundity as an artist and her amazing technical virtuosity is a delight and constitutes reason two to get up to Wakefield. Given the other current displays and the fine café/restaurant (that I’ve written about before) there are a dozen or more reasons that should make the trip worthwhile.

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