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Sussex Modernism: Retreat and Rebellion – Two Temple Place

Sussex Modernism, Two Temple Place

What inspires an artist has long been one of art’s most interesting questions. Two Temple Place think they have the answer – Sussex – at least for some of the leading proponents of modernism in the early part of the twentieth-century. Much of this was a reaction against the exigencies of modern life with numerous well known creatives including Vanessa and Julian Bell, Virginia and Leonard Woolf, Duncan Grant, Lee Miller and Salvador Dali decamping to Sussex to escape the industrial crowding of London, seeking a more relaxed, nature-led and sometimes communal form of living.

This new exhibition celebrates the influence of one of England’s southern-most counties with its combination of seascapes, countryside and peaceful living. Two Temple Place is a rarity among London museums, not only limiting its public opening to a two month period each year with a chance to see its new show, but also the beautiful Thames-side building that once served as the Estate’s Office for the Astors. The exhibitions, now in their sixth year, have covered an interesting variety of topics ranging from last year’s Egyptian definitions of beauty to the art and curio collections of leading industrialists, all beautifully curated and uniting fascinating objects. While many London galleries tend to circulate their objects and paintings amongst themselves, Two Temple Place have developed a reputation for bringing high-quality material from Britain’s regional museums, uniting pieces that have never been seen side by side and, chances are, not seen by Londoners in their original homes.

With pieces from Sussex museums including Brighton Museum & Art Gallery, Hasting’s Jerwood Gallery, Pallant House Gallery in Chichester and Eastbourne’s Towner Art Gallery as well as the De La Warr Pavillion and Farleys House and Gallery, this exhibition is an eclectic mix of painting, sculpture, photography, gardening equipment, and arts and crafts. Sussex Modernism argues that London was not the only cultural centre in the first half of the previous century and in fact the villages and coastal towns of Sussex were a hotbed of innovative thinking and the development of radical technique, attracting some of the UK’s most experimental artists whose domestic unconventionality was then reflecting in the work they produced.

Unsurprisingly for a London exhibition, the Bloomsbury Group features front and centre with their time at Charleston near Lewes in Sussex recorded in a series of paintings and crafts by Duncan Grant and close friend Vanessa Bell which link classical mythology with modernist expression. Grant who was famously a conscientious objector in the First World War, evolved as a painter with a fairly traditional early style into something more playful, experimental and with a bolder approach to colour. The exhibition includes his Seurat-inspired ‘Bathers by the Pond’ from c.1920 which uses a pointillist technique and shows several naked or partially dressed young men, an expression of the freedom that the immediate post-war period brought but also a sense of calm.

Equally interesting is ‘Venus and Adonis’ [1919] which depicts a cartoon-like and voluptuous female nude which is fully in this new modernist style. It suggest Venus looking over her shoulder at the distant also nude figure of Adonis, the man she loves, with an ambiguous expression that could be regret, concern, longing or even indifference. Bell’s work exhibited alongside includes a late self-portrait which has a delicate feel, alongside simple cover designs for her sister’s – Virginia Woolf’s – books.

But there’s also plenty to see in room one with a pair of enormous garden rollers dominating the central space, as well as a statue. Work from Ditchling by the now controversial sculptor Eric Gill is included which is sure to reopen debate on whether art should exist on its own terms and whether it can be divorced from its creator, while one of the highlights is David Jones’s 1924 painting ‘The Garden Enclosed’, a vibrant and troubling image of kissing lovers who look less than thrilled with each other as they embrace in front of the stylised trees that lead to their home. As the exhibition argues, it is nature that dominates here with the couple relegated to the bottom corner, but as a First World War veteran, it’s difficult not to see the ongoing effects of the conflict in the emotional ambiguity and sense of challenged domesticity the painting evokes.

Into the beautiful stairwell of Two Temple Place, and a key attraction is Edward James and Salvador Dali’s lip-shaped sofa famously inspired by Mae West in 1938. Its vibrant red colouring and plump aesthetic make it look much newer than it is, with almost a Pop Art aesthetic that was still 30 years way. It looks particularly striking against the buildings high gothic wood panelled interior and is worth making the trip just to see the contrasting styles side-by-side.

Upstairs, there is a room dedicated to the architectural development of the De La Warr pavilion at Bexhill on Sea which transformed the Edwardian seafront into a controversial modernist paradise and a scale model of its sleek and simple shape is on view. Built in 1935 following an open competition won by Erich Mendelsohn and Serge Chermayeff, the pavilion was home to a variety of cultural events and a social space that emphasised the aesthetic and practical purpose of modernist buildings and, as the exhibition argues, showing that the creation of cutting-edge and long-lasting modernist work was taking place outside of London.

The final room is an eclectic mix of painting sculpture and photography with the work of surrealists in particular taking precedence. Roland Penrose and wife Lee Miller – who had her own exhibition at the Imperial War Museum last year dedicated to her war photography – feature as life at Farley Farm welcomed a community of leading artists to the Sussex countryside. Penrose’s vivid coloured portrait of a pregnant woman – presumably Miller – and Edward Burra’s work is also worth the trip with three large paintings including The Churchyard at Rye but particularly Ropes and Lorries which hints at a carousel with a knight in armour in the foreground. There a couple of photos from Paul Nash but most of his stuff is still at Tate Britain, but considered side-by-side the true surrealist work on display here it only reinforces my previous argument that Nash’s experiment with modernism was pretty unsuccessful.

As ever Two Temple Place has delivered an exhibition of interesting objects and a persuasive argument that many radical and influential artists sought inspiration from the peace of the Sussex countryside and coastal towns. While some may be sniffy about the limits on the works included here, it certainly demonstrates the breadth and value of local collections along with the encouragement to visit more of the donor institutions to see the work in situ, which is certainly at the heart of Two Temple Place’s annual outreach activity. Of course, Dulwich Picture Gallery will have snaffled plenty for its upcoming Vanessa Bell show while the Tate has most of the Paul Nash pieces but there’s plenty to see here. And if this exhibition is anything to go by, with innovation, creativity and plenty of domestic experimentation going on, Sussex is certainly worth a visit!

Sussex Modernism: Retreat and Rebellion is at Two Temple Place until 23 April and entrance is free. The gallery is closed on Tuesdays. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


‘Secret’ Summer Exhibitions: Alex Katz and Jeff Koons

Alex Katz and Jeff Koons

With the summer holidays officially here it can be difficult to find places to go that aren’t already full of people with hour-long queues to get in. But for anyone looking for a quieter spot or even just a quick lunchtime stroll away from work, there are a couple of fantastic and entirely free exhibitions on offer tucked away in two of London’s busiest areas.

South Kensington is prime museum territory with the Natural History Museum, Science Museum and V&A on neighbouring corners of Exhibition Road, but venture a further 5-10 minutes up the road and you reach The Serpentine Gallery which has two sites in Hyde Park, both free, close to each other and open every day. Each year between the Albert Memorial and the Lake, the Gallery creates a temporary structure that dominates the park skyline for visitors to explore and enjoy, but look behind it and you’ll see one of the permanent Serpentine Gallery buildings, currently hosting an exhibition by American artist Alex Katz, entitled Quick Light.

Predominantly known for portraits, Katz is now 88 and, like the slightly younger Hockney, continues to produce and exhibit his work around the world. After positive reviews for this small show I was intrigued by this combination of recently created large portraits and slightly lesser known landscapes, and was delighted with what I saw. This show is predominantly scenes of the changing seasons and different impacts of light in various rural and urban settings which dazzle far more than the Pop Art-brightness of the people. Time Out noted that Katz’s landscapes have long been undervalued and it’s impossible to see why in this wonderful show.

Immediately your eye is drawn to a black piece with bright, almost impressionistic, cerise flowers that have a sharp angular quality with dashes of green to imply stalks and leaves, called White Impatiens 2 (2012). In fact this defined shape of leaves and branches is a real feature of the work that follows and even in recurring scenes of a red house, it is often ensconced if not obscured by elements of the landscape. The dynamic Red House 1 (2015) is an aerial view with a vertical grey road carving through the scene, while the titular house sits amidst a mass of green dots, lines and swirls that imply a bustling abundant landscape. It appears again in Red House 3 (2013) nestled against a bulging view of nature that presses into and almost consumes the building.

But the very best pieces are those which depict night time city views, often seen from the perspective of parks or avenues. The painting entitled January 7pm (1997) shows a latticed window lightly obscured by a branch, through which you can see reflections of moonlight and streetlights in the glass. Katz’s particular use of light in these images really sets them apart, and you see it again in the incredible City Landscape (1995) which is arguably the best piece on display. Katz makes you the viewer, standing in the middle of park at night observing several perfect circles of light dotted between the bare tree branches. Clearly a winter scene, his use of deep blues and greys to convey the woody darkness of the park is beautifully contrasted by the thin silver lines on the central branch and trunk to indicate where light falls. It’s absolutely stunning, and, as with so many paintings, a reproduction image on the internet cannot match the impact of seeing the original.

I was far less enamoured of the portraits, all on bright orange canvases showing singular poses or the same women in a variety of stances. They’re simple and, like the Hockney exhibition, the quality of the perspective and shaping isn’t perfect but they do have a stark and simple charm, particularly in some of the facial expressions. Anna (2015) feels especially insightful as the subject stares directly at you with an almost penetrating glare. But hanging next to the landscapes these portraits pale in comparison and although they play with colour and approaches to symmetry, it is the landscapes that make this worth the additional 10 minute walk from the main museums to Hyde Park.

In another part of London, the Imperial War Museum is a huge summer attraction for families and is a short walk from Waterloo and Parliament Square. And if you’re heading there then the war movies exhibition is well worth a visit. But if you’re looking for something a little calmer than Damien Hirst’s Newport Street Gallery has a show dedicated to the influential American sculptor and artist Jeff Koons which runs until early October. Famous for his Pop Art influences, this brings together some of Koons’s large scale works that make for a fascinating wander through consumerism and technique.

Over two floors this fascinating show focuses on what constitutes art, looking at the value of everyday and novelty objects. Koons’s work attempts to break down pre-conceived notions of function to see the design and style that are also part of the object. The first gallery contains a number of his vacuum cleaner pieces that celebrates new technology and strips the items of their utility by putting them on display without ever having been used. Once the epitome of modernity, these vacuum cleaners are now, and were quickly, replaced by newer versions, so here they manage to look both old and untouched, telling us much about rapid consumption patterns and our constant hunger for novelty.

One of the most astounding and enormous pieces dominates the second gallery, and is a masterpiece in confounding your expectations. The whole room is dominated by an almost six meter high sculpture called Balloon Monkey (Blue) created from 2006-2013 which looks as though it’s made of burstable balloon plastic, but is actually cleverly fashioned stainless steel and colour coating. Even very close-to it’s almost impossible to tell with the various bulbous and twisted areas perfectly replicating the stretched and creased look of a real balloon creature. It’s a technically impressive and fascinating piece of work allowing Koons to comment on our obsession with appearances, how things are not what they seem on the surface. Walking around this giant creature, your own image is repeatedly reflected back at you which is a common theme in his work.

Similar technique is applied to his ‘inflatables’ in the upper galleries which adopt this same approach to disorientate the viewer. At astonishingly close range they look exactly like pool toys, with that very precise rubbery reflective surface, as though they are full of air. But each one is made of, presumably reasonably weighty, aluminium and skilfully painted to belie their own material and like Balloon Monkey (Blue) Koons is playing with how the eye perceives density and structure in a succession of works created between 2003 and 2009. Sling Hook suspends two toys from the ceiling, while Seal Walrus (Chairs) incorporates the bodies of two toys into a stack of apparently plastic chairs, retaining their inflated look even when they should be crushed by their surroundings. Finally Acrobat places an upside-down lobster with its claws balancing on an up-turned bin and a chair – in a way that a genuine inflatable toy would find impossible.

There are a couple more of these effects in Gallery 6 which look to childhood influences and are reminiscent of the character balloons you see at fairgrounds. Elephant  (2003) and Titi (2004-2009) reflect the same ideas as Balloon Monkey (Blue) with a high polish finish distracting the viewer from their heavy stainless-steel construct. The rest of the pieces in the exhibition are interesting but somehow seem less technically impressive, although the creation process is probably just as involved. There are some rather dubious pornographic shots in Gallery 3, so not something to take the family though, and Gallery 4 has a variety of alcohol-related exhibits also made from stainless-steel which unlike the inflatables is made to look like a luxury item.

Jeff Koons Now is a short but highly entertaining show that is well worth a detour to the backstreets of Lambeth, which even on a Sunday was reasonably quiet. With two fascinating exhibitions by well- known artists in busy areas you might want to give the big museums, and their queues a miss, and head for something a little quieter this summer. Just don’t tell anyone!

Alex Katz: Quick Light is at the Serpentine Gallery in Hyde Park until 11th September, while Jeff Koons Now is at the Newport Street Gallery until 16 October. Both exhibitions are free. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


Daydreaming with Stanley Kubrick – Somerset House

Daydreaming with Stanley Kubrick (James Lavelle & John Isaacs and Paul Insect)

Fan fiction is a rather pejorative term, but it can take many forms. While Graham Norton enjoys bewildering his celebrity guests with some of his wackier finds, there are some expressions of fandom that are recognised and acceptable forms of art. For example, several classic novels have been extended or fleshed-out respectably by later writers from P.D. James’s murder mystery Death Comes to Pemberly imagining the future marital wranglings of Elizabeth and Mr Darcy with the Wickhams, to recent novels with new cases for Poirot endorsed by the Agatha Christie estate, or the new Bond novels by leading thriller writers like Jeffrey Deaver and Anthony Horowitz, as well as a highly literary attempt  to write like Fleming by Sebastian Faulks.

Over at Somerset House a different kind of fan art is taking centre stage, inspired by the movies of Stanley Kubrick, a director and creative known for his visionary and often challenging work. While many move through different genres, few develop a style that is so distinctive and identifiable whether it’s a horror film or futuristic space odyssey. And it is still a rarity for the film’s director to outrank the actors, so Kubrick is part of a small elite – arguably including Hitchcock, Spielberg and further back possibly Wilder – whose name is associated with a particular style of film-making and reflecting a body of work telling the cinema-goer exactly what tropes to expect.

With Kubrick then, you expect strangeness, a heightened sense of a world that often includes danger, violence and fear, as well as the particularly shrewd use of music and cinematography to enhance a general sense of unease. Needless to say then that some of the more successful artworks inspired by Kubrick, on display at Somerset House, tap into these notions while referring to specific films, phrases and moments as well as the whole body of work. This is, in a true sense, real fan fiction that pays homage to its originator, assuming that the viewer is a fellow fan who will recognise the reference, but takes on an imaginary life of its own at the same time.

The most extensive piece is right under your feet from the moment you arrive; created by Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin, a lino-version of the carpet from The Shining guides you along the main corridor of the exhibition leading to the many side rooms containing the rest of the work which is in itself reminiscent of the infamous hotel. The bold orange and brown geometric design recalls the disconcerting effect of the film for the viewer, as well as essentially making you a character walking along it yourself – although the exhibition is so busy you won’t be alone long enough to feel afraid.

Another major highlight is In Consolus – Full of Fear and Hope (2016) by James Lavelle and John Isaacs, featuring Azzi Glasser which poses two enormous, and quite frankly downright sinister, teddy bears on Pop Art-esque grocery boxes. One of them is wearing heart-shaped shades and holds a lollypop with inward turned feet like a shy little girl, while the other in a swiping pose holds a riding crop in one hand while wearing a mask with exceptionally long nose and pants. The notes tell us it represents ‘loss of innocence and abuse of power’ which was a big theme for Kubrick and this fascinatingly dark piece recalls elements of A Clockwork Orange, The Shining and Eyes Wide Shut.

Another sculpture is also one of the key things to see, Doug Aitken’s Twilight (2014), essentially an old American payphone from Dr Strangelove but this is bright white and illuminated from inside, set in a room entirely surrounded by mirrors. The light throbs at varying beats building to a brilliant white glow, again implying Kubrick’s heightened realism with touches of Hitchcock’s eye for style. Mat Collishaw uses some simple physics to ‘trap’ a video of a monkey inside a space helmet to explore the interaction of past and future, while Stuart Haygarth’s tower of electric fires, Pyre (2016) dominates the second room, emitting more heat than needed in the already stifling exhibition space, but makes for imposing, devilish and slightly overbearing viewing in a show that is as outlandish as it is celebratory.

For a show that appreciates a set of particular films, it’s interesting to see a number of short video installations inspired by Kubrick’s work. And while some of these are a little long for their small standing space, best among them is Toby Dye’s The Corridor (2016) which takes a number of Kubrick-inspired characters and plays out a scenario on four giant connected screens that surround the room. Each shows a different story being enacted in the same space but at times each of the characters interact, ‘falling’ momentarily into one or more of the screens next to them. It’s a fascinating piece of work and completely mesmerising to watch these soundless characters interacting, running or fighting, drawing attention to Kubrick’s own recognisable techniques. You may also spot actors Aiden Gillen and Joanna Lumley in two of the starring roles.

Another famous face to pop up is Cate Blanchett in a strange science-based tale by Julian Rosefeld set in a futuristic building. The recent passion for slow TV plays a part here as we watch various capsule-shaped lifts rise and fall, before following the heroine around a swirling staircase before entering a room covered in cone shapes and dominated by a random black mass in the centre. While referencing 2001 Space Odyssey it is also truly bizarre, not least for Blanchett managing not to blink during an inordinately long close-up recitation monologues. And there’s a great mini-film created by actor Samantha Morton on her experience of watching Kubrick as a girl.

There’s plenty of other interesting work on offer too such as Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard’s Requiem for 114 Radios (2016), a sound installation that plays individual voices together to form a piece from a Catholic Mass. It’s a crackly and unnerving experience but fascinating too as apparent harmony is broken up by white noise and distortion, emphasising the experience of music in Kubrick’s work. On the walls, A Clockwork Britain (2012) by Paul Insect shows a face half covered by a Union Jack scarf with the famous painted eye and hat from A Clockwork Orange and is a fascinating reference to the persistence of violence in modern society, while Jason Shuman’s single visual depiction of every frame in 2001 Space Odyssey (2016) has a serene marbled quality that belies the highly technical process of creation.

As with most exhibitions, there’s plenty of works that will make you shrug and move along. Jane and Louise Wilson’s film about the never-completed film The Aryan Papers is surprisingly tedious and unvarying given its subject, and Seamus Farrell’s collection of glassware with film titles isn’t worth pausing for, while Norbert Schoerner’s virtual reality experience had a large queue but perhaps a little underwhelming in the end.

For Kubrick fans this is probably the must-see exhibition of the summer, and like last year’s beautifully curated show about The Jam, Daydreaming with Kubrick is insightful and celebratory. There’s a huge amount of imagination on display and the diversity of exhibits – painting, video, sculpture, sound installation, immersion and 3D visualisation – make for a really eye-opening wander through the gallery. Above all, the huge love of Kubrick comes across, particularly the numerous ways in which his body of film has inspired fans to create further works of art. Fan fiction it may be but it redefines the term and is certainly not something to scorn. So whether you’ve seen every second of his work or don’t know his films that well and miss many of the references, this show allows you to appreciate the influence and impact of a visionary director.

Daydreaming with Kubrick is at Somerset House until 24 August. Entry is £12.50 and concessions are available. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


Artist and Empire – Tate Britain

Edward Armitage's Retribution, 1858Empire is a bit of a dirty word and something we don’t really like to think too much about. But in the last ten years historians have increasingly turned their attention to reconsidering the Empire and its meaning in an attempt to understand what Britishness means in the twenty-first century. In effect the British Empire began in the sixteenth-century and fell into decline after the First World War as countries won their independence. Our modern perception is that Empire meant slavery, subjugation and looting of other countries but as with most historical events it is never as simple as it looks, and while it existed for more than 350 years, it also led to cultural exchange, technological advancement and engagement with the world that benefited both Britain and its conquered territories. Tate Britain’s big winter exhibition Artist and Empire tells this story through painting, sculpture and map-making, and while it doesn’t decide whether Empire was ultimately good or bad, it has brought together one of the most fascinating collections about this defining era in British history.

Thematically arranged, it begins with cartography, because the first thing you need to do when you conquer somewhere is make a map of your new territory, and this initial room contains some fascinating examples of early scientific exploration from as long ago as the sixteenth century accompanied by enormous portraits of explorers including a fine centrepiece of Thomas Cavendish, Sir Francis Drake and Sir John Hawkins painted in the 1600s. There are also examples of original maps made within Britain including siege plans for Enniskillen Castle by an English soldier called John Thomas, which may explain where this love of capturing and subduing lands came from. From the start it’s clear that this show will take a multi-country perspective and pieces depicting Ireland, America, Africa, Australia and India sit side by side as astonishing examples of the Britain’s reach at any given time and the millions of people it affected.

Eddie Izzard would tell you that claiming ownership of somewhere also requires that you stick a flag in it – “no flag, no country” – so the exhibition also brings you right up to the twentieth-century with some handmade Asafo Flags from West Africa designed by the Fante a Ghanaian people showing collaboration between local culture and the British invaders with some incorporating elements of the Union flag. As they hang from the ceiling they seem to entirely represent the contradictory thoughts about Empire, hinting both at tales of repression, occupation and acquisition, as well as the development of local alliances that led, for a time at least, to mutual systems of government.

One of the major consequences of the Empire was its scientific output and the second room considers its effect on the collections of natural history, art and literature. From exploratory voyages which recorded new species of animal and plant life to the development of the ‘Grand Tour’ for aristocratic young men around Europe, the engagement with the effects of Empire was considerable. This room includes beautifully detailed botanical drawings such as those by Lady Anna Maria Jones who collected and drew Indian plants while stationed there with her husband in the late 1700s. This is brilliantly balanced by related bird drawings by Shaikh Zain-ud-Din who was commissioned by Lady Jones among others to add to her collection, and this is another fascinating aspect of this exhibition, it’s not just the British perspective on foreign lands but the increased appetite for locally produced works of art and cultural objects.

The interest in new species is an opportunity to show Stubb’s superb painting of A Cheetah and a Stag with Two Indian Attendants which became part of the Duke of Cumberland’s menagerie and took part in stag hunts at Windsor.  There’s also the Stubbs Dingo, as well as John Lewin’s Tasmanian Tiger, placed alongside discussion of Joseph Banks who voyaged with Captain Cook. The trafficking of goods and animals (as well of people) back to Britain was part of a cultural influx at home too, meaning it wasn’t just the people who travelled around the Empire who experienced its effects, signalling a huge shift in the movement of goods around the world.

No study of Empire is complete without mention of the military campaigns that effected the subjugation of other lands, and the next room considers the grandiose, and often misleading, statements about the heroism of the army. From virtual nonsense including Benjamin West’s The Death of General James Wolfe which falsely imagines the great leader succumbing on the battlefield surrounded by his men and a Native American, to George William Joy’s depiction of the death of General Gordon, military heroes are given a saint-like composure, likening their demise to religious imagery of sacrifice – essentially rewriting history and the nature of conflict to suit the iconography of the Empire.

In the following rooms, the merging of British and local cultures becomes more apparent as several portraits show the exchange of costume, with famous faces such as T. E. Lawrence in tribal wear and John Foote in beautiful India muslins painted by Joshua Reynolds. But this influence worked both ways as British style portraits and customs were adopted. We can see this in Simon de Passe’s portrait of Pocahontas in European dress. Ethnographic studies of different cultures also became increasingly popular and many of the pictures in the final rooms document the nature of tribal life including portraits of Maori chiefs, the King of Matabeleland and leather goods from Nigeria. This again implies the dual nature of Empire, both as a scientific and cultural exploration of the rest of the world leading to the exchange of knowledge and experience for all involved, but still with the knowledge of Britain as an invading force detailing the wonders of its new territories.

As you leave this exhibition, which took me about two hours to see everything properly, it’s difficult to form any certain conclusions on the experience of Empire. The Tate has been very careful not to take a clear line on this and while it had terrible consequences for many, this is a fascinating and revealing walk through its history. Somewhat unintentionally, by placing so many pieces from around the world next to one another so that you move from the Caribbean to Australia from South Africa to North America in a few steps, you can’t help but be a little bit awed that Britain managed to keep control of all of that simultaneously and for so long. The rights and wrongs aside, the very fact of its existence is overwhelming. As much about scientific exploration as it was about subjugation, the concept of Empire is one that will continue to trouble us, and as this fascinating exhibition makes clear, the British Empire was far from black and white, it was full of people, cultures and colours that tell us so much about being British in the twenty-first century.

Artist and Empire is at Tate Britain until 10 April. Tickets are £16 and concessions are available. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


Champagne Life – Saatchi Gallery

Virgile Ittah SculpturesIf you ever thought that Chelsea was a bit trendy for you then the latest exhibition at the Saatchi Gallery may have you running for the hills. Prepare yourself now… the whole thing is devoted to female artists – I know, women doing art, the very idea! Now it’s one thing to do a bit of embroidery at home as part of your suite of accomplishments that will attract a suitor but these dangerously radical women actually produce their own paintings, sculptures and giant clay cows, and then put them on public display where people other than their husbands, fathers and brothers will see them.

Feel patronised enough yet? I’m in two minds about the purpose of this show; an all-female exhibition shouldn’t raise the slightest eyebrow these days but then again should it really be necessary – it’s like those game show quotas at the BBC that insist on one women being present, which on the one hand do guarantee a foot in the door but at the same time means now there’s only ever one women, not two or three as there might have been before, because now they’ve ticked the box. Champagne Life, as you maybe be able to tell, exasperated me for the same reason but this has nothing to do with the quality of the art on display which I cannot deride… ok I’ll deride some it further down, but in general the pieces were varied and interesting. What is frustrating is that there is no thematic structure whatsoever and the only thing these rooms have in common is that the artists are all female.

I’m certainly not against all female shows and the awareness that this will create for the dozen artists involved is excellent, but crucially with no curation it unfairly implies that the only merit required to get into these rooms is a skirt, and the only thing these people have in common is their gender – not their approach to capturing form, not the way they utilise colour or light, but their womanhood. So rant over, let’s talk about the art; first up is Julia Wachtel whose work builds on Andy Warhol’s fascination with celebrity culture and industrial image reproduction. Wachtel uses blocks of images across her canvases which are either one photographer broken into strips or the same picture repeated over and over, as is the case with Champagne Life, from which this exhibition takes its title, which has the same upside down image of Kim Kardashian and Kanye West in three of the five strips, interspersed with two right way up images of a cartoon mouse. Other pieces do the same thing, inserting a cartoon character over an older grainier picture, which are interesting but perhaps a too familiar approach.

Much more exciting are Sigrid Holwood’s images of historic Swedish life in which she takes typical nineteenth-century rural scenes of everyday life and washes them with astonishing fluorescent colours to comment on the effects of industrialisation. They are extremely inviting images depicting happy peasants cuddling goats or butchering a pig but burning with highlighter-colours as if infected by industry like radioactivity. Just Googling the image now won’t show you just how vibrant these pictures are in real life as reproduction washes out the colour (which also happens with Lichtenstein actually) but Church Boats is particularly lovely with its watery reflections.

In another room two artists compare the idea of frail human flesh with the robustness of the soul and personality. Jelena Bulajic is fascinated by the lined faces of the elderly and reproduces a number of them in photograph-like detail. Her almost 3 meter high canvases are actually black and white paintings which draw out the personality of the sitter which, as the exhibition guide explains,  is contained within the map of the face.  It’s incredibly detailed work and skilfully achieved. In the same room, Virgile Ittah has created two wax sculptures of human bodies falling off two rusting bedsteads. Up close Ittah has used marble dust to give them a look of classical sculpture but with the roughened texture of the wax they have a wispy quality as though their humanity is wasting away before our eyes.

Upstairs two Alice Anderson pieces dominate the mood of one room using her copper binding technique to create an unsettling tone. Having recently enjoyed her exhibition at the Wellcome Collection on the formation and realignment of memory processes, it’s great to see more of her work her, albeit only two pieces – a giant cotton reel and giant ball, the latter being particularly disturbing, rather like the Dr Who episode where Torchwood experiment on a sphere in Canary Wharf that has no mass or existence just an ominous feel, which I liked.

Mequitta Ahuja’s paintings also uses bright colours to think about concepts of identity and each of her works contain a central figure that combines almost cave art-like figures with what we’re told are self-portraits and a mosaic approach to pattern and texture seen best in Stick Stack. Those life-sized cows mentioned above are by Stephanie Quayle a sculpture whose work examines the interaction between man and animals. Quayle has produced one of the best pieces in this exhibition in Lion Man a kneeling figure with hands tied behind its back, with the head (and luxurious mane) of a lion cowed in submission and possibly fear – a potent statement.

Not everything hits the mark of course and Soheila Sokhanvari’s donkey on giant green air balloon is certainly not my cup of tea for all its political meaning, neither are the numerous pieces by Suzanne McClelland which intersperse squiggles and numbers to ‘convey data sets pertaining to both body builders… and domestic terrorists in the US.’ I read the programme notes several times but couldn’t make sense of this stuff or what it was supposed to mean. It ends with a separate but related show of challenging sculpture by Aidan whose funereal black and white marble figures comment on religion, mortality and expectations of women in patriarchal societies.

So while I enjoyed a lot of the pieces, sparse as they are and most of the rooms feel very empty, I did feel frustrated on behalf of the artists involved whose work deserves fairer comment – particularly Alice Anderson who was deemed influential enough to warrant her own, rather intriguing, show at the Wellcome Collection recently. Given the increased coverage of female equality issues in the last year, especially around the release of the film Suffragette, it’s a clever bandwagon for the Saatchi to jump on. And one of the things I’ve liked most about visiting this gallery is the random collection of stuff with very little detail, allowing you to make up your own mind about it – I just wish this time the curators could have put a little more thought into the themes these artists explore. The politics of it aside, it should not detract from some interesting pieces and the chance to see 12 very different artists. Let’s hope that at the next Saatchi exhibition, all artists are considered based on their relevance and regardless of their gender.

Champagne Life is at the Saatchi Gallery until 09 March (currently closed  for Fashion Week but reopens on 2nd March). Entrance is free. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 


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