Saturday, 21 November 2015

56th Venice Biennale: All The World’s Future (9 May-22 November 2015)

It has been a long-held ambition of mine to visit the Venice Biennale and finally this year, I made the visit.  The entire event takes place at the Giardini, the Arsenale and in various locations across the beautiful city from May through to November.  We visited at the end of October on a gloriously warm and sunny weekend as part of a stay in Venice to celebrate a special birthday. 

Curated by Okwui Enwezor, this year’s event has had mixed reviews and 2015 is not regarded as a milestone year in the Biennale’s one hundred and twenty year history.  One critic said that lacked visual power, originality, wit or bravado.  Another wrote that it was the most depressing biennale he has ever visited and that it was a grim feast of international politics, self-obsession and complaint.  The overall critical consensus appeared to be that the curator’s attempt to present the state of global contemporary art today and giving a platform and voice to countries not previously represented, delivered an assault course of videos about global starvation, industrial pollution and the atrocious conditions of workers in developing countries.  For many critics, Enwezor’s ‘dense, restless and exploratory project’ had taken the soul out of the event, making the experience of visiting a ‘glum trudge than the usual exhilarating adventure’. 
Despite these portents of an impending doomed visit, my excitement and enthusiasm mounted as the water taxi journeyed down the Grand Canal and both remained intact as we wandered leisurely around the gardens.  The sunshine and surprising lack of queues (around 300,000 visitors were expected over the six month run) contributed to what was still a very special and enjoyable visit.
As we didn’t have enough time to visit all the Biennale locations, we concentrated on the central and national pavilions in the Giardini and perhaps this protected us from any feelings of disappointment and a predicted doomed visit.  I fast tracked first to see new work from Wangechi  Muti in the central pavilion.  I have been a fan for many years and she was even gracious enough to participate in my email interview to form part of my BA dissertation way back in 2006.
Mutu puts together magazine imagery with painted surfaces and found materials.  Her collages explore the split nature of cultural identity and reference colonial history, fashion and contemporary African politics.  Most recently, her work has extended into sculpture and video.  I find her work incredibly engaging and moving.  Her video piece The End of Carrying All  is a piece made this year and is premiered at the Biennale.  It was haunting, dreamlike and very powerful.  Mutu’s sculptural piece, She’s Got The World in Her also shows the artist’s themes of constant and futile striving and the toll it takes on body and soul.

It was my patriotic duty to visit the British Pavilion next, to see the wonderful Sarah Lucas in all her rude, crude and irreverent glory.  For “I Scream Daddio”, the building was completed painted custard yellow and filled with biomorphic sculptures and plaster casts of the bottom halves of women draped over household (made from her friends and herself), each with a cigarette sticking out of an orifice.  Her direct and uncompromising attacks on masculine attitudes to femininity and issues around gender and continue to provoke and confound.    

The French Pavilion offered the perfect antidote to Lucas’s full on visual assault.  Celéste Boursier-Mougenot’s “Revolutions”, gently moving trees, both inside and outside the Pavilion, were haunting and quite beautiful.  Although obviously mechanically enhanced, these were real, fully grown trees with root balls exposed, which made their movement even more surreal.  Inside the Pavilion, what looked like concrete steps turned out to be expanding foam on which to sit and watch another tree move around the atrium to faintly heard music.  Exquisitely executed and wonderfully relaxing, a totally immersive artistic encounter.
Like Sarah Lucas (but with no hint of humour or irony), Australian Fiona Hall wore her politics loud and proud in her installation “Wrong Way Time”, for her country’s pavilion.  In near darkness,  her collections of objects and ephemera (some made by indigenous women), took on the air of a museum of antiquities and seemed a little naïve and sometimes obvious use for addressing her concerns on global politics, world finances and the environment.  I was still positively drawn to some of her work, particularly a collection of small bread sculptures placed across maps which corresponded to a particular world problem – a slaughtered elephant laid across a map of Africa, tiny cut out figures of swimmers put on the Mediterranean Sea between Libya and Italy, demolished buildings placed on maps of war torn cities  In a politically drenched installation, these did manage to resonate.
The show stopping pavilion was without doubt Chiharu Shiota’s “The Key in the Hand” for Japan.  Exploring notions of the link between memories of people across time, Shiota displayed two wooden boats linked by webs of red yarn from which thousands of keys were suspended.  The overall visual impact was amazing and walking around the installation opened up new and beautiful vistas.  The intricacy of the piece was quite breathtaking.  I remember seeing an earlier work by the artist at the Royal Academy some years ago.  It was an antique wrought iron bed surrounded by a web of black yarn.  In its execution, this installation mirrors her earlier work, but it is none the less beautiful. 

We only scraped the surface of what this Biennale had to offer and even if it was not critically well-received and generally thought to be one of its weakest incarnations, I was very glad to have visited and witnessed an important art historical event.  I am also completely in love with Venice, so a return visit is definitely needed - let’s see what 2017 has to offer.

Saturday, 5 September 2015

Joseph Cornell: Wanderlust. Royal Academy of Arts, London (4 July-27 September 2015)

 Untitled (Pinturicchio Boy), 1942-52 [Left]      Untitled (Medici Princess), c. 1948 [Right]
I cannot remember the last time I visited a retrospective exhibition for one artist where every art work on display, from their very early work, mature and usually most iconic work and later, end of career work, was so completely resolved, sophisticated and enchanting as that of Joseph Cornell in this exhibition at the Royal Academy, his first retrospective in the UK for over thirty years.
Cornell (1903-1972) was an extraordinary artist.  Completely self-taught and despite having never travelled outside his native USA, he created the most exquisite and sublime art works where notions of travel was the predominate influence.  He was extremely well-read and knowledgeable on a diverse range of subjects such as literature, astronomy, natural history and opera, all which fed into his collages and assemblages.  Although he never visited Europe, Cornell was captivated by bygone imagery and through his collecting (his box constructions were filled with objects he found in thrift shops in his native New York, which he used to wander around during his lunch breaks as a textile salesman), he amassed an exceptional knowledge of astronomical  charts and geographical maps, Italian and Spanish Old Master paintings, historical ballet, early cinema, literature, poetry and ornithology.  There was seemingly no subject which he could not understand, interpret and extract not only selective imagery but also an alternative context in order to construct a fantasy creation and not once did any of his “shadow boxes” as he called them, ever slip into naivety, lazy construction or theatre-set appearances.
Untitled (Cockatoo with Watch Faces), 1949
Untitled (The Hotel Eden), 1945
Cornell was a fascinating character.  He lived with and took care of his mother and younger brother, who suffered from cerebral palsy, for all their lives.  Although reserved in character and often portrayed as an isolated outsider, through personal friendships and a series of successful exhibitions and patronage by the likes of Peggy Guggenheim and Alfred Barr, he connected with leading members within Surrealism, Abstract Expressionism, Pop Art and Minimalism as the movements developed in New York in the 1940s, 50s and 60s.  Despite these relationships, Cornell maintained his independence from any particular group in order to champion a highly personal form of artistic expression.

Play and experimentation, collecting and classification, longing and reverie – categorisations the Royal Academy have used to describe Cornell’s shifting attention and creations of fantastical games, fictional valises and shrines to places and people.  He did not need to travel as his seemingly limitless imagination and creative skills could construct fantastical renders which reality would be hard pressed to compare with.
Untitled (Celestial Navigation), 1956-58
Untitled (Soap Bubble Set), 1936
Cornell did not draw, paint or sculpt and was not the first artist to use collage and assemblage.  He was though the first to make appropriation and arrangement of found objects and materials as the exclusive medium of his work.  The work on display in this exhibition is only a fragment of Cornell’s output throughout his fifty year career, a career which not only saw the artist enjoy success during his lifetime, but whose legacy has influenced many artists and echoes of which can still be seen within contemporary art practice.  This is a delightful exhibition and a very long time coming for the UK.  A definite must-see during a visit to London this summer.

Untitled (The Life of Ludwig II of Bavaria), 1941-52

Untitled (Minutiae Objects), c. 1930s
L'Egypte de Mlle Cleo de Merode, 1940
 Naples, 1942



Friday, 28 August 2015

Why I Love… A series of posts on artworks which have made a lasting impression on me. No 2: "Self-Portrait with Fried Eggs", 1996 (From Self-Portraits 1990-1998), Sarah Lucas

Self-Portrait with Fried Eggs, 1996
Sarah Lucas has for a very long time (and continues to be) the number one in my top five of favourite contemporary artists (the number two to five of which are Jenny Saville, Wangechi Mutu, Cathy Wilkes and Johana Vasconcelos). A lot of my art studies were focussed on sculptural practices by female artists as well as self-portraiture, so she became one of my go-to artists. I wasfascinated with her confrontational self-portraits and innuendo-filled work as these were practices rarely adopted by female artists. A leading player in the Young British Artist group of the late 1980s and early 1990s, her ‘ladette’ personification critiqued chauvinism and sexism from a very British perspective. Using everyday materials, such as worn furniture, clothing, fruit, vegetables, newspapers, cigarettes, cars, resin, plaster, neon lamps and light fittings, the grungy, abject appearance of many of her works belied the serious and complex subject matter they addressed. Lucas makes constant reference to the human body, questioning gender definitions and challenging macho culture. The use of food to represent or stand in for sexual body parts was a common theme in Lucas's work of the 1990s to reveal and subvert objectification of the body in vernacular language. For example, in Au Natural (1994) Lucas used a mattress, bucket, melons and cucumber to parody stereotypes around sexualised bodies and mysogynistic tabloid culture. Her fleshy and anthropomorphic sculptures of around the same time in contrast underscored sexual, psychological and social tensions.
Au Naturel (1994)
Bunny (1997)

I use sexist attitudes because they are there to be used. I get strength from them …With only minor adjustments, a provocative image can become confrontational - converted from an offer of sexual service into a castration image … I'm dipping into the culture, pointing a finger: directing attention to what's there” [Sarah Lucas].

Lucas’s first self-portrait, Eating a Banana (1990) changed the artist’s perception of her 'masculine' appearance which she saw as a disadvantage, to being something she could use in her art. Through her self-portraits she presented an identity which challenged stereotypical representations of gender and sexuality in two dimensions as her sculptural and installations did in three dimensions. For me, Self Portrait with Fried Eggs (1996) is the most iconic image in the group of twelve photographs in the series. It would have been my own artistic retort to comments as I was growing up to my own cleavage (or lack thereof)!
Eating a Banana (1990)

Lucas’s ouvre is about the everyday, the abject and the epic. Her work is crude, sleazy and funny. The continued use of visual puns throughout her career have been aggressively impudent and both shock and amuse - they are not for the faint-hearted. Lucas is representing Britain at the 56th Venice International Art Biennale 2015 with her major solo exhibition, “I Scream Daddio”, in the British Pavilion (9 May - 22 November). I first saw Lucas’s work in the 2004 Tate exhibition “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida”. Although I have seen her work in a number of group and solo exhibitions since, eleven years after that first exhibition I am very excited to be visiting I Scream Daddio in October as part of a birthday weekend visit to that beautiful city. It will be interesting to see the juxtaposition of her work in such majestic surroundings.

Saturday, 15 August 2015

MK Calling 2015, MK Gallery (3 July-6 September 2015)

MK Calling 2015 Artists
I love that I have a contemporary art gallery in my home town and only have to jump in my car on a Sunday and in less than ten minutes can visit an exhibition space dedicated not only to national and international artists, but also showcases the local artist community.  I shall miss such Sunday excursions when MK Gallery closes at the end of this exhibition for its two year major expansion.  It is perhaps fitting then that this show looks to the local artist community, bringing together around seventy artists from an open call, as the expansion will be benefit not only them, but all who live in and around Milton Keynes and support and enjoy all types of contemporary art.
There were two things I particularly liked about this exhibition.  The first, and I do with all the group shows held at MK Gallery, was that the sheer number of artists included meant that each of its three rooms were filled with much more work than its solo artist exhibitions.  This may, of course, seem like a an obvious (and nonsense) observation to make, but sometimes the sheer size of these three rooms nearly always overwhelm the work on display when by one artist as the curation seems to always lean towards the less is more thinking, which inevitably leaves this viewer wanting to see more.
The second interesting point was that the selection committee had chosen work by amateur artists as well as graduates and established artists, a move rarely made by such committees.  The information text by each piece gave no clues to distinguish amateur from professional, but the inclusion of their dates of birth did, as of course did comparing the individual pieces especially when work of similar genres were hung relatively close together.  I could hazard a guess as to which was which as some naïve style paintings and sculpture looked far less accomplished than others and I really didn’t like them.  It would though, be unkind to name specific artists because (a) people far more qualified than I chose to include them; (b) my view is entirely subjective; and (c) I could be completely wrong in my dismissal of individual artistic talent and achievement against any formal training, especially if any of the artists whose work I did particularly like are indeed amateurs!  I suspect this blurring of lines of judgment was exactly why they were included.
The stand out pieces for me were Cally Shadbolt’s beautiful and serene plaster sculptures Holder (2013), Artemis (2014) and Ornament (2014) and Yannik Perichon’s Two Thousand and Five Bends (2009).  Both artists used materials which engage both the visceral and the cerebral.  The local connection in Perichon’s installation, a collection of hundreds of molten metal and glass fragments from a car that had been set on fire in Furzton Lake, was particularly fascinating.  When examined up close, each tiny piece took on a jewel-like appearance.

Two Thousand and Five Bends (detail), (2012-15), Yannick Perichon
My favourites were not combined to sculptural work.  Mary Barnes’ oil paintings and Arianne Wilson’s drawings also drew me to view repeatedly, for very different reasons.  Barnes’ haunting still lives harked back to a style reminiscent of early twentieth century modernist traditions, while Wilson’s cartoon-like and self-reflective drawings continued the post-feminist mantra of the personal being the political.  Both showed total commitment to their practice.

Self-Discovery, Self-Loathing, Self-Acceptance (2014), Arianne Wilson

Of all the work included in this exhibition, a nearly-missed collection of tiny mixed-media drawings, Compilation (2012-2015) by William Lindley remained in my thoughts for the longest.  It   an exquisite collection of small drawings and print works reflecting Lindley’s overall practice of investigating and reimagining notions of place and described by MK Gallery as combining traditional techniques with contemporary processes.  It is again the combination of the visceral and the cerebral by an artist, which Lindley did so well here and which is always my preferred type of contemporary art.


Compilation [detail] (2012-15), William Lindley

Friday, 12 June 2015

New Rhythms: Henri Gaudier-Brzeska – Art, Dance and Movement, Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge (17 March-21 June 2015)

Kettle’s Yard is a delightful venue.  The former home of Helen and Jim Ede, their lifelong love affair with art culminated in 1957 when they bought four derelict cottages in Cambridge in which to display their art collection.  Between 1922-1936 Jim was a curator at Tate Gallery and he believed that art was better approached and appreciated in the intimate surroundings of a home.  Their open house events during their time at Kettle’s Yard attracted students and other visitors during the six years they lived there.  In 1966 the Ides gave their home to Cambridge University who continue to look after it today.

The Ides were very well connected.  When they lived in London in the mid 1920’s, they regularly entertained artists including Barbara Hepworth, Henry Moore and Naum Gabo.  In 1926 Jim Ide bought virtually the entire ouvre of Henri Gaudier-Brzeska and this exhibition, which marks 100 years since the artist died in the First World War aged 23, highlights how his interest in dance and movement was reflected in his work and also that of his contemporaries.
The Dancers (1912), Percy Wyndham Lewis
As well as drawings and sculptures by Gaudier-Brzeska, this relatively small exhibition contains drawings and paintings by a number of British Vorticists, including Percy Wyndham Lewis, David Bomberg and Helen Saunders.  Given that the Vorticist aesthetic of fragmented Cubism and hard edge imagery sought to capture the vibrancy and energy of modern life, on the surface this seems a surprisingly low energy exhibition.  The 2D works are all relatively small and the sculpture mostly hand size.  Despite this and when viewed up close and lingered upon, the energy and exuberance captured in the works begins to permeate the gallery.

Vorticist Composition in Green or Yellow (1915)
Helen Saunders
At the beginning of the twentieth century, dance was being revolutionised.  New and daring dance crazes (such as the Apache and of course, the Tango) were sweeping in from Paris and America which became very popular in London music halls and theatres.  Serge Diaghilev was challenging classical ballet and a new modern dance was being formulised by pioneers Louie Fuller and Isadora Duncan.  The artists in the exhibition were swept up in the revolution and sought to capture the energy, freedom and modernism in their work.

While Wyndham Lewis’s The Dancers (1912), Helen Saunders’s Vorticist Composition in Green or Yellow (c. 1915) capture the vitality of dancing figures and their stylised jagged lines instantly evoke the energy of dancing, Gaudier-Brzeska’s drawings and sculptures could as easily be interpreted as wrestlers (who equally fascinated the artist) as much as dancers.  This is evidence is a work such as Red Stone Dancer (1913-1914).  Clearly by its title it is a representation of a dancer and yet its entwined arms over the head could as easily be interpreted as two figures grappling.  His sketch study of the piece, with its use of Cubist/Futurist repeated forms to represent movement, is equally ambivalent.  Despite this, his exquisite handling of the materials is still totally absorbing.

Henri Gaudier-Brzeska: (L): Red Stone Dancer (1913-1914) (R): Dancer Study (1914)

Even though Gaudier-Brzeska lived in London for less than four years (between 1911-1914), he very quickly established a reputation as a vanguard artist and is now considered as a pioneer of modern sculpture.  Jim Ede was fortuitous indeed to have bought such a large amount of his work. Kettle’s Yard will close for two years after this exhibition in order to protect the house’s collection during major expansion work on the gallery space.  It is fitting therefore that the final exhibition before its temporary closure is primarily of the artist who is synonymous with both the Ides and Kettle’s Yard.  A visit to the house and the exhibition is highly recommended.

Friday, 22 May 2015

Sonia Delaunay, Tate Modern, London (15 April-9 August 2015)

 La Jeune Fille Endormie (1907)
Prismes Electriques, 1914

Art critic Waldemar Januszczak isn’t a fan of Sonia Delaunay.  In his recent review for The Sunday Times the most positive remark he could make about the artist was her ability to copy the painting styles that surrounded her at any time in order to produce her own decorative (and inferior) versions.  He isn’t convinced by the assertions made by the exhibition’s curator that her work and influence should be revaluated.  He believes that far too much space has been dedicated to a repetitive practice devoid of development, depth, tone or range.  For Januszczak, like many critics before him, Delaunay’s lifetime achievements fade into insignificance when compared to any of her male modernist peers, such as Picasso [of course – yawn].


I suspect that Januszczak  would feel the same about any other female artist who worked at the heady (and much written about) time between the First and Second World Wars, as his criticisms sound remarkably similar to numerous other criticisms of female artists of that time, particularly when (a) these women’s personal lives were interwoven with more well-known and acclaimed male artists, and (b) their practices crossed from fine into decorative art.
Throughout the first half of the twentieth century, Sonia Delaunay celebrated the modern world of movement, technology and urban life, exploring new ideas about colour theory together with her husband Robert Delaunay.  In contrast to Januszczak, I will always be excited by a retrospective of a female artist, particularly when it the first time such a collection of their work has been seen in the UK. This one features paintings, textiles and clothes Delaunay made across a sixty-year career.  The exhibition also shows her collaborations with poets, choreographers and manufacturers, from Diaghilev to Liberty.  In my opinion, Delaunay’s artistic story deserves to be told and the totality of her practice deserves however much space is needed to hold it.  In fact, it is her crossover into fashion and design and the critical responses such crossover have elicited within art history narratives, which continue to fascinate and infuriate me in equal measure.
 Le Bal Bullier (1913) 

Paintings such as Le Bal Bullier (inspired by Delaunay’s experience of the tango being danced at a
Parisian nightclub) and Electric Prisms (which explored the effect of electric light) show the artist at the height of her engagement with painting.  The results of her engagement in geometric abstraction away from canvas and into fabric design epitomised the fashion of the 1920s.  This transition from painting to design can been seen in a work such as Simultaneous Dresses, which shows a lighter, sketchier style.  Delaunay’s success as a fabric designer took over her entire practice for many years, but her work did develop when she did return to painting.  Januszczak is wrong to say that it did not.  In 1937 Delaunay produced three massive panels depicting an aircraft propeller, engine and instrument panel for the International Exhibition of Arts and Technology. She was fifty-two when she created this work, which was awarded a Gold Medal by the exhibition judges at the time and actually seem very contemporary even today.
Propeller (1937)

In the battle of the sexes within modernist art criticism, Delaunay has suffered the same fate as Marie Laurencin – she has been judged and found lacking by many.  For an insight into the arguments attempting to redress this view, in the same way as this exhibition, chapter 4 “Gender Codes” in Cubism and Culture by Mark Antliff and Patricia Leighton (Thames & Hudson, London 2001) is a fascinating and informative read.