Saturday, 29 October 2016

Michelangelo Pistoletto, Blenheim Palace, Oxfordshire (14 September-31 December 2016)

Times (temples) Change (2009)

I am a huge admirer of installation art.  I am fascinated at how such work not only transforms the perception of a space, but also the passive act of looking into an immersive experience.  For me, the scale and spectacle of the best of such art - the interruption between what is expected and what is experienced – has the unique ability of focusing all my attention on just the work and temporarily shutting out all the white noise that usually reverberates around my head.  I find that interventions of contemporary art in historical architectural settings (for example Kate Mccgwire at Tatton Park and Sarah Lucas at Sir John Soane’s Museum), can offer a similar experience and I always look forward to visiting non-gallery spaces which showcase contemporary art.  I find such juxtapositions fascinating, so the prospect of seeing the master of Italian Arte Povera in the eighteenth century splendour of an English country house, was an appealing one.

The director of Blenheim Art Foundation, Michael Frahm, eloquently set out the reasons for inviting Pistoletto to Blenheim Palace (the artist’s most ambitious exhibition to date in the United Kingdom) and how his work both compliments and disrupts the Palace’s Baroque setting, in a very professionally produced booklet.  The little booklet was a helpful and welcome companion to my visit.  Strategically placed in a number of Blenheim’s ground floor rooms, the impact of Pistoletto’s work within the spaces varied greatly.  The monumental The Third Paradise (2003-16) in The Great Hall could not fail to impress – the artifice referred to in the theory behind the piece along with its materials of foam, rags and aluminium contrasting strikingly against the artifice of the ornate ceiling decoration.  The spectacle of that piece almost eclipsed some of the work around it (particularly Top Down, Bottom Up, Inside Out (1976) tucked into an alcove on the west side of the Great Hall.

The Third Paradise (2003-16)

Unfortunately, Contact (2007) had been removed due to damage which I found out after asking an attendant having tried in vain to find it in the north corridor, as indicated the gallery guide.

Beautiful pieces like Dog in the Mirror (1971), Mica Paintings (1976) and Painting of Electric Wires (1967) resonated quietly, while work such as Untitled (1976-2016) and Does God Exist, Yes I Do! (1978-2016) disrupted the rooms with more confrontational intent.  When Pistoletto’s trademark rags were featured these could not fail to offer the greatest opportunities for aesthetic disruption – his iconic Venus of the Rags (1967-2013) placed in the Chapel, being the most deliberate curatorial transgression and one which must have been too tempting to resist.

Dog in the Mirror (1971)

Does God Exist, Yes I Do! (1978-2016)

About a quarter into my visit, I got caught behind a regular guided tour of the Blenheim rooms and found it fascinating (and slightly amusing) that not once did the guide, or any members of the public on the tour, make any comment or reference to any of the artwork in the rooms.

The ‘best’ example of this was in the final room of the general tour, the Long Library.  After the guide had made his closing remarks and bade his audience a fond farewell, I watched every single person make a very speedy exit out of that room, not once looking at any of the wonderful pieces which made up the installation From Self-Portraits to Mirror Paintings (1961-2016), let alone interact with them in any way.  I spent so much time in that wonderful room with that wonderful work, it did make me chuckle and it was this piece, along with The Third Paradise, that successfully shut out my white noise.

The Trumpets of Judgment (1968)

Untitled (1976-2016)

Michelangelo Pistoletto is a key figure of post-second world war European art.  This exhibition offers an exciting glimpse into his remarkable fifty year and also demonstrates with more recent work, that the eighty-three year old artist seems as strident and confident as ever.

It is also only the third exhibition to be held at Blenheim Palace and given that art luminaries Lawrence Weiner and Ai Weiwei were the previous ones, I am sure that future solo exhibitions will be just as high-level.  I would love to see an explosion of Yayoi Kusama’s polka dots and pumpkins throughout the palatial rooms or Kate Mccqwire’s feathers cascading in the corridors.  Above both of those wonderful artists though, how incredible would it be to see Sarah Lucas’s bunnies, fags, nuds and muses invading the Spencer-Churchill interiors, squatting on their furniture and generally causing chaos.  I am not sure how the usual Blenheim Palace visitors would react through, but would love to see those two worlds collide.

Top and Bottom: From Self-Portraits to Mirror Paintings (1961-2016)

Venus of the Rags (1967-2013)

Friday, 7 October 2016

Lluïsa Vidal: Painter of Modernism. Museu Nacional d'Art de Catalunya, Barcelona (23 September 2016-15 January 2017)

Self Portrait (1899)
Deep in the basement of the behemoth that is the Museu Nacional d'Art de Catalunya ("MNAC"), I discovered a female Modernist painter previously unknown to me, Lluïsa Vidal (1876-1918).  In all my reading around late nineteenth and early twentieth century painting by female artists, not once have I come across her name.  I do not think I am alone in not being aware of this artist though and she is one (of only two) female artists represented in THIRTY galleries devoted to Modernism at MNAC.  In fact, this is the first retrospective devoted to the artist by this (and possibly any) institution!

Vidal was the only professional female artist of Catalan Modernism and one of the very few Spanish women of that period who went abroad to receive art lessons.  Born into an art-loving upper middle-class family, her professional career started in 1898, when she was twenty-two and held her first exhibition at Els Quatre Gats Café in Barcelona, which was a popular meeting place for artists in Catalonia.  She was the first and only woman to hold an exhibition there.

Class at Academie Humbert (1901)

In 1901, she moved to live and study in Paris for a year.  While in Paris she learned about and become a supporter of, the European Feminist movement.  When she returned to Barcelona, Vidal became a member of a feminist group there and collaborated on the magazine Feminal for the next eight years.  In 1911, Vidal also started her own teaching academy as well as undertaking numerous commissions and exhibiting extensively.
This exhibition brings together more than 70 works and reviews all aspects of her work as a painter, cartoonist and illustrator.  Like many female artists of that time, the main content of her oeuvre reflect the subjects that were readily available to her – female portraits, domestic scenes, self-portraiture.  Early in her career though, she did paint en plein air, but her focus was still aimed firmly at figuration.

Girl with a Black Cat (1903)

Vidal was an exquisite draughtsperson, so I was initially surprised to read that some critics of the time judged her painting as being “too manly”.  But looking closely at a huge painting like The Cellist Resting (1909) I noticed on the rendering of the sleeves and bodice impasto daubs of paint left on the canvas.  This was obviously a conscious decision and demonstrates a bravado, rarely seen from a female painter around that time.  In her most considered paintings, Vidal's brushwork is evocative and expressive, sober and compelling.

The Cellist Resting (1909)

Only five years older than another Catalan artist whose life and art are enshrined in both art history narratives and popular culture, Vidal and Pablo Picasso never met and yet their initial life paths took a very similar direction.  Both showed very early prodigious artistic talent, both exhibited at Els Quatre Gats Café and most importantly, both lived and studied in Paris at the turn of the twentieth century.  I wonder what would have become of Vidal (and her painting) had she, instead of Marie Laurencin (1883-1956) met Picasso while in Paris and became the only female member of his avant-garde tertulia.  Alas, it was never to be and Vidal died prematurely at the age of forty-two of Spanish Flu in 1918.  After her death, her name and work fell into total obscurity and despite MNAC owning a number of her paintings, it is only this year that an exhibition has been held to recognise her achievements in her own country.  Hopefully now this will increase awareness about Vidal and that she will also start to be included in updates of surveys on the rise of female artists at turn of the twentieth century - a place where this Catalan New Woman and Modernist painter deservedly belongs.

Self Portrait ( c. 1900)

Illustration for Artistica Magazine (1910)

Illustration for Feminal Magazine (c.1907)

Photograph of Lluisa Vidal (far right) teaching in her academy (c. 1912)

Friday, 26 August 2016

Georgia O’Keeffe, Tate Modern, London (6 July-30 October 2016)

From the Faraway Nearby (1937)

If, like me, you thought you knew what to expect from an exhibition of work by Georgia O’Keeffe (flowers shaped liked vaginas, animal bones and deserts), the first two of the thirteen rooms in Tate Modern’s retrospective of the artist will come as an unexpected surprise and are alone worth the price of the admission.  They concentrate on O’Keeffe’s early mature works, beautiful minimal abstract works which demonstrate how skilful the artist was with handling colour even at the beginning of her career.  The perception of heat emitting from Red and Orange Streak (1919) is simple, yet stunning and contrasted effortlessly against the cool white tones of Abstraction (1921), which is equally sublime. 

Red and Orange Streak (1919)

Abstraction (1921)

Featuring more than 100 works, this is the largest ever exhibition of Georgia O’Keeffe  (1887-1986) held in the United Kingdom.  Regarded as a giant of American 20th-century modernism, with the inclusion of more of her early (and later) work than those “iconic” flower paintings, this show seeks to redress widely held interpretations (from male art critics of the time and then later re-appropriated and celebrated by some feminist artists) that such paintings were depictions of female genitalia, interpretations which the artist always refuted.  The curatorial decision to show more works from the rest of her oeuvre in order to demonstrate that O’Keefe had far more to offer as an artist than this one interpretation, is a clever one and makes this exhibition far more interesting and engaging than I was expecting it to be.  The Cubist-inspired abstract paintings such as Line and Curve (1927) displayed in Room 2 is one of many examples of how O’Keeffe tried to shake of such essentialist views about her work, from the outset of her career. 


Top: Line and Curve (1927)  Bottom: Radiator Building Night New York (1927)

Between 1924-1929 O’Keeffe painted quintessential Art Deco views of New York, but for me these appear too stylised and stilted compared to the more organic and free-flowing abstractions of the paintings she made during the same period when she holidayed at Lake George in upstate New York.  With works such as From the Lake No 3 and From the Lake No 1 (both 1924), both O’Keeffe’s brushwork and colour palette are emancipated.

Left: From the Lake No 3 (1924)  Right: From the Lake No 1 (1924)

The artist’s colour palette changed once more, back from warm to cool, when she made her fist extended visit to New Mexico in 1929.  For O’Keeffe the desert landscapes, discarded animal bones and skulls she discovered became her true iconography, and it this body of work which positions her as a foundational figure in the history of American modernism.
What struck me most about this exhibition was not only how strong and capable O’Keeffe’s late work was (something which in my opinion rarely occurs as an artist ages), but also how contemporary these later canvases appear.  Work such as Front of the River – Pale (1959) and It was Blue and Green (1960), painted when the artist was in her seventies, could easily hang among landscapes by emerging artists today and not look remotely out of place.

Left:  Front of the River - Pale (1959)  Right:  Blue and Green (1960)

Georgia O’Keeffe’s career spanned more than seven decades.  The work included in Tate Modern’s exhibition aims to present a view which emphasises the pioneering nature of her career rather than the clichés it has previously attracted.  I think such clichés will always remain, but this exhibition has definitely provided a platform from which to appreciate O’Keeffe with fresh eyes and wider expectations.

Sky Above the Clouds III / Above the Clouds III (1963)

Wednesday, 24 August 2016

Making & Unmaking, Camden Arts Centre, London (19 June-18 September 2016)

 Making & Unmaking (installation view)

I am a huge fan of textile art, from Ghada Amer’s sexually explicit needlework canvases, Louise Bourgeois’s fabric works and soft sculptures, through to Sarah Lucas’s Bunny and Nuds series.  On reading that Camden Art Centre’s summer exhibition “Making & Unmaking” was to feature a collection of work including painting, tapestries, traditional fabrics and ceramics and with Dorothea Tanning, Wangechi Muti and Sheila Hicks among the sixty artists featured, this was an exhibition which I was determined not to miss.
 Saint Louis (2015), Luis Monteiro

Taking up all three galleries as well as pieces in the central space and garden, “Making & Unmaking” was huge.  From West African textiles, Bauhaus jewellery to contemporary portraiture and sculpture and addressing themes that included portraiture, gender, sexuality, overall the exhibition explored the rituals of making that underpin an artist’s work, rather than being about textile art as a genre.  Curator and fashion designer, Duro Olowu brought his skills from both disciplines and brings together seemingly disparate artists into his eclectic vignettes, with sophisticated aplomb.  This interlacing of ideas, eras and influences (and materials) created a visually rich and stimulating mix.
Personal favourites included Étreinte (1969) by Dorothea Tanning (no surprise there) and Yinka Shonibare’s Butterfly Kid (Boy) II (2015).  I also really enjoyed Luis Monteiro Saint Louis (2015) video.

Top: Étreinte (1969), Dorothea Tanning    Bottom:  Butterfly Kid (Boy) II (2015), Yinka Shonibare 

However, as I walked through the galleries I started to wonder if there was too much on display and perhaps, just perhaps, the multitude of materials and textures was a little suffocating.  I found the decision to keep information on each wall of artists/works to one grouping at the end of each, rather than providing a sheet you could walk around with, very frustrating.  I think having to constantly return to one source of information while viewing definitely contributed to the premature arrival of gallery fatigue (along with the intense heat in the galleries themselves), which I haven’t felt for a long time at an exhibition.
Despite this, I would still recommend this exhibition.  Oluwo’s vision and passion have brought together rarely seen work in an ambitious format with surprising juxtapositions, which (labelling and temperature issues aside), Camden Art Centre excels at giving a platform to.

Making & Unmaking (installation view)

Friday, 19 August 2016

Mona Hatoum, Tate Modern, London (4 May-21 August 2016)

Over My Dead Body, 1988

Mona Hatoum was born in 1952 in Beirut.  During a visit to London in 1975, civil war broke out in Lebanon and Hatoum was forced into exile in the UK.  She stayed in London, training at the Byam Shaw School of Art and the Slade School of Fine Art between 1975 and 1981.  Themes of confinement, constriction and surveillance re-occur in her work, from early performances to sculpture and large scale installations.  Grids, boxes and crates become cages and cells.  This major retrospective at Tate Modern features examples of all these mediums from her thirty five years of artistic engagement while she has lived and worked in London.

I had very high expectations of this exhibition, having frequently referenced Hatoum’s work when I was studying and then being mesmerised by her mini-retrospective at Parasol Unit in 2008.

Homebound (2000) is a standout piece here.  In fact, it has an  omnipresence throughout the entire exhibition.  The installation consists of a variety of furniture and objects (tables, chairs, cots, toys, kitchen utensils, lights, birdcage) connected to each other with electric wire through which a live current runs.  A barrier of steel wires separates the viewer, but as the objects light up in turn the sound of the whining current surges round the room.  The amplified sound of the electrical current can be heard throughout the exhibition instilling a sense of general foreboding as you walk through the galleries and into room Homebound is installed. 

Homebound, 2000

This sense of foreboding is part of the overall experience of visiting this exhibition.  Light Sentence (1992) is equally disconcerting.  The title is a play on the idea of a lenient prison sentence.  A single light bulb hangs in the middle of a structure made of square wire mesh lockers, stacked to create a three-sided enclosure.  The light bulb moves slowly up and down casting constantly moving shadows in the room, which creates a sense that the room itself is moving.  It is very unnerving (I actually started to feel a little motion sick), but it is also very striking.

Light Sentence, 1992

Hot Spot (2013), is another striking sculpture with an equally menacing message.  Here, the play on words in the title refers to a place of military or civil unrest.  By lighting the whole planet in red neon, Hatoum reflects wide and very contemporary fears.  For me, what makes Mona Hatoum a "must see" contemporary artist whenever she exhibits, is that she has the rare ability to present strong ideas in a sensuous fashion.  Her understanding of how different materials can affect people makes the conceptual side to her work very strong.  

Hot Spot, 2013

This can even be seen in the collection of smaller sculptures, models, samples and source materials contained in the exhibition.  A small selection of brightly coloured hand grenades from Nature Morte aux Grenades (2006-2007) made from Venetian glass and arranged like sweets, both appeal and repel.

Nature Morte aux Grenades, 2006-2007
Detail from Interior/Exterior Landscape, 2010

Hatoum's menancing sculptures and installations are driven by political concerns but never shout too loudly to diffuse them of their power.  This combination of her ability to juxtapose materials to their greatest visual impact with dark and unsettling narratives, are still as mesmerising for me as when I first encountered her work.  This exhibition is disturbing, but most definitely not disappointing.

Undercurrent (red), 2008

Cellules, 2012-2013

Saturday, 25 June 2016

Mary Heilmann: Looking at Pictures, Whitechapel Gallery, London (8 June-21 August 2016)

L: Crashing Wave (2011)  R: Renny's Right Geometry of a Wave (2011)

In general, I find geometric abstraction difficult to engage with.  From artists such as Mondrian and Malevich through to Riley et al, I usually am pretty much immune to the aesthetics of such paintings.  I prefer brushstrokes to be more animated and expressionistic.  It would seem though, that I am not entirely immune as I was unexpectedly surprised to be drawn to a number of Heilmman’s colourful canvases on display in this exhibition, the first major survey of the artist’s work held in the UK.

Johngiorno (1995) 

Ming (1986)

Born in 1940 in San Francisco and still very much active today, the Whitechapel describes Heilmann’s work as a playful approach to abstraction and an amalgamation of her LA beach life, 1960s counter culture and her friendships with artists, musicians and poets of the New York minimalist art scene.  Heilmann graduated from the University of California at Santa Barbara in 1962.  After studying poetry and ceramics at San Francisco State University, as well as ceramics and sculpture at University of California at Berkeley, she moved to New York where she began a career as a sculptor.  She began making paintings in the 1970s.  Her work is described as combining elements of abstraction and Conceptual Art with the bright colours, wit, and playfulness of the Pop Art.  Having just visited the Royal Academy’s annual summer and student shows, I can confirm that this is a combination which still continues to influence many art school graduates today.

L: Our Lady of the Flowers (1989)      R: Robert’s Garden (1983)


While many of Heilmann’s highly colourful canvases were too dazzling for me, I did find some pieces, such as Ming (1986), Our Lady of the Flowers (1989) and Robert’s Garden (1983), very compelling.  The standout piece for me was Johngiorno (1995).  In this painting, Heilmann’s practice of combining two or more favoured motifs here spots, stripes and webs, form a serene composition with subtle colourful highlights, rather than the usual cacophony of colour.  What also struck me about this exhibition, was how well Heilmann’s ceramic pieces displayed with the canvases, worked so well.  The addition of glazed ceramic dots to the very garish Good Vibrations Diptych, Remembering David (2012), significantly increased its appeal to me.  Perhaps the positioning of such work together was a curatorial device.  If it was, it was a very clever one and much appreciated by this viewer.

L: Piano (1983) [glazed ceramic]  R: Pink Sliding Square (1978)

L: Shadow Cup 2 (1985 [glazed ceramic]   R: Black Cracky (1990)

Another observation that particular struck me about this exhibition, was how confident Heilmann’s most recent work was, and almost indistinguishable from her work from the 1980s when she was considered to be at the height of her artistic powers.  This is a rare occurrence within an artist’s oeuvre, and a refreshing discovery.  The exhibition at Whitechapel Gallery features 45 paintings as well as a selection of ceramics and works on paper.  If you want to escape the gloom of the English weather and/or political climate, a visit to see Heilmann’s colourful paintings are almost guaranteed to raise the gloomiest of spirits.
Good Vibrations Diptych, Remembering David (2012)

Sunday, 19 June 2016

Louise Nevelson. Pace Gallery, London (8 June-16 July 2016)

Pace Gallery, 6 Burlington Gardens, London W1S 3ET

When an artist settles upon a muse, mode or material which sustains their work for the rest of his or her career, such inspiration, exploration (and sometime obsession) can either result in a formidable and extraordinary oeuvre which transcends the “isms” of the timeframe within which the work was produced, or become just a motif to constantly return to, re-hash and repeat in an attempt to reclaim the intensity and originality contained in work considered to represent the artist at his or her zenith.  Thankfully, Louise Nevelson’s wooden assemblages made from found objects (such as wine crates, parts of chairs and lengths of wood jutting with nails) she gathered from the streets around her New York studio from the 1950s, falls into the first scenario.

Untitled (late 1970s)
Nevelson’s most iconic installations are those which she painted black, and it is a selection of these which are displayed at the Pace Gallery.  The artist painted her sculptures to obliterate the past histories of the individual pieces which made up an assemblage and unify the work.  Black gave the work a new shadowy, Gothic character.  Nevelson believed that the black paint gave her works an air of greatness and regal enormity.  By divorcing things from their functions she lent them poetry.  A piece such as “Sky Cathedral – Moon Garden + One” (1957-1960)  was Nevelson's sculptural answer to the Abstract Expressionist canvases of the predominantly male artists that commanded the attention of American art during the 1950s.  Nevelson was interested in the sublime and spiritual transcendence. Sky Cathedral, like many of her wall pieces, evokes the sense of a shrine or a place of devotion. The artist wrote that in her art, she sought “the in-between places, the dawns and dusk, the objective world, the heavenly spheres, the places between the land and the sea.”((John Gordon, Louise Nevelson (New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 1967),12)
(Left) Sky Cathedral - Moon Garden + One (1957-1960)
(Right) Maquette for Dawn Shadows (1976-1983)

The sculptures in this exhibition range from small assemblages to free-standing columns and monumental wall-based works.  I found all of them so exquisite, so carefully considered that to see them together as a group for the first time was a delight and demonstrated how much visceral impact can be made when artist, intent and material synergise.  Scrutinising the work up close was just as satisfying and I wished I had taken a sketchbook with me, as I could have been occupied for hours reproducing small areas of interest from the pieces.

Detail from Untitled (late 1970s)

Perhaps it was a curatorial intent to link Nevelson’s darkly metaphysical and contemplative work to colour field painting as the darkly painted gallery walls brought to mind the Rothko room at Tate Modern.  The exhibition does offers a wonderful respite to the usual Mayfair hubbub happening outside and if fact, is far more peaceful than the Rothko room which is usually crammed with tourists taking selfies.  I would highly recommend a visit to this quietly beautiful exhibition, which runs until 16 July.  Textbook reproductions of Nevelson’s work simply cannot compete with experiencing her work in such close proximity.

(Left) Cascades-Perpendiculars II (Night Music) (1980-82)
(Right) Untitled (1973)

Moon-Star Zag XII (1981)