Tuesday, 26 September 2017

Seurat to Riley: The Art of Perception, Compton Verney Art Gallery, Warwickshire (8 July-1 October 2017)

 Corona, (1970) Peter Sedgley

Unsurprisingly, given that her name is featured in the title, Bridget Riley features strongly in Compton Verney’s Summer exhibition.  I have to confess that Riley’s eye-popping canvases have never been at the top of my favourite artworks list.  I find them two highly coloured and the effect of movement too disorientating, so to say I was expecting an exhibition focusing entirely on ‘optical art’ to be quite a challenge, is an understatement. 

The curatorial premise behind the exhibition is how artists have exploited the ways in which the eye and mind perceive what is seen, with its key themes - pattern and perception – demonstrated by works in which colours other than those painted on the canvas are generated in the eye by the viewer, and those that communicate movement by static form.  With Seurat’s nineteenth century pointillist landscapes as its starting point, leading to Bridget Riley and her fellow Op Artists of the 1960s and right through to contemporary artists including Lothar Götz’s site-specific wall painting and Liz West’s light installation, this exhibition far exceeded my initial expectations.

Left:  The Morning Walk, (1885) Georges Seurat   Right:  Abstract Multicoloured Design, (c.1915) Helen Saunders

After pulling myself away from Seurat’s exquisite “The Morning Walk” (1885), a sketch which provided the starting point for his seminal work “The Seine at Courbevoie” painted the same year, I was delighted to see “Abstract Multicoloured Design” (c.1915) by lone female British Vorticist Helen Saunders.  After some examples of geometric and kinetic art (notably Josef Albers and Victor Vasarely) and before the first full explosion of eye-popping canvases from the 1960s, a wall of preparatory sketches and works in black in white by Bridget Riley, such as “Study for Painting ‘Pause’” (1964), really took me by surprise.  The delicate balance of line, tone and illusion of movement were for me, far more engaging that her colour works.  In fact, I found many of the black and white artworks in the exhibitions much more interesting than the multi-coloured ones.

Blaze IV, (1963), Bridget Riley

Ecclesia (1985), Bridget Riley

Most exciting about this exhibition was the fact that despite its title, it was far more than just a historical survey.  As Riley is still extant (and producing art), it opened up the potential of bringing in her later works as well as more contemporary artists, whose work has been influenced by the movement and who are interested in exploring ‘optical art’ further.  Standing out amongst these were Jim Lambie’s “Sun Visor” (2014), Lothar Götz’s geometric drawings (2015-2017) and most notably Liz West’s beautifully serene light installation “Our Spectral Vision” (2016).

Exhibition View

Installation view: Lothar Götz

Despite the art galleries being split up throughout the rooms of the eighteenth century mansion house and around its other decorative galleries, and resulting in a certain amount of disjointedness, Seurat to Riley: The Art of Perception surpassed all my expectations.  Although my tolerance for the illusionary nature of most Op Art remains the same, being introduced to the work of artists previously unknown to me, like Jesús Rafael Soto and Peter Sedgley and seeing Riley’s early work, made the trip up to Warwickshire more than worth it.

Our Spectral Vision, (2016) Liz West

Saturday, 9 September 2017

Giacometti, Tate Modern, London (10 May-10 September 2017)

"Portrait of Peter Watson" (1953)

Alberto Giacometti (1901-1966) was, without doubt, one of the great painter-sculptors of the twentieth century.  Innovator and experimenter, his relentless pursuit of capturing the appearance of a living model has  led to a body of work which demonstrates the breadth and diversity of his talent and innate skill. 
Giacometti’s distinctive elongated figures are some of the most instantly recognisable works of modern art.  This retrospective by Tate Modern, the first of such scale held in the United Kingdom for twenty years, brings together over two-hundred and fifty works by Giacometti and showcases the development of the artist’s career which spanned fifty years.

Giacometti, Tate Modern (exhibition detail)

I have been a long-term admirer of Giacometti’s work and have been very lucky to see a number of his painting over the years and most recently in “Pure Presence” at the National Gallery in 2015, which was a much smaller exhibition and left me hoping that I would get an opportunity to see a full retrospective.  I had a lot of expectations.
Giacometti’s consistent return to sculpting the human head throughout this oeuvre and in particular people he was the closest to throughout his life  - his mother, father, brother and wife - is the focus of the first room of the exhibition.  From the very early clay and plaster portraits of his teenage years such as “Head of a Child [Simon Bérard]” (1917-1918) through to the later bronzes of his brother Diego, all demonstrated that Giacometti was born to sculpt.  I could have stayed in that room for hours, it really was a feast for my eyes.  German artist Käthe Kollwitz (1867-1945) once said that if she could live her life again, she would be a sculptor and nothing more.  If I had been born a sculptor, with even a small percentage of the talent of Giacometti (and Kollwitz), I would have been a very happy woman.

Top: "Head of a Child [Simon Berard] (1917-1918)   Bottom: "Bust of Diego" (1953)

Like many artists at the turn of the twentieth century, African and Oceanian sculpture was very influential on Giacometti.  “Spoon Woman” (1927), first exhibited in Paris in the year it was finished illustrates just how easily the artist assimilated the influence into his own modernist vision.  Giacometti joined the Surrealist movement in 1931.  It proved to be an uneasy alliance.  Despite standing out for being one of the movement’s rare sculptors, Giacometti produced some truly disturbing misogynist depictions of women during his association with the movement.  “Woman with her Throat Cut” (1932) is surely one of the darkest works from the corners of a Surrealist spirit and vision of women.  However in that same year, the artist also produced “Walking Woman II”, reflecting his interest with Egyptian art and this piece thankfully shows the beginnings of his journey away from Surrealism (he was actually formally expelled in 1935) and towards his most iconic figurative work.
"Spoon Woman" (1927)

"Woman with her Throat Cut" (1932)

Every room in Tate Modern’s retrospective featured example after example of Giacometti’s genius.  His intimate busts of his brother and wife are completely compelling, as are his numerous painted portraits, which have always held a particular fascination. 

Giacometti, Tate Modern (exhibition view)

The overall highlight of this retrospective for me, out of all the wonders on display, was the eight restored original plasterworks “Women of Venice” (1956) made for that year’s Venice Biennale. These haunting, elongated nudes with their base-like feet recall Giacometti’s interest in Egyptian statuary and much like his re-interpretation of Oceanian sculpture nearly thirty years earlier, once again demonstrate the artist’s unique and contemporary vision.
"Women of Venice" (1956)

Giacometti is best remembered for his elongated walking figures such as “Man Pointing” (1947) and “Tall Woman” (1958), which he mostly concentrated on from the end of the Second World War until his death in 1966.  His remarkable career traced the shifting influences and experimentation of European art before and after the Second World War.  Although as a member of the Surrealist movement in the 1930s Giacometti devised innovative sculptural forms, it was his work after the war which developed alongside Existentialism and visually reflected the philosophy's interests in perception, alienation and anxiety after the trauma of the conflict, which has ensured Giacometti’s place in the art history canon and quite rightly too. 
Top:  Giacometti, Tate Modern (exhibition view)  Bottom: "Man Pointing" (1947)

With the exception of the monumental figures in the final room at Tate Modern’s retrospective, the vast interior space of the gallery surprisingly overwhelmed the artworks as a collection.  Although unexpected, it did not particularly matter given that the individual pieces deserved equal individual attention and overall the retrospective more than met my expectations.

Giacometti in his studio (c.1963)

Friday, 26 May 2017

Pol Bury: Time In Motion, BOZAR, Brussels (23 February-4 June 2017)

Pol Bury c. 1962

Despite being a lifelong art lover, I never profess to know everything about all artists, whether they are considered ‘major’ or ‘minor’ (according to art-historical narratives).  So it is always a delight to discover a completely new (to me) artist, and be excited by their work.

Such is the case with Belgian artist Pol Bury (1922-2005).  Apparently, I am not alone in being unaware of this fascinating artist.  Primarily known for his monumental mechanical fountains, he is also seen as one of the founders of Kinetic Art and this retrospective at BOZAR is the first held in Belgium in over twenty years.

“Time in Motion” charts the development of Bury’s diverse and vast oeuvre from his beginnings as a painter heavily influenced by fellow Belgian Magritte, the introduction of movement in his work as a result of his fascination Alexander Calder’s mobiles and then how that developed even further after being inspired by Louise Nevelson wood assemblages.

The exhibition brings together Bury’s paintings, small and monumental reliefs and sculptures as well as drawings and engravings, all of which give a fascinating insight into the artist’s creative journey.  Despite his early paintings showing little originality or promise – they are clumsy with clichéd Surrealist motifs – thankfully, he soon abandoned such laboured signifiers of female sexuality and gradually moved into complete abstraction.  These early abstract works already have a look of Alexander Calder about them.  It was a visit to Calder’s exhibition at Galerie Maeght in Paris in 1950, which put the artist on new artistic path.

Composition, 1952

The year 1959 is seen as the true beginning of Bury as a kinetic artist.  It was the year he combined style and technique into a unique working practice.  His ‘punctuations’ – monochrome reliefs punctuated by motorised and illuminated nylon or iron wires – earned him international recognition.  Their slow and unpredictable movement make for an interesting experience walking through the gallery.  Presented with a room full of kinetic work which, depending on the time set on the mechanisation of each piece, visitors can walk through the room without seeing anything move at all!  Thankfully, when a piece does start to come to life, the sound of the old batteries cranking up the power gives enough warning to rush back and see which artwork is stirring and moving.

Exhibition View (Room 2: Calder's Lessons)

Twelve years after being inspired by Calder, the work of Louise Nevelson was to inspire another development in Bury’s work.  From 1962, he started to create much large sculptures made of pieces of recovered wood.  These are very appealing, both visually and orally.  The beautiful crafted wooden shapes are fully complimented by the gentle sound of wood thudding on wood, created by the subtle and continuous automated movement. 

Exhibition View (Room 5: Paris, New York and Back)

Bury’s exquisite craftsmanship continued when he progressed from working with wood to metal, which he was eventually able to do due to his commercial success.  While he explored the formal limits imposed by the material, the use of metal offered the artist new possibilities for generating movement - using magnets introduced an element of randomness, not seen in his earlier wooden sculptures.

Top: Circles on 6 Forms (1977)
Bottom:  Spheres (1969-75)

Bury devoted the last thirty years of his career realising large-scale public sculptures as a result of numerous commissions he received, and it was these public sculptures which cemented the artist’s international reputation.  A true reflection of the artistic spirit of the 1960s, Bury can be seen as the Belgian equivalent of Henry Moore within post-Second World War art history.

Pol Bury: Time In Motion” is a very special exhibition.  It charts the rise and rise of a very talented and truly unique artist.  As a personal fan of sculpture this was a very exciting discovery for me and I cannot recommend the exhibition highly enough.
Exhibition View (Room 9: Ending on a High Note)