Dream Works: Kate MacGarry

On a humid London afternoon, the cold concrete space at Kate MacGarry offered some welcome refreshment… albeit with a sweating watermelon and various other surreal sculptures, installations and paintings which litter the gallery! The current ‘Dream Works’ exhibition is dedicated to four artists; two from the UK, one American and one Dutch who all explore ideas around surrealism, shape and form, and irrationality through a variety of mediums. The first of three concrete sculptures of oversized cucurbtia (google informs me this is a root vegetable akin to a squash!) is displayed on the floor as you enter, and a series of acrylic paintings by Luke Rudolf unified by their use of similar repetitive shapes in different colour palettes line the wall. As the corridor opens out into the gallery proper, a floor to ceiling wallpaper of a sweating watermelon and installation entitled ‘Bolobo Lamp’ both by British artist Jonathan Trayte dominate the space. These are joined by two prints of original watercolours by Dutch painter Madelon Vriesendorp and an oil on canvas work by American artist Jordan Kasey. Vriesdendorp’s piece ‘Flagrant Delit’ comes from an animation film made for French television and tells the story of the Statue of Liberty’s visit as a tourist to New York city, and her second work similarly offers an unusual take on city-scapes entitled ‘The City of the Captive Globe Revisited’. Jordan Kasey’s painting echoes the greys of the concrete sculptures and detail in both Rudolf and Vriesdendorp pieces, and zooms in on a small section of a staircase, making something mundane appear far more surreal. There is something overtly fun, arguably silly, and quietly challenging about all these works and I left the gallery smiling to myself as I re-emerged into the clammy city-scape of my own.

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Mark Dion: Whitechapel Gallery

Eccentric, fun, and an organised-hoarder are what spring to mind to describe American artist Mark Dion, having visited his retrospective at Whitechapel Gallery. Opening with ‘The Library for the Birds of London’, a new commission featuring live (yes live!) birds in an aviary with a tree at its centre and books littered across the floor and branches. This is surrounded by a variety of hunting lodges; each very different and filled with furnishings and belongings of their fictional inhabitants ranging from a librarian to a dandy. Several are off limits and you can merely peep in through the windows, whereas others allow you to climb the ladders and explore the miniature abode. Upstairs the idiosyncrasy continues with a recreation of a naturalists study complete with photographs, drawings, and prints as well as a unicorns’ horn half unpacked in a crate! The next gallery houses the ‘Bureau for the Centre of the Study for Surrealism’ mocking a museum curators office brimming with artefacts, archival material and ephemera which you catch snapshots of through office windows or the glass in the door. This is followed by a modern-day cabinet of curiosities where a set of wooden drawers is filled with neatly ordered bottle tops, discarded credit cards, broken plastic toys, bits of shoe, and other debris washed up by the Thames and collected by Dion and his team. As you push through heavy felt curtains to enter the last gallery, the dark space cleverly draws attention to the three glowing installations under UV light, each one filed with 3D sculptures of living and extinct animals, shells, bones and inanimate objects. After viewing a show which deliberately tries to classify animals, people and objects it would be interesting to hear how Dion views himself – as an artist, anthropologist, archaeologist, explorer, or a hybrid of all of those things. See what you think before the 13th May when the exhibition closes.

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Maison de la Photographie de Marrakesh: Marrakesh

Amidst the buzz of the north medina on Souk Ahal Fassi Street, go through the doors to Maison de la Photogrpahie and you immediately enter an oasis of calm; clean white walls bedecked with balconies dripping with plants, and curtains gently billow in the breeze protecting the photographs in the galleries which surround the central courtyard. Bold monochrome portraits of Berber women in traditional dress and heavy jewellery hang on the walls of the ground floor space and introduce you to some of the earliest images in this collection (spanning 1879 to 1960). The archive comprises photographs, glass plates, postcards, newspaper articles and other visual paraphernalia documenting Marrakesh as well as Fez, Tangier, Casablanca, the Sahara and Atlas Mountains – offering a rare insight into what captured past visitors to Morocco’s interest. I enjoyed being introduced to photographers I had previously been unaware of, notably Arevalo who shot a moving portrait of a young, black male with a bald head and piercing sad eyes, wearing an oversized cotton garment, as well as Marcellin Flandrin’s 1920’s images of Casablanca, and various photos of the Berber people, their houses and landscapes throughout the 1940’s by Jacques Belin and Pierre Boucher. The riad building with its intricately tiled floors also added to the experience, offering a space to view a photography collection perfectly framed and hung in a different context – outside of a typical contemporary gallery setting – which complemented the works. As such a wealth of Marrakesh’s architectural history has survived, many of the archival images of the city capture the Bahia Palace, Saadiens Tombs, El Baddi Palace, Medersa Ben Youssef or everyday activity in the souks, just as my contemporary photos did, and there was something comforting about appreciating the same things as explorers at the turn of the last century did.

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Charles I: King and Collector: Royal Academy of Arts

The early 1600’s in Britain are best known for the political upheaval surrounding the English Civil War rather than an illustrious arts scene, however the Royal Academy of Arts’ current ‘Charles I: King and Collector’ exhibition certainly questions that. Twelve vast gallery spaces across Burlington House are dedicated to showcasing the kings’ collection, and the walls of each gallery are painted a vivid shade of regal blue or red and act as the perfect backdrop for works by Anthony Van Dyck, Peter Paul Rubens, Titian, Pieter Bruegel, Andrea Mantegna and Hans Holbein amongst others. These works have been sourced from the Royal Collection, the Louvre in Paris, the Prado in Madrid, the Frick Collection in New York and various private stores, and reunited for the first time in over four centuries, having been sold off following Charles I execution in 1649. The show flows easily, manages to feel relaxed despite its grandeur, and the works bounce off each other; evident in the opening gallery where a portrait by Van Dyck of Charles I from three different angles is positioned behind a marble sculpture of the kings torso, marrying the two together. The sheer scale of several paintings, four enormous tapestries from the Mortlake workshop and the nine canvases depicting the ‘Triumph of Caesar’ by Mantegna shown side by side in one space is truly staggering. Status affirming images are common, but this exhibition does more than simply portray Charles I as king, and there are numerous family portraits and intimate scenes between himself and his wife Henrietta Maria on display. The final gallery focusses on Van Dyck and Rubens, two artists who owe their careers to Charles I who commissioned several works, including the ceilings of Banqueting House by Rubens which are likely to have been the final images the king saw before being beheaded outside it.

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Lydia Ourahmane: Chisenhale Gallery

On a cold, wet and miserable Saturday afternoon I decided to seek shelter from February’s weather at Lydia Ourahmane’s first solo exhibition in London. As a regular visitor to Chisenhale Gallery, I immediately noticed the difference to the main doors and entrance of the gallery space which are typically wooden but currently have a dark-mirrored effect achieved by covering silver doors in black sulphur (which over the course of the exhibition will revert back to silver as visitors and staff entering and exiting the space rub the black sulphur off). Another peculiarity is a wooden floor running throughout the space, which again is specific to this exhibition and embeds ‘Paradis’, a sound installation of audio recordings made by the artist in her native Oran, Algeria. Once these differences were noted, it became apparent that there is very little actually on display, and all three exhibits are concentrated in the right hand corner of the room, furthest from the door. These comprise a narrow display cabinet showcasing documents referencing the artists grandfathers’ resistance to military service under the French occupation of Algeria by extracting his own teeth, an x-ray of her own mouth showing a missing tooth, and a single gold tooth pinned to the gallery wall. As you read more of Ourahmane’s story and learn that she purchased a gold necklace from a market seller in Oran believing it had belonged to her mother, melted it down and cast two gold teeth from it, inserting one into her own mouth to replace a missing tooth and putting the other on display as part of this project, the exhibits resonate with each other and come full circle. Artistic soundscapes are often lost on me, and this was no exception, but despite not having a strong visual impact, Ourahmane cleverly manages to create a meaningful narrative using very few words, and raises pertinent questions about displacement, absence, family and place.

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Musée national Picasso: Paris

Having attempted to visit the Musée national Picasso-Paris on a couple of occasions but defeated by queues, it was third time lucky for me on a drizzly Saturday afternoon pottering around Le Marais! The museum is in the old Hotel Sale building dating back to the 17th century and listed by The Historic Monuments department. It opened as a museum in 1985 following extensive restoration, creating stunning modern gallery spaces whilst being sympathetic to the original architectural features and surviving furnishings. The collection comprises over 5,000 paintings, sculptures, ceramics, prints, engravings, illustrated books as well as an archive of newspaper articles and personal documents associated with the Spanish artist. The vast majority of the collection was acquired through two large donations from Picasso’s heirs, and is currently host to an additional body of work on loan from the Pompidou Centre as part of their 40th anniversary celebrations – offering a full spectrum of Picasso’s myriad styles and techniques. The lead exhibition focusses on the year 1932 during which Picasso dated every painting or sculpture he created, highlighting the strong biographical element in his work. This was also an interesting year with regards the artists’ personal life as many of the portraits painted depict variations of just two women; Dora Marr and Marie-Thérèse Walter, the former a photographer and surrealist artist who was Picasso’s mistress leading to the demise of his marriage to Russian ballerina Olga Khokhlova, and the latter a seventeen year old additional love interest of the forty-five year old artist! The variable and often contrasting portrayals of these two woman is a good analogy for the multifarious nature of Picasso as an artist, embracing innumerable different styles throughout his career. Ultimately that was what I took away from my visit to this museum – that Picasso was far more than the surrealist painter I was familiar with, but a far more complex and talented creator unafraid to provoke.

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Jean-Michel Basquiat: Barbican

Barbican’s current ‘Boom for Real’ exhibition showcasing the prodigious works of American artist Jean-Michel Basquiat has generated such a buzz that in order to see it, advanced timed booking is now essential. Upon ordering your ticket you are emailed a booking confirmation accompanied by a list of ‘rules’ including “no bags (including handbags)”, “no photography”, “no food or drink”… lets add “no fun” to the list and try and discourage as many potential visitors as possible! The queue for the cloakroom is epic – as unfortunately everyone needs a bag – and you are then informed which route you must take through the exhibition, starting upstairs. At this point my enthusiasm was waning, but the charisma of self-taught Basquiat quickly won me over. The exhibition is arranged chronologically, beginning with his witty New-York graffiti under the pseudonym ‘SAMO©’ and breakthrough exhibition in 1981, where he was singled out by nearly every art critic despite being an unknown artist in a group show. Throughout the late ‘70’s he and other graffiti artists were commissioned to create a series of murals and began selling postcards of their work for $1 outside the Museum of Modern Art. Basquiat even found the courage to sell one to his idol Andy Warhol in a SoHo restaurant which marked the beginning of an artistic collaboration and true friendship, as Warhol returned to painting by hand and Basquiat started to use silkscreen techniques which Warhol was famous for (many of which are on display). Downstairs Basquiat’s larger-scale and more renowned works, as well as lesser known pieces including brown paper envelopes to Lichtenstein and Pollack amongst others offering amusingly reductive summaries of their style of work! The exhibition highlights Basquiat’s knowledge across music; from hip-hop to classical, jazz and blues, western art, reading and historical referencing, as well as political comment on black history and civil rights. Much as a truly enjoyed the exhibition, I left wondering if its formality, works unnaturally displayed behind perspex, ropes and alarms would have jarred with Basquiat himself who seemed to fight against the traditional art world, however given his untimely death at just 27, we will sadly never know.

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Hassan Hajjaj: Somerset House

I was first introduced to the ebullient world of Hassan Hajjaj last year at an exhibition on dandyism and black masculinity at The Photographers’ Gallery which included two of his portraits – and was intrigued to see more when I heard that Somerset House were hosting a solo exhibition by the Moroccan-British artist. The Terrace Rooms in the South Wing of the building are entirely dedicated to ‘La Caravane’, an exhibition which features photographic portraits, video installations, music, an installation of a motorcycle, and pieces dedicated to humble socks and woolly hats! The first of a trio of rooms contains photographic portraits of sitters ranging from other artists to street performers, athletes and musicians, all beautifully framed with his typical repetitious tin-can or food packaging border. At the centre of the space, a motorbike bedecked in re-imaginings of the Louis Vuitton logo sits on top of bright red pallets, a green patterned base and mini cans of paint around the border which echo the framing of the portraits on the walls. The next room is dominated by a 1960’s inspired sofa facing multiple video installations of people who have sat for portraits playing musical instruments, signing, or talking to camera, as well as two portraits framed in Hajjaj’s ubiquitous style hung above the fireplaces at either end of the room. The final space contains more photographic portraits alongside three unusual works; one focusing on plastic sunglasses, one on socks and another on woolly hats. The vivid colours and customised textiles, furniture and household items utilised throughout the show evoke the street culture of Marrakesh where the artist was born and spends much of his time. Similarly his deliberate arrangements and careful positioning of people and objects in each shot shape the viewers understanding of each portrait, and question the relationship between “people” (or objects) and “place”. Vibrant, irreverent and full of personality this free – yes free – exhibition certainly put a smile on my face!

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Hannah Black: Chisenhale Gallery

The smell of paper, and more specifically warm paper going through a shredding machine is the first thing that hits you as you enter the doors of Chisenhale Gallery. Situated by the canal in east London, it’s not the typical scent of a cavernous warehouse, but a surprisingly welcome one at that! The introductory text on the first wall helps explains the smell, as the current exhibition is a new commission titled ‘Some Context’ by Manchester born – but now New York based – artist Hannah Black featuring a pile of 20,000 copies of a book and multiple shredders. Inside each of the copies of the book (entitled ‘The Situation’) is a different interpretation of a conversation between the artist and her friends about ‘the situation’ which will all be shredded at the end of the exhibition. The floor of the gallery is littered with a carpet of already shredded copies of ‘The Situation’, eight shredding machines, various small sculptures created out of modelling clay, and several “transitional objects” which look like cuddly toys. Through reading the accompanying exhibition notes, I learnt that the toys are also going to be shredded at the close of the exhibition – however I still failed to grasp their relevance beyond that. Black argues that the show “gestures towards the various potential uses of art’s uselessness” and so perhaps I (somewhat ironically) picked up on that in my view of the ‘useless’ cuddly toys. On a more positive note, a programme of events including a series of conversations where the public can come together to discuss a situation of their choice will also be taking place throughout the duration of the exhibition, complementing the commission nicely. On display until the 10th December I’d certainly suggest poking your head into this interesting commission, and seeing if you appreciate the inclusion of the cuddly toys any more than I did!

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