Lee Krasner: Barbican Art Gallery

“Living Colour” is an apt title for the Lee Krasner exhibition currently on display at The Barbican Art Gallery – as colour certainly has a live element to it throughout this retrospective as Krasner has periods where she uses simple charcoal in the 1930’s, experiments with colour in the post-war era, returns to muted shades during a period of chronic insomnia in the late 1950’s and embraces bold colour again in 1960’s and ‘70’s. Often overlooked as Jackson Pollack’s wife, Krasner was a pioneering abstract artist in her own right and I really felt I got a sense of the honest New-Yorker via the chronological journey of this show. Whilst some of the early mosaic works and self-portraits didn’t excite me, her charcoal life drawings begin to highlight her interest in abstraction and you can see the influences of other artists like Matisse and Picasso in these works. In the 1950’s this was developing further as she began incorporating newspaper, photographic paper and even some of Pollack’s test drawings into her colourful painted collage works – as well as increasing the scale and size of the canvas she was using. Following the sudden death of Pollack and a period of insomnia, Krasner created a body of works using a muted shade of umber (Night Journeys) as she painted through the night and refused to work with colour under artificial light. As perhaps sleep returned and her depression faded, colour resurfaced in a big way with vibrant pinks, oranges, blues and greens. A particular favourite was ‘Mister Blue’ created in sweeping blue motions, which made me smile even more when I learnt that Krasner was only 5 feet tall and would have struggled with some of these larger canvases! The final works incorporate more rigid shapes and sharper lines, where she revisits something she did earlier in her career cutting up previous bodies of work and including them in new pieces – again highlighting the “living” nature of her artworks.

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Museum of Contemporary Photography, Chicago

I was lucky enough to go to Chicago for work last week – for three days – literally a flying visit from the other side of the Atlantic! It was my first visit to the city, and I was struck by how progressive, liberal and balanced it felt with a diverse population of white, black, Hispanic as well as a China Town, Little Italy, Polish Downtown, Greek Town, well dressed professionals, homeless veterans and the buzz and grit of cosmopolitan city life that makes any Londoner feel at home. However, a trip to the Museum of Contemporary Photography (MoCP) was a powerful reminder of the civil rights and segregation issues which have plagued America, and the Chicago area is no exception. The current exhibitions by Dawoud Bey and Carlos Javier Ortiz & David Schalliol both highlight problems with integration; Bey’s two poignant bodies of work tell the story of three Klu Klux Klan members who bombed the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963 killing four fourteen year old African American girls, and the ensuing violence that followed as a consequence. This is revisited in a 2012 series of black and white portraits in which Bey captures images of children the same age as those who had died, alongside portraits of adults at the age the children wold have been in 2013 (the 50th anniversary of the bombs). Bey’s work is coupled with Ortiz and Schalliol’s Chicago Stories, a more contemporary exploration of similar issues via evocative images of isolated buildings and those who live in them which explore the legacy of the Great Migration and the continued demolition and resettlement of African American communities across Chicago’s “black belt” in the south and west of the city where black residents were limited to living, but have since created thriving communities which are now being destroyed. The staff are both helpful and knowledgeable, entrance to both exhibitions is free, and I would highly recommend dropping in before 7 July when the shows close.

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Elmgreen & Dragset: Whitechapel Gallery

I was an Elmgreen & Dragset neophyte until last autumn, then on a work trip to Paris I stumbled across the artistic duo’s 1,000 Starfish installation at Place Vendome. Once back in London I learnt that Whitechapel Gallery was hosting an exhibition dedicated to the Scandinavian pairs’ work, entitled ‘This is How We Bite our Tongue’… and with only a week left until it closes on 13 January, I was given the new year impetus I needed to go and view it! The entire ground floor gallery houses a new commission The Ghost of Whitechapel pool, which depicts a fictional empty swimming pool and using this now abandoned civic space the piece questions local government decisions to cut funding and close these shared spaces. The edges of the pool also play host to numerous other sculptures; a classical inspired male torso toppled over and lying on its side, bronze casts of a Mercedes car seat and cooling boxes, an aluminium meteor on a trampoline, and two urinals connected by interlinked twisted drainpipes. Moving upstairs a series of exhibition wall labels painted directly onto white canvas or carved in white marble pay tribute to artists who have inspired them, and are accompanied by an installation encouraging the public to sit at a desk, have a glass of whiskey and read through the artists’ diary. In the final room of the exhibition, each work features a somewhat anonymous figure, ranging from sculptures of a little boy staring at a rifle, to a pregnant house-maid and a little boy cowering in a fireplace, all finished in matte white with minimal features, to a judicial wig hung on the wall minus a wearer, the outlines of two portraits which were once hung on the wall, and two white pillows cast in bronze with the impressions of the heads previous sleeping there still imprinted into them.

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Modern Couples. Art, Intimacy and the Avant-garde: Barbican

After a chilly but beautiful autumnal stroll on Saturday afternoon, I sought warmth at The Barbican and turns out I wasn’t the only one… as the queue for their current exhibition ‘Modern Couples: Art, Intimacy and the Avant-garde’ suggested! Spanning both floors of the gallery, it examines almost fifty artistic couples from Camille Claudel and Auguste Rodin who were in a relationship from 1882 until 1892 through to Unica Zürn and Hans Bellmer whose relationship lasted from 1953 until 1970, and various heterosexual, homosexual, artistic threesomes and friendships in between. It explores “artists” in the broadest sense, including painters, sculptors, photographers, textile makers, musicians, writers, publishers, furniture designers and architects – and more interestingly the impact they had on each other and society by taking a stance on various civil rights issues. Each section comprises a short summary of the couple alongside a portrait of each artist individually or together as a couple, with Virginia Woolf making two appearances – on the lower level with Vita Sackville-West and on the upper level with Leonard Wolfe. The show includes big name artists such as Salvador DalÍ (and Federico GarcÍa Lorca), Pablo Picasso (and Dora Maar), Frida Kahlo (and Diego Rivera) and Wassily Kandinsky (and Gabriele Münter) but also introduced me to artists I was previously unfamiliar with or highlighted relationships where one partner has certainly hogged the limelight – often unfairly – over the other. The exhibition is certainly tinged with sadness and a sprinkling of madness; numerous tales of forbidden love, age-gaps, and mental health issues as well as Oskar Kokoschka who created a life-size doll of the composer Alma Mahler after jealousy brought an end to their relationship, Marcel Duchamp who sculpted miniature casts of Maria Martins genitals after their illicit affair came to an end, and Lavinia Schulz and Walter Holdt whose relationship came to a horrific close when the dancer and costume designer shot Holdt and then herself.

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Alex Prager Silverlake Drive: The Photographers’ Gallery

The view out of the fifth floor window at The Photographers’ Gallery is one of my favourite in London… a floor-to-ceiling clear aspect down Great Portland Street, hovering above Oxford Street and the hurried residents, shoppers, tourists, and general throng below. It also mirrors several of the large scale crowd images currently on display within Alex Prager’s mid-career retrospective. The American photographers’ “Crowd Series” features highly stylised shots of streets, beaches, airports and cinemas from an aerial perspective, allowing you to observe the scene from an unusual vantage point (echoed by the fifth floor window). In the middle of the still shots, a temporary cinema space projects Prager’s most ambitious work – a film installation. I must confess I am not typically a fan of film installations, however I was utterly absorbed by the narrative which jumps between close ups of individuals within the crowd before moving back into the swarm of people, and is projected across different and often multiple walls, before finally being projected on all three simultaneously! In addition to the crowd scenes, close up portraits of a Hitchcock inspired female surrounded by flapping birds, a brunette woman lying on a lurid green bedspread smoking a cigarette, a ballerina caught mid pose, and a female in a vivid yellow dress suspended from a red car bonnet hanging in the sky all compliment the film installation where Prager’s protagonist (within each crowd) is always a woman. Group shots and landscapes are also present; a trio of suited males taken from below looking up, a bikini-clad foursome chatting against a bright blue sky, a burning house against a deserted backdrop, and a congregation facing away from the camera to watch a rocket taking off, all enjoyably hark back to kitsch Americana! I’d certainly suggest a visit and immersing yourself in Silverlake Drive before it closes in October.

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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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