Raven Row is undoubtedly one of my favourite galleries, located in east London near Spitalfields Market in two adjoining eighteenth century townhouses on Artillery Lane (aptly known as Raven Row until 1895). It is eccentric without being pretentious, large enough to get lost in but still feels intimate, and always host to something curious. Its current exhibition ‘The Ulm Model’ is no different, educating visitors about the lesser known German school of design which only operated for a short period between 1953 and 1968. This exhibition was exactly what I wanted from my Sunday afternoon… a relaxed cultural fix without feeling protracted or contrived. The curation is simple and uncluttered, and specially designed display structures showcase items ranging from weighing machines to crockery, electric razors, traffic lights and petrol cans. As well as the objects themselves, the exhibition also includes drawings, models and prototypes created by the schools’ students as well as sections dedicated to some of their more progressive work for corporate clients, namely Braun and Lutfhansa. The key pieces that captured my attention include Dieter Raffler & Peter Raacke’s multi coloured plastic shell suitcases, Hans Roericht’s TC 100 stacking set of teapots, cups and saucers, as well as Hans Gugelot & Dieter Ram’s record player designed for Braun. The original wooden floorboards, fireplaces and other period features of the building juxtapose against the modernist design of these objects nicely, and exploring the various rooms and corridors of this gallery unsure what you might find around the next corner adds another element. Whether you are a design geek or neophyte, I’d suggest taking advantage of this exhibition and paying a visit before mid December while these German works’ are collectively on display in London.
Behind an inconspicuous door and adjoining metal shutter on Herald Street, you’ll find the aptly named Herald Street Gallery. Feeling slightly frazzled from a hectic work week and with absolutely no desire to head into central London, I embraced my local east end culture this weekend… and with Maureen Paley, Laura Bartlett and The Ryder Project gallery spaces all on the same street – there’s no need to venture any further! It was my first visit to Herald Street Gallery but certainly won’t be my last, as the current Cary Kwok exhibition spanning both rooms of the gallery provoked, entertained and excited me (as all good exhibitions should). Kwok is a hugely talented Hong Kong born, London based artist who specialises in fine detail drawing – explicit in the seven ink, pencil and acrylic pieces on display in this solo show. The overarching theme is homosexuality within a sprawling metropolis; one that could be Hong Kong, London, Tokyo or Manhattan and where the architecture makes reference to various historic styles from ancient Greece and Rome, to medieval castles, gothic-revival follies, colonial arches, brutalist high-rises, 1920’s art-deco and hybrids of every era in between. Within these buildings, oversized muscular men in homoerotic scenes ranging from two male figures with erections serving as fountains, a pink palace where the supporting beams are created by naked males in acrobatic poses, and shop signs full of camp innuendo including ‘Have a Cock’ in Coca-Cola’s irrefutable design are all embedded. Alongside these drawings is one sculpture, entitled ‘Arrival (La Belle Epoque), which looks like a beautiful art-deco lamp. On closer inspection you realise that the lamp-stand is in fact a wooden penis and what I thought was the melting wax light is actually spurting semen! So if you fancy some tongue in cheek humour with your art, get down to Bethnal Green before 25th September when the show closes.
Few things fill me with genuine contentment more than strolling down a street towards an art gallery on a sunny Sunday afternoon, with a strong black coffee in hand! And that is exactly the position I found myself in last weekend… heading towards Whitechapel Gallery to catch the Mary Heilmann ‘Looking at Pictures’ exhibition on its final day. This retrospective explores the American abstract artists’ past five decades of work, from her early geometric paintings of the 1970’s through to modernday shaped canvases in day-glo colours. It opens with the honest statement that Heilmann studied poetry, ceramics and sculpture in California but failed to make it as a female sculptor, before taking up painting when she moved to New York in 1968 – her background in sculpture and ceramics is immediately apparent as she clearly views canvases as three-dimensional objects often painting their sides, as well as using her fingers to manipulate paints and create textured surfaces. As you move to the upstairs gallery you are greeted by a projected slideshow entitled ‘Her Life’ which shows photographs Heilmann has taken alongside the abstract images she has created in response to them; not only does this help give context to the exhibition but it is also interesting to witness her interpretation of everyday scenes. The final gallery displays more personal works, and also contains examples of Heilmann’s chairs in a variety of pastel colours enabling visitors to sit down and view and discuss her works at a leisurely pace. Some pieces are intensely biographical including ‘311 Castro Street’ which was the artists’ childhood address and ‘Maricopa Highway’ which was a road-trip she regularly took, and one final piece depicting a crashing wave in bold, lush greens and blues offers visitors a final reminder of Heilmann’s distinctly Californian background.
Thursday 23rd June 2016 – and perhaps moreover the morning of Friday 24th June – will remain etched in the minds of current generations as a date that has left the UK indisputably divided. Though official statistics show the UK voted to leave the EU by a slim margin of 51.9% versus 48.1%, this figure hides the 28% of the population who failed to vote, the overwhelming majority of young people aged 18 – 24 who voted to stay, subsequent protests and calls for a re-vote, and indeed the resignation of our Prime Minister David Cameron. These current political circumstances made it an apt time to visit Wolfgang Tillman’s solo show; a German photographer who epitomises what it is to be part of the EU by splitting his time between Berlin and London, and an ardent ‘Vote Remain’ campaigner. This is his eighth solo show at Maureen Paley in Bethnal Green and displays new work focussing on the visible and invisible borders that define and control societies. Encompassing the entire building, the exhibition is curated simply yet effectively with work either hanging in plain white frames or unglazed and pinned delicately to the walls. The ground floor is dominated by a vast image of the sea entitled ‘The State We’re In’ capturing an intersection of the Atlantic Ocean where international time lines and borders meet. This focus point is bookended by images taken at both the Northern and Southern observatories looking beyond their country’s boundaries. This theme continues upstairs with Tillman’s ‘I refuse to be your enemy 2’ installation, a recreation of a workshop he gave Iranian students which explored the uniformity of printed communication through office paper from various different countries. The entranceway, stairwell and exterior spaces of the gallery are filled with incarnations of Tillman’s pro EU poster campaign, and in these uncertain times it is refreshing to see an artist using their creativity to heighten political awareness and take a firm stance.
Having lived in London all my life it’s always fun to stumble across a new museum or gallery, and hidden down a side street a couple of minutes’ walk from Bethnal Green tube station is The Ryder Projects; a year old converted industrial shelter now promoting early and mid-career artists. Here I discovered Jaime Pitarch’s solo show ‘Time Matters’. Although modest, the space has enough height to have impact and the exposed brick, beams and pipework work sympathetically with the pieces on display. As you enter the space a recommissioned set of bedside drawers (part of the artists’ Momentum series) greets you at jaunty angle – now dysfunctional as a piece of furniture Pitarch uses a clever system of balances and imbalances to keep it suspended precariously. What looks like a simple grey woollen blanket is draped on the back wall behind this, however on closer inspection you realise that the green string has been unwoven from the blanket and is gathered in a ball; typically these blankets are used to transport artworks and so the piece introduces discussion about the economics of the art industry. Continuing with the economic theme, a mobile created from wire and small coinage hangs above the other artworks. It is entitled ‘Calderilla’ which is similar the artists’ native Spanish word for ‘small change’ (carderilla) but is also a humorous play on sculptor Alexander Calder’s name, who heavily influenced this piece. A final darkened area at the rear of the space attempts to make the concept of time more tangible, through a video projection and accompanying sound of a needle against a vinyl record covered in dust having been left in a studio over a period of time. All of the pieces are constructed from cheap or disused materials and it is enjoyable to see an artist exploring complex and sophisticated themes including time, value and productivity through simple, everyday objects.
The Barbican’s current exhibition dedicated to the creations of Charles and Ray Eames celebrates the couple’s contribution to twentieth century design beyond their well-known innovations in furniture. There are some beautiful individual pieces on display and I thoroughly enjoyed the insights offered into their personal and professional relationship, but I did find it lacking an overall theme and at times quite difficult to follow. The curators describe the Eameses as “enthusiastic and tireless experimenters” and a couple who “embraced the joy of trial and error” which certainly comes across in the constantly changing focus of the exhibition – from their furniture and product design, to architecture, exhibition-making, photography, and even forays into education. The show opens with plywood constructions ranging from a plane wing to a medical stretcher and leg splints, immediately highlighting not only the couple’s product design skills but also their fascination with experimentation. It goes on to display a wall of ‘Arts & Architecture’ magazine covers designed by Ray Eames throughout the 1940’s, showcasing his skill in graphic design. It moves on to explore the numerous competitions and commissions the duo entered, including ‘New Furniture’ at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 1946, ‘Arts & Architecture’ magazines’ commission of eight houses in California, a post-war Museum of Modern Art competition for low cost furniture, and developmental pieces from the IBM Pavilion at New York’s World Fair in 1964-’65. Personal highlights included a letter from Charles proposing marriage to Ray which is charmingly childlike including a sketch of Ray’s left hand alongside an engagement ring! I also appreciated viewing the Eameses chairs which went on to be mass produced by the Herman Miller Furniture Co. (an precursor to IKEA), as well as a replica of their 1950’s ‘Musical Tower’ – a playful gravity powered xylophone made from wood, metal, acrylic, lacquer, rubber and resin.
Dennis Severs House is a magical place, even more so at this time of year when their annual Christmas installation decorates all five floors of the Grade II listed Georgian terraced house. Situated on Folgate Street, behind Spitalfields Market (East London) the house was purchased by an American artist named Dennis Severs in 1979. At that time the building was in a dilapidated state and Severs began an extensive refurbishment programme, decorating each of the ten rooms in a different historic style from the 18th and 19th centuries. Not content with refurbishment alone, Severs also added the fictional story of the Jervis family, originally Huguenot silk weavers who inhabited the house from 1725 to 1919. Visitors ring the bell to gain entry to the house and are asked to remain in silence for the duration of their visit, as a scintillating combination of sound, smell and sight arouse your curiosity and help guide you on your own journey. With no electrics, the house is lit entirely by candlelight and each room is absolutely bursting with furniture, trinkets, half eaten food, portraits, old masters paintings, clothes, jewellery, musical scores and more! Visitors begin their descent back in time in the basement cellar and kitchen, then upstairs to the ground floor eating parlour, up another flight of stairs to the withdrawing room and smoking room, upstairs again to the chamber and boudoir, before a final climb to the top floor which is rented out to lodgers and in a much more ramshackle state than the rest of the house – and end back on the ground floor in the back parlour. The house motto is ‘Aut Visum Aut Non!’ translated as ‘you either see it or you don’t’ – and if you fail to be transported back to the Victorian age through the bewitching experience presented here, then you are truly missing out.
The Geffrye Museum’s annual ‘Christmas Past’ exhibition looks at the past 400 years of festive traditions in middle-class English homes, and offers a wonderful insight into so many of this seasons now commonplace activities from the food we eat, to the decorations we put up, sending cards, hanging stockings, and kissing under the mistletoe! Based in Hoxton (East London) the museum comprises of eleven period rooms all in former 18th century almshouses originally built to house London’s poor and elderly from 1780 to 1880. The first period room dates from 1600 and they continue through to the present day, each one furnished accordingly to reflect changes in middle-class society, behaviour and tastes. I enjoyed witnessing the evolution of Christmas in the home, from the evergreens (a Pagan custom adopted by Christians) and ‘kissing boughs’ (early mistletoe) of the 1600’s, to the Rosemary and Bay of the 1700’s, and the introduction of fir trees under the reign of Queen Victoria in the 1800’s. I was also surprised by how much I learnt; I was previously unaware that Christmas was banned in this county during the Civil War as parliament was at the time dominated by Puritans who disapproved of the excess that Christmas encouraged (and the ban was only lifted in 1660 when the monarchy was restored), or that sending Christmas cards is a late nineteenth century English invention introduced by Henry Cole who sold the first commercial card in 1843 and it became a popular custom from 1870 when The Post Office introduced a cheap rate for postcards and unsealed envelopes. The almshouses are situated within tranquil gardens and there’s also an impressive on-site café serving local East London produce, so I’d certainly advise visiting the museum before the Christmas show finishes on 3rd January!