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!
Newport Street Gallery is fast becoming a favourite – light and airy, with high ceilings in all six of its gallery spaces spread across two floors, and consistently displays works by artists who produce bright, colourful, and fun or provocative pieces. Their current offering entitled ‘Ornamental Hysteria’ showcasing Barbados-born Ashley Bickerton’s works, follows the same brief and features pieces which intelligently combine painting, photography, collage and sculpture in an array of vivid colours. Bickerton is playful throughout; poking fun at the rampant materialism of 1980’s New York in his ‘Logo’ and ‘Non-Word’ pieces in the opening gallery, to portraits like ‘Smiling Woman’ where photographs are distorted in Photoshop before being reprinted on canvas and painted over, and whimsical takes on artistic traditions including an installation of life-rafts rather than traditional seascape paintings. Bickerton appears to extend the same tongue-in-cheek attitude towards himself, evident in a self-portrait where he is depicted as a grinning five-bodied serpent, and again in his regular use of the graphic motif ‘Susie’ which acts as his signature but is more akin to a trademark (again allowing him to comment on ideas around identity in a consumer driven society). The standout work for me is ‘Red Scooter’ where oil, acrylic and digital imagery of a family crammed onto a moped combine, in a bespoke frame harking back to his Caribbean roots featuring coconut, mother-of-pearl and antique coins. Bickerton evidently finds sticking to one medium far too limiting and in his own words it is “only in their combination that I find comfort”. This exhibition is certainly packed full of arresting colours, artworks which challenge the visitor, and at times are even quite frightening, however the overriding element of fun which pervades the entire show left me feeling exactly that – comforted!
Back in London and the forecast promised a dry, crisp wintry day so I planned a walk along the Thames to Vauxhall followed by a visit to Gavin Turk’s exhibition at Newport Street Gallery. Alas the reality proved damp and drizzly, and by the time we reach the Gallery I was mildly sulking, but the current ‘Who, What, When, Where, How & Why’ retrospective instantly improved my mood! With an exhibition title asking so many questions, it seems only natural that the show itself should continue in a similar vein, inquiring deeper into issues around identity, persona and perception. It seems appropriate that Gavin Turk is not even the artists’ real name but a persona, creating a distinction between that and his personal identity; this idea is played with further with an artwork created from Yves Klein blue sponges in the shape of his signature and an oversized faux Hello! magazine cover in the opening gallery. Turk employs other artists’ identity with noteworthy homages to Jackson Pollack and Andy Warhol throughout the exhibition. One gallery is filled with pieces which could easily be mistaken for Pollack’s but on closer inspection reveal hundreds of Turks’ signature repeated across the canvas, and another pop-art inspired gallery is awash with screen-prints several of which include Turk himself depicted in Warhol’s infamous gunslinger pose. Similarly a collection of sculptural figures featuring a punk, a soldier, a vagrant, and a revolutionary hero again question cultural identities and how society perceives others by the clothes they wear. The final gallery challenges visitors’ idea of value and how we view items typically thrown away or perceived as rubbish, through a pimped up skip and discarded items created into sculptures. All these works are set against the gallery’s plain white walls and angular high ceilings which makes for a strong visual impact – and better yet, it’s free!
Having seen copious pictures of Anthea Hamilton’s “butt” sculpture and other increasingly iconic images from this year’s Turner Prize across various arts press, social media and mainstream news, this week I cycled down Embankment to Tate Britain were the annual prize is exhibited. This years’ four finalists reflect the diversity, humour and talent within the British contemporary art world. Opening with Helen Marten’s installations where everyday objects are gathered together in a collage-like fashion, putting familiar objects in unfamiliar contexts and creating a manufactured archaeological site where visitors are encouraged to try and make sense of what is in front of them. Around the next corner you are greeted by Anthea Hamilton’s large-scale bum crack, formally titled ‘Project for a Door (After Gaetano Pesce)’ and I only wish it came to fruition as an entrance for a New York apartment block, alongside her ‘Brick Suit’ set against a backdrop of faux brick wallpaper. The next gallery space hosts Josephine Pryde’s photographic series coupled with a model of a Class 66 diesel locomotive and train-track complete with tags by various graffiti artists from the cities her exhibition has been display at in the past. Her ‘Hands Fur Mich’ photographs are akin to advertising images, focussing on females’ hands holding mobile phones, tablets, ipads and other technology that society is becoming increasingly reliant on. The final gallery is dedicated to Michael Dean’s sculptural works and his compelling ‘United Kingdom poverty line for two adults and two children’ installation comprising £20,436 in pennies across the gallery floor (the amount the UK government state as the minimum a family need to survive for a year). During installation Dean removed one penny enabling visitors to tangibly visualise what is below the poverty line, creating a powerful close to this years’ exhibition. I left feeling torn between two artists and eager to hear who is announced as 2016’s winner on 5th December.
I must concede I underestimated Jeff Koons until yesterday, and Newport Street Gallery’s current ‘Now’ exhibition happily opened my eyes to just how talented an artist (in particular a sculptor) he is. The show opens with some of Koons’ earliest work from the late 1970’s; a combination of his inaugural inflatables as well as a reconstruction of ‘The New’ exhibition from New York’s New Museum in 1980 showcasing five brand new vacuum cleaners and floor polishers taken straight from their packaging and placed in acrylic boxes affixed to florescent light tubes. The next gallery suddenly steps up a gear and the double height ceiling showcases the artists’ ‘Balloon Monkey (Blue)’ to maximum effect. This monumental sculpture looks like an enormous helium balloon twisted into the shape of a monkey, however is actually created from highly polished stainless steel with stunning attention to detail in each twist and the knot of the balloon. This desire to play with viewers’ perception and challenge the choice of material used is a recurring theme throughout the exhibition, echoed in the upstairs galleries with inflatable beach toys made from aluminium which look convincingly like plastic, and a huge ball of playdoh formed from twenty-seven individual pieces of cast aluminium and held together by their own weight! Impressive sculptures in their own right, the unexpected material and reflective surfaces make for an engaging experience as you see yourself and other visitors mirrored and morphed in each piece as you walk around them trying to understand their mechanics. To combat this playfulness, there is a more adult – indeed explicit – element to Koons’ work, evident in his ‘Made in Heaven’ series of erotic images of himself and his then wife (Ilona Staller) alongside an enormous bowl of eggs and other not so subtle symbols associated with love and sexuality.
If you read this blog regularly you’ll have no doubt picked up on the fact that I’m no fan of the modern day phenomenon that is the selfie – so the lead marketing image for this years’ ‘Sony World Photography Awards’ of an astronaut taking a selfie in space (Julian Maeve’s ‘Greetings from Mars’) was slightly worrisome! That aside, I couldn’t miss seeing what 2016 had to offer… so headed to Somerset House this bank holiday to catch its two week exhibition run. Each year I seem to forget how big the exhibition is, and with a staggering 230,103 entries from 108 countries, the works chosen to go on display this year only represent a small percentage of what was submitted. The West Wing galleries are dedicated to professional photographers work, and the East Wing houses the youth and student entries, as well as the open competition. The talent is palpable throughout, from Filip Wolak capturing unusual angles in his aerial shot ‘Snowy Central Park at 10,000 feet’, to wonderful everyday scenes including ‘The Lantern Store’ by Malaysian photographer Swee Choo Oh, and harrowing images of victims of acid attacks by Asghar Khamseh largely committed against women and children as a result of divorce requests, rejected marriage proposals and revenge. The exhibition also included humour in A. Talomby’s series of portraits of men with touch facial features juxtaposed with feminine geisha hairdos which raises questions around stereotypes, gender and race, as well as moments of discomfort in Photographer Hal’s images of vacuum-packed couples in ‘Fresh Love Returns’. With so many photographs on display I appreciate the difficulty in identifying one winner, however the amount of winning shots is a little confusing (with 14 different prize categories spanning conceptual, portrait, staged, still-life, campaign and environmental amongst others for the professional photographers alone) and would be my only criticism.
Design districts (Clerkenwell, Shoreditch, Chelsea, Brompton, Islington and Bankside), temporary installations, large-scale fairs, and hundreds of talks and events popped up across London last week to celebrate the city’s annual Design Festival. After lack lustre RIBA installations in flagship store windows along Regent Street and a frustrating visit to the V&A involving disorganisation, poor signage, a map with the wrong orientation, and long queues when you finally did locate a related room – Somerset House provided a welcome change and was extremely satisfying. It was easy to navigate, the central courtyard contained clear signage with arrows directing visitors to different areas, and actively encouraged public engagement and interaction. Although not strictly part of the festival, Marc Quinn’s ‘Frozen Waves, Broken Sublimes’ sculptures currently inhabiting the courtyard are certainly worth a mention, comprising five monumental stainless steel pieces including a 7.5 metre long wave and four conch shells. Moving into the Terrace Rooms six ‘#Powered by Tweets’ competition winners were on display, each challenged to create something beautiful or solve a problem using Twitter. Given my cynicism towards social media I was surprised by how thoughtful the entries were; one design equipped pigeons with pollution monitors enabling real-time tweets to report on air quality in various global cities, another harnessed Twitter to create visual mindscapes to help relax patients receiving chemotherapy, whilst another monitored language to create a real-time visualisation of the most popular words being used on Twitter. On the subject of communication technology, Punkt in the West Wing also touted their MP01 mobile which refreshingly contains no status updates, notifications or multiple alerts but instead “focusses on the things that matter, like communicating”! Finally, the sunken Embankment Galleries showcased ‘My Grandfather’s Tree’ where Max Lamb beautifully explained his story of felling an ash on his family farm which was cut into 130 sections, each transformed into a stool, table or chair, and all displayed homogenously.