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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Gregory Crewdson: The Photographers’ Gallery

‘Cathedral of the Pines’ conjures thoughts of religious buildings carved from pine trees, but instead is name of a forest trail in the American rural town of Beckett, Massachusetts and the inspiration behind Gregory Crewdson’s latest body of work currently on display at The Photographers’ Gallery. It is the first time the Gallery has dedicated all three floors to one artist and contains all 31 large-scale images from this series, allowing visitors to view the entire body of work rather than just selected pieces. At first glance the exhibition as a whole can feel a little repetitive; with many images featuring bleak landscape scenes or simple domestic settings, however on closer inspection you begin to appreciate the detail and atmosphere created within each one. These details are often a little sinister; footsteps in the ground, an unexpected reflection in a mirror or window pane, or items that seem out of place in their environment. The people and settings in each frame also contradict each other, with figures standing still but naked in the snow, or on a riverbank, or as a couple in the back of a truck within a dense forest, making you question the narrative that has led up to each scene or ‘moment’ captured – and indeed what might come next. Credwson’s photography is famously likened to film as he creates cinematic-style sets and hires actors or models to pose within these sets, however this series recalls film in a more climatic capacity creating visual suspense in much the same way as directors Alfred Hitchcock or David Lynch. Unusually this series includes natives to Beckett as well as some of Crwedsons friends and family rather than actors or models, and he describes it as his most personal project to date. On display until 8th October it’s certainly worth escaping the crowds of Oxford Street and spending some time exploring the oddly calm dystopia of this exhibition!

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Klaus Weber: Herald Street Gallery

What more could anyone ask for than cacti with nipples, a mannequin dressed in a policeman’s uniform with his head under the floorboards, a pear rather than a bulb in a light socket and blown glass sculptural installations?! This is exactly what visitors to Herald Street Gallery are currently presented with in Klaus Weber’s eclectic ‘Kugelmensch’ exhibition which loosely explores erotic desire and society’s restrictions. The concrete floor of the galley is unusually replaced with rickety wooden planks (which despite a warning from staff, I still managed to trip over!) distorting the typical setting for artworks. You are greeted by a life-size mannequin dressed in a policeman’s uniform on all fours with his head hidden under the wooden planks and his helmet to one side, in an overtly sexual position despite representing law and order! Numerous cacti are dotted across the floor of the space, which are deliberately breast shaped and correspond with the two spherical glass sculptures which also share the space. Both are fragile and look as if they may break or topple over at any moment, and continue the sexual theme as the molten glass melts into each other and the concave versus convex components blend into one and other. One sculpture (‘Mechanics of Youth’) is distinctly androgynous but certainly phallic in shape whilst the other (‘Snow Woman’) is recognisably female with dried tangerine breasts. As you look up from this scene, the German artist presents you with a final simple yet surreal light fitting where the blub has been replaced with a pear. Accumulatively this creates a deliberately surreal scene, consciously evoking the anxiety and unease of the current political climate as interestingly 2016 saw Merriman-Webster Dictionary name ‘surreal’ their word of the year following a spike in the term following several acts of terrorism, shootings and the election of Trump. Provocative, humerous and thoughtful I’d suggest heading to Bethnal Green before the end of July when the show closes.

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Pink Floyd ‘Their Mortal Remains’: V&A

Pink Floyd have sold over 250 million records worldwide since they were founded in 1965, so it only makes sense for such an epic band be recognised with an exhibition on a truly epic scale. The V&A have done just that with the current ‘Their Mortal Remains’ retrospective of the band, presenting an enormous archive of material, huge displays and large-scale installations, all accompanied by a legendary soundtrack! The exhibition takes you on a chronological journey from sixties London through to the present day via promotional posters and tickets, press images, backstage photographs, archived interviews and footage, band members’ original instruments and other ephemera. That said, there is a distinct focus on the 1970’s – arguably the bands’ creative apex – witnessing the release of ‘The Dark Side of the Moon’, ‘Wish You Were Here’, ‘Animals’ and ‘The Wall’ all in a six year period between 1973 and 1979. This period of ingenuity is recognised in the exhibition with full-scale reconstructions of Battersea Power Station accompanied by a floating pig and other inflatables commissioned by the band to accompany their tours of this era, as well as a huge reconstruction of ‘the wall’. The show then moves on to explore more contemporary incarnations; the 1980’s ‘Final Cut, 1990’s ‘Division Bell’ and final 2012 album ‘Endless River’ – and closes with a gig projected on all four walls of one enormous gallery space. As well as celebrating the music, it highlights the influence of other artistic mediums; from David Hockney and illustrator Peter Blake to animators Gerald Scarfe and Ian Eames. Moreover it emphasises the bands’ ambition to constantly challenge and create more imaginative live shows, as well as their collaboration with graphic designers Hipgnosis to create some of the most iconic album covers of all time. You’ll need to dedicate a good few hours to take the whole exhibition in, but I’d suggest making the time this summer before it closes in October.

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Ashley Bickerton: Newport Street Gallery

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!

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Edouardo Paolozzi: Whitechapel Gallery

Eduardo Paolozzi is all over London; from the mosaics at Tottenham Court Road tube station to the sculpted head outside The Design Museum, colossal sculptures outside The British Library and on Royal Victoria Dock, and abstract pieces in Kew Gardens and Pimlico amongst others. It seems almost overdue that a London Gallery should dedicate an exhibition to the irreverent artists’ works – and Whitechapel Gallery have filled that void collating over 250 of Paolozzi’s artworks in their current retrospective. The ground floor focusses on his early career in London and Paris and his experimentation with various mediums as industrial bronze sculptures are displayed alongside pop-art inspired collages, screen-prints, tapestries and textiles, and moving film. Despite this diversity constant themes do emerge, evident in his fascination with pattern, layering and texture – and as the ground floor galleries come to an end, an inimitable Paolozzian style full of graphic prints and geometric designs emerges. His evolution as an artist is focussed on in the upper floor galleries which explore later developmental pieces in chrome and a playfulness with reflective surfaces and mirrors. It then goes on to draw out his obsession with the creative process itself, and it is interesting to view similar shapes through both two dimensional sketches and prints and three dimensional sculptures sharing the same space. Hints of the artist as a person – and indeed as a rebel – are also present in ‘Avant Garde?’ where each letter of the term is filled with a colourful cartoon figure, and ‘Jeepers Creepers’ which pokes fun at artistic terminology by featuring a row of plaster clowns each labelled with a different term. Iconic pieces mix with lesser known experiments, and the exhibition closes with the original sketches for the infamous tube mosaics. Get over to east London before 14th May to catch this exhibition and appreciate Paolozzi’s fun, colourful and incredibly innovative contributions to 20th century art!

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Wolfgang Tillmans 2017: Tate Modern

German photographer Wolfgang Tillmans’ work has become increasingly pertinent over the last few years, and following Brexit and the inauguration of Trump, the current exhibition dedicated to his work at Tate Modern feels relevant and timely. Rather than being a retrospective of Tillmans’ career, the majority of the works displayed across thirteen gallery spaces have been produced since 2003, which is when he turned his gaze onto political and social concerns. It comprises 450 images taken in 37 different countries spanning politics, freedom, portraiture, nightlife, and his own experimentation with processes involved in photography and printing. Each image is hung very simply either in plain white frames, pinned or taped to the walls, or held into place with crocodile clips – highlighting their vulnerability and how exposing (and often deeply personal) the photographs in this exhibition are. This is not to say the curation is simple, indeed whole galleries are transformed into installations. Several galleries feature images deliberately placed together unexpectedly to highlight how we experience different aspects of the world simultaneously, there is a recreation of his ‘Truth Study Centre’ project which began in 2005 where images, press cuttings, drawings and other objects are laid out together in contrary ways, as well as ‘Playback Room’ designed specifically for listening to recorded music at almost the same quality it was originally mastered. Images in the final gallery from the recent ‘The State We’re In’ project exploring current global tensions though photographs of the Atlantic ocean, country borders and landscape shots are stunning, but it was the lesser known images from his experimentation with chemicals, light, paper, ink, and the printing process that stole the show for me. These experiments resulted in wonderfully unpredictable effects and abstract images which I was previously unfamiliar with. On display until early June, I’d strongly suggest heading over to Southbank for an aptly-timed, educational visit!

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Rob Lye: Dye House 451

Situated on the ground floor of an old Permanite factory down in a side street in Hackney Wick you’ll find Dye House 451, a contemporary art gallery still in its inaugural year dedicated to showcasing works by emerging artists. You enter the current ‘Mute Ottakes’ exhibition by Rob Lye through the side door – a conscious decision by the artist so that the glass doors at the front of the gallery become a window to see the exhibition. Once inside, the floor is covered in black sand which unifies the different rooms within the gallery and also adds both an “audible trace to the spectators movements as they walk through the space” as well as a “visual trace, there is a history imprinted into the sand of previous visitors”. As the show’s title (specifically through the use of the word mute) suggests, this exhibition has been curated around a series of works that focus on sound, or indeed its absence. There is a silent outtake from BS Johnson’s TV programme ‘Fat Man on a Beach’ as a starting point accompanied by a looped piece of music made through degrading tape, three speakers which play a real time feed of the electromagnetic frequencies generated by the wireless router, empty beer bottles on the balcony filled with liquid to differing levels which play the theme tune to ‘Assault on Precinct 13’ if you were to blow over them, and less explicitly the main image ‘Hania swimming’ depicts a woman in a pool distracted by something audible but out of shot. All of these intermingle with the sound of the sand underfoot and are crucial to this exhibition, as the artist puts it “music, sound, silence, the act of listening, etc. it’s everything really”. On until 19th February, I’d strongly recommend a visit for a dose of east London culture.

With thanks to Fred Howell (Director of Dye House 451) for taking the time to meet me, and to Rob Lye (the artist) for kindly answering my questions.

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Gavin Turk: Newport Street Gallery

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!

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