Anthony Gormley: Royal Academy of Arts

The traditional Georgian architecture of Burlington House isn’t an immediately obvious setting for Anthony Gormley’s large-scale robust metal sculptures and installations, but it certainly works. The dark wood flooring, panelling and high ceilings act as the perfect backdrop to the works on display throughout the main galleries. It is an exhibition that builds momentum, has pace and conversely moments of calm. The first space you enter contains fourteen horizontal and vertical cubic sculptures – “slabworks” – very typical of Gormley and his abstract exploration of the human form and its relationship with the space around it, but dare I say it… nothing spectacular. As you turn the next corner a lower-ceilinged room is filled with arguably the worlds biggest doodle, a sculpture which dominates the space and is almost bursting its way through the floors, ceilings and connecting doorways. It is quite an experience walking around the 8 kilometres of coiled aluminium tube, taking it all in. Another oversized gallery space houses “Matrix III” created from steel mesh ordinarily used to reinforce concrete, but this time formed into a three dimensional structure which suspends from the ceiling. Despite its weight, it somehow looks light as it floats above visitors who are able to walk below and around it. The adjoining gallery spaces contain sketches and preliminary drawings of these two monumental works alongside other works on paper, and having just viewed them I welcomed understanding the process and mechanics behind them. A room filled with metal human forms either standing, floating horizontally from various walls or hanging upside down from the ceiling, oversized metal fruits suspended from a vaulted ceiling in another space, a monolithic sculpture fills another, and finally a reflective space where the gallery floor is filled with seawater make up the rest of the show. The exhibition is as ambitious as you would hope for from Gormley, and certainly put a spring in my autumnal step!

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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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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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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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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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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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Mary Heilmann: Whitechapel Gallery

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.

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One of Heilmann’s early abstract works and arguably my favourite piece in the exhibition
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Another early geometric work
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The final galleries showing later works as well as examples of Heilmann’s chairs

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Rosangela Renno – Rio-Montevideo: The Photographers Gallery

Five clusters of vintage projectors are littered across the 4th floor of the The Photographers Gallery, initially looking more like an art installation than a photography exhibition. Once inside the space you quickly realise that they are projecting images directly onto the gallery walls; moreover as a visitor you are encouraged to activate the projectors yourself and control how the various images appear and disappear, and are layered over one another. The images were all taken between the late 1950’s and early 1970’s by the Uruguayan photojournalist Aurelio Gonzalez, who hid 48,626 negatives from the press archive of the country’s Communist newspaper El Popular ahead of the dictatorships’ censorship in 1973. Gonzalez ensconced the slides in a wall cavity in his office building in Montevideo for decades, only recovering them in 2006! The Centre de Fotografia de Montevideo subsequently restored, classified and digitised the archive, and in 2011 the Brazilian artist Rosangela Renno created this exhibition in response to the images. Obviously some heavy editing needed to be done with an archive approaching 50,000 photos, so Renno chose a small selection of images which best depicted the economic decline, protest and civil unrest that preceded the coup, and manipulated the archival black and white slides into digital images we see in this show. Little of this uprising survives in historical or photographic records, and Renno endured similar conditions herself during the military repression of Brazil during her lifetime – making her an apt artist to tell this story. Small red plastic tags attached to the projectors list search terms from the archive’s cataloguing system, offering insights into how the archive has been organised and increase your level of engagement with the photos. Likewise the constant clunking mechanisms of the old projectors intermingles with the Communist Internationale music playing in the background, making the images appear even more powerful.

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One cluster of vintage projectors showing the photographic images
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Another cluster of projectors

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Emily Jacir: Whitechapel Gallery

Emily Jacir’s current ‘Europa’ exhibition was a little hit and miss for me… whilst I certainly enjoyed several pieces, I found that many failed to have an impact as standalone pieces of art, and it was only once I had read more about their political contexts that I could appreciate them. Spanning two floors of Whitechapel Gallery the exhibition includes multimedia installations, films, soundscapes, photography, archival material and texts – and covers the last two decades of Jacir’s work with a focus on Europe. All of the pieces have a heavy political leaning but some still manage to be amusing, such as ‘Change/Exchange’ which displays eye-level photographs of different Bureau de Changes across Paris alongside their receipts, detailing the journey of a $100 bill that Jacir changed into francs which she then changed back into dollars and so forth, until sixty exchanges later the paper money was gone and only coins which could not be exchanged remained. Others in contrast are very solemn; ‘Material for a film’ tells the moving story of Wael Zuaiter who was assassinated by Israeli Agents in his hotel room in Rome and features family photographs, personal anecdotes, literature and music to explain the Palestinian artists’ life and untimely death. Other pieces in the show include an installation akin to a luggage conveyor belt which only moves when it senses people nearby, feminist comments on her days living in Saudi Arabia where Vogue magazine was banned, a series of 26 photographs and accompanying diary extracts from a solo protest at a market square in Linz, and photographs of her Arabic translations of bridge stops in Venice in the lead-up to the Biennale festival (which were quickly removed). ‘Europa’ certainly provides food for deep thought, however I left the exhibition still feeling hungry for something more.

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