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.
‘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!
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!
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.
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.
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.
Seven large-scale photographic images dominate the top floor of The Photographers Gallery, making a bold impression by Noemie Goudal in her first solo London exhibition. All seven works on display in ‘Southern Light Stations’ are entirely new, previously unseen pieces created this year. As soon as you enter the Gallery you can’t help but notice the floor to ceiling observatory-style architectural structure which houses six glass stereoscopes. These cleverly display pairs of separate cloud images, creating a single three-dimensional image by depicting left-eye and right-eye views of the same scene. Clouds and the sky prove to be a recurring theme in Goudal’s work and indeed this exhibition as four of the large-scale photographic images show spherical objects (which could be the sun, moon, planets or other celestial bodies) floating above different landscapes including the sea, mountains, a desert/sand, and a beach/pebbly surface. After closer inspection you can also see ropes, scaffolding and other signs of construction around the spheres, alluding to the artists’ interest and research into early astronomy from antiquity, through to the Middle Ages and pre-Enlightenment. These spheres are accompanied by three photographic images of large-scale telescopic structures suspended above water; these ‘Towers’ are mythical, otherworldly and not dissimilar to some of the concrete structures that survive across Eastern Europe following the collapse of communism – and highlight Goudal’s desire to play with the real versus the imagined. The exhibition also plays with darkness and light as two of the spheres are very dark (perhaps referencing an eclipse) whilst the other two are incredibly light and almost merge into the clouds they are floating in. The fact that there is no interpretive information inside the exhibition space forces visitors to really look at the images, think about what they are viewing and question exactly what they may or may not be.
Hidden behind an unassuming black door at The Wellcome Collection is Alice Anderson’s new ‘Memory Movement Memory Objects’ exhibition. It comprises one hundred sculptures of mundane, everyday objects covered (or as the artist describes “mummified”) in copper thread, transforming them into beautiful artworks. The introduction promises that visitors will “rediscover things you already thought you knew” and when confronted with a 1976 Ford Mustang semi covered in copper thread at the entrance of the exhibition, this certainly rings true! The curation is very simple and each of the five rooms is painted either dark black or bright white forcing the copper sculptures to pop out at you. There is very little signage or printed information which encourages you to really look at and engage with the objects, and try and guess what they are from a bicycle, to keys, a pipe, tennis racket, guitar, plasma television screen, basket-ball, telephone, stethoscope, ladder, ropes suspended from floor to ceiling and more. It is easy to dismiss the skill in these sculptures, and it is only when comparing Anderson’s pieces to the Ford Mustang which the public are invited to “mummify” that you appreciate the artists’ attention to detail and thought about how light will reflect off each sculpture. Covering the objects in copper tread also shifts your understanding of them from a design perspective, as all colour and detail is removed leaving just the outline and overall shape. There is more to this exhibition than shiny, pretty things however – and Anderson’s choice of the word “mummify” to describe her use of copper thread immediately brings archaeology to mind, and raises interesting questions about how we preserve the present, how we store memories today, and with social media on the increase sinisterly observes that “our memories might soon become disembodied and live exclusively online”.