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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Evans, Janssens and Ortega: White Cube, Bermondsey

Three exhibitions for the price of one! In fact three exhibitions for the price of none if you head over to White Cube Bermondsey who offer free admission and are currently host to three different artists across their north, south and 9x9x9 gallery spaces. The first space you enter off the main corridor contains Cerith Wyn Evans’ huge neon installation ‘Neon Forms (After Noh IV) which is suspended from the ceiling and almost reaches the floor, combining single lines of light amidst chaotic overlapping assemblages. The north gallery space compliments the first show, as Ann Veronica Janssens’ sculptural works similarly play with light and perception; including halogen lamps, venetian blinds covered in gold leaf, reflective and mirrored surfaces and a spillage of glitter across the floor. The final (and largest) south gallery space is dedicated to Damian Ortega which again includes large-scale sculptures and installations alongside two-dimensional pieces. Orange infographics are pinned to the white walls, and although the imagery relates to a camera manual, the workings of a gun, or the planets within the solar system, closer inspection reveals that the labels are philosophical and comment on the impact technology has had on people’s faith and belief. Within these two-dimensional works are a series of industrial and mechanical sculptures such as the coliseum created from concrete blocks in concentric circles, and the clever ‘Deconstructing time’ sculptures which comprise the inner workings of a watch enlarged to an enormous scale and separated across the floor or stacked in free standing towers. The weather may be turning grey and miserable as autumn sets in, but the change in season also initiates the opening of several inspiring exhibitions to keep you indoors and happily distracted from the weather outside – and White Cube’s current offering certainly falls into that category!

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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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David Hockney 82 Portraits and 1 Still-life: The Royal Academy

Painting over 90 canvases is a large project to undertake, let alone complete in just over two years… but that is exactly what David Hockney achieved in recent years, and 82 of these portraits and 1 still-life are currently on display in The Sackler Wing of the Royal Academy. Each portrait shares the same dimensions, is painted in acrylic on canvas, has the same background colours of a turquoise and light blue, and show the subject seated in the same chair – making it obvious why Hockney views them collectively as a single body of work. The portraits are densely hung side by side in three galleries at eye level, and the uniformity of both the paintings and their installation is very intense yet left me cold. Lamentably as I moved from one portrait to the next I started finding the exhibition repetitive, failed to notice subtle differences in posture, facial expression and attire, and was relieved when one of the sitters failed to show up to their appointment forcing Hockney to deviate and paint a still-life of some fruit! Having garnered some more information from the visitor handout I decided to have a second look and certain elements of the project became more interesting; none of the portraits were commissioned so each one is of a family member, friend, fellow artist or associate, and each portrait was executed within three days (the longest amount of time Hockney felt he could ask of anyone). I also enjoyed Hockney’s lampooning of selfies and his refusal to paint any “celebrities”, reaffirming the importance of the painted portrait over a photograph taken on a mobile phone. The project is unarguably an impressive feat and armed with more context it was certainly more engaging on a second loop around the galleries, however on an aesthetic level the exhibition still failed to excite or inspire.

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Jeff Koons: Newport Street Gallery

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.

balloon monkey
An above shot of Balloon Monkey (Blue) alongside visitors to give perspective to its sheer scale
playdoh
27 individual pieces of aluminium held together by their own weight to make this sculpture
balloon elephant
Highly reflective balloon elephant

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Conceptual Art in Britain 1964-1979: Tate Britain

The palpable scent of oranges and a reconstruction of Roelof Louw’s 1967 ‘Soul City’ (A Pyramid of Oranges) sculpture opens Tate Britain’s Conceptual Art in Britain exhibition. This sculpture not only immediately engages visitors’ senses, but also acts a microcosm for the ideas behind conceptual art as a whole; whilst some visitors looked quizzically at the pyramid and others played an active role in changing the molecular form of the sculpture by taking an orange. All of the artworks on display were created between 1964, the year Harold Wilson’s first Labour government was elected, and 1979 when Margaret Thatcher’s Conservatives gained power – yet despite nods to contemporary politics in certain works the exhibition failed to offer much explanation or context of the era these pieces were created. Noteworthy exceptions to this do appear in the final gallery with Victor Burgin’s ‘Lei-Feng’ which repeats a Vogue advert nine times with juxtaposed added captions relating to the ideological training of a Chinese soldier under Mao, and Conrad Atkinson’s photographs on the troubles in Northern Ireland. Outside that, the exhibitions’ strength for me lied in its ability to amuse, as I laughed out loud on more than one occasion! Keith Arnatt’s series of eleven black and white photographs entitled ‘Art as an Act of Retraction’ shows the artist with pieces of printed card crumpled in his mouth – symbolically almost eating his own words. Likewise Michael Craig Martin’s ‘An Oak Tree’ simply displays as a glass of water on a glass shelf alongside a series of questions and answers written by the artist in which he maintains that this particular glass of water has transformed into an oak tree with wonderfully hilarious conviction.

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John Hoyland Power Stations Paintings 1964 – 1982: Newport Street Gallery

After coffee in Borough Market and a wonderfully free afternoon, I found myself walking along the river towards Vauxhall and Damien Hirst’s Newport Street gallery. Its inaugural exhibition showcases the daring palette of British abstract artist John Hoyland, focussing on his large-scale Power Stations painted between 1964 and 1982. Spanning six large galleries, spread over two floors adjoined by sublime spiral staircases, this exhibition certainly has impact! Each gallery has clean white walls and contains a maximum of seven huge canvases (with many home to as few as four), allowing the audacious colours of Hoyland’s palette to really stand out, and enough space for each piece to be appreciated before shifting your focus onto the next one. Born in Sheffield in 1934, Hoyland moved to London in 1956 to attend the Royal Academy – however it was not until his first trip to New York and subsequent encounters with artists including Rothko, Motherwell, Kenneth Noland and Barnett Newman as well as the sculptural works of Anthony Caro, that his style showcased in ‘Power Stations’ began to emerge. Although the exhibition takes a chronological approach, the prudent curation makes you forget the concept of time. Instead intense colour and evolving style divert your attention; initial washes of reds, greens and greys with geometric shapes floating freely on the canvas are replaced with creams, pinks and nudes with strong brush strokes and obvious use of a palette knife, and finally bright block colour combined with diamond, rhomboid and triangle shapes. Likewise the sheer scale of each piece alone is enough to impress. I only regret that I failed to visit before the closing weekend of the show as I would have enjoyed seeing Hoyland’s work again, but look forward to revisiting the space for the upcoming Jeff Koons exhibition in May.

Hoyland1
Hoyland’s wonderful colour palette
Hoyland5
Hoyland’s use of brush strokes and a palette knife
Hoyland4
Hoyland’s block colour with diamond and rhomboid shapes
Stairs
Wonderful spiral stairs linking the two floors of the gallery

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Marian Clayden: Fashion and Textile Museum

Vibrant colours (purples, oranges, pinks and blues), luxuriant materials (velvet, silk, felted wool and brushed cotton) and unusual techniques (ombre dying, shibori, toaster printing, passementerie and ikat) combine for an effective retrospective on British designer Marian Clayden. Using a combination of large-scale silk prints and finished garments hung on dummies, the Fashion and Textile Museum takes visitors on a chronological journey through the often overlooked designers’ career. Clayden studied art at Nottingham School of Art and taught at primary schools as well as exhibiting paintings in Harris Museum throughout the 1950’s before emigrating to Australia in 1962 where she began exploring dying techniques, despite only taking one short course in dying at college. The exhibition opens with impressive 1969 garments commissioned for the musical Hair (and produced in the kitchen!), following Clayden’s move to California and subsequent introduction to set and costume designer Nancy Potts. Things moved quickly and throughout the 1970’s Clayden participated in nine group exhibitions across America, Canada, Japan, Poland and back home in the UK. She also spent a year in Iran during this period, and the exhibition goes on to display ropes, hand dyed cotton and ripped silk influenced by her travels. The following decade saw the launch of Clayden Inc. which expanded to produce four collections each year, and the upstairs galleries showcase new print design techniques utilising clamps and a household sandwich toaster, as well as her constant experimentation with different materials. Throughout the exhibition, the accompanying text is accessible and explains complex techniques in simple terms, paralleling Clayden who despite creating high fashion garments for the likes of Sophia Loren, Elizabeth Taylor and Sigourney Weaver was keen to share her skills and knowledge with everyone, and even produced educational tools for that purpose. Likewise, the layout and use of clothed dummies gives each piece space and allows visitors to appreciate the materials and techniques being celebrated.

Silk print
Vibrant tie-dye silk print at entrance to exhibition
Silk print2
Another vibrant print on display
Downstairs gallery
Ground floor gallery displaying 1970’s design and experimentation with rope techniques
Velvet design
Velvet garment showcasing toaster print

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Performing For The Camera: Tate Modern

Directly across the hallway from ‘Performing Sculpture’ at Tate Modern is ‘Performing For The Camera’ – a photography exhibition spanning fourteen galleries and exploring the relationship between photography and performance. Taking a thematic approach the exhibition looks at how the camera has been used as a tool for exploring identity, gender and sexism, race and politics, and manipulated in advertising and by society’s portrayal and construction of themselves from its invention in the 1800’s to contemporary social media. It comprises over 500 images and several stand out; three large black and white images of Ai Wei Wei holding a 2,000 year old Han dynasty urn, dropping the urn, and the urn smashing on the floor, as well as Tomoko Sawada’s ‘ID400’ showing a collection of passport photographs taken by the artist over a 4 year period highlighting her diverse looks and identities yet still being the same person, Jemima Stehli’s ‘Strip’ which depicts the artist taking her clothes off in front of six different subjects who control the camera and timing of photos being taken, and Romain Mader’s ‘Ekaterina’ which humorously discusses Ukranian mail-order-bride tourism through a series of nine staged photographs. Another highlight of the exhibition was being introduced to Japanese photographer Eikoh Hosoe whose collaboration with the dancer Tatsumi Hijikata are documented in wonderful black and white images densely hung against bright red walls. With such a large volume of photographs on display there were bound to be some notable images, however the exhibition as a whole lacked something, and in contrast to the Calder exhibition across the corridor I felt that sculpture ‘performed’ much better than the camera on this occasion.

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Alexander Calder, Performing Sculpture: Tate Modern

I must confess my ignorance as I knew very little about Alexander Calder until visiting Tate Modern’s current ‘Performing Sculpture’ exhibition, and came away feeling not only educated but physically lighter as it’s such a playful show! It focusses on the American artists’ work between 1930 and 1940 and spans eleven galleries, displaying a range of delicate wire sculptures, hanging mobiles, large scale pieces and even a sculptural musical instrument (consisting of a sphere at the end of a string, which knocks against bottles, a box, a can and a gong on the floor which originally could be re-arranged by viewers to produce different sounds). Creativity was certainly in Calder’s blood as his father and grandfather were both sculptors and his mother was a painter, so it should come as no surprise that he wasn’t afraid to push boundaries and break away from sculpting a solid mass and experiment with unconventional materials such as wire, cork and buttons in contrast to more traditional stone and wood. His interest in the performing arts is also evident throughout; explicit in his wire creations of acrobats and circus performers, and implicit in his desire to produce pieces which literally dance in the air. Calder’s mobiles are created from different materials of varying weights enabling them to move independently of each other – and this in turn allowed each sculpture to create its own shadow against the clean gallery walls, spinning slowly as visitors walked past or a breeze moved through the space. Likewise each piece caught the light in a different way which really added to the exhibition, and was something that could only be appreciated by viewing the sculptures in person and failed to be replicated by the exhibition catalogue or still photographs. So make sure you see it for yourself before it closes on 3rd April.

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