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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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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Animality: Marian Goodman Gallery

The term ‘urban jungle’ is never more true than when used to describe Oxford Street in the lead-up to Christmas; a mass migration of the UK population to one shopping destination, prowling the streets in pursuit of the ultimate gift, and shoving any opponents out of the way to seize their prey. In the relative calm of nearby Golden Square is Marian Goodman Gallery, currently host to an exhibition entitled ‘Animality’ exploring the complex relationship between humans and animals. Split across both floors of the gallery, it comprises seventy works ranging from early cave paintings through to emerging artists’ creations including pieces by Yinka Shonibare, Cartsen Holler and Peter Wachtler alongside philosophy and writing by Charles Darwin, Michael Foucault and George Orwell to name just a few. Upon entering the gallery you are greeted by cabinets of illustrated animals, a giant white stuffed squirrel by Mark Dion, an enormous black and white printed image of an elephant, a purple octopus sculpture by Carsten Holler, and numerous photographic images of birds and other creatures littered across the ground floor. A calf dressed in bright prints synonymous with Yinka Shonibare is suspended on a tightrope above the staircase, an albino camel sculpture by John Baldessari, and humanised wooden sculptures of a foxy Fox Lady and raincoated Raven Man by Stephan Balkenhol all continue to question what distinguishes humans from animals. These pieces are interspersed with film, including Fischli and Weiss’s humerous projection of a cat endlessly drinking milk from a bowl, Pierre Bismuth’s version of Disney’s ‘Jungle Book’ where each of the characters speaks in one of the many languages it was translated into it, and a dark cartoon version of Orwell’s ‘Animal Farm’ sponsored by the CIA who altered the ending. With only days to go before it closes on 17th December, I’d suggest a visit to escape the human crowds and reacquaint yourself with our animal counterparts.

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Huge elephant print on the ground floor
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Cartsen Holler’s Octopus sculpture
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John Baldessari’s Albino camel sculpture

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The Ulm Model: Raven Row

Raven Row is undoubtedly one of my favourite galleries, located in east London near Spitalfields Market in two adjoining eighteenth century townhouses on Artillery Lane (aptly known as Raven Row until 1895). It is eccentric without being pretentious, large enough to get lost in but still feels intimate, and always host to something curious. Its current exhibition ‘The Ulm Model’ is no different, educating visitors about the lesser known German school of design which only operated for a short period between 1953 and 1968. This exhibition was exactly what I wanted from my Sunday afternoon… a relaxed cultural fix without feeling protracted or contrived. The curation is simple and uncluttered, and specially designed display structures showcase items ranging from weighing machines to crockery, electric razors, traffic lights and petrol cans. As well as the objects themselves, the exhibition also includes drawings, models and prototypes created by the schools’ students as well as sections dedicated to some of their more progressive work for corporate clients, namely Braun and Lutfhansa. The key pieces that captured my attention include Dieter Raffler & Peter Raacke’s multi coloured plastic shell suitcases, Hans Roericht’s TC 100 stacking set of teapots, cups and saucers, as well as Hans Gugelot & Dieter Ram’s record player designed for Braun. The original wooden floorboards, fireplaces and other period features of the building juxtapose against the modernist design of these objects nicely, and exploring the various rooms and corridors of this gallery unsure what you might find around the next corner adds another element. Whether you are a design geek or neophyte, I’d suggest taking advantage of this exhibition and paying a visit before mid December while these German works’ are collectively on display in London.

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The colourful plastic suitcases on display
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One of many Ulm designs for Braun
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Great shapes and materials used by Ulm

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Turner Prize 2016: Tate Britain

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.

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Helen Marten
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Anthea Hamilton
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Josephine Pryde
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Michael Dean

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Francis West: Harris Lindsay at 67 Jermyn Street

On the lower-ground floor of Harris Lindsay at 67 Jermyn Street, you’ll discover the ‘Orion Stumbles’ exhibition featuring a selection of Francis West’s paintings on the legend of Orion alongside several of his Nocturnes. This gallery space curated by Megan Piper within an arts and antiquities dealership is an apt location for this exhibition focusing on the mythological figure of Orion – the blind hunter who walked across the sea to be healed by the sun God. Akin to all of West’s work (including his earlier drawings, pastels and paintings) the pieces in this show portray figurative forms in a state of metamorphosis. Whilst his Nocturnes are dark, dream-like, and at times bordering on the grotesque, his paintings on Orion in contrast use vivid purples and blues, and are far lighter and less oppressive. This disparity is made more poignant when you realise that West recently passed away in December 2015, and that the painting I was most drawn to is the final piece created by the artist entitled ‘Death of a Poet’. Despite consciously exploring the theme of death, the painting feels spirited and optimistic rather than fearful, with a shadowy allegorical figure of death in the bottom corner tempered by bird taking flight within the same scene. Physically, it is also larger and visibly more ambitious than the Nocturne canvases that surround it. I was moved to learn that this piece was painted from West’s deathbed with the support of his wife – and it felt not only rare, but fascinating and compelling to view an artwork from this psychological perspective and gain an insight into the optimism West had towards death at such a pivotal moment. I’d certainly suggest a visit to Piccadilly to catch the exhibition before it closes on 11th November.

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Cary Kwok: Herald Street Gallery

Behind an inconspicuous door and adjoining metal shutter on Herald Street, you’ll find the aptly named Herald Street Gallery. Feeling slightly frazzled from a hectic work week and with absolutely no desire to head into central London, I embraced my local east end culture this weekend… and with Maureen Paley, Laura Bartlett and The Ryder Project gallery spaces all on the same street – there’s no need to venture any further! It was my first visit to Herald Street Gallery but certainly won’t be my last, as the current Cary Kwok exhibition spanning both rooms of the gallery provoked, entertained and excited me (as all good exhibitions should). Kwok is a hugely talented Hong Kong born, London based artist who specialises in fine detail drawing – explicit in the seven ink, pencil and acrylic pieces on display in this solo show. The overarching theme is homosexuality within a sprawling metropolis; one that could be Hong Kong, London, Tokyo or Manhattan and where the architecture makes reference to various historic styles from ancient Greece and Rome, to medieval castles, gothic-revival follies, colonial arches, brutalist high-rises, 1920’s art-deco and hybrids of every era in between. Within these buildings, oversized muscular men in homoerotic scenes ranging from two male figures with erections serving as fountains, a pink palace where the supporting beams are created by naked males in acrobatic poses, and shop signs full of camp innuendo including ‘Have a Cock’ in Coca-Cola’s irrefutable design are all embedded. Alongside these drawings is one sculpture, entitled ‘Arrival (La Belle Epoque), which looks like a beautiful art-deco lamp. On closer inspection you realise that the lamp-stand is in fact a wooden penis and what I thought was the melting wax light is actually spurting semen! So if you fancy some tongue in cheek humour with your art, get down to Bethnal Green before 25th September when the show closes.

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One of Kwok’s creations
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Another of Kwok’s drawing – more brutalist with art-deco influences
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‘Arrival’ (La Belle Epoque) lamp sculpture

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FOUND: The Foundling Musuem

I feel I’ve been a little slow on the uptake with summer exhibitions… but so pleased I got to see ‘Found’ at The Foundling Museum last week before it closed on 4th September. Curated by Cornelia Parker, the list of over sixty participating artists’ reads like a who’s who of the contemporary art world including Phyllida Barlow, Mark Wallinger, Richard Wilson, Jeremy Deller, Mona Hatoum, Marin Creed and Gavin Turk amongst others. Inspired by the 18th century tokens mothers left with their babies as a means of identification at the original Foundling Hospital established by the philanthropist Thomas Coram in 1739, all of the artworks within this exhibition are created from found objects kept for their significance. Things get off to a strong start as a trumpeter dressed in typically brightly coloured fabrics by Yinka Shonibare greets visitors in the foyer. A temporary exhibition space in the basement contains over thirty pieces, whilst another fifty are dotted throughout the rest of the building intertwined with the permanent collection and period rooms – and this is where much of the success and indeed joy of the exhibition lies! Moving up the central spiral-stairwell a contemporary painting by Rose Wylie is hung alongside old masters, in the grand Court Room with Rocco ceilings and Hogarth paintings you’ll find Gavin Turks ‘Nomad’ installation of a dirty sleeping bag positioned to echo the shape of a human form sleeping within it, and a small iron sculpture by Anthony Gormley of his own child as a baby is displayed on the floor in a corridor! Despite strong competition from all the artists, I feel the prize for best ‘found’ item should go to Cornelia Parker herself who rescued Jimi Hendrix’s staircase from Handel/Hendrix House in London’s Brook Street following its restoration – and is aptly on display in the basement for this exhibition.

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Yinka Shonibare’s installation that greets you in the foyer
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The beautiful central spiral staircase

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Wolfgang Tillmans: Maureen Paley

Thursday 23rd June 2016 – and perhaps moreover the morning of Friday 24th June – will remain etched in the minds of current generations as a date that has left the UK indisputably divided. Though official statistics show the UK voted to leave the EU by a slim margin of 51.9% versus 48.1%, this figure hides the 28% of the population who failed to vote, the overwhelming majority of young people aged 18 – 24 who voted to stay, subsequent protests and calls for a re-vote, and indeed the resignation of our Prime Minister David Cameron. These current political circumstances made it an apt time to visit Wolfgang Tillman’s solo show; a German photographer who epitomises what it is to be part of the EU by splitting his time between Berlin and London, and an ardent ‘Vote Remain’ campaigner. This is his eighth solo show at Maureen Paley in Bethnal Green and displays new work focussing on the visible and invisible borders that define and control societies. Encompassing the entire building, the exhibition is curated simply yet effectively with work either hanging in plain white frames or unglazed and pinned delicately to the walls. The ground floor is dominated by a vast image of the sea entitled ‘The State We’re In’ capturing an intersection of the Atlantic Ocean where international time lines and borders meet. This focus point is bookended by images taken at both the Northern and Southern observatories looking beyond their country’s boundaries. This theme continues upstairs with Tillman’s ‘I refuse to be your enemy 2’ installation, a recreation of a workshop he gave Iranian students which explored the uniformity of printed communication through office paper from various different countries. The entranceway, stairwell and exterior spaces of the gallery are filled with incarnations of Tillman’s pro EU poster campaign, and in these uncertain times it is refreshing to see an artist using their creativity to heighten political awareness and take a firm stance.

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‘The State We’re In’ image of the Atlantic Ocean
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Image from the observatories
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The upstairs gallery housing ‘I refuse to be your enemy 2’ installation
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A selection of the pro EU posters from Tillman’s ‘Between Bridges’ campaign

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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.

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

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