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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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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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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Natalia LL Probabilities: Roman Road

Tongue-in-cheek, intelligent and provocative, the ‘Natalia LL Probabilities’ exhibition at Roman Road Gallery poses questions that are as relevant today as they were when the artworks were originally created in the 1970’s. The two main walls of the gallery are dominated by two grids, each host to twenty black and white portrait photographs from the artists Consumer Art series – one is titled ‘Blonde Girl with Banana’ and the other ‘Blonde Girl with Sausage’. In-case your imagination has failed to conjure up an idea of what these images depict, allow me… all forty photographs feature the same blonde female, innocently framed with her hair in bunches, suggestively fondling, licking and biting either a banana or sausage (as their titles suggest). Far from cheap pornography, Natalia LL is making a feminist comment using phallic shaped objects to show men as a mere product consumed by the girl. This resonates further when put into context, as Natalia LL was a female Polish artist working in a male dominated Communist regime whose works were then used as a political tool to fight for equal rights and challenge masculine domination. These photographs are accompanied by two retro television sets playing different films, both depicting young, attractive females eating sexualised objects or writhing in their remains once they have been consumed! Finally a text based vinyl piece spanning the entire height of the gallery, plays with the artists own name ‘NATALIA!. Originally the letters were rearranged into over 5,000 new possibilities; a more succinct version is currently on display but still manages to achieve its’ goal of revealing that a persons’ name is just a fragment of their identity and the multiple variations of it highlight the subjectivity of women and how they are portrayed and indeed interpreted. Feminism is certainly having a moment in London galleries, and I’d advise a visit before it closes on 14th January.

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Consumer Art (Blonde Girl with Banana)
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Consumer Art (Blonde Girl with Sausage)

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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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The Round Tower: Copenhagen

The Round Tower has loomed over Copenhagen since 1642 when it opened to the public as a hybrid structure combining an astronomical observatory, student church and university library. Erected by King Christian IV, the listed building is 34.8 metres high and continues to soar above modern buildings in the city, offering a stunning panorama from a viewing platform at its apex. Upon entering, visitors are greeted by bright white walls setting off the stone brickwork spiral that steadily inclines all the way to the top of the tower – a sublimely unique and leg friendly alternative to stairs! Half way up the tower you reach the Library Hall which functioned as a book lenders until 1861, and now houses temporary exhibitions (currently an archival photographic display entitled ‘Visions and Beliefs’ offering insights into a century of Danish missionaries’ global projects between 1980 -1970). A few steps on from the Hall is a more practical feature within the building; an original toilet complete with nicotine stained arched ceilings following centuries of students’ pipe smoking whilst visiting the privy! As you continue to climb the tower, you reach the Bell Loft which not only houses the bells, but has been utilised widely by Copenhagen’s residents for everything from drying laundry to store tanned hides, dry herbs, paint theatre sets as well as dress-making and millinery. In 1880 the loft was even rented by Leiutenant Bernhard Olsen who created a peasant museum in the space! A final ascent directs you to a reconstruction of the 1700’s Planetarium inspired by Bayer, depicting a three dimensional model of the solar system with the sun in the centre orbited by six planets. A few more steps lead you onto a 360 degree outdoor viewing platform, offering scenic views across the city despite it being cloudy the day of my visit.

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The exterior of The Round Tower
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The interior spiral walkway taking you up the towers 34 metres
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The Planetarium

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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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The Summer Exhibition: Royal Academy

Lamentably June’s weather may not be yielding any indication of summer, however The Royal Academy’s annual ‘Summer Exhibition’ which opened on 13th June has denoted the beginning of the season in the art world. Now in its 248th year, the exhibition is something of a London institution and is certainly worth a visit. As you turn off Piccadilly and enter the gallery’s courtyard, you are greeted by Ron Arad’s monumental sculpture ‘Spyre’, an 18 metre tall moving cone with a camera at its apex constantly filming the surrounding area from different angles which is then projected onto Burlington House. This impact is echoed in the stairwell featuring photographic images by Jane and Louise Wilson, and again in the opening gallery (The Central Hall) which includes a huge yellow neon sign ‘Forever’ by Tim Noble and Sue Webster, a hand painted photograph on canvas of Marie Antoinette by Pierre et Gilles, and a stone Petrified Petrol Pump by Allora and Calzadilla amongst others. This years’ show is co-ordinated by Richard Wilson RA, and with a staggering 1,240 works on display it is as vast, densely hung, varied and subjective as ever. The open submission nature of the show ensures that all mediums are represented from watercolour, to etching, engraving, printing, sculpture, installation, photography and digital, from both established artists and emerging talent. The standout piece for me is Katlug Ataman’s digital installation ‘The Portrait of Sakip Sabanci’ created from 10,000 LCD panels which hang above head height, each containing a portrait photograph of someone the Turkish philanthropist knew prior to his death fifteen years ago. Anything controversial is collated in Gallery IX including Michael Stokes explicit clay sculptures, Rachel Maclean’s digital orgy prints, and The Kipper Kids provocative photographic images. I liked the fact that Wilson does not seem to want to provoke or generate conversation by being deliberately shocking, instead he consciously explores the theme of artistic duos in this years’ show. So if London’s skies are going to remain grey I’d suggest heading to the RA for a burst of colour, lightness and humour to fake summer at their aptly titled exhibition!

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Tim Noble & Sue Webster’s ‘Forever’ neon sign in The Central Hall
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Katlung Ataman’s digital installation created from 10,000 LCD panels
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Yinke Shonibare’s ‘Balloon Man’ hovering above other pieces in Gallery VII

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Anthony Cairns: Roman Road Gallery

I popped into Roman Road Gallery only a few months ago to see Thomas Mailaender’s humorous exhibition set against mock brick walls, and returned earlier this week to see the space transformed with bright white walls and deceptively high ceilings showcasing Anthony Cairns work. ‘OSC – Osaka Station City’ is a solo show by the British photographer following his residency at the Benrido Collotype Atelier in Japan, during which he visited Osaka. It comprises a series of five photographic images of the city’s train station, inventively printed on recycled computer punch cards. Four of the images are hung together on one wall, and one larger print is hung alone on the wall opposite. Each of the images is broken into several parts and printed on either twenty-four or forty-eight different punch cards, which Cairns carefully positioned on grey boards and glued into place. The images are all taken at night time in black and white, but are printed on either off-white, pale blue or pale green tinted punch cards – and despite their mono nature each image has managed to sublimely capture the light versus shadow within its composition. Cairns chose punch cards as the repetitive sequence of numbers on them echoes the patterns and recurring shapes and buildings in urban metropolises. This is in turn is nicely paralleled in the Gallery’s surrounding area, as Roman Road features uniform brickwork, shop façades and tower blocks down its entire length and beyond, following its quick reconstruction after the devastation of World War II bombing. A final vitrine displaying twenty-one images each printed on an individual punch card helps give a sense of the project as a whole, and enables you to focus on specific details and other aspects of the train station.

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My favourite image in the exhibition!

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