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!
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!
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.
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.