Art on Mars

Usually I write about the kind of art that you see in galleries but today I want to show you this book cover by illustrator Andy Potts, which I think is particularly clever. Not only are the colours wonderful, the purples, reds and oranges, it is shiny in all the right places and I also like the way that the ideas are layered.

The book is about a bunch of children who are evacuated to Mars. You might guess that for this to happen things would have to be pretty bad on Earth and you would be right. There has been a long war against alien invaders and not only are humans being outgunned, the aliens like the climate cold and have reversed global warming to the extent that when the story starts, the ice cap has reached Nottingham.  Alice Dare, daughter of ace pilot Stephanie Dare, sees her school closed; she is chosen to be  one of the first children to be sent to the Red Planet. There she becomes friends with Josephine, brilliant but disorganised, Carl an exuberant Australian who wants to become a spaceship pilot himself and Noel his younger brother who finds all animals interesting – even maggots

Life on Mars is far from easy;  once there. the children have to cope with the irascible Colonel Cleaver who is determined to turn them into elite fighting force for the time when they will be old enough to combat the aliens themselves. Just because you are Mars doesn’t mean there are no school bullies.  And  they soon find there are dangers far worse than anybody on earth could imagine. Even though the children are trying to save the solar system, they  don’t even get let off school work and are taught by a robotic goldfish who wants to impart knowledge no matter what the dangers; it  is also very keen on teamwork. Alice’s advice for these situations is “always bring duct tape.”

The book is both exciting and funny.  See this review by  Mr Ripley’s Enchanted Books  .Andy Potts has captured this brilliantly in the cover.  The children look heroic which they are. If you look closely you will see that the shape  down the right hand side is the Goldfish and its eye is formed by the head of one of the children. In real life, it looks even better, shinier and brighter than it does in this picture.


Sophia McDougall: Mars Evacuees; cover by Andy Potts

Oh, and you may have noticed that the book is by Sophia McDougall. That is no coincidence; yes she is my daughter, the very same that I painted in Sophia Writing in Striped Socks. Mars Evacuees is what she was writing. The book is published today. It is aimed at children in the  8 to 12 age bracket. Many adults will enjoy it too. I did, though it was a somewhat tantalising experience as I was only able to read it a chapter at a time as it was written, which took over a year.  I’m now reading the sequel in the same way. “Haven’t you got any Mars for me to read,” is my normal question when we meet.  If you have a boring train ride or the flu, and want a book that is exciting, that will make you laugh and cheer you up – I really recommend it.

Mars Evacuees is published by Egmont and is available in bookshops from today and from Amazon


Making porcelain waves

Say the word porcelain and you probably think of dinner plates, mugs, wash basins (or urinals), or, possibly, inscrutable Chinese lions, thoughtful cherubs or smiling shepherdesses. Last week I saw what for me was a new take on porcelain in the art of Belgian artist Jeanne Opgenhaffen. She produces works which are not quite sculptures. though they are three-dimensional, but more like paintings crafted in porcelain rather than paint.

Oppenhaffen,  who is now 76, was born in Nieuwenkerk-Waas, and studied ceramics at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts and the National Higher Institute in Antwerp, and has exhibited widely including in London and in New York. I saw the works, just three of them, at Art14, an interesting commercial gallery named after its street number in Dijver in Bruges, rather than the year.

The works which normally appear to have a rectangular or square outer form are made up of hundreds or even thousands of separate porcelain pieces which she somehow intertwines to produce a whole which is remarkably fluid. These are not mosaics where the surface is flat but reliefs where the individual tiles can together form undulating patterns suggesting waves, cells or geological strata. It is not obvious at first that they are made from porcelain; each tile is typically thin, curved and looks as if it was made of paper or fabric or some other material that could be easily  folded into shape. The colours tend towards the natural tones you might find in the landscape; the works I saw were in whites, earth-like reddy browns and muted blues.

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These works will clearly look different in different lights and I liked the way that they could cast shadows around their edges. Striking from a distance, they also rewarded close up observation. Look at this detail where you can see how all the tiles are subtly different.

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I love the way the set of nine reliefs below seem to capture the movement of the sea.

View photo.JPG in slide show

I found myself wondering how far they were planned and how far improvised. A bit of both, I imagine.  Having coming across these works by chance, I really want to see more; there are many on her website which are equally interesting.  I will be looking out for exhibitions in London.

Sensing Spaces at the Royal Academy

The quality of the architecture that surrounds us is something that affects us all, day in day out. Yet I normally find looking at architectural displays somewhat boring. Maybe I have a general inability to scale up in my mind little model buildings or plans (I blame it on not being given Lego as a child) but even glossy photo montages normally leave me cold. So,  it was all the more surprising to be completely riveted by Sensing Spaces, currently showing at the Royal Academy.

 The Royal Academy had asked six architects to give visitors a new perspective on architecture. The results were stunning and very different. Materials included the traditional: concrete and timber but also twigs, and even plastic.

The exhibition has no set pathway but, like many people, the first installation I encountered was Mauricio Pezo and Sofia Von Ellrichshausen’s Blue Pavillion. Unlike most of the works, this one had a title but it seemed designed to confuse as it was not blue at all but constructed out of untreated pine board with a steel handrail. It looked solid and monumental and smelt like a timber yard, which is good by the way.

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Getting closer,  you noticed that there were stairways inside the huge pillars. These led up to a platform. What was interesting here, was that you could not see the hall from which you had come and, importantly,  the purity of the structure was not cluttered up by your presence peering over the top, so that visitors coming into the room had themselves to discover the pillars were not as solid as they appeared. Because you can not see the room itself  from above, you concentrate on the ceiling. This must be the best chance to see the very fine angels close up. In a way tha angels were incorporated into the whole.

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Eduardo Souto de Mouro used the RA’s doorways as a source of inspiration. At angles to the classical doorways were a pair of  arches cast from ultra high performance concrete reinforced with steel fibre, they were of the same general proportions but very different having an industrial feel but the two doorways enhanced each other and clearly demonstrated how well modern techniques can sit beside more classical architecture.

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Japanese architect Kengo Kuma’s work was far more ethereal, comprising scented bamboo wands which were lit to create an elegant forest.  The result was was both calming and relaxing. I am not sure how much work I would get done in a Kuma designed house but, I wouldn’t care as I would be really laid back.

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In contrast the work by Li Xiaodong felt strangely disturbing. Made primarily out of hazel sticks it formed what appeared to be a labyrinth.

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In the film which you can see at the end of the exhibition there were shots of a library which Li Xiaodong  had created in China from the same materials.But there the effect of light through the hazel had appeared soothing, echoing the shape of books. There was something about the floor lighting in this version which made you uneasy. It was only in the centre when the labyrinth opened up revealing a room with a floor covered in pebbles, as though the beach had come inside, that the tension was released.

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Perhaps one of the most exciting works was by Diebedo Francis Kere. Here I was so pleased that I had come to the exhibition late in its run. The primary structure was made of honeycombed plastic panels but Kere had allowed visitors to collaborate with him by providing brightly coloured straws which could be inserted into the holes provided by the honeycomb. The result was the most extraordinary bower. Small children loved it of course, but few adults could resist adding to the construction. If you visited the exhibition when it first opened in January, do go back now and have another look if you didn’t, go before it closes and add a few straws of your own.

Sensing Spaces is showing at the Royal Academy until 6 April.


Richard Deacon and the flat-pack approach to Sculpture

It is a problem that must give many a sculptor a headache: your ambitions are huge but your studio space is a whole lot smaller. You would like your pieces to be 12 foot high and 30 foot wide but doors and stairs are designed primarily with people in mind. Large is great but, if you want to work in wood, or steel, or clay, it is also heavy.

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The joins add to the interest

These days, Richard Deacon most probably has an army of helpers with huge biceps and a studio the size of an aeroplane hanger but, like the rest of us, he must still have the doors and stairs problem. He has come up with a solution to the practical problems of working large and adopted what you could describe as,  ‘the flat pack approach to sculpture.’ His elegant creations, currently on show at Tate Britain, clearly come to bits; the visible joins, far from detracting from the works, adds to their interest.

For a moment, I had this rather delightful image of him crawling around on the floor, saying “the Allen key was here a moment ago, who’s taken it?” or “aren’t there supposed to be six screws here; I can only find five?” or, “where on earth does this curly bit go? Oh, I suppose I should know: I made it.”

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Where is this curly bit meant to go?

But if the construction principles are the same as for an Ikea wardrobe, the results are far more interesting, and, so far as I could tell, even lack wobble. With the exception of the works in Room 4, Art for Other People, which were designed for domestic situations, the works start big and get bigger.

Interestingly, the ideas for the sculptures came originally not from anything physical but from drawings that he made in the US back in 1978, which in turn were  based on Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke’s highly lyrical sonnets to Orpheus, which Rilke viewed as a metaphor for the transition between life and death.

There upped a tree, O absolute outstripping
O Orpheus singing, O tall tree in the ear.

At first, I could not see the connection; the drawings can be seen as reflecting the body parts mentioned in the verses:  the ear, the eyes, the mouth. There is undoubtedly lyricism in the forms in the curves and  flowing lines, but there was another characteristic that did not seem to be derived from Rilke’s influence; the drawings look in some way industrial. At first sight I took them for the technical plans for the sculptures.

Richard Deacon’s drawings were inspired by Rilke

Then I  realised Rilke’s  55 poems in the Orpheus series are all sonnets and have a strict rhyming scheme and so exuberance and metaphor are constrained by formality. This is in essence what Deacon does: lyricism constrained by engineering requirements.

This early influence of Rilke seems to  follow through into all Deacon’s work. I found them extraordinarily satisfying; there is scale; there is complexity; the engineering skills are breathtaking and the materials he uses are just so pleasing, whether it is the galvanised iron of his 1980 Untitled, the rich colours of ceramics in the 2012 work Fold or the laminated wood which  is a favourite of his and which he appears to bend and twist as easily as if it were clay.

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Richard Deacon: Fold 2012

Occasionally though, I felt he took the work beyond the point where it might have been better to stop. Generally I rather like work where elements are hidden but did Tall Tree in the Ear really need the blue canvas covering over one of the curves; it looked rather as if a piece of packaging had not been removed.

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Richard Deacon: Tall Tree in the Ear

The, ‘wouldn’t it be better without’, issue was most striking in the case of the work used to publicise the exhibition After. This is a wonderfully sinuous sculpture which coils across room 5 of the exhibition. But every single photograph of the work that I have seen, seems to minimize the woven steel fence which runs along the middle. The fence seems to have been a late addition to the concept; there are pictures of other similar constructions which he has made, where the folds are allowed to work by themselves.

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Richard Deacon: After

The Tate notes explain that ‘the the steel strap links the ends apparently drawing them together….Deacon was intrigued by the contrast between the taut line and the liveliness of the undulating form and the play of light.’ To me, the steel seemed a distraction; it looked almost as though it were propping up the structure, which was a shame because one of the impressive things  about Deacon’s work is how these really complex works are self-supporting. Most photographers appear to take the same view.