The grass is greener…

One of the inevitabilities of writing an art blog is that one is always on the look-out for works that are not just interesting but will also provide a good photograph.   But they are not necessarily the same. Sometimes really interesting works don’t photograph well at all; sometimes photographs jack up a piece of work a few notches higher than you feel it strictly deserves. And sometimes, the knowledge that the photograph is likely to be striking can make it difficult to decide what you think of the real thing.

One of the things I like to do from time to time is to concentrate on an area and visit as many galleries as I can without any plan other than to see what is there. Recently, after wandering around ten in the Shoreditch area, I discovered Raze Bloom by Rachael Champion in the Hales Gallery. After seeing various paintings of varying shapes and sizes, some good, some to my mind not good at all, it came as both a surprise and a relief. Too many paintings in one morning can be indigestible.  I could see at once that Raze Bloom would make an interesting photographs. But was I actually convinced by it as a work?

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To start with, I wasn’t sure. Although a surprise to find healthy green grass in a gallery room without windows, and realise that the artist has created a synthetic eco system,  you are still left with a display that would not turn heads in the local garden centre. Coming to think of it, if you knew where to look, you would, no doubt, find healthy  grass of an entirely different kind growing under artificial lights in other windowless rooms across the capital. So perhaps it was not particularly remarkable.

But despite this initial scepticism, the work continued to stay with me as did the exhibition as a whole. Cleverly curated, it brings together the works of three artists and explores the relationship we have with the environment, the natural and the artificial. The utilitarian nature of Raze Bloom was surely  part of the point; created out of industrial materials, it is a commentary on the way that neighbourhoods are razed to make way for new rapidly built construction. It reminded me of the Joni Mitchell song, “they paved paradise and put up a parking lot… hey took all the trees. Put ’em in a tree museum. And they charged the people. A dollar and a half just to see ’em”

Raze Bloom was central but needed the other works to highlight the changes that happen over quite a short period of time. On the wall is a video by Rachel Pimm, Rubber,  showing the harvesting and creation of rubber as it turns from a plant to a product. The film is beautifully shot and the soundtrack, which you hear through a headset, amplifies the sounds of production so that you notice the drips and sloshes as the liquid latex is harvested and eventually turned into sheets of rubber. It appears quite romantic but it would not always have been so; this was once industry but the natural product is now increasingly replaced by the synthetic.

Also included in the exhibition are beautiful and poignant photographs of Agnes Denes’  Wheatfield Project. This took place in 1982 when Denes with the help of volunteers cleared a site in the centre of the city, bringing in topsoil to create  a two acre wheat-field in the heart of Manhattan. Her stated aim at the time was “to call people’s attention to having to rethink their priorities.” and she explained that the project grew “out of a long-standing concern and need to call attention to our misplaced priorities and deteriorating human values.”

Deane succeeded in harvesting a thousand pounds of the grain. In the photographs you can see the crop ripening in the middle of the busy city. In the back ground the twin towers are still standing. At the time it must have seemed near miraculous to have succeeded. Now looking back at those photographs taken thirty three years ago, it already feels as though we are looking at a gentler and more optimistic time. Meanwhile, Raze Bloom seems to be looking towards a harsher future.

This exhibition at Hales Gallery has now ended





Bon Appetit

I have just heard that my entry, Bon Appetit, shown below, has been selected as one of this week’s Editor’s choices  in the competition, Taboo, run by the on-line contemporary art organisation Celeste.

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In Taboo, entrants were asked to explore any taboo in any medium. . Artists who make it to the finals will have their works shown at the Galleria Poggiali & Forconi in Florence

The entry blurb explained that, “Works will be selected for their ability to spark thoughtful investigation on the taboo in question, as well as revealing how aesthetics can advance understanding on the subject being treated.” That seemed quite a tall order. When I thought about current taboos I realised that in Western Society most of those that remained were there for a good reason: few would argue that incest, paedophilia or bestiality should not be taboo.  These were not prohibitions I wished to investigate. But also on my list of unequivocal taboos was cannibalism, less problematic because, around where we live at least, I can be fairly confident that it is not actually practised.

After I thought of the idea of a bloke eating a roast hand with evident relish, I just had to do it.  It’s very different from my normal work but it was hugely fun to set up and kept a small group of us entertained on a wet November Sunday afternoon.  Does it spark thoughtful investigation?   After all, eating people is plainly wrong.  I think nonetheless there is discussion to be had; with a growing world population, food security and hunger are huge issues. I hope that if you look beyond the hand it does spark viewers to think more widely both about what we eat and what we refuse, and why.

The deadline for entries to Taboo is tomorrow 16 December. Finalists will be chosen by 1o January.



50 Shades of Spray

You could say Monet started it. In 1881 he painted Waves Breaking in which there were no other elements but the sea. Before that, while the sea and sky appeared often enough, it was background. You can see it in the vases of the Ancient Greeks, the mosaics of the Romans, in Chinese Porcelain but, in all these, the important bit tends to be the boat, the dolphin or the fisherman, not the waves themselves.

Much later, in the mid 19th century when the sea starts taking centre stage, the supporting cast is still very much present. The Great Wave of Kanagawa is one of the best known images of the sea, reproduced in millions of posters. Even here, the boats are caught up in the engulfing tsunami. Mount Fuji is in the background. Similarly, while that great marine artist Turner,  occasionally concentrated on the movement of the water, more usually there was action, rocks, fires, shipwrecks, drownings.

Then Monet spent the summer of 1881 in Normandy, looking at the sky, the sea and the waves;  and found in them enough to paint. He was followed by Ivan Aivazovsky whose earlier seascapes also involved human drama, but who, in 1898, produced Between the Waves which pared down the composition until only the waves remained.

After that, sea paintings became common enough; Gerhard Richter produced quite a few  so did L.S. Lowry, creating works far more interesting than his stick men.  Other artists followed suit and seas with and without waves started appearing in every conceivable colour; you can get multi coloured seas on jigsaws or buy pleasant enough sea paintings on Etsy or from your local gallery.  The restless sea has become a cliche; and with over hundred years of artists trying to pin it down, categorise it, draw out its essence, you would have thought there was little left to explore.

Cuban artist Yoan Capote’s exhibition which has just opened at the Ben Brown Gallery in Mayfair has proved that to be wrong. At first glance his seascapes appear reminiscent of Monet’s works, representational, depicting nothing more than the waves of the sea, the sky and a horizon line.

The thirteen paintings are in mainly sombre shades; the glowering sky is textured and thick with paint and at first the sea appears the same. Light and shadow, waves caught in motion. Then you notice the fish hooks and the picture changes.

The hooks, thousands of them, vicious things,  are what provides the detail and outline of the waves but they are also a reminder of the business of those who make a living from the sea and the fish that are hidden. Most of all they emphasise the sea is a dangerous place, as indeed it must have seemed to Capote who as a young boy would have looked towards the horizon thinking of the world beyond, from which he was imprisoned and isolated by water. Look closely and you also notice the the shadows the hooks  cast on the wall, as if the sea were casting shadows on the inhabitants of the islands.

Yoan Capote: Isla
Yoan Capote: Fish hook detail


Yoan Capote: fish hook shadows

Part of what makes these works so appealing is the contrast between the long view, where the image appears restful and beguiling, and the close up where you become acutely conscious of its treachery. These paintings are more than just a reaction to the particular political situation in which Capote grew up. There is a universality about them; the yearning for the unobtainable.

Yoan Capote Isla is showing at the Ben Brown Gallery, 12 Brooks Mews, London W1K 4DG until 29 January.