Tonico Lemos Auad and the redemptive power of effort

One of the joys of visiting art galleries is the way that they can stimulate you to think about the world in different ways. Sometimes an exhibition can lead to completely unexpected avenues of thought. So it was with the exhibition by the Brazilian artist Tonico Lemos Auad which has just opened at the De La Warr Pavillion in Bexhill. Since my visit, I have been pondering on the nature of tin cans, synchronicity and whether effort alone is sufficient to make an artwork interesting.

I will explain: the impact of work Auad’s work creeps upon you. It is not flamboyant or particularly visually compelling but it does enter your mind. The visitor is confronted at the beginning by a set of hanging sculptures that look like vertically assembled curtain poles. Look closer and you see that they are elaborately covered in linen. Lumps of sea chalk which seem untouched from a stone mason’s yard turn out to have delicate designs nestling on their surface, so subtle that they are easily missed.

At the far end of the room were the tin cans – lots of them. On first sight it looked as though it might have been assembled by an art student with good connections to their local recycling centre. ‘So we have tin cans – arranged,’ you think.


“They are like a landscape,” says the invigilator.

“Hmm,” you say, non-committally, not adding, ‘or like a lot of tin cans.’ ”Oh, there is a design painted on each of them.”

“No, not painted on,” says the helpful invigilator, “left behind.”DSC02605

So it turned out. Someone, I would guess some hapless assistant rather than the artist himself, had painstakingly scraped away all the original design leaving a grey surface, polished by liberal use of WD40 and decorated by the small remaining emblem – a flame, a tomato, a polar bear, a face. I was  both surprised and horrified- what effort, and to what end? Yet there seemed to be a point; if they had just been stencilled or transferred, the visual effect would have been virtually identical but the installation would have been pointless and somewhat naff. It was the hidden effort which made it rather magnificent.

I might have gone home and experimented with a tin can of my own just to gauge how time-consuming it would have been until I reflected that there were none suitable; these days most tin cans have paper labels rather than a printed design on the metal, hence the large number of drink canisters and sardine tins Auad had used. Not only are these particular cans a product of hours of work, the creation might not even be possible for many more years as printed cans give way to paper labels, plastic and carton.


This was not the only example of Auad’s belief in the redemptive power of effort. On the walls were a number of black abstract pictures, inscribed with small triangular marks. They were pleasing enough but not striking. Look at them closely and you realise that these are not painted; instead threads have been painstakingly picked away from the linen, so the designs are effectively carved out.  How long would this have taken?  Far longer than you would have expected at first sight. How often did they go wrong, requiring the whole exercise to be started anew?


The one place where effort was less obvious was in the garden; this work was supposed to be about our relationship with nature and comprised eight little plots, seven of which held medicinal plants and one of which was awaiting members of the public to plant something, in which case they were welcome to take a plant in exchange. This may become more interesting in time. At the moment rather than getting me to reflect on the environment I was more struck by the fact that this was the third artist created indoor garden that I had seen this winter; (the other two were Empty Lot in the Tate Tubine Hall and Raze Bloom at Hales Galley.) I cannot recollect having seen one before. You could put it down to synchronicity and the collective unconscious; I think it is just another manifestation of Sod’s law; however original you consider your idea to be, at least two other people will independently do something similar at about the same time.

Auad’s work is showing at the De La Warr Pavilion, Marina, Bexhill, East Sussex, TN401DP  until 10 April


The kitchen sink at the Jerwood

Fame is a slippery business. I thought about this when I went to see the exhibition of Bratby works at the Jerwood Gallery in Hastings. Until the publicity surrounding this show I must admit I had never heard of him. Nothing necessarily unusual in that; there are many artists whose names will be unfamiliar to me.  But Bratby, I learnt, had been a star; his was the name which the man in the street would have given back in 1965 if asked to think of a contemporary artist: the Damien Hirst of his time.

Bratby died in 1992 at the relatively young age of 66.   He spent the final years of his life in Hastings; yet in four years of art education, two of which were at Sussex Coast College, less than a mile from where he lived and died, I cannot recollect his being mentioned once. As it was possible I had not been paying attention, I conducted a straw poll to find who on my contact list was familiar with him. Of the dozen replies – only two people had heard of him before the exhibition, in one case because friends’ parents had owned two of his works. There were no ‘yes’ responses from anybody under 65; all the people I asked were interested in art and half of them were artists.

The downward trajectory of Bratby’s career must have been hard for him. Born in 1928, he first studied at Kingston School of Art but then turned down a scholarship at the Slade and went instead for post graduate studies to the Royal School of Art. He had the apparent good fortune to be an instant success on leaving;  a larger than life character, he attracted critical attention from the start. His personality somehow seemed to reflect what journalists and the public thought an artist should be like; he was reported to have slept in the attics at the Royal School of Art, only being discovered by the smell of his portable cooking stove.

At the age of 26 he had a solo exhibition at the Beaux Arts Gallery; he gained a series of Guggenheim awards, he first exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1954 and was elected an associate in 1959 at 31. It was a good year for him. He was the founder of the so called kitchen sink movement, a form of realism, supposedly unromantic but actually romanticising ordinary domestic life. He and fellow painters were chosen to represent Great Britain at the 1959 Venice Biennale.

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Though not of the first order, some of the early paintings have have a real charm. They create what it turns out is a false feeling of intimacy. The apparently revealing pictures of the interior of his home, his wife Jean looking a little fed up, the packet of cornflakes, the Daz that seems to have just been forgotten were in fact artfully arranged rather than a chance composition.  You can understand why the public felt they got to know him and believed that he provided a window into his life.

Bratby was chosen to paint the pictures in the 1958 film the Horses Mouth in which Alex Guinness played an artist Gulley Jimson.  This helped propel Bratby to fame but it did not necessarily benefit his art. The thick impasto of his paintings became even thicker. He began playing up to being an artist. And then in the mid 1960s, the attention suddenly started falling away; he felt that he was dropped; kitchen sink art gave way to pop art. The fame evaporated. It is significant that the Jerwood put together this exhibition not through borrowing paintings from other museums and galleries but through a public call. They were offered some 300 paintings and chose 66.

Assuming that the Jerwood chose the best, it appears more than likely that reason that Bratby failed to maintain his early success  was not just the result of a change in fashion. but arose from his strategy to maximise his income. He took the view that it was better to sell ten paintings for a moderate price than one expensive one. As he was remarkably prolific, this indeed provided him with an income which enabled him to buy a house in Blackheath. But ‘the pile ’em high sell ’em cheap’ philosophy works better for tins of beans, or indeed airline tickets, than for art. Inevitably with such quantities it would have been difficult to maintain standards. The Jerwood has assembled a remarkable collection but some of them,particularly the smaller celebrity portraits, look as though they were knocked off in an afternoon; his later works appear to be a pastiche of himself, in that they are imitating and exaggerating what has worked before rather than the genuinely exploring or developing. His ego, which was always large, clearly grew enormous, witnessed by the painting of Sir Richard Attenborough and his wife, in which he included himself not just once but three times. Neither of his subjects looked entirely comfortable with it.

Among the works there are nevertheless some striking paintings. He was good at capturing expressions.  I particularly liked his portrait of  Anne Butler; whom he painted, though he preferred brunettes, because she could sit still, hence the title, They taught me immobility in Madras.


In the painting Juxstaposition of images, the viewer has the chance to see the imagination which Bratby brought into this group portrait: there is the unexpected image of a leopard and a gladiator, and the skill by which he captured the expressions and disapproval of those around them.


The Jerwood may not have succeeded in giving back to Bratby the prominence that he had in his early years and no doubt, felt he deserved. But the exhibition is enjoyable and undoubtedly worth a visit;  at least it will ensure that the current cohort of students studying art in Hastings will have heard of him.

John Bratby Everything but the Kitchen Sink, including the Kitchen Sink is running at the Jerwood Gallery  in Hastings until 17 April.













Nature abhors a vacuum at Tate Modern

Things are beginning to grow in Empty Lot in the Turbine Hall of Tate Modern. When I first saw the installation back November, shortly after it was set up, it looked too boring for me to pay it much attention; that has all changed. The work by the Mexican artist Abraham Cruzvillegas comprises dozens of triangular planters each filled with earth donated from different parks around London. Water and light is provided but nothing else has been added apart from time.  Ten weeks ago, all the triangles looked sterile but clearly they were not; today little patches of green are beginning to appear.


It is the sense of possibility and uncertainty that makes this project interesting. The explanation on the wall, written when it was first set up, points out that there was a risk nothing might grow; that certainly hasn’t happened. The notice also recognised the possibility that the public might introduce seeds. To what extent they have done so, it is currently impossible to tell but might well become clear over the coming weeks. If this happens I imagine it will only be to the nearer plots; most are safely out of reach unless anybody manages to smuggle in a seed scattering drone.  I did make out what looked like a number of donated cherry stones in one patch, along with a few 2p coins and the odd bit of silver paper– it seems we can make a wishing well out of anything.

Could some of those seedlings that are optimistically putting up first leaves possibly be marijuana? – I am not a good enough gardener to tell but I could see that might appeal to somebody’s sense of humour; I was more certain about identifying dandelions, cow parsley, a baby sycamore a stinging nettle and in several plots the current bane of my gardening life, bindweed, both greater and lesser. There was a very healthy looking spikey shoot in one plot, presumably from some overlooked bulb. As yet there are no flowers but give it a few more weeks and I’m sure they will appear.DSC02587


The explanation on the wall spoke of the sense of hope that was represented by the work, which just goes to show how all artworks can be subject to individual interpretation. For me, it was a pretty good demonstration of why I hate gardening. You work hard to get a plot free from weeds,  turn your back for a moment, and it is as if you had never bothered.