Two year’s of looking: New Art Projects Gallery

It is amazing how a little information can transform entirely your views of an artwork or, as happened to me recently, an exhibition. I had wandered into Two Years of Looking at the New Art Projects Gallery knowing very little about it. At first it seemed one of the oddest exhibitions I had visited. The gallery is a blessed with a large space and around the walls were sculptures and different sized paintings but there was no apparent theme and no predominant style that I could identify.

I wrote last time about my visit to Black Shed Gallery where the artists through their paintings were supposed to be having a conversation. The works in  New Art Projects Gallery were possibly chatting among themselves but not about anything in particular, what they had had for breakfast, perhaps, or, as they were all from the States,  the pros and cons of the dollar strengthening against the pound.

None of the works had labels but with the aid of the catalogue you could find out who had done what and there were works from some 50 different artists.

One of the first paintings which caught my eye was this one,  with no information about it  but the not particularly informative title,  iPainting (3434267) I am not sure what it is supposed to be about, but I  really like the organic shapes; it reminded me of swirling smoke somehow captured and solidified in time. The name against the work was  Robert Buck and the price $19,000 which turned out to be the most expensive there.

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Robert Buck: iPainting

Nearby was another small painting in a similar tone of grey. I thought at first it might have been by the same artist but, no the other was by Betty Tompkins, Pussy Painting, so perhaps not so similar after all. Looking her up afterwards, I really liked her grand scale erotic works. But while I could see there was at least a colour connection,  with her work and that of Buck, I couldn’t see what either had to do with  what appeared to be a stuffed cat in the corner, Mr Early by Jack Early or the weird hanging thing,Weeping Willow (For Orlando)  by CarlosRolon/Dzine .

 

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James E Crowther: Love Thyself

I was amused by the strange painting cum sculpture of a fat man skateboarding by James E Crowther  but, again, what was the connection?

The price variation was far more than you would normally expect within the same exhibition. Whilst there were plenty of five-figure price tags,  a small ceramic figure by Dasha Bazanova was just $275; and if you fancied an orange jock strap that was a snip at $500 whilst a pastel drawing of  Popeye by Scooter la Forge came in at $975

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Mark Jan Krayenhoff van de Leur: Jockstrap

I was puzzled and went back upstairs to ask. The connection was in fact one man – US performance artist Erik Hanson  whose self-portrait, below, was included in the show. Hanson, like many artists, believes it essential to keep looking at the latest artworks and Fred Mann owner of the gallery had asked him to curate an exhibition including all the works which had touched or influenced him over the past two years.

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Erik Hanson: Self Portrait

It was such a simple but brilliant idea. A kind of Desert Island Disks for artists without the need to be limited by eight choices or to imagine life on a Desert Island. I really liked the democratic way that established artists and those at earlier stage of their careers had been treated with equal respect.

Study the works for longer and one could no doubt learn a bit more about Hanson; I mainly learnt that he liked the unusual  and the colours grey and orange.

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Bill Abertini: Three Floor Scrumples
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Justen Laada:Bevmax

His hope, according to the press blurb, was that viewers would see the New York art scene through his eyes, would  enjoy the works which had affected his thinking and might in turn be influenced by them. Once I understood the connection, I hugely enjoyed the variety; there were pieces there which I thought were tremendous fun and works which I would have loved to have owned. It introduced me to new artists.  But in a way, the lasting effect for me was the way that, just as a Desert Island Disks gets you whittling down your favourite tunes to a paltry eight, the exhibition had me drawing up in my my mind what I would have included from my own wanderings. It also made me want to see what other artists would choose given an equally free hand. Perhaps New Look Art Gallery will make this artist’s choice an annual event.

Two Years of Looking is showing at New Art Projects 6D Sheep Lane,  London E8, 4QS until August 28

 

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.

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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.

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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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Delayed decisions at the Camden Arts Centre

“I make the decision to postpone decision making for as long as possible,” German born artist Florian Roithmayr explains in the video which accompanies his solo exhibition, with, and, or without at the Camden Arts Centre. This avoidance of decision making extends to how the works are displayed. He is keen on collaboration so that the arrangement of the sculptures is  a team effort and is not even final, for he encourages the invigilation staff to rearrange the works. I noted that in the video the work shown below (name unknown as the exhibition has no labels) was lying on the floor but  when I visited, it had been promoted to the wall. Elsewhere, the concrete form inside a window shaped surround had been changed from the vertical to the horizontal.

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These fruit like pieces, which according to the exhibition booklet are named Adoration, though previously exhibited as  Crustacean (another example of impermanence) are moved daily. It must be much better fun for the staff on duty than the more common gallery task of stopping people like me taking photographs. Last time I was at the Camden Arts Centre they were particularly fierce about this and I didn’t manage to sneak a single shot of my own, but refreshingly, yesterday there was no ban and they couldn’t have been more charming.

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Much of the work in this exhibition is in concrete – but concrete made vulnerable. At times it has been coaxed into shapes such as these coloured walking-stick like objects that appear unlikely and fragile.

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The desire for changeability drives the creative process but is harnessed by technical knowledge. Rothmayr spent some time learning the skills involved in industrial processes and in particular spent time as an apprentice to a ‘concrete beautician’ who specialised in smartening up and repairing concrete facades to buildings.

But it was not the smooth which attracted me the most, rather the structures which resembled something from the natural world, perhaps a lava flow or a segment of weathered coral. They are in fact created from a wholly unnatural process.

A wooden case is half filled with wet concrete which is then injected with expanding foam; Rothmayr explains how the nozzle judders and jumps as the foam penetrates the concrete under pressure. Each element then reacts with the other before equilibrium is reached and the concrete finally sets, riddled with the softer foam, which is then meticulously carved out using dental tools so that a honeycomb structure is left behind. Rothmayr does not even undertake the carving himself, that was undertaken by the Centre staff,  so that while he sets the process in motion the ultimate outcome is out of his control.

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The result if extraordinarily tactile; the surface of the concrete has a faint sheen;  I really wanted to run my fingers into the gullies and hollows.

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Rothmayr makes no promises that the work is stable. Indeed I notice a few hairline cracks in the surface which suggested that it might not be. It would be unlikely to trouble him. He never regards a piece as finished and likes to recycle parts of older works into the new. Elements of the work on show today may be destined for a reincarnation. I like the thought that in the future, his works could bear traces of successive workings and re-workings.

with, and, or without is showing at the Camden Arts Centre till March 6.

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.

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Yoan Capote: Isla
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Yoan Capote: Fish hook detail

 

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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.

 

 

 

Being part of Artmasters

“No matter how much the art establishment doesn’t like your work, there will always be enough people who will love it and will buy it and so enable you to keep going.” These were the encouraging words from Jenny Judova who runs Art Map. She had come to talk to exhibitors at Artmasters 2015, at the Old Truman Brewery, about developing contacts and getting gallery representation. Such encouragement was necessary as watching visitors look at your art is uncomfortable.

Just think about your own behaviour on entering a new art gallery where you don’t know much about the artists. You idle about giving most of the works half a glance; occasionally you see something you love but often you don’t; you move on to the next one and then drift out of the door. We all do it; it is natural. As a visitor you feel you are behaving well if you refrain from rolling your eyes over some work you don’t like, or on reading some particularly arty bollocksy piece of prose.

If you are the artist it is completely different. You want attention; you want to say, “stop; look at mine. Tell me about it. Do you like it? Or even, if the visitor clearly doesn’t, “tell me what you don’t like about it.”

It can be nearly as disturbing if you see somebody stay and look at your work for a reasonable length of time. How uncool is it to rush across the room and ask, “what do you think?” Uncool or not, I did see one chap studying my work and wandered nonchalantly, I hoped, towards him to give a friendly ‘hello’. He moved off without saying a word.

Why put oneself through it? Well, on top of the Private View, where you are insulated from the real world by friends and family, artists at the exhibition were encouraged to stay around and meet visitors.  Last week I enjoyed talking to those who were exhibiting at the Photomasters. Getting some feedback is always useful, so in theory I was up for it.  Of course some people have been interested in my work and that has been great. But by and large I would rather not be around. So here, where I cannot see your reaction, is the piece I have on show. It is called Calcium Wave.

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Sue McDougall: Calcium Wave

This piece has two main influences; in part I have wanted to question why paintings are normally rectangular with straight edges and so have been experimenting with irregularly shaped paintings that have a sculptural element. The idea behind this specific work is that I find extraordinary that we are in essence a number of chemical reactions of which we are mostly unaware. Calcium waves occur in the brain and are thought by some neuro-scientists to enable the glial cells, which have been associated with imagination, to communicate with each other. I have depicted the waves as being partly like the sea. When I was younger I used to do a lot of caving in limestone caves which are made mainly of calcium carbonate; the waves are also reminiscent of some of the deposits you get in these caves. I hope that people looking at the piece will start thinking about their own brains and so set off their own calcium waves among the glial cells.

If you are around in Shoreditch over the next couple of days why not drop into the Artmasters Exhibition? And if you see me, do say hello.

Artmasters 2015  runs until 6pm on Sunday October 18 at the Old Truman Brewery, Ely’s Yard, 15 Hanbury Street, London E16QR.