elmgreen & dragset win battle of trafalgar

24 January 2011 § 1 Comment

OK, I am feeling very smug. I correctly predicted in a previous blog  E&D as the clear winners of the competition to fill the vacant Trafalgar Square fourth plinth. Admittedly it was not a particuarly difficult task given the quality of the opposition but thank goodness the judging comittee ‘got it right’ – well, in my view at least!

Adrian Searle in The Guardian was one in particular who also perceived it as a clear winner – their ‘golden boy on a rocking horse is by far the best. Like Fritsch’s cockerel, but unlike Locke’s work, it avoids being kitsch. The simplified detail and expression feel just right. Leaning back and with one arm raised aloft, he’s more than a toy boy. This is the child as hero of the battles of his imagination.’

The excellent Victoria Miro gallery represents E&D in the UK and were of course quick to congratulate them. This is what they say about the work:

‘In this portrayal of a boy astride his rocking horse, a child has been elevated to the status of a historical hero, though there is not yet a history to commemorate – only a future to hope for. Elmgreen & Dragset’s work proposes a paraphrase of a traditional war monument beyond a dualistic worldview predicated on either victory or defeat. Instead of acknowledging the heroism of the powerful, Powerless Structures, Fig. 101 celebrates the heroism of growing up.’

The plinth commission is typical of their work which reconfgures the familar with great invention and humour. They recently created ‘The Collectors’  for the Nordic Pavilion at the Venice Biennale (right) – a recreated ‘home’ deserted save for a body floating in a pool. Other works have included siting a Prada boutique in the centre of the Texan desert, creating a pool diving board from the window of a Californian home and transforming a venue in to a subway station.

Always redefining and confounding expectations can I suggest to Boris that they ask E&D to move underground from the Trafalgar Square plinth and turn the Tube in to an efficiently working service? Perhaps too much to ask – even for them!

I should note that in addition Katharina Fritsch’s giant blue cockerel is a second ‘winner’ which will be displayed in 2014 following E&D’s work.

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london art fair 2011

23 January 2011 § 1 Comment

The London Art Fair 2011 kicked off this last week with, let us say, a whimper rather than a bang. Despite being around for some 23 years, it has been on the way down for many years since Frieze stole its thunder a number of years back. Its decline this year was sadly rather evident.

The first thing to strike you was not who was there, but who was not. The big international galleries have long since avoided the fair: White Cube, Hauser & Wirth, Victoria Miro and the like steer well clear. Middle level galleries are now almost completely absent – the likes of Stephen Friedman and Flowers are largely gone. As for small, influential galleries like Carl Freedman – not a chance. Even little West End galleries like John Martin selling popular and easily accessible work – the galleries for who you would imagine this show is perfect are deserting the ship.

So who is left? There was a reasonably good selection of work from Modernist British artists – Ivon Hitchens, Roger Hilton, Alan Davie and the like – shown by galleries such as Anthony Hepworth, Austin Desmond and Richard Green. It was however thoroughly mixed in with contemporary work of generally poor quality from a multiplicity of small galleries – mostly little-known or ‘popping-up’ from unknown origins. 

The whole was exhibited in a maze of alleys and passageways that seems ever more confusing and cramped year by year. The balcony stands afford such little viewing space that it is rather like having a gellery on a tube train whilst the Art Projects section showed some dire stuff in an assortment of back rooms.

The supposed ‘VIP’ tickets afforded a slightly more leisurely experience, but unaccompanied by any drinks until 6pm when some mediocre cava appeared in plastic glasses (the fact it was in relatively generous quantity was a minor blessing). As for the supposed ‘VIP room’ – I wont even go there!

Was it really as bad as I make out – probably not and I passed a pleasant enough couple of hours at the fair – but it was all slightly disappointing and not the sort of event  to inspire the spending of large amounts of money on high quality art – even if you could find it. The first word from some dealers I spoke to backs up this impression – “the worst year yet”, “no buyers around” and “never again”. Verdict: C minus – could try harder. Will we see anything change next year – nope!

norman rockwell at dulwich – correction

22 January 2011 § Leave a comment

My sincere apologies to Norman (god bless his soul) who I inadvertantly renamed Normal Rockwell in a recent post entitled ‘Normal Rockwell at the Dulwich Picture Gallery’. I suspect that I subconsciously revealed my thoughts on the exhibition before I had even started writing! Perhaps the title was in that way somehow very appropriate after all?

The Daily Telegraph for example broadly agrees with my blog but adds some interesting comments at the end emphasising the exhibitions value as an indicator of social history:

But go to these Saturday Evening Post covers and what you find beneath the broad humour and occasional sentimentality is his heartfelt love for what he sees as the American virtues of tolerance and understanding,

Rockwell’s limitations are the limitations of commercial illustration. He never criticised either his country or a political party for the simple reason that the purpose of his Post covers was to sell magazines, and you don’t do that by antagonising any one sector of society. Even so, Rockwell’s own politics (he was a broadly liberal New Englander) are worth bearing in mind, because references to the social divisions that exist in US society are there if you look for them .

The show at Dulwich is worth seeing for many reasons, but I left it feeling unhappy, but not quite able to put my finger on why. Later, it came to me: whatever their political views, in the country I grew up in everyone thought of themselves as American. Today the US is polarised in a way that was once unimaginable. It’s not nostalgia his illustrations made me feel, it’s loss.

twombly and poussin: arcadian painters

13 January 2011 § 1 Comment

Whilst viewing the Norman Rockwell (reviewed in a recent post) at the lovely Dulwich Picture Gallery I took a look through their upcoming programme. The most intriguing of combinations arrives on the 29 June 2011. The American post-war artist Cy Twombly is paired with Poussin,  the 17th Century painter of neo-classical landscapes.

The exhibition seems to have been founded on a Twombly quote; “I would’ve liked to have been Poussin, if I’d had a choice, in another time.”  

The Gallery states that ‘Separated by three centuries the two artists nonetheless share remarkable similarities. The connections are highlighted through the key themes of Arcadia and the pastoral, passion and love, violence and war and mythological figures that are central to both artists’ work.’

On the face of it these are two artists linked by the thinnest of threads. One cannot accuse the gallery of being unadventurous and this will be a tough exhibition to pull off successfully. Despite reservations I do however look forward to seeing them try!

norman rockwell at dulwich picture gallery

10 January 2011 § 3 Comments

A place renowned for its collection of 17th and 18th century European ‘Old Master’ paintings is hardly one where you would expect to bump in to an exhibition by the 20th century America illlustrator Norman Rockwell. Dulwich Picture Gallery has however been getting more adventurous of late and this delightful gallery in this leafy – and exclusive – southeast London enclave has an extensive show of Rockwell’s work running through until the 27th March 2011.

Rockwell is best known for the distinctive covers which graced the popular magazine, The Saturday Evening Post. All three hundred or so of his cover illustrations are shown here as well as around forty originals oils that he created not only for the Post, but also for other publications or advertisments.

He was by far America’s best-loved illustrator of the century – famous, well-known and admired. His work, created in oil on canvas, was of the highest quality and minutely observed owing much in technique and even style to the European artists that hang in Dulwich’s permanant collection. Perhaps this modest link is this why he is here, but we are not told and most certainly his presence in such a venerated gallery does not elevate his work to the status of ‘art’.

He painted detailed scenes of everyday life and presented American values as he saw them. They are often described using terms like heart-warming, affectionate and sentimental. They are however frequently overly-emotional as well as being idealised, twee and cloying. Although these are oils of the highest technical execution they would only be ‘elevated’ to fine art by the likes of those who view Jack Vettriano as a great post-modern painter. This is not to belittle Rockwell but to place him firmly where he deservedly belongs – as one of the finest illustrators of the century and a deft chronicler of a particular set of early and mid-20th century American views and ideals – and these are naturally white, middle-class and conservative.

This is a modest exhibition in a lovely venue and is well worth an afternoons excursion because of that, but in another venue it would be hard to recommend other than out of mild curiosity.

rush to the ballets russes

4 January 2011 § Leave a comment

If you haven’t yet made a beeline for the ballet you must do so right away! Diaghilev and the Golden Age of the Ballets Russes – the current blockbuster at the V&A – closes this Sunday 9 January 2011.

Even if, like me, you have little specific interest in the ballet this is a marvellous exhibition that explores the world of the influential artistic director Serge Diaghilev and the most exciting dance company of the 20th century, the Ballets Russes. Diaghilev imaginatively combined dance, music and art to create ‘total theatre’. A consummate collaborator, he worked with many of the greatest artistic talents of the day; people like Stravinsky, Chanel, Picasso, Matisse and Nijinsky. There are, for example, amazing Russian ‘suprematist’ costumes from Leon Bakst, fascinating artwork from the likes of Bracque and Matisse  plus vast theatre backdrops from Picasso and Gontcharova.  A brilliant Wyndham Lewis oil even manages to find its way in to the mix.

Diaghilev’s dramatic performances transformed dance, reawakening interest in ballet across Europe and America. Celebrating the company’s key period of activity, this major exhibition reveals Diaghilev’s enduring  influence on 20th-century art, design and fashion and includes more than 300 objects including giant theatre cloths, original costumes, set designs, props and posters by artists and designers. These tell the story of a company which began in the social and political upheaval of pre-Revolutionary Russia and went on to cause a sensation with exotic performances that had never been seen before.

The whole is interspersed with informative mini-lectures, archive film and stirring music from the likes of Wagner (no, the real one) and Stravinsky. All very educational – you never know, I might even break the habit of a lifetime and try a ballet at Covent Garden!

Full details at the V&A website.

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