2 September 2016 § Leave a comment
Each narrow cell in which we dwell
Is foul and dark latrine,
And the fetid breath of living Death
Chokes up each grated screen,
And all, but Lust, is turned to dust
In Humanity’s machine.
The Ballad of Reading Gaol, Oscar Wilde
For the very first time in its history, Reading Prison – formerly Gaol – has been opened to the public. The National Trust have teamed up with Artangel to allow visitors to tour the corridors and cells best known for incarcerating Oscar Wilde for two traumatic and life-changing years from 1895.
We visited on a warm summers day, with well-lit corridors and cell walls illuminated by bright shafts of sunlight. It was not the best time to experience anything of the misery that prisoners must have endured from the 1840’s right up until its surprisingly recent decommissioning in 2013, but it was not too difficult to imagine the hardships that were endured.
The core of the prison remains largely as it was built, in brick and cast iron, by George Gilbert Scott. As a renowned Victorian Gothic revival architect, he was chiefly associated with the design of churches and cathedrals, but was also architect of iconic buildings like the Midland Grand Hotel at St Pancras Station.
The influence of his church architecture can be seen in occasional gothic motifs and ceiling shapes that define the four brick-built wings. These are arranged in a (religiously influenced?) cross-shape so that the 19th century Governor could easily keep a beady eye on all four wings simultaneously from his central office area.
The prison chapel, most recently doubling as a sports hall, is suitably grand with high ceilings and leaded windows. It also features Oscar Wilde’s wooden cell door -carefully preserved it here stands monumentally atop a concrete plinth crafted to the exact dimensions of his cell. The space once had a sloping floor where the prisoners each had their own cubicle, banned from seeing or communicating with any other inmate. Total silence infact originally reigned throughout with prisoners locked 23 hours a day in single cells, banned from talking – or seeing – others and hooded when moved.
Those more dangerous or unruly were held in the handful of the ‘dark cells’ underground, isolated in the almost unimaginable privations of total darkness and silence. After taking showers in the adjacent area other prisoners were often given a two-minute taste of isolation as a, presumably fairly effective, warning of what would become them should they misbehave.
Wilde’s Cell A3.3 – actually now numbered A2.2 – can also be visited. Identical to every other it has enough space, just, for the single bed and desk that he was allowed. He managed to negotiate a supply of paper from a helpful warden – one sheet at a time – upon which he wrote the reflective De Profundis (From the Depths) – a letter to Bosie, Lord Alfred Douglas, the object of the reckless relationship that led to his eventual imprisonment. The brutal regime of Reading broke his will and contributed heavily to his early death.
Readings from De Profundis by, amongst others Patti Smith, Ralph Fiennes and Ben Whishaw will also take place, whilst writers including Ai Weiwei have also contributed letters that are on display in the cells.
Alongside the prison tours, arranged by the National Trust, is a very impressive exhibition of contemporary art. Organised by Artangel, who commission ‘art that challenges perceptions, surprises, inspires and wouldn’t be possible within the confines of a gallery.’ They have invited a formidable array of talent to produce work that reacts to the prison environment and its history.
Amongst many highlights are Robert Gober’s meticulously crafted sculptures – a waterfall within a black suit and a stream within the excavated floor of the prison, clearly expressing unfulfilled fantasies of freedom and nature.
Nan Goldin brings her raw and intimate portraits into an appropriately claustrophobic space. She occupies four cells with pieces including The Boy – a cell filled with images of a single male muse, that climb over walls and lay scattered on an iron bedstead,
Marlene Dumas has produced eight new canvases that include Wilde and Bosie as well as chronicling other troubled relationships such as between Jean Genet and two of his lovers and Pier Paolo Pasolini and his mother.
In the centre of the corridors you can help yourself to a free (yes free!) unlimited edition print by Felix Gonzales-Torres alongside cells where his curtains of dangling blue plastic beads (Untitled Water) cleverly subvert the entry to a couple of cells and a blue mirror (Untitled Fear) reflects a troubled interior.
Other thoughtful and interesting contributions come from great names like Wolfgang Tillmans, Richard Hamilton, Roni Horn, Steve McQueen and Doris Salcedo.
It is not often that architecture, culture, history, literature and contemporary art come together in a single event but here www have an exception collaboration between two giants of the arts and culture – the National Trust and Artangel, in a unique environment. They have created a wholly satisfying and integrated whole that should be most definitely experienced while it lasts.
HM Prison Reading is open for tours Friday 9 September – Saturday 29 October 2016
Artists and Writers by Artangel at Reading Prison run from 4 September to 30 October 2016
For more information visit www.artangel.org.uk
This article also appears in www.cellophaneland.com
12 July 2016 § Leave a comment
‘… fictions, stories and histories taking viewers on a series of voyages through time and space, drawing on Liverpool’s past, present and future’ – Liverpool Biennial Guide
If this summary makes this years Liverpool Biennial sound rather complicated, well, actually it is. And that is not all. When you add on exhibitions at the Tate, the John Moores Prize exhibition, Bloomberg Contemporaries and a whole series of fringe events that run alongside then it all becomes rather bewildering.
The aforementioned Biennial ‘voyages’ actually take the form of six ‘episodes’ namely: Ancient Greece, Chinatown, Children’s Episode, Monuments from the Future and Flashback.
The Tate is a good starting point for all this with a new vision of Ancient Greece. Reflecting on the neoclassical architecture throughout the city contemporary artists have been invited to exhibit alongside exhibits largely taken from the famous Blundell collection of Greek artefacts.
It is fine, but better is to visit the Tate’s other current exhibitions: the excellent Francis Bacon: Invisible Rooms which has been cleverly placed alongside Maria Lassnig – both using the body, often distorted, deformed, ageing or fragile.
Across town at the impressive redbrick Victorian Cains Brewery is a selection of episodes arranged around the hall and in to Andrea Angelidakis’ spiral Collider installation. In the centre is the film Dogsy Ma Bone from Marvin Gaye Chetwynd, made with local children over recent months and inspired by Betty Boop’s A Song A Day and Brecht’s Threepenny Opera. The whole looks rather like a student degree show although there are excellent individual works.
Around the corner at the Blade Factory is a highlight, a ‘Flashback’ from Mark Leckey. His film Dream English Kid draws on scraps of film, TV archive and ephemera, recreating events from his life between the seventies and nineties in a compelling dream-like sequence.
Another highlight was Lara Favaretto’s Momentary Monument: The Stone (2016) in Rhiwlas Street, Toxteth – a monument to destroyed community.
Two more ‘ Flashback’ artists are being exhibited at FACT. Lucy Beech’s new film Pharmakon shows downstairs whilst upstairs there are a series of interesting films and installations from Krzysztof Wodiczko, who has been working with the homeless and marginalised.
The Open Eye Gallery at Mann Island has devoted the downstairs gallery to Koki Tanaka’s ‘flashback’ revisiting of an 1985 protest march. It was not particularly gripping, but upstairs were a series of clever, witty and thought-provoking videos by Ramin Heirzadeh, Rokni Haerizadeh & Hesam Rehmanian.
Up at the historic and important ABC (scandalously being allowed to fall derelict) is a ‘Flashback’ – a rather ponderous film from Giraud & Siboni and a selection of sculptures. Better, and out of the biennial at the adjacent Walker, is the 2016 John Moores Painting Prize exhibition. Won by the likes of Peter Doig, Rose Wylie, Sir Peter Blake and John Hoyland the quality is, as expected, exceptional. Michael Simpson was this years winner of the £25,000 cheque.
Bloomberg’s New Contemporaries at the Bluecoat was rather disappointing, but at least the courtyard is a great place to relax with a coffee away from the hustle and bustle. Of the associate artists we particularly loved Lindsey Bull at the India Buildings.
Outside the biennial, as well as the Tate, Walker & Bluecoat why not try going a little farther? There are Sir Peter Blake’s Dazzle Ferry, Crosby Beach for Antony Gormley’s Another Place or the Lady Lever Art Gallery at Port Sunlight
Whilst the actual biennial ends up as rather a curatorial mess, it really does not matter that much. Ignore the rather muddled theme, just get out and about, explore the city and some great venues – in and out of the biennial. You are sure to find some surprising gems along the way.
Liverpool Biennial is at various venues until 16 October 2016
6 July 2016 § Leave a comment
This post also appears in the lifestyle & culture magazine www.cellophaneland.com
Wolfgang Tillmans’ approach to image-making is fascinating in its non-hierarchical approach to both subject and theme. This, along with his constant desire to push the boundaries of photography as an artistic medium, makes him one of the most interesting and innovative artists working today.
A solo show at the Serpentine Galleries in 2010 reinforced his respected position in the field, he has recently held solo exhibitions at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (2015); and the Beyeler Foundation, Basel (2014) whilst a major solo show at the Tate is upcoming in 2017.
He is most definitely therefore well worth catching over in Bethnal Green where Tillmans is having his eighth exhibition at the Maureen Paley Gallery. Featuring new and previously unseen work the show focuses on the visible and invisible borders that define and sometimes control us.
Central to the downstairs gallery is a large and impressive unframed print of The State We’re In, A (2015) that documents the open water of the Atlantic Ocean where international time lines and borders intersect.
This is displayed alongside images made at the Northern and Southern European Observatories that look beyond our national boundaries. Also on show are photographs that study the visual effects of the Sun’s light entering our planet’s atmosphere and an image of human blood flowing through plastic tubes, contained outside of the body during surgery.
In the upstairs gallery a new grouping of tables that follow on from his truth study center series (2005 – ongoing) are installed. Somewhat less impressive is I refuse to be your enemy 2, (2016) which enacts another use of this display format by presenting various sizes of blank office paper from Europe and North America.
Inspired by a workshop that Tillmans gave to students in Iran last year this work examines the similarities in our nationalised forms of printed communication and how these formats can unite rather than divide us. Ummm.
Continuing on this theme of unity over division, examples of Tillmans’ pro-EU poster campaign are presented on the exterior of the gallery. But perhaps we should not talk talk much about those?
Wolfgang Tillmans runs until 31 July 2016.
More information can be found at: www.maureenpaley.com
5 July 2016 § Leave a comment
‘When people read erotic symbols into my paintings, they’re really talking about their own affairs’ – Georgia O’Keefe
This post also appears at www.cellophaneland.com
This is the largest exhibition Georgia O’Keeffe ever to take place outside America and the first retrospective in the UK. Given too that there are no works in any British collection this is a rare opportunity to take a close look at the work of one of the most famous of American artists.
Famed for her close up flowers, New York cityscapes and desert landscapes – with or without bleached animal bones – this is somebody has come to represent the crowning achievements of American modernism.
Her journey was a remarkable one and in the Tate’s largely chronological approach we can see her development, from Wisconsin art student, via New York and a relationship with the leading proponent of European modernism, Alfred Stieglitz, before retiring to a ranch in the arid southwest.
The show opens with an impressive reconstruction of her 1916 show at 291 in New York. A group of charcoal sketches, heavily influenced by tutor Arthur Wesley Dow and Kandinsky’s abstract and spiritual approach, were shown to Alfred Stieglitz, the gallery’s influential owner. He spotted her early promise and put the works on show.
O’Keeffe soon moved to the city, and in to a lengthy relationship with Stieglitz. She adopted the philosophies and scientific ideas of the time: theosophy, synesthesia, with the spiritual underpinning her work. She painted abstracts – one of the first Americans to work this way – with an unmistakeable erotic symbolism that Stieglitz drew on to market her in the gallery.
He added his own nude images of her and stated that as a woman she ‘painted from the womb’. O’Keefe distanced herself from this angle, said the eroticism was in the eye of the beholder and from then veered away from abstracts. Even many years later, when artists like Judy Chicago and Miriam Schapiro claimed her as an early feminist artist, which she obviously was, she sadly continued to avoid and deny this.
It was in New York too that, bored of the city, she began painting her iconic flowers. Despite stating that ‘I hate flowers—I paint them because they’re cheaper than models and they don’t move’ they are now her most recognisable works. One somehow imagines them to fill the walls, but when seen at the Tate they seem surprisingly small and less impressive than anticipated.
A 1919 trip took her to the desert, which she adored, returning frequently and eventually moving to Santa Fe from New York when Stieglitz died in 1949. There are plenty of these desert landscapes here and the influence of Emily Carr, a Canadian artist that she met, is clear to see. Carr herself was strongly influenced by another Canadian, Lawren Harris and the Group of Seven. All were concerned with the spiritual within the landscape and one wonders how strong this influence was.
In the desert she painted the colourful, arid landscapes. These are often impressive, but also sometimes they miss the bright light and sharpness you would expect – often appearing rather distant and flat. She also painted the weeds and adobe buildings and some of these stand out in the exhibition as more appealing for their simplicity and abstract forms.
She also loved the sun dried animal bones. Perhaps these represented for her the spirituality of the land but these are perhaps the least impressive works. It is all too obvious, especially when skulls are tackily suspended in space within the landscapes.
Fans of O’Keeffe are sure to love this exhibition whilst for others it may show up limitations, but this is still a show to admire. The Tate has put on a wonderful exhibition, which truly does justice to the fascinating works of a remarkable woman and a groundbreaking artist.
For more information visit www.tate.org
4 July 2016 § Leave a comment
“I want there to be a human presence without having to depict it in full” – Cecily Brown
Located mid way on the short stroll between two of St James’ art heavyweights – Christies, King Street and White Cube, Masons Yard – are the two spaces of the Thomas Dane Gallery. It is always well worth dropping by to see the latest exhibition and with artists like Walead Beshty, Michael Landy, Hurvin Anderson and Steve McQueen on the roster there is a good chance you will find something very special.
Showing for the first time at the gallery, we found the wonderful Cecily Brown. She has recently jumped ship from Gagosian no less, a move that shows the growing power of Thomas Dane. Brown is, and has been throughout her career, one of the most engaged and distinctive painters of our time. Her preoccupation has always been the Body – in all its various guises and narratives, fleshy shapes and forms appearing from her many layered works.
Brown’s paintings are immersive and her passion is contagious. She reminds us how great it is to look at art unhurriedly: the pleasure of contemplation and examination. Her paintings reveal themselves slowly, almost ‘continuously’.
Brown often talks about ‘Sublimation’, paraphrasing Francis Bacon who craved “the grin without the cat”, the “sensation” without the “boredom of its conveyance”. Something she calls a ‘Breaking-down’ process.
Recently we discover that Brown has been (re)looking at a particular painting, and has fallen in love with it all over again: Degas’ Young Spartans, from 1860, at London’s National Gallery. She brings Degas’ very recognisable, cluster of bodies, postures and composition into some of the work here.
Crowds are indeed very present for example – in the enigmatic Madrepora, 2015. The ghoulish assembly of The Smugglers, 2015, too could have sprung out of a James Ensor painting.
A series of ‘Dark’ paintings are reminiscent of the Spanish Masters and brings together Brown’s taste for the slightly macabre, or forbidden, with more risqué reclining male nudes.
Spanning both spaces of the gallery, the exhibition includes some of works from the past. These are cleverly hung alongside her sketches and allows us to add some history and context to her work. Her star must surely continue to rise.
Cecily Brown – Madrepora runs until 23 July 2016
For more information visit www.thomasdanegallery.com
2 July 2016 § Leave a comment
This review is also posted in arts & culture magazine CELLOPHANELAND here
There is probably little point in making any sort of critical analysis of the latest Royal Academy Summer Exhibition. It is what it is, which to be honest is rather a mess. Pretty much every gallery is hung by a different curator and whilst it is interesting to see what they have done it is ultimately beside the point.
The whole show should rather be taken more at face value – an annual opportunity for the talented, enthusiastic, amateurish and hopeful to apply to have their work on the walls of the academy. Here they can rub shoulders with the latest pieces from the Royal Academicians in a gloriously anarchic jumble.
This years ‘co-ordinator’ is the sculptor Richard Wilson best known for 20:50 – the oil filled installation at the Saatchi. He has invited twenty artistic duos to present their work within this years exhibition. We therefore have Gilbert & George with Beard Aware and Jane & Louise Wilson in the lobby stairwell with Chernobyl.
There are other obvious duos like Jake & Dinos Chapman, Eva & Adele, Allora & Calzadilla, Bernd & Hilla Becher and Tim Noble & Sue Webster. Their presence however serves no real curatorial purpose and they are lost within the show – at best it is simply of interest to see some of their work.
Almost all of the pieces are of course for sale and it is quite a good opportunity to pick some work for your own walls. Prices of course vary considerably from a few hundred to a few hundred thousand, and for the uninitiated it is not always easy to spot the difference!
For the first time the works are available to browse and buy online and we would highly recommend taking a look online before the show and before purchasing (link here).
For our part we loved a little George Shaw edition (we highly recommend his National Gallery exhibition reviewed here) , Marguerite Horner’s enigmatic painted landscapes and Tom Hunter’s Rose prize-winning photograph Winterville. Harry Hill had one of his witty celebrity-oriented works – a tattooed David Beckham (sold but we hear High House Gallery has work available).
With rather more to spend Gert & Uwe Tobias’ had two spectacular works and there was a bright Gillian Ayres, which all seemed reasonable value despite the big ticket prices as did Rose Wylie’s Spider, Frog & Bird.
The floor to ceiling ‘salon’ hang – which is the norm at the Summer Exhibition – makes for difficult viewing, but it is not often that so much (varied) talent is on view at the same time. Take it slowly and concentrate on works that catch your eye – we have posted a selection of those that caught ours – and you may just have a very enjoyable visit.
The RA Summer Exhibition runs until 16 August 2016
For more information visit www.royalacademy.org.uk
29 June 2016 § Leave a comment
“It’s the instantaneous light. If you get it right then you get it in the total present tense – that’s what you’re going for, that’s eternity.” Alex Katz
The new Alex Katz exhibition at the Serpentine Galleries is a combination of two distinct series of work representing two aspects of his work – portraits and landscapes. Entering the gallery we are met with three walls each with one gigantic orange painting.
These are recent portraits of women – each given the subjects first name – Vivien, Anna and Ada (his wife, a frequent subject). They may be named and are ‘of’ somebody but that is as far as Katz wants to take us. These might just as well be still lifes, we are not invited to learn any more about these ladies and there is no narrative. We are simply encouraged to be ‘in the moment’ and the artists wants to see no more or no less that what is right before us.
The subjects are simply dressed, if indeed we see what they are wearing, almost expressionless, and return our gaze. The backgrounds a pure bright orange – they could be ‘Easy Jet’ adverts and indeed the link with advertising is there, Katz heavily influenced by billboards, his paintings characterised by their flatness of colour and fluidity of line.
The artist, now 88, came of age as an artist in 1950s New York, and developed his unique approach to contemporary representational painting during the height of Abstract Expressionism. His work is reminiscent of artists like Tom Wesselman and Andy Warhol but any association to pop art is to be avoided though as gentle and careful brushstrokes energise the caves and bring life to the faces.
The exhibitions title, Quick Light, comes from Katz’s desire to bring the image to us as quickly as possible – as in adverts – removing superfluous detail in order that our brains absorb the image with minimal delay. Like the almost totally two dimensional figures the paint is flat and he is happy to agree with the term ‘aggressive’ in respect of the quick impact that his images have upon us.
The Serpentine has also taken the clever opportunity to present a number of Katz’s landscape paintings in the leafy surroundings of Hyde Park. The central gallery is occupied by several of these, some almost abstract in appearance exemplify his life-long quest to capture the present tense in paint. The largest fill whole walls of the Serpentines sizeable walls.
Reflection is a rohrsach-style mirrored reflection water in blue and black, West 1 features illuminated windows on a black background whilst Black Brook 18, in green and black we guess must be a stream and grass.
They are enigmatic and again Katz gives no story – these are paintings simply of present ‘moments’. Regardless of their scale, he describes these paintings as ‘environmental’ in the way in which they envelop the viewer. Defined by temporal qualities of light, times of the day and the changing of the seasons.
Everything Katz does looks deceptively easy, and thats how he wants it. Seeing that Henri Matisse’s work seemingly required ’no effort’ he was inspired to paint in a similar way. The inspiration of this Serpentine show is seeing another master at the peak of his powers.
Alex Katz: Quick Light is at the Serpentine Gallery until 11 September.
For more information visit www.serpentinegalleries.org
This feature also appears on www.cellophaneland.com