13 April 2024

Yinka Shonibare: Suspended States: Serpentine Gallery

Yinka Shonibare is an artist whose work is usually immediately recognisable, with his career-long use of Dutch wax print fabrics and their interplay with colonial imagery. It still shocks, and also delights, to see a Winston Churchill or Queen Victoria statue decorated with the bright yellows and blues, pinks and reds of African costume, the floral and paisley prints taking over the very substance of the person. Usually oversized and imposing, these figures seem cut down to size.

 Decolonised Structures Yinka Shonibare

It's as if from now on, every such statue that you see of a person in power, each symbol of authority and subjugation has such fabric and design projected upon it. Shonibare has done that to the imagination. Such figures, the evidence of wealth, just cannot be seen any more without the awareness of the colonised nations who paid such a heavy price for empire. We can no longer go through our cities and the grandest central buildings, the areas of commerce, without an awareness of the legacy of plantations and slavery which funded them. The history has always been there, and is now uncovered and exposed.

Shonibare is a creator, not a destructor. He subverts through beauty, the most powerful of arts. He adds.

The work is deeply researched and based upon knowledge and the retelling of history. The retruthing of history. And yet he maintains the lightest of touches. What he does is in plain sight, and yet his work can be approached, and is approached, in many ways. It is the colours of the Dutch wax prints, it is the history of that batique fabric in Africa, along with all its glorious aesthetic values.

The dark central room of the Serpentine houses a collection of  dark architecture model-like buildings, glowing from within with the illumination of his signature fabrics. It's a stunningly beautiful piece, and like a dream come true to wander in there. Again, the cathedrals and buildings of the West are shown with African culture long embedded within the walls and windows.

Sanctuary City Yinka Shonibare

Not just a shelf of books, but walls, an entire library, It's such a generous presence, gorgeous to the eye. You know there is more order there, underlying meanings, and after a while, you realise that the books are marked for wars and conflicts, and some unnamed for those yet to be. Like all intriguing libraries that can only be looked at and not touched, the mind fills in with possibilities and imagining what treasures may be hidden within the volumes.

 The War Library and Yinka Shonibare

This entire show is meticulous and a pleasure to be in. I found it deeply moving and inspiring. There is nothing heavy handed about the message, and that is what gives Yinka Shonibare his power.

Serpentine South, Kensington Gardens, London W2 3XA

12th April - 1st September 2024

Admission free.


20 March 2024

Portraits to Dream In: National Portrait Gallery

Imagine being one of the very earliest photographers, exploring the meanings and possibilities of a new world. In the mid nineteenth century, and for a considerable time after, photography was very hands on, as much a darkroom science as art. This really was the reality for photography until fairly recent digital technology, that each plate was as much a consideration of time as light and composition. Now we can take twenty quick snaps on our phone, and choose the best, but then, each image was infinitely more considered. Every photograph required so much processing and further investment of effort, that quality far outweighed the idea of quantity.

Imagine being one of the first people to realise the painterly qualities of photography, and how it can capture aspects of character and personality unique to the medium.

We are used to seeing some weird Victorian photographs, the propped up dead family members in a studio setting, the glum, serious, buttoned up portraits. We appreciate that exposure took so long that people had to keep still, much longer than anyone could say cheese. In Cameron's work we know the subjects have been arranged and are sitting for a long time, really settled into the pose. There is a ghostliness about the slight blurring, an awareness of the soul, and what the photograph can only allude to but never capture.

I seem to remember writing my fine art degree dissertation about light hitting the camera, and how that is the same light that the photographer saw, that bounced off the subject. While a painting is the same paint, and a sculpture is the same stone that the artist touched, there is something about the same light, and sharing the same moment in time that is thrilling for me.

It's a rare and privileged treat to see so many of the actual prints in this exhibition. It's been a triumph of organisation and logistics to arrange international loans. Some of these images I knew quite well, and probably had on a postcard on my teenage bedroom wall. I love that feeling of being a bit star struck to meet an artwork in the flesh, to see its marks and substance, rather than just its image. These works are so rarely seen that they are too delicate to photograph directly, or to have flash. The relationship with light continues.

As a completely freelance and in fact unfettered reviewer, I can focus on whatever I like. I never feel it's my role to reflect an entire exhibition, but to give my impression. In some ways this show is curated with a delightfully light hand - the mounting and framing is meticulous, the colour of the walls are somehow unnamable and glowing, the lighting is sympathetic. The script on the walls is absolutely right, quite spare - how often has your eye been drawn away from the work, especially in photography exhibitions, to read the text? Here the work speaks for itself, and is arranged thematically.

However, I found the curation of this exhibition extremely insistent, if not heavy handed. I admit that I just didn't have the bandwidth to look at the Francesca Woodman photographs, and ended up skipping them entirely in favour of the Camerons. This was not a slight on a wonderful artist, but I felt the comparison and juxtaposition, a perfectly valid and reasonable curator's choice, just did not work for me. Perhaps it's like programming music - I can easily listen to a concert of Sibelius and Stravinsky, but I just can't listen to them at the same time.

I came to see the Julia Margaret Cameron photographs. I wanted to dive into that aesthetic. Yes, these two artists have so many qualities and parallels, in their allegorical approach to photography, and in aesthetic, but I would have had a preference for more separation in sections. In an exhibition I want to make my own discoveries, and not constantly be told how to see things. I love a bit of judicious juxtaposition. Portraits to Dream In constantly interrupts itself by shuffling the two artists together.

I was reminded of an exhibition I once went to in Prague, where the attendants were extremely annoyed that I wandered about rather than follow the prescribed sequence.

I almost want to return, this time just to look at the gorgeous Francesca Woodman works, the poignant flowering of a short life.

The National Portrait Gallery has had another revamp. It really is exquisite and well worth a visit. A Pay as You Wish scheme opens this exhibition up to all.

Francesca Woodman and Julia Margaret Cameron: Portraits to Dream In 

National Portrait Gallery,  London 

21March - 16June 2024

www.npg.org.uk2 francesca-woodman-and-julia-margaret-cameron-portraits-to-dream-in

Addition 21 March 2024

I woke up this morning in a new realisation about the curation question. I know enough about dyslexia to recognise its effect, even if that is delayed. A typical initial response is an inner feeling that there is somehow something wrong or missing with the self, because I can't access perfectly accessible information. I mean, what's wrong with me!

Dyslexia is about processing information in the mind. It's individual, but there are shared characteristics. The dyslexic mind is creative because it MUST invent for itself patterns and connections. What can be found in that way can be astonishing, but the dyslexic mind also finds it extremely difficult to follow prescribed patterns of thought. I recognise this. I know it.

It is typical of dyslexia to find it frustratingly distracting to be faced with conflicting and simultaneous information. The eye scatters - a simple example is that dyslexic people find columns of print difficult to read because their eyes are particularly distracted by the overwhelm of information in the other columns. This is the way Portraits to Dream In is presented. Perhaps it is a very smooth experience for neuro-typical and neuro-linear people to access. For dyslexic and neuro-diverse people I truly bet that I will not be alone.

This exhibition would be an ideal setting for a proper psychological study if it could quickly be devised and arranged. I have written about this area before, in the aftermath of my own psychology masters and study, and my experience of assessing exhibitions for Arts Council England. If it could be done, I'd love to do it.

18 March 2024

Banksy Tree Finsbury Park

Banksy Watch: 10May24

I hadn't been round to visit the local Banksy for a while, and was curious what might have happened now that Spring has really sprung. Of course, now the tree itself has sprouted more foliage, reflecting the graffiti, and it's that, along with all the layers of fencing and perspex there which is going to continue changing.

Now the whole thing looks muffled and a bit unremarkable by all those layers of context. More plaster is peeling off the wall. It's quite hard to see the Banksy at all. It's certainly a mess.

Banksy Watch: 08Apr24

Graffiti is really an ephemeral art, and it's Banksy's works which are the anomaly, in that they get preserved. Around where I live there are a couple of places where graffiti artist work, especially a tunnel along the Parkland Walk. Apart from all the toxic fumes, it's really amazing to see the work, which of course, it gets painted over, sprayed over, even sometimes scribbled on. I don't know what the inside etiquette of that is, but graffiti comes and goes.

Behind the boards and screens, you can see that the plaster on the wall is already beginning to fall off. I'm sure that happened after the screen was put there, and so it is rapid weathering of a base which was never intended to last. You can also see the tree budding, and even stubby blossom, making this all a very living piece.

Banksy Watch: 27Mar24

What the actual ^%$JK^)$£"£_$%^%$+????!!!!

Not my words. I quote from the person next to me visiting the Banksy Tree. I can only agree with the eloquence of that.

Well, it was born in the wild, and this is its jungle. If Banksy had painted his tree background on the wall outside Tate Modern, I guess it would be a different story. As it is, this is what you get.

Banksy Watch: 25Mar24

I went the long way home, and can't believe I was there just at the right time when the perspex cover was being installed.

I really don't understand why some big art institution like Tate Modern or the National Gallery, or one of the museum, galleries or art installation companies didn't offer a team and experts to Islington Council. Perhaps they did and Islington declined.

Instead we got some guys. Nothing against them, they're doing a days work. But really, what a mess. It's all a bit Laurel and Hardy, if not Chuckle Brothers. It's hilarious and uncomfortable to watch such a Health and Safety void.

People are already coming from all over the world to see this tree. I spoke to a woman from Japan who is in the UK for five days, and now going to use her time visiting other Banksy's. There was an extremely tall European family, and a few others all witnessing this amateurish conservation. Surely this could be done better.

Banksy Watch: 24Mar24

I live near enough to the Banksy Tree to swing by there every so often. It's been a week, and I've been 4 times.

Initially it was a statement of beautification/ meaning/ commentary/ /intervention/ graffiti - insert your own view here. It was an exciting neighbourly event. I find it powerful and eloquent. How soon it has become messy and uglified. I wonder if Banksy himself has been amongst the crowds come to visit. He must know what will happen, but there doesn't seem to be a Banksy back-up team to orchestrate the aftermath. You could almost pity the folk at Islington Council who now have this to deal with.

I've never been to see the Mona Lisa. You may well have, and I hear it's so protected by layers of distorting safety glass and so popular that you sort of shuffle past, unable to really see anything other than its vague presence. The Banksy Tree is becoming layered, you could say encrusted, with layers of safety fencing, warning signs, and now, big wooden struts. I didn't go today, but I imagine that was for some perspex covering which the Council have commissioned as a matter of urgency.

It's a bit disappointing. The Tree will not degrade naturally, nor fade into the urban landscape. It remains vulnerable.

Banksy Tree Update: 2 days later Wednesday 20Mar24

We all know it was only a matter of time before something was going to happen to this. Splattering paint over, or some graffiti was the obvious, and so it is. White paint anyway, so at least not multi-coloured.

This morning I took a bus in London, As any city ride tends to, it went through impressive areas and crappy areas. As I was sitting and thinking, my attention was caught by a little tree in a corner, and the Banksy tree immediately came to mind, and elevated that little tree. All the trees misplaced, misplanted, built around, transformed by a context of imagined paint. Just how many metaphors can you read into that?

It reminded me of something my daughter and a friend of hers used to do - swap photos of mattresses found dumped in the street. It totally transformed something appalling and imposed into not just a game, but a reframing. How often the mattresses were comically slumped, their shoulders shrugged in drunken nonchalance.

It makes the imaginary city better. I think that may well be geopsychology. And the little tree made me realise that I've already let that Banksy into my heart, into the way I see the world and the city. I carefully curate this, as I'm sure we all do.

The other day there was a buzz, and a neighbourly vibe. Already it's different there, with an ugly fence around it. What else can they do?

Monday 18Mar24

Just 10 minutes from my home, in a particularly undistinguished stretch, is a very ordinary street, Hornsey Road. Rumours of a Banksy appearing there brought us for a walk this morning. 

Britain is full of odd little patches of lawn between blocks of council estates and roads. Hornsey Road is main enough to have constant traffic and buses trundling by. On the other side of the road the housing block is slap bang up to the pavement, too near. I've always felt sorry about that, and that I'd find it difficult to live somewhere where traffic and fumes are only a pavement away.

I was particularly struck by the gift of this artwork to such an area as this, truly a little forgotten corner, as if elevating the beauty and potential of all such hidden little corners.

The tree piece is so many things - pollarded branches frame the enormous splatter of green paint on the wall of the Victorian terrace of shops with flats above - just another familiar architectural feature of London after the bombing in World War II. My own home is like that, the abruptly ended terrace where decades ago a bomb fell, the site long filled in with a '50s council block.

So it's an odd little space. And the cropped tree, just undistinguished city furniture, now elevated to it's true significance, and probably international stardom.

The scale, the ambition of the green splatter is wonderful. It's the most perfect site-specific concept. It makes the tree sculptural, and it gives form and meaning to the paint.

Today the patch of pavement was filled with reporters and photographers. There were locals and visitors. What I particularly loved was that it brought out some local arty people, keen to talk, and delighted that for once something like this is on their doorstep. The neighbours of the tree, the people living in these unlikely flats, are being interviewed. The tree belongs to them, and to everyone.

The tree is commentary, it's an intervention, it's bold, beautiful, stunning, unmistakable. It's a happening.

28 February 2024

Hello Brain: Crick Institute

Not, as I accidentally read, Hello Brian.

Exhibitions are so much about context. I'd not been into the Crick Institute before, and was absolutely awed by the enormous atrium around which floors of glass-walled labs offer glimpses into the activities within. It's like a contemporary cathedral to science.

The exhibition area is the interface, the public engagement space, between all that proper, world-class research going on nearby, and us lot. It's a tricky brief, to offer an exhibition about the brain to all who may drop by - scientists, non scientists, students, families, children. I'd say the exhib largely succeeds - there are touchy feely exhibits and children's activities through to QR code links to further research papers. Each theme about the brain has a little vignette display, and there is bound to be something for everyone to find interesting or intriguing.

The space is further brightened by trails of knitted neurons - a great craft project in itself. More dodgy are some pendulous hanging protuberances which are available to sniff. To me they just smelled like cushions, they're too high for children, and I wouldn't like to go near them once the exhibition has been running for a few months.

And so to the wider context. I do love a sci-art exhibition, and genuine collaborations with scientists and contemporary artists. I also love to see historical scientific exhibits in old and new settings. I've strayed into what is not in this particular exhibition, but the wider context is the nearby Wellcome Trust and indeed the British Library, all a stroll near enough to combine into a marvellous, enlightening and totally free visit, right in the buzzy atmosphere of working scientists and researchers, keen to impart knowledge.

Hello Brain 

The Francis Crick Institute

1 Midland Road, London NW1 1AT 

2nd March to 7th  December 2024

www.crick.ac.uk hello-brain

The Zone of Interest: Jonathan Glazer: film

Every generation has to reinterpret histories and stories. No version is set in stone, and when we look back, it's through the understanding gained since. I'm a generation born well within living memory of the war. I say 'the war' as if that is definitive, and another war to end all wars. World War 2 in the '60s and '70s already seemed like a faded past, a sepia photograph in a multicoloured age. Now time has stretched even further, and that time seems nearer. The Zone of Interest is like one of those colourised postcards or home movies which seem to animate the past and make the distant characters seem real, contemporary and relatable.

As a post-war, just into baby boomer child, my childhood was coloured by my father's war stories, endless war films, and The World at War series, revealing the evidence, footage, testimony of the Holocaust. I remember talking to someone I knew, many of whose family had died or survived the Holocaust, and was amazed that, at the time, I knew much more about it than her, as growing up, her parents had tried to shield her from the truth.

Like all the audience for The Zone of Interest, I bring with me all the documentaries, films, knowledge and conversations I've encountered. Whatever you know about the Holocaust you bring to this film. It's always behind the scenes, over the wall, just out of sight. Its constant presence, its incomprehensible scale, seeps into every frame.

It's today's film. We simply observe. Of course these are actors, but they just get on with it, and there is little to reveal their inner life or thoughts as they carry on with their deliciously normal existence while yards away in Auschwitz, hell is going on. I don't need to see another movie for a while, I just need to think about this one.

The sound and the use of sound in this film is a masterpiece.

The Zone of Interest, Director Jonathan Glazer 2024

16 February 2024

Yoko Ono: Music of the Mind: Tate Modern

I was about 10 when I first heard of Yoko Ono's art. A brother-in-law told me about the ladder piece leading to a small 'yes' on the ceiling, with the upmost derision and outrage. Remember that sort of attitude, that anyone could make that crap, and modern art is empty and stupid?

I was delighted to see that piece, Ceiling Painting/Yes Painting (1966), after so many decades, sitting there. For me, a poignant moment, and one of those star-struck experiences when in front of some art known well through reputation or images. There is was, still so full of potential, still poetic and direct.

There is work reminiscent of what you can still find anywhere you wander around an art school or graduation show, but here it is in its purest form, the conceptual ideas from Fluxus that artists are still working through since a century ago. Yoko Ono came from philosophy and her early connections with artists such as Marcel Duchamp and John Cage. We see in this exhibition her development of describing paintings and work in their most deconstructed forms, and then only showing the directions. There are several works created through instructions, including paintings for the viewer to imagine. 

It's fun, ridiculous, poetic, profound and performative to dress up as a shadow. It's also evocative of the shadows of the 20th century, still trailing into today. This is a woman who was a child in Japan during WW2. Again, the work can be read in multiple ways, and as an artist Ono is never heavy handed in proscribing meaning and interpretation.

I was reminded of early Ai Weiwei in Half-a-Room (1967). And other works, other artists. She is the light pencil mark, linking early conceptualism to contemporary practice.

Yoko Ono's work has changed and not changed over the years and decades. It constantly evolves and challenges, and yet stays consistent in its directness. Often artists who make an international career move into creating bigger works with higher production values, and in fact become like factories. That's marvellous, and produces work of great scale. Yoko has managed to forge a significant career where it's just her, her ideas, her practice, perhaps a microphone, a pen and paper, and production values within the grasp of most artists. She collaborates when it's appropriate, but it's concept first.

At any point in life, she has made work with just herself and the most direct and basic of materials - pen to paper, a microphone, her voice, her ideas. The reason the works resonate is because of the simple profundity, the pared down philosophy which is her discipline. It's not conceptual work just in the head - it's often touching, and there is no limit to how deep you can go with a light touch.

Cut Piece (1964) documents an event where the audience were invited to cut away pieces of her clothing. This is a film which is still very upsetting to watch, and in many complex ways. It's so eloquent, speaking of endurance, power, feminism and consent.   

Music of the Mind is quite a large show. There are fun pieces to participate in, small works to contemplate, raw and disturbing works, like mirrors to reflect your own thoughts and conceptions. It's quiet work, remarkably fresh and timeless, and well worth two hours of your time to take it all in.

The exhibition ends with a recording of Yoko and a microphone about 10 years ago when she was 80. If you already know her as a musician, you know how haunting her voice is. She voices the anguish of the soul, a screech and echo which you can only produce through pure authenticity in the moment.

In other news, this is a paid and timed ticket exhibition. I was lucky enough to go for free, but full price at £22 seems rather steep, don't you think?

Yoko Ono: Music of the Mind 

Tate Modern Bankside 

London SE1 9TG 

15 February to 1st September 2024


26 January 2018

Andreas Gursky at the reopened Hayward Gallery

The Hayward Gallery has reopened after a two year upgrade with a retrospective of master photographer Andreas Gursky.

Let me be a little honest here - who has not at times seen the odd photograph in an exhibition and wondered why it merits its place on the wall? This resistance is not limited to photography, but at times it is hard to discern the elevation of immediacy to well-considered art. Photography of course asks this fundamental question: Is it a great photograph, or is it a photograph of something great? My answer to this equation is for a photograph to meet both criteria, and even better is the great photograph which transforms its subject.

Andreas Gursky Bahrain I, 2005 C-print 302.2 x 219.6 x 6.2cm 
 © Andreas Gursky/DACS, 2017 Courtesy: Sprüth Magers

Gursky is an artist who truly earns their place on any wall. He is a photographer who has a vision, and has meticulously and consistently produced fascinating work for decades. He has a painterly soul, and uses photography to create a view of the world.

Scale is definitely a word to describe Gursky's work. Many pieces are almost unfeasibly large photographs, showing what could be described as a multiplied, almost kaleidoscopic view. He is well-known for works such as stock exchanges and city views. It's enlightening to get the chance to see more of his works, including earlier and smaller pieces. It must be said that almost all of the works at the Hayward arrest the viewer with the same layers of potential as some epic painting. You can really spend a lot of time with each, enjoying and looking in so many different ways - for those who like to critique, there are many technical aspects to consider, and for those who like to analyse, there are multiple ways to interpret the views and the message. You can stand and stare.

I remember first seeing Gursky's images some years ago, and being somewhat alarmed by the dystopian view, as if showing humans swarming like insects around some futile activity. Over time, we become more accustomed to the intensity and multiplicity of the view, and begin to see it differently. Yes, the commentary still remains, referencing globalisation, population, over production, mechanisation, as well as questions about purpose and existence itself. Gursky shows an image as a cluster of ideas, and a well-composed intersection of thought.

Andreas Gursky 99 Cent II, 1999/2009 
C-print, diasec 207 x 325 x 6.2cm © Andreas Gursky/DACS, 2017 Courtesy: Sprüth Magers

Gursky uses photographic, and increasingly, digital processes to make works. Much depends upon gaining the position for the overview. I've always resisted reading too much about his processes - what bits are real, what manipulated, as I much prefer not really knowing that, imagining which parts are actual and which digitised. I prefer the magic rather than pulling away the curtain.

Hayward Gallery

The Hayward has not tampered with its concrete Brutalist interior apart from paving the floor and stairs with something presumably designed to withstand the next few decades. Those tiles would certainly not be my choice - they seem too warmly-coloured, too small a grid, that they may compete with some work, than the plain interior pavement that was there before. Still there is the disconcerting sense inside like wandering around a covered exterior, a little unsure of where to go. It's fine to get a bit lost, and find the upstairs galleries which has magnificently opened out with really excellent natural light coming through from the new roof pyramids.

There has been some remodelling, with a new cafe and shop - best for concrete and industrial related gifts. The project space is now downstairs, and showing new Arts Council collection acquisitions. It seems almost incredible that no one at Hayward seems to have noticed that their reopening is focused on a male artist, and that three of the four artists in the project space are also male. There are also women artists, you know. It's not a new thing. The only reason they tend not to be as well-known as men, is that they do not get as promoted as male artists. This has skewed our culture for centuries, with women artists, famous in their time, overlooked by subsequent generations. Legacy starts now, Hayward. Give it some thought.

Andreas Gursky retrospective
Hayward Gallery
Southbank Centre
London SE1 8XX

25th January - 22nd April 2018


26th January 2018

30 May 2017

Hynek Martinec: The Birth of the Tragedies: Parafin

I saw this exhibition and started writing this review a few months ago, but it got curtailed as I had one of those all-encompassing deadlines this summer. However, I'd wished I'd had the time to go back and spend more time with these paintings. I have found myself thinking about them and telling a few people about them in conversations. One painting in particular has stayed with me. I still think this is the painting of our time.

Just off Oxford Street, in a fairly small commercial gallery, is hanging what must be the most extraordinary, most exceptional and significant painting made recently.

The Boat on the Moon has a large amount of black, but it is not just plain black - it is a shadowy dark brown-black which keeps the viewer peering in - it is an expert black. The figure is landscape of moon, body, candle-lit and yet digitised. A pre-natal scan is as disembodied as the dysmorphic blob of flesh beneath. It is revealed somehow as though an early brass telescope, and digital photorealism, all at the same time. I'm trying to use words to describe or evoke what is a delightfully complex and paradoxical experience. As a viewer, I love somewhat being left in mystery, and looking at a thing that will forever change and reveal more layers of meaning and associations.

The Boat on the Moon Hynek Martinec 2017

Hynek Martinec paints with the breathtaking skill of the Old Masters, but he paints now, and of now. We've seem painters who blend old and new, but few who paint as if he were a time traveller from a much more Baroque time, exploring our new world.

Much could be appreciated and written about the other paintings in this exhibition - extraordinary, assured, profound. This is painting for the long term.

The Boat on the Moon Hynek Martinec 2017 installation Parafin London

Portrait of Cornelis van de Geest Hynek Martinec 2016

Hynek Martinec: The Birth of the Tragedies

5th October 2017