After my excursion up north, it’s back to London and the Lisson Gallery, just round the corner from Edgware Road tube station. I once spent a week painting the walls of this place in preparation for a Sol LeWitt show of drawings and sculptures. Such was the Minimalist nature of the works, especially the drawings, which, as far as I can remember, consisted of just a few lines of pencil, that the proprietor, Nicholas Logsdail, didn’t want the viewer distracted by any extraneous spots, blots, smudges, dirty marks or fingerprints. Of course, the problem for the person tasked with painting and repainting and repainting a white wall is that the muralist gets a sort of snow blindness and starts hallucinating, seeing random marks and discolouration where none exists. So it was for me and my colleague who kept layering on coat after coat of white emulsion as if we were Lady Macbeth and her twin sister both going slowly nuts trying to get rid of the damn spots.
The walls still look pretty clean and white today although the exhibition is Conceptualist rather than Minimalist in nature. Susan Hiller is one of the big names of Conceptualism and the show provides a useful introduction to some of the themes she’s been working on for the past half century. Of course, there are lots of different kinds of Conceptualism and I don’t know the preferred taxonomic nomenclature for what she does, but I’d group her stuff together as sort of Cod Scientific, since she tends to use some of the tools and tropes of the scientist. So, she carries out experiments, collates information, interprets phenomena, makes and applies rules and systems, classifies things and then formally presents the results of her investigations and discoveries for peer review – or, at least for the public to have a gander.
What she investigates might be considered futile or absurd but then the same could be said for much conventional science. I remember weeks of wasted time trying to bounce microwaves off a wall for my physics A-level fun and just think of those poor saps hunting for neutrinos year after year, looking for flickers of light in the massive water tank they’ve stuck deep in a tunnel at the bottom of a mountain.
I think there might well be a mutual interest between them and her if they ever met and I think perhaps Hiller’s work generally appeals to the kind of people who like crosswords, collect stamps or get a sense of joy when they find that the fridge freezer cupboard is exactly the right size to fit three M&S quiches and two loaves of Warburton’s Toastie bread. People who keep a nice neat desk (or, in the case of artists, a nice neat studio – as does Hiller, judging by a recent photograph in the Observer) are simply reflecting their nice neat minds and the way they nice neat think. They’re people a bit like like me: sensible, intelligent with refined tastes and a sophisticated aesthetic sense, and all round solid, decent types. I’m not entirely sure that Hiller would see all that as a compliment, but I can assure her that it is meant to be one.
Anyway, treats included in the show here include wall panels filled with postcards of waves from various locations round the British Coast, all laid out in their correct geographical sequence. Then there is a big video installation showing clips from various spooky movies – I think I recognised The Shining, Repulsion and The Omen. There’s a tower of flatscreen TVs each showing the same burning flame along with a creepy whispering voice (a bit like Frank Zappa’s Central Scrutiniser) going on about seeing faces in the flickering lights. There’s a glass case homage to an eccentric who made drawings out of the split ends of his hair, with examples of this art and various other pieces of ephemera. There are some glass phials containing the crumbly charcoal remains of incinerated paintings and much more but I’m sure you get the idea and either feel extremely tempted to go to take a look or else think this is all just nuts.
Leaving the Gallery I take the tube to Baker Street and walk past the dreadful statue of Sherlock Holmes and on down Marylebone High Street. This is one of my favourite streets to mooch around, starting with the stylish furniture and furnishings in the Conran Shop, then it’s just a short walk down to the junction with Devonshire Street and the Jaggedart gallery which always has interesting cool minimal, but not too minimal, artworks. But not today – instead there’s just a note stuck on the door saying come back in twenty minutes. A little bit further down the road, in amongst the coffee bars and boutiques selling bits and bobs and other essential and inessential knick-knacks, is an Oxfam bookshop with an art section that’s usually worth a browse. And then where the road changes its name to Thayer Street comes At the Movies which sells vintage posters and film stills. Currently the focus is on Bond, James Bond but forget the Spectre haunting Europe and admire the swinging ‘60s poster of Connery, Sean Connery as featured in Goldfinger. Damian Hirst’s shop Other Criteria used to be a few yards further on but that’s moved in with his new gallery out near Vauxhall.
I walk on to Bond Street, James Bond Street – no, sorry it’s just Bond Street but maybe they should think of renaming it – and tube it to Green Park and down past Fortnum & Mason to the Bernard Jacobson Gallery, recently relocated into these shiny new premises from sad old Cork Street. Entering the space I’m welcomed by a disembodied voice coming from behind a white wooden counter. I can just about make out a bob of hair and it seems a pity that Bernard, having obviously spent so much doing up the new space, couldn’t afford to get his staff some taller office chairs or stools. Or maybe no-one has been able to figure out the mechanics of how to raise the height of the chair – I know from personal experience that the flashier the design of the ergonomic seating, the more complicated the levers and handles are that control such things. Going downstairs there seem to be two more gallery assistants also hidden from view, at least that’s what I assume to be the case from the conversation that I can hear taking place, even if I can’t actually see the conversationalists. I suppose it must be Gallery policy to keep the staff hidden – heard but not seen – although I do wonder what on earth was the logic behind that strange decision.
Hiding the staff is all a bit disconcerting, a sensation that isn’t helped by the exhibition of works from Frank Stella, one of the big beasts of American Abstract Expressionism. It’s a terrible shame but there’s no getting away from the fact that the three small early works on the ground floor are so much better than all the big clunky recent stuff downstairs. The neat geometric pencil drawings and small crumpled metal sculpture look just lovely and are so much more powerful than the fifty foot collage of colourful abstracted bits of this and that and no focus that fills a whole basement wall. This looks a bit like someone has smashed the windows of the Fortnum & Mason window display opposite, scrunched up all the signs and symbols of glittery Christmas good cheer and then smeared it along the wall. Of course, big is always beautiful for artists and especially Abstract Expressionist ones and even more so for one of the stars of the style. Who would have the balls to tell him otherwise? Even hiding behind the wooden counters, one might be reluctant to discuss the point with the artist. Perhaps Bernard should engage a big burly brute like Stanley Kowalski who would have the nerve to confront the artist, ‘Hey Stella…’
Oh well, enough of that strained pun and back down Duke Street to the turning into Masons Yard, home to White Cube who are, ‘pleased to present Losing the Compass, a group exhibition curated by Scott Cameron Weaver and Mathieu Paris’ that ’focuses on the rich symbolism of textiles and their political, social and aesthetic significance through both art and craft practice’. Get the idea?
Well there are a lot of those neat little Boetti rugs that the artist used to get Afghan women to weave for him, a stash of Amish quilts, a Mona Hatoum Conceptual teaser consisting of four Egyptian carpets and…you’ve probably got the Constellation connection by now. The exhibition’s all ok but perhaps just a trifle contrived. Does it actually add anything to one’s appreciation of any of the individual artworks if you group them together just because they’re all textiles? Frankly, I think not but if the curators and gallery owners are happy with the idea and think it makes them modishly Po-Mo then who would have the heart to disillusion them? Not I.
An email arrives from Elvina – she’s been called away on urgent business, cat sitting in Portugal, pushing back the launch of the blog site until the new year. Oh well, the artworld will just have to be patient.