Decide it’s time to have another quick look round some of the commercial galleries to see what they’re showing, so start off today’s ramble at Green Park tube and head north up Albermarle Street. The first thing to catch my eye is an old rusty metal contraption stuck in the front window of Connaught Brown which could, at first glance, be part of a bear trap or maybe something that fell off and old combine harvester. In fact it’s an Anthony Caro sculpture so there’s no point spending too much time trying to figure out what the big vertical lump does or the thin springy strips that peel away from it, or the other twirly bits that have the lathes bolted on. What we have here is an example of pure, abstracted form, a sort of doodling arrangement of shapes that acts here as the 3-D overture to the gallery’s current exhibition entitled Abstracting from Nature. If I wanted to be nit-picking then I’d be tempted to suggest that Caro’s metal constructions seem to me to be completely self-referential and owe nothing very much to nature. But I don’t suppose it really matters and, anyway, the other small sculptures here, by his one-time mentor Henry Moore, clearly make reference to different organic shapes, whether bones or teeth or thorns. As for the paintings on display, I suppose it’s fair to say that most relate to forms found in nature, though not so much the stuff of an Attenborough documentary or a Countryfile walk but the kinds of things that nosey scientists discover when peering down their microscopes. The couple of pretty Kandinskys here look to me a bit like the shells of those tiny diatomic critters that litter the oceans, while the works by Arp and Hilton are vaguely reminiscent of the odd wobbly shapes that wriggle around in clusters of cells and bits of bacteria. As to the value and attractiveness of this kind of abstract art – well, it’s very much a matter of personal taste which, for me at least, means preferring the more controlled pink and blue swirls that Mark Tobey organises to the excitable messiness of a chaotic Peter Lanyon. But then whether you like Tobey or not Tobey that is a question we each have to decide for ourselves.
Enough awkward attempts at soliloquising and off to the next stop where, a little further down the road, Marlborough Fine Art has put on an impressive display of paintings by Bill Jacklin. These are basically a succession of stylised scenes of life in and around New York that make up a sort of tourist calendar, showing people parading through Times Square, skating in front of the Rockefeller building or hiding under umbrellas trying to dodge the rain as they cross the road. Alongside these crowd scenes are also a mix of cityscapes with skyscraper horizons, starry nightscenes and even a couple of sunsets but everything – animal, vegetable and mineral – is filtered through the same, very distinctive fuzzy lens. It seems that the artist has deliberately decided to soften the edges and blur all the details which puts the viewer in a position akin to looking through someone else’s prescription glasses. Not so much rose-tinted as candy-coated, these special effects specs manage to give everything a dream-like veneer that turns the mean streets of Manhattan into the unreal byways of a Woody Allen light comedy or maybe the set designs from a 1930s musical. The paintings are all very skillfully executed, are all very appealing and they’re all undoubtedly easy on the eye but I can’t quite make up my mind as to whether they are just a little too easy on the eye. While the images would certainly make great set of birthday cards maybe art should aim to do a bit more than provide a succession of pretty designs…or maybe I’m just getting a bit too crusty and should be happy sometimes to settle for this kind of soft centre eye candy.
At the top of Albermarle Street comes New Bond Street and the Fine Art Society which is currently showing a large selection of prints, plus a couple of paintings, by Laura Knight. Now, here’s a Dame with a very familiar name, whose work regularly crops up at art fairs and occasionally on gallery walls, and who was once considered the country’s leading female artist but whose reputation has somewhat lapsed in recent years. A quick bit of google research informs that she was the first elected female member of the Royal Academy, and that the institution honoured her with a full retrospective in 1965, which was probably the high watermark of her career and the year that her reputation peaked. I think the exhibition here is probably quite useful because it shows both her evident technical strengths but also the obvious compositional weaknesses that explain the inevitability of her falling out of critical favour. It’s clear that she had a very powerful line and was equally skilled whether working in dry point or mezzotint and some of the simple portraits or scenes of women putting on their make-up and then going out dancing still retain their power. But then too many of of her other works – whether it’s studies of circus performances, ballet classes or out on the road at a gypsy encampment – treat the subject matter with a light sentimentalism that may have induced a warm smile from an audience in the first half of the 20th century but only made it wince or cringe sometime after the ’60s started to swing and then turn cynical. Of course, tastes change with time but it’s hard to imagine that the age of innocence, with which she was so obviously in tune, has not passed for good and that her artistic reputation is unlikely ever to fully recover.
Onwards, and after a quick side street shuffle I get to the splendidly impressive Gagosian Gallery in Grosvenor Hill. A few months ago their outpost near Kings Cross staged a show that placed prints by Andy Warhol alongside photographs by Richard Avedon. Frankly, I didn’t think the combination was very successful and instead of complementing one another the opposite effect was achieved. Well, it shows just how much notice is taken of my piercing commentaries as the Gallery has decided to put on another exhibition in their series, Chalk and Cheese, this time combining the sculptures of Alberto Giacometti with wall pieces by Yves Klein. If the Swiss sculptor was known for his painfully serious approach to art, endlessly reworking the same images with stoic determination, then the French showman is surely remembered for being an exhibitionist gadfly who delighted in creating outrageous stunts deliberately designed to tease the art world academics. And just as their artistic personalities were almost exactly opposite so, unsurprisingly, their creations were similarly diverse which makes it very hard to see what possible gain – other than enjoying a sort of Post-Modern pranksterist joke – comes from seeing the two sets of work juxtaposed so closely together.
Separating things out, there are lots of individually wonderful and intriguing things to see from both artists. So, Giacometti offers a series of portrait busts, flint-thin profiles and a selection of his absurdly tiny stick men, all of which encapsulate his particularly world-weary form of existentialist crisis. And then by contrast Klein plays the joker with his scorch paintings, that were created using a flamethrower; and the ridiculous anthropometric artworks that entailed sploshing paint on a buxom young model and then pressing her against a canvas to leave a rough imprint of breasts, stomach and thighs. From a purely visual spectacle, Giacometti’s austere bronze statuettes are beautifully off-set by Klein’s bright blue splodges but that’s still no excuse for setting them up against one another. After all, for important artworks like these to be treated as just a set of props in order that a curator who really wants to be an interior decorator can mix and match colours and shapes, seems just a trifle tacky.
Finally I head on to Davies Street and Gimpel Fils where Michelle Dovey offers up the results of her intensive study of a particular oak tree that she has chosen to paint and repaint a dozen times. The results look quite different from each other and, to be entirely honest, none of them really look much like an oak tree. Evidently, the artist decided to use her license to the fullest, especially when it came to making the selection of what colours to choose from her palette. Instead of the shades of brown and other earthy tones that tradition has tended to favour when it comes to creative types choosing to make representations of an arboreal nature, Dovey has instead gone very expressionistic indeed. She’s decided to clothe her tree in a coat of many colours, an Elmer the Elephant patchwork of psychedelic tones that seem entirely random but apparently is designed to evoke movement and I assume some sense of joi de vivre. The exhibition is titled The Colourful Sausage Trees and just like the paintings, this kind of arch whimsicality is liable to make you smile or wince or cringe according to your personal tastes.