To Oxford Circus tube station again and out among the swirling throngs of seasonal shoppers with their desperate, dazed looks, all eager to celebrate the wonderment of the nativity by pounding the streets in search of the kind of spiritual enrichment that only money can buy. A detour down Dering Street gets me out of the path of the maddening, madding crowd and into the peaceful quiescence of a nice empty white cube gallery with some simple, colourful paintings hanging on the walls. The Jerome Zodo Gallery is a newish addition to the London artworld scene and the current show of paintings by Sandro Chia is the first time the artist has shown his work in the capital for quite a few years. Along with Enzo Cucchi and Francesco Clemente, he was one of the leading artists of the so-called Transavantgarde, who used a sort of loose, indeterminate figurative style mixing up elements of Symbolism and Expressionism to create a bit of excitement back in the 1980s before being washed away by the deluge of Post-Modernism and second generation Conceptualism of Koons, Hirst and the like. When so much contemporary art seems to consist of accumulated piles of urban detritus of one sort or another, – as utterly exemplified by works in both the current Turner Prize display (at Tate Britain) and the Bloomberg New Contemporaries show (at the ICA) – it makes a refreshing change to see an exhibition created by an artist adhering to the more traditional practice of just allowing his imagination to run free and then copying down the results using paint on canvas.
I’m not sure if Chia deliberately effects his somewhat amateurish style of figuration when it comes to making his paintings or if he’s just a bit cack-handed with his brushwork but, either way, this stylistic affectation certainly adds to the naive charms of his simplistic scenes of quasi-mythological narrative silliness. And I have to say that I really quite enjoyed joining the artist for a meander through a series of magical landscapes wherein a dreamy-eyed young man gets lost in a psychedelic forest and has to ask a squirrel for directions; a rubicund mermaid is offered an enormous rose from a disembodied hand; and various other absurdist scenes are played out and illustrated, seemingly for no other reason than the absolutely essential one of providing the weary viewer with a few moments of pointless, innocent, mental diversion.
After which it’s back out into the real world and a short walk down to Cork Street where the noise and disruption continues as the famous thoroughfare – once home to all the most important purveyors of Modern Artistic endeavours in London but now severely denuded of such venues – undergoes the massive construction work apparently required to give it some kind of a regenerative commercial facelift. Again, refuge is provided by one of the few remaining galleries of any stature and this time by way of a curious triumvirate of displays at Nahmad Projects. Grouped together under the somewhat gnomic rubric of Bliss, a wall of half a dozen small Renoir studies of plump Parisian voluptuaries, rendered in the artist’s familiar smeary style of late Impressionistic daubing, act as a backdrop to a carpet of confectionery sweets, neatly spread out on the floor below with every one of the glistening cellophane wrappers tantalisingly twinkling from the shine of the gallery lights above. So, what is the connection between the classic paintings, the conceptual floor piece by Felix Gonzalez-Torres and the final work in the exhibition, Jason Rhosdes’ display of flashy fluorescent lights twisted to spell out a series of pornographic euphemisms? Well, the gallery leaflet speaks of the sublime, the profane and the sexual and I’m sure some eager young student would be able to write a suitably magniloquent thesis explaining how each of the works define their respective generations’ approach to erotic fulfillment. But, personally, I’m more inclined to take things at face value and accept that all the items on display can be grouped under a more simple generic heading of eye-candy – diverting but depthless.
At the other end of Cork Street, Flowers has put on its annual Christmas selling show, Small is Beautiful, which comprises around a hundred paintings, drawings, photographs and sculptures each of an appropriately diminutive size and scale. Prices range from around £200 to £6,000 and if anyone is desperately searching for something to buy the author of this blog posting then any of the following would be sincerely appreciated: Tess Jaray’s simple red and blue abstract (£550); Humphrey Ocean’s sketch of a pair of birds (£950); Nicola Hicks’ bronze bison (£1,200); Patrick Hughes’ rainbow and shadow (£2,160); or Tai-Shan Schierenberg’s Impressionistic portrait of a young woman (£2,750). In fact, just about any item from amongst the great eclectic collection of mini-artworks on show here would fit very comfortably within the stocking that will, in due course, be attached to the end of my bedpost.
And so, happily dreaming of what Santa might chose to deposit in my seasonal hosiery, I walk on to Davies Street and Gimpel Fils for a show of work from the 1970s by one of the great abstractionists of British Art, Alan Davie. The hirsute Scotsman spent a very long lifetime arranging myriad signs and symbols into colourful compositions that tend to take on the appearance of schematic maps, presumably charting some kind of sequence of subconscious, doodling rambles. Unlike some of his earlier, darker works, the pieces on display here are all bright and airy and perhaps symbolic of a more happier, settled period in his career, although trying to decode what all his personal ludic arcana actually means or references is almost certainly a waste of time and far better just to enjoy the general idea that these are irresolvable ideograms merely reflect the mysteries of our own intractable, immutable universe.
Then, a bit further along Davies Street is the Gagosian gallery with a suite of drawings by the eminent American artist Richard Serra. While best known for his gigantic metal sculptures, Serra also produces these two-dimensional works which, I think, are also an attempt to evoke intimations of the infinite. While referred to as drawings, there’s not much evidence of any lines having been inscribed and certainly no attempt at creating any kind of figurative form or representation. In fact, the dozen or so works on paper here seem to consist of the application of layers of very viscous black ink with occasional unaffected area of paper allowed to shine through the Stygian blackout. The works suggest a certain portentousness, as if the mere fact of the depth of their darkness and the total absence of any imagery somehow confers an automatic seriousness that deserves to be met with an appropriate measure of respect. Well, maybe. What in the end made me query the strength of these works was when exiting the space I happened to notice the cheap everyday floor mat placed by the Gallery door. Composed of a simple black fibre matting, the material has become speckled with bits of gritty white flecks, presumably part pattern and part scrapping from the shoes of the Gallery’s innumerable visitors. The fact that this humblest of mundane household objects looked near identical in shape, size, texture and colour to some of the works on the Gallery walls perhaps provides a rather useful nudge to the brain attesting to the possibility that art is all around us all the time and we just need to open our eyes to see it – or maybe that Serra’s drawings are worthless and only gain our attention because they’re stuck up on the walls of a very prestigious gallery.
But what about his sculptures? Well, fortunately there are some on display just a short tube ride away over at the other Gagosian space near Kings Cross station. The pairs of large, weathered, weatherproof steel cylinders and boxes that fill a couple of rooms are quite impressive by dint of their sheer size and solidity but they can’t compete with the truly ginormous twisted sheets of metal that crowd into the main exhibition space. I guess that these rusted orange monsters of gently folding planes are about 15 foot high and 40 foot long and lean together in such a way that the viewer can weave a path between the walls created by their chunky vertical edges. But, I have to confess, that I didn’t get very far with my own perambulations into the body of the beast. I couldn’t help feeling that it wouldn’t take much of an earth tremor to disturb the balance of this titanic structure and that if it did indeed topple over with me inside then I would very likely lose at least one of the defining dimensions of my personality. And so, with that thought in mind, I decided to limit my investigation of the artwork to an inspection of just its exterior surfaces. The absolute monumentality of the sculpture is undoubtedly quite extraordinary – a true sight to behold – but as to whether such an striking exhibit is really art at all or just an overwhelming spectacular curiosity, I confess, I’m still a bit undecided.