Head down to Waterloo and then stroll along to the Hayward Gallery where, following on from a couple of fairly disappointing one-person exhibitions – Andreas Gursky’s giant photographs and Lee Bul’s sculptures and installations – now comes a thematic group show which, sad to report, seems to me to offer yet again a rather depressing continuation of the previous run of damp squib disappointments. Entitled Space Shifters, I suppose I was maybe expecting a bunch of sci-fi theatricals or computer game graphics to liven things up but, in fact, what’s on offer is just another bunch of sculptures and installations from a mixed bag of twenty contemporary sculptors and installationists. All of which means that since the Gallery re-opened at the start of the year, after its hugely expensive 50-year MOT refurbishment job, not a single old-fashioned painting has got stuck on any of the walls here. And it’s a situation that seems set to continue since the next show that’s going to be opening in the new year is a two-person display with, yes, you’ve guessed it, one floor filled with photographs (Diane Arbus) and the other with sculptural installations (Kader Attia). Thinking back, I also seem to recall that the final show staged at the Hayward before it closed its doors for two-years to undergo the mini-metamorphosistic, semi-centennial rebuild, that pretty much seem to leave everything as it was before, was itself a fairly disappointing one-person show from Carsten Holler which consisted of a retrospective of his own special brand of childishly interactive playground installations.
Now, you don’t need the forensic expertise of a rocket scientist, an amateur sleuth or even a gray-haired old blogger to discern the emergence of a certain aesthetical pattern here and yet I’m sure in both the distant and not so distant past I remember seeing specially selected displays of work by famous continentals like Renoir and Magritte and celebrated Britishers like Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud, Howard Hodgkin and Malcolm Morley, as well as various thematic groups shows – all of which featured coloured paints on framed canvases and that all looked perfectly well-suited to hang on the large open wall spaces here at the Hayward. And while I’m not one of those arch traditionalists who asserts that the only proper art exhibition experience consists of marching in a slow-paced crocodile line past sequential rows of pretty paintings, I do think that variety can make life just a little bit more pleasantly spicier and that a visual diet consisting solely of main course installations with occasional photographic side dishes might benefit from an occasional additional course of piquant painterly puddings.
It’s not even as if the installations that the Hayward have been displaying have been very varied in themselves – all the recent one’s that I can think of have tended to share the same sort of cool minimalist industrial aesthetic which means that they’re definitely on the anaemic side and seem to delight in showing a determinedly pallid palette. Indeed, with the exception of the Gursky prints, the general Hayward colour scheme seems to be concentrated solely on a bleak monochromism using the kind of utilitarian colour spectrum that’s reluctant to veer very far beyond that of black and white or silver and gray. It’s a tonality that continues in the current show and leaves this viewer desperate to exit and hunt down a rainbow, dive into a swimming pool filled with Smarties or maybe listen to Lucy in the Sky in the hope of enjoying some happy psychedelic flash-back memories.
Maybe I’ll do some of that later but in the meantime I suppose I’d better re-enter the Gallery, take a wander through the rooms and try to detail some of the works…starting off with one of those highly polished fairground mirror assemblies that have proved to be so successful for that master showman Anish Kapoor. And standing in front of the one here, I can see myself transformed into a distorted blur of squidgy bulging bits and squishy shrunken shapes which wobble amusingly around whenever I make a movement. All good harmless fun but I’m not sure it makes any greater artistic statement than that achieved during my morning ablutions when I gaze into the depths of my magnifying shaving mirror before starting to count the wrinkles and scrape away the stubble.
So, what’s next? Well, more reflectors courtesy of Jeppe Hein but this time they’re stuck up high and attached to a couple of motors which revolves them at odd wonky angles, thus producing series of disorienting kinetic selfies for the delectation of the recumbent viewers reclining on the bean bags provided below. I feel just a little too crumbly today to risk suffering the indignity that inevitably accompanies the act of slouching into the embracing folds of one of those silly invertebrated sofas so instead I quickly move on up the sloping corridor, brushing aside Daniel Steegman Mangrane’s curtain of metallic chains that half-heartedly block the way. Now on the mezzanine, I’m confronted with a sort of open-plan, room-sized structure formed of intersecting modular panels, some mirrored and some not. And again, it’s mildly diverting seeing one’s reflection appears and disappear but I can’t help feeling that this construction is crying out for the addition of a TV, a stereo system, some low level lighting and a couple of large leafy green pot plants. And, indeed, the overall exhibition ambience so far has been very much like walking back in time and entering a Habitat or Heals furnishing display from the 1970s or ‘80s. Any minute now I’m sure a perky young sales assistant will appear and start trying to sell me one of those round lampshades made of paper and bamboo or maybe a glass-topped kitchen table or a sleek metal shelfing unit.
Before that can happen I dart into the next section and it’s balls, balls and yet more balls – dozens of highly polished metallic spheres spread artfully across the floor with each one providing yet more opportunities for self-reflection. Although I kind of think that even Narcissus himself might be beginning to get just a little bit bored with all this meaningless mirror imagery – I certainly am. Which seems like an appropriate time to simply summarise the rest of the show here by saying that there are quite a few more similarly minimalistic constructions of plastic, glass and metal to see. Some seem to be designed with the intention of encouraging viewers to continue peering into their surfaces and admiring the views with their differing degrees of fuzziness and distortion. Others are less interactive and just stand around, presumably wanting to be admired for the sheer sophisticated slickness of their own polished, preening presence and desperately hoping to gain the attention of an interior decorator who will whisk them away to enjoy a future career acting as a special highlight designer talking-point feature in someone’s super-smart studio apartment.
Anyway,after all that shiveringly cool retro-styling, I think I’m in need of a shot of startlingly stimulating visual excessiveness, and where better to go in search of such extreme art entertainment than by taking the bus over to Damian Hirst’s Newport Street Gallery? Which is where I get my second warning of the morning. Maybe I’m looking particularly vulnerable or sensitive today for after the man at the entrance to the Hayward show cautioned me to tread carefully, lest I bump into any of their slightly discombobulating displays, now the woman here is alerting me to the fact that some of the artworks here contain imagery that I may find offensive. I’m not sure if that was the exact phrase she used or whether she said it was adult, sexually explicit, rudey-pudey or one of those other euphemistic expressions, but the meaning was clear.
The artist has evidently decided to flout convention and render images of tits, bums and even naughtier bits with a degree of anatomical detail and precision above that traditionally considered necessary to establish the pulchritudinous appeal of the female form. But it’s not just porny pictures of pretty girls that Martin Eder produces and that now fill all the walls of Hirst’s cavernous display space. The artist also favours pussies and puppies of the feline and canine variety and I suppose it’s this curious collagist combination of conjoining elements of soppy sentimentality with lubricous lusciousness that compels the viewer to stop and stare – ogling in admiration or gawping in horror.
I suppose the work here brings to mind the art of Fragonard, Balthus and Eric Fischl (there definitely seems to be quotes from the last two), but whereas these predecessors offered up some kind of suggested narrative backstory to add weight and respectability to their soft porn suggestiveness, Eder seem less bothered about indulging in such niceties. Then again, artists are required to respect the times in which they live and the overall aesthetics of the age in which they work so I guess there’s an argument for saying that while Balthus’ vignettes had a certain cinematic sensibility and Fischl’s production values were more crafted for the age of the TV soapbox and video pause-button, Eder’s voyeuristic visions have been trivialised, coarsened and kitschified to adapt to our own current leering level of live-action cyber-spatial webcammery. O tempora! O mores! I think it’s time to dive into a tube of Smarties.