Go down to Tottenham Court Road tube station and then start heading in the direction of the British Museum before turning off at a right angle to get to the Paul Stolper gallery where there’s a succinct but rather neatly crafted exhibition by Gavin Turk. Entitled White Van Man, the display consists of a thematic suite of prints presented in a style very much in keeping with Turk’s characteristic kind of Post-Modernistic whimsy through which the artist makes ironic, self-referential nods to the art of the previous Modernistic century. This time the tribute, echo or homage or – for those less well versed in the etiquette of Po-Mo appropriation theory – the plunder, theft or rip-off is from the aesthetic estate of that late, great master of the dreamy American zeitgeist: Andy Warhol. And so it is today that Turk revisits and reworks images from Warhol’s Death and Disaster series of paintings and prints, leaving aside the atom bomb explosions and electric chair shockers to focus on the subsection devoted to reproductions of gruesome press cutting photographs of car smashes and auto accidents.
Turk’s key twist in all this is to replace the crunched up chromium and twisted fins of the caddys and estates, that are such powerful representations of fetishistic American auto-eroticism, with a more plebian pile-up of trashed transits that are perhaps meant to be read as symbolic signifiers of the crumpled hopes, wrecked aspirations and written-off dreams of the great British proletariat. And is there perhaps one potential specific tragic reverie that Turk has in mind? Well, the artist is nothing if not topical and so he’s added a subtitle to his show, calling it A Brexit Portfolio and other Transit Disasters, a rather pretty pun presumably designed to irk and amuse in very nearly equal numbers.
Oh well, it’s probably best to leave aside the poisonous political side of that particular debate and return to a consideration of the art for, of course, it’s not just the subject matter that Turk parodies here but also the stylistic tropes that made the Warhol brand so wonderfully and instantly recognisable. Consequently, the prints use a variety of badly cropped images culled from magazines and newspapers that have been slapped down out of line and then reproduced in varying sizes and with the familiar Factory setting ink level inconsistency so favoured by Warhol’s silkscreen squeegee operators. Some are also given a layer of sparkle to enhance the disjuncture between the ugly image and its use as a subject for artistic inquiry – making it all the better to tease the viewer for being caught gawping and rubbernecking all these awful images while ensconced in the comfortable confines of a nicely insulated art gallery.
I guess it’s easy enough to dismiss the whole show as just a clever little joke, especially as the no-longer very young Turk’s form of Post-Modern pastiche has itself now started to appear somewhat mannered and dated. But then the delivery is so slick and professional and the presentation executed with such confidence that I found myself equivocating over the decision to depart the gallery, eventually voting with my feet by moving just a few doors further along Museum Street to get to Abbott and Holder. And this pleasant place is not so much just another gallery but more a welcoming emporium, with four floors crammed with a veritable cornucopia of illustrative works on paper that range from the quickest of dashed-off pencil sketches to the most elegant of high-precision printworks, and from the neatest of delicate detailed pencil studies to the silliest of ancient inky cartoon strips. And so it is today where amongst the great variety of jewels on display that catch my attention are small but enticing works by Gwen John, Stanley Spencer, and Keith Vaughan, and some larger more elaborate items from Graham Sutherland, Jacob Epstein and John Bratby. Perhaps most striking of all the works currently on display, however, are those that snake up the sides of one of the staircases. Percy Smith’s Dance of Death series of spooky etchings details the miseries of life and the ever-present spectre of extermination that haunted the poor benighted soldiers who had to fight in the First World War. That they were based on the artist’s own horrific personal battlefield experiences endured in the mud and blood of European fields only just over a hundred years ago, clearly adds a terrible authenticity to their poignant presentation.
A hard act to follow but then the next stop on today’s itinerary is over at the Enitharmon shop which has a small display of prints by Paula Rego who, astute readers will doubtless recall, featured in a blog just a couple of short weeks ago. Whereas the display at Marlborough Fine Art was a selection of various preparatory doodles and drafts, the selection here is of finished prints taken from various stages of the artist’s stylistic evolution during the course of the past couple of decades. The works feature all the familiar cast of Gothic characters playing out their Surrealist subplots that mix fairytale fables with Twilight Zone twists and continue to make Rego such an interesting artist to follow. And for anyone tempted to buy something from the displays here, while the prints are maybe just a little bit on the pricey side, there are various signed books of the artist’s works that would still make a very attractive gift.
And so, from the bustling backstreets that back on to the British Museum it’s just a few short stops along the Central Line to get to the quieter and more stylishly serene environs of Mayfair where, amongst the imposing avenues of townhouses all with their heavy black doorways and perfectly polished brass plates announcing various mysterious financial service investment companies, are situated a few discreet art galleries. I have to confess that I definitely feel more comfortable swishing around the more modern white cube spaces, with their bright plastic fittings and bored young invigilators, than I do edging round these plusher apartments fearful of bumping into the furniture or tripping on the carpets. And to be honest, I’m always a bit surprised when, having pushed the buzzer on the outer doors of one of these strange bastions of old world luxury and privilege I hear the security locks go clunk and the gatekeeper actually allows me to enter. But, thankfully, that is what happens again today when I push at the Michael Werner Gallery door although, having been allowed in, I’m escorted throughout my visit by some junior factotum who watches my every move, presumably fearful that I’m going to try to slip something into my pocket or else that I’m only here to case the joint for a future burglary. It’s a situation that might intimidate some, but not me.
Well, not entirely. Frankly, I don’t really care whether people look down on me as a bit of an oik, look over me as a potential criminal, or look up to me as a perversely prolix pedagogue and braggadocious blog blagger. As it is, I’m perfectly confident in my role as opinionated critic, happy to praise or chastise artists and utterly uninfluenced by the strength of their reputation or worth as measured by any kind of commercial consideration, and certainly unaffected by the exclusivity of the surroundings in which their artworks may be displayed. Consequently, I’m quite happy to point out to my overseer today what look to me like a series of errors in the rendering of the musculature in the anatomical sketches that I’m peering at, while also praising some of the other rather more complicated painted arrangements of nymphs and nereids merrily flouncing about in their bucolic bowers. Where I have to admit that I am on the backfoot, however, is when it comes to making a pronunciation or, much more likely, a mispronunciation of the name of the artist whose works I’ve been so ready to assay and critique, since that man is the celebrated French muralist and Symbolist painter Puvis de Chavannes. And while I’m pretty sure I could handle the surname, it’s the bit before the de that presents the problem. I just can’t quite bring myself to try saying either poo-vee or pwee-vee, pwee-vis or poo-vis and fear this really is one of those shibboleths likely to reveal a terrible lacuna in my art historical education. It’s a situation that rather limits my disquisitional discourse and so, in order to limit the potential risk of my making some dreadful faux pas I make my hurried excuses, say au revoir and exit back into the real world.
I’m running a bit late anyway as I now have to get over to Regents Park for, once again, the Frieze Art Fair has ridden into town and parked its voluminous tents here on the manicured lawns of this monarchical playground. The Fair is such a curious artworld phenomenon that I suppose it really deserves to get a whole blog to itself but then the art on display tends to be all rather samey, the style a sort of bland innocuous International Artfareism that plays around with the quirky conceptualistic jeux d’esprits that gave Conceptual Art a bad name and which tends to make the eyes of this observer glaze over and causes his typing finger to stop working after tapping out just a couple of…