Quotidian Rationality

Down to Oxford Circus tube station for another morning orienteering my way around some of the smarter commercial galleries in the Bond Street quarter of the capital’s cultural Monopoly Board of artworld entertainment.  First off is a ride up the small mirrored elevator that deposits me outside the heavy white doors of the fourth floor entrance to Annely Juda Fine Art.  And I suppose you could argue that I‘ve decided to go for a soft, quiet, downbeat launch into the day’s ramble, for the exhibition here contains no gaudy colour clashes to cause potential retinal damage nor any confusing or troubling figurational narrative threads, the unravelling of which might initiate symptoms of stressful mental confusion or strain.  No, the display on show today is an example of a very precise kind of super-cool Minimalism with all of the works painted in the exact same shade of monotonous monochromatic grey.  Consequently, there’s not really very much left to contemplate except the sizes, shapes, proportions and general geometric configurations of the canvases upon which the drab murky colour has been so meticulously spread.  Well, that and the overall muted magnificence of the exhibition’s ambience of restrained good taste, where the only disturbance to the sensitive contrast between the matted painted surfaces and the pristine white gallery walls on which they’re displayed is the dappled sunlight falling gently through the skylights above…and a few grubby fingermarks and shoe scuffings on the fire exit door…and, of course, the green fire exit sign itself…and the little overhead CCTV camera…and…and…and I suppose sometimes there’s just a slight danger that the viewer’s attention can get distracted and start to drift about a bit when the artwork is so very exceptionally Minimal.

But back to the paintings, and those familiar with the signature styles of the protagonists and perpetrators working within this particularly rarified world of ultimate abstractionism will probably already have guessed that the featured artist is Alan Charlton, who has been producing these kind of meditations on the same restricted theme for the past 40-odd years, a feat of near unparalleled dedication, integrity, honesty and fidelity to his own chosen set of guiding principles of…

And, to be honest, I’m not exactly sure what those principles are, why Charlton decided to straightjacket himself into a situation of quite such a degree of unremitting aesthetic constraint and whether, by doing so, it really does actually result in the presumably hoped for production of profound artistic insights or other specific visionary experiences.  Having said that, I’m sure I’m going to be the first writer ever to compare Charlton with Edward Burne-Jones but, referencing last week’s blog on the famous Victorian fantasist, I think appreciation of both artists probably requires near similar levels of willingness to suspend disbelief – to dispense with the normal acceptance of quotidian rationality and just accept the art on the terms of the artist producing it.  So, in the same way that the cynic might sneer at the silliness of a scene where a knight in shining armour saves the honour of a raven-haired beauty trembling under the passionate threats of a mysterious wriggling seamonster, a rationalistic materialist might well question the value of the contents of a room full of plain grey canvases that could very likely be reproduced by any careful ten-year-old who had access to a large tin of Dulux and a small selection of paint rollers.  Personally, I rather admire Charlton’s chutzpah and utter disinclination to compromise over his stylistic puritanism.  As for the end results, I was going to say that the installation is simply spotless but I think that can be taken for granted, so instead let’s just say that, in their own way, his works are every bit as fabulous as any of the fables produced by his Pre-Raphaelitic forebear Burne-Jones.

After which the abstraction gets decidedly more colourful over at Blain Southern with the latest series of works from Sean Scully, an artist who seems to crop up in these blogs with the kind of regularity and consistency commensurate with an artist who has reached the highest levels of confident technical mastery and deserved professional celebrity.  And since I can’t think of much to add to the musings that I must have previously iterated, I’ll just restate that I find his simple blurry configurations of lush slabs of muted shades of colour form combinations all rather lovely, and hope that the accompanying photos here give some indication of what I perceive to be the jouissance of their sensitive succulence.  At which point I think, if nothing else, I’ve probably once again quite successfully illustrated just how hard it is to write anything sensible, serious or enlightening about an artistic style whose very abstract nature is almost certain to render otiose any analytical musings or textual descriptions.

So, next stop a brief figurative interlude at Beaux Arts where gathered together is an interesting but rather cramped selection of works by Elisabeth Frink, that stalwart of British sculpturing who perhaps represented the last gasp of the abstracted figurative Modernist Henry Moore-ish tradition that in the Post-War period fell under the scary spell of the Existentialist credo before petering out under the happier sexy silliness of the Pop Art hedonists.  And, of course, trying to sum up an artist’s entire life’s work in one awkwardly convoluted sentence that just over-simplistically positions her within a similarly compacted half-century of art historical developments, is foolish.  But then I do think Frink’s work is very much of its time.  And this was a very particular period when artists were trying to find ways of fashioning new forms of construction suitable to describe a world that was starting to shiver under the new Cold War threats while still trying to comprehend and come to terms with the horrible insanities of Auschwitz’s ashes and Hiroshima’s mushroom cloud. In the circumstances, it’s perhaps understandable that a sense of discomfiture permeates much of Frink’s work whether it’s within the harsh representations of her small animal figurines, the unrelaxed positions in which she contorted her human figures, or the chilling faces on her various sculptured heads.

Good art from bad times then and after the bronzen heaviness of Frink’s forms it’s refreshing to gain a little light relief on proceeding to the Olivier Malingue gallery for an examination of the more ethereal items on display in their high-concept thematic Suspension show of so-called Abstract Hanging Sculptures.  And apparently it’s the first time that anyone has thought to curate an exhibition devoted solely to an exploration of this slightly arcane artistic subgenre in which 3-D works abjure the traditional role of reclining recumbently on plinth or pedestal, preferring instead to make their appearance supported by strings and wires that have been strung from the beams of the gallery ceiling.

Of course, Alexander Calder was the most famous exponent of suspended sculptural artefacts with his very pretty, very famous moving mobiles, although it seems that it was that most seminal of all modern artists, the great Marcel Duchamp, who first hung a work from on high when he displayed his Sculpture for Travelling, a Dadaist plaything created by gluing together strips of rubber clipped from half-a-dozen colourful bathing caps.  Sadly there are neither Calder mobiles nor Duchamp readymades on show in the exhibition’s London venue as these have been bagged for display in the resplendent halls of the Palais d’Iena which is acting as the Parisian setting for this curiously bipartite co-production.

There are, however, other treats and teasers to amuse and entertain those of us who have the good fortune to be resident on the Greater British side of the Channel:  notably a Man Ray spiral lampshade; one of Rodchenko’s chaotic constructivist constructions of interlocking wooden frames; and a spherical configuration of metal grids by Francois Morellet that revolves playfully in and out of alignment powered temporarily by the puff of this breathless correspondent.

At which point I realise that I’m running out of textural space to do justice to the final few shows on today’s varied itinerary.  So, I’ll try to be brief by saying that the works by Lucio Fontana at Nahmad Projects are not from the famous series of stylishly slashed canvases but rather the ones that looked to be riddled with trails of bullet holes.  While, at the other end of Cork Street, Waddington Custot gives an opportunity to see more of Ian Davenport’s familiar sequences of parallel lines of painterly drippings.

And finally round the corner at the Mazzoleni gallery there’s the chance to reflect upon some of the iconic mirror paintings of Michaelangelo Pistoletto.


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