Head over to Holborn tube station and start walking in the direction of the British Museum. The big show on there at present is all about the ancient Assyrian King Ashurbanipal, a name I vaguely recall from all those ancient history lessons I had to sit through under my ancient ancient history teacher, the frail but fearsome Mrs Phillips. And while I’m pretty sure that I must have dashed off a five hundred word essay on the long-departed monarch for my homework one dreary evening fifty years ago, I can’t for the life of me remember a single thing about the gentleman, unable even to recall whether he was one of the good kings or one of the bad ones. Clearly, this is now the golden opportunity to close over my shameful intellectual lacuna and, consequently, my feet start to swerve towards the classical columns of the great Museum’s formidable façade. But then time is short and it strikes me that during the course of the past half century I don’t think that the topic of Assyrian kingships has ever arisen during the course of any conversation I’ve had at either dinner party or soiree, salon or other social engagement, and that not a single person has ever asked my opinion of King Ashurbanipal, his court, concubines, colonial conquests or cultural customs. And so, having survived thus far with this Assyrian-sized gap in my general knowledge data banks, I’m inclined to take a chance and retain the status quo which is the reason that, just as I approach the entrance to the great Museum, I turn right instead of left and so arrive at the somewhat less imposing doorway leading into Austin Desmond Fine Art.
As it turns out, I’m rather pleased that I did for I’m just in time to catch the tail end of Noctural Union, their small but pleasing exhibition of works by British Surrealists past and present. And I can’t help noticing that, following in the best absurdist traditions of silly Surrealistic contrarian conceits, the one work by Roger Penrose – a man who might reasonably claim acknowledgement as having been Britain’s most celebrated Surrealist artist – has been removed from display, though not on account of it being deemed particular outrageous or offensive but because it’s just been sold and the buyer apparently couldn’t wait to take it away. Never mind, there are still quite a few other interesting things to see: a suite of comical biomorphic watercolours from the very, very odd couple Grace Pailthorpe and Reuben Mednikoff (pictured above and below); a charming dreamy landscape by Paul Nash; and a rather darker spookier one from Tristram Hillier (further below); a chilly erotic sculpture from Helen Chadwick; and a host of other equally mysterious and entertaining paintings and sculptures from a couple of dozen names some half-remembered and others utterly unfamiliar.
Clearly, none of the works here are anywhere near as spectacularly impressive or visually impactful as those by the true continental Surrealist superstars like Dali, Ernst, Magritte or Tanguy but anyone whose subconscious has been shaped by the parochial proclivities of a traditional British upbringing may well find these more subdued offerings still manage quite satisfactorily to hit the right psychological soft spots and sweet spots and so start to stir up the muddy waters of the cerebrally subliminal. If only the current curatorial staff at Tate Britain would take note of a show like this and go on to organise a truly in-depth thematic investigation of the British Surrealist tradition from, say, William Blake to Sarah Lucas but mainly focusing on those half-forgotten ranks of inter-war artists who were happy to trawl for inspirational insights by interrogating their own dreamy reveries and nightmare narratives. I think an exploration of that part of the national psyche might be well worth the effort.
It’s a thought I ponder on the long trudge across town to get the next stop – but it’s worth the trek for the Alan Cristea Gallery has once again unleashed the uninhibited four-year-old pre-schooler who inhabits the body of the septuagenarian Turner Prize-winning artist Richard Long. And, happily, the man-child has been allowed to go jumping about in puddles, making up mud pies and, best of all, smearing his mucky handprints all over the walls of the gallery. I don’t suppose the great old land artist has actually hung up his walking boots just yet but maybe he’s started to take things a bit easier as the works on display here are not from the heavier end of his mighty oeuvre, where concretely poetic descriptions of long Long walks alternate with piles of rocks made into the rocky rockeries that have carpeted a hundred gallery floors. No, the stuff on show here today exemplifies his lighter abstractionist tendency where print editions are made from bucketfull’s of claggy Avon mud, either sluiced down in carefully controlled rivulets of particulate particles or else, for the larger versions, swooshed and splashed around with the kind of unfettered expressionistic abandon one normally associates with the jolly irresponsibility of a happy childhood.
Downstairs at the Gallery the mood changes to a more deliberately decorative one courtesy of a display of prints by Anni Albers, whose vast retrospective currently fills the main space at Tate Modern. Whereas that exhaustively and extravagantly comprehensive show stresses the applied art practicalities of her practice and ends up producing an exhibition that feels a bit like walking through a Liberty’s pattern book, this neat little exhibition concentrates more closely on her later, specifically fine art productions. Why it is exactly that one prettily delineated swirl of lines or another block of repetitive geometric shapes should be taxonomically categorised as a craftwork rather than an artwork I’m really not sure, suffice to say that the much smaller selection of items gathered together here make me think the reason the Tate show left me cold was more to do with the presentation than with the actual works on display.
After which it’s time to head off to the Institute of Contemporary Arts which is currently offering up a series of three long video displays from Vinca Kruk and Daniel van der Velden who are collectively known as Metahaven. Now, anyone who has read the past few blogs where I try (and generally fail) to get to grips with the joys of time-based media may be a little surprised to find that once again I’ve decided to sink into that dark world of uncomfortable beanbag sofas and devote yet more hours to trying to unravel the metaphysical mysteries offered within the fleeting frames of this flickering format. But, in fact, the reason for today’s visit to the ICA is not to bother with the gallery displays but to take a proper normal seat in their proper normal cinema and watch a proper normal film documentary entitled The Price of Everything.
Subtitled An Art World Odyssey, the film is meant to be an investigation into the New York art scene undertaken by interweaving a series of interviews with artists, collectors, gallerists, dealers, auction house staff and a solitary verbose art critic whose name I missed and who rather lets the side down by spouting a meandering load of waffle that left me totally confused as to the point he was trying to make. Broadly speaking, the film centres around the extraordinary increase in the value of post war and contemporary art that has occurred during the past thirty or forty years and which now regularly sees artworks achieving multiple million dollar sale prices at auction. Rather disappointingly, the director Nathaniel Kahn doesn’t really bother to try to interrogate his witnesses so much as just allow them to make very generalised statements about how wonderful some artworks are and how much they have risen in price. There is little analysis as to what might have caused this artworld inflation, whether the bubble can last, what impact if any it has on the type of art being produced or the type of exhibitions that are being staged. And it’s a real shame there’s no Robert Hughes, Peter Fuller, Brian Sewell or Arthur Berman to offer the kind of robust critique that questions this frothier end of the artmarket where the speculators and asset managers seem to be in control.
Still, it’s not uninteresting and there’s a wonderfully comic moment when, recalling the first time she saw one of Hirst’s butterfly painting, the trophy wife of some Russian oligarch becomes so emotionally overwhelmed that she bursts into tears and has to wave the camera away. Another amusing moment involving the famous conceptualist-cum-taxidermist occurs when some ultra-high-net-worth-uber-collector bemoans the fact that the stuffed sheep he acquired for five million dollars a few years ago is now apparently worth substantially less. But perhaps one shouldn’t so much laugh at the man as pity him since he has phenomenally expensive art on every wall of his high-rise apartment, yet has managed to hang it without any sense of sensible curation or aesthetical good taste. Which just goes to prove that it doesn’t matter how much money you have, there are some things that just cannot be bought. Although should this particular chump want to hire access to some of my own exquisite artistic sense and sensibility in exchange for a small portion of his immense wealth then I think I might be open to negotiation.