Today is one of those unplanned days when I haven’t had a chance to check out what exhibitions are on offer and so decide just to have a general wander around the arty bits of town, ambling slowly northwards from my starting off point outside Green Park tube station. And I guess that I must have managed to avoid walking under ladders and kicking black cats recently as the day goes rather surprisingly well. I get to see some interesting stuff and, once again, my faith is revived in both the restorative powers of the artworld’s intellectual entertainments and the positive potential pluspoints of engaging in a serendipitousl meander around the salubrious streets of the capital’s commercial cultural quarter.
So, first stop on today’s flaneuring ramble is at Marlborough Fine Art which has recently been undergoing something of a renovatory clean up, scrub down and overall Spring season detox. One partition wall has been completely removed while all the rest have been given new coats of gleaming white emulsion – a special high-tech lighting system has been installed into the ceiling above and it looks likes the curatorial staff must have been on their knees all night buffering over the parquet panels of the pale wood flooring in order to achieve its current impressive state of shimmering smoothness. All of which has combined to make the gallery display space something of a pristine tabula rasa on which to lay out a pleasing review of some of the paintings and mixed media reliefs produced in the 1960s by one of the most respected of British Modernists: Victor Pasmore.
The show offers up another useful opportunity to try to re-evaluate the work of one of those serious artists who came to prominence in post-War Britain but whose highly-regarded reputation then took a bit of a battering when the Pop Art artists came along – and who, presumably, must seem utterly dusty and irrelevant to anyone of the YBA generation, let alone all those callow millennials raised on the slick special effect visuals of computerised digital internettery. Fortunately, for a slow-moving old gray beard like myself, I still retain the capacity for concentrated close looking, and I reckon that the subtle plays of dabs and dots, swishes and swirls, lines and laminae, with which Pasmore so carefully constructs his unflashy abstracts, come together to create satisfactorily rhythmic compositions…well…about half the time, at least.
The more successful ones suggest a kind of vague cartographic rendering of the British countryside with elements representing hills, rivers and the like all subtly mapped but it’s a difficult balancing act and sometimes the arrangement of symbols and shapes doesn’t quite seem to cohere, especially when the artist starts sticking little bits of wood and plastic onto his canvases and veering off out along some kind of Constructivist tangent. Pasmore’s main problem, however, was not of his own making and he was just unfortunate to have been stuck on that historical cusp when artists felt the need to move away from the pre-War worlds of Post-Impressionist narratives and Picassoan style analytics but were still struggling to find a new visual language appropriate for interpreting the technological age that was slowly but inexorably starting to emerge and insinuate its way into the general collective consciousness. The depressive economic circumstances of post-War austerity in this country (along perhaps with the natural national instinct for understatement and reserve) seemed to rule out following developments of the brash expansive form of Abstractionism that was being so successfully developed in America. Hence the solution that Pasmore and quite a few of the other British artists of the day seem to have come up with was to potter about in their studio sheds until they hit upon a gentler more parochial form of non-figurative art that referenced a sort of mythical version of the land and its various natural topographies. But while this found favour, at least for a while, with a national audience it was perhaps lacking sufficient power – steaming rather than electrifying – to be able to resonate with others across the Channel or over the Atlantic.
As previous alluded to, the respectable old world Abstractionism of Pasmore and his pals was to a large extent swept away by the electric charge of the Pop Artists like David Hockney, Peter Blake and Pauline Boty. Except, of course, that the last on that list never managed to attain the star status of the first two because her career was so tragically cut short by the cancer that killed her when she was just 28. Only recently have occasional items from her early output started to reappear in commercial galleries and, consequently, it’s worth calling into Gazelli Art House where a handful of her collages and one rare stained glass window are now on show in a slightly curious combination with a pair of painters, Niyaz Najafov (see below)from Azerbaijan and Markus Martinovich from Moscow. I’m not sure quite what theme is being threaded together here or what theoretical connections are being posited but Boty’s sparky collage mash-ups stand up well against the much larger Surreal narratives and faux naif cartoons of the other pair.
Surrealistic whimsicality continues down the road at Galerie Thadaeus Ropac where Erwin Wurm raises a chuckle with his display of silly sculptures and facile photographic studies. At least, I assume the idea of producing a series of moss covered rocks balanced on pairs of little human legs is to nudge the viewer gently in the ribs. And, similarly, the sequence of oversized polaroids of the artist and his friends finding new and unusual things to do with pieces of fruit and assorted household items – sticking an unpeeled banana in the gob; jamming a pair of pencils in the ears, balancing a wine glass on the head etc etc etc – are all meant to engender a sort of polite chortle of quizzical embarrassed bemusement.
In the accompanying gallery leaflet, however, there’s a half-hearted attempt to offer a sort of slightly more serious explanatory analysis for the artist’s deliberately ridiculous actions being something to do with his having, ‘…radically expanded conceptions of sculpture, space and the human form through ephemeral participatory sculptures…’ Which, I think, means that he’d like to encourage you to follow his lead and get adventurous with the crockery; do something novel with a kumquat; or perhaps find some alternate fleshy storage spaces to stash the stationery supplies. And, being a fan of free expression, who am I to try to deter any reader who feel so inspired to test the limits of their own ingenuity, flexibility and artistic creativity? Although, having said that, I take no responsibility for the results of such actions and would warn that if things go wrong then I believe that the queues in hospital A&E departments can be a good deal longer than one might wish.
By happy curious coincidence, work of a kindred spirit is also now showing just down the road at David Zwirner where three floors of the gallery have been given over to an entertaining introduction to the wacky world of the late great Franz West.* And again, here is an artist who seemed to appreciate the broadened horizons and loose latitude that the development of early Conceptual Art introduced into the world of sculpture – meaning that the form could be expanded exponentially away from the earlier traditional formats of wood-carving, metal-moulding and clay-shaping to allow for just about any accumulation, combination and manipulation of just about any material or object, up to and including the bodies of the artists themselves. But if the initial Conceptual credos had grown out of a fairly severe form of puritanical politicisation, and was consequently accompanied by swathes of theoretical pontification, I think West saw his role as blowing a great big raspberry at all that pretentiously waffling nonsense. And, consequently, I tend to assume his messily garish colour-splattered chunks of concrete are not meant to be examined for some hidden aesthetic content but just laughed at as a joke satirisng the absurdity at how some junk materials can be transformed into revered objects of desire simply by the application of the magic touch of a respected artist’s fingertips or the honeyed words of a mercenary critic or the slippery spiel of a wheeler-dealer dealer.
The fact that West’s famous adaptives – odd shaped lumps of plastered papier-mache that (similar to Wurm’s fruity equivalents) were designed originally to be played with by visitors to his exhibitions – are now so treasured that they must no longer be touched (except by the gloved hands of the conservator) probably means that the last laugh goes, as always, to the artworld and its investors and benefactors. Except, of course, that when walking around the wild West show the visitor is perfectly entitled to show a true appreciation of the work and the artist’s original intentions by disturbing the respectful hush of the gallery setting and emitting a sequence of snorts, sniggers and giggles and guffaws.
Finally, to end things on a more sensible note, I have to say that I really quite liked Reinhard Mucha’s show of sculptures and reliefs at Spruth Magers. Not least because they provide a sort of neat closing contrast with Pasmore’s work that came at the start of this blogging day. One artist draws upon the organically defined shapes of the natural world for inspiration while the other riffs on elements of urban architectural forms and both producing work worthy of serious consideration.
*Incidentally, a full scale retrospective of West’s work has also now just opened at Tate Modern