Notwithstanding the relative serendipitous success of last week’s unpreplanned artistic perambulations, I’m reluctant to risk tempting the fates again quite so soon and, instead, decide today to organise a proper itinerary of galleries to visit, using as my guide the latest bimonthly issue of the very useful New Exhibitions of Contemporary Art*. And so, having reserved my regular corner seat at the West Cornwall Pasty Company bistro in Marylebone Station, I place my order for one of their hi-carb, hi-cholesterol speciality breakfast indulgences and carefully scan my way through the NECA gallery listings, making a note of all the shows that look as though they might be deserving of further investigation. Then, as I slowly chew my way through the soggy roll, stuffed with its combination of curly Cumberland sausage, extra-fatty bacon rashers and complementary pair of greasy hash brown croquettes, I highlight the locations of the chosen galleries on the NECA map, plotting a course that joins them all up in what I hope will prove to be a rambling route of sufficient length, duration and intellectual stimulation to be able to burn off all those dangerously super-calorific comestibles which are only just now beginning their equally determined peristaltic journey through the twists and turns of my own entertainingly convoluted digestive system.
So, the day starts off with a trio of photographic shows – first some big prints by David Bailey at the small Gagosian Gallery on Davies Street. And despite the familiarity of these famous portrait images of ‘60s icons like Lennon and McCartney, the Kray twins, Michael Caine and David Hockney, they still look great and groovy and if I didn’t already have dog-eared versions in my tattered old copy of Goodbye Baby & Amen I might be tempted to buy the new super-jumbo sized Bailey retrospective book recently released by Taschen (and now available at their Chelsea boutique, price £2,250). Incidentally, amongst the selection here is a pasty-faced picture of a youthful Andy Warhol and, coincidentally, just across the road at the Bastian gallery is a comprehensive selection of polaroids taken by the great American enigma himself. These small shots of celebrities show that for all Warhol’s carefully crafted persona as nonchalant disinterested avant-gardist, he was, in fact, a really rather talented traditionalist when it came to snapping out these little instant photo pics. So while the colours look to me as though they may be starting to fade just a touch, the likes of Beuys, Basquiat, Liza Minnelli, Muhammad Ali, various other A-list stars and an assortment of self-portrait drag studies, all still look really rather neatly composed. (And, again, Taschen produced a special book of Warhol Polaroids a few years ago, copies of which are also available at the gallery here.)
The final photo show visited on today’s jaunt is a bit more serious, being a select but useful introduction to the works of dangerous Don McCullin. As blogged about a couple of weeks ago, there’s a very large – perhaps too large – retrospective of his output now running at Tate Britain, but the advantage of this show at Hamiltons, aside from it being considerably more concise and free to enter, is the absence of the large crowds rubber-necking McCullin’s grim vistas and blocking the views. It means that it’s possible to have a longer, more considered look at all of the dramatic chiaroscuro action photographs and while there are still a fair few shots taken in war zones, showing the grim consequences of conflict, these are leavened by the inclusion of enough more domestically oriented scenes to make the display a lot less depressing than the one now showing at the Tate. I particularly liked the shot showing sheep being shepherded across the Caldedonian Road apparently taken in 1965 and which, I suppose, just goes to show that not everywhere was quite as swinging in that decade as one might imagine from focussing too closely on the works of Bailey and Warhol.
Next for something completely different where over at the Victoria Miro gallery there’s a triple bill of work from three generations of Danish artists featuring paintings by Asger Jorn, Per Kirkeby and Tal R. I’m already vaguely familiar with the work of Jorn but, unfortunately, the exhibition does nothing to encourage me to reconsider my prejudicial view that here was a very strange artist who seemed to revel in making abstract images that were deliberately, provocatively messy and ugly. And, I confess that I’ve never quite figured out what the point was in doing that. The gallery leaflet talks about the work of all three of the artists as being, ‘…united by an insistent materiality and characterised by an energised openness…having a command of colour and gesture…’ and so on but since none of that alters the fact that all the works look desperately dull and unattractive to me, I decide to head on quickly to the next stop.
And this is over the road at the Sotheby’s S2 gallery which is a bit of a peculiar space housing a bit of a peculiar exhibition. House of the Sleeping Beauties is a sort of thematic show advertised as ‘…touching upon concepts of the erotic, the body, surrealism, performance and theatricality’. Which is fair enough although it seems to have been assembled without a great deal of thought about how curation might help lead the visitor through these loosely linked topics and make connections between the works of the 40 or so artists whose works are on display. So, while there are indeed some interesting individual paintings and sculptures – the Picabia pin-up paintings, Lili Dujourie’s curly papier mache sculptures, Renate Bertlmann’s self-portrait photos – as a whole, things are all a bit randomly jammed together. In short, the works are perhaps not presented to their best advantage with the totality of the exhibition somewhat less than the sum of its disparate body parts.
By happy contrast, the display at Nahmad Projects shows that there is, after all, really quite a special art to displaying art successfully. And here is how it should be done, albeit that the small show is centered around just two great masters from the last century – Alexander Calder and Joan Miro. There are only three paintings and two mobile sculptures on display here but the works complement each other perfectly, fill the space wonderfully and prove the point that quality is more important than quantity, that less really can sometimes be more, and that some galleries and gallerists have more sophisticated sense of good taste than others.
Still on Cork Street I make a quick call into Redfern Gallery where their Spring Exhibition of Modern British Art features a mixed bunch of works from the post-War generation of artists who were tentatively trying to inject a bit of dynamism and avant-gardism into a nation famed at the time for its conservative cultural tastes. So, there are a lot of abstracts by the likes of Paul Feiler, Adrian Heath and William Gear, and some scrambled up figuration from Keith Vaughan and Ivon Hitchens but the unifying tone is still one of drab and understatement. But then, I think, for baby-boomers like myself, the art of this era reflects an aesthetic that will always be associated with the gray gloomy austerity that preceded the arrival of the much more exciting and colourful optimism of the subsequent Pop explosion. Consequently, while I can kind of appreciate some of the formal aspects of this pre-Pop art, I find it hard to get very enthused by it. Although, having said that, there is one painting worth picking out for its art historical interest and that’s the small Victor Pasmore landscape of 1943 revealing The Thames at Hammersmith (shown below) since it comes from the period when the artist was approaching that important turning point when he was starting off on his own journey into abstraction and which, some may recall, was where last week’s blog began its story.
After that, it’s a short walk to get to Dover Street and the Richard Saltoun gallery which is staging another of its reviews into the world of the early forms of Conceptualism and Performance Art that arose during the 1970s and continued briefly on into the early 1980s. And which, to continue the brief historical thread referenced above about the rise of Pop Art, could, I suppose, be seen as a reaction against that brief interlude of figurative hedonism and a return to an art that suggested it might require a more cerebral response from its audience. Anyway Forms, Feminisms and Femininities is a look at the mixed media works of Rose English that encompasses photography, video, documentary ephemera and small ceramics, all of which deal more or less obliquely with the conjunction of feminism and fine art. Although, looking at all this work, I confess that I feel I’m not always correctly following the lines of her theoretical stance so, while I quite liked the pretty decorative aspects of her porcelain dancers and the comic absurdity of the pictures of her and her partner apparently buried up to their necks while taking a nap in a ploughed up field, I admit to getting a bit lost when trying to figure out why she wanted to dress up as a horse or be photographed hugging a great lump of wood while donning a pair of Mickey Mouse cartoon ears – although, I’m sure she had her very good reasons at the time.
Which just leaves enough space for me to get to the Simon Lee gallery and take a look at a display of paintings by Dexter Dalwood who concludes the rough, lumpy art historical chronology by bounding on from English’s early Conceptualism to the Post-Modernist painterly style that initially flared into view sometime around the turn of the millennium. The current display shows Dalwood continuing his ludic plays but this time exiting his familiar roomscapes to offer what look like rejected film stills from an imaginary movie in which an absent hero goes on an elaborate journey to nowhere. Which rather nicely confirms the truism about the journey being better than the arrival whether it’s art, life or even some days out blogging.
*There’s an online version of NECA available at www.newexhibitions.com but, being d’un certain age, I find the old-fashioned, fold-out analogue paper version much easier to use, and copies of these can usually be found at the reception desks of most of the galleries mentioned in this blog.