Head off to Vauxhall tube station and then take a stroll down the Albert Embankment. The bright sunny sunshine of the Easter holiday has now clouded over to become a rather more clammy climactic condition with a slightly oppressive ambience that’s added to by the trio of low-flying helicopters that are circling above and emitting a dull thumping thud from their rotor-motor wingbeats. Presumably these hovering hawks are keeping an eye on the eco-protesters below who have been camped out in the capital for the past few days disrupting traffic and playing games of tag with our brave boys in blue. Fortunately I seem to be far enough away from the city centre to be unaffected by all these anarchistic entertainments and manage to arrive at my destination of the Newport Street Gallery sticky and disheveled from my perambulatory exertions but otherwise happily unhindered.
So, what has brought me to this quiet outpost of artistic revelation that is fortunately situated far from the madding crowds of the concerned climate activists and their entourage of constabulary overseers? Well, this time the establishment’s owner – that most famous of former artistic enfants terribles, Damien Hirst – has decided to shift from his more usual urge to display fruits from the Post-Modernistic movement, of which he himself was such a hugely successful proponent, and instead stage an exhibition of works by a pair of good, old-fashioned pre-millennial 20th century Modernists. And so, rather than another display of large extravagant sculptural assemblages and figurative colagistic pastiches in the manner of of Jeff Koons, Gavin Turk, Ashley Bickerton or Martin Eder – all of whom have been honoured by being given one-man shows over the past couple of years – the current show is more of an echo of the gallery’s inaugural exhibition that featured paintings by the British abstractionist John Hoyland. Evidently, Hirst’s personal tastes are not solely centered on an appreciation of the cerebral games-playing diversions of Conceptualistic conceits but also extend to embracing the potentially more visceral – or maybe that should that be retinal? – delights available from those traditionalist practitioners who favoured working with paint on canvas.
And so it is that on this occasion Hirst’s gleaming white Gallery walls have been hung with a collection of around fifty paintings split evenly between the abstractions of Alan Davie and the essentially more figurative imaginings of John Bellany. Now, these are both interesting artists but not perhaps a pair that would necessarily be thought of as a very obvious couple to be shown together. As already mentioned, their artistic experimentations were carried out in opposing stylistic extremes, with Davie playing around with all manner of non-figurative, decorational designs and Bellany (his junior by about twenty years) working within a framework of more clearly symbolistic and semi-Surrealistic narratives. One specific characteristic they did share, however, was the fact that both artists slowly, but very consistently, evolved their painterly styles over the course of their creative lifetimes. In very brief summary, both artists started out using a dark and gloomy palette of colours that then grew decidedly lighter and brighter. And, similarly, while there was also development with Davie’s compositional elements, with the various geometric blocks and biomorphic squiggles of colour separating out and becoming clearer and more distinct, Bellany’s subject matter also shifted from the early quite traditional form of figuration through a looser more caricatured set of renderings to a final phase in which his subjects seem to swirl around in their own much more mystical made-up world.
So, there are a lot of good individual works in the show here but…and this is a very big but for me…what is most striking about the exhibition as a whole is that Hirst has decided to mix and match works by the two artists together and then also, very deliberately, chosen not to show the paintings in any form of chronological order, preferring instead to jumble them all up randomly. Well, not exactly randomly. He does seem to have hung some together to try and maybe match patches of colour or similarities in certain shapes. So, for instance, some of the blue colour combinations and triangular geometries and that appear in Davie’s Diamond Romance (see above) appear to be echoed in Bellany’s Rose of Sharon (see below) which presumably explains why they’ve been placed together. But while I can sort of understand why someone else might buy a particular painting and then hang it in a specific room in their home because it matches the carpets or curtains, I’m just not convinced that this kind of interior decorator’s approach to curation is a very good way to put together a proper, grown-up exhibition.
Then again, since Hirst owns the Gallery and all the paintings (and is generous enough not to charge the public to get to see them), I suppose he’s allowed to do whatever he wants and no-one in his staff would have the temerity to question his judgement. Which is a great pity as this could have been a really useful exhibition showing how two serious artists had developed their thinking over the duration of their long careers. Instead of which everything is a jumble of out of joint images that, for me at least, diminishes the works of both of the artists. Although, I can well imagine that others of a younger more digitally driven generation, who’ve grown up being bombarded with cascades of unmediated instagramatical visuals, may well think differently and see no advantage in the kind of analogue systems and structures that help oldies like myself make sense of the world around them.
Interestingly, in the free fold-out exhibition guide there are separate short essays for each of the artists and the illustrations are also appropriately placed in reasonable time order. The author of this useful little introduction is unidentified, although I think we can be sure it wasn’t Mr Hirst who presumably, given the chance, would have wished to re-edit it all using some of William Burroughs’ creative cut-up processing. The show’s still worth a visit but I just think it could have been so much better – a thought that hurrumphs around my head and distracts me as I stride along to get to the next stop at the Alan Cristea Gallery which is presenting a display of late prints by the recently deceased Gillian Ayres.
And there are definite echoes here of the work of Alan Davie in the choice of piling together a whole bunch of discrete pictogramatic samplings of all manner of geometric and organic abstractifications. Of course, just how well these coloured-in combinations of chevrons and stars, tendrils and harlequins, foliate forms, dots, blobs and swirls cohere into pleasing ornamental arrays is, I suppose, ultimately all just a matter of personal taste. But I like them. Flicking through some hefty coffee table biography of the artist that’s been helpfully left lying on a Gallery bench I notice that Ayres also seems to have undergone that shift from early darker configurations to lighter, altogether less fraught, confections and I can’t help wondering whether this change coincides with the artists achieving some kind of early commercial success.
All of which leads on to the last of today’s painters, the very successful Sean Scully who is currently enjoying global acclaim with simultaneous exhibitions staged around the globe and murmurings that he might well be considered the world’s greatest living abstractionist. It’s a view about which I’m sure the artist would readily concur and, while I suppose Bridget Riley might lodge a reasonable counter-claim, I’m not sure that I can think of any other main contenders for that particular crown. Anyway, the show I’m seeing now is at the National Gallery and it’s full of all the usual characteristic trademark blocks and stripes of luscious dark colours. And for anyone, like me, who happen to like Scully’s characteristic trademark blocks and stripes of luscious dark colours, well, they’re going to like this show.
If there is one fairly obvious gripe, however, then it’s the fact that the setting is, frankly, not really very well suited to the display. The basement gallery is simply not big enough to comfortably house so many of Scully’s large works and I can’t help thinking that they would look a whole lot better hung in the much less claustrophobic setting of Hirst’s Newport Street Gallery. And, without wishing to harp on about the matter, the Davies and Bellanys, suitably separated and sorted, would probably fit quite well into the National’s smaller space. Perhaps someone could try to arrange a swapsy?