Head down to Oxford Circus tube station and as I emerge from the subterranean depths my eyes are met with the full penetrative force of a billion solar sunbeams bashing their way up against my optical nerve endings and sparking off a cascade of neural brain waves that ripple and rollick around the core of my cerebral processing units. I’m not sure if summer has formally arrived but it definitely feels like the tilt of the earth’s axis has started to push those of us residing in the northern hemisphere closer to the sun’s sunny orb and, with the absolute absence of cloud cover, even I feel a slight twinge of temptation to don the sunglasses, spread on the sun cream and recline on the sun lounger with a blue lagoon cocktail in one hand and a volume of Proust in the other. But duty calls and rather than succumb to the siren calls of the lotus eaters (if you’ll forgive my mixed Homeric metaphors) I decide to continue on my own cultural Odyssey. Which today means starting out at Annely Juda Fine Art where both of the gallery’s floors have been given over to a mini-retrospective introduction to the works of that most eminent of all British sculptors working during the second half of the Modernistic 20th century: Anthony Caro.
And, aside from a couple of wonderfully curious early figurative works showing a man smoking and a bull snorting, just about everything else comes from the same rearrangement of scrap metal junk yard components that characterised Caro’s output over his long and successful career. So, there are fine examples here of all the various different kinds of abstract configurations that the artist managed to weld together: large and small, sparse and complex; a few painted in radiant monochromatic hues but most left as nature intended, slowly patinating themselves with their pretty tans of rusting ferrous oxides. While there are one or two later works, when Caro decided to try to fit together lighter combinations of stainless steel oddments and plasticated perspex sheeting, for the most part the show consists of the familiar combinations of more clunkily solid forms of strips and pipes, girders, and grills, and all and any offcuts that the artist felt looked good when they got stuck together. Sometimes these assemblages of lumps and curves, lines and laminae, do seem to fall together into a sort of pleasing harmonious pattern of rhythmic organic self-contained wholeness. But I’ve never been entirly sure whether that was actually Caro’s real intention since so often the selection of shapes he decides to select and conjoin really do look just like random higgledy-piggledy collections of junky clumps of bits and bobs.
It would be nice to think that what Caro was aiming to offer up was a sort of skeletal Schopenhauerian scaffolding that represented some kind of eternally hidden archetypal substructure of shapes with an underlying aesthetic logic that holds all the parts perfectly in place. But I have to admit that sometimes I just can’t see it. Then again, maybe it’s the search that’s the important bit and that the actual art lies in the compulsive act of looking for some resonating sense of sense.
Caro’s art certainly disturbs and encourages the viewer to gaze and puzzle at its apparent untitidiness and irresolution. By contrast, it’s the very polished super slick presentation of Beverly Fishman’s reliefs, hung on the walls of the Ronchini Gallery next door, that grips the attention. These glossily colourful confections positively glow with a shiny radiance born of the perfectly polished paintwork that matches the softened geometries of their component parts which are, apparently, based on the smooth, easily-digestible forms of various pharmaceutical pill products. The titles of the works also reference their inspirational medicinal origins but, perhaps unsurprisingly in today’s climate of health scares and medical mistrust, instead of being read as a celebration of a century of scientific success in easing pain and healing sickness, Depression, Digestive Problems and Opioid Addiction, suggest some kind of general warning against the seductive allure of Big Pharma’s soothing promises. Which is fair enough, I suppose, although the next time I feel any irritating gouty twinges starting to threaten my lower limb extremities I still think that I’ll be more inclined to find relief by reaching for my Naproxen tablets rather than taking a look at any of the pieces of art I’ve got hanging on my walls.
Back out into the sun and the glare of the real world persists as I head southwards down into Cork Street which, when I first started looking into art galleries, forty-or-so years ago, was the absolute central omphalos of Britain’s commercial artworld as, indeed, it had been since the early years of the 20th century. It’s suffered a steady decline in relevance and importance over the past couple of decades – ever since Saatchi opened his first American style warehouse space in north London – but one feels that the recent large scale redevelopments, which involved refashioning the Street to allow the installation of lots of desperately needed glass office blocks, could be the start of its final terminal decline. Ok, there are still a handful of proper galleries that have managed to remain – Redfern, Mayor, Flowers, Nahmad and Waddingtons – but none of the many new, specially created display spaces seems to have managed to attract any tenants yet and it will be interesting to see if they ever do get let out and, if so, what kinds of art will deck their walls.
In the meantime, just round the corner, are the two spaces that comprise the Stephen Friedman Gallery, both currently being filled by the large and impressive canvases of Denzil Forrester. And I think it’s probably fair to say that the subject matter of most of his paintings will reveal a world quite unfamiliar to the majority of patrons of the old school Modernism artworks that have adorned the walls of the galleries of Cork Street over the past half century. The reason being that the Granada-born Forrester has decided to paint pictures of the unofficial blues clubs and dub reggae dance halls of the Black music scene of the 1980s. And while I’d like to pretend that, such is the extent of my own broad inclusive knowledge of multi-cultural aesthetics, that I’m utterly au fait with the technicalities of mcs, toasters, sound systems and such like, I have to admit that, in reality, my actual knowledge of this particular niche area of home-grown ethnic entertainment is probably as scant as most of the other stale pale males of my generation. Indeed, having been more of a prog rock fan all those happy hippie years ago, the only thing I really know about this other kind of alternative music is that its followers seemed to like to play it very loudly, very repetitively and very late at night – information garnered from the personal experience of once having had very noisy neighbours.
But back to the paintings, which make all the jiving, dj-ing and general jollifications look suitably energetic and convivial. Though it’s perhaps just a little curious that Forrester seems to have chosen to hark back to the old-fashioned Expressionistic and Futuro-Cubistic styles, that first appeared in the frantic early years of the last century, to find a suitable format to convey the full kaleidoscopic energy and excitement of his vibrant scenarios. Nevertheless, the bright acidic colours and sharp spiky strokes of these old style stylings seem perfectly serviceable when it comes to be being re-used to convey a sense of the clamorous electric atmosphere that the artist so obviously enjoyed during his own Caribbean-style salad days. Although I can’t help wondering whether Forrester may be painting a sort of brighter and sometimes more cheerily nostalgic version of what was perhaps a more darker reality, both literally and metaphorically.
Continuing southwards, window-shopping my way down past Fortnum & Mason’s side entrance, I come across this virtuosic piece of impasto paint spreading (featured below) when peering into the Goodman Fine Art gallery. It’s John Bratby’s take on Sunflowers, the old still-life favourite that artists have been playing about with ever since Van Gogh made up those first welcoming bouquets for his old pal Gauguin. Indeed, the current Van Gogh show at Tate Britain features a special little flower display section including works from Matthew Smith, Jacob Epstein and William Nicholson but, sadly, not from Bratby which is a pity as I think that he’s actually done a much better job than the rest of them here. The small Frink statuette of a Birdman flying under the main painting doesn’t look too bad either.
But no time to stop as I still want to check out the Christian Marclay videos and prints at the White Cube gallery further on down the road. And here there are two main screen presentations – one unsuccessful and one less so. The larger work, entitled Subtitled, consists of a tall column of sliced up strips of bits of film taken from a selection of different movies all playing simultaneously. So, the viewer get to see an unending collaged mix of shredded up bits of people and props along with assorted interiors and exteriors, and fleeting trails of randomised texts. The smaller piece, entitled Look, is a shifting sequence of dozens of photographs of the eponymous word that have been etched onto roads, presumably for the purpose of instructing unwary pedestrians to take more careful note of their immediate surroundings. The word also appears in various forms all more or less battered, eroded and weathered in a set of stationary prints displayed around the gallery walls where, I suppose, one might reasonably describe them as looking appropriately lookable.