Start the day off at Marylebone station where, since I happen to be feeling a tad esurient, I ponder upon the wide range of fast food feeding options available in the concourse here. It’s a choice of comestibles that range from savoury to sweet – from baguettes, burgers and bagels to fancily frosted fairy cakes and a speciality selections of carefully crafted chocolate bonbons. Eventually, I’m torn between the Starbucks sausage sandwich which, from past experience, I know to be almost tasteless but at least reassuringly consistent in its consistency, generally free of gristly inclusions and not entirely unfilling, or the West Cornwall Pasty Company’s bacon roll, which is a bit of a hit and miss affair – sometimes trim, meaty and extraordinarily toothsome but at other times excessively fatty, unpleasantly undercooked and, frankly, just about inedible. In the end, I risk the roll and, thankfully, it’s ok – not absolutely fabulous but not totally disgusting – and at least it’s the cheaper option, albeit that the accompanying hot beverage, while satisfactorily warm and wet, carries with it only the mildest hint of any actual taste of a coffee flavouring supplement. Anyway, after that degustatory diversion, I decide I’d better try to burn away some of the accumulated cholesterolic clagging by engaging in my customary al fresco exercise routine. And so it is that I start the day’s entertaining excursion by striding purposefully along the ten-minute backstreet route to get to the first of the two outposts of that most respected and influential of commercial cultural institutions: the Lisson Gallery
And, at first glance, the large abstract paintings being displayed here might be mistaken by the casual observer for examples of the work of this blog’s favourite non-figurational artist, the ubiquitous Sean Scully. After all, they’re about the right, grand size and the main constructional elements seem to be rough sequences of chunky stripes of monochromatic colouration. But something doesn’t smell right. And I mean that literally as well as figuratively, for there really is a discernible tang lingering in the Gallery air. In fact, it’s that very distinctive smell that comes from the evaporation of the volatilic solvents used by artists when mixing up or thinning down their oily paint materials. It’s the aroma that wafts around when paint is still drying out and one I tend to associate with exhibitions that have been put on in a bit of a rush by tardy artists suddenly brought up against the unforgiving deadline of an exhibition opening. On this occasion, however, when my bi-focals finally manage to focus in on the artwork, I can see that unlike Scully, who mixes up his paint to the consistency of a syrupy sludge before mellifluously applying it with the kind of six-inch brush most of us use when slapping on wallpaper paste, the current artist prefers the viscosity of his oily medium to be closer to butter cream icing and, consequently, uses a spatula or plasterer’s trowel to layer it onto his canvases. And such is the depth of his favoured impasto spreads that, not unnaturally, they require a considerable amount time for the pigments to desiccate and divest themselves of their distinctive olfactory signature.
Now, having detailed the physical attributes of the artist’s medium of choice, and already mentioned that the associated compositions are all based on a similar set of wide horizontal bars, I suppose it just remains for me to make some reference as to the palette of colours that the artist has used. While these are nowhere near as limited and subtly restricted as to veer into the territory occupied by those of a truly Minimalist persuasion, they are notably less varied and flamboyant than Scully’s current rainbow range and, on this occasion at least, are taken from that relatively small chunk of the overall colour spectrum bounded by a very dark blue at one extreme and a very light blue at the other…plus a few additional extra shades of white.
At which point I can confirm that the author of these sticky and smearily sensual compositions is Jason Martin, an artist who, I confess, was completely unfamiliar to me prior to this exhibition, despite the international success he has already achieved according to the biographical details articulated in the Gallery’s accompanying information sheet. So, what did I think of the work? Well, using the Marylebone Station foodie scale of relativistic measuremental evaluation, I guess I’d have to say that I thought they just about reached the Starbucks sausage sandwich level of customer satisfaction – neither stunningly good not startlingly bad but sort of reliably safe and consistently consistent.
Meanwhile across the way at the other Lisson outpost on Bell Street is the promise of recent work from an artist who is very well known indeed. In fact, I think it’s probably fair to say that Anish Kapoor seems to have achieved levels of both professional acclaim and public approbation sufficient to propel him to the status of one of the truly galactic superstars currently orbiting within the global artistic firmament, if you’ll pardon my awkward effusion of astronomical, metaphorical and hyperbolical allusion. Of course, what made Kapoor’s reputation in the past were sensually appealing series of sculptures that ranged from the ethereal to the monumental – from powdery piles of pretty pigments to enormous chunks of rock and massive metal constructions – all of which hinted at some kind of magical, mystical underpinning. And it’s undeniable that there’s great fun to be had from gazing into the depthless depths of the black holes that the artist seemed to be able to excavate from the interiors of hefty marble boulders or being bamboozled by the topsy-turvy reflections that bounced back from the super-shiny surfaces of the stainless steel mirrors and lenses that he produced.
Whether all this clever optical trickery is really great art or merely transient spectacle is perhaps open to question but it’s certainly diverting enough and, as already mentioned, has made Kapoor so highly regarded that he has evidently reached that level of supreme self-assurance whereof he believes that everything he creates must, by definition, be a work of genius. Sadly, this is not necessarily the case, as the current series of dashed-off doodle paintings now on display at the Lisson Gallery so clearly demonstrates. The works look to me like the most trivial of sketches expanded to a quite unnecessary scale and I’m not so sure the sculptures are that wonderful either. Indeed, the show is tremendously disappointing – not unlike biting into one of those bacon rolls with the hopeful expectation of chewing into something very special and instead finding one’s mouth full of…ok, so they’re not quite that bad but they’re definitely not nearly meaty enough for my tastes.
So, not a great start to the day but there is a slight improvement after taking another couple of trains to get down to Pimlico and Tate Britain where the massive main display space of the Duveen Galleries has been given over to Mike Nelson to fill. And, having bumped into examples of his work before, I suppose I was looking forward to snaking my way through another of his characteristic installation pieces which consists of mini-labyrinths of interconnected rooms made from crudely carpented bits of urban detritus stacked up with similarly discarded junky chattels. I’ve always thought these works were rather clever, with their walk-through collage conglomerations of forensic clues, red herrings and random background oddments all coming together to suggest a kind of carefully reasoned narrative trail – as if one was being invited to play a sort of Post-Modern version of Through the Keyhole.
But not this time. Nelson has, instead, turned the whole area into a kind of museum warehouse for the display of redundant manufacturing machinery. So, there are all manner of looms, lathes, drill-bits, cutters, welders, weighing machines, racks of stillages and the like. In fact, the only thing missing from this crowded dream factory is the dense smell of oil and grease and the clamour, clatter and roar that, for anyone who has ever worked in any form of industrial unit, will automatically be associated with all this kind of plant equipment. And I can’t help wondering whether that would include Nelson himself for the presentation here seems to be one long nostalgic sentimental sigh for the loss of a brave old world where the nobility of labour was recognised and honoured – a commemoration of the days when happy horny-handed, salt of the earth workers found meaning pulling levers, pushing buttons, riveting rivets and generally churning out a million assorted widgets. I have to say that the memories I have from my brief time working in factories making my own small contribution to the manufacturing economy are not so quaintly rose tinted.
Nelson has clearly spent quite some time considering the arrangements of his ancient mechanical specimens – stacking certain items together to make pleasing compositions while separating others to try to suggest an aesthetic elegance above their mere utilitarian design – but by cramming so many pieces all together I presume he’s trying to make some kind of more general overall point. I guess it’s something about the demise of this kind of industry as the world changes its economic structures to one where people spend their lives tapping away at their computer keyboards as they hot-desk their way through a precarious life built on zero-hour contacts and other gig economy indignities. Which I suppose is fair enough although I’m really not sure that the prison sentence of decades of nine-to-five working life chained to a machine and endlessly bashing out bits of metal was really that much more attractive. And I can’t help thinking that the machinery and accompanying work practices that Nelson seems to admire so much would have been absolute anathema to Ruskin, William Morris and that earlier generation of social reformers. All of which simply suggests that there is a common tendency to look back on the past and assume it was a more golden age. By which reasoning I expect in another fifty or hundred years the Duveen Galleries will be filled with iphones, tablets and laptops. Although rather than misty-eyed old timers, looking at that stuff and bemoaning the absence of happy Deliveroo couriers and cheery Uber drivers, by then I expect that the audience for the show will be the AI robots who have taken charge of running the world and made the whole of humanity redundant.