Head off down to London Bridge tube station and then stay on the shadowy side of the street in order to try to avoid the ultra-violent ultraviolet rays that are beaming down and bouncing up onto my shimmering sweltering surfaces. But it’s not just the heat that’s in danger of causing a slight malfunctioning of the bodily systems, humidity levels are high and this inclement combination of climatic conditions make the longish trudge down Bermondsey Street something of a chore. My destination is the cool spacious oasis of the White Cube gallery where I’m expecting to see an exhibition of paintings by Michael Craig-Martin which strike me as being exactly the kind of elegant, undemanding works that will gently elevate the serotonin levels in my cerebral circuitry while also helping to relax and soothe the rest of the synaptic systems that are currently being stress-tested by the unbalanced biometrics of my overheated corporeality.
Well, that’s the situation and that’s the plan. Although, walking past the front window of the Eames Fine Art gallery, which is en route to the other grander place, I can’t help glancing in and being sufficiently distracted by the colourful swirls of pastels and paints to succumb to the irresistible pull to investigate further by going inside and getting a better look. So it is that I find myself scanning along the selection of small abstracts by Barrington Tobin that are displayed around the walls of this compact but rather smart and welcoming gallery. And pondering the arrangement of this suite of pretty pictures before me, I start to engage in the internal dialogue that I usually use to try to tweak out some kind of reasoned assessment as to their aesthetic value. Now, with realistic representational works this can be a fairly straightforward systematic procedure as first I try to ascertain the validity of the narrative or documentational story being told before then turning to consider the appropriateness and acuity of the process whereby it is being expressed. But with non-figurative works it’s not so simple and attempting to verbalise the logic behind the gut feeling that instantly affects the senses and makes such pictures totally triumphant, utterly disastrous or, more typically, somewhere else along the spectrum between the famous twin poles of imposture, can prove to be a bit tricky.
Anyway, on this occasion I’ve barely Kipled at all before I find I’m being shadowed by the gallery’s perky young invigilator who interrupts my thought processes and engages me in conversation,. And while I can’t exactly recall her opening gambit, it starts me off on an ad hoc kind of rambling monologue – not a rant, I hasten to add, because I’m just too damn hot and clammy to be able to shift the mental gears up to the levels required to exert much emotionalism into my explicatory pontifications. Anyway, the gist of my meandering circumlocutory waffling is something along the lines that while the artist Tobin is undoubtedly not without a certain kind of practiced skill in working with his materials – balancing formalistic elements and carefully matching colour schemes to create a suitaby co-ordinated wholesome whole – none of his works manage to scratch my itch , tickly my gee-whizz spot or grab me in the nuts with sufficient vigour to push me to say anything other than the paintings are…well…um…er…quite nice. Which is not exactly damning with faint praise but…well, to be honest, I suppose it is. Others may disagree, of course. In fact, since I note that the works are priced in the low thousands, rather than the low hundreds, I assume that others clearly must disagree with my sentiments quite a lot in which case I’m sure Tobin will not be too upset by my own miserable opinion.
And perhaps he may even find some schadenfreudistic amusement when learning that having exited the Eames Fine Art, and subjected myself to more meteorological batterings as I trudge further along Bermondsey Street to get to the big White Cube, when I do finally arrive I find the gallery closed. My logistical planning systems seem to have let me down though whether this is specifically a result of today’s heat or maybe the symptoms of a more general age-related deterioration in my personal neural networking facilities I’m not sure. Either way, when I recheck the listings information on my trusty New Exhibitions of Contemporary Art freesheet gallery guide, I find that the exhibition I seek to see is actually taking place several miles north over at the Gagosian gallery near Kings Cross. O me miserum! As we used to say. Or, to use a more recent Homeric equivalent – D’oh!
And so to pick up the story about another hot and heavy forty minutes later…when I do eventually make it into the cooling clear cavernous environs of the Gagosian space I discover that instead of the usual selection of brightly coloured children’s book illustrations that Craig-Martin has so successfully made his signature style in print and painting, the display today is a fresh selection of sculptural configurations. Although, since most sculptures are defined by the actuality of a third dimension which lifts them off the page or canvas and adds the experiential quality of depth to the quantities of height and width, maybe Craig–Martin’s constructions – which are created from metallic rods that have been twisted into place and colour-coated – should be more correctly recategorised as drawings in lines of steel.*
As it is, Craig-Martin uses the exact same super-simplified style of representational production in the making of these monochromatic bi-dimensional works as he’s used in the past to make his prints and paintings but the pieces here are larger and allow the viewer to walk around them as if entering the picture plane in a sort of Alice in Wonderland dislocation of sensual expectation. Which all adds up to quite an attractive, amusing gimmicky diversion. Indeed, it’s hard not to look at the bright displays of mundane household objects – the corkscrew, lightbulb, safetypin and so on – that have been raised from their humble original purposes into the stuff of high art, and not smile at the sheer cleverness and silliness of the whole effortful process. I’m sure these works are destined to become firm favourites on sculpture trails and in sculpture parks up and down the countryside and when the anti-colonial iconoclasts finally manage to topple the statues and so create three more empty plinths in Trafalgar Square, who’s to say that Craig Martin’s jeux d’esprits wouldn’t make the absolutely ideal inoffensive replacements?
Back out into the heat of the day and down the dusty roads to the chaotic Kings Cross commuter confluence and I’m starting to wilt a bit under the temperature inclines but at least it’s only a few short stops and then a shortish stroll to get to Almine Rech and another small but smart display of paintings and sculptures by Jannis Kounellis. And the work here provides a brief but attractive introduction to the works of one of the founders of the so-called Arte Povera movement, a stylistic aesthetic that joined alongside the Futurist formulations of the first half of the past Modernist century to become Italy’s equally important contribution to its second half.
The basic idea behind this so-called Poor Art expression was to triangulate a position between the flashy extravagances of Pop Art’s celebration of commercial cultural activity and the austere seriousness of the Minimalist’s appreciation of structured ordinariness. Or something like that. What it meant in reality was that Kounellis, along with his pals like Penone and Merz rejected traditional artistic materials and methods of wood-carving, stone-cutting, bronze-casting and so forth and determined instead to make their artistic statements by aggregating together humble, everyday items such as coal, sand, strips of cloth, bundles of rags, sheets of steel. Originally I think the artists had a mix of political and ideological motivations behind their actions, governed by a sort of quasi-Marxist interpretation of the commodification of art and a dislike of the perceived sentimentalism of traditional bourgeois tastes. But then this was not uncommon amongst the intelligenstia of the ‘60s. What made their work stand out and retain a popular appeal throughout all the subsequent reactionary times and on into our own, was the simple fact that their creations just looked good and that even the most unlikely elements could be brought together to become compelling items of visual interest, provided their assembly was under the control of someone like Kounellis who had been blessed with special artistical talents.
Although, it has to be said that some part of the success of works of this kind rests in the dramatic contrast between the rough unexceptional origins of the component parts and the sophisticated simplicity and luxury of the classic gallery surroundings within which they are set. After all, if you took the art out of the gallery and just dumped a load of coal or steel sheets by the side of the road, the materials would immediately lose a large part of their artistic value and revert straight back to their original utilitarian origins. But hang them neatly and reverentially on the walls and floors at Almine Rech and the recycled transformation into art is still quite remarkable.
And so by the time I get to my last stop on today’s itinerary, I confess I’m feeling a little kaput and don’t really have the intellectual reserves to fully appreciate the tribute being made at the Hauser & Wirth gallery to the centennial anniversary of the opening of the Bauhaus by way of a mini-retrospective of works by one of its key founding members, Lazlo Moholo-Nagy. Hopefully I’ll get the chance to make a return visit, but in the meantime a couple of pictures (see below and above) will have to suffice while I go in search of somewhere to rest my weary limbs and recover my discombobulated composure.
*In fact, I’ve subsequently been advised that Craig-Martin’s sculptures are actually each dye cut out of single sheets of steel – which must be massively expensive but is essential in order to recreate that defining 2-D effect that makes them look so special.