The Famous Totem Pole

If you spend a lot of time travelling round London by tube, and especially if, like me, you’ve never driven a car or ridden a bike, then your mental map of the capital will probably be a bit distorted. Instead of being composed of an intricate spider’s web of landmarks and interlinking roads, it’s liable to be much more simplified and based on Frank Pick’s famous diagram of underground lines and stations. As everyone knows, this elegant, easy-to-use map doesn’t show the relative position of actual places, but rather how all the tube lines join up. As well as having no sense of scale, it also omits the whole meta-city of locations that lie in the interstices between tube stations – places like Hackney, Alexandra Park, Norwood and today’s destination…Forest Hill.

I’ve been to Forest Hill a few times before but I can never remember where it is exactly, or how I got there the last time, but I do know for sure that it’s not within walking distance of a tube station. Getting there used to mean getting out the A-Z and the relevant London Transport bus maps but now modern technology has stepped in and replaced these messy bits of folding paper with a wonderful mobile phone app called Citymapper. Tap in an address or postcode and it very usefully tells which bus or train to catch, when they will arrive and how long the journey will take.

There is, of course, a downside danger to relying on this kind of whizzo digitalism – that half way to your destination you consult the oracle and there’s not enough bandwidth or the battery’s gone flat or you can’t get a signal. But not today! My wonder machine works perfectly and I feel a sense of smug self-satisfaction when I look up from my screen to see the famous totem pole that stands proudly outside the Horniman Museum. I enjoy that rare feeling that I may have finally mastered one piece of the digital cyber jigsaw future. Of course, the feeling doesn’t last. I’ve come to see an exhibition of paintings by Mark Fairnington, a very talented artist who used to have a space at Chisenhale Studios when I was administrator there, a couple of decades ago. I’ve always been interested in his work and when I spotted his name in the Art Fund guide I thought I’d go and take a look. But I’m too early, the show doesn’t start for a couple of weeks. Drat. Never mind, the Horniman has a large interesting permanent collection of musical instruments, stuffed animals, skeletons, fossils and a whole lot of other delights for the culturally inquisitive and open-minded, so I think I’ll just have a general wander around. I only get as far as the glass case with the dodo and the okapi when I’m suddenly hit by a wall of sound that would blow Phil Spector’s toupe off. Evidently, it’s the day for primary schools to visit and the noise generated by these small people is off the decibel meter and dangerously high. I manage to escape behind the sound proof door that leads into the costume section but my interest in photographs of traditional Romanian folk dress wanes after about two minutes and I’m back consulting the app.

Dulwich Art Gallery is nearby but I happened to see the exhibition of Escher drawings and prints in Edinburgh last year and, fascinating though it was, I don’t really want to see it again. His intricate patterns of birds turning into fish, lizards into dodecahedra and men forever walking up and down the same stair case of a turreted castle, are fiendishly clever but probably best seen on the sleeve of a Mott the Hoople LP or studied in a book, rather than stuck on the walls of an art gallery. Instead, I get a bus and tube and return to civilisation in central London as epitomized by the stylish charm of Albermarle Street in general, and the Marlborough Gallery in particular. There’s an impressive display of Auerbach paintings and prints that complements the Tate’s exhibition but I’m really here to grab a copy of one of the NECA exhibitions guides that they’ve got on the front desk. The new bimonthly issue is out covering November and December and, with details of about 200 galleries, it really is the essential listings tool for any self-respecting culture vulture to help choose what to see in London

Meanwhile on Albermarle Street…while Marlborough is the largest, oldest and most prestigious exhibition space, there are half a dozen other smaller commercial galleries and it’s easy enough to quickly window shop these and then, if occasionally something catches the eye, call in and take a proper look. The art here tends to be a bit pretty, kitsch and middle-of-the-road but there are sometimes exceptions and I’m tempted to try to get a better look at the Fontanas in the Tornabuoni gallery. Unfortunately, there are a couple chatting away in the doorway, sharing cigarettes and blocking the entrance. Between them they manage to exude so much smoke while I’m trying to find the right doorbell to press that I have to give up and exit, in danger of being asphyxiated. I thought the whole point of smoking was to inhale the poisonous fumes not blow them out into the atmosphere and try and kill the rest of us – where’s the fun in that? Striding on, my attention is then caught by the sign for Lee Jeong Woong’s Laputa in the window of the Shine Artists gallery. It’s not clear whether Laputa refers to the floating island in Gulliver’s Travels or the Soviet missile complex that gets bombed in Dr Strangelove or maybe the Spanish slang for a whore, but the paintings are amusing updated versions of Alma Tadema fantasies. Kimono-clad Koreans have replaced the more familiar toga-wearing ancient Greeks and while it’s all a bit too archly Post-Modern to be taken seriously, you’ve got to admire the technical facility of the artist.

A bit further north I call into Paul Smith, not to get some new threads – everything here is just that bit too chic and expensive for my tastes – but to give a plug for the series of simple abstract pencil drawings by Nigel O’Neill that they’ve got displayed behind the counter. They look really impressive and I’ve always thought that Nigel, who was also at Chisenhale, was one of those truly talented and dedicated artists deserving of greater recognition.

I carry on north and turn into New Bond Street for Childish Things at Skarstedt, a pretty little exhibition with contributions from Vija Celmins, Mike Kelley and Robert Gober. The half dozen works, including a painting of a bowl of soup, a wonky wooden playpen and some knitted circles, hang on the walls and lie on the floor. They look like the clues to a Surreal puzzle and while you’re pondering over the conundrum you half expect the bowler-hatted man with the net, hiding behind the door, to pounce on you, as in Magritte’s Menaced Assassin. Next door at Dominique Levy is a comprehensive selection of Gerhard Richter Colour Charts. It’s hard to look at these works now without seeing them as the children of Duchamp’s last painting, Tu m’, and the father to all those Damian Hirst spot paintings. I’m not sure why but it seems to me that Richter’s simple replications of actual paint charts – squares of pure colours lined up in ranks – look smart and sophisticated whereas Hirst’s look cynical and tacky.

Finally, I go for refreshment at Eat in Selfridge’s Food Hall and try their orange mango cooler, which is a bit watery, and the Sicilain Lemon Cheescake which definitely lacks the bite of the one I had at Pret a few days ago.

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