Get up a bit late today. Well, it is the weekend. But now it’s too late to get a sausage and bacon roll from the West Cornwall Pasty shop on Marylebone station. Then I discover that my fallback position, the Eat shop on Baker Street is shut due to ‘technical reasons’. Further on down Baker Street I have a look in Apostrophe but their food doesn’t look very appetising so it’s back to the Nathan Detroit of café society and good old reliable Pret a Manger. It’s a cold day and I’m in need of something to warm up my chilly bits so I go for a toastie. But be warned, the chicken one got redesigned somewhere along the line. I grabbed one of these in Manchester recently and it was only when I bit into it that I discovered the usual creamy, comforting sludgy bits of chicken and bacon had been superseded by a spicy onion and tomato sauce. While this might be effective as a hangover cure, it’s got far too much fizz for normal breakfasting purposes. I go for the ham and cheese one instead, although even this comes with a punchy, very yellow mustard that makes it a bit more snappy than is entirely necessary, but it’s edible enough.
Take the tube to Southwark and walk down Union Street to get to the Jerwood Space, where they’re showing work from the three winners of their inaugural, biennial photoworks awards. I’m not too sure what criteria the judges were looking for in the work but, judging by the displays, it seems they favour fairly straightforward black and white examples of what used to be called reportage – the kind of picture story pictures that once filled pages of Life magazine or Picture Post. So while Matthew Finn documents his mother’s life over the past thirty years, and in particular her move from family home to assisted living residence, Tereza Zelenkova takes us for a slightly sinister walk through the creepy, fairytale woods of her native Czech Republic and Joanna Piotrowska gets her flexible friends to twist themselves into peculiar poses that are apparently reenactments of those found in self-defence manuals. I suppose I preferred the dark Surreal aspects of Zelenkova and Piotrowska’s work to Finn’s perhaps too personal biography, but thought all of the work competent rather than exceptional.
Walk on to Tate Modern – down the ramp and under the ugly scaffolding, that supports the silly Turbine Hall installation, and up the escalators to the Alexander Calder exhibition. And this really is a corker of a show. Everyone knows Calder as the man who invented the mobile – and who doesn’t like mobiles? Well, Salvador Dali apparently disapproved, saying that the very least you could expect of a sculpture is that it would stand still – but maybe that’s just what passes for Spanish Surreal humour. Anyway, this exhibition shows that it wasn’t just twirly, wind-powered moveables that Calder produced. There’s his Dada version of bar skittles where the little wooden markers are replaced with bottles and cans and the object of the game is not just to knock them down but, in so doing, also to create a concrete musique accompaniment. Then there are the other abstract automata: the souped-up astrolabes and orreries promising a random dance of wires, metals balls and leaf-like laminae. It’s a great pity that these are stationary, presumably now too delicate to risk switching on the motors and letting the shapes wobble and whir about. Notwithstanding the appeal of this non-moving, moveable feast of attractions, I think Calder’s greatest creations were three dimensional line drawings that he made with bits of twisted wire – Hercules and the Nemean Lion, acrobats and other circus performers and, even more amazing, the wonderful portraits of artists friends like Leger and Ozenfant.
Calder’s reputation probably suffered because the mobiles were so universally popular – you can just imagine how much that would annoy the artworld snobs who would be only too happy to class him as a mere populist entertainer and toymaker. But this is quite unfair and, as this exhibition so powerfully shows, he has a good claim to be in the pantheon of great Dadaists like his friend Marcel Duchamp. His experiments with chance events and the underlying anarchic humour of all his work is certainly well within the Dada tradition. Hopefully this show will give his reputation the well-deserved boost that will push him into the artists premier league, where he so rightly belongs.
The only disappointment about an otherwise really enjoyable, excellent show is that there are no examples of Calder’s so-called stabiles, the big chunky sculptures made out of heavy slabs of sheet metal, coloured and bolted together to make animal-abstract hybrids. What a shame they couldn’t have dumped the current, hugely disappointing Turbine Hall installation and set up a herd of them there.
I go to the nearby Marcus Campbell bookshop and open the door to be greeted by…’Johnny’s in the basement, mixing up the medicine…’ It’s the whining voice of good old Bob Dylan and, while I’m not much of a fan, even I recognize the strained strains of Subterranean Homesick Blues. But I have to admit that this comes as a bit of a shock, as the usual background music here is strictly Resonance FM which tends to mean a nice SingalongaStockhausen or the Alban Berg Happy Hour featuring Lulu (and I don’t mean the chirpy Scottish popster) or Edgard Varese’s Teen and Twenty Disc Club. I make a jocular remark to the man behind the counter with the beard about being surprised to hear Uncle Bob droning his stuff but am met with the frosty reception and froideur that suggests to me beardie is being unnecessarily defensive. I feel like I’ve caught him pretending to read Finnegans Wake only for the book’s dust jacket to fall off, revealing a well-thumbed copy of Fifty Shades of Grey. So, I make my excuses and leave him to his illicit pleasures.
A brisk walk down the Southbank past another dreadful bit of public sculpture – Sir Laurence Olivier standing outside the National Theatre – which is perhaps even worse than that of Sherlock Holmes outside Baker Street tube station. Sherlock is just too large and Larry just too petite. I take the tube east to Bethnal Green and walk to Herald Street, home to four small, adventurous little galleries. All are very discreet with no windows for the public to smash or gawp through, instead each has a small nameplate and a buzzer to push. It’s a bit like visiting a ’30 speakeasy – push the button, smile into the close circuit camera lens and whisper the secret word swordfish and, with a bit of luck, they’ll let you in.
First off is Maureen Paley’s gallery and three room-size installations from Liam Gillick. A radio, a flatscreen TV and a pyre of wood with a scattering of glitter are the respective props in each of the rooms which are otherwise empty, save for the cryptic words written on the walls. ‘The thought style fells the thought collective… The thought style fails the thought collective…’
Now, what might that mean? I suppose my first reaction is to think – gosh, how jolly pretentious that all is. So I take a look at the gallery helpnotes…’this exhibition explores the way groups develop their ideas in cohesion and tension with the individual. Drawing on anthropologist Mary Douglas’ interpretation of sociologist Ludwik Fleck, Liam Gillick juxtaposes works that were…’ and that’s about as far as I get.
Of course it’s pretty easy to mock this kind of stuff, especially if, like me, you’ve never heard of Mary or Ludwik, and I’m all for puncturing pomposity, but I have to admit that the rooms do all look actually strangely interesting and I feel compelled to linger a bit longer than I normally would. But I still can’t figure out what any of it means and can’t help thinking that this work has been made for someone else, someone with a different set of cultural references to the more quotidian baggage that I carry around in my bonce.
Thankfully, the art gets a bit easier at the other end of the road where the Laura Bartlett Gallery, Herald St and Campoli Presti huddle together in a hub. All are showing what to my eyes look like fairly similar work and all at a more easily appreciated tangent to that of Gillick’s cerebral musings. If his art aims for the head then this stuff goes for the heart or the eyes or some other organs. The work on show is all a kind of comfortable abstraction with all the artists exploring their own happy niches of how to make attractive marks in different ways on different materials – paper, metal, textiles and anything else. And I think they’re all pretty successful. A few months ago the Whitechapel Gallery held its London Open exhibition, the triennial show where judges trawl though thousands of entries to pick out the trendiest and grooviest art that being made in the UK today. Usually these kinds of open entry shows are a fairly random mix of all sorts of odds and sods and it’s very rare that any trends actually emerge but this year was a bit different. After a couple of decades where the favoured, default style has tended to be a sort of quasi-YBA-Neo-Conceptual ragbag of assemblages, this time it seemed to me that a fair proportion of the work could be classed as good, old-fashioned Formalist in nature. Quite a few artists seem to have gone back to have a look at devising ways to play with paint and other materials, producing work that just looks pretty and interesting – that doesn’t demand to be deconstructed, deciphered or decoded, that doesn’t require a thesis to explain what it means, that doesn’t tell a story or describe the world or do anything else other than to tickle the senses and titillate the production of endorphins – or whatever it is that generates a simple pleasurable sensation in the noggin. And what’s wrong with that? Anyway, that’s my theory and as evidence I’d offer these three shows as continuing in that mode.
Heading home I bump into Ollie on Victoria Street which, with all the new zippy buildings that seem to have risen up there in the past few years, we both agree is starting to look like a mini-Manhattan – all it needs now is a topical Trump Tower to top it off. Of course, I casually mention that I’ve recently completed my artworld memoir but then Ollie gently reminds me that for the past five years he’s been researching Hart Crane and is now off to Philadelphia and Chicago to look at some key correspondence that’s held in the archives there. In our game of intellectual one-upmanship, I feel like I’ve been well and truly Donalded or, should that be, overcombed?