The Elusive Nigella Seeds

Another late start and another Pret a Manger, this time the one in Waterloo Place. It’s around lunchtime so I go for the chicken and avocado sandwich which is ok but there’s not much bird meat and an awful lot of green stuff to munch through. My taste buds are a little jaded (which, in other circumstances might be rather appropriate) but, aside from some small lumps of avian protein and some slightly too sludgy avocado, I think I can identify pesto, lettuce, a dash of lemon juice and perhaps some poppy seeds. I quite like to know what’s getting stuck in my teeth so I scan the outside of the recyclable box in which it came, but the ingredients aren’t listed. So, I’m not sure what the true identity of pips are that I’m spitting out on the table but, usefully, the exercise reminds me that my brother has been having difficulty locating nigella seeds and so I’m going to try to get some to give him for a Christmas present. No, I’d never heard of them either and no, again, they’re not named after the chef with the lubricious delivery style. But, apparently, they are vital for the preparation of a proper potato salad.

But before I go off squirrelling on my seed hunt, I must call into the ICA, which is just round the corner. On display is the Bloomberg New Contemporaries exhibition – the roundup of the best work coming out of this year’s UK art schools. For anyone who’s interested, this is the annual show that is really meant to show what’s happening at the cutting edge of today’s artworld. Well, I’m interested in that kind of thing but whatever it is, if it is here, it’s not for me. This year’s exhibition looks a lot like last year’s, which is definitely a bit of a disappointment. I had hoped that there might be a bunch of work that supported my theory that Formalism is making a comeback but aside from the jesmonite that Pandora Lavender (and what a euphonious appellation is that – I do so hope it’s not a soubriquet) has sprayed onto some crumpled metal sheets, there’s not much here that ticks that particular genre box. In fact, there’s nothing here that’s memorably attractive but quite a few things that are memorably unattractive, particularly the video of the nude woman clambering around the branches of a tree, who must have ended up horribly cold and bruised, and Jamie Fitzpatrick’s grotesque wax sculpture of Captain Hook (or is it Charles I?) that strikes me as a particularly tired example of juvenile petulance. I confess, I’m a bit of a bourgeois these days and if this is the best the kids of today can manage when trying to epater me and my confreres, then I don’t think we’ve got much to worry about.

I don’t think there’s anything particularly original here, either. I’m pretty sure I’ve seen everything, or variants of everything here, before, from the scrappy abstracts and deliberately silly examples of bad painting, to the over-serious reportage and the tedious Neo-conceptual assemblages. I’m not sure if this means that the students’ cutting edge has been blunted by all the Post-Modern theorising that encourages artists to twiddle around rejigging old ideas, or maybe the kids of today aren’t very inventive and just can’t think up any new stuff. One thing’s for sure, artists today can’t complain about any lack of contemporary material to interrogate. In fact, you’d think that with all the amazingly rapid changes going on in society – from the hardware of mobile phone technology through to the software of the social media explosion – that this would be providing an abundance of stuff to comment on, or critique, or just find novel ways to represent. It seems very odd to me that this just doesn’t seem to be happening. With so much contemporary change, today should be a golden age for art and one can’t help wondering if all the creative talents have simply moved out of the boring, old fashioned gallery world and into another cyber area of exploration, of which crusties like me are either completely unaware or else deliberately denied entry.

There is, of course, a counter argument to everything I’ve suggested above and that is the possibility that these artists are just making work for their contemporaries, who are all two generations younger than I am. I’m definitely not their target audience and, quite rightly, they don’t give a flying duck about my opinions and, in fact, it would be a bit odd if they were producing stuff that I did like. The generation gap that started to appear when I was a teenager is definitely still there and probably grown larger and maybe that’s the way it should be.

At the risk of ruining his career, I have to say that the only thing I did like here was Kevin Boyd’s Hattie 528, which consists of a couple of photos of a bit of grass layby covered in old tin cans. The artist has also gone to the trouble of collecting the actual detritus and displaying it in a line on a shelf in front of the photos. It’s not just that Kevin is to be commended for his good citizenship in tidying up the area, but the colour combination of rust and green is rather appealing and there is perhaps just the hint of a message about despoilation and decay or something.

Back to Waterloo Place – no time today to look at all the statues, although there are a few gooduns here – down Jermyn Street and up Duke Street and slip into Fortnum & Mason and, hooray, I manage to grab the last little tin of the elusive nigella seeds. Gosh, that’s satisfying. The neolithic hunter gatherer bits of DNA still whirling round my innards get a real kick at that little success. So with a smile on my face I cross Piccadilly, go down the Burlington Arcade, barging the slow-paced tourist window shoppers out the way, and turn right into Pace for a show of three old Abstract heavyweights: John Hoyland, Anthony Caro and Kenneth Noland. I’m not sure that time has been very favourable to this trio and while the bold colours and big canvasses of Hoyland look better here than in Hirst’s warehouse hangar gallery, they don’t seem to have much of a dialogue with Caro’s familiar metal junkyard assemblages or Noland’s simple geometrics. It sounds like a good show on paper but, on the walls and floor of the gallery, the sparks signally fail to fly and everything looks decidedly tame and tired.

Just across the road in Waddington’s is a big selection of Peter Blake portraits. The first one to greet the visitor is an amusing piece of anachronistic whimsy that sets Tracy Emin looking down on a contemplative Marcel Duchamp sat alongside his pet chessboard. Representations of other art world luminaries include Peter Palumbo and a young, dashingly attractive Leslie Waddington. And then there are Blake’s other showbiz pals like Eric Clapton, the Everly Brothers, John Peel and Brian ‘Beachboy’ Wilson. Blake has a very appealing, illustrator’s style of painting although perhaps occasionally it’s a bit too flat and you get the feeling that if some of his sitters turned their heads, when they reached the perpendicular profile, they would simply disappear. Blake, the man who famously designed the Sgt Peppers LP sleeve is not just a national treasure now but our own, modern day Norman Rockwell, which I hope he’ll accept as a compliment.

Another dinosaur from the time when Pop Art ruled the world, and one who’s still happy to keep on working, despite the fact that his swinging ‘60s heyday was over fifty years ago, is Allen Jones. Following on from last year’s 80th birthday retrospective at the Royal Academy, he’s parading another cast of female fantasy characters at the Marlborough gallery. Metal and plastic has been carefully moulded into a series of stylised women with those in the back room so ludicrously soft pornish that one can only feel embarrassment at the thought of this old sculptor fumbling away as he dresses and undresses his mannequins. Jones’ sculptures represent the very worst kind of female objectification and while in years gone by women would get so cross they’d attack the things, nowadays presumably they just look upon their creator and pity him.

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