A Typical Day at the Abbatoir

Find myself walking under the watchful eye of the brooding bald eagle that is perched atop the American Embassy, so decide to take the opportunity to have a look at the statues of past presidents situated in the gardens of the adjoining Grosvenor Square. First, in order of seniority and accomplishment, comes Franklin Delanao Roosevelt, stood aloft a heavy granite dais. I suppose they’ve positioned him so far from the ground to stress his importance, humbling we viewers by literally making us look up to him. But it creates a problem – in order to get a decent sightline to see his face one has to walk so far back that it’s then impossible to get a good focus on his features. As far as I can see, and I admit my vision at this distance is not great, it’s not a particularly convincing or inspiring image, nor even an especially good likeness. Next in line comes Dwight D Eisenhower and a similar problem arises in that he’s part shielded by a hedge which again makes it very difficult to get a good line of vision. Again, bearing in mind it’s not easy to get a good focus on the features of the man, I’d say that, despite the sculptor choosing to put him in army fatigues, the figure lacks much of a sense of power or presence. I think it’s fair to say that this might be construed as a bit of an artistic failure, considering the man being portrayed successfully commanded the hundreds of thousands of forces that defeated a tyrannical dictator and freed a continent.

Finally we come to the most recent addition to the presidential pantheon – a man in a suit who looks a bit like an amiable middle management executive. Looking at the statue it’s certainly possible to imagine that the man might have been a failed B-movie actor but hard to believe he could also lay claim to having defeated another evil empire, which some would argue was Ronald Reagan’s lasting legacy.

A short walk from Grosvenor Square is Hamiltons, a rather stylish gallery that specializes in exhibitions of work from top of the range photographers. The current show is a collection of pictures of flowers by Irvin Penn and of course all the daisies, poppies and tulips look absolutely, stunningly beautiful. It has to be said that this is not really much of a surprise since Penn’s signature style was making everything he ever photographed absolutely, stunningly beautiful. And if he could do it with a selection of frozen vegetables or a bunch of old cigarette buts, which he could, then flowers aren’t going to be much of a problem. The colours here are dazzling, the images crystal sharp and everything in this garden looks so marvelous that it takes a little while before one even notices that half of the flowers are decaying or dead. But such is the skill of Penn’s lighting and composition that it just doesn’t matter, they still look great. I suppose it supports the idea that if you search hard enough there really is beauty in all things but it certainly helps if you have Penn’s eye to see it and frame it.

Next door at Timothy Taylor we are offered a solo show of work by Josephine Meckseper and you don’t have to read much of the press release to know that her work is going to be challenging. ‘For the last two decades, Meckseper’s work has interrogated politics, capitalism and art history through paradoxical juxtapositions of images and objects in order to create open narratives’. One example is sufficient to give a feel for the manual dexterity, technical facility and intellectual profundity of the artist. For Map and Territory, Meckseper has spurned the traditional art supplies shop and, a century late, followed Marcel Duchamp into the local hardware store. Here the artist has ignored the urinals and instead bought one of those matching sets of decorative bathroom accoutrements where you get a little rug that is specifically shaped to fit round the base of the toilet and also a matching slip-on cover that fits the lid. She’s framed them, stuck them on the wall and left us to puzzle out a meaning. Is it something to do with the great Marcel’s readymades? Or is it a critique of man’s inability to pee accurately into a toilet and his tendency to leave the lid up? Who knows? The rotund man at my local drycleaners used to have a rugby shirt signed by the members of the England team that he’d framed and stuck on the wall of his shop which confirmed my suspicion that not everything in a frame on a wall is great art.

Across the road is the Phillips Auction House showroom which, under the rubric New Now, is currently displaying a mixed bag of modern contemporary artworks, There are a couple of large scale Julian Opie women and a pretty little Sean Scully abstract but also works from a lot of names unfamiliar to me. Downstairs, also on parade prior to being sold, are works from the estate of the late Dr Frederic S Brandt of Miami. Again it’s a similar fairly random mix of stuff: a Jeff Koons shiny balloon animal, some Fischl adolescent boys up to no good, a photograph of Jackie Onasis and more work from even more artists of whom I’ve never heard. If this mass of art shows anything, aside from my ignorance of the names of artists favoured by deceased Florideans, I suppose it confirms that you don’t have to be a multi-millionaire to be able to afford to accumulate a large collection of contemporary art. Judging by the reserve prices here, you probably only need to be a singular millionaire to do it. Once bitten by the collecting bug, however, the really difficult bit must be being able to afford to buy a house with a sufficient number of walls and, perhaps, also finding the strength of mind to resist the avaricious attentions of all the art dealers when they see you coming…towards their galleries. According to Wikipedia, the late Dr Brandt was a cosmetic dermatologist and an early proselytiser of the benefits of using botox, and amongst his celebrity patients was Madonna though surely the pooched out succulence of her insolent pouting rictus required no artificial stimulants of any kind. The good doctor clearly led an interesting and fulfilling life and it seems terribly tragic that all his art brought him such little solace that he hanged himself, aged only 65.

I take the short walk to the slimline Gagosian Gallery in Davies Street to see some Cy Twomblys but instead of the expected scratches and scribbles, we’re offered a selection of the artist’s photographic works. These are intimate studies of cabbages, strawberries and other assorted flora and fauna although, to be honest, it’s not always all that clear precisely what it is that’s been snapped. The problem – or rather, the artistic trope – is that all the pictures are deliberately fuzzy. Apparently, the blurring was not caused by any trembling Twombly digits or slowing down of his shutter speed but by the xereographic process used to transfer the original Polaroids into the current set of prints before us now. The results are not unpleasant and perhaps reminiscent of that feeling one has after sucking down one too many crème de menthe frappes. But then they do provide a wonderful woozy contrast to the adamantine exactitude of the Penn flowers seen earlier today.

Over at the other, more spacious, Gagosian gallery in Grosvenor Hill is an exhibition of the more typical Twombly output of paintings and drawings. Although I’m not sure that drawing is quite the right word since they are more like the so-called workings out that maths examination testers always used to insist on seeing. So we get a jumble of diagrams and figures alongside the decorative array of scratches and scribbles as if these were the marks made when Twombly was calculating the quantity of linoleum required to cover his bathroom floor or the number of tiles needed to line its walls. Along with a dozen or so of these comparatively small works on paper are a few much larger sized paintings on canvas. I can’t say I thought much of the rough purple circles but I quite like the thick red swirls, reminiscent of the aftermath of a slasher movie or a typical day at the abattoir.

Back on Davies Street, Gimpel Fils is showing works on paper by Peter Lanyon. These date from the 1950s and the period before he took up gliding and act as a terrific introduction for anyone thinking of going to see the current Courtauld show. They contain quite a range of different styles and give the feel that we’re watching him experiment, trying to find the definitive method of portraying the landscape that he finally found when flying through the clouds. I suppose early influences here are Graham Sutherland and Max Ernst though there’s also a hint of some proto Pop Art, Walt Whitman tendencies in We 2, a work that frottages an American car number plate to tantalising effect.

After all this visual stimulation, I’m starting to flag a bit but decide to pay a brief call to see the new Sadie Coles gallery also in Davies Street. Gosh, it’s a stylish building, so stylish that I can’t figure how to get into it and have to hammer on the glass door to attract the staff and get them to let me in. They’re all smiles as they come to my rescue and helpfully explain that what I took to be a decorative wall plaque was, in fact, the intercom buzzer I should have pushed. Oh well, live and learn. The inaugural show is from Rudolf Stingel who paints wildlife – a bird, a bunny, an owl – in a clever, quasi pointillist style that, from a distance, makes one thinks his works are giant photographs. Of course, as one approaches, the pictures, instead of the image getting clearer it does the opposite and dissolves into a series of grainy little splodges. Obviously this is not a completely new trick – it’s a bit like Seurat mixed with one of Richter’s paintings of photos – but it’s quite an effective way to make one stop and think. Although I’m not too sure exactly what I should be stopping and thinking about. Personally, it made me pause to admire the lovely new gallery, especially the upper room with the desk, sofa and bottles of mineral water – how very delightful and how very different from my last office where I was imprisoned behind racks of lever arch files.

One last call and it’s a good one. David Zwirner has given over the top floor of his space over to Karsten Schubert (one of the few true intellectuals working in the artworld today) to curate a show of early Mondrians. Early is the operative word since there’s not a straight line, rectangle or square of colour amongst any of the pictures here. Instead, we are presented with a dozen small, fairly traditional landscapes. These are good, but not great, paintings and Mondrian was clearly no child prodigy, having none of the great natural talent of a Picasso or Millais. He seems to have been more of a Matisse, Magritte or Hirst, someone with little natural facility but with a great determination and conviction instead. Like the work of all good amateurs when first attempting figurative exercises, you can see Mondrian struggling a bit with his perspective and trying to figure out how to achieve reasonable representations of clouds and the foliage of trees. There are hints of Impressionism and Secessionism and perhaps it’s only when the leaves fall and just the branches remain that we get just the tiniest glimpse of just what amazing things Mondrian was eventually to make out of these lines.

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