Beautifully Refined and Yet Subtly Unkempt

Walking towards the West Cornwall Pasty stall on Marylebone Station, ahead of me is a wall of west Cornish pasties but then the customer at the counter shifts to the east and I can suddenly see there are some rolls left.  Pasties are an afternoon comfort food and it’s too early now to get involved in tunneling through inches of pastry and then sifting among all the swede, turnips and potatoes to play a game of hunt the bit of meat. Anyway, I favour the classic, healthy meal option and so ask the woman in charge for a fatty bacon and curly Cumberland sausage combi-roll – at which point the previous customer asks if he can switch orders and have one of these, as well. All he receives, however, is a consoling smile and the information that, alas, I’ve just snaffled the last one. Ha! All those years diligently helping old ladies across the road and rescuing cats from tress, all the time I’ve spent minding the gap and making sure that I never leave my luggage unattended, have finally paid off. How reassuring to know that the great accountant in the sky has been keeping a ledger and determined that, finally, today I’ve earned enough good deed nectar points to get my edible reward.

With a warm feeling of contentment in both stomach and mind, I take the tube to Piccadilly and walk up Air Street to the Marian Goodman Gallery. Oh dear, the indigestion starts, and it’s not due to the Cumberland sausage. Judging by the title, Phreatic Zones, Cristina Iglesias’ three installations involve water rippling over metallic river beds, are meant to evoke a sense of the sublime awfulness of nature. Instead of which, they inspire more modern feelings of the awfulness of kitsch These faux streamlets look to me less like fine art than the kind of indoor water feature one might expect to find in the swanky homes of the arriviste nouveaux riches. Fortunately, things get better upstairs where half a dozen of Jeff Walls’ large photographs are spread round the room. Scenes here include a bunch of surveyors setting up their thodolites in the desert; a guy on his knees about to be assaulted by the group of ne’er-do-wells that surround him; and a nosey man in a dressing gown spying on his neighbour. The tableaux all seem to show similar, slightly Surreal, narratives that initially seem to me interesting but unremarkable…until I step outside the Gallery. Then, everything I look at echoes what I’ve just been looking at and I start seeing the world through Jeff Wall eyes – all around, similar, slightly Surreal tableaux are being played out in front of me. How could I have not noticed them before? Looking over my shoulder and through a window there’s a conclave of gallery suits deliberating over some weighty aesthetic dilemma; ahead of me in Golden Square George II, decked out in classical toga, is being ferociously pecked by a group of republican pigeons. And round the corner a shark is trying to copulate with a submarine.

Ok, this last one is rather more factitious than the other examples, being a bronze sculpture from Dorothy CrossEye of Shark exhibition in the Frith Street Gallery. There’s another small shark here – eviscerated, gilded and stuck on top of an easel – which is fine for those with a taste for the bizarre, but if you have more mundane tastes then maybe the rows of rusting cast iron bath tubs will better appeal. Cross’ works are somewhat more contrived pieces of Surreal whimsy that those of Jeff Wall but you’d have to have a subconscious made of stone not to be a little bit captivated by their sheer, inventive unusualness.

Quite what Dorothy’s display has got to do with the price of fish, cartilaginous or otherwise, I’m not too sure but at least her installation is witty and well-presented, which is something of a contrast to the one that Claire Barclay has constructed within the nearby Stephen Friedman Gallery. Composed of a pair of customised pillows draped over a steel armature support, and with some ceramics pipes at its base, I’m just not sure what this is meant to be about. I don’t think it’s trying to be visually pretty or trying to represent anything in particular, or trying to symbolise some scene or sentiment, but I can’t pick up on any other visual references, political, sociological, feminist or art historical, either. I’m left floundering like Cross’ submarine and as unsatisfied as her shark is going to be.  I’m sure Barclay is sincere about her art but what on earth is it’s point? What emotion or thought is the artist trying to prompt within the viewer beyond those of incomprehension, irritation or indifference? I ask one of the Gallery assistants for help and she hands me a leaflet but it’s the usual gallery-speak nonsense, ‘…surreal reflection of the world around us…unique language…beautifully refined and yet subtly unkempt…making is both a physical and a conceptual act.’ I’m still baffled and if there is a meaning to unlock, or reference to pick up on, or some other message being sent out then I guess I just must be on the wrong wavelength to receive it.

At least the show across the road at Friedman’s other Gallery is quickly comprehensible. Wayne Gonzales has picked out some of Walker Evans famous photographs of ‘30s dustbowl America and recreated them through his very distinctive cross hatch drawing style. To be able to create a convincing image, with a good feeling for perspective and depth, just by stacking up different densities of tiny, overlapping lines is a very clever thing to be able to do. I’m hesitant to afford him quite such a compliment, but I think that the very economy and ethereality of his works make some of the images almost as poignant as some of the original prints.

Continuing in a westerly direction I get to Spruth Magers whereupon entering I feel like something of a party crasher. Instead of the usual silent gallery hum, I hear the giggle and chatter of a group of well-heeled ladies who, I assume, prior to lunching, like to take in a spot of culture…and also perhaps flirt with the smart young man who has got the job of chaperoning them round the smarter parts of the artworld, explaining to them what the art is all about.

Well, that’s what I reckon. And if they were, in fact, a group of dinner ladies, girl guide mistresses or, indeed, members of the Dagenham Girls Pipers who decided that for their annual Christmas outing they would forgo the local panto and instead interrogate some contemporary art, well, please accept my apologies. It’s really none of my business and far better that they get out and about than sit at home sipping Sanatogen and dozing off in front of Countdown.

I digress. When the ladies do finally depart, and quiescence returns, I’m left alone with s show of Thomas Demand’s photographs. Demand is famous for making incredibly clever and convincing paper and card replicas of everyday household objects but I get the feeling that he’s got a bit fed up of all the effort that kind of work demands. It must take forever to dream up the designs and then carefully cut and bend and fold and pin and tape and glue all the bits together. I think he must have decided that there are easier ways of making an artistic living, as we can witness here with his large scale photographs of office paraphernalia. The snaps seem mainly to consist of sheets of paper taken from unfamiliar angles, and while they’re not exactly devastatingly exciting, they make pretty enough compositions. They’re clearly sufficient to help make certain select sections of the public giggle and chatter with approbation but, since you know where I tend to lunch, you can probably guess that I’m stuck in a slightly less chucklesome demographic and, consequently, not quite so energetically enamoured.

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