Settling in my Omphalos

Feels like a good day for a bit of urban rambling around, so head off down to Lancaster Gate tube and then walk through Kensington Park, where the hint of early morning sunshine lights up the beds of daffodils and hyacinths as they gently wave about in the light breeze causing general feelings of good-natured bonhomie to well up within.  I’m tempted to channel my inner Julie Andrews, do a couple of twirls, and reprise the opening to The Sound of Music, or maybe straighten my imaginary cowboy hat and attempt a Gordon MacRae version of Oh, What a Beautiful Morning.  But then a couple of giggling Chinese tourist appear from nowhere.  I’m not sure they’ll appreciate my potentially extraordinary rendition of either show tune and I accept that it’s probably better if I resist the choral urge.  Anyway, by this time, I’ve reached my first culture stop – the Serpentine Sackler Gallery, where the DAS INSTITUT collective of Kertsin Bratsch and Adele Roder have curated their site-specific show.  My initial mood of cheery optimism gradually starts to darken into the gray gloom of a mild depression as I read the show’s introductory wall panel which unhelpfully explains that the artists have, ‘…constructed a complex and enigmatic world for their works to inhabit’ and that the ‘…imagery is hybrid and nebulous, suggesting a hieroglyphic visual language that invites multiple interpretations.’


How the heart sinks reading this kind of meaningless waffle, since it so clearly indicates that even the people running the Serpentine don’t know what on earth the artwork is meant to be about.  If those professional trendspotters and highbrow art intellectuals are baffled, what chance for us mere mortals?  Sure enough, the Gallery spaces are full of what looks to me to be a random collection of messy abstract paintings, some fluorescent light strips, a carousel projector projecting assorted slides, a mural of life size silhouettes of people walking along and other assorted cultural detritus.  Maybe some people find this kind of mixed media confusion intriguing, stimulating or enlightening but not me and whether it’s all going over my head, under my feet or settling in my omphalos, waiting a critical gaze, I just find this kind of complex, enigmatic, hybrid, nebulous, hieroglyphic visual language invites the single interpretation that it’s all a bit boring.  So, after one quick circuit of the Gallery, I’m back outside, happy to re-commune with nature as I walk on across the bridge to the other Serpentine space.


The show here by Hilma af Klint has received quite a lot of media coverage based around the press office spin that this erstwhile unknown artist can lay claim to being the first ever person to paint in a totally abstract style, with her experimental work predating by a few years that of all the other more famous pioneers of non-figurative art.  Henceforth, all the art history books will need to be recalled, pulped and rewritten with her story preceding those of Kandinsky, Mondrian, Malevich, Sonia Delaunay, Hans Arp, Arthur Dove and everyone else from the world of Abstractionism.  Usually when an exhibition by an overlooked artist is promoted using this kind of silly hype it presages a particularly dismal kind of show by an unfamiliar second-rater who, frankly, deserves to remain unfamiliar.  But not this time.  The works here are, to my total surprise, all rather odd and interesting.  Questions as to when exactly they were painted; what were the precise spiritualistic motivations for creating them in the first place and then, very deliberately, deciding not to exhibit any of them, are perhaps less important than considering their own inherent aesthetic qualities.



I’m not entirely convinced that Klint really was either a genius outlier or the Nostradamus of the artworld but she certainly seems to have been ahead of her time when undertaking a thorough interrogation of some of the different formats that subsequently concerned European Abstract artists throughout the first half of the 20th century.  She seems equally skilled and confident whether playing with bold geometric patterns or softer organic shapes, happy to mix the two and even add in some lines of text.  Frankly, the work would not look at all out of place in a show of works by some recent art school graduates and if the whole story were revealed to be a hoax along those lines I wouldn’t be completely surprised.  Although, even were that to be the case, the display would still remain really rather impressive and spiritually uplifting, such that when I depart the Gallery I feel that I’ve regained a little of my previous joi de vivre.


The feeling persists as I walk on down Exhibition Road to get to the Victoria & Albert Museum and the next show on today’s list:  a comprehensive retrospective exhibition of works by Paul Strand, one of the most respected pioneers of American photography.  Whether it’s his early picturesque studies of twigs casting their shadows on the snow in a city park; the line of twisted telegraph poles cutting their way through a bleak Texan landscape; or one of the more obviously dramatic character studies of his contemporary New Yorkers, Strand seems equally adept in finding a compelling image to grab and hold the attention.  Having briefly experimented with these Pictorialist and Expressionistic styles, Strand then seems to have spent the rest of his career under the Formalist spell, whereby every picture become a study in how to achieve beauty and balance through the skillful arrangement of subtle shapes and shades.  It’s the route he followed when compiling his log the 20th century:  whether composing a simple still life study of a jug and fruit; noticing the attractive fall of the shadows from some window slats; recording the rise of the skyscraper city; staging the complicated arrangement of a family group of mother and five sons; or cataloguing the flowers and shrubs in his garden in France.  The results start with a marvelous range of images from America and then continue with those from his journeys round Mexico, Europe and parts of Africa although, as is all too common these days, the curators are suffering from the mistaken belief that more must always be better.  Simply put, there are far too many photographs on display than can be fully appreciated and even the most dedicated and attentive visitor will surely start to flag around the half-way mark and start to skip through some of the later shots.  Ok, maybe it’s just me, maybe I tire too easily these days, but I still think the show would be improved by a bit of judicious editing.


Anyway, after all the black, white and shades of gray from the American eminence noir, blanc and grise, I feel that I’m in need of a burst of colour and so tube into town, emerging at Bond Street where, sadly, I find the rain has started to fall.  No matter, Gimpel Fils offers a pick-me-up in the form of a delightful suite of drawings by Scottie Wilson, one of the more talented proponents of what is known as Outsider art.  While the term tends to be applied to the creations of naïve, sometimes mentally disabled, amateur artists, it also extends to include those, like Wilson, who more wilfully wished to shun the mainstream theories and developments in contemporary art, preferring doggedly to pursue their own idiosyncratic experiments.  Whatever the motivation behind there production, Wilson’s symmetrical scenes of ducks, swans and various other stylised wildfowl, perched on trees, parading through the foliage or just jumbled up together, are carefully crafted and designed with a knowing skill and fluency that make them really very attractive.


A little further south and I reach the Sadie Coles gallery where I’m expecting to see a display of sculpture by Sarah Lucas but, according to a gallery assistant, the work was too large to fit into the space and the exhibition got cancelled.  Considering the nature of much of Lucas’ work perhaps we’re lucky to have had our blushes spared although I can’t say I’m all that taken by the replacement series of paintings by Yamashita Kikuji, which are a sort of queasy confabulation of medieval Hieronymus Bosch and last century Surrealism.


Finally, south of Piccadilly, I reach the Bernard Jacobsen Gallery which is showing an attractive little show of old Modernist favourites.  There are some Calder mobiles, some small Miro paintings, a few Motherwell collages and half a dozen Matisse drawings and paintings.  All are very warm and comforting and, as I exit the Gallery, I feel cheered up again and, despite the growing intensity of the rain, am almost returned to the happy state of mind with which I started the day.  So, altogether now…twirl, twirl, take a deep breath and look straight into the camera and… ‘The hills are…’


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