It’s another chilly day in London town and flecks of rain are half-heartedly pattering down as I exit from Oxford Circus tube station and make my speedy walk along the road to get to Annely Juda Fine Art. Here the upper gallery has been given over to Richard Wilson, the artist responsible for the overall co-ordination of last year’s Royal Academy Summer Show and who, I think by general consensus, was deemed to have made a pretty good job of organising the country’s largest and most prestigious open-entry exhibition. Aside from evidently being a skilled logistician-cum-curator, he’s also a sculptor of some renown, although that generalised job description scarcely does justice to the particular style of large scale interventionalist multi-dimensional activities in which he very energetically engages. I suppose I tend to think of him as a sort of artistic equivalent to the kind of caricature mad scientist who has a gleam in his eye as he appears in films or on TV to explain some kind of crazy outlandish scheme designed to transform the world for the betterment of mankind.
So, over the past few years, Wilson’s projects have included: adding a great mess of mashed up slabs of masonry to the outside of the LSE faculty building in Southampton Row; cutting a massive round hole in the facade of an office building in Liverpool and making the whole chunk of glass and concrete fittings rotate round a central spindle; chopping a central slice from the middle of an ocean-going dredger and floating it in the Greenwich peninsula; and, famously, balancing a full-sized replica 40-seater coach on the edge of the De La Warr pavilion in Bexhill. And apologies if these very brief, thumbnail sketches can’t quite convey the full majesty of Wilson’s work but hopefully they hint at the ambition and sheer extraordinary eccentricity of his architectural involvements and the immense effort that he’s put into their construction. The last of the sculptures I’ve described above was a sort of ridiculous homage to the very literally, cliff-hanging closing scene from the classic British comedy the The Italian Job but if the inspiration for making the other pieces is less obvious, it’s surely the absurd challenge of overcoming inordinate technical and logistical problems that spurs the artist on. And once he’s come up with the initial ludicrous idea it’s easy to imagine him enjoying a sort of Just William, insouciant schoolboy jouissance as he whips out his set square, compasses, slide rule and stubby pencil and starts drawing up plans and calculating the forces and factors needed to realise each new project.
Maquettes and plans for some of these earlier works are on show in the gallery but the rest of the space is filled with a suite of vast new wooden constructions that, on first sight, look like some kind of terrible, misshapen flat-pack disaster whereby what was meant to end up as a rack of shelves, a staircase and an entire kitchen cupboard unit has been cruelly jammed together to form a series of indeterminate cubist configurations. Of course, while these amorphously angular wooden lumps look totally unstructured they are, in fact, precision engineered and very carefully bolted together, although I couldn’t immediately relate the final 3-D object to the artist’s original flat photo-plans and blueprints that, I think, are probably also considered to be a vital part of the overall artwork. Trying to relate the two elements reminded me of my sense of hopelessness when confronted with any of those spatial awareness IQ tests which rests on the ability to mentally rotate objects and imagine what they’ll look like from a different angle. In the end, the gallery assistant helpfully explained to me how Wilson’s wooden replication of part of the exterior entrance to the gallery have been folded together to form the final sculptural box. It’s a sort of perverse arty-party trick that Wilson repeats a couple of times, making copies of other assorted architectural features and then performing his origami twists to reshape them into awkward sculptural blocks that are scaled-up so that they just about fit into the confines gallery. An accompanying leaflet suggests that this process, ‘offers a new perspective on everyday spaces, forcing us to reevaluate our surroundings and to look again’. Which I suppose is kind of true, although I think we could probably indulge in this kind of exercise without requiring an artist like Wilson to go to quite such extravagant lengths to prompt our perceptual reassessment. On the other hand, who would want to deny the artist the obvious fun he gets from reshaping the world in wood and the sense of achievement he undoubtedly must then enjoy from having done so in such a deliberately clever and cryptic fashion.
Down a floor at the other Annely Juda gallery is a large display of digital drawings by David Hockney and I think I’ve already written before about how disappointing these i-Pad doodles look to me. While I assume it’s the constraints of the technology that give Hockney such a hard time when he tries to convey a sense of depth in this series of landscapes, the fact that he seems either unconcerned or unaware by just how heavily he’s losing his battle against perspective, is all a bit sad. Presumably no-one has the heart to tell the octogenarian that not everything done digitally is necessarily that dextrous or, if they do, maybe he just turns away and reverts to gazing at his i-Screen and scratching or tapping away, as mindlessly transfixed as any twittering Trump or teenager troller.
Next door to Annely Juda is the Vigo Gallery which is currently showing some paintings and sculptures by Marcus Harvey. In effect, it’s a repeat of the show of works he presented at the Jerwood Gallery in Hastings and which I wrote about in my summer holiday blog back in August last year. I seem to remember being less than impressed back then but I wonder if maybe I was suffering a touch of sunstroke or maybe had been debilitated by eating a duff ice cream. At any rate, the current display certainly looks a bit more coherent and interesting in this smaller, free-entry location although the deliberately grim sculpture of Mrs Thatcher holding a pig still retains its ability to irk the senses. I’m just not sure there’s much point about trying to be deliberately offensive about someone whose reign – malevolent or visionary, depending upon one’s political stance – ended over twenty years ago. As for the object of her embrace, I’m sure I can’t be the first to notice that its porcine squint is slightly reminiscent of the narrow, menacing eyes of the newly elected leader of the free world.
Anyway enough of politics and onwards in a southerly direction to get to Marlborough Fine Art for a display of selected works on paper by two old stagers from an earlier generation of Bohemians, namely Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud. I think it’s probably fair to say that the careers of both artists were defined by their attempts to find new ways to create figurative work suitable to describe the world in the gloomy, nervous period that followed soon after the initial relief and excitement that attended the conclusion of the Second World War. While Freud’s figures tend to be contorted into deliberately uncomfortable poses – the artist appearing to relish representing detailed descriptions of every bulge and blemish of a sitter’s flesh as they shiver on the couch in his bleak studio – Bacon’s presentations of his characters are no less unforgiving for their more generalised, blurred, bruised and abstracted states and their suspension in a sort of anonymous spotlit cell, part torture chamber, part theatre stage. I suppose the powerful results that both artists managed to achieve, each in their own distinctive fashion, was simply the result of them managing to acquire that most difficult of artistic skills – the ability to report honestly and unflinchingly exactly what they saw and thought and felt.
As for the works in the show here, the Bacon prints are essentially lithographs of his paintings with variations of the familiar themes of twisted pink bodies, awkward male wrestlers and the odd squirming pope. Freud, however, was much more hands on when it came to printmaking and scratched out his images of individual nude figures with a consistently cool, detached efficiency. There’s not a trace of sentimentality in any of his works and whether he’s delineating the torso of an uncomfortably anxious looking model, detailing a pudgy woman with her hand pressed against her face, or simply describing a whippet lying on the floor having a rest, all are recorded with the same brutal honesty. Powerful if not particularly pretty and, as far as I’m concerned, dating much better as works of art than those of his colleague’s rather more contrived confections.