Turning away from Green Park tube station and heading off down St James Street, the sky turns an ominously darker shade of grey and I sense that the humidity quotient of the cloudy vaporous blanket precariously positioned in the tropospherical regions above the capital has just edged up a notch. Maybe it’s because the crepuscular gloom of these meteorological conditions is so depressing that I find my eyes unconsciously drawn to the glistening window display of the euphoniously named Sharps Pixley and, in particular, the gleaming leaves and petals of the gilded roses that lie on a sleek black shiny plinth therein. There’s a slightly absurdist quality to this small floral bouquet that shifts it just far enough away from being the kitsch trophy of a would-be Midas or Goldfinger to potentially make it a sort of ironic Surrealistic objet trouve. After all, if Duchamp can enter a hardware store, buy an enamel urinal, stick it in a gallery and call it art, why shouldn’t I enter this bullion dealership, pluck a golden flower and, by similar dint of relocation, redefine its aesthetical status in an upwardly direction?
Oh well, it’s just a thought and the kind of meaningless mental distraction that drifts across the mind of this aspiring flaneur as I walk my southerly route ever open to the kinds of serendipitous distractions that appear always to be lurking among the psychic surrounds of these bustling city streets. And so it is that I next find myself lured into the nearby Portland Gallery for a rather attractive display of medium-sized abstract works by Chloe Lamb. Artists have been producing examples of disfigurational work for around a century now and during this time just about every possible splat, splurge, blot, scrape, dribble, swoosh and swish has been committed to canvas, making it increasingly difficult for any artist to come up with a sufficiently new patent arrangement of shapes and shades to form a distinctively novel signature style. While I’m not sure that Lamb is totally unique with her mixture of flat planes, quirky scribbles and sketchy backdrops, she’s certainly blessed with the kind of stylish sensibility that manages to arrange all her colourful configurations into pleasing arrangements of decorative mysteriousness. And walking around the display here definitely offers a brief bright optimistic respite to the grim grey climatic conditions out in the real world that lies beyond the Gallery walls.
There’s a similar exuberant spark of creative panache apparent in the prints, videos and small sculptures of Julian Opie on show at the Alan Cristea Gallery. The artist’s sparse reductionist style repackages landscapes, cityscapes and, perhaps more successfully, a large cast of hip young city dwellers into deceptively simple arrays of cartoonistic symbols and ciphers. Whether Opie’s pared down sketches of various commuters, joggers and other assorted pedestrians provide a convincing contemporary portrait of modern urban life or, by reducing the messy throb of human traffic to a sequence of neat generic caricatures and dehumanised logos, fails in his aspirational attempt, is perhaps open to question. But, either way, there’s no doubting the wit and elegance of his artistic productions.
And so on to Philip Mould, another gallery which I don’t think I’ve ever entered before although I’m sure that I’ve encountered the perky visage, smooth chirpy tones and silky slick charms of the eponymous owner while channel-chasing in search of something better to watch on TV on a dull Sunday evening. What’s drawn me into his opulent viewing space today is a banner offering up a comprehensive review of the landscape paintings of the late Sir Cedric Lockwood Morris Bt. And I think it’s fair to say that while perhaps lacking the highly polished technical facility of that other famous artistic Baronet, Sir Frederick, Lord Leighton PRA, and engaging in a sometimes unsuccessful struggle to achieve perspectival rectitude, Morris nevertheless managed to shuffle his sequences of trees, lakes, mountains and other rustic components into the kind of satisfying, untroubling compositions pleasing enough to ornament the haunts of the hauter member of the British bourgeoisie (as well as David Bowie who, perhaps a little surprisingly, was the former owner of one of the works currently on display here today).
By way of contrast to all these prettily rendered vistas of charming rural tranquility and happy havens of unspoiled natural beauty, al fresco scenes among the photographic works of Martin Parr, whether out in the countryside or down by the sea shore, highlight an alternate, less decorous vision of the natural world. And, of course, it’s the entrance of humanity into all the little Edens that causes the damage, whether it’s the party of old ladies in their coats and hats tramping about picking blackberries; the trio of nuns eating their ice creams under the suspicious gaze of an interloping swan; or the seasiders sunbathing next to the clunky caterpillar tracks of a massive JCB. Later on in his career, Parr seemed (to me at least) to take a rather cruel, mocking delight in recording candid examples of indelicate behaviour amongst the lower orders but in the earlier works, here at Huxley-Parlour, the absurdist humour is a good deal more gentle and subtle and the photographs, consequently, very much more likeable.
It’s tempting to describe some of the scenes that Parr managed to capture as Surreal and the chance encounters of incongruous subjects does indeed form one important, often comedic, strand of the art movement’s genomic constituents. But equally important were the less naturalistic, more mystical versions illuminated by artists such as Joan Miro and Yves Tanguy. And it’s these artists from the original Surrealist brotherhood who have clearly been the most important influences on the works of Desmond Morris whose 90th birthday is marked by a large exhibition of his little paintings at the Redfern Gallery. Morris is probably better known for his various anthropological books and accompanying TV series but for most of his life he’s also been a highly dedicated, if less outwardly successful, painter of whimsical biomorpholigical fantasies. So, have his artistic talents been underrated by posterity? Well, many years ago I remember reading a rather harsh critique of his works by Waldemar Januszczak who complained that his paintings were rather too similar in style to those of the more famous artists I referenced earlier. The argument being that if Morris’ artworks are indeed to be considered part of that Surrealist tradition which claims to offer an uninhibited reflection of the subliminal psychological gloop and clutter residing within the individual’s subconscious, then one might reasonably expect each artist’s works to be rather more unique. Which, I suppose, is a fair point and reminds me of the old Woody Allen joke about his getting thrown out of college for cheating in his metaphysics exam after being caught looking into the soul of the boy sitting next to him. As for the ethical appropriateness of gaining aesthetical inspiration by delving into the subconscious of other artists, well, I think that’s probably a matter of philosophical morality beyond the ability of this blogger to disentangle and one that’s best left to the professional Freudians and Jungians to psychoanalyse their way to a satisfactory conclusion. All of which leads on to the final show for the day and yet another philosophical conundrum.
Surface Work at the Victoria Miro gallery is a survey show of abstract paintings created over the past century and includes examples of all the splats, splurges etc etc etc that I listed half a dozen paragraphs back. But what makes this display different is that all the artists are women which, inevitably, raises the question as to whether there is some specifically female aesthetic when it comes to creating this kind of non-representational imagery. Frankly, I’m not sure there is and had I been unaware of the exhibition’s gender bias when I first looked round the show then I don’t think it would ever have occurred to me what it was that connected all the artists. Of course, having said that, it would be nice now to use this exhibition as an opportunity for a bit of personal virtue signaling and to buff up my feminist credentials by saying that the show is a revelation – that the works here are all stunning and confirm that women artists are every bit as good as their male equivalents and that they’ve been unfairly treated in the past and so on and so forth. And women artists have undoubtedly suffered discriminatory attitudes – and maybe still do – but for all that, reluctantly, I have to say that the show strikes me as being a bit of a duffer. There are a few good pictures – I liked the Lee Krasner, the Agnes Martin and the pair of Popovas – but much of the rest seemed a bit tired and unexciting and I’m not sure that hanging so many disparate works together will have helped the sororal cause.
Exiting the gallery the heavens open up and the rain pours down which makes me wonder whether perhaps Mrs God thinks otherwise.